A Philosopher's Blog

Is Homosexuality a Choice?

Posted in Ethics, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 22, 2010
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Colorado Senate candidate Ken Buck opened a can of worms during a recent political debate:

GREGORY: Do you believe that being gay is a choice?

BUCK: I do.

GREGORY: Based on what?

BUCK: Based on what? I guess you can choose who your partner is.

GREGORY: You don’t think it’s something that’s determined at birth?

BUCK: I think that birth has an influence over it, like alcoholism and some other things, but I think that basically, you have a choice.

Not surprisingly, Buck has been subject to harsh criticism for his claim. Some folks are critical because he considered that sexual orientation might involve a factor other than choice. Others are critical because he compared being gay to alcoholism and alcoholism is considered a disease, something negative and also something that can (and should be) treated. While Buck might not have intended to do so, his remark does raise some interesting philosophical matters.

Interestingly enough, I do agree with Buck to a degree. As Buck does point out, it certainly seems reasonable to think that a person has choice in selecting his or her partner (or partners for folks who swing that way). That sort of behavior does seem to be a matter of choice. Buck also makes the point that he thinks that birth has an influence on sexual orientation. This is certainly compatible with a person choosing his/her partner. This would, obviously enough, also apply to straight people as well. So, while I was (presumably) born straight, my actual chosen behavior and choice of partners is still a matter of choice.  For example, I might have a preference for tall women with black hair, but might chose a shorter woman with brown hair as a matter of choice. Likewise, a person might be inclined towards men, but elect to partner with a woman.

Of course, Buck was not pilloried for claiming that people are influenced by factors but still have a large degree of choice. He was attacked because of the comparison to alcoholism. This comparison is actually well worth considering.

I do not think that homosexuality is like alcoholism in regards to the negative aspects. I do not think that homosexuality is an impairing  disease that should be cured. However, the comparison is worth considering in other ways.

The classic view of alcoholism and addiction was that people chose their behavior and that they had failed morally because of the poor choices. The current view that is in vogue, at least in the United States, is that addiction is not a matter of choice. In one sense this is right: a person cannot consciously chose to enter or leave a state of addiction like clicking a button. But what is most interesting is that a complex set of behavior (acquiring and using alcohol) is sometimes taken as not being a matter of choice on the part of the alcoholic.

This could, of course, be the case. After all, the notion of determinism (in its various forms) is well established in philosophy. If determinism is correct then alcoholism would not be a matter of choice. Nor would homosexuality. Nor would comparing homosexuals to alcoholics. This would be because nothing would be a matter of choice. In this case, saying that alcoholism or homosexuality is not a matter of choice would not be particularly interesting since nothing would be a matter of choice.

However, not all forms of determinism are total in their scope. That is, there are views in which certain things are (or could be) a matter of choice (whatever that might mean) and other things that are not. Perhaps alcoholism is one thing that is not a matter of choice. This might mean that alcoholics have no choice at all or it might merely mean that certain people are born with an inclination towards alcoholism that they did not select. This would, perhaps, leave the actualization of the potential alcoholism to choice. Perhaps sexual orientation is the same way: people are born with various inclinations that serve to map out their potential sexuality. Then their choices and the events of life serve to actualize those potentials, making people what they are based on who they do (to misuse Aristotle horribly).

While there is excellent evidence that we are at least influenced by “innate” factors (such as genetics), it also seems that we have a range of agency. Then again, perhaps we do not. In any case, the question of the extent of our agency (our capacity for choice) is a matter of great importance, be it in regards to alcoholism, sexual orientation, or anything else.

So, did you chose your sexual orientation? Your partner? How much you drink? How much you drink with your partner?

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17 Responses

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on October 22, 2010 at 8:11 am

    What if he had compared pedophilia to alcoholism? No problem?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 22, 2010 at 11:34 am

      The alcoholics might complain. However, some folks do consider them similar in terms of the causal mechanisms and the general pattern that a person engages in harmful behavior based on what they see as a compulsion.

  2. greatgallimaufry said, on October 22, 2010 at 8:40 am

    I think it’s harmful to compare homosexuality to alcoholism, because as you suggest, it makes it out to be a disease.

    Personally, I think that the question of homosexuality as being a choice or innate is not nearly as important as the larger issue of civil rights for homosexuals. As with heterosexuals, homosexuals have the right to live their lives just as they choose, so long as it’s between two consenting adults. This right extends to marriage, although current federal law doesn’t reflect this.

    • T. J. Babson said, on October 22, 2010 at 11:21 am

      “…so long as it’s between two consenting adults.”

      Why stop at two?

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 22, 2010 at 11:35 am

        Why indeed? :)

        • greatgallimaufry said, on October 22, 2010 at 9:41 pm

          Good point.

      • kernunos said, on October 25, 2010 at 9:32 pm

        Why stop at people. A man in Maine married his dog, or was it at least a common-law marriage?

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 26, 2010 at 2:18 pm

          Well, animals cannot provide informed consent and thus cannot enter into contracts.

          • kernunos said, on October 27, 2010 at 11:55 am

            He says she consents. ;)

          • magus71 said, on November 5, 2010 at 4:17 am

            who says contracts? what about sex?

  3. Greg Camp said, on October 25, 2010 at 3:56 pm

    When I talk with people who claim that homosexuality is solely a choice, I always ask, “When did you choose?”

    Perhaps you ought to have included some disucssion here of the Kinsey scale. Most people aren’t exclusively gay or straight, so for them, their partners are a matter of choice. Casting this topic as an either/or simplifies it too much.

    I do suspect that attraction is the kind of thing that gets “decided” a long time before sexuality makes sense to us.

  4. magus71 said, on November 2, 2010 at 4:55 am

    I don’t think that homosexuality is “solely a choice”. I believe it’s a culture, a point in a person’s ‘evolution”, a culmination of his total experience, choices and ethical outlook.

    So, I do not believe it can be termed a genetic attribute. I can choose not to do almost anything. To use an extreme example, i can even choose to not eat.

    The ancient Greeks practiced it almost univerally. was it genetic then?

    • erik said, on November 2, 2010 at 11:07 am

      You can choose not to be a hetero. Priests do it all the time Oh that’s right when they fail no one beats them and ties them to a fence to die or drags them behind trucks. That not eating example is good. How long can you do that? a lifetime? Until society accepts your choice?

      • magus71 said, on November 5, 2010 at 4:16 am

        “Oh that’s right when they fail no one beats them and ties them to a fence to die or drags them behind trucks.”

        What percentage of murders are motivated by the victim’s homosexuality? Murdering homosexuals is illegal right? There’s no systemic endorsement of killing them, correct?

        You still didn’t prove that choice has nothing to do with being gay.

        • erik said, on December 5, 2010 at 3:00 pm

          I’m glad Asur posted recently, or I’d have missed this one.

          What, specifically, is incorrect about the statement you quote from my response? Do priests get killed when they fail at their attempts to be celibate? Or are they simply moved to different parishes?

          Do those who choose to starve themselves receive similar punishment from society? You introduced the goofy “choosing-not-to-eat” example. As you know, just about anybody can choose to fast (not eat?) for different lengths of time. Why, even you, magus, can choose to cease eating permanently. And if you succeed, no one will tie you to a fence to die or drag you behind a truck because, guess what, you’ll already be dead!

          For your “choice argument” to work, you’ll have to do much much better.

          “What percentage of murders are motivated by the victim’s homosexuality?”
          This is an intriguing question, and I assume you asked it because a)you already know the answer, or b) you know full well it’s impossible to know a certain answer, or c) you just wanted to let us know who the real victim (the heterosexual) is. The question seems to imply that somehow the murderer(a homophobe let’s say), has a right to claim “HE’S” the real victim because the other guy’s a homosexual. Talk about playing the victim card!

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 2, 2010 at 11:34 am

      Actions are chosen, preferences are shaped.

      • Asur said, on December 5, 2010 at 2:20 pm

        I like that distinction.

        So, if we define homosexuality as sexual preference for the same gender (meaning that one could engage solely in heterosexual behavior and still be a homosexual), then it is not a choice and one can be ‘born’ homosexual.

        If, however, we define homosexuality as sexual action with the same gender (accepting that action is being), then it is a matter of choice.

        Definition by preference seems problematic in that it permits performative contradiction…accepting it, it would seem that we would be forced to accept other performative contradictions as well, such as granting that someone could routinely engage in misogynistic behavior and still be a feminist so long as they internally identified with feminism — which seems a bit far-fetched.

        The ‘being as action’ definition — you are what you do — seems more sensible in comparison, even though I’m sure it doesn’t do justice to the qualitative, subjective experience of being gay.


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