Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Levin on Homosexuality Again

Having ridiculed Michael Levin for same-sex marriage fallacies, I was surprised to discover an article (Why Homosexuality is Abnormal) of his in the anthology I'm using for my applied ethics class. Unsurprisingly, however, the piece is just as fallacious and absurd as his internet follies. I have two theories for the existence of this piece. First, the case against the moral acceptability of homosexuality is so bad that one cannot in fact make a better case for it than this. Second, the editors felt that making a convincing case against homosexuality would work against the moral good of acceptance of homosexuality. So, on this second view, the choice of Levin was intended to make those arguing against homosexuality more ridiculous by associating them with this work.

The essay begins, "This essay defends the view that homosexuality is abnormal and hence undesirable -- not because it is immoral or sinful, or because it weakens society or hampers evolutionary development, but for a purely mechanical reason." For homosexuals, the dick goes in the wrong hole. Period.

First, if you're not arguing for the immorality of homosexuality, what are you doing in an applied ethics text? Instead, he claims only to be making a prudential argument against homosexuality. In actuality, while the article does not argue for the immorality of homosexuality, it does frequently insinuate it. It is almost impossible to read "defective", "abnormal", "improper", "unnatural", "maladaptive" without thinking this has some implications for morality. Moreover, he opposes anti-discrimination legislation because "If society reverses itself (on laws outlawing homosexuality), it will in effect be deciding that homosexuality is not as bad as it once thought." This argument requires simple bad faith. "Bad" here cannot mean "prudentially inadvisable" because we don't make laws requiring that people act only prudentially. Basically, that's just none of the government's damn business, and if Levin thinks the government can and should allow for discrimination against homosexuals, then that government would not and could not justifiably do it on the basis of the behavior's inadvisability. Whether we, or the government, thought something was less bad or not just does not enter the picture. We do not pass laws requiring that people exercise despite the fact that not exercising is bad for us. If Levin were arguing only on the basis of prudence, his conclusion would be a massive nonsequitur. He is arguing against homosexuality but only by insinuation.

Back to the argument:
First, he draws a fallacious analogy between someone who misuses his teeth, by making them into a necklace, and a homosexual, who puts his penis places it is not meant to go. Clearly, the analogy is fallacious because (1) once you've removed your teeth, you cannot put them back, so the decision is irreversible in a way that homosexuality (even though it is probably genetic) is not, and (2) removing one's teeth causes demonstrable harm in any normal situation. You might imagine someone surviving just fine with no teeth, but our intuition is that it is wrong based on the problems anyone without teeth would face in ordinary life.

Second, Levin argues that even if homosexuality is genetic, or not a choice or under the control of the person, it could still be wrong. I agree with him on this; the key issue is not whether homosexuality is a choice but whether it is morally acceptable or not. We might still do everything we can to prevent Downs syndrome even though people with it do not have any choice about it. Moreover, we accept people holding different religious beliefs even though that is, near enough, a choice. His argument falls down on establishing the harm of homosexuality.

Finally, the main argument: homosexuality causes unhappiness. He expects a correlation between homosexuality and unhappiness based on his claim that homosexuality is abnormal. Given the evolutionary maladaptiveness of homosexuality, homosexuals will not be able (or be less able) to access the pleasure that evolution will have built into "normal" sexual acts. Ejaculation just feels better when it's in a vagina than when it's in an anus, mouth, hand, ear, or horse. Ok, maybe he's right about the last one. Moreover, he thinks people will feel a secret longing to have "normal" sexual relations that will be inaccessible just as people born without legs would have a yearning to be able to walk.

Let's point out, before we continue, that lots of neutral traits are connected to other traits that are adaptive. Panda's have an elongated "toe" even though this does not aid their survival because it is genetically linked to the gene that gives them a "thumb". Some traits are not adaptive for the person who has them but the genes are adaptive overall. Genes for altruism may not benefit the altruistic individual, but the gene may spread more effectively through kin selection. And what's adaptive in one context may not be adaptive in others. Genes for sickle-cell anemia are adaptive in a climate with lots of mosquitos but maladaptive elsewhere. So, there is simply no way at present to know whether homosexuality fits one of these categories. If so, then we would think that homosexuality is a necessary part of the fitness of humans overall, and so would not be maladaptive in the way Levin suggests. Is it maladaptive for an individual to save his/her children? For that individual it is, but for the genes it is not. And saving one's genes is what determines the functionality (and hence the normativity on Levin's understanding of normativity) of a trait.

He concludes, "Whatever drives a man away from women, to be fellated by as many different men as possible, seems independent of what society thinks of such behavior. It is this behavior that occasions misery, and we may expect the misery of homosexuals to continue." Oh, the horror, the horror! This constant fellating is making me miserable! Please, please, no! Oh, oh, no! Stop the constant fellating, you're making me miserable!

His confirmation for the "Homosexuality causes unhappiness" hypothesis is a single study (he says by Weinberg and Williams in 1974 but that's all the data provided) that found that homosexuals in more accepting countries (i.e. Denmark and the Netherlands) are just as unhappy as homosexuals in the US (considered a less-accepting country). One wonders if Levin actually researched this topic or just glommed onto something that fit his preconceptions. Here's a summary of the Weinberg and Williams point:
"Following this [the mildly counterintuitive discovery of the W&W work that Levin cites], Ross (1978) suggested that the critical variable was not the actual societal reaction, but the way homosexuals perceived it. It subsequently turned out that the perceived societal reaction did predict a significantly lowered state of psychological well-being while actual societal reaction, did not." (Homosexuality and Family Relations, Frederick Bozett and Marvin Sussman, editors. I can't track down the Ross reference. The point here is it doesn't take much looking to see that the overall evidence is not strongly in Levin's favor on this, and that there are lots of easy, and apparently supported, alternative explanations for the bit of data he takes to be decisive.)

(Levin also does not provide base rate data on heterosexuals' self-reported happiness, but we'll imagine for the sake of argument that heterosexuals are happier than homosexuals.)

He writes, "Weinberg and Williams themselves cleave to the hypothesis that homosexual unhappiness is entirely a reaction to society's attitudes, and suggest that a condition of homosexual happiness is positive endorsement by the surrounding society. it is hard to imagine a more flagrantly ad hoc hypothesis. Neither a Catholic living among Protestants nor a copywriter working on the great American novel in his off hours asks more of a society than tolerance in order to be happy in his pursuits." Yes, homosexuality is just like writing a novel, and no novelist ever wants anyone to approve his/her work or recognize its greatness. That's why they call it the great American novel: because no one gives a shit whether anyone likes it. That's exactly why people write: for the tolerance.

Seriously, people's lives and choices are endorsed by society in all sorts of ways, large and small, and one whose most fundamental choices, about whom to love and spend one's life with, require societal approval for people in general to be happy. Legal, and even social, tolerance of an activity is not enough to make us happy; we need some approval, especially when everyone else receives approval of their choices. If I were writing the great American novel, and everyone else I knew had already written such a novel and received glowing reviews in the New York Review of Books, I would feel pretty fucking miserable that my attempts failed. And that's the situation the homosexual in a merely tolerant country is in. Their choices are not endorsed while those of everyone else are. We measure happiness in large part by contrast, and the contrast of the heterosexual's life with the homosexual's life is constantly relatively negative. Even in our more enlightened age, how many characters in TV and movies are happy, healthy, normal homosexuals in good, loving relationships? Aren't homosexuals more likely to be abnormal, ridiculous or unhappy in such depictions? But heterosexuals receive positive messages constantly; they receive constant reinforcement of their sexuality in television, movies, advertisements, novels, and the rest of popular culture. The hypothesis seems perfectly reasonable to me and anything but ad hoc.

Surely the hypothesis is testable as well. All we need is for America to become a culture that accepts homosexuality as perfectly normal, and treats homosexual relations in exactly the same largely positive ways as it does heterosexual relations. Admittedly, depictions of heterosexuality are often exploitive or comical, but only against a backdrop of "normal" heterosexuality.

Most important, reasonable philosophers point out the naturalist fallacy here. To say that something is natural, normal, or common has nothing to do with its moral legitimacy. That's clearly why Levin tries to dodge with the prudential argument. Even so, he must swallow hard, grab the counterargument with both hands, and jerk it off until it ejaculates all over him . . . I mean, respond directly to the argument. If homosexuality is abnormal, then all sorts of other activities are abnormal. For example: Typing, driving a car, masturbation, foreplay without sex, abstinence--especially celibacy, heterosexual anal or oral sex, use of condoms or birth control, and sex when one partner is infertile are all without evolutionary benefit; studying philosophy is worst of all given the low rate of reproduction in most philosophy departments. In fact, everything besides eating, drinking and fucking is abnormal unless it directly supports one's ability to eat, drink or fuck (reproductively, of course).

Levin only addresses two of these obvious counterexamples. (1) Foreplay, he thinks, can have the reproductive advantage of preparing the male and female for reproduction. We can be sure that his wife, at least, is grateful for this acknowledgment. So, foreplay does have some evolutionary benefit. (2) Celibacy--as in priestly celibacy--turns out to be ok after all. I would think, "[N]o behavior is more likely to get selected out than rewarding [celibacy]." Oops, Levin wrote that about homosexuality! However, in fact, celibacy is not a problem. You see, "Priests do not simply give up sexual activity without ill-effect, they give it up for a reason. Homosexuals have hardly given up the use of their sexual organs, for a higher calling or anything else. Homosexuals continue to use them, but, unlike priests, they use them for what they are not for. . ." (Ellipsis in the anthology.)

With special pleading for priests, the goalposts move again. You see, as long as one does something for a reason, then one's happiness cannot be compromised by that behavior's evolutionary maladaptiveness. Whew! For a second, I thought I'd have to stop typing or lose any hope of joy. If you are celibate, you better be celibate for a reason; otherwise, your unhappiness might lead to serial buggery, and that's only good if you're doing it to girls old enough to reproduce. (Remember, I only mean "good" in a prudential way--how could you think otherwise?)

Enjoying the sexual congress of people of the same sex is not a reason, of course. Contra Stephen Colbert, who says, "Men know what men like," homosexuality is not based on reason, but arises purely from our genes. If enjoyment cannot count as a reason for a homosexual, it cannot count as a reason for the priests either. One must suppose that if a monk enjoyed the serenity of a cloistered existence, that would not count as a reason. Instead it must be based on some non-emotional, purely moral, evaluation. Perhaps we are to be Kantian deontic machines, always doing our duty based on reason and not using our potential happiness as a reason, if we are to be happy.

My point is that the basic argument of this essay is totally bogus. One does not argue against the morality of something based on its "naturalness" or "normality", and if one is not making an argument against its morality (as Levin claims he is not), then you cannot make an argument for public policy decisions to prevent it. His only remaining leg is to say that we might prevent homosexuals from existing if we had some way to prevent it (say, a miracle drug to be given their mothers before birth). It is hard to imagine a public policy that mandated something like that (Would we mandate abortions for the poor if they were found to be, on average, less happy than the rich?), but it might provide an incentive for the parents' choice if (and this is a big if) there were any reason to think that homosexuals were necessarily less happy than heterosexuals when, in fact, it appears that their unhappiness is more likely a result of our intolerant culture, a culture propped up and "justified" by crap such as Levin's article.

Update: By the way, why do these people never talk about lesbians? They're always talking about men's behavior. Is it because lesbianism is fine--at least as long as it's in a movie with a title such as "Lusty Lesbians"? Does Levin know or care whether lesbians are happier than non-lesbians? His one piece of evidence, the aforementioned study, was for gay men, not lesbians. Maybe we should all have sex changes and be lesbians in order to be truly happy. We should definitely look into it.

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