A Philosopher's Blog

Can homosexuality be involuntary and still a sin?

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on June 8, 2007

A while ago I read an article about how some religious conservatives are vehemently opposed to the idea that sexual orientation might be affected or even determined by factors other than voluntary choice. Their concern stems from two factors. First, their belief that homosexuality is a sin and hence wrong. Second is their likely acceptance of the view that only voluntary actions and choices can be considered right or wrong. This view is rather plausible and is nicely supported by our moral intuitions. If, for example, I get angry and plow my truck into a crowd of innocent people, then I have done something wrong. If I round the corner in my truck at a reasonable speed, hit a patch of oil before I can react and spin into a crowd, then it was a terrible accident but not an evil action. The difference is, of course, between choice and chance.

Given the distinction just made, if sexual orientation is not a matter of choice, then it would certainly seem that homosexuals cannot be regarded as immoral. People could, of course, regard their lifestyles as unfortunate accidents. Some social conservatives do take this stance. Consistent with this view, they often propose ways of treating homosexuals in order to make them heterosexual. Naturally, this assumes that the heterosexual way of life is a preferable lifestyle. This can, some might argue, be done without imposing a moral judgment. After all, when a doctor gives me antibiotics for a sinus infection he is not making a moral judgment but a medical judgment. Of course, the distinction between health and illness is something that does not seem to clearly apply in the case of heterosexual and homosexual orientations. But, let us lay aside this problem and move along.

Is sexual orientation a matter of choice? The evidence does generally seem to point against it. In addition to the infamous studies of gay sheep, there is also the intuition test. When I think about my own sexual orientation (very, very straight) I do not recall making a conscious choice in the matter. I simply find women attractive and men not…and this just seems to be the way I am. I suspect it is analogous to my taste in food. I rather like pie and I don’t like broccoli. I didn’t consciously make that decision-it is just the way I am. Of course, I’m not an expert in the biological and social sciences, so my opinion is not worth all that much here, at least not beyond the logic of the argument itself.

Getting back to the main matter of concern, let us assume that sexual orientation is not a matter of choice. Given this assumption, can homosexuality be considered immoral on religious grounds? The answer is “yes”, but this requires some rather controversial assumptions.

The first assumption is that God actually forbids homosexuality. Leviticus does list homosexuality among the many things that God allegedly considers to be abominable. The list also includes sea food, so we can also infer that God is not a big fan of Red Lobster.

The second assumption is that what God forbids is morally wrong. What he forbids could be wrong because He forbids it (this is Divine Command Theory) or He could forbid it because it is wrong. Either way, let us assume it is wrong and not take a side trip into the Euthyphro Problem.

The third assumption is that something can be immoral even when it is not a matter of choice. In other words, the moral intuition that an action has to be freely chosen in order to be good or evil must be rejected.

As argued above, our moral intuitions tend towards the view that an action is evil only when it is freely chosen. However, this intuition can be argued against on theological grounds in two ways.

First, most varieties of Christian thought accept the notion of original sin. The basic idea is that Adam and Eve disobeyed God and this action taints all humans through all time. Obviously, only Adam and Eve committed the immoral action and all other humans had no choice in the matter. Yet, all humans are tainted with evil because of this action.

Now, if original sin can taint all humans and thus make them sinners, then it follows that sin need not be a matter of choice. So, a person could have no choice in their sexual orientation and yet, if they happened to be homosexual, be sinners and hence evil. They would be tainted with homosexuality in addition to the original sin taint.

Of course, on this view all people are sinners. So, those who heed the words of Jesus would not cast literal or metaphorical stones at homosexuals. After all, none of us would be without sin. That is a nice bit of irony.

Further, if we are all sinners, then there seems to be no grounds to be especially condemning of homosexuality or any other sin. The fact that everyone is evil has the rather interesting effect of making moral judgments rather problematic, yet so very easy. Yes, homosexuals would be evil…but so would everyone else. This result seems a bit problematic, so perhaps there is another approach that will work better.

As a second attempt, consider that some varieties of Christian thought accept the notion of pre-destination. The idea is that your ultimate fate (Heaven or Hell) is determined in advance. You have no choice in the matter and your life unfolds in accord with God’s will.

Those who accept this view believe that those condemned to Hell deserve their fate because they have sinned against God. Naturally, the standard view is that everyone is a sinner because of original sin. Those who get to go to Heaven are arbitrarily spared by God. It must be arbitrary because everyone is a sinner and no one deserves Heaven. This is nicely spelled out in Jonathan Edwards classic “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

On this view, homosexuals are pre-destined to be homosexuals and have no choice in the matter. They are sinners and will be cast into Hell (or perhaps not-since God is arbitrary in whom He saves, perhaps He will save some homosexuals). So, being homosexual would not be a matter of choice, yet it would still be evil. Of course, on this view everyone is evil and deserves Hell. This leads us back to the exact same problem caused by original sin without predestination.

So, it would seem that homosexuality need not be a matter of choice to be immoral. The only problem is that getting to that conclusion seems to also lead to the conclusion that everyone is an evil sinner.

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  1. supermannino said, on June 12, 2007 at 11:56 pm

    I would point out that there is a place in Leviticus in which God lays out the manner in which the Israelites must make sacrifices for “unintentional sins.” So…the man-made theory that something has to be intentional in order to be a sin doesn’t really jibe with that.

    Based on your logic and just natural observation, yeah, I would definitely say that all people are born into sin. But…I don’t see anything in Scripture (or life, for that matter) that would lead me to believe that a person could change if they wanted to. We are a culture of excuses. I have things in my life that I struggle with (maybe more because of my upbringing or life circumstances or genetics or whatever). The bottom line is that I could dwell on those things and use them as a crutch to stay the way I am, or I can change. Now, I can be harsh when referring to myself. But, with others, that would seem far too judgmental to say. I do believe, though, that people believe lies about themselves which cripples them from tasting life.


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