I wanted to use this opportunity to address something in LGBT rhetoric that has long bothered me. I grew up Evangelical and, while my views have changed considerably, it was a long process, and there was a long time in which I felt my religious views taking me in one direction regarding homosexuality and my conscience taking me in another, and I was trying hard to figure out what to think. One of the major things that made it take so long was standard LGBT arguments--I wanted to be convinced by them, but there were serious objections and questions I had that simply weren't addressed. In retrospect, there were arguments that I think could have convinced me (as my views eventually did change), and I wanted to blog about this both to increase LGBT people and their allies's understanding of more conservative views and to help them to be more persuasive in their arguments.
A Facebook group challenging his dismissal posts the email that prompted this situation. His argument isn't especially novel, but I want to summarize it for the purpose of analysis. I encourage readers to take his argument seriously, rather than quickly dismissing it or being offended by it.
The email was, purportedly, about ethical theory and utilitarianism, and he decided to use homosexuality to "illustrate" his position:
Before looking at the issue of criteria, however, we have to remind ourselves of the ever-present tendency in all of us to judge morality by emotion....Empathy is a noble human quality but right or wrong does not depend on who is doing the action or on how I feel about those people, just as judging an action wrong should not depend on disliking someone.
So, then, by what criterion should we judge whether sexual acts are right or wrong? This is where utilitarianism comes in. Utilitarianism in the popular sense is fundamentally a moral theory that judges right or wrong by its practical outcomes. It is somewhat akin to a cost/benefit analysis....I think it's fair to say that many, maybe most Americans employ some type of utilitarianism in their moral decision making...
One of the most common applications of utilitarianism to sexual morality is the criterion of mutual consent. It is said that any sexual act is okay if the two or more people involved agree. Now no one can (or should) deny that for a sexual act to be moral there must be consent. Certainly, this is one reason why rape is morally wrong. But the question is whether this is enough.
In standard anti-gay fashion, he then brings up two rather popular analogies:
If two men consent to engage in sexual acts, according to utilitarianism, such an act would be morally okay. But notice too that if a ten year old agrees to a sexual act with a 40 year old, such an act would also be moral if even it is illegal under the current law. Notice too that our concern is with morality, not law. So by the consent criterion, we would have to admit certain cases as moral which we presently would not approve of. The case of the 10 and 40 year olds might be excluded by adding a modification like "informed consent." Then as long as both parties agree with sufficient knowledge, the act would be morally okay. A little reflection would show, I think, that "informed consent" might be more difficult to apply in practice than in theory. But another problem would be where to draw the line between moral and immoral acts using only informed consent. For example, if a dog consents to engage in a sexual act with its human master, such an act would also be moral according to the consent criterion. If this impresses you as far-fetched, the point is not whether it might occur but by what criterion we could say that it is wrong. I don't think that it would be wrong according to the consent criterion.
The part where he argues for his own position will be reserved for a later post.
I am going to suspect that few readers of my blog are especially convinced by his argument. In my critique, I do not want to simply tell people who already agree with me how incredibly wrong he is. Rather, I want to give a critique that takes seriously his arguments, finding what genuine insights they have, and on that basis make arguments that may help to allow for more meaningful dialogue rather than simply angry shouting--and, I hope, making more LGBT allies.
A very common response in LGBT politics is to quickly condemn anyone who makes a parallel between homosexuality on the one hand, and adult-child sex or human-nonhuman sex on the other. I don't think this is helpful because, quite frankly, there is an important truth that this argument recognizes. Accepting gay sex as morally okay requires giving up "Because it's a rule, dammit!" and "Ewww!!!!!" as the basis for sexual ethics. I also suspect that there is a universal cross-culturally tendency for some conservatively minded people to have a deep fear that abandoning certain current norms and rules will inevitably lead to an anything-goes antinomianism. This fear seems to be connected to the many anti-gay slipper slopes that are used.
By bringing up adult-child sex and bestiality, there is a profound irony given the professor's initial statement that we shouldn't "judge morality by emotion." The only reason that these reductio ad absurdam arguments might work is if people strongly feel that of course those things are wrong. I think it's safe to say that these views were not the result of long and careful thinking, but a strong emotional attachment to the societal norms they grew up with (many societies have rather different views on both of these). Pedophilia is an incredibly emotion-laden issue in our society around which rational discourse is genuinely difficult. There was a paper published in a highly respected journal in the late 1990's (Rind et al. controvercy) that did a meta-analysis of previous studies and found that in many cases, adult-child sex is not harmful, that it is more likely to be perceived as positive or neutral if the child consented (in the sense of feeling they were a willing participant), and if the child was male. At first, there wasn't much of a response to it, but then someone on the radio talked about it, and then Dr. Laura got a hold of it, and eventually congress passed a resolution condemning the study. If empirical results that don't fit the received wisdom in this area can get condemned by congress, it doesn't exactly encourage people to do research in this area. Yet in the absence of good research and good data, it is impossible to create informed public-policy.
People do not choose to be attracted to children, and this group of people is one of the most hated groups in American society (and likely other societies too.) "Pedophiles" (a very loosely used term to lump together anyone who is attracted to children and anyone who has engaged in sex with a child [except as a peer of the child]) are an utterly abhorred group of people. They grow up being told that they are monsters, that there is no hope for them, and that they to destroy the lives of numerous children. The organization B4U-ACT, a Maryland non-profit organization aiming to promote mutual understanding between "minor-attracted people" and mental health professionals, has a powerful sideshow that I would strongly encourage all readers to take a look at it. The current situation in the US towards sex-offenders is based on intense hatred and irrational prejudice, often ignoring basic questions necessary for good public policy like "Would this work? What side-effects might it have? Is it an effective use of public resources? Are there other more cost-effective ways to achieve the same goals?" Furthermore, because of SVP commitment and sex-offender registration laws, our current position is that the Constitution simply does not apply to sex-offenders. These have only been upheld by the courts on the fiction that they are not punishment. I think the irony, then, of bringing up sex between children and adults--while encouraging basing opinions on "reason" rather than "emotion"--is rather hypocritical. In modern American society, questioning the received wisdom on the matter is utter heresy, as is even suggesting that the reality of the situation may be more complicated than people want to admit. (And neither of these requires approval of sex between children and adults.)
The typical LGBT response, to get offended by the comparison of homosexuality and pedophilia, is harmful in two ways. First, it accepts and contributes to the stigmatization of a much more hated group. Second, it's not convincing to "moderates"--people conflicted on the subject of homosexuality who could be convinced but aren't. By responding to an argument by getting offended (and in this case getting a professor fired), it communicates that there is no good answer to the argument, that the only way to address it is by attacking a straw man, or attacking the most scary anti-gay people out there, as though everyone with traditional views of sexual ethics was just like Fred Phelps.
A major part of much anti-gay rhetoric is to make a big distinction between desire and behavior. Having gay feelings isn't wrong, they say, only acting on gay feelings is. Much of the pro-gay rhetoric tends to collapse these, making it necessary to accept the latter to accept the former. (Interestingly, while pro-gay rhetoric tends to minimize the difference between attraction and behavior, pro-asexual rhetoric emphasizes this difference in our attempt to distance ourselves from celibacy.)
Going back to the issue of pedophilia, many who argue for treating people attracted to children as human beings certainly do not think that doing so will necessitate approving adult-child sex. (Interestingly, some of the most virulent anti-pedophile websites actually do seem to accept this. For instance, the blog absolute zero opposes B4U-ACT claiming that their "real goal" is to make adult-child sex legal. Absolute Zero's logic--if you can call it that--only works on the assumption that not demonizing people attracted to children will necessarily lead to the acceptance of adult-child sex. If this premise is rejected, there is no reason whatsoever to oppose the work of B4U-ACT.)
If the logic "accepting the person requires accept the desired behavior" is not accepted for pedophilia, it does not apply straightforwardly to homosexuality either. Some reason must be given why the logic works in one case but not the other. (Which is not to say that such logic is impossible to give.)
I have a lot more to say on this subject, but hopefully this post will give some food for thought. I imagine that it should prove to be controversial.