Recently, ID critic Professor Jason Rosenhouse has written a series of posts on the topic of morality. In two posts (here and here), he defended the view that morality is objective, but in two other posts in reply to Barry Arrington (here and here), he attacked the only theory that provides morality with an objective grounding in a philosophically rigorous manner: natural law theory. To me, that sounds a lot like sawing off the branch that you’re sitting on.
Professor Rosenhouse makes much of the fact that most people, most of the time, manage to agree about moral issues. Now, I’m happy to grant that our agreement about moral issues constitutes good prima facie evidence for the view that morality is indeed objective. However, it would be putting the cart before the horse if we were to simply define the objective content of morality as “those ethical facts which most people agree about, most of the time.” People generally agree about moral matters, precisely because there are certain objective truths which they can readily perceive, and which guide their moral decision-making. For instance, “Virtually everyone understands basic empathy, and understands that it is just wrong to inflict pointless suffering on sentient creatures.”
The next question we need to ask is: what kinds of objective truths guide our moral decision-making? Professor Rosenhouse writes:
There can be objective moral truths even if people don’t realize what they are. Perhaps we can only learn about such truths by observing the doleful consequences of getting it wrong.
Rosenhouse evidently believes that these truths are empirical facts about the good and bad consequences of acting in a certain way, where “good consequences” are those which result in an increase in people’s happiness or level of satisfaction, while “bad consequences” are those which cause suffering. From the foregoing description, it can be seen that Professor Rosenhouse is a utilitarian of sorts.
The fatal flaw in utilitarianism: the case of “Fat Man”
But good consequences alone cannot define morally good actions. To see what’s wrong with utilitarianism, I would invite my readers to consider what New Atheist Sam Harris says about the “Fat Man” ethical dilemma, which the philosopher Judith Jarvis Thompson described as follows:
…[A] trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by putting something very heavy in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you – your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed?
(Judith Jarvis Thomson, “Killing, Letting Die, and the Trolley Problem,” The Monist, vol. 59, pp. 204-17, 1976.)
Nearly everyone, if you ask them, says it would be wrong to push the fat man. Dr. Harris would push the fat man onto the track, on the grounds that it leads to better consequences all round: it kills one individual but saves five. I have to say that I cannot understand how anyone could do that. I think Dr. Harris displays a badly formed moral conscience in defending such an action, and I’m sure the vast majority of my readers would agree with me.
Surprisingly, Dr. Harris evinces no qualms about his choice. He appears to believe that if you don’t see things his way, then you’re simply irrational. Rational, enlightened people would evaluate the morality of such an act by looking at the results produced.
But some of my readers may wish to ask: why, exactly, is killing the fat man wrong? An atheist who goes under the pen name of Robephiles identifies the error in Harris’s moral reasoning in an article entitled, Sam Harris and the Moral Failure of Science. Robephiles explains why he considers Harris’ ethical views to be “as dangerous as even the most radical religion.” What’s missing from Dr. Harris’ moral equation is that he doesn’t view human beings as “ends in themselves”:
In one of his speeches Harris mentions the famous “trolley problem.” In one scenario a runaway trolley is on a track and going to run over four people but you can flip a switch and put it on the other track where another person is. In the second scenario you are standing next to a fat man who you can push in front of the trolley to save the four people. In the first case almost everyone says pulling the switch is okay but almost nobody says pushing somebody in front of the trolley is okay. Harris mentions this but doesn’t even have a point. He just says that the two acts are “different” but doesn’t clarify.
If he had bothered to think about it for even a second he would have seen that the first example is collateral damage. There was no malice in the flipping of the switch but it was the act that was necessary to save the four. If the other person was to see the trolley and jump out of the way then their death would not be necessary. In the case of the man being pushed in front of the trolley we are using another human being as a means to an end and that is unacceptable to most of us.
He [Sam Harris] doesn’t see what else is important other than the maximizing of human welfare, so your religious rights don’t matter, your civil rights don’t matter, due process doesn’t matter. Kant claimed that every human being had intrinsic value and an inherent right to be free. Kant thought that it was better to let humans be free to make bad choices than to enslave them in the interest of their well-being. For the last few hundred years civilizations that have lived by these principles have done pretty well.
For Harris, while treating people as “ends in themselves” in everyday life might be a good way to safeguard human well-being in the majority of cases, in the end, overall “human well-being” is the supreme good, and human lives can legitimately be sacrificed to protect this greater good.
That’s how an ant-hive might work. But people aren’t ants; nor are they like cells in the greater body of “society.” Unlike a cell, whose function is wholly subservient to that of the body it belongs to, each individual person has a distinct good of their own, which can be grasped without reference to the good of society. For example, it is good for someone to create beautiful works of art, or make new discoveries, or to love another person, regardless of whether society-as-a-whole benefits from these acts. It is true, of course, that human beings are social animals, who cannot flourish outside of society. However, the point I am making here is that the flourishing of a human individual can be understood without reference to the benefits it may indirectly confer on society.
The merits – and limitations – of Kantian ethics
The Kantian injunction that we should treat other people as ends in themselves, and not merely as means to our ends, has much to commend it. It also explains why it would be wrong to sacrifice an innocent person for the good of society as a whole. To cite an oft-cited example: we all know that it would be utterly wrong for a town sheriff to hang a man whom he knew to be innocent, in order to prevent riots and acts of mob violence that would ensue if the man were not hanged.
Brilliant as Kant’s moral insight is, his ethical theory suffers from one severe limitation: it fails to specify what kinds of activities define human goodness. To be sure, Kant has his own method for distinguishing good acts from bad ones: we should ask ourselves what would happen if everyone were to act in the way that we are proposing. For example, if I propose to lie whenever it is convenient for me to do so, Kant would say that I should first consider what would happen if everyone were to do the same. The result would be disastrous: nobody would know whom they could really trust. Since the precept that I should lie when it suits me cannot be generalized, we may conclude that it is a morally bad one. Kant’s procedure possesses the merit of being utterly impartial; however, it fails to address the deeper question: what makes a consequence good or bad? In order to answer this question, we need to know what makes people tick. We need to fully understand the human animal. In other words, we need to study human biology and human psychology, before we can define human morality.
Aristotle and the natural law theorists who followed him grasped this vital point. “Good” and “bad” cannot be objectively defined without reference to human nature. Professor Rosenhouse evidently thinks that increasing people’s level of satisfaction is a good thing, objectively speaking, while causing suffering is a bad thing. Such a definition is obviously flawed: taking drugs may cause intense feelings of euphoria on the part of the drug user, but we rightly view it as a harmful activity when we consider the physical and neurological damage it causes. Likewise, when a surgeon performs a life-saving operation, s/he may well have to cause suffering, for the long-term benefit of the patient. In such a case, we would all regard the surgeon’s action as a good one.
The conclusion we have reached, then, is that if we want to define what is objectively good or bad for people, we need to understand human nature. In this essay, however, I want to go further, and tease out a subtle ethical point which is often overlooked in contemporary discussions of morality. The position that I wish to argue for is that no human action can be called good or bad in an objective sense, unless it is good for human beings as human beings. I’m not saying that something has to be beneficial for each and every human being, or even for a given percentage of human beings (say, 80%), before it can be deemed “good.” Rather, what I’m saying is that the proposed action has to be the kind of action which we can grasp as beneficial from a proper understanding of human nature, before we can call it “good.”
Different strokes for different folks?
Now, some readers may be inclined to cavil at this point. They may cite the lyrics of the 1980s TV sitcom, Different Strokes:
Now, the world don’t move to the beat of just one drum,
What might be right for you, may not be right for some.
Or they may prefer to quote the pithy Roman adage: “One man’s meat is another man’s poison.”
However, neither of these maxims withstands critical scrutiny. The thinking that lies behind them appears to be that people come in different types, and that what’s good for one type of person may actually be bad for another type of person. Thus for extroverts, socializing is an energizing experience which benefits them; whereas for introverts, it’s a draining experience, which they tend to avoid. And when people invoke the Different Strokes maxim in the field of sexual ethics, they may argue that whereas marriage between a man and a woman is an arrangement that benefits heterosexual human beings, it may actually harm other people, who would benefit from an alternative arrangement: same-sex marriage. Professor Rosenhouse is evidently of this view.
Before I address the issue of same-sex marriage, I’d like to step back and re-examine the alleged difference between what’s good for an introvert and what’s good for an extrovert. First, I’d like to point out that solitary confinement is good for no-one: it actually sends people mad – introverts and extroverts alike. Everybody needs human company at least sometimes. It is also indisputably true that even the most gregarious person needs to be alone sometimes. Where introverts and extroverts differ is not in what is good for them, but in how much of a good thing they can handle.
Rosenhouse believes that marriage itself (and not just heterosexual marriage) is good for some people, but bad for others. He writes:
“For some people, the decision to get married and have children represents a deeply satisfying and fulfilling commitment that immeasurably enriches their lives. But for many others it is a terrible decision, one that causes tremendous pain and misery.”
However, the fact that one person’s decision to marry another person results in pain and misery does not establish that marriage itself is bad for certain people. It may establish that the two people in question should not have gotten married, or that they were not emotionally ready for marriage. And there are some people who never will be emotionally ready for such a commitment. But there is an ocean of difference between saying that a commitment such as marriage is bad for some people, and saying that some people are not (and never will be) ready for such a commitment. In the former case, one is claiming that for certain people, commitments are psychologically toxic: they actually harm the people who enter into them. But in the latter case, what one is asserting is that the commitment itself is inherently good, but that in order to realize this good, a certain level of emotional maturity is required, which certain people lack.
So, are there any bona fide cases where what is good for one type of person is actually bad for another type of person? The two most plausible cases that come to mind relate to allergies and the biological differences between the sexes.
Let’s examine allergies first. An allergy is a hypersensitivity disorder of the immune system. Allergic reactions occur when a person’s immune system reacts to normally harmless substances in the environment. According to recent research, the likelihood of developing allergies is inherited and related to an irregularity in the immune system, but the specific allergen is not. Exposure to allergens, especially in early life, is also an important risk factor for allergy. There are genuine cases, then, where one man’s meat (or seafood) is another man’s poison, but this is due to an abnormality. What we don’t have here is a case where what’s good for one normal individual is bad for another normal individual. (Incidentally, lactose intolerance is not an allergy, since it is caused by the absence of a specific enzyme in the digestive tract.)
What about the differences between the sexes? Unlike allergies, these differences are certainly “normal,” from a biological perspective, and it’s undeniably true that what’s good for women isn’t always good for men – and vice versa. For example, women experience first-hand the risks and benefits of pregnancy and breastfeeding, in ways in which men cannot. Even here, however, what we have is not a case of something being good for men and at the same time bad for women. Rather, what we have here is a case of certain goods that women can realize and that men cannot, and vice versa. Moreover, these goods can turn out to be mutually complementary, when viewed from a child’s-eye perspective. As we’ll see below, children benefit in distinct ways from having a mother and from having a father.
Are gays and lesbians people of a different kind from the rest of us?
The argument that what’s good for gays and lesbians isn’t the same as what’s good for heterosexuals presupposes that gays and lesbians are people of a different kind from the rest of us. However, there are two powerful reasons for rejecting this view. The first reason is an empirical one, relating to the fact that sexual identity during adolescence is not fixed but quite fluid: a significant percentage of individuals who identify as gay or lesbian in early adolescence may come to identify as bisexual or even heterosexual as adults, and (more rarely) vice versa. The second reason is an historical one: until the late nineteenth century, nobody in any culture identified themselves as “gay” or “straight.”
(1) The empirical evidence
The empirical evidence for fluidity in one’s self-described “sexual orientation” is nicely summarized in an article titled, Stability and Change in Sexual Orientation Identity Over a 10-Year Period in Adulthood, by Steven E. Mock and Richard P. Eibach, in Archives of Sexual Behavior, DOI 10.1007/s10508-011-9761-1, published online 17 May 2011.
Does sexual orientation change? Is sexual orientation more fluid for women than it is for men? Given the controversial debate on sexual orientation conversion therapy (Spitzer, 2003), and intriguing recent research on sexual fluidity among sexual minority women (Diamond, 2008), it is surprising how little research there has been on the patterns of stability and change of sexual orientation identity (Le Vay, 2010, Savin-Williams, 2009). The research that has been conducted on this topic shows some consistent themes. First, heterosexuality is by far the predominant sexual orientation identity and least likely to change over time (Kinnish, Strassberg, & Turner, 2005). Second, there is evidence of greater fluidity in women’s than in men’s sexual orientation identity, particularly for sexual minority (i.e. non-heterosexual) women (Diamond, 2008; Dickson, Paul & Herbison, 2003). Third, bisexual identity tends to be less consistently claimed over time than other sexual identities (Kinnish et al., 2005)…
In survey research, reports of heterosexual identity typically range from 90 to 98% (Dickson et al., 2003; Herbenick et al., 2010; Mosher et al., 2005). In a retrospective study of sexual orientation identity among a group of heterosexual, bisexual, and homosexual men and women, heterosexuals reported less lifetime change in sexual orientation than sexual minorities did (Kinnish et al., 2005)…. In a 6-year longitudinal study of sexual attraction and behavior from adolescence to early adulthood, Savin-Williams and Ream (2007) found a high degree of stability for opposite-sex attraction and behavior but little consistency for same-sex attraction and behavior. Similarly, in a 5-year study of same- and opposite-sex attraction in a national sample of young adults (Dickson et al., 2003), 95% of opposite-sex attracted men and 84% of opposite-sex attracted women maintained a consistent rating of attraction over 5 years (i.e., no change), but only 65% of the men with same-sex attraction and 40% of the women with same-sex attraction did so. Although these results suggest greater stability for heterosexuality compared to sexual minority orientations, they also suggest sexual orientation identity may be less stable for women than men (Dickson et al., 2003)…
I’m not arguing here that “conversion therapy” works; frankly, I very much doubt that it does. Sexual preferences appear to be fixed by the time people turn 25. But during the adolescent years, there is strong evidence for fluidity – especially among bisexuals and lesbians.
(2) The historical evidence
David Benkof is a Stanford-trained historian whose research has focused on modern Jewish history and the gay and lesbian past. He has written about gay and lesbian history for dozens of LGBT publications, and authored the book (as David Bianco) Gay Essentials: Facts for your Queer Brain (Alyson, 1999). In an article titled, Nobody is ‘born that way,’ gay historians say, in The Daily Caller (19 March 2014), he writes:
Virtually no serious person disputes that in our society, people generally experience their gay or straight orientations as unchosen and unchangeable. But the LGBT community goes further, portraying itself as a naturally arising subset of every human population, with homosexuality being etched into some people’s DNA…
But a surprising group of people doesn’t think that – namely, scholars of gay history and anthropology.
They’re almost all LGBT themselves, and they have decisively shown that gayness is a product of Western society originating about 150 years ago. Using documents and field studies, these intrepid social scientists have examined the evidence of homosexuality in other times and cultures to see how the gay minority fared. But they’ve come up empty. Sure, there’s substantial evidence of both discreet and open same-sex love and sex in pre-modern times. But no society before the 19th century had a gay minority or even discernibly gay-oriented individuals.
Dr. Benkof adds that in times past, there weren’t “straight” people, either: the belief that people are oriented in just one direction is peculiar to Western society. He continues:
Journalists trumpet every biological study that even hints that gayness and straightness might be hard-wired, but they show little interest in the abundant social-science research showing that sexual orientation cannot be innate. The scholars I interviewed for this essay were variously dismayed or appalled by this trend.
Benkof cites two academics who share his views: historian Dr. Martin Duberman, founder of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies, who writes that “no good scientific work establishes that people are born gay or straight,” and cultural anthropologist Dr. Esther Newton (of the University of Michigan) who described one study linking sexual orientation to biological traits as ludicrous: “Any anthropologist who has looked cross-culturally (knows) it’s impossible that that’s true, because sexuality is structured in such different ways in different cultures.”
Dr. Benkof contends that modern-day categories for sexuality don’t correspond well with how people described themselves in times past. He quotes Dr. Duberman: “Were people always either gay or straight? The answer to that is a decided no.” Duberman argues that people in olden times who slept with members of their own gender “haven’t viewed that as something exclusive and therefore something that defines them as a different category of human being.”
Dr. Benkof then proceeds to evaluate the historical evidence from ancient Greece, as well as the contemporary evidence from non-Western cultures:
…[S]cholars don’t think the ancient Greeks had a gay minority. Rather, that civilization thought homosexuality was something anyone could enjoy. In addition to a wife, elite men were expected to take a younger male as an apprentice-lover, with prescribed bedroom roles. The system was so different from ours that to describe specific ancient Greeks as gay or straight would show profound disrespect for their experiences… LGBT anthropologists have also found no gay minorities in their studies of cultures around the world. In fact, Dr. Newton noted in an essay that her field has “no essentialist position on sexuality, no notion that people are born with sexual orientations. The evidence, fragmentary as it is, all points the other way.”… Dr. Newton asserted without hesitation that she knows of no non-Western cultural system that divides people into the categories of men who like women; men who like men; women who like men; and women who like women the way ours does….
For the benefit of his readers, Benkof spells out exactly what he and other gay and lesbian historians are claiming:
Gay and lesbian historians aren’t just claiming that before the 19th century nobody was called “gay.” They’re saying nobody was gay (or straight). While various societies had different ways of thinking about and expressing gender, love, and desire, homosexuality was generally something one could do, not something one could be…
(3) Homosexuality in animals – why it’s irrelevant to human beings
“But what about homosexuality in animals?”, some may ask. The New York Times has devoted articles to this issue. In a thought-provoking online post titled, Evolution, animals, and gay behavior (4 April 2010), renowned evolutionary biologist Professor Jerry Coyne (of the University of Chicago) contends that no conclusions about homosexuality in human beings can be drawn from scientific observations of gay behavior in animals. He writes:
Today’s New York Times Magazine has a long article by Jon Mooallem, “Can Animals Be Gay?”, that discusses recent observations of same-sex sexual behavior in animals. It’s a pretty good piece, showing the minefield that is animal research on homosexuality…
Can animal studies really inform work on human homosexuality? I’m not an expert in this area, but Mooallem doesn’t paint an optimistic picture. He shows, and I had guessed this, that “gay” behavior in animals (by this I mean “same-sex” sexual behavior) is a grab-bag of diverse phenomena that don’t support a single evolutionary explanation. Some same-sex behavior, such as the occasional tendency of males to mount other males, could simply be a byproduct of a general tendency for males to copulate with anything moving, which is itself adaptive since sperm is cheap… In other cases same-sex behavior may have evolutionary roots, reflecting specific adaptations… In other cases, like the polymorphous sexuality in bonobo chimps, sexual behavior may have been co-opted into forms of social bonding…
So we shouldn’t hold out a lot of hope that these kinds of studies will shed much illumination on human homosexuality. It may, but I’m not hopeful. For one things, humans have a rich and mercurial culture that is unlike anything seen in animals. Social stigma or conventions can change quite quickly, and this can affect the propensity of same-sex behavior. Was prolific gay behavior in ancient Athens the same thing, biologically, as the behavior of gays in 1930s Chicago? Who knows? …
The data at hand already show that same-sex behavior in animals is a mixed bag of heterogeneous stuff, and may not illuminate homosexuality in humans. Most of the researchers described in Mooallem’s article seem to recognize this.
And of course, no matter what the evolutionary roots of homosexual behavior are, those are irrelevant (apologies to Sam Harris here) to how we regard gays. Infanticide is “normal” in some species like lions and langurs, but we condemn it and punish it in humans. What is “natural,” “genetic,” or “adaptive” has little relevance, to me at least, to the question of what is right.
Professor Coyne concedes that “there are indications that there is some genetic basis in some people” for gay behavior, but adds: “That doesn’t mean, however, that all gay behavior stems from ‘gay genes.’ Even if there’s a genetic basis, there is likely a strong interaction with the environment, too, so that one may not be able to impute gay behavior to simply ‘genes’ or ‘environment.'”
To sum up: while there is some evidence that gay behavior has a partial genetic basis, there is no good evidence for the view that gays and lesbians represent a different kind of human being, with a distinct good of their own. The available evidence points the other way. Sexual identity is fluid (at least during adolescence), and until a few decades ago, gays and lesbians have never defined themselves as a distinct “type” of human being, with a separate good of their own.
What makes sex objectively good?
Let’s now return to the morality of sex. Judging from his posts on morality and marriage, Professor Rosenhouse evidently views sex as something which is objectively good, for the majority of people. Fine; but what makes it so? If I were to ask a drug-user why they regarded their drug of preference as good, it would not do at all if they were to answer: “Because it gives me pleasure.” That certainly makes it subjectively good, but it does not make it good in any objective sense. Nor would it help if the drug-user were to point out that they partake of their favorite drug with a fellow-user, and that the shared ritual of imbibing the drug is a mutually pleasurable one. Even a shared, inter-subjective pleasure may or may not be objectively good. Only if the drug in question could be shown to enhance human health (e.g. by prolonging human life, or reducing the incidence of some disease) in some publicly identifiable manner could we make a good case that it was objectively beneficial. Likewise, before we can describe sexual pleasure as objectively good, we need to demonstrate that it is somehow conducive to human thriving, in a publicly verifiable way. We need to show that for the individuals who engage in sex, the activity itself promotes their biological and psychological flourishing, or promotes human flourishing in a way in which we can all recognize.
Sex between a man and a woman confers one benefit which is indisputable: the generation of new human beings. Only a confirmed misanthrope would deny that the birth of a newborn baby is a good thing, considered in itself. (Of course, that doesn’t make procreation prudent – let alone obligatory – for every couple, here and now. “Prudent” and “good” are two different concepts.) We also observe that married couples tend to flourish on an inter-personal level from engaging in conjugal relations: it helps them grow closer together, and it strengthens their marital bond. And marriage, too, is surely a good thing in itself: it is the most intimate human bond there is, between consenting adults. (And as I argued earlier, the fact that some people are emotionally unready for marriage in no way detracts from its essential goodness.) Since sex plays a vital role in strengthening the marital bond, we may legitimately conclude that even for heterosexual couples who are incapable of procreating, sexual relations are also objectively good, insofar as they are conducive to human flourishing.
At this point, a defender of homosexual rights may propose that we can make the same argument for gay and lesbian couples: the sex that they have strengthens their bond of intimacy, and since intimacy is objectively a good thing, it follows that gay and lesbian sex must therefore be a good thing, objectively speaking. Moreover, it seems churlish to reserve the term “marriage” exclusively for bonds between heterosexual couples. Surely, it will be urged, we need to expand our definition of marriage to include any public, life-long bond between two consenting adults, in which sexual relations are understood to occur.
Why not gay marriage?
(a) The logic behind gay marriage is destructive of monogamy
The foregoing argument looks plausible at first sight, but it completely ignores the bisexual community. Let’s consider the case of a bisexual male named Albert, who is passionately in love with a woman named Belinda and a man named Charles. He can’t imagine spending his life without either of them – nor can they imagine spending their lives without him. To simplify matters from a legal perspective, let’s assume that Albert doesn’t want to have children, and that he’s had himself sterilized to prevent that possibility from eventuating. If gays and lesbians are accorded the right to marry whomever they wish, then why shouldn’t bisexuals be given the same right?
Granting bisexuals the right to marry whomever they wish would, in effect, legalize polygamy. And if you’re going to allow it for bisexuals, then it seems legally arbitrary to deny heterosexuals and homosexuals the same right. The logical consequences of granting people the right to marry whomever they wish, regardless of their sexual orientation, would thus be very profound: the abolition of socially sanctioned monogamy. But they are a direct logical entailment of the argument advanced by gays and lesbians in support of gay marriage.
Speaking of monogamy, Professor Rosenhouse would do well to have a look at Hanna Rosin’s article in Slate, titled, The Dirty Little Secret: Most Gay Couples Aren’t Monogamous (June 26, 2013). She writes:
The dirty little secret about gay marriage: Most gay couples are not monogamous… [Atlantic reporter Liza Mundy] tells the story of Dan Savage, who started out wanting to be monogamous until he and his partner had kids, and then they loosened up on that in order to make their union last. “Monogamish” is what he calls his new model. But as Mundy asks, can anyone out there imagine a husband proposing that same deal to his pregnant wife?
…In the fight for marriage equality, the gay rights movement has put forth couples that look like straight ones, together forever, loyal, sharing assets. But what no one wants to talk about is that they don’t necessarily represent the norm… [I]n legalizing gay marriage, we are accepting a form of sanctioned marriage that is not by habit monogamous and that is inventing all kinds of new models of how to accommodate lust and desire in long-term relationships.
I might point out that in liberal Sweden, where Media and Marketing Europe (2002) reported that “at least 6% of Sweden’s 8.8 million population are gay,” only 4521 females were married to another female in Sweden as of July 2013, compared to 3646 males in same-sex marriages. In other words, the vast majority of gays don’t want gay marriage for themselves, even in an “enlightened” country where its legalization is non-controversial.
(b) Marriage: it’s really about procreation
But by far the best case against gay marriage that I have ever seen was actually penned by a gay man, Paul Rosnick (a pseudonym), in an article titled, I’m Gay, And I Oppose Same-Sex Marriage (The Federalist, 28 April 2015). Rosnick’s argument is succinct and gets straight to the point. In a world where there were no children, there would be no need for a socially regulated institution called marriage. (If astronauts found alien life on a distant planet which reproduced asexually, you can safely bet there wouldn’t be anything like marriage on that planet.) And although it is true that not all marriages produce children, nevertheless children are the fundamental reason why the institution of marriage exists:
People have forgotten that the defining feature of marriage, the thing that makes marriage marriage, is the sexual complementarity of the people involved. Marriage is often correctly viewed as an institution deeply rooted in religious tradition. But people sometimes forget that marriage is also based in science. When a heterosexual couple has sex, a biological reaction can occur that results in a new human life.
Government got into the marriage business to ensure that these new lives are created in a responsible manner. This capacity for creating new life is what makes marriage special. No matter how much we try, same-sex couples will never be able to create a new life. If you find that level of inequality offensive, take it up with Mother Nature….
Same-sex relationships not only lack the ability to create children, but I believe they are also suboptimal environments for raising children. On a personal level, this was an agonizing realization for me to come to. I have always wanted to be a father. I would give just about anything for the chance to have kids. But the first rule of fatherhood is that a good dad will put the needs of his children before his own—and every child needs a mom and a dad. Period. I could never forgive myself for ripping a child away from his mother so I could selfishly live out my dreams.
Same-sex relationships, by design, require children to be removed from one or more of their biological parents and raised absent a father or mother. This hardly seems fair.
Do children do better with a mother and a father?
But is it really true, as Posnick contends, that children go better when raised by a mother and a father? The best scientific evidence currently available says yes. On this point, I’d like to quote from an article by Michael Cook at www.mercatornet.com, titled, The “no difference” theory is dead (February 9, 2015):
Fresh research has just tossed a grenade into the incendiary issue of same-sex parenting. Writing in the British Journal of Education, Society & Behavioural Science, a peer-reviewed journal, American sociologist Paul Sullins concludes that children’s “Emotional problems [are] over twice as prevalent for children with same-sex parents than for children with opposite-sex parents”.
He says confidently: “it is no longer accurate to claim that no study has found children in same-sex families to be disadvantaged relative to those in opposite-sex families.”
This defiant rebuttal of the “no difference” hypothesis is sure to stir up a hornet’s next as the Supreme Court prepares to trawl through arguments for and against same-sex marriage. It will be impossible for critics to ignore it, as it is based on more data than any previous study — 512 children with same-sex parents drawn from the US National Health Interview Survey. The emotional problems included misbehaviour, worrying, depression, poor relationships with peers and inability to concentrate.
After crunching the numbers, Sullins found opposite-sex parents provided a better environment. “Biological parentage uniquely and powerfully distinguishes child outcomes between children with opposite-sex parents and those with same-sex parents,” he writes…
Until recently nearly all studies of same-sex parenting were very small. In a survey of 49 studies in 2010, one researcher found that their mean sample size was only 39 children. Only four of these were random samples; the others had been selected by contacting gay and lesbian groups. An ambitious 2012 study by Mark Regnerus, of the University of Texas at Austin, identified only 39 young adults who had lived with a same-sex couple for more than three years out of 2,988 cases.
For researchers, it’s a conundrum. The number of children being raised by same-sex couples is so small – 0.005 percent of American households with children — that capturing them in a random sample is like finding a needle in a haystack. So the figure of 512 children, while still relatively small, makes Sullins’s study a major contribution.
Sullins examines whether other factors could explain the difference in emotional welfare. According to his analysis, none of them does.
Reviewer John Londregan summarizes the limitations of previous studies of gay parenting in an article titled, Same-Sex Parenting: Unpacking the Social Science, in Public Discourse (February 24, 2015):
[Researcher Loren] Marks reviews an extensive literature on the topic and finds that most of the studies on the subject rely on “convenience samples”: groups of respondents that cannot be considered cross-sections of the population at large. ..
Marks also notes that many of the small studies either fail to identify a comparison group of heterosexual parents, or they compare educated and affluent lesbian couples to single heterosexual parents. He suggests that better comparison groups might consist of married heterosexual parents or of all heterosexual parents…
Objections from three Supreme Court justices: Kennedy, Kagan and Ginsburg
Three Supreme Court justices have put forward arguments in relation to gay marriage which rest on faulty logic, in my opinion.
Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy is fond of invoking the term “dignity” in his court decisions, and he has recently used the term during oral arguments at the Supreme Court on gay marriage. This strikes me as philosophically unsound, for two reasons. First, dignity attaches to people, not to their choices or actions. Gay people (like heterosexuals) have dignity; gay marriages do not and cannot. Second, as Jeffrey Rosen points out in a thoughtfully argued <piece in the Atlantic (April 2015), “dignity” is a very slippery concept:
If dignity is defined so elastically, then conservatives judges might invoke it to strike down not only gun-control laws, but also other progressive legislation. Libertarian groups invoked the “sweet-mystery-of-life” my language in Casey to argue that the Obamacare healthcare mandate unconstitutionally violated the dignity and autonomy of Americans by forcing them to buy health insurance. In the future, cigarette smokers might argue that anti-smoking bans violate their ability to create an individual identity. And conservative Christian wedding photographers could claim that anti-discrimination laws compelling them to photograph gay weddings violate their dignity and ability to define themselves as conservative Christians. What courts would do when confronted with the clashing dignitary rights of the religious wedding photographer and the gay couple, or the hunter and the victim of gun violence, is anyone’s guess, because dignity is such an abstract concept that its boundaries are difficult to discern.
Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan derides the traditional view that the social purpose of marriage is procreation. Back in 2013, she acidly observed during oral argument during the Proposition 8 case that there is no age limit on marriage — a limit that would be expected if marriage were really all about procreation.
Justice Kagan’s objection is a facile one. First of all, there is a lower age limit on marriage, and historically speaking, the main reason for that limit is that children and teenagers are not biologically, emotionally and financially ready to take on the responsibilities of parenthood. Second, a marriage doesn’t end when babies are born: they also need to be raised for the next twenty-or-so years. After that, parents usually become grandparents as their children grow up, get married and have children of their own. There are thus very strong social reasons why a married couple needs to remain together for the rest of their lives, if they are to properly meet their children’s needs and fulfill social expectations. But if two people can still be married, no matter how old they are, then it would be legally arbitrary to deny two people the right to get married, no matter how old they are.
Another argument in defense of gay marriage was recently put forward by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who turned the tables on the conservative claim that marriage has traditionally defined as a life-long union between a man and a woman by pointing out that historically, it has also been defined as a patriarchal institution as well, in which men controlled the lives of the women they were married to. Here’s what Ginsburg was reported as saying in an article by Ian Millhiser at Think Progress, titled, Justice Ginsburg Eviscerates The Case Against Marriage Equality In Just Five Sentences (April 29, 2015):
[Same-sex couples] wouldn’t be asking for this relief if the law of marriage was what it was a millennium ago. I mean, it wasn’t possible. Same-sex unions would not have opted into the pattern of marriage, which was a relationship, a dominant and a subordinate relationship. Yes, it was marriage between a man and a woman, but the man decided where the couple would be domiciled; it was her obligation to follow him.
There was a change in the institution of marriage to make it egalitarian when it wasn’t egalitarian. And same-sex unions wouldn’t — wouldn’t fit into what marriage was once.
However, Ginsburg’s argument is factually wrong. To be sure, there have been many societies which accorded husbands the dominant say in a marriage, but patriarchy is by no means a cultural universal. There are societies in which marriage is matriarchal, not patriarchal. In a 1955 article in Man, anthropologist Edmund Leach asserted that no one definition of marriage applied to all cultures. Leach put forward a list of ten rights associated with marriage, including sexual monopoly and rights with respect to children, with specific rights differing across cultures. These rights, according to Leach, included the following:
“To establish a legal father of a woman’s children.
To establish a legal mother of a man’s children.
To give the husband a monopoly in the wife’s sexuality.
To give the wife a monopoly in the husband’s sexuality.
To give the husband partial or monopolistic rights to the wife’s domestic and other labour services.
To give the wife partial or monopolistic rights to the husband’s domestic and other labour services.
To give the husband partial or total control over property belonging or potentially accruing to the wife.
To give the wife partial or total control over property belonging or potentially accruing to the husband.
To establish a joint fund of property – a partnership – for the benefit of the children of the marriage.
To establish a socially significant ‘relationship of affinity’ between the husband and his wife’s brothers.”
(Leach, Edmund. “Polyandry, Inheritance and the Definition of Marriage”. Man 55 (12): 183, December 1955.)
Even if it were true that all societies are patriarchal, marriage itself is not defined in that way: my Concise Oxford dictionary (Clarendon Press, 1990) simply defines it as “the legal union of a man and a woman in order to live together, and often to have children.” No mention of patriarchy there.
Finally, Justice Ginsburg’s contention that traditional marriage is inherently patriarchal is at odds with the words of St. Paul, who declared that in a marriage, each spouse has authority over the other spouse’s body: “A wife does not have authority over her own body, but rather her husband; and similarly, a husband does not have authority over his own body, but rather, his wife” (1 Corinthians 7:4). That sounds pretty egalitarian to me.
I conclude that (a) the arguments put forward in defense of gay marriage rest on a flawed understanding of human nature and of the notion of objective good, and (b) a defense of the goodness of marriage requires a solid foundation in natural law. Without natural law, it is impossible to make meaningful moral arguments regarding marriage.
Modern Moral Philosophy by Elizabeth Anscombe.
A probing, thought-provoking critique of utilitarianism.
Sexual and Marital Ethics by the MIT Anscombe Society. A collection of easy-to-read, scholarly articles on the purpose of sex and the meaning of marriage.
Sex and Consequences by Professor Peter Wood.
An anthropologist vindicates the traditional family.
The Meaning of Marriage by Zenit International News Agency.
A new collection of essays from across the academic disciplines argues that marriage need not be defended solely through appeals to religious authority or tradition.
Contraception and a Woman’s Self-Image by Jennifer Fulwiler, a former atheist who converted to Catholicism.
Contraception and Chastity by Professor Elizabeth Anscombe.
Roman Catholic thinker Elizabeth Anscombe relfects on the theological implications of contraception and chastity. Writing as a Roman Catholic, Anscombe offers a penetrating moral analysis of marriage and sexuality that will benefit any reader who rejects the secularist reduction of marriage as merely a union that sanctions sexual activity between partners.
Gay Rights: Facts About Homosexuality by Faith Facts. Faith Facts is a Bible-based, para-church ministry not affiliated with any denomination. Its mission is to further the gospel, that more may find a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and the blessings of Christian living.
Responding to Pro-Gay Theology by Joe Dallas.
Joe Dallas, founder of Genesis Counseling, is the author of three books on homosexuality: Desires in Conflict, Unforgiven Sins, and A Strong Delusion: Confronting the “Gay Christian” Movement. A former gay rights activist and staff member of a Metropolitan Community Church, he has worked with hundreds of men and women struggling with homosexuality and related problems.
The Condemnation of Homosexuality in Romans 1:26-27 by David E. Malick.
Sex and Consequences by Professor Peter Wood.
An anthropologist vindicates the traditional family. Professor Wood also discusses the social consequences of tolerating homosexuality and of legalizing gay marriage.
Protecting America’s Immune System: The Case Against Same-Sex Marriage by Dr. Frank Turek.
Homosexual Parenting: Is It Time For Change? by the American College of Pediatricians.
Points out the inherent risks of the homosexual lifestyle: violence, substance abuse, shorter lifespan and suicide. Also points out that homosexual unions rarely last longer than three years, and that monogamy is rare, promiscuity rampant.
Appendix: Homosexual behavior in males: nearly as risky as cigarette smoking?
Professor Rosenhouse considers consequences to be what matters most, in making moral decisions. It is strange, then, that he does not follow his own maxim when it comes to the goodness of gay sex.
There have been numerous widely-reported (and false) claims that living a gay lifestyle can take two or more decades off your life. Most of these claims rest on flawed methodology and out-of-date data, and fail to take account of recent improvements in drug treatments for people suffering from HIV. A good summary of the flaws in these claims can be found in an article titled, Fact check: do gays die earlier than smokers? by Andrew Crook (6 September 2012) in The Power Index, an independent Australian publication owned by Crikey.
While these claims are undoubtedly exaggerated, it is probably true that living a gay lifestyle in the United States today can take up to ten years off your life. The evidence can be found in a 2012 CDC report titled, Science of Optimizing HIV Prevention by Jonathan Mermin, MD, MPH, Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On page 3, the report states that “men who have sex with men (MSM) are >40 times more likely to have HIV than other men.” On page 4, the report points out that “if current trends continue, half of today’s young black MSM will have HIV by age 35,” and “half of all MSM will have HIV by age 50.”
Think about that. Half of all men who have sex with other men will have HIV by the age of 50, and for black men who engage in homosexual behavior, half will have HIV by age 35. Those facts should give anyone pause.
Now it is certainly true that HIV is not the death sentence that it used to be. As Dr. Dennis Sifris, M.D. and James Myhre point out in their recent online article, How Long Can I Live After Getting HIV?, the current outlook for people with HIV is very positive, if infection is detected and treated early (before immune function is compromised), and if they are able to ensure viral suppression by maintaining life-long adherence once therapy started. However, as the article goes on to state, people with HIV still have a higher mortality rate than the general population, due to other risk factors (comorbidities):
Even for people able to maintain full viral suppression, the risk for the development of non-HIV-related comorbidities, such as cancer or heart disease, is far greater that of the general population, and generally develops 10 years earlier than people who don’t have HIV.
So profound are these concerns that, in the developed world, a person living with HIV is far more likely to die prematurely of a comorbid condition than an HIV-related one.
But there’s more. According to the 2013 fact sheet, HIV Among Gay, Bisexual, and Other Men Who Have Sex With Men published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only a quarter of people suffering from HIV in the United States have adequate levels of viral suppression, leaving three-quarters of HIV sufferers at risk of succumbing to the virus: “Currently, CDC estimates that only 25% of the 1.1 million individuals with HIV have their viral loads adequately suppressed.”
Adherence to antiretroviral therapy (ART) in older adults living with HIV/AIDS by Stephen Karpiak, Ph.D., explains why maintaining adequate viral suppression can be very difficult for many people suffering from HIV:
While the number of people living with HIV/AIDS who survive into their 50s, 60s and beyond is truly a success story, this pattern will only continue if our nation can link HIV-infected persons to adequate care, retain them in treatment and place them on antiretroviral therapy, with the goal of achieving viral suppression (Brooks, Buchacz, Gebo, & Mermin, 2012; Cahill & Valadéz, 2013). Unfortunately, of the almost 1.2 million people infected with HIV in the U.S., only one-fourth achieve viral suppression (see Figure 1). Viral suppression is contingent on adhering to ART regimens ≥ 90 percent of the time. This means that, for many people living with HIV/AIDS, they can skip or miss their HIV medications only once or twice a month. For many persons living with HIV/AIDS, this can be extremely challenging.
And as if that were not bad enough, a large percentage of people suffering from HIV don’t even know that they have the disease. To quote from the CDC fact sheet, HIV Among Gay, Bisexual, and Other Men Who Have Sex With Men:
In this study, the overall percent of gay and bisexual men with HIV who knew of their HIV infection increased from 56% in 2008 to 66% in 2011. Among those infected, 49% of young MSM [men who have sex with men] aged 18 to 24 years knew of their infection, whereas 76% of those aged 40 and over were aware of their HIV infection. Fifty- four percent of black/African American MSM knew of their infection, compared with 63% of Hispanic/Latino MSM and 86% of white MSM. Persons who don’t know they have HIV don’t get medical care and can unknowingly infect others.
It is often believed that lesbians have an almost zero risk of getting HIV. This belief is ill-founded, as shown by a recent report titled, HIV Risk for Lesbians, Bisexuals & Other Women Who Have Sex With Women (June 2009) by the Lesbian AIDS Project (LAP) at Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC):
The vulnerability of lesbians and women who have sex with women (WSW) to HIV infection is a complicated public health issue that is perplexing to some and ignored by many..
With more than 15 years of experience with lesbians and WSW, the Lesbian AIDS Project (LAP) at Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) knows first hand that there are lesbians and WSW living with HIV. We set about to research the risks lesbians and WSW face in this, the third decade of the HIV epidemic…
This research indicates that some lesbians/WSW engage in high risk behaviors that place them at risk for HIV transmission. Some WSW use injection drugs and may share needles and works. Some WSW have sex, or sexual histories, with HIV-positive men and/or injection drug users. Furthermore, our observations in LAP also suggest that WSW of color in New York City experience a number of environmental adversities that drive risk and confound expectations based solely on their sexual orientation.
…The objective of this paper is not to argue that lesbians/WSW are at the same risk as their heterosexual counterparts, but to acknowledge that there is significant risk of HIV, other STIs, and other health disparities for lesbians…
Lesbians and bisexual women, like their heterosexual counterparts, engage in at-risk sexual and social behaviors that place them at high risk, including but not limited to: unprotected sex with men, an increased number of sexual partners, the use of injection drugs, and exposure to fluids known to transmit HIV i.e. menstrual blood, vaginal secretions. Research from 1992 has shown that while a number of women (81%) believe that safe sex is important, only a few (18.7%) actually practiced it when engaged in sexual activity with other women (Russell et al. 1992). More than a decade later, this continues to be a reality for a many lesbians/WSW.
The CDC has stated that the rate of primary and secondary syphilis among MSM is “more than 46 times that of other men and more than 71 times that of women.” (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, March 10, 2010. “CDC Analysis Provides New Look at Disproportionate Impact of HIV and Syphilis Among U.S. Gay and Bisexual Men.”)
Compare this with the risk of smoking:, which takes about ten years off the life of a long-time smoker, according to the article, Putting a Number on Smoking’s Toll by Anahad O’Connor, in the New York Times Ask Well blog (January 23, 2013).
No responsible government would recommend smoking to its teenagers as a an alternative lifestyle. Yet governments which do not present the gay lifestyle as a valid alternative to high school students are stigmatized as “intolerant.” Does that make sense to any of my readers?