Homosexuality, Post 5: Science? So What?

What does the Scientific Research Mean for Moral Decision-making?

Biological arguments have been used to undercut moral arguments:  Suggestions that people are homosexual because they “are born that way[1]” are used in debate to undercut moral arguments that homosexuality is wrong.  “How can it be wrong”, people ask, “if homosexual people cannot be any different – this is simply the way they are.”  In Christian terms this is often phrased along the lines of “God made me gay, and what God makes is good.[2]

The Consequences of making biology = ‘good’

Several conservative commentators have argued that if we accept an apparently inborn homosexual desire to be the ultimate arbiter of what is right, then wouldn’t we have to extend the same courtesy to those who experience paedophile or bestial desires (Torrance 2000, 178-180)?  The response to this is readily apparent, however, in that those forms of sexual activity are by nature non-reciprocal, with an inherent inequality between the participants.  Another argument, that lacks the same emotional force but carries greater validity, is that if a subjective ‘quality of relationship’ criteria (it makes us feel good) was made into the primary or even only criteria for the test of a good relationship, then adultery, polygamy, premarital relationships and other consenting adult sexual relationships could be justified (Coleman 1989, 190), and yet we still see these relationships as improper despite their meeting criteria for being mutual and satisfying.  The real challenge comes when we are asked to consider a relationship that is committed (even legally sanctioned), honest, mutual, exclusive of all others, and homosexual.

Moral Conservatives don’t accept that biological facts should determine moral arguments: Biological (or “God made me Gay”) arguments have been an effective tool in public debate, but it is a little short of the full picture.  Moral conservatives and gay activists have both taken issue with the idea of biological determinism – the ‘born that way’ argument.  While some conservatives have simply denied any notion of biological determinism[3] (and some have even done so on scientific grounds![4]) in order to maintain that homosexuality is a moral failing, other conservatives have accepted the scientific findings, but tend to say that “we can’t argue from an is to an ought[5]” – in other words, we can’t say something is good simply because it exists.  Cancer exists.  So does multiple sclerosis.  These are biological conditions.  We don’t call them good simply because they are biological.  People are born with many different forms of disability, and we don’t call their condition good simply because they are born that way.  We know that there is a genetic predisposition towards addictions of various forms, and we don’t accept that addictions are natural or right[6].  Further, Christian moralists argue that we are all “born that way” – that is, in sin.  The Christian story is not just a story of God’s good creation, but also of that creation twisted out of true alignment by human sin.  The doctrine of the fall teaches us that no aspect of human existence is free from the taint of sin, and no individual is born onto a level playing field as a free moral agent; the tragedy of the human story is that the race of Adam is hopelessly enslaved to sin.  Homosexual orientation, by this view, is simply one expression in the human race of the tragedy of the fall, no less (and no more) than any other congenital difficulty.

Gay activists are also very cautious about Biological determinism:  Gay activists have also been very cautious about research suggesting biological determinism[7].  One reason is concern for human rights abuses; several studies have tended to suggest that homosexual preference is a malfunction of some aspect of neurology or endocrinology, and that children could be identified as gay then ‘fixed’ by medical or genetic procedures – or aborted to prevent the birth of gay people[8].  For gay activists, these options are deeply worrying.  Another concern arises out of the fact that most people see a significant role for socialisation in the development of sexuality.  This implies some element of choice, and gay activists argue for their right to make ‘choices’ in regard to their sexuality – sometimes at the same time as they argue that they are ‘born that way’![9]  Few of us are comfortable with the argument that we are simply puppets of our genes – or of our hormones, our position in our family, our early child-hood experiences, the size of our amygdale, or the functioning of our hypothalamus.

Different Forms of Homosexuality in Different Cultures

David Greenberg, a gay rights advocate, has written extensively about the social construction of homosexuality through history.  He discovered four general types of homosexual behaviour:

  • intergenerational, in which boys or young men are desired as sex objects by older men.
  • class structured, in which a lower-class or caste is expected to provide sexual services
  • transgenderal, in which one partner adopts the identity of the opposite sex,
  • egalitarian …The practice of same-sex behaviour between two consenting adults, the western model, is relatively new on the world scene…

 W. P. Campbell (2010, 85)


It is important to distinguish carefully between different aspects of homosexuality:  At this point it is helpful to distinguish again between homosexual attractions, activity, and identity.  It is clear that there are many different factors that impact upon the development of these three facets of homosexuality.  For example, while biological factors may have a strong impact upon the orientation of sexual desire, the notion of homosexual identity, by contrast, is very clearly a cultural construct, as homosexual behaviour is widely diverse across cultures.  One often-quoted study of a New Guinea tribe described how all boys are expected to perform sexual acts upon unmarried males in order to develop true masculinity.  Once young men are married, they are expected to function in an exclusively heterosexual way[10].  Similarly, a great deal is known about the high regard classical Greek culture held for male beauty and companionship, and the normative expression of this in pederastic relationships[11].   Clearly there is a role for culture and social expectations in shaping homosexual identity, and thus activity.  These are the favourite arguments of those who argue for a social constructionist perspective.  It should be noted, however, that while these observations have been used to cast doubt on the validity of notions of homosexual ‘nature’, they can equally be used to cast doubt upon notions of heterosexuality as ‘natural’[12]!

Blurring distinctions undermines argument.

This distinction is sometimes blurred in favour of point-scoring; for instance, in the following excerpt, the writer does not distinguish between homosexual desires, and homosexual activities and identity.  W. P. Campbell (2010, 85) writes: Geneticists tell us that if homosexuality or any such behavioural trait …were determined by genes it would appear in every major culture.  Yet researchers Clellan Ford and Frank Beach found homosexuality rare or absent in twenty nine out of seventy nine cultures surveyed.

Campbell wants to claim that homosexuality is a lifestyle choice rather than an innate (and difficult-to-change) orientation.  However, because Campbell ignores the difference between attraction and activity/identity, those who oppose his arguments can easily say that he’s ignoring the possibility that those who are innately homosexual simply suppress their attraction in cultures that don’t provide any legitimate or safe means for expressing it.

The conclusion we should draw from this is not that some aspects of homosexuality are biologically fixed and unchangeable (though that is possible), or that others are merely culturally determined and therefore malleable[13] (though that is likely), but simply that homosexuality is a complex phenomena and one that defies simplistic cause-and-effect formulas.

[1] The refrain from a popular song linked strongly to gay activism.

[2] (McNeill 1994, 50) (Lowe 2001, 5)

[3] (Consiglio 1991)

[4] (Jones and Yarhouse 2000)

[5] (Hays 1996, 398)

[6] The ‘alcoholism’ analogy is often raised by those opposing homosexuality e.g. (Hays 1996, 398); against this Siker says “Most persons with a homosexual orientation do not recognise themselves in the analogy” (Siker 1994, 183), since, as Lowe says, “The evil of alcoholism is readily apparent, but homosexual love is positively good.” (Lowe 2001, 5)

[7] (Byne 1994)

[8] (Burr 1994)

[9] (Guy 2002, 158)

[10] (the 1981 report of Gilbert Herdt, Guardians of the Flutes, (NY, McGraw-Hill) quoted in (for example) Jones and Yarhouse, 2007, pg 206-7)

[11] see esp. (Scroggs 1983)

[12] (Grenz 1998, 13-33)

[13] In fact learned behaviours can be almost as unchangeable as those that are biologically determined (Byne 1994)


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