Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Sexual orientation

Consider the following two claims that some people seem to accept:

  1. Same-sex and opposite-sex sexual relationships are on par.
  2. Heterosexuality, homosexuality and bisexuality are on par, and persons of one orientation do not have reason to try to change to another.
I don't know what exactly "on par" here means—I think it's some combination of morally on par, should be treated equally by society, equally valuable and equally normal.

I will argue that (1) and (2) are in tension.

Suppose that George is sexually attracted to people, male or female, of a particular ethnicity, and not at all towards anybody, male or female, of any other ethnicity. We would think this weird and maybe just a little perverted even if we accepted (1) and (2). After all, why should George limit his romantic options to members of a particular ethnicity? Indeed, his attitude would border on racism. Granted, if George hadn't done anything to choose his pattern of sexual attraction, and couldn't overcome it, we would not morally criticize George for his limiting his sexual interest to that ethnicity. But there would still seem to be something wrong with George.

I am not talking here of a mere preference. Perhaps there is nothing wrong with an Elbonian preferring Elbonians. But to be unable to be sexually interested in anybody but Elbonians is limiting, unfortunate, not quite right. And it is particularly odd if one isn't Elbonian oneself. It is certainly sub-optimal, given that sexual relationships with Elbonians are on par with sexual relationships with non-Elbonians, and it is not a good idea to have artificial limits in the difficult task of finding a suitable romantic partner. Furthermore, if George were not in a relationship, and there were a pill that had no side-effects and could remove the limitation, it would be reasonable for George to take the pill, at least assuming (1).

But the heterosexual or homosexual is in a similar state to George. The heterosexual man and homosexual woman is limited in sexual attraction to to women. The homosexual man and heterosexual woman is limited in sexual attraction to men. If same-sex and opposite-sex sexual relationships are on par (as per (1)), then there is something sub-optimal in value here—an odd limiting of possible partners on the basis of a quality, maleness or femaleness, that is basically irrelevant to sexual relationships according to (1). So, if (1) holds, then there is something not quite right with homosexuality and with homosexuality—it is a limiting of the relational options. Moreover, there would be reason to change one's orientation to bisexuality if one could do so easily and with no side-effects, thereby removing that restriction.

Thus, if (1) holds, bisexuality has a privileged status among sexual orientations, and, in particular, (2) is false.

One can, of course, contrapose the argument—and I think one should. If bisexuality does not have a privileged status among sexual orientations, then (1) is false.


J said...
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J said...

Never mind... I didn't read very carefully there the first time around. Your point was just that (1) was in tension with (2), just as many other positions would be in tension with (2). Sorry for the confusion.

J said...
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Dannac said...

I've often thought that bisexuality is a problem for sexual relativists. This seems to be a fairly strong argument.

Steve said...

Doesn’t this depend on your mixed definition of ‘on a par’ at the beginning of your post? I’m not sure it works if we try to be a bit more specific.

If hetero-, homo- and bisexual relationships have the same moral worth, then bisexuality is practically/instrumentally better with regards to finding a relationship that works, because it doesn’t limit one’s options. In other words, if 1 is correct in the ‘moral worth’ sense of ‘on a par’, then 2 is false in the ‘practical/instrumental’ sense of ‘on a par’. Where’s the tension?

I do take it that in 1 you mean ‘moral worth’ by ‘on a par’ because for your final counterposition of ‘bisexuality has a privileged status among sexual orientations’ to be reasonable, I take it that this has to be about the moral value of the different orientations.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Well, the vague definition of "on par" that I gave involved a conjunction of features. It seems difficult to hold that both the relationships and orientations are on par in respect of all of these features. So I think your suggestion is compatible with what I argue for.

Perhaps, then, your suggestion is that the tension is easily alleviated by saying that the relationships are equal morally and that the orientations are equal morally but not pragmatically.

Still, I think the point is a little more than pragmatic. There is something wrong with George. He is being held back from human flourishing through an irrational limitation on his relationships. Think of something closer to a real-life case. I had an Asian student say in class how annoying it was that there were all these men--from the context, I assume white men--who were interested in her solely because she was Asian.

There is something wrong with a white man who is only interested in Asian women. Is it something morally wrong? Well, that may depend on how responsible he is for these attitudes. But even if he is not at all responsible for them, there is still something wrong with him in the sense that he has an attitude that he would have a moral reason to change if he could change it, because the attitude stands in the way of human flourishing (both his own, and potentially that of others).

Timn said...

Perhaps an "identity" theory of sexual orientation would remove some of the tension between (1) and (2). So far as I understand such a theory, it asserts that sexual orientation is a logically necessary feature of every individual: that is, switching teams involves becoming a completely different person. This theory narrows the search space for optimal relationships since there is no possible world where anyone's sexual orientation is different from what it is in this one.

I can't resist remarking that the identity theory, though horribly overstated and simplistic, is not entirely incorrect. In particular, Fr. John Harvey has noted the existence of individuals who never succeed in changing their orientation even though they lead holy and chaste lives.

Steve said...

Hi AP,

I think you are suggesting that 1 implies 3 (see below), which is in contradiction to 2, meaning that 1 and 2 are in contradiction, in contrast to first impressions. But your analogy seems to be providing a lot of the support for 3 here: 3 is not implied by 1 alone. So in fact we have 3 in contradiction to 2, and not 1.

1. Same-sex and opposite-sex sexual relationships are on par.
2. Heterosexuality, homosexuality and bisexuality are on par, and persons of one orientation do not have reason to try to change to another.
3. The non-bisexual is deficient

However, let’s ignore this and allow that your analogy in fact sets up the tension you require in your contraposition of 1 and 2. At the end of your post, you seem to want to assert that bisexuality does not have a privileged status amongst sexual orientations and conclude as a result that 1 is false. Are we able to do this? The only way we created any real tension between 1 and 2 was by claiming that bisexuality IS superior to homo- and heterosexuality in a more-than-pragmatic sense.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I think the identity theory is wrong for the simple reason that it seems very plausible to me that enough immoral surgery, brainwashing and chemical therapy could turn anybody into an asexual. After all, people can lose interest in sex after brain injury, or even with age. And yet they do survive these changes.

Can one imagine going to Chase and saying: "When that romantic getaway vacation was put on my credit card, it was paid for by a heterosexual (or homosexual or bisexual). But now I have no interest in sexual things. So I'm a different person--an asexual--from the one who charged the vacation to the card. You shouldn't hold me responsible for this. In fact, it's not even my card, though by coincidence I have the same name and social security number as that heterosexual did."

Alexander R Pruss said...


Yeah, the reason I used the word "tension" rather than "contradiction" was that to generate a contradiction, one needs to bring in some additional claim. However, these additional claims are largely uncontroversial between the adherents of (1) and (2), and the opponents of (1) and (2), so they seem a fair thing to do.

My final remarks relate to the fact that one can escape the argument by saying that opposite-sex sexual relationships are objectively preferable to same-sex ones, or vice versa. This would be a denial of (1). The argument for the objective preferability of bisexuality then fails, because sometimes adding a dispreferable option is not a good thing, as it might tempt one to go for the dispreferable option, and fail to focus one's efforts on the preferable ones.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I just realized that the last remark does entail the denial of (2). I think (2) just has to go, no matter what one thinks about (1). :-)

Timn said...

Wait a second. Functional asexuality (what comes about by old age) does not change orientation. Brain injury changes identity. So does brainwashing.

In any case, the extreme identity theory I proposed was only a simple model. I cited Harvey to show one way of fixing it up. Your objections suggest another: all possible worlds are unhappy where sexual orientations are different from what they are in this.

Or one could say that sexual orientation is only essential for some. If it is essential to anyone, then it is essential to gay activists. Then it would only make sense for activists to claim (1) and (2), since the claims say something truthful regarding the activists' situation in the world

Alexander R Pruss said...

Surely, brain injury doesn't change identity. Consider the fact that we compensate people for brain injury to the degree to which the injury caused them to lose function that they had before. This wouldn't make sense if the person who existed before was someone else--why compensate people for the difference between their functioning and that of an ancestor? In fact, the brain injured patient, on the no-identity view of brain injury, should be grateful for the brain injury, because she wouldn't have existed had the injury not happened.

The happy and unhappy worlds story is a much better take. It would go with a claim that although bisexuality is in fact objectively better, nonetheless one cannot have it except at a cost of unhappiness that is not worth it. That still denies (2), but does something to make (2)'s defenders happier with that denial.

(On reflection, I am not sure even the identity claims help. For one can say that something would be better for one even if it is impossible for one. Here's a case. Suppose you're conceived at a time at which everybody is miserable. It would be better for you had you been conceived in a different era, even though it would have been impossible that you are conceived in a different era.)

Timn said...

A dualist would say that the dramatic personality changes following brain injury in, say, the film Regarding Henry represented a change in identity. You seem to locate personal identity in the physical body. This is very Thomistic of you, and that makes me suspect that my ideas have a taken a wrong turn.

On the other hand, I don't understand why you're fiddling around trying to figure out the moral status of relationships and orientations. Isn't it enough merely to point out that unnatural acts are evil regardless of the sex of the people involved? Why do gay people need to be told that their condition is objectively inferior? Is it helpful? Does it draw them to the Faith?

For the last example, I would say that we certainly understand what the person means, though we know--for the reason you pointed out--that what he says is incorrect.

Alexander R Pruss said...

If it is not the case that the relationships are on par, this could damage the case for same-sex marriage.

A further thing I am hoping to get people to think about is the question whether the difference between maleness and femaleness is objectively a significant one or not. If it is insignificant, then a sexual preference for members of one sex rather than another is like a sexual preference for a particular hair color. And in that case, being heterosexual or homosexual is like being someone who can only be sexually interested in people of one particular hair color. I don't think it is like that, though. So, the difference between maleness and femaleness is significant. But if it is significant, then it is no longer a consequence of simple equality considerations that male-male, female-female and female-male relationships are all on par. Of course, to expand that out into something of real interest, one would have to work out what "significant" means here.

My posts are rarely intended to accomplish something big. They are my attempt to work out various aspects of the various problems I am working on. Some provide a decisive argument against some position. Some provide a consideration that nudges one in a certain way that I think, perhaps wrongly, might advance the discussion.

Occasionally, the main idea of a post is pulled out, written up formally, and submitted for publication. This is not going to be one of those, I expect.

Anonymous said...

Is there a typo in your post? Should,
"...not quite right with homosexuality and with homosexuality..." read "not quite right with homosexuality and with heterosexuality..."?

BTW, your argument is interesting if not compelling.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Yeah, you caught the typo. That's a neat Freudian slip on my part. :-)