Rationally Speaking

A monthly e-column by Massimo Pigliucci
Department of Botany, University of Tennessee

N. 42, October 2003

Bush, the Pope, and gay rights


George Bush (the Second) has recently called for legislative action to prohibit gay marriages, something that--thanks to initiatives in Canada and a few US states--is becoming a real (and apparently threatening to some) possibility in this country. Bush’s position is that he “believes” that a marriage is, by definition, the union of a man and a woman. Ergo, gay marriages are an oxymoron. Of course, one could point out that definitions are arbitrary human concepts (unless they are part of mathematical proofs, which ain’t the case here). But that would be pointless, since we all know where Bush gets his belief: from his reading of the Bible, apparently still shared by a majority of Americans.

In this George II is not alone. The Pope himself agrees that gay unions are abominations, but his reasoning is a bit more sophisticated (as one would expect), and yet fundamentally fallacious. John Paul II has stated that the reason gay marriages shouldn’t be allowed is because they are “unnatural,” and they are unnatural because they do not lead to procreation. Well, it is hard to disagree with the observation that gay unions don’t produce biological offspring, although the term “unnatural” hardly applies, because a lot of unions in nature--human and not--don’t yield progeny (e.g., bonobos, the pigmy chimpanzees, have sex in order to mend social relationships. If only we would follow such a wise example!). But let us concede for the sake of argument (and only as a purely intellectual exercise) that sex without at least the intent of procreation is “unnatural.” To then claim that it should be prohibited because immoral, is a flagrant example of what philosophers call the naturalistic fallacy.

David Hume, in his A Treatise of Human Nature (1739), pointed out that there is no logical connection between what is (in nature) and what ought to be (in human morality). In other words, as both Bush and the Pope would probably readily admit if the point were pressed on them, just because something is not natural it doesn’t follow that it is immoral. Surely, flying (in airplanes, as both George and John Paul regularly do) is not natural for human beings, but I doubt either of them is going to call for a ban on air travel on moral grounds any time soon. Closer to the moral realm, although plenty of animals engage in limited forms of altruism--usually directed at close kins--there is no natural equivalent of organized charities, on which the Catholic Church heavily depends, and which Bush thinks is the answer to anything except war.

Ironically, a similar fallacy is sometimes committed by advocates of gay rights. While initially resistant to a biological interpretation of their sexual preferences, sectors of the gay community have recently been emphasizing research purportedly showing that homosexuality has at least in part a genetic component. Such research is controversial (scientifically, not morally) in itself, since it is often based on small samples, and since the genetic component may account for only a fraction of the variation in sexual orientation in the human population. Be that as it may, a homosexual could point to genetical studies to claim that his/her orientation is part of the biological range of behaviors observable within the human species, and hence “natural.” Furthermore, one could argue that if homosexuality is biological, then it makes no more sense to ask a gay person to “convert” to heterosexuality than it does to pretend that somebody changes race (although, of course, the latter request would be rather unpopular even among conservatives today--gosh, could we really be making progress after all?).

But such biological “defense” of homosexuality is misguided for three important reasons. First, ample research has shown that just because a trait has a genetic basis, it does not follow that it is unalterable by changes in the environment, or through behavioral shifts. For example, we have a natural craving for fats and sugars but, as hard as it often is, we can avoid walking into McDonald’s, by a sheer act of will power. Second, a genetic basis for homosexuality would certainly make it “natural,” but religious conservatives could still argue that it is “wrong” because it is akin to a disease. After all, sickle cell anemia is natural, but it is something to fix, not to brag about.

However, the most important reason not to advocate a biological defense of the gay lifestyle is because one would fall into the same temptation that got the Pope, and against which Hume warned us: the naturalistic fallacy. Again: just because something is natural, it does not follow that it is good. We can determine by observation and study what is natural and what is not. But we need to arrive at moral rules by agreement (when possible), and tolerance (when the alleged “immoral” behavior does not actually hurt others).

Therefore, Bush’s personal beliefs about what “really” constitutes a marriage are (or should be) irrelevant, and the Pope (as well as his Protestant fundamentalist counterparts in the US) has no business deriving an ought from an is. Regardless of what biologists will continue to find out about homosexuality, rational philosophy is the best weapon in the fight for personal sexual choices.




© by Massimo Pigliucci, 2003