Thursday, March 22, 2007

Ethics and ineluctability

Robert Farley at Lawyers, Guns and Money wonders if it's morally or politically relevant whether homosexuality is or is not ineluctable. (Farley uses "genetic", but there are at least three biological mechanisms known to create ineluctable (unchangeable or inescapable) characteristics: genetics, embryonic development and imprinting.)

The answer is yes and no.

Under meta-ethical subjective relativism, the purpose of moral discourse and moral acts is to effect change—even to the extent (i.e. propaganda) of changing others' fundamental or primary moral beliefs, many of which are in fact changeable.

Richard Dawkins uses Basil Fawlty's abuse of his car [1] as an example of inappropriate moral behavior.
You probably remember many of you would have seen Fawlty Towers. The episode where Basil where his car won't start and he gives it fair warning, counts up to three, and then gets out of the car and picks up a tree branch and thrashes it within an edge of his life. Maybe that's what we all ought to... Maybe the way we laugh at Basil Fawlty, we ought to laugh in the same way at people who blame humans. I mean when we punish people for doing the most horrible murders, maybe the attitude we should take is "Oh they were just determined by their molecules."

(as quoted by The Discovery Institute. The quote sounds right, but if anyone has a better source (i.e. one with a shred of intellectual integrity) please let me know.)

Dawkins' interpretation here is overstated and unsupportable; he concludes that Basil's behavior is inappropriate because the failure of the car was determined; the car didn't somehow "choose" not to start. This interpretation is incorrect because—regardless of whether the car did or did not "choose" not to start—the car itself is still definitely at fault: Cars are supposed to start. There's a much simpler and non-metaphysical reason for the inappropriateness: verbally berating a car or hitting it with a tree branch is a ridiculously ineffective way to correct its inability to start. The scene is funny for a much more prosaic and non-metaphysical reason than Dawkins suggests.

It it obviously ridiculous and stupid to use an ineffective means to attempt to effect a change. In just the same way, it is trivially stupid to use moral discourse to condemn an ineluctable characteristic, because by definition it cannot be changed at all. The only way to "change" an ineluctable characteristic in humans is to kill everyone who exhibits that characteristic. Those of us a tad more sentimental than Hitler[2] will reject such a remedy, leaving us with nothing moral to say about the characteristic.

(Whether some particular characteristic is or is not ineluctable is, by the way, an empirical scientific question, not a philosophical question. There are many moral beliefs that are not ineluctable, that are changeable, including sexism, racism, and homophobia.)

It is just as pointless to morally condemn homosexuality by individual nature as it is to morally condemn pedophilia or sociopathy (lack of empathic feelings) by individual nature. Ineluctablity removes the characteristic itself from moral discourse, but does not entail that we cannot condemn the expression of that nature. One cannot choose one's nature, but one can choose whether or not to act on that nature. Homosexuality as a characteristic is off the moral table, but homosexual activity is still on it.

The ineluctability still entails some constraints, though. Since homosexuality as a characteristic is not morally discussable, it is therefore incoherent to condemn homosexual activity just because it is an expression of a "bad" characteristic.

Whether you condemn homosexual activity depends on your individual moral framework. If you choose to accept the conservative interpretation[3] of the Christian Bible, then you'll probably condemn homosexual activity. On the other hand, from a humanist perspective such as my own, (consensual) homosexual activity per se causes no unwanted or involuntary suffering, and is thus unproblematically permitted.

(Contrast this view of homosexual activity with pedophiliac activity, which always entails a violation of consent, which is intrinsically harmful. One cannot condemn pedophilia by nature, but one can easily condemn all pedophiliac activity.)

[1] Here's a longer clip of the hilarious scene.

[2] This is an example of irony by massive understatement. Literalists should read this sentence as, "For those of us who are not genocidal maniacs..."

[3] Some theologians and scholars argue that the Bible should not be interpreted as condemning homosexuality per se or that the original texts do not condemn homosexuality at all.

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