What is wrong with gay sex
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What is wrong with gay sex?
Philosophy Gym category:
Mr Jarvis, a Christian,
was asleep in bed, dreaming of the Last Judgement. In his dream, Jarvis
found himself seated next to God in a great cloud-swept hall. God had
just finished handing down judgement on the drunkards, who were slowly
shuffling out of the exit to the left. Angels were now ushering a group
of nervous-looking men through the entrance to the right. As the men were
assembled before Him, God began to speak.
God: So whos next? Ah, yes, the active homosexuals.
So tell me, Jarvis, what shall we do with them?
Jarvis: Youre going to punish them, arent
God: Why do you say that?
Jarvis: Because to engage in homosexual behaviour
is wrong, of course.
The Appeal to The Bible
God gently rubbed his chin and looked quizzically at Jarvis.
God. Wrong? Is it wrong?
Jarvis: Yes. You say so yourself in The Bible.
God: Ah. The Bible.
Jarvis: Yes. Look right here. "Thou shalt not
lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is an abomination." Leviticus
God. Well, I may have been a little hasty. Im
not sure about that bit now.
Jarvis. Not sure? Youre God! You dont
God: Perhaps I am not the real God. Perhaps Im
merely a dream God a figment of your imagination.
God. Also, why do you assume The Bible is one
hundred percent reliable?
Jarvis: You mean its not?
God: I didnt say that. But look, if you plan
entirely to base your morality on the contents of just one book, you had
better be sure it is the right book. And you had better be sure
to what extent it can be relied upon, hadnt you?
The Lord pointed to The Bible lying in Jarviss lap.
God: Flip forward a couple of pages. Scan down a bit.
Thats it. Leviticus 11.7-8 What does it say?
Jarvis: "And the swine, though he divide the
hoof; he is unclean to you. Of their flesh shall ye not eat."
God: Ever eaten a bacon sandwich? Then you have sinned!
Now a little further down.
Jarvis: "These shall ye eat of all that are in
the waters: whatsoever hath fins and scales in the waters, in the seas,
and in the rivers them shall ye eat. And all that have not fins and scales
ye shall not eat of their flesh."
Didnt your last meal include moules marinière?
Why arent you Christians out boycotting
seafood restaurants and warning of the perils of lobster thermidor?
Jarvis turned a little pale.
God: If you read over the page from the passage about
homosexuality, you will discover that its also wrong to wear a jacket
made from a linen/wool mix.
Jarvis: I hadnt noticed that bit before.
God: Further on it says its sinful to lend money
for interest. Yet you condemn not one of these things, do you?
God: But you confidently cite that particular passage
of Leviticus to justify your condemnation of homosexuality. It seems you
are picking and choosing.
Jarvis: But surely you no longer mean those other
passages about seafood, jackets and lending money to apply? Theyre
outdated, arent they?
God looked sternly at Jarvis.
God: The word of God? Outdated? Okay, I dont
blame you for failing to condemn those who wear jackets made from a linen/wool
mix. But youre using your own sense of right and wrong, your
own moral criteria, to decide which passages of The Bible
to accept and which to reject, arent you?
Jarvis: Yes, I guess I am.
God: Indeed, its because the morality of The
Bible does generally fit in with what you already think about
right and wrong that you are prepared to accept The Bible as my
word, isnt it? If The Bible recommended stealing, lying and
killing, you would hardly be likely to take it as My word, would you?
Jarvis: I guess not.
God: Then I think you should be honest. Rather than
picking those bits of The Bible you like and rejecting the rest,
and then claiming that your particular selection has my divine stamp of
approval, I think you should just say that you think homosexuality
is wrong and leave me out of it.
Jarvis: Very well.
God: Right, so if you believe homosexuality
is wrong, can you explain to me why its wrong? Why do these
men deserve punishment?
Homosexuality is unnatural
Jarvis looked out at the assembled crowd and scratched his head.
Jarvis: I didnt say you should punish them.
Perhaps they should be forgiven. But they have sinned. I can give
you a number of reasons why.
God: What reasons?
Jarvis: The first is that homosexuality is unnatural.
God: Ah. Thats perhaps the most commonly held
justification for condemning homosexual acts. But in what sense is homosexuality
Jarvis: Well, most people arent
actively homosexual. So homosexuality is an aberration from the norm.
God: In a sense. But then most men dont have
red hair. So red hair is also, as you put it, an aberration from the norm.
Yet there is nothing unnatural about red hair, is there?
Jarvis: True. What I mean is that homosexual acts
are unnatural because they are not what nature intended.
God: Not what nature intended? Hmm. Again, you need
to clarify. Do you mean that homosexual acts run against those tendencies
that nature has instilled in man, those that come most naturally to him?
Jarvis: Yes, I suppose I do.
God: I see. But now what about cleanliness? Cleanliness
is next to Godliness, they say. Yet it hardly comes naturally to most
human beings does it? Children seem positively fond of dirt. Man, for
the most part, is pretty filthy, and doesnt much mind being so.
Your human obsession with hygiene is a very modern development. But then,
by your own reasoning, cleanliness is morally wrong.
Jarvis: Oh dear.
God. Indeed, much that comes naturally to man is immoral.
But he also seems naturally inclined towards greed, avarice, selfishness,
infidelity and aggression. Humans have to struggle to control these natural
inclinations. In fact its only those who succeed in thwarting these
repugnant natural tendencies that are considered virtuous. Yet you would
now reverse this and say that these tendencies, being natural, are good
and what runs against them bad! Let me introduce you to someone.
Suddenly, Jarvis felt another person sitting close by. He turned to his
right and saw a bald, serious-looking man dressed in a dark suit.
God: This is John Stuart Mill, who lived from 1806
to 1873. Mill here didnt always give me a good press. In fact meeting
me came as something of a surprise to you, didnt it Mill?
Mill smiled nervously.
God: But he does has something interesting
to say about what is natural. Dont you Mill?
Mill: Conformity to nature, has no connection whatever
with right and wrong
.To illustrate this point, let us consider the
phrase by which the greatest intensity of condemnatory feeling is conveyed
in connection with the idea of nature the word unnatural. That
a thing is unnatural, in any precise meaning which can be attached to
the word, is no argument for its being blameable; since the most criminal
actions are to a being like man, not more unnatural than most of the virtues.
No sooner had Mill finished speaking than he vanished in a puff of smoke.
God: A fine mind, that Mill. So what do you say now?
Jarvis looked a little irritated. He remained convinced that there is
something unnatural about homosexuality, something that makes it
morally wrong. But he was struggling very hard to identify exactly what
this unnatural and immoral feature is. Then, after a few minutes, Jarvis
had an idea.
Jarvis. I have it! The penis has a specific function,
doesnt it? Its designed for procreation: for the production
of children. Homosexual activity is thus a misuse of that particular body
part. One is using a body part contrary to the way nature intended.
God: I see. But then most sexual activity is
morally wrong. For most sexual activity even heterosexual activity
involves the thwarting of the procreative natural function. Masturbation
is sinful: it cannot result in the production of children. Oral sex is
sinful. The use of any sort of contraceptive device is sinful. Is that
what you believe?
Jarvis: Its certainly what many Catholics believe,
God: True. But look, if the justification for considering
all these sorts of sexual activity sinful is that they involve
using body parts contrary to their "natural" function, then
what about, say, wearing earrings? It hardly looks like a "natural"
use of the ears, does it, hanging lumps of metal off them? Yet its
not considered sinful. No doubt you would deny that wearing earrings involves,
as you said, using a body part "contrary to its basic, essential
function". But why?
Jarvis: Im not sure.
God: And in any case, the question remains: Why
is it wrong to use a body part contrary to its basic natural function?
I just dont see why it follows that if something comes unnaturally
to us, or to a part of our body, then its wrong.
Homosexuality is dirty
Jarvis was struggling to answer Gods question adequately. So he
decides to try a different tack.
Jarvis: Okay. Suppose I accept that Mill is correct.
Morality has nothing to do with whats "natural" or "unnatural".
Still theres another much more obvious and better reason for condemning
homosexual practices. I hope you wont be offended if I speak frankly.
God: Be as frank as you like.
Jarvis: Very well. Homosexuality is dirty,
isnt it? Sodomy placing ones penis in someone elses
anus means that it is probable that one will come into contact
God. What you say about sodomy is true. But does this
show that all homosexual acts are wrong? No, it doesnt. There
are plenty of active homosexuals who dont practise sodomy. You cant
condemn them, can you?
God: Also, there are heterosexual couples that practise
sodomy, arent there?
Jarvis: There are?
God. Take my word for it. But in any case, just because
an activity is dirty doesnt make it wrong.
Jarvis: Why not?
God: Youre a keen gardener, arent you?
God: Well, gardening is a pretty dirty activity, isnt
it? Particularly where you live. There is rarely a day you spend in the
garden that doesnt result in you immersing your hands in cat faeces,
Jarvis: I guess thats true. You are right. Gardening
is dirty, but its not immoral. So I cant really use the alleged
dirtiness of sodomy to justify my morally condemning it, can I?
God: Youre catching on, my boy.
Homosexuality is unhealthy
Jarvis now tried a different tack.
Jarvis: To engage in homosexual activity is unhealthy.
Thats why its wrong.
God: Yes. Take HIV for example. HIV is an infection
that results in AIDS. AIDS kills millions of people. And it is through
homosexual activity that HIV is spread. Correct?
God: You are partially correct. HIV can be spread
through all forms of penetrative sex. Indeed, many heterosexuals
are infected too.
Jarvis: Thats true.
God: Also, homosexuals may practise safe sex. Heterosexuals
too. Practice safe sex and the risks are pretty low.
Jarvis: Hmm. Also true, I guess.
God: Perhaps its true that homosexual acts are
more likely to pass on the disease than are heterosexual acts,
even if they are of the comparatively "safe" variety. But does
that make it wrong? If it were found that drinking wine is similarly a
bit less healthy than drinking beer, we wouldnt morally condemn
those wine drinkers who refused to switch to beer, would we?
Jarvis: I guess not.
Homosexuality corrupts the young
Jarvis: But what of homosexuals who prey on innocent
young men? Thats wrong, isnt it?
God: But its no less wrong when men seek to
seduce innocent and impressionable young women, surely?
Jarvis: Well, yes, that is wrong too. But what the
homosexual seducer does is more wrong.
Jarvis: Well, because the young man involved may then
end up adopting a homosexual lifestyle himself. He may be corrupted.
God: Youre assuming, I think, that homosexuals
tend to be made, not born. Thats contentious, is it not?
Jarvis: Well, isnt it plausible that some men
who would, other things being equal, go on to have only heterosexual sexual
relationships may have a tendency towards homosexuality that, given
the wrong sort of experience at an impressionable age, may result in them
then pursuing homosexual liaisons later in life?
God: Thats not implausible. But notice that
youre begging the question. If theres nothing morally
wrong with homosexuality, then what difference does it make if a young
man does end up engaging in homosexual acts? Why insist that this
young man is corrupted?
Jarvis: Well, homosexuals live miserable lives. In
many societies they continue to be vilified. So, as a result of his early
homosexual experience, this young man may end up having an unhappy life.
The homosexual who initiates the young man into this life must know this.
So what the initiator does is wrong.
God: Perhaps. But even if what you say is true, is
the blame for the young mans misery to be pinned primarily on the
homosexual who initiates him?
God pointed an accusatory finger at Jarvis.
God: Wouldnt it be more appropriate to blame
people like you for making homosexuals miserable by vilifying them?
Homosexuals are promiscuous
Jarvis didnt bother to answer Gods question. Instead, he
pointed out something about male homosexuals that does appear to be true.
Jarvis: Male homosexuals tend to be rather more promiscuous
than heterosexuals. Doesnt that, at least, make them worthy of your
God: This, at best, would give me reason to condemn
those homosexuals that were promiscuous. It would not justify my condemning
homosexual acts per se. In fact there are many homosexual couples
that remain faithful throughout their lives. And plenty of heterosexuals
are promiscuous too.
Jarvis: True. But homosexuals tend to be more
God: In fact, theres a scientific explanation
for that. Males seem naturally much more disposed towards having no-strings
sex than do females. Ask heterosexual men if they would accept the offer
of no-risk, no-strings sex with an attractive stranger of the opposite
sex and over 90% say "yes". Ask heterosexual women the same
question and the vast majority say "no".
Jarvis: Thats interesting.
God. Yes. So you see, in heterosexual relationships,
women act as a natural brake on the males impulse to have sex fairly
indiscriminately. For male homosexuals this brake is missing. It is unsuprising,
then, that they tend to be more promiscuous than are heterosexual males.
Its not that they are any less moral. Its just that
they have more opportunity to do what most men, whatever
their sexual persuasion, would do given the opportunity.
Jarvis: Nevertheless, you admit that male homosexuals
do tend to be more promiscuous, and promiscuity is not to be encouraged.
So male homosexuality is not to be encouraged, surely.
God: Your argument rests on the assumption that promiscuity
is itself a bad thing. But is it?
Jarvis: Isnt it?
God: Can you explain to me why you think it is?
Homosexuals use each other as means, not ends
Jarvis: Well, take for example those bathhouses in
San Francisco. You know, the ones in which homosexual orgies are supposed
to have taken place. Men having sex with complete strangers at the drop
of a hat. These men would be treating other men not as ends in themselves,
but merely as a means to an end, that end being their own immediate
sexual gratification. Now that is morally wrong, surely. It was
the philosopher Kant (1724-1804) who said: "Act so that you treat
humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as
an end and never as a means only." And that is quite right, isnt
it? One ought to treat others as ends in themselves, rather than as the
means by which one might obtain a quick sexual thrill. That, surely, is
why such promiscuous behaviour is wrong.
God: An ingenious argument, I admit. But not persuasive.
Let me conjure up for you another philosopher, Lord Quinton (1925- ),
who has something interesting to say on this matter.
A figure began to materialize to Jarviss right. First some hands
appeared; then a nose. Finally, there was Anthony Quinton standing before
him (Quinton, incidentally, bears an uncanny resemblance to God).
God: Ah. Lord Quinton. My friend Jarvis just suggested
that it is wrong to use another person not as an end in themselves, but
merely as a means to sexual pleasure. Homosexuals are less likely to enter
into lasting, monogomous sexual relationships. They are, perhaps, more
likely to engage in casual sex with a complete stranger, on a whim. Is
it that a problem, morally?
Quinton: It is certainly true that long-term, morally
and personally profound relationships are less common among homosexuals.
How much does that matter? If I regularly play tennis with someone but
do not see him except on the tennis court and at the health juice bar
afterwards, if, in other words, I am interested in him only as a tennis
partner, am I ignoring his status as an end in himself? More to the point,
if I pick up different opponents every time I go to the courts, on a purely
casual basis, am I acting immorally?
Jarvis: But hang on. Sex is not like tennis is it?
Sex is a much more important part of life, surely.
Quinton: Except for a minute number of people sex
is a more important part of life than tennis. A life in which it is merely
a source of short-term gratification and not an inseparable part of a
whole shared life is to that extent trivialised. But triviality is not
a moral offence; it is, rather, a missed opportunity and one which, in
fact, many homosexuals do not miss.
God waved his hand and Lord Quinton began to dissolve into tendrils of
cloud. As the last wisps drifted away, God looked intently at Jarvis.
God: So you see, it may be true that some homosexuals
use each other as means to an end and not as ends in themselves. But,
as Quinton just explained, its difficult to see why there is anything
morally wrong with that. It may also be true that some homosexuals
miss out on the kind of deeper connection that can be made only within
a stable, lasting and sexually exclusive relationship. However, as Quinton
also just explained, this is surely not a reason morally to condemn them.
Jarvis scratched his head. He now felt very confused.
Jarvis: But I felt sure that you would condemn homosexuality.
God: If two consenting adult males want to enter into
a sexual relationship, why not? So far you have not given me a single
convincing reason why such activity demands my condemnation. Homosexual
sex does no harm to others. Nor does it appear to do much obvious harm
to the individuals involved. Why shouldnt people engage in it if
that is what they want?
Homosexuality and "family values"
Jarvis: You say that homosexuality does no harm to
others. But perhaps it does. Perhaps it has a corrosive effect on society
as a whole. For doesnt it eat away at the institution that lies
at the heart of any civilized society: the family?
God: Why do you say that?
Jarvis: Well, for a start, if everyone was exclusively
homosexual, then there would be no families, would there? The human race
would die out!
God: Does that make homosexuality wrong? I think not.
For, similarly, if every man became a Catholic Priest, that too would
mean the end of the family. Yet theres nothing immoral about being
a Catholic Priest, I hope?
Jarvis: No. But look, societies that fail to condemn
homosexuality crumble. Once homosexuality is considered a morally acceptable
alternative to heterosexuality, the result must be the breakdown of the
family. And the family is the glue that binds society together, is it
God: You seem to be suggesting that homosexuality
is like some sort of disease that will inevitably eat away at the vitals
of society unless strongly dealt with.
Jarvis: Yes, I am.
God: But why must a society that tolerates
homosexuality crumble? Actually, it seems to me that societies tolerant
of homosexuality thrive just as much if not more than intolerant ones.
And why do you believe homosexuality is a threat to the family?
Why cant we have both strong families and tolerance? You
really have made no case for any of these conclusions, have you?
God: In fact, it seems to me that your attitude towards
homosexuals is driven less by reason and more by emotion: by feelings
of disgust and revulsion.
Jarvis: I do have strong feelings about them, yes.
They do revolt me. And shouldnt society take into account the strong
moral convictions of the great many who have such feelings?
God: But its clear, isnt it, that morality
isnt simply a matter of emotion? Just because most people feel that
something is disgusting or abhorrent doesnt make it wrong. After
all, plenty of people feel strongly about the moral inferiority of Jews.
Plenty feel similarly about blacks. Plenty feel sickened by foreigners.
Yet all these feelings are without justification. That kind of "them
and us" sentiment on which "they" are held to be dirty,
nasty and immoral comes very naturally to you humans. Perhaps you should
be more vigilant, more on your guard against letting such feelings get
a grip. As Ronald Dworkin points out, you certainly shouldnt mistake
such feelings for moral conviction. Isnt that right, Ronald?
Another shadowy figure started to take form next to Jarvis and began
Dworkin: If I base my view about homosexuals on a
personal emotional reaction (they make me sick) you would
reject [it]. We distinguish moral positions from emotional reactions,
not because moral positions are supposed to be unemotional or dispassionate
quite the reverse is true but because the moral position
is supposed to justify the emotional reaction, and not vice versa. If
a man is unable to produce such reasons, we do not deny the fact of his
emotional involvement, which may have important social or political consequences,
but we do not take this involvement as demonstrating his moral conviction.
Indeed, it is just this sort of position a severe emotional reaction
to a practice or a situation for which one cannot account that
we tend to describe, in lay terms, as phobias or an obsession.
Jarvis looked uncomfortable.
God: See? Youre in the grip of a phobia or obsession.
Jarvis: Oh dear.
God: Having said all that, lets get on with
God reached forward and pressed a small red button on his armrest. Immediately,
the hall was bathed in an eerie red light and the air filled with the
deafening "Parp! Parp! Parp!" of a claxon. Jarvis noticed that
over on the left of the hall a number of doors had sprung open and little
horned creatures with long tails were pouring out. These devil-creatures
immediately began to prod the assembled homosexuals back in the direction
of the doorways with their spiked forks. Many of these unfortunate men
were now holding each other and whimpering.
God: Thats right. You all burn.
Jarvis: In hell?
God: Im afraid so. They didnt follow instructions.
Couldnt be clearer. You pointed out one of the relevant passages
yourself. Homosexuality is an abomination. I razed Sodom to ground, didnt
Jarvis: But a minute ago you said
God: I have been testing you. I have pretended to
be a bleeding-heart liberal in order to establish your commitment to The
Bible. I do tests. Dont you remember Isaac and Abraham
Jarvis: But what about forgiveness? Arent you
going to allow them into heaven?
God pointed to the men being herded about by the devil-creatures
God: Let them into heaven? How can I?
Jarvis: But I thought...
God: There you go, thinking again. Its all in
the book: The book you hold in your hands. Take a look at Corinthians,
1, 6:9-11. It says very clearly that abusers of themselves with
shall not inherit the Kingdom of God. Such were some of you,
but ye are washed
ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus.
Now these men are not washed are they? They dont
repent. In fact, they flaunt their activities proudly before us.
That one even has a Gay Pride banner.
There was indeed a worried looking man standing at
the front with a slightly droopy cardboard placard.
God: Its all very clear: they go to hell.
God: Rules are rules. So whos next? Ah yes,
the lobster eaters. Come on down!
At this Jarvis woke up, his bed soaked in sweat.
NB. Lest some Christians take offence at my portrayal of God, I should
stress that this was all but Jarviss dream. No doubt the real God
would behave quite differently.
What to read next?
Chapter XX "Does Morality Depend on God and Religion?" raises
some of the same issues discussed in this chapter, including the role
of religious texts in justifying ethical positions.
The following are all fairly accessible and relevant:
Dworkin, Liberty and Moralism, chpt 11 of Taking Rights
Seriously, (London: Duckworth, 1977).
Stuart Mill: "Nature" in Three Essays on Religion (New
York: Prometheus, 1998)
Quinton, "Homosexuality", in From Wodehouse to Wittgenstein
(London: Carcane, 1998).