Beyond Nature and Nurture: Why the Origin of Homosexuality Makes No Difference to its Morality

by David Pederson

Few subjects are as personal, political, and controversial as the morality of homosexuality.  For these reasons, unsurprisingly, emotion and rhetoric often rush in where reason fears to tread.  So pressing an issue, however, merits thoughtful consideration.  In the dense skein of questions surrounding homosexuality, one question in particular appears in discussions again and again:  Is one born gay – or does one become so?  Instead of answering this very difficult question, in this article I will rather focus on what difference any answer to it should make for our moral evaluations of homosexuality.  As I shall argue, such answers make no difference at all.  Let us begin with innateness.

What does it mean to say that homosexuality is “innate”?  Two main senses can be distinguished here.  In the first place, we may talk about homosexuality as an innate desire, as a bare drive or disposition to be attracted to those of the same sex.  This type of innateness is, as such, quite minimal.  Secondly, we might also speak of homosexuality as an innate feature of oneself – as constitutive of one’s identity, of who one really is.  While this sort of innateness shares some overlap with the first, it differs in that it views homosexuality not as accidental, but as essential to one’s personhood: one is the sort of person who feels same-sex attractions.  I will address these two senses in turn.

Appeal to homosexuality as an innate desire (the first sense) is often deployed both positively and negatively.  Negatively, proponents of homosexuality will contend that criticisms of homosexuality depend upon a denial of the innateness of homosexual desire and an affirmation that such desire is a “choice” or the product of one’s environment.  Positively, the same proponents will argue that the mere fact that one possesses innate feelings of attraction towards members of the same sex provides the moral validation for homosexuality.  But what these appeals to homosexuality as an innate desire miss is that the innateness of a given desire is not sufficient ground for either moral approval or disapproval.

Consider other forms of conceivably “innate” desire.  One can readily imagine, for instance, someone who is by nature a compulsive liar, or someone else who naturally takes sadistic delight in inflicting pain upon others.  In these cases, the desire or disposition in question is indeed innate, but yet is morally reprehensible.  This is not to imply, of course, that homosexuality is akin to sadism, but rather that the bare innateness of a desire is not enough for moral affirmation.  Desires qua desires must be praised or blamed by reference to a more robust moral ontology than that of mere innateness.

From these considerations, then, what results is that, insofar as it is an innate desire, homosexuality is neither good nor bad.  And this means that those who feel homosexual desire are neither morally justified nor morally culpable; determinations of right and wrong come into play only when one acts upon one’s desires.  Strictly speaking, then, homosexuality is not subject to moral evaluation, positive or negative; but homosexual conduct is.  (However, it ought to be noted that homosexuality could still be evaluated with reference to the good, even if not a moral good: one might say, for example, that homosexuality tends toward human fulfillment or detriment, regardless of individual responsibility or action.  But the point here is the same: it is not the innateness of homosexuality that allows us to make such evaluations.  Rather, it is some broader notion of human flourishing, whatever it may be.)  The innateness of desire, then, makes no difference to our judgments of homosexuality.  To moral judgments, whether some yet-to-be-discovered “gay gene” exists is thus perfectly irrelevant.

One could, however, object that this sort of innateness is not what proponents of homosexuality have in mind.  Instead, the sort of innateness to which supporters of homosexuality typically point to is one in which homosexuality is more than a mere desire (the second sense).  On this view, homosexuality is a state of being that touches upon the very core of one’s identity as a person, and for that reason ought to be affirmed.  (Of course, this sort of innateness of identity already possesses some minimal moral criteria: it is other-regarding and consent-respecting, and involves broadly notions of love, companionship, and so on.  But identity is what is at stake here.)  What are we to make of this view of homosexuality’s innateness?  Two remarks are here apposite.

First of all, it should clear that this rationale falls victim to precisely the same criticisms advanced above.  Should we support and affirm the identities of, say, kleptomaniacs, if kleptomania had been part of their identity as long as they could remember, or if the “kleptomania gene” could perhaps be found?  For most of us, I imagine, the answer is plain: we certainly should not.  Neither, then, does the fact that homosexuals identify themselves as homosexuals mean that we should, for that reason, support and affirm their identities.

Secondly, however, there is a contradiction in saying that one’s identity is innate.  Quite simply, one’s identity is always an identity that one has articulated and adopted.  That one happens to feel homosexual attractions, for instance, does not constitute one’s identity as a homosexual.  For such attractions to form one’s identity, one must have, at some level, made those attractions part of one’s identity.  Humans are self-interpreting animals, and our identities are always already self-constituted identities.  But if all this is so, then one’s identity cannot be innate, even though the elements constitutive of that identity (here: one’s homosexual attractions) may well be.  Consequently, the innateness of identity collapses either into innate desire or into choice.

What should also be noted here is that, while the foregoing points are certainly true about innate desires or identities, they hold even if one considers homosexuality to be a just a product of one’s environment.  For those environmental factors would produce either a certain set of homosexual desires, in which case such desires are not yet sufficient for moral praise or censure; or they would lead to the establishment of an identity as homosexual, in which case the arguments about identity above stilly apply.  As regards moral evaluation, then, seeing homosexuality as shaped by environment differs in no morally significant respects from seeing it as innate.

Let us now turn to choice and its role in constituting homosexuality.  Choice is, in many ways, a veritable shibboleth of modernity.  It comes as no surprise, therefore, that it pervades contemporary discourse concerning homosexuality.  In this context, the characterization of a certain lifestyle as chosen supposedly justifies our moral affirmations of that lifestyle.  As such, we must respect and uphold the choices of individuals to become gay, whether or not we ourselves would choose such a mode of life.  This line of thought can be either because choice itself is seen as valuable, or because homosexual relationships involve mutual consent (unlike lying or kleptomania).  Nevertheless, both of these alternatives are problematic.

To posit choice itself as valuable faces at least two serious difficulties.  First, choice alone underdetermines moral evaluations.  The simple fact that something was chosen does not mean that we ought to respect that choice.  Again, as with the two types of innateness above, one can conceive of lifestyles that are indeed chosen, but which are yet quite unethical.  Choice itself is without moral content; it is the object of a choice that can supply such content.  So, in morally evaluating homosexuality, it is to the objects of those choices, not the choices themselves, that we must attend.

Second, as philosopher Charles Taylor has noted, when we consider choice in itself as valuable, then the issue of sexual orientation becomes as trivial as, say, preferences for food.  “[W]hen one makes choice the crucial justifying reason,” writes Taylor, “the original goal, which was to assert the equal value of [homosexual] orientation, is subtly frustrated.  Difference so asserted becomes insignificant.”  Choice must rest upon a background of significance against which things take on the importance they do.  Indeed, even choice itself as valuable depends on there being something valuable about choice independent of my will.

This assertion of choice itself as valuable, however, is perhaps a position that relatively few proponents of homosexuality would hold explicitly.  They would instead argue that homosexuality is a lifestyle choice that takes into account the free choices of others; that homosexual relationships are, or ought to be, relationships based upon the consent of both parties.  But as with choice in itself, the valuation of choice as mutual consent is similarly problematic.  In the first place, this valuation merely displaces the problem of choice from a first- to a second- or third-person perspective.  But this is no solution to the difficulties delineated above.

Second, perhaps the primary problem with this “consent alone” justification is that mutual consent rests upon a wildly implausible and impoverished conception of the self.  To say that consent makes any action good implies that there is no structure to the self over and above what one chooses oneself to be; that the self is simply a disengaged, disembodied intellect, a ghostly ego floating free from all real-world moorings.  Yet this is absurd.  As human beings, we are fundamentally animals; we are, by nature, embodied agents at grips with the world.  Our bodies are not instruments of consciousness, but are rather constitutive of it.  We are our bodies.  And it is this fact that those who think about homosexuality, whether pro or con, ought to take into consideration.

The point of this article, then, is very deflationary and minimal; yet it is very important nonetheless.  The debate about the morality of homosexuality – or, more precisely, homosexual acts – should leave aside the unanswered question of whether one is born or becomes gay.  No answer to that question would affect our moral evaluations of homosexuality, whether positively or negatively.  Instead, the debate over homosexuality must be in terms of the human good, of sexual desire, and of our natures as essentially embodied social animals.  Only in this way can so important a debate have any chance of being resolved.

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