Friday, July 20, 2012
In this article I hope to eliminate some of the confusion surrounding moral questions by attempting to explain the basic nature of ethics. I will also examine one fallacious argument that challenges moral objections to homosexual behavior. As you read on, please remember that my primary purpose is not to prove that homosexuality is immoral. Rather, it is to refute a common argument to the contrary. This argument is that “if homosexual behavior is tied to a genetic trait, then it can no longer be considered morally wrong.” To set the stage for evaluating this claim, I would like to share an excerpt from a philosophy textbook. The following is from a sidebar entitled “When Science and Faith Conflict”:
“The ideas of Kopernik and Galileo were considered by many of their time as anti-religious and a threat to religious authority. Martin Luther, leader of the Protestant Reformation, accused Kopernik of being a heretic in view of his heliocentric views, which allegedly contradicted the teachings of the Bible. To uphold faith in the Bible today, must we continue to believe that the sun revolves around the Earth? When faith and science conflict, must we always deny all empirical evidence contrary to belief?” (Anthony Falikowsky, Experiencing Philosophy, p. 194)
This paragraph raises an important question for all people of faith, specifically Christians. What happens when the Bible tells you one thing and science tells you the opposite? If the Bible is truly a revelation from God, then all scientific truth must be consistent with Biblical truth, for reality is necessarily consistent with itself. According to the law of non-contradiction, if these two paradigms teach opposing truths then at least one of them must be wrong. Either that, or at least one of them is being misunderstood. A number of responses come to mind when presented with a conflict between faith and reason. First of all, are the Bible’s words on the matter in question being interpreted correctly? The Biblical references used to support Geocentric Theory consist largely of figurative language, such as the statement that “He set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved” found in Psalm 104:5. Two verses earlier it says “He makes the clouds his chariot and rides on the wings of the wind.” I think we can conclude that the author was speaking figuratively in this passage rather than literally, which is not too hard to accept considering that it is a psalm. Science did not need to teach us that clouds are not actual chariots and wind does not have actual wings. Even if pillars of the church believed otherwise, it does not follow that the Bible explicitly endorses such viewpoints. Church fathers have held to a variety of questionable doctrines throughout the ages, generally as a result of reading things into scripture that are not actually there (a practice known as “eisegesis”). In this case there is no problem with accepting the scientific view, even if it seems to contradict some poetic language in the Bible. Other cases, of course, should be evaluated contextually in terms of their own merits.
Another question to ask is, how reliable are the scientific data that seem to contradict scripture? If I were in Luther’s position, I probably would have felt the same way that he did. After all, the common interpretation of the scripture as well as the prevalent understanding of cosmology advocated a geocentric universe, and heliocentric theory was a new idea that I probably would not have understood the basis for. I would not have revisited my interpretation of scripture until I was more certain that I had reason to. Further evidence might have convinced me of this, but such a case would have proven that I was wrong, not the Bible.
Concerning the author’s last question: “When faith and science conflict, must we always deny all empirical evidence contrary to belief?” The general relationship between faith and reason is always something to ponder, although the two might not conflict as frequently as most people think. When they do, one must evaluate his grounds for choosing either side on a case by case basis. In any case, I have no trouble with anyone thoughtfully considering the issues that the author has raised thus far. But the excerpt soon takes a turn that exhibits egregiously poor thinking:
“What happens, for example, in the context of sexual and biomedical ethics, if science discovers that homosexuality is genetically determined and not a matter of choice or conditioning? Many Christians point out that the Bible condemns homosexual acts as sinful. Is it sinful to express what could be your genetically determined nature? Could the Biblical view of homosexuality possibly be as misguided as the formerly accepted geocentric view of the universe?” (Falikowsky, 194)
First, notice that he wrote “What happens… if.” There is currently no conclusive scientific evidence that sexual orientation is determined by genetics. (It is also worth mentioning that not all homosexuals welcome this possibility. The website “queerbychoice.com” was created by homosexuals who strongly believe that it is a choice to be attracted to the same sex.) But if one day there is, will there then be scientific grounds to change our ethical views? I hope to expose the series of flawed philosophical assumptions that underlie this question. I maintain that the majority of objections to the Christian worldview can be reduced to philosophical ones, although many of them masquerade as being scientific or historical or what have you. Philosophy is a broad field, and ethics is generally considered to be one of its subdisciplines. The philosophy of ethics involves determining what constitutes an ethical belief, and whether such beliefs can be justified. Different worldviews provide different perspectives on ethics, and although he is asking questions rather than making statements, Falikowski inserts a personal bias that will mislead those who do not detect it. There are two dubious assumptions being made: (1) that genetic information determines behavior, and (2) that behavior which comes naturally is automatically morally acceptable behavior. To take these as a starting point is to completely beg the question, because if they are true then there is clearly no basis for accepting Christian ethics. And further, an evaluation of these notions draws into question this author’s aptitude when it comes to addressing ethical matters.
The first assumption is a result of scientific naturalism (the view that observable nature is all that exists) and can be called “biological determinism.” Simply put, it holds that all events in the universe, including human thoughts and actions, are purely the result of physical and chemical processes. This means that everything that ever has happened or ever will happen, including the occurrence of you reading this article right now, is the direct consequence of a cause-and-effect chain that goes back to the beginning of the universe. According to this view there is no basis for an immaterial “will” that has any bearing on our actions, because nothing “immaterial” exists. If this is the case, then the actions of those who practice homosexuality are indeed determined by their genetic coding, and should not be called wrong; but it would be true for the same reason that no human action can be judged as wrong. Are we willing to go that far? Should we abolish the courts because every perceived instance of wrongdoing is the combined effect of environmental circumstances and chemical reactions coded in the DNA of the perpetrators? Moral responsibility is nonexistent apart from free choice, for no human can be held responsible for his actions if they are a necessary result of the events preceding them. That determinism is a logical consequence of a fully naturalistic worldview casts doubt on the coherency of the whole system. Applying this first assumption to ethics proves far too much, not only allowing homosexual behavior but demanding that all events and actions are morally equal. If this is the case then there is no reason to discuss ethics at all, or even believe that the category exists (objectively); yet virtually all people seem to have the strong impression that it does.
The second assumption is a simple category mistake, and probably the most common one: it equates “is” with “ought,” though they are by no means equivalent. By doing this, one completely misunderstands the nature of ethical principles and is in no place to evaluate them. Falikowsky questions what would happen to the moral objection to homosexuality if it were scientifically proven that such desires are “natural” (in the sense of being biologically innate). But he neglects to consider that science is descriptive in nature, informing us of the way things generally are, but that ethics are prescriptive in nature, offering a standard for the way that things should be. For this reason, a purely scientific statement can tell us nothing about ethics and a purely ethical statement can tell us nothing about science. For example: “if a bullet pierces a human heart, the heart will become incapable of carrying out its function, and the person will die.” This is a scientific statement that tells us about a consistent, observed fact. Contrast it with the statement, “It is wrong to murder someone with a gun.” The first tells us nothing about the moral status of the action being described, and the latter need not explain how this event takes place, or even whether it does, in order to get its point across. The same is true when it comes to the question of genetics and homosexuality. Suppose that it were scientifically proven that “a certain human chromosome contains a genetic trait that gives some people a propensity to be attracted to the same sex rather than the opposite sex.” This does not positively or negatively affect the statement that “it is wrong for a person to have a sexual relationship with a member of the same sex.” Why not? Because the way that things in fact are does not determine the way that they ought to be. One is brute fact and the other is an ideal; these are distinct categories. In this world there is always some disparity between the ideal and the actual, but does this mean that we should change our moral standards to make them fit reality? To do so would defeat the whole purpose of moral guidelines, which is to show us how we should effect change in reality to reach certain ideals.
As for the author’s question of “Is it sinful to express what could be your genetically determined nature?”, it is clear that for Christians the answer is yes. You’d think that someone attempting to address an ethical question from a Christian perspective would be aware of one of the most basic Christian beliefs: the universal sin nature. But if wrong desires can be influenced by genetics, can anyone really be blamed for acting on them? When dealing with the first assumption we saw that either biological determinism is false, or else ethical statements have no meaning or value whatsoever. If we take the first route, then we acknowledge an important distinction between certain factors determining our behavior, or merely influencing it. If we reject determinism and preserve moral responsibility, then even if a genetic predisposition towards homosexual attraction exists, individual human beings can choose how they will respond to the influence of such impulses. This is not just a hypothetical statement, but an observed reality. Many people with homosexual desires (especially Christians who believe that their homosexual desires are wrong) attempt to refrain from acting on them. Of course those who think that homosexuality is natural (and therefore right) find this practice abhorrent; but the fact of the matter is that even people who feel an ineradicable attraction to members of the same sex do not have to practice homosexual behavior. And the Christian viewpoint is not that a person who is attracted to the same sex is especially evil, but that a person who chooses to engage in a homosexual lifestyle is making a morally wrong choice. The question of what comes naturally has nothing to do with it. In fact, morality almost always demands that we act in ways totally opposed to our natural desires! There can be no civilized society without some form of self-restraint. It is quite natural to strike a person who angers you, or to take something that you want regardless of whether you have a right to it. Should these actions be considered morally acceptable in every case? And concerning sexuality, it would be natural to have sex with any person whom you find sexually attractive; that is what attraction means. But Christians (and most other people) believe that to do so is completely immoral, for heterosexuals as well as homosexuals. It is true that the Bible teaches that there is only one correct way for humans to express sexuality (through heterosexual, monogamous relationships), and this standard will never be that which comes most naturally. But no matter which code of ethics they choose to follow, both Christians and critics of Christianity should be well aware of the fact that natural desires do not in any way tell us what is morally right, and they never will. There can be other arguments against the Christian view of homosexuality, but this argument from nature is thoroughly inadequate.
As a final word, I would like to mention that if homosexual desires occur naturally there are still several reasons to consider them deviant rather than benign. One such reason is evidenced by other “natural” cases, such as when a genetically determined chemical imbalance causes a person to experience chronic depression. Would it be bigoted to say that something is wrong with the behavior or attitude of such a person, and to attempt to counsel them or prevent them from committing suicide? The fact that most people are not this way is a clue as to which is more natural, and the fact that only a minority of humans practices homosexuality could be a similar indicator. But even if this were not the case, and an equal or greater number of people practiced homosexuality, the fact that male and female sexual organs correspond to their opposites and not to their sames should be conclusive evidence. Putting all Christian ethics aside, a genetically determined variation can easily be a negative thing, including homosexuality if it is one. Without any attempt to judge its moral rightness, it can be seen as opposed to nature rather than encouraged by it. But neither these evidences nor anything else I have written are intended to prove that people with homosexual desires are inferior. I merely agree with the Bible that there is a better way. You will never hear me argue that a person is at fault for having homosexual desires, and my whole purpose in this article is to make the distinction between desires and actions. The Bible does the same thing in the book of James: “each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin” (James 1:14-15). There is no culpability for merely having a wrong desire, but acting on one is another story. If the Bible is to be believed, then we all have natural desires that are morally wrong, and while this is unfortunate, we can overcome them by the grace of God. I do not think that anyone who practices homosexuality is an inferior human being, and I know for a fact that no such person is loved any less by God. But when it comes to the question of whether such behavior is right, wrong or neutral, it takes more than scientific evidence to provide the answer, no matter which worldview one favors.
Continue to practice clear thinking so that you can see through poor arguments!