Homosexuality and the preponderance of the 'choice' debate
Sep 15, 2011

Homosexuality and the preponderance of the 'choice' debate

In the ongoing debate surrounding seemingly anything to do with homosexuality there is an undue focus on arguing about whether homosexuality is a "choice" and where exactly on the nature vs nurture spectrum it lies. This question would seem like it ought not to have any relevance for surely it is just as right or wrong to discriminate against homosexuals, prevent marriage equality, and the like, regardless of whether or not homosexuality is a choice. Yet it is frequently brought up. Quite aside from trying to answer the nature vs nurture question ourselves, it is interesting that this question even gets the level of prominence that it does.

We should note the realpolitik; those advocating that it is a "choice" more often come down on the side against marriage equality while those advocating it is not a choice support marriage equality and other gay rights initiatives. It takes two to tango, and so the question must be asked why both sides devote such attention to it. There are two factors each for both sides that contribute to the prominence this question has.

Since the civil rights era, popular consciousness has very strongly adopted the idea that biological differences between us (such as race) cannot and must not be used in the slightest as discrimination. The idea of racism being bad and unacceptable is, thankfully, widespread on all sides of the political spectrum, even if in practice racism remains far too prevalent. This widespread idea is centered on having physical and biological differences not being relevant. Personal choices that people make, such as criminal behavior, are of course very much open to criticism. As such there is a latent dichotomy in our society that innate characteristics cannot be said to be bad while personal choices can be.

Both sides thus argue on different sides of the choice question in order to push the agenda given this backdrop. The "it's a choice" group needs to avoid having homosexuality being a natural aspect of humanity because it cannot be termed wrong without being bigoted in that case. If it is a choice, it can be at least potentially concluded as being a bad choice; if it is innate it would be bigoted to condemn it a priori. Conversely, the pro gay rights movement thinks, probably correctly, that if they can demonstrate that it is a natural state they have a slam dunk case by simply comparing to racism or sexism which is widely recognized as wrong.

The second factor applies only to the "it's a choice" side but is arguably more important than the above factor. It is the fact that considering homosexuality to be a choice frames it in the language of religion as something that can be considered bad. Christian morality revolves around the idea of personal choice. Humans are made in God's image and it is only through our choices (and the choice made by our alleged pair of predecessors and thrust upon us) that we sin. The idea of homosexuality being biological means that they are simply as God made them and that could certainly not be a problem. By claiming homosexuals choose homosexuality, they are then making the choice to act and so it is in a category of potentially condemnable actions. Of course, this factor can only be moderately strong for it applies equally well to racism and would seem to invalidate racism (note that in earlier times many simply didn't consider blacks as humans possessing a soul and hence escaped this tedious problem).

As for the gay rights side, I think they also wish to combat it for no reason other than that they believe it to be false and perhaps think that by illuminating the population with the truth they will win support. When somebody makes a wrong claim it is natural to want to correct them and to think you can win the argument if you do. Unfortunately, this buys into the framing established by the other side. It should not matter one iota from a political perspective whether it is nature or nurture and there should be somewhat more emphasis on pointing out its irrelevancy compared to its falsehood.

There is some differences simply in what is meant by the word 'choice'. When the "it's not a choice" side uses the word, it is often with the connotations of a conscious adult choice the way I might choose the title for this blog post. To deny that homosexuality is not a choice in this sense is to simply be entirely naive of reality, although there is still a disturbingly large group of people that sees homosexuality in this way. In contrast, there are some in the "it's a choice" side use the word with the connotation being in terms of the nature vs nurture question. At least in principle, there could be elements of nurture that don't diminish one iota the inability to make an adult conscious choice to change ones sexual orientation.

It is of course entirely reasonable to try and take up the scientific question of the extent to which homosexuality is a nature versus nurture phenomenon provided we don't pass value judgements on the outcome. While that scientific question is not entirely resolved, the evidence would appear to lean heavily on biological factors (not necessarily all genetic, for instance second sons are considerably more likely to be homosexual likely because of differing hormone levels in uterine from the mother) but if one wants to intellectually disagree about the balance of evidence that in itself is acceptable.

That said, the trend appears where many advocating for nurture factors are precisely those wishing to pass values judgements by denying marriage equality. The nature vs nurture debate is one of those hook issues where the proximate debate is just a means to an end. It is similar in this way to the "intelligent design" debate or "foundation of moral philosophy" debate where the pretension of a background academic scientific or philosophical debate is used in support of someone with a very specific agenda. In general we should simply reject the framing of a "choice" debate on homosexuality in any sphere of discussion even tangentially related to value judgements or policy decisions based on the outcome of that debate.

Thoughts on this post? Comment below!

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RonBrown said...

I chose to be straight when I was 17. I was asexual for most of my life, then I did some bisexual experimentation and then, based on my "research", I did some impartial pros and cons listing for being gay, straight or bi. Being straight served to favour my self-interest the most, and so I made the decision in much the same way I choose which apartment to rent, which candidate to vote for, and so on.

(To anyone that is somehow unsure, yes, that was satire)

Anonymous said...

I tend to lean more to the different levels of sexuality theory which currently exists. There is some degree to which people are attracted to one gender and in certain people this feeling is much stronger than others. Genetically this is predominately the opposite sex aka heterosexuality, however we also see a smaller proportion with attraction to the same gender aka homosexuality and some degrees of bisexuality. So for example you can have a person who is bisexual but more attracted to one gender over the other For example they are 2 times more likely to be attracted to someone of the opposite gender and than they are someone of the same gender but may still feel an attraction for the same gender at times. In some of these bi plus sexual lean cases it can also depend on the partner in question. Simply if the chemistry mixes and they have a good relationship or not if there is a stronger attraction.

jackanapes said...

There is an issue you don't seem to cover. What happens when a behavior or preference is immutable but still considered harmful morally or physically? There are many in prison who have an age based sexual orientation. This does not entail a gender yet some of these prisoners beg not to be released or to be castrated because they will act out again. Is it now immoral to say that certain behaviors are immoral regardless of if that person has a choice? What of the alcoholic who has an immutable preference to get drunk and endanger themselves and the public? The drunk and the age sex orientation person may not have a choice but are they now fair game for those who want them to be considered as having a human right? Homosexuality may not be a choice yet in what way will we draw the line if other purportedly immutable sexual orientations demand rights? And before you mention mutual consent does a cow consent to be in food products? Regardless of what the behavior is and how powerless the individual may be in their orientation we still draw lines that are criminal to cross. If by fact of immutability we start to favor those compelled by the nature vs nurture spectrum to have no choice what then of those in jail for said immutable choices?

bazie said...

Jack: I have no problem condemning harmful behaviors - something which in the case of homosexuality has been repeatedly demonstrated NOT to cause harm in a meaningful way. Alcohol addiction (an entirely nurtured behavior) and pedophilia are behaviors which have very clear and very unquestionable harm caused on other people, and can be objected to on those grounds.

Note that the thrust of my argument is that whether homosexuality is nature or nurture is irrelevant and thus cannot be used as a slippery slope to justify pedophilia or bestiality or other such things. All of these things are balanced on a scale of freedom vs harm. I has out this issue at some length with respect to polygamy here: https://m.google.com/app/plus/poswidget/?hl=en-US&jsh=r%3Bgc%2F23980661-3686120e&jsh=r%3Bgc%2F23980661-3686120e#bub=1&url=http://progressiveproselytizing.blogspot.com/2011/01/on-morality-of-polygamy-law-freedom-vs.html&id=I2_1318274504414&parent=http%3A%2F%2Fprogressiveproselytizing.blogspot.com&rpctoken=173418309&_methods=_onopen%2C_ready%2C_onclose%2C_close%2C_open%2C_resizeMe

jackanapes said...
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