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Is Homosexuality unnatural?There was much debate in our Philosophy class.

Is Homosexuality unnatural? There was much debate in our Philosophy class.

I can't think of any good definition of "(un)natural" according to which it would be correct to say that homosexuality is unnatural. We should first recognize that defining "homosexuality" is itself a difficult task. I'll begin by distinguishing between being a homosexual person and homosexual acts, where the latter involves sexual activity between members of the same biological sex. An overly simplistic way of defining a homosexual person would be someone who identifies him or herself as wanting (when wanting to engage in sexual activity) primarily to engage in homosexual acts, but this definition neglects other important ways homosexuals think of themselves (e.g., as loving or wanting to marry someone of the same sex).

Now, how could it be that homosexual acts or homosexual persons are unnatural?

1. Perhaps one thinks that *hetero*sexual acts (and persons) are natural and any other type of sexual activity is (thereby?) unnatural. But this view just begs the question of what counts as natural (see below). And why can only one type of activity be natural? Breathing with lungs is natural, in some sense, but that doesn't mean breathing with gills is unnatural.

2. Perhaps one thinks that heterosexual acts are natural because they are "normal" in the sense that they are statistically more common among humans (as well as other animals), and homosexual acts are not as common. But lots of uncommon things are both part of nature (one way of thinking of "natural") and are considered good ("natural" misused to mean "normatively good"). Left-handed people, and the tallest 10% of giraffes, are uncommon, yet very much a part of nature. And the best violinists (and perhaps the fastest cheetahs) are uncommon yet are properly considered good (at what they do). Indeed, self-sacrificial heroes are rare, but they are part of nature and morally good. Regarding rarity, homosexual acts are relatively rare in non-human animals but they do occur in several species so they are "part of nature" in that sense, and even if humans were the only species to engage in homosexual acts, that wouldn't make them unnatural, unless complex language, cooking, and playing soccer are unnatural because only humans engage in those activities.

3. Perhaps one thinks that homosexual acts and persons are unnatural because they could not be selected for in the process of natural selection. But first of all, they could be, and perhaps were (e.g., one possibility is that homosexual persons or animals conferred greater fitness to their kin or their groups). And second, who cares? Lots of things are natural that were not selected for, including for instance, our ability to do calculus or dance the tango. And lest one think that whatever traits humans have that were selected for are traits we should think of as good (or part of our "purpose"), keep in mind that our traits of promiscuity and aggression towards out-groups (a likely source of racism) were likely selected for.

4. Alas, I suspect that most people who think and say that homosexuality is unnatural typically just want to use "unnatural" to mean "wrong"--or not what (they think) God wants or some equally improper (unnatural!) meaning of the word. And they typically think that for unjustifiable reasons. I've yet to see a compelling argument that homosexual acts, much less homosexual persons, are wrong, much less unnatural.

Do polygamy bans violate the natural rights of bisexuals? In wake of the current

Do polygamy bans violate the natural rights of bisexuals? In wake of the current Supreme Court debate in the US that gay marriage bans violate due process and equal protection guarantees, I want to ask a philosopher whether these two legal concepts, due process and equal protection (which go by different names in different countries), are derived from natural philosophical rights. If so and assuming that they are similar in meaning, does that mean that at least philosophically speaking, polygamy irrespective of particular examples is NOT inherently immoral? The main philosophical argument for gay marriage from what I've heard is that since sexual orientation is a fundamental and largely unchangeable part of a person's nature, it is immoral to deny gays a right that straight people have. But what about bisexuals? Isn't a bisexual woman or man who is in a serious relationship with both a man and a woman at the same time just as deserving? I don't think it matters whether or not the other two members of the...

I'm not sure I have your question clearly in my sights, but I think it's something like this: As it stands the only kind of marriage many countries recognize is between one man and one woman. Advocates of same-sex marriage argue that for a variety of reasons, not least the fact that sexual orientation isn't simply a choice, we ought to recognize same-sex marriages as well. Otherwise, there's a serious issue of fairness and justice.

Your suggestion is that this leaves a particular injustice unaddressed: bisexual people who are in relationships with men and women at the same time. If same-sex marriage is the cure for discrimination against homosexual relationships, then, so the thought goes, polygamous marriage is the cure for the parallel injustice against bisexuals.

Here's why I'm not persuaded. Leave hetero- vs. homo- vs. bisexuality aside. Some people are in love with more than one person. Call people capable of such attachments polyamorous. In some cases, all concerned parties would be more than happy to from a common household and live together as spouses. Should we say that by not allowing polygamous marriage, the law discriminates unjustly against polyamorous people?

Before we get to the question itself, notice that it has nothing special to do with bisexuality. Most people are quite capable of being attracted to more than one person at once. From this point of view, someone who's in love with both a man and a woman at the same time is just another polyamorist. And there's no reason I know of to believe that the polyamorous desires of bisexuals are any stronger than anyone else's.

Now to the question. You said you wanted it understood as philosophical rather than legal, so here's the philosophical bit. It's one thing to say that the law shouldn't outlaw polyamorous relationships. It's another to say that it should broaden marriage to include n-adic relationships with n greater than 2. More generally: it's one thing to say that the law should allow certain kinds of conduct. It's another to say that it should give them special status. From "the law shouldn't interfere with polyamorous relationships" to "the law should allow polygamous marriage, with all the rights and privileges thereof" is not a mere skip and a jump. However, none of this has anything special to do with bisexuality.

We could put it this way: if people's polyamorous tendencies give us a good reason for legal polygamy, then the law shouldn't worry itself with the internal geometry of the configuration. I have no problem with the conditional itself. The "if" part, however, is where the rub comes. For while there are limits on what a legitimate legal system should allow or forbid, every remotely just legal system I know of is hip-deep in policy issues. There might be many good reasons for the law not to embrace all the tax, inheritance, child-custody, benefits, child-custody questions, and other sequlae of polygamous marriage even if it should also mostly keep its nose out of people's intimate relationships. In other words, there might be good policy reasons not to recognize polygamous marriage. But even if we agree (as I do) that the law should recognize same-sex marriage, the fact that bisexual people are amongst the polyamorous doesn't give us any special reason to recognize polygamy.

You are a single male, a highly attractive female asks you to engage in a sexual

You are a single male, a highly attractive female asks you to engage in a sexual relationship with her. However, they are already in a long-term, albeit unstable relationship. Do you accept or decline the offer? I have declined on the basis that should I accept there is a likelihood that the pleasure I would gain is less than the suffering I would cause to their partner (who I do not know) and there is a possibility I am being used to hurt their partner. From canvasing the opinion of my friends I am almost unique in my decision. Am I wrong or do I just need better friends?

I have a somewhat different take than my co-panelist.

Yes: we can tag the sorts of reasons you're offering as Utilitarian, though I'm not sure that adds a lot. I'd ask a different question: are they the sorts of considerations a morally conscientious person might care about? Seems to me they are, and that seems even clearer when we put them in a plain-spoken way: you're worried that you'll hurt someone else. And you're not sure that whatever pleasure you get out of the arrangement makes up for the hurt. Whether that settles the matter or not, if your friends don't think that's relevant than maybe you do need better friends!

We could ask whether you have an obligation to the woman's partner, but I worry that the retreat to polysyllaby hides the more basic point: how your behavior affects this man is morally relevant. The old-fashioned question "How would you feel if you were in his shoes?" is a perfectly good way to see that.

I'm not about to offer concrete advice about this case; there's way too much I don't know. But the question you're asking suggests to me that you're a decent guy.

However, I do agree with my colleague that, moral questions aside, this smells like a mess. That might be enough to settle the question by itself.

Are 18 year olds capable of consenting to be in pornographic productions?

Are 18 year olds capable of consenting to be in pornographic productions?

Certainly, if there is an age of consent then there is an age of consent. We may disapprove of the decisions that people make, but in a culture where people can make choices we need to have a rule as to when they can make those choices.

Is it wrong to desire sex with a woman when your primary interests are only

Is it wrong to desire sex with a woman when your primary interests are only physical and hence you might not even know or have spoken to the woman you desire sexually? Or does that only become problematic when a man expresses interest to that woman in a manner which is unsolicited and hence it becomes an unwanted and creepy sexual advance?

I don't see anything wrong about desiring to have sex with someone you don't know. I rather suspect this is a completely normal aspect of human sexual experience, and that it is simply a reflection of sexual attraction. Tons of people fantasize about sex with celebrities, for example, or some beautiful person they saw momentarily on a train, or what have you.

Perhaps the word "desire" here is a bit unhelpful. Desires can be fleeting or life-long, momentary or sustained, deeply felt or like a twinge. I think it would definitely be strange, or even pathological, for someone to dedicate themselves to having sex with someone they'd merely seen, especially since they would have no reason whatsoever to think the desire mutual. That's not to say it would be creepy to try to take some steps to meet the person, but if one's only desire were for sex, then I think it is creepy again, since one has no reason to think the desire mutual. And sex isn't sex without mutuality, as this wonderful video makes plain.

In most cases we are talking about, then, I doubt that we are really talking about desire, about something one actually and actively wants. As Nancy Friday made clear almost thirty years ago in her classic book My Secret Garden, fantasy is one thing and genuine desire is something else. If I see a woman on a train I think is attractive, then even if I feel some "sexual desire" for her, it doesn't actually mean I would have sex with her if the opportunity actually arose. If she waltzed over to me and asked me if I'd like to go with her to the nearest hotel, I'd actually say "No", assuming I could get over my shock. But in fantasy, that can happen, and there is nothing wrong with the fantasy.

But yes, expressing that interest crosses a line, especially when it is a man expressing the interest to a woman. This is not because there is something intrinsically creepy about men expressing their attraction to women, but because it makes women feel unsafe, and not unreasonably so. It's totally different if you actually know someone. But if you do not know the person, how are they to know what your intentions really are?

I strongly recommend this article by Emily Heist Moss for some perspective on the issue.

Is it possible to have a liberal attitude toward sex and be opposed to abortion?

Is it possible to have a liberal attitude toward sex and be opposed to abortion?

Why not? Though I'm not exactly sure what you have in mind about having a liberal attitude toward sex, I can imagine having permissive views about sex among consenting adults -- views that permit sex outside of wedlock, sex outside of stable monogamous relationships, kinky sex, etc -- and thinking that abortion is generally impermissible except in limited cases involving such things as rape, incest, genetic deformity, or the health of the mother. One might have the liberal view about sex, perhaps because one values individual autonomy. But one might think that responsibility goes with autonomy, making one responsible for one's autonomous choices and their reasonably foreseeable consequences. In this way, one could combine a kind of liberal view about sex with support for some restrictions on the permissibility of abortion. I am not endorsing this combination of views, but I don't see that it need be unprincipled.

What interests me is the idea I've been hearing about a lot that sex should be

What interests me is the idea I've been hearing about a lot that sex should be used only for reproduction. The justification that I've heard for this statement is based on the idea that any other sexual activity that invlolves any kind of contraception is preventing a possible person from coming to life and possibly causing psychological harm for the people that engage in sex and also their future children as they might be carrying guilt (this I have heard from a psychologist, that uses Hellinger's method of phenomenological psychotherapy). Also other arguments that I have heard from other sources are saying that there is no other benefit in engaging in sexual activity apart from possible children and pleasure. As pleasure is considered to have a very short term value it is said that there is no rational reason to have sex when we do not want to reproduce, because the risks and the consequences are larger than the value of pleasure. Humans according to some theories have to sublimate their sexual energy...

Interesting! Philosophers from Plato to Bertrand Russell and to more recent thinkers, have addressed the value and significance of sexuality. Whether you agree or disagree with his conclusions, Roger Scruton has a book Sexual Desire with terrific examples and very interesting arguments. Thomas Nagel has a very short paper on sexual perversion which I think is quite illuminating. I think that probably the most sustained case for linking sex with reproduction comes from a Roman Catholic perspective, which should not be confused with "the Christian point of view" as many Christians think the telos or value or function of sexual union is valuable for its own sake or is an integral part of the good of intimate love. On that point, it is interesting that the story of creation in Genesis that blesses the union of man and woman before the fall notes that the two shall "become one flesh" (as it is usually translated) and there is nothing added like "the two shall become one flesh so that they may have children." I suspect (but do not know this) that some argue for the essential connection between sex and reproduction is because that gives them what seems like a non-arbitrary way of distinguishing the value of heterosexual relations (which are in principle open to reproduction even if both partners are "sterile" a horrible term) from homosexual relations or, going further out there, incest (in which case the child that may be born as the result of siblings procreating has a higher risk, supposedly, of birth defects) and beastiality (mating with a nonhuman animal, which if it does not produce a Minator --in Greek mythology will not be reproductive at all). I believe that some argue that if you allow for sex without being "open to life" (a term sometimes used for being open to reproduction) you will be on a slippery slope that will lead to (in the words of the first, immortal Ghostbuster movie, dogs and cats sleeping together, mass hysteria. But I suggest it is possible not to get on the slippery slope with the notion that good sex can be part of a good relationship in which there is consent, integrity, respect, and (I hope) love between mature adults, without having to be reproductive.

I recently read an article in the New Yorker about a sex offender who had a

I recently read an article in the New Yorker about a sex offender who had a preference for 13-14 year old girls. One of the things that struck me was when one of the psychologists noted that he was under the delusion that 13-14 were capable of consenting to sex. While I don't personally find 13-14 year old girls desirable it seems strange to say that they are unable to consent to sex. What makes them unable to consent to sex? Is it because they don't understand what sex is? What understanding of sex does a 13-14 year old not know that an adult doesn't? It seems like an interesting claim to say that 13-14 has a fundamentally different understanding of sex than am adult. Of course most have not had experience with sex but nobody thinks that it's wrong to have sex with a virgin. Most 13-14 Year old girls do fantasize about sex though. Aren't there some feminists who believe that the idea of an age of consent is oppressive to women because it treats young girls as incapable of consent? Afterall, we often see...

So there are a few issues to clarify here, but first, a disclaimer: I am not an expert on the law, and will not be speaking from the point of view of interpreting the law.

That said, however, it does seem to me that an "age of consent" is an appropriate legal construct. The idea is that 13-14 year old children have simply not developed far enough, not just morally, but most importantly neurologically, to be very good yet at forecasting consequences of their actions. With respect to issues like sex, it is not unreasonable to think that if young teenagers are not yet capable of forecasting consequences of their actions--by which I mean not just being able to think or say, "I might get pregnant," or "I could catch some STD," but actually appreciate what such an outcome would mean for them--then they are reasonably thought not to have what it takes to give genuine (i.e. morally significant) consent. Of course, many girls that age know about sex, and some even have sexual fantasies. Some, given the opportunity to do so, would also agree to have sex with someone they were interested in. But such understanding, desire, and agreement cannot count as consent in the morally significant way, so long as they are incapable of really appreciating what they are (or might be) getting themselves into in terms of consequences.

This same reasoning applies to age-limits for signing legal contracts, drinking alcohol, smoking products, driving, enlisting in the military, and voting, just to name a few. The age limits are different for some of these, but the basic reasoning is similar in all cases: we think that such activities require certain levels of responsibility about consequences, and we think that below certain ages, it is not reasonable to think that young people can be responsible in the appropriate way.

By the way, I think what you say about boys is simply mistaken. An adult woman (no less than a man) who has sex with a 13- or 14-year old boy would commit statutory rape under the law. The issue is not whether or not 13- or 14-year old children are capable of having sex (physically). I assume most are. But that's not the issue and besides the point, which, again, has to do with being able to manage responsibility.

Is a foot fetish perverse?

Is a foot fetish perverse?

Saying that something is perverse often means that it diverts some appetite in a direction that not only defeats its "natural" function, but does so in a way that's harmful or unhealthy or bad. Pedophilia is a plausible case, but what makes pedophilia bad is not that it diverts sexual attraction from reproduction (I'm talking about cases where the pedophile is attracted to prepubescent children) but that acting on the desire is not a good thing for the child. We can judge pedophilia to be bad whether or not we call it a perversion, though most people would likely use that word.

What about a foot fetish? So long as the fetishist isn't violating anyone's consent, it's hard to see that there's anything morally wrong with indulging the fetish. Might there be anything else wrong?

There might, but actual cases can't be evaluated apart from the details. Suppose that the person's fetish interferes with the sort of emotional intimacy that often goes with more familiar sexual relationships. That might be unfortunate, but it doesn't seem inevitable, and obviously a lot depends on the people involved. To this we can add: whether someone has "normal" sexual urges and whether they're capable of emotional intimacy are two very different questions.

There is a familiar view that looks at all this quite differently. It's most familiar from Roman Catholic teaching, but it's found elsewhere as well. On this view, all sexual acts must be "open to the possibility of procreation," in the oft-used phrase. Sexual desire that doesn't meet this standard is "disordered," as some Vatican documents put it, and perhaps that's another way of saying "perverse." This point of view condemns: masturbation, fellatio, cunnilingus, homosexual acts; artificial birth control, not to mention various more exotic activities. It condemns them all for the same reason, and would certainly condemn indulging a foot fetish, but so what?

This is a big topic, so I will restrict myself to two comments. The first is that the point of view I've just described can only be defended by top-down appeal to highly contentious premises – premises that many religious believers don't accept, let alone non-believers. The second is that if something so evidently harmless and widespread as masturbation is "wrong," the view that entails this entails something so implausible that its credibility is severely compromised.

But our original topic was foot fetishes. What have we learned about that matter?

One thing is that apart from coercion or abuse, there's not any interesting moral issue about foot fetishes or various other "fetishes." (We could add: ordinary people are turned on by a surprising variety of things.) A related one is that at least one familiar argument to the contrary is dubious to say the least. Yet another is that while issues of psycho-sexual well-being might come up about some cases of foot fetishes, we can't just make up our facts, and facile generalizations get us nowhere. But perhaps the bottom line is this: the word "perversion" doesn't really help us here. It's a word whose emotional wallop far exceeds its analytical precision.

If a woman were to force herself sexually on a man most people would have a hard

If a woman were to force herself sexually on a man most people would have a hard time imagining how that incident would cause lasting and profound trauma for that man. Why is that?

I'm not sure that "most people would have a hard time imagining" how a woman's forcing herself sexually on a man could cause lasting and profound trauma for the man: some people might well have difficulty imagining how this could be the case. Perhaps such 'imaginative resistance' would be due to certain ingrained and long-standing assumptions about sexuality, including the canard that males always want sex, and therefore could not be forced to have sex. Even if some do share such assumptions, I myself do not find it difficult to think that a woman forcing herself sexually on a man would be no less a violation than a man forcing himself sexually on a woman: what's crucial in these cases, to my mind, is that the sexual relationship is in some way coerced and, hence, is not freely entered into by both parties. (To be sure, the nature of the coercion might differ in the two cases: whereas one might think that a man forces himself by force on a woman, in most cases, given the disparities in strength between the sexes, it is difficult--although not impossible--to imagine a woman forcing herself by force on a man, although there are, to be sure, many ways in which coercion can be exercised that have nothing to do with pure physical power, and it is the coercive nature of the sexual relationship that, to my mind, makes it problematic.)