Discussing
What science cannot say about morality

Jason E. Summers

Cathy Smith
May 10, 2012

Nice. And true. Not a scientific issue, but an ethical one. But your post sort of side-steps the issue that Christians, at least, must grapple with... what is the teleological "good" for a gay person in harmony with the fulfillment and consummation of God's creation? The Bible, God's Word, should function as our ethical plumb line, but even we as Christians can't agree on its definitive moral guidance for those who find themselves "gay," by choice or not.

Kristenmstewart
May 11, 2012

Good thoughts, I have noticed very few of my peers (mid 20s to mid 30s) ever discuss whether homosexuality is a choice. And so I doubt whether scientific data about that will frame discussions of homosexuality for those for whom the debate is irrelevant.

I do believe that young Christians are grappling with the moral and theological reality of the many people they know who profess faith and identify as homosexual and what their place in the church is. Your reflections remind me of Wesley Hill's in Washed and Waiting, though I don't know if you share his conclusions.

AlbertL
May 11, 2012

The interesting thing is that what happens if science does show that they are "born that way"?

What follows?

Morality isn't based on how someone is made but rather on how someone responds in each situation.
Even homosexuals will tell you that pedophilia is wrong and that the people, if born that way, need help in some way. Most homosexuals recognize that even though pedophiles could be "born that way" it doesn't make what they do right.

So why is homosexuality any different? What makes it different for homosexuals is that they say they are not hurting anyone. And that is a perspectives issue. Something science can't determine either is perspective on a moral issue.

I agree with Cathy Smith in that the Bible is our plumb line. But us as Christians shouldn't be swinging it from side to side depending on our emotions.

Jason Summers
May 11, 2012

Cathy,

Thank you for your comments.

My intent here was not to articulate a Biblical hermeneutic nor a public theology; I'm far from competent to do so.

My hope, rather, was to ask that we engage in conversations in exactly the manner you suggest: asking what the teleological good is.

Of course, determining how we do that is a rather complex question. Among other things, it depends on our hermeneutics and our epistemology. Thus, it is not simply a matter of looking to "definitive moral guidance" because we must understand first how to understand and learn from texts, tradition of the Church, and the world.

js

Jason Summers
May 11, 2012

Kristen,

You make a fine point regarding which groups of people are subject to the fallacy of regarding scientific data as relevant to this issue in the manner I discussed. Oddly, though I am also your peer (being 35) I find rather the opposite. The moral debate I hear is dominated by a notion of volition and freedom of choice both among the left and the right; that is to say that it is preoccupied with the naturalistic fallacy and its variants. In other words, people argue that in-born qualities are natural and therefore good. Or they anchor their thinking in Kantian terms and argue that the moral status of something depends on the ability to choose for or against it.

The other dominant discussion I've heard among those a bit younger is simply one of autonomy and laissez-faire liberalism (which we might call the Isley Brothers' argument --- cf. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Sv3sMYEzAA ), but that's a public theology argument about the shape of public-legal recognition, not a moral argument---if anything at all it is a moral argument about the invalidity of their imposing their views on anyone.

Perhaps then your experience more reflects that there is no longer much moral debate, but rather public political debate about how laws should reflect differing views, all of which are (explicitly or not) religiously motivated. That is itself a rather complicated question that I can't give justice to here.

I was not familiar with Mr. Hill's book, but a quick look at the reviews suggests I am familiar with his position, at least in broad outline. I know many folks in the Catholic and Anglo-Catholic tradition who are living out the same view. That said, I can't say whether or not I share Mr. Hill's conclusions, not being familiar with exactly what they are.

js

Jason Summers
May 11, 2012

Albert,

Regarding your first question, I frankly think it would not matter in shaping the moral question, though, practically speaking, findings will have a role in public-legal arguments.

As to what the basis of morality is; I've tried to articulate what I view it ought to be understood as by Christians. It should be an ethics of character and an ethics of sanctification---the good is that which is in line with that process based on the direction embedded in our creation and redemption.

The two dominant ethical modes in today's culture, utilitarianism and deontology, differ from this and feature in what you've written above. A utilitarian argument would indeed justify the moral good of something based on whether it harms anyone or whether the collective benefit outweighs the collective harm. A deontological argument would focus on rules that cannot be violated, largely in part because they go against human autonomy.

Neither of those way of thinking is compelling in my view.

js

James Gilmore
May 11, 2012

"So why is homosexuality any different?"

Because we understand in our society that adults are capable of consenting to sexual acts, while children are incapable of doing so not only from a developmental standpoint but also a power-differential standpoint.

There is a world of difference between someone who wants to love another adult as a consenting and equal partner, and someone who wants to dominate a child who can never be their equal or their partner.

I've grown quite tired of the rather ridiculous attempts by anti-LGBT rhetors to compare same-sex sexual attraction to pedophilia—which are rather transparently argued in bad faith, representing not an honest desire for dialogue but rather an attempt to tar LGBT citizens by drawing false associations between sexual orientation and pedophilia.

Christopher Bucklin
May 12, 2012

While I hear the concern for ignorant, straw-man arguments made by religiously over-zealous bigots, I believe that the notion in question deserves a bit more time and consideration within the current context of this scientific debate. It is precisely because of the ‘is homosexuality a choice?’ question, or rather, justification, that the issue of child-lovers come into play.

The issue, I believe, is the argument that is posited by those who want to take the ‘scientific’ avenue in justifying the moral status of homosexual activity. The argument could be constructed as follows:

1.If who (or what) a person is ‘sexually attracted to’ is not within their direct control, but rather, is genetically encoded, then it is morally acceptable to cultivate and act on these attractions.
2.Sexual attraction is genetically encoded, and not within the direct control (choice) of any given person.

3.Therefore, Same-sex attraction is morally acceptable.

The issue of course, is that if you accept this argument, then it would naturally follow that cultivating and acting on sexual attraction to children would be morally acceptable. This is just one more problem with the ‘scientific’ justification of this moral issue (Jason’s work above illustrates some others).

I find it especially interesting to reference societal norms when attempting to refute this comparison, especially when it is our end goal to… reconstruct a societal norm. Just as the LGBT community is attempting to reconstruct societal norms as they pertain to their courses of actions, why would not the child-lover not be allowed to do the same? Simply because we (generally) say that children do not have the developmental ability to make decisions about sexuality? The supporter of LGBT who denies the child-lover the opportunity to change what ‘society’ in general thinks, cuts off the leg upon which he himself stands.

To be sure, I think that a person should apply their arguments for same-sex attraction and child-sex attraction equally, and then evaluate the outcome. When doing so, I believe this poses a significant moral dilemma for those who accept the logic outlined above.

Brian Choi
May 12, 2012

As an undergrad, probably due to social pressure (on FB and elsewhere) and faith-wrestling, I am confounded, even after reading through these series of articles, about where I'm supposed to stand on the civil issue of same-sex marriage, or better yet, what should a follower of Christ should say when posited "do you support same sex marriage." It feels frustrating when I'm not exactly sure about what I need to say when let's say Obama has given his recent position change, or when friends on FB post up "legalize love" or something of that sort.

And as silent as I want to keep myself away from the issue simply because disagreeing with anyone would lavish thorns of "bigot" and reaction upon me, I'm feel like I'm being forced to silently agree and let the flood pass through and do it's work. It's more compounded by the fact that my major/industry field is of the same mindset as the majority, so to save my future, I need to step in line and not get 'run over."

I'm going to be honest, and this is tearing my heart, when I do throw my chips in, it'll be because of peer pressure and with no fullhearted support.

Does anyone have an answer for me?

Kristenmstewart
May 12, 2012

For me, the first step was separating the question into multiple questions: (1) what is a Christian response to homosexuality in the larger culture and government? and (2) what is the church to recommend / encourage for those who experience same sex attraction who profess belief? The first question is a lot easier for me to answer than the second.

Regardless, I don't feel the need to answer people who post FB status to incite debate. Just ignore them.

Brian Choi
May 12, 2012

What would be your first answer to the second question and why? Culture and government seem to require a separation of the horns, so to speak, as an aside.

Jason Summers
May 13, 2012

Brian,

I really intended not to give an answer here, but rather drive us to ask questions in way that is helpful. So your questions are good ones. Here are my thoughts:

In terms of the public question about same-sex marriage, you should start by asking what marriage is for in the teleological sense I describe: love, social stability, companionship, children, economic stability,...?

That kind of reasoning will lead different folks in different directions. But supposing you arrive at the conclusion that same-sex marriage furthers those ends, then you would support public-legal recognition in various forms.

Now supposing your reasoning leads you to believe that same-sex marriage does not further those ends?

Some folks would be inclined to say that you should keep you views out of political discussions, but that's simply not possible nor is it reasonable. Government, as Paul wrote, has as one of its roles to reward the good. For example, in the US we have decided in law in that children in marriage are a good and we offer tax breaks to support choices to have and raise children. Marriage, home ownership, driving safely, going to college, and so forth all fall in this category of things the state rewards as good.

So how then do you find public expression for what you believe is true in this case? You might argue that the state should reflect your views. That is reasonable in so much as most laws reflect moral beliefs and are not simply a utilitarian calculus---making laws means arguing about the good. For some folks the good is individual freedom or autonomy, but that's pretty impoverished as a view, I would suggest.

However, you might also say that, because others have religious beliefs that lead to different conclusions than yours and your religious beliefs lead you seek the common good, the state should make laws that respect all views and enable all people to live their views out to the extent possible within the collective norms of society.

This "principled pluralist" perspective is not the "do what you want as long as you don't hurt anyone" position since it acknowledges that all societies will have norms that reflect the bounds of acceptability while also acknowledging internal differentiation within society and the right of all individuals to have the state respect their positive and negative freedoms within the bounds of the agreed-upon norms.

So I'm suggesting that the questions Kristen poses are linked, not separate. Rules for churches and rules for states are different, of course, because they have different functions, roles, and competencies. But our views should be of one piece.

If, for example, we hold the Isley Brothers' theory in political life, that should have impact on church life since we've said autonomy is the highest good. That's a bit untenable, in my view, so some rethinking would be necessary.

js

Jason Summers
May 14, 2012

Christopher,

As you observe here, my intent, in part, was to address the so-called "naturalistic fallacy": i.e., the idea that what is "natural" is good or moral. You've also brought in a notion of freedom of choice, which I likewise tried to address.

James seems to favor thinking in terms of contract or consent theories of morality: i.e., what is freely agreed to without coercion is moral. That way of thinking draws a strong distinction based on freedom of consent, which is quite legitimate in this case.

But I think we should demand more of our ethics than that. We should ask whether something furthers creational intent.

This means we should consider moral status in that framework and need not make reference to nature in our arguments. One can take such a teleological position on either side of this argument such that it is in no sense necessary that rejecting the naturalistic fallacy determines what side of the debate one finds oneself on.

Clearly it would be rather difficult to argue the child-adult sexual relationships would further creational norms for family, childhood, churches, schools, or anything else. Making such arguments for or against same-sex sexual relationships or marriage (in the moral, versus public-legal sense) is more nuanced, as I noted in my response to Brian below. We have to ask what sex and marriage are for.

js

Skepacabra
May 17, 2012

Ideologues do exploit science, twisting it to rationalize their biases when science can only inform our decisions. But ethics belongs to philosophy, not religion. Religion too is easily manipulated when religions stress tradition, obedience, blind faith, and submission, while reducing morality to the proclamations of a dictator.

You’re right that whether homosexuality is a natural part of the human condition or simply preference is wholly irrelevant to any moral discussion. Homosexuality naturally exists across countless species. Being a particularly social species, our factors for pair bonding are more nuanced, though research finds human same-sex pair bonding largely biological. But it’s irrelevant to ethics because, as you said, one can’t form an ought from an is. If homosexuality (or heterosexuality) were 100% natural, that wouldn’t make it right or wrong and if it were 100% preference, it still wouldn’t.

There’s insufficient evidence of societal or individual harm from homosexuality while we observe benefits such as providing parent-less children an opportunity grow up in a loving bi-parent environment, creating less overall human suffering.

Morality boils down to what’s good or bad for us, society. It’s the trial and error process of figuring out and weighing what’s most advantageous to society with the least suffering to or infringement on the individual. Traffic laws make a perfect microcosm of all morality in that we just do our best as a cooperative society to determine how to keep society and the individuals within thriving and as free of suffering as possible.

Introvertible
May 21, 2012

Good points.

I reject the whole "choice vs. nature" debate because of the implication that, if it's natural, it's right. The very foundations of the Christian faith are steeped in the knowledge that our nature (see: what is natural) is sinful.

I think the church has really marginalized a lot of the gay community by framing this debate. As if it's a choice completely free of natural impulse. As if a man were normally attracted to women, but decided to spend the rest of his life having sex with men because... hey, why not?

The gay community is right to point this out for being as absurd as it is.

When we sin, it's not just a choice, but it's natural - an impulse. That's why we do it, we're giving into what Paul called "the flesh" (again, see: natural).

The church has continually acted as if being gay is a "special" sin. It's not.

That all being said, if we treat it like any other sin - and we should - we do need to communicate it as being sinful. We can't change them, only God can (which is why I reject so many of the hurtful so-called therapies) but we do have to be honest.

We all have to struggle against what is natural for us - it's part of the Christian narrative and it's the antithesis of what popular culture tells you. Yet we've found genetic links for addiction, aggression, and obesity.

How does that look in the life of a gay man or woman? I don't know, I imagine it looks differently for different people. I do know that it's a huge burden and requires our humility, not our judgement, as they bear it.

It would make life so much easier for the Christians in this country if they were pro-gay. But they can't be, not if they give more credence to God than to man.

Jason Summers
May 30, 2012

Thanks for your comments.

I think you are on the right track in respect to noting that we need to consider not just individuals, but also society. Of course, I would suggest that determining what is good for society once we allow that the good constitutes more than simply maximization of utility for the individuals it comprises requires that we have some means of discerning the ends of society so that we can know what a thriving society is.

js

Paul Cummings
March 27, 2013

While the act of sex between two people of the same gender outside of marriage is a sin, so to is the act of sex between a man and woman outside of marriage. Homosexuality is a word that appears in some translations of the bible and does not in others. Nature vs nurture when trying to determine choice over genetics is irrelevant when the individual involved believes they were born that way. I for one, at 54 years old, have been homosexual for as long as I can remember. I fervently prayed that my God would take the attraction to men away for years and years but sometimes God does say no and He does so for a reason. My career ended up being based on dealing with homosexual men and women who have been chastised, judged, beaten, demoralized, hated and even shunned by..... Christians. I am Christian, have accepted Christ as my saviour, devoted my life to Christ, live my life to the best of my ability mirroring my saviour, choose to follow the teachings of the bible and am celibate and single, serve at the church I attend in the office and on Sundays, lead a men's bible study group, and I still am a homosexual. In my case the only choice I've made is to follow Christ and his teachings. Why does there have to be absolute proof for people to accept that homosexuality exists and in most cases, like mine, is not a choice. My life and the love of God is all the proof I need to know that I am not an abomination or sick or in need of healing or changing who I am attracted too. God DID create me this way, he chooses to use me as I am to spread His word and His love to those who feel abandoned, Godless and alone. He isn't wondering if my orientation is as a result of nature vs nurture because He knows I was created in His image, to do His work to the best of my ability, and didn't heal me when I so fervently prayed because He knows, I was not a mistake when I was created.

Add your comment to join the discussion!