Sunday, July 18, 2010

More thoughts on LGBT rhetoric

I recently addressed some topics in LGBT rhetoric (and anti-LGBT rhetoric), using an email by former adjunct professor of religion at University of Illinois Dr. Ken Howell as a springboard. (He was dismissed because of it.) I did this for a few reasons. First, I wanted to challenge some LGBT responses to conservative arguments on the grounds that it a) is too accepting of the stigmatization of groups even more hated than LGBT people, and b) it is too dismissive of conservative arguments, with the result that convincable moderates may be left unconvinced. As such, I want people to take conservative arguments seriously--seriously enough to be able to give reasoned responses that display genuine engagement with those arguments.

There I addressed his argument against (popular versions of)utilitarian sexual ethics in which he attempt to use a reductio ad absurdam to show that acceptance of homosexuality requires the acceptance of sex between humans and animals and sex between children and adults. At that point in his argument, he feels that he has successfully refuted utilitariamism. He then makes a positive argument for his own position: sexual ethics should be based on Natural Moral Theory, which basically says that sexual acts have inherent meaning, and that rightness and wrongness should be based on this inherent meaning:
Natural Moral Theory says that if we are to have healthy sexual lives, we must return to a connection between procreation and sex. Why? Because that is what is REAL. It is based on human sexual anatomy and physiology. Human sexuality is inherently unitive and procreative. If we encourage sexual relations that violate this basic meaning, we will end up denying something essential about our humanity, about our feminine and masculine nature.

In further discussion, he applies this same reasoning to trans-issues and also tries to make a connection between it and contraception:
A survey of the last few centuries reveals that we have gradually been separating our sexual natures (reality) from our moral decisions. Thus, people tend to think that we can use our bodies sexually in whatever ways we choose without regard to their actual structure and meaning. This is also what lies behind the idea of sex change operations. We can manipulate our bodies to be whatever we want them to be.

If what I just said is true, then this disassociation of morality and sexual reality did not begin with homosexuality. It began long ago. But it took a huge leap forward in the wide spread use of artificial contraceptives. What this use allowed was for people to disassociate procreation and children from sexual activity. So, for people who have grown up only in a time when there is no inherent connection between procreation and sex –- notice not natural but manipulated by humans –- it follows "logically" that sex can mean anything we want it to mean.

Now, the conservative background I came from was Evangelical, and the Evangelicals differ from the Catholics regarding contraception. The standard Evangelical opinion seems to be that using sex (in heterosexual marriage) for the purposes of pleasure and increasing emotional intimacy are also legitimate. This in itself is interesting: it suggest that accepting non-procreative sex does not necessarily lead to acceptance of homosexuality, contrary to Dr. Howell's argument. The difference between Evangelical and Catholic arguments is essential to understand to have meaningful discussions of the matter. Far too often, queer rhetoric makes claims about how "society" values above all else heterosexual, procreative sex in the missionary position. This is simply not true of "society" nor is it true of most Evangelicals. No, it is merely a straw man that makes for nice rhetoric to embolden your supporter in opposing your opponents, but at the same time it alienated your opponents as well as moderates sympathetic to them.

I find the argument based on REALITY quite interesting. While Sexual Reality and How We Dismiss it makes some very interesting points (worth looking at but that I won't be discussing here), I will bring up a few points worth considering. First, the "naturalness" arguments based on "compatibility" of male and female anatomy (which seems to underlie his argument) actually seems to ignore female anatomy and physiology. What exactly are female orgasms for? How about clitorises? Because of the connection of male orgasms to ejaculation, the importance of male orgasms for procreation is clear enough, but what about female orgasms? What's their point? If you want to say that sex is "for" pleasure, you can find a purpose for them, but if sex is "for" procreation, it's much more difficult. Likewise, what are clitorises for? Many females do not orgasm from vaginal stimulation only, but also require clitoral stimulation. How does this part of REALITY fit with "complementary=natural" arguments? Probably not very well. It would be interesting to see how he would deal with intersex people as well. Are they required to be celibate?

Furthermore, the argument that this view of sexuality is based on REALITY makes a fundamental is/ought error. It is though to say that one function of sex is procreation (quite true), therefore that is THE purpose. Yet, if you look at actual sex in the real world, it is clear that sex is used for quite a lot of things: procreation, intimacy, feeling feminine, proving one's virility, asserting dominance, humiliating others, enhancing one's social status, revenge, pleasure, release of sexual tension, exploring one's sexuality, making money... The list goes on. How we you get from "this is what sex is used for" to "this is what sex is for"? It seem to me that the way is via an entirely an after-the-fact justification.

His argument has still more problems: even if we accept that sex if for procreation, why does it follow that this is its only legitimate use? If you believe that "books are for reading" does it then follow that it immoral to use a book as a paperweight? Or that it is immoral to use a box of old journals as a doorstop? (If it is, then I'm guilty of that one!)

Towards the end of his article, he then makes an argument that is rather popular in Catholic Natural Law philosophy:
As a final note, a perceptive reader will have noticed that none of what I have said here or in class depends upon religion. Catholics don't arrive at their moral conclusions based on their religion. They do so based on a thorough understanding of natural reality.

The idea is that their position is one that people should be able to arrive at completely independently of Catholic doctrine, though I am inclined to wonder, if this is the case, why have so few arrived at such a conclusion. Still, it highlights an important (and disturbing) observation I made about argumentation several years ago. Most of the arguments for positions that we think of (and that we think are convincing) are arguments developed after the fact to justify a position that we already hold (for entirely different reasons)--arguments that never persuaded us of anything. And yet we tend to think that they should be persuasive to others.

I still have more to say on this subject, especially regarding the arguments/reasons/positions that eventually led me to change my own views on these matters.

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