A Philosopher's Blog

Orientation & Ethics

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on February 19, 2014
English: Gender symbols, sexual orientation: h...

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When discussing the ethics of sexual orientation, it is not uncommon for people to draw comparisons between being gay and being a rapist, pedophile, practitioner of bestiality or a necrophiliac.  My stock response to such comparisons is that there is at least one glaringly obvious difference between being gay and engaging in the sexual behavior mentions. To specific, rapists, pedophiles and so forth engage in sexual behavior that does not involve the consent of their victims. This, in part, makes their behavior immoral. There is also the fact that cases involving sexual coercion inflict harm on the victim. As such, consensual sex between homosexuals would seem to be nothing like those other things. Obviously enough, homosexual rape and homosexual pedophilia would be wrong—but because of the rape and pedophilia.

While it seems impossible to deny that consensual homosexual sex differs from rape and such in regards to consent, there are those who do claim that homosexuality is itself wrong. The question is, obviously enough, this: in what does its wrongness consist?

I’ll run through some scenarios and questions that I hope will lead to some consideration and discussion.

Imagine two married couples: Sam & Ashley and Mel & Fran.  Suppose that Sam and Ashley have the following relationship: they love each other, treat each other well, only have consensual sex, and are faithful to each other. Suppose that Mel and Fran have the following relationship: Mel does not love Fran, Mel treats Fran badly, Mel rapes Fran when Fran is unwilling to consent, and Mel has affairs regularly.

Given just this information, which relationship is morally superior? Why? Now, suppose that Sam and Ashley are the same sex while Mel and Fran have different sexes. Given this information, which relationship is morally superior? Why? Now, suppose that Sam and Ashely are different sexes while Mel and Fran are the same sex. Is this worse than the scenario in which Sam and Ashley are a straight couple? Why? Or why not?

Based on arguments I have seen before, some might argue that the scenario in which Sam and Ashley are a same sex couple is impossible. That is, people of the same sex cannot love each other, or have only consensual sex, or treat each other well, or be faithful. This could, of course, be argued—but arguments would be what is needed. However, even if it is argued that the scenario could not occur, there would still be the interesting question of whether such a (hypothetical) scenario would be morally superior to the scenario in which the straight couple’s situation involves rape, infidelity and abuse.

Overall, this matter can be distilled down the following question: what is intrinsically wrong, if anything, with being homosexual—even in the context of what would be considered an ideal relationship if it held between heterosexuals.

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Homosexuality, Choice & Engineering

Posted in Ethics, Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on February 14, 2014
English: Venn diagram depicting the relationsh...

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In my previous essay I rambled a bit about homosexuality and choice. The main point of this was to set up this essay, which focuses on the ethics of engineering people to be straight.

In general terms, sexual orientation is either a choice or it is not (though choice can be a matter of degree). Currently, many of the people who are against homosexuality take the view that it is a matter of choice. This allows them to condemn homosexuality and to push for methods aimed at motivating people to choose to be straight. Many of those who are at least tolerant of homosexuality contend that sexual orientation is not a matter of choice. They are, of course, careful to take the view that being homosexual is more like being left-handed than having an inherited disease. This view is taken as justification for at least tolerating homosexuality and as a reason to not allow attempts to push homosexuals in an impossible effort to get them to choose to be straight.

For the sake of this essay, let it be assumed that homosexuality is not a matter of choice—a person is either born with her orientation or it develops in a way that is beyond her choice. To blame or condemn the person would be on par with blaming a person for being born with blue eyes or to condemn a person for being left-handed. As such, if homosexuality is not a choice, then it would be unjust to condemn or blame a person for her sexual orientation. This seems reasonable.

Ironically, this line of reasoning might make it morally permissible to change a person’s orientation from gay to straight. The argument for this is as follows.

As has been supposed, a person’s sexual orientation is not a matter of choice: she is either born that way or becomes that way without being able to effect the result. The person is thus a “victim” of whatever forces made her that way. If these forces had been different in certain ways, then she would have had a different sexual orientation—either by chance or by the inexorable machinery of determinism. Given that the person is not making a choice either way, it would seem to be morally acceptable for these factors to be altered to ensure a specific orientation. To use an analogy, I did not choose my eye color and it would not matter, it would seem, whether this was due to a natural process or due to an intentional intervention on the part of others (by modifying me genetically). After all, the choice is not mine either way.

It could be replied that other people would not have the right to make the choice—that it should be left to blind chance (or blind determinism). This does have some merit—whatever they do to change a person, they would be morally accountable for. However, from the standpoint of the person, there would seem to be no difference: they do not get a choice either way. I ended up with blue eyes by chance, but if I was engineered to have green eyes, then the result would be the same: my eye color would not be my choice. I ended a heterosexual, but if I had been engineered to be a homosexual, I would have had no more or less choice.

Thus, robbing a person of choice would not be a moral concern here: if a person does not get a choice, she cannot be robbed of that choice. What is, however, of moral concern is the ethics of the choice being made to change (or not change) the person. If the change is beneficial, such as changing a person so that her heart develops properly rather than failing before she is born, then it would seem to be the right thing to do. If the change is harmful, such as altering the person’s brain so that he suffers from paranoia and psychosis, then it would seem to be the wrong thing to do.

In the matter at hand, the key concern would be whether making a person a heterosexual or a homosexual would be good or bad. As noted above, since it is assumed that sexual orientation is not a choice, engineering a person to be straight or gay would not be robbing them of a choice. Also, the change of orientation can be assumed to be thorough so that a person would be equally happy either way. In this case, the right choice would seem to be a matter of consequences: would a person be more or less likely to be happy straight or not? Given the hostility that still exists towards homosexuals, it would seem that engineering people to be straight would be the right choice.

This might strike some as horrifying and a form of orientation genocide (oriocide?) in which homosexuals are eliminated. Or, more accurately, homosexuality is eliminated. After all, the people who would have been homosexual (by change or by the mechanisms of determinism) would instead be straight, but they would still presumably be the same people they would be if they were gay (unless sexual orientation is an essential quality in Aristotle’s sense of the term). If orientation is not a choice, it would seem that this would not matter: no one is robbed of a choice because one cannot be robbed of what one never possessed.

A rather interesting question remains: if sexual orientation is not a choice, what harm would be done if everyone where engineered to be straight? Or gay?

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Homosexuality & Choice

Posted in Ethics, Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on February 12, 2014
English: Gender symbols, sexual orientation: h...

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Since the matter of choice is rather interesting to me, it is hardly a shock that I would be interested in the question of whether or not sexual orientation is a choice. One obvious problem with trying to settle this matter is that it seems impossible to prove (or disprove) the existence of the capacity for choice. As Kant argued, free will seems to lie beyond the reach of our knowledge. As such, it would seem that it could not be said with confidence that a person’s sexual orientation is a matter of choice. But, this is nothing special: the same can be said about the person’s political party, religion, hobbies and so on.

Laying aside the metaphysical speculation, it can be assumed (or perhaps pretended) that people do have a choice in some matters. Given this assumption, the question would seem to be whether sexual orientation legitimately belongs in the category of things that can be reasonably assumed to be matters of choice.

On the face of it, sexual orientation seems to fall within the realm of sexual preference. That is, in the domain of what a person finds sexually appealing and attractive. This seems to fall within a larger set of what a person finds appealing and attractive.

At this time, it seems reasonable to believe that what people find appealing and attractive has some foundation in neural hardwiring rather than in what could be regarded as choice. For example, humans apparently find symmetrical faces more attractive than non-symmetrical faces and this is not a matter of choosing to prefer one over another. Folks who like evolution tend to claim that this preference exists because those with symmetrical faces are often healthier and hence better for breeding purposes.

Food preferences probably also involve hard wiring: humans really like salty and sweet foods and the usual explanation also ties into evolution. For example, sweet foods are high calorie foods but are rare in nature, hence our ancestors who really liked sweets did better at surviving than those who did not really like sweets. Or some such story of survival of the sweetest.

Given the assumption that there are such hardwired preferences, it is conceivable that sexual preferences also involve some hardwiring. So, for example, a person might be hardwired to have a preference for sexual partners with light hair over those with dark hair.  Then again, the preference might be based on experience—the person might have had positive experiences with those with light hair and thus was conditioned to have that preference. The challenge is, of course, to sort out the causal role of hard wiring from the causal role of experience (including socialization). What is left over might be what could be regarded as choice.

In the case of sexual orientation, it seems reasonable to have some doubts about experience being the primary factor. After all, homosexual behavior has long been condemned, discouraged and punished. As such, it seems less likely that people would be socialized into being homosexual—especially in places where being homosexual is punishable by death. However, this is not impossible—perhaps people could be somehow socialized into being gay by all the social efforts to make them be straight.

In regards to hardwiring for sexual orientation, that seems to have some plausibility. This is mainly because there seems to be a lack of evidence that homosexuality is chosen. Assuming that the options are choice, nature or nurture, then eliminating choice and nurture would leave nature. But, of course, this could be a false trilemma: there might be other options.

It can be objected that people do chose homosexual behavior and thus being homosexual is a choice. While this does have some appeal, it is important to distinguish between a person’s orientation and what the person choses to do. A person might be heterosexual and chose to engage in homosexual activity in order to gain the protection of a stronger male in prison. A homosexual might elect to act like a heterosexual to avoid being killed. However, this choices would not seem to change their actual orientation. As such, I tend to hold that orientation is not a choice but that behavior is a matter of choice.

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Religious Freedom & Discrimination

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on November 11, 2013
Sexuality confusion

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As this is being written, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act passed in the Senate and is awaiting the consideration of the House. This bill would protect employees from being fired based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. The bill exempts businesses that have less than 15 employees, religious non-profits, government owned businesses and businesses owned by Native American tribes.

Speaking against this bill, Republican Senator Dan Coats claimed that it violates the religious freedom of businesses owners. In making his case, he used the example of how faith-based daycare providers “could be forced to hire individuals with views contrary to the faith incorporated values of the daycare providers.” He also raised the concern that the bill also violated the right to free speech because it would “also would allow employers to be held liable to workplace environment complaints opening the door to the silencing of employees who express their deeply held beliefs.” There are two general issues here that I will address in turn.

The first issue is whether or not forbidding discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity is a violation of the religious freedom of business owners.

Business owners do not lose their right to religious freedom just because they own a business. As such, they are free to hold to whatever religious belief (or disbelief) that they wish. However, the law can justly limit how they can act on those beliefs. For example, a person can freely worship a deity that they believe demands human sacrifice but they should not be granted an exemption in regards to the laws against murdering humans. In this case, the harms that would arise by allowing human sacrifice outweigh concerns about religious freedom. That is, the right of people not to be murdered trumps the right of people to freely exercise their faith.

In the case of the anti-discrimination law, the core question is whether or not the right of the owner to act on his religious belief trumps the right of employees not to be discriminated against. It is, of course, assumed that employees have such a right—but it could be argued that there is no such right and that employers should have the right to fire anyone, anytime for any reason. In this case, any laws that limited this alleged right would be wrong—thus making it morally acceptable for people to be fired for being Christian, straight, blue-eyed, ugly, smart, black, white, or anything at all. Presumably this would also allow employees to be fired for not having sex with the boss. This, however, seems absurd. As such, it seems reasonable to assume that employees have a right to be protected against discrimination.

It could be argued that firing someone solely on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identification would not be discrimination. However, firing an employee solely because of her sexual orientation or gender identification would clearly seem to be discrimination by its very nature. After all, the person is being fired for a reason that is not relevant to the job in question. This would also apply to non-firing cases, such as underpaying an employee. Naturally, if a person’s behavior arising from her sexual orientation or gender identity did impact her job in relevant ways, then the employer could act against the employee without it being discrimination. But this would be acting based on the detrimental behavior, not the orientation or identity.

Thus, it comes down to whether or not an employer should have the right to fire, etc.  an employee solely for the reason that the employee has a sexual orientation or gender identity that the employer regards as being against his religious beliefs. Given that the employee is not providing any other justification for being fired, etc. the answer would seem to be “no.” After all, firing someone solely for his sexual orientation or gender identity would be on par with firing someone solely because he was a Christian or Latino. If the employer had a faith that involved regarding being a Christian as wicked or one that involved racism that would not provide an exemption. Crudely put, just because someone has a bigoted and prejudiced faith that does not thus warrant his acting on it.

As a final argument, there is the fact that the harm done to employees would exceed the harm being done to employers. The fact that a religious person might have to endure having gay, women, Christian or Asian employees creates far less harm than allowing employers to engage in discrimination. Thus, the right to religious freedom does not trump the right to not be discriminated against.

The second issue is whether or not the right to free speech protects employees expressing religious beliefs in the workplace when these expressions express discriminatory views against the sexual orientation or gender identity of employees.

This issue is, obviously, very similar to the previous one. In this case, the question is whether or not the right to free expression trumps the right to not be subject to discriminatory expressions in the workplace.

On the face of it, there generally seems to be no compelling reason why people would need to express their views about sexual orientation or gender identity while at work—even if someone had faith-based views of these matters that involved regarding, for example, being gay as wicked.  To use the obvious analogy, there seems to generally be no compelling reason why people would need to express their views about race while at work—even if they had faith based views on these matters that involved, for example, ideas of white supremacy. In contrast, expressing discriminatory views against the sexual orientation or gender identity of people in the workplace would create a hostile workplace and this would be a harm. As such, the right of freedom of expression does not seem to trump the right of people to not be subject to such expressions in the workplace.

Crudely put, requiring people to not engage in discriminatory expression (whether it is faith based or not) while in the workplace imposes less of a burden than requiring people to endure it in the workplace.

In regards to both issues, one could argue that certain sexual orientations or gender identities are such that they would warrant firing a person and also speaking out in the workplace against them. For example, firing a person from a daycare job because he is a pedophile or speaking out against pedophiles in the workplace would not seem to unjustly discriminate against pedophiles.

The question would then be whether or not the protected sexual orientations and gender identities are such that merely having one would warrant firing, etc. a person. In regards to the sexual orientations and gender identities covered by the bill, the answer would seem to clearly be “no.”

Thus, it would seem that religious freedom and free speech do not warrant workplace prejudice.


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More Gay Marriage

Posted in Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 6, 2010
"Defend Equality Now", a poster agai...

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Judge Walker recently ruled that California’s Proposition 8 is unconstitutional. For those who have been watching Jersey Shore and not the news, Proposition 8 banned same sex marriage in California. The proposition had passed with 52% of the vote. Not surprisingly, those who are opposed to same sex marriage have been quick to argue against this ruling.

One argument is based on the view that a judge should not undo the will of the people. Sarah Palin, for example, made a point of criticizing how the third branch of government had done just that.

This line of argument does have a certain appeal. After all, having a single person’s decision override the decision of  52% of those voting would seem to run counter to the very notion of democracy. After all, one might argue, whatever the majority (however slim) decides must be followed by everyone.  Majority rule, one might say, trumps everything.

However, unfettered majority rule is neither the reality nor is it desirable. As Mill argues in his writing on liberty, the tyranny of the majority is something that must be guarded against in a free society.

One way to look at this is to note that while majority rule is a core value, it is not the only value. There are other values, such as freedom, that must be defended against even the will of the majority. To use an example, even if a majority of people voted to restore slavery in the United States, this should not be allowed on the grounds that it would be a gross violation of the right to liberty.

Changing gears to the legal and political aspect of the matter, there is the fact that the states are obligated to obey the Constitution (based on the agreement to do so). This means that even a majority in a single state lacks the legal right to pass laws that violate the Constitution. True, the Constitution can be changed-but not by a single state.

As such, it is not a single person’s decision that is overriding the will of the majority. Rather, it is the constitution, which was duly ratified by the states,  that is overriding the will of a majority in one single state. Thus, the will of the people has not been violated by this decision.

A second argument is that because the judge is openly gay he is biased in the matter and hence should not be ruling on the proposition.

On the face of it, this argument seems to be a mere ad hominem. It could also be seen as absurd. After all, the same sort of reasoning could be applied to a judge ruling on, for example, on an environmental issue: “the judge breaths air, so she is biased in favor of clean air.” Someone might even point out the obvious parallel: if a gay judge must be biased in favor of same sex marriage, then it would seem to follow that a straight judge must be biased against it. As such, we would need a judge with no sexual orientation at all to rule on this matter.

However, the bias argument does merit some consideration. Since the judge is apparently involved in a stable relationship and might want to get married, his ruling has the potential to benefit him personally. Perhaps this is comparable to having a judge who owns considerable stock in a company presiding over a case involving that company. In that case, the judge would have a clear conflict of interest that could very well lead to a biased judgment.

Of course, there are situations in which a judge might benefit from a ruling and yet not be subject to a reasonable charge of bias. For example, a judge who really likes snack foods might uphold a law that prevents snack food companies from selling products containing a dangerous chemical. While it is clearly in his interest to have his snacks untainted, this hardly seems to be a case of bias.

As another example, imagine a conservative judge who ruled against a liberal law. Since he is conservative, it might be suspected that his ruling was based on a conservative bias and not based on the law. As such, if a gay judge should not rule on a law banning gay marriage, then conservative judges should not rule on liberal laws.  After all, they would be biased.

To use an even better example, imagine an Hispanic judge who rules against a law that bans Hispanics from living in a particular town. While she might be inclined to oppose the law because she is Hispanic, it would be odd to challenge such a ruling on the grounds of bias since it seems to be well grounded in anti-discrimination law.  However, if the judge made it clear that her decision was based solely on her being Hispanic and not on the law, then the charge of bias would stick.

Turning back to same sex marriage, a key question is this: did Walker base his ruling on constitutional grounds or was it based primarily on his (alleged) desire to get married? If his reasoning was based on constitutional grounds, then the charge of bias would seem to be a mere ad hominem. However, if evidence can be found that his ruling was based primarily on his own desires, then his judgement would be biased.

This seems to be a reasonable test for bias. To use an analogy, imagine that a student gets an F on a paper in my class. He then accuses me of being biased against him because he wrote a paper about how philosophy and philosophy professors are useless.  That is, I failed him because I do not like him.

On the face of it, a philosophy professor would take a negative view of such a position. However, the mere fact that I might take issue with such a position does not suffice to show bias. What would be needed is evidence that the paper was graded incorrectly (that is, the paper is better than an F) and that this unfair grading was based on my disliking him.

If the paper were examined by an appropriate committee and judged to be of F quality, then the claim that I was biased would be effectively refuted. Even if the paper were found to be, for example, of better than F quality this would not be enough to establish bias. After all, I might just be a hard grader. Determining that I acted from bias would require comparing the paper to other papers in the class. So, if all papers of comparable quality received the same grade, this would be evidence of a lack of bias.

Thus, the real issue is not the judge’s sexual orientation. The real concern is whether the ruling is properly grounded or not.

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Orientation & Choice

Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 16, 2010
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When people debate about topics such as same sex marriage and “don’t ask, don’t tell”  the discussion inevitably turns to whether being a homosexual is a matter of choice or not.

When discussing the matter of choice, it is important to distinguish between sexual orientation and sexual behavior. Laying aside the broader metaphysical question of choice, sexual behavior seems to be primarily a matter of choice. That is, the sort of sexual activities a person actually engages in are (with notable exceptions such as being the victim of rape) are consciously selected by that person.

Interestingly enough, a distinction can be drawn between those who chose to engage in homosexual behavior and those who are homosexuals. As one example, it has been claimed that some men in prison who have sex with other men  still regard themselves as heterosexual. To use an analogy, perhaps this is comparable to someone who sees herself as a vegetarian, but eats meat when that is the only food available. As another example, apparently some allegedly straight men participate in gay pornography because of the better pay. To use an analogy, this would be somewhat like a painter who decides to take a job as a graphic designer because he can make more money that way (yet who still remains a painter in his heart).

It must be said, however, that it might seem a bit odd for a man who has sex with men to claim that he is still straight. After all, one might argue, that would seem to be what it means for a man to be a homosexual. To use an analogy, if someone claims to be a baseball player, yet plays football rather than baseball, it would be rather odd for that person to make that claim. But, the analogy might not hold in this case.

While there is some debate about this, there are also hom0sexuals who chose to not engage in homosexual behavior, yet still think of themselves as homosexual. For example, a person might see himself as gay yet also decide to practice abstinence.  This does seem to make sense. After all, if a person can be a heterosexual and practice abstinence, then the same should be true of homosexuals.

A person might also decide to engage in heterosexual behavior to meet social expectations or to avoid being persecuted for being a homosexual.  In such cases, the person would still be gay but would be acting straight. While it might be argued that to act straight is to be straight, people can behave in a certain way while actually not being that way. The obvious short term example is acting: an actor playing the role of a scientist might have no interest in or knowledge of science. A more long term example would be a spy or an undercover police officer. As such, a person could behavior one way sexually and yet not actually be that way. Of course, the question remains as to what it means to be that way.

One easy and obvious way to look at sexual orientation is in terms of preferences. A person who is a heterosexual would prefer to have sex with someone of the opposite sex. A person who is a homosexual prefers those of the same sex. Naturally, preference can be a complicated and nuanced matter. For example, a person might think of himself as heterosexual in that he would prefer sex with attractive woman, but he might prefer an extremely  handsome man over a very ugly woman.  Of course, some might be inclined to say that if there is any scenario in which a person would prefer sex with someone of the same sex over someone of the opposite sex, then this would make them homosexual. If this is the case, then I suspect that many people would be classified as homosexuals.

Fortunately, I do not need a precise definition of homosexuality for this essay. This is because the issue being addressed is the matter of choice rather than an attempt to sort out what it is to be gay or straight. All that is really needed at this point is that orientation is primarily a matter of preference. As such, the question at hand is whether this preference is a matter of choice or not.

One possibility is that it is not a matter of choice. On the face of it, this seems to be a plausible view. As one stock intuition argument goes, most people do not seem to recall ever making such a choice. While this does not prove that it is not a choice, the fact that people seem unable to point to making such a choice does provide support for the claim that it is not a matter of choice.

In my own case, I have no awareness that I chose to be straight. I also have no awareness of selecting my preferences in regards to the type of women I prefer. For example, I have a general preference towards woman with dark hair. However, that does not seem to be something I selected-I cannot think of consciously deciding that I would find dark hair somewhat more appealing than lighter hair. As such, this preference seems to be similar to that of food preferences: I did not decide that I would like pie, I just do.

A second argument is based on the fact that if preference is a choice, then people should be able to change their preference (although this might involve some effort). So, a straight person should be able to chose to be gay and vice versa. A person can, obviously enough, test this by trying to switch his orientation. This, as was argued above, is different from changing behavior. This would require not merely behaving a different way but actually changing one’s preference in the matter. As such, if you think it is a matter of choice, give it a try and see how that works out.

A third argument builds on the second. If sexual preference is a matter of choice, it seems odd that people would not decide to be heterosexual when people were (and are) persecuted and even killed for being homosexuals. It would make no sense to endure such treatment when a person could simply decide to not be that way. Of course, this argument is not decisive. After all, people do make choices that they know will result in harm or even death. For example, people will use drugs even though they put their health at risk and risk being arrested.

Another possibility is that it is a matter of choice. Clearly, it is not a simple choice like deciding between having a Coke or a Pepsi. Nor is it easy, like setting a preference in a computer program (“click the straight button to stop being gay”). However, it could still be a matter of choice. To steal a bit from Aristotle, we become what we do. So, if a person makes choices that leads to a preference for the same sex, than that person can be said to have chosen to be a homosexual. Naturally, there might be factors that incline a person one way or another (experiences, genetics, etc.) but this is true of anything involving choice. Provided that these factors are not overwhelming, then it would seem that orientation could be a matter of choice.

If this is the case, then people could change their orientation through such means. Consider an analogy to food. When I was a kid, I hated green peppers. Or so I thought. When I actually decided to try them and made a conscious effort, I found that I liked them.

Of course, there have been foods that I did try to like and failed (like plantains), So perhaps orientation is more like that. Or perhaps food analogies are a poor choice.

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Do Hate Crime Laws Protect?

Posted in Law, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 1, 2009

President Obama recently signed a hate crime bill, making it into law. Roughly put, the law makes assaulting a person because of sexual orientation or gender identification a federal offense. It has been claimed that this law will help protect people.

Naturally enough, this raises the question whether such a law will help protect people. Presumably what is meant by “protect” is that the law will deter people from committing such assaults. This, of course, assumes that people who commit such crimes will be aware of the law and that the fear of the law will cause them to not engage in attacks they would otherwise conduct if the law did not exist.

On the one hand, people can be deterred by the threat of punishment-especially when the law is a federal law. People presumably have more fear of federal laws than they do of lesser laws because of the greater power of the federal government. As such, there is reason to believe that the law can deter-especially when a high profile case or two makes the law and its consequences widely known to the sort of folks who would be inclined to attack such people.

On the other hand, assaulting someone is already illegal and punishable by the law. Presumably the people who have been assaulting folks who are now protected by this law were aware of this fact, yet they acted anyway. Also, the sort of folks who would be engaging in hate crimes would seem to be the sort of people who are not rational calculators. That is, it seems unlikely that they weigh out the probabilities and consequences before acting. Presumably if they are committing hate crimes, they are driven by hate and would tend to just act on the basis of this emotion.

Of course, the same can be said of any law. When I was an undergrad, one of my professors pointed out that prisons did not really work as deterrents. After all, if they worked, then they would be empty. Of course, it can be replied that the law (and prisons) do not deter everyone, but they do have some deterrent value. As such, this law might deter those folks inclined towards hate crime who are capable of making rational assessments about punishment. Of course, those folks would probably be deterred by the laws relating to assault.

The law does, of course, provide a way to punish people more severely. While this does not necessarily enhance deterrence, it does give the law more retributive force-and perhaps that is part of the appeal.

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More Hate Crimes

Posted in Ethics, Law, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 23, 2009

The United States senate recently passed a piece of legislation that would make assaulting a person because of his/her sexual orientation or gender identity a federal crime. There are already other hate crime laws, such as those relating to race.

Some conservatives are concerned that the law will infringe on their freedom of speech. After all, some conservative groups are strongly opposed to homosexuality, same-sex marriage and other such issues. Their concern is that their criticism of such things could be taken as hate speech and perhaps even as an assault under this new legislation. It has been claimed, however, that the legislation only covers violent actions rather than speech. However, it must be noted that the application of any law is subject to interpretation and hence it is possible that the legislation (or similar laws) could be taken to cover what is regarded as hateful speech.  Obviously, the concern this raises is that such laws can serve to add to the erosion of the freedom of expression and eventually lead to harmful restrictions in such matters. However, let it be assumed that the legislation will apply only to violent actions.

I suspect that the law is intended, in part, to send a message to those who will be protected by the legislation and those who it is intended to protect against. However, I do have concerns about using such a means to send a message.

However, my main concern is a moral one, namely that the legislation seems based on the assumption that an assault on someone because of his/her sexual orientation or gender identity is somehow worse or of greater concern than  an assault on someone for any other (non-hate) reason.

For example, let us suppose that I am running with a friend who is openly gay and cross-dresses. As we run along someone jumps out yells “take that, skinny!” and cuts me on the arm with a knife.  Realizing that the person in the skort (a running skirt) is a guy, the mugger yells “fag!” as he takes a slash at him, also cutting him on the arm. After we subdue the mugger and tie him up with my friend’s tasteful pink running scarf, the police haul him off. Because I’m a straight guy wearing shorts, my cut is a matter of assault and not a federal crime. But, since my gay friend was wearing a skort and the mugger yelled “fag”, the attack on him is now a federal crime-even though his injury is the same as mine. As such, it would seem to be unjust for the mugger to be regarded as having done something worse to my friend than to me.

Of course, it could be replied that my friend suffered more harm because the mugger hurt his feelings as well. But, calling me “skinny” might have hurt my feelings as much as being called “fag” hurt my friend. Also, I am sure that the slashing would hurt much more than the name calling.

It could be added that a while the individual injury was the same for the both of us, the attack on me was just an attack on me as an individual. In contrast, the attack on my friend was somehow an attack on a whole class of people. Thus, I would just be a person being stabbed while my friend would be a veritable Platonic form of gayness and cross-dressingness being stabbed. As such, the crime would be much worse-it would be an attack against many and not just against one.

It might be pointed out that every person is part of many classes and, as such, the same sort of logic would apply. If someone attacks me, they would be thus attacking all men, all people of French, English and Mohawk descent, all runners, all philosophers, all gamers, all people who own huskies, all human beings and so on. On this logic, the severity of the crime would be based on the number  (and perhaps the importance )of groups the person belongs to, which seems  rather odd.

In reply, someone might note that it is not so much group membership that makes the attack worse, it is the intent of the person making the attack. After all, the legislation is based on the intent-it is assaulting a person because of his/her orientation/gender identity that makes it a federal crime.

Going back to the example, if the person had attacked us for any non-hate reason (as defined by the relevant hate laws) then the crime would not be a federal crime. For example, if we were attacked because he wanted money, was angry at the world,  hated runners or hated fit people, then it would not have been a federal crime. But, as soon as the attacker said “fag”, then that would seem to make it a federal crime because it would be possible to ascribe to him a motivation of the right sort of hate.

Intent is, of course, a relevant factor. If, for example, we were attacked because the person mistook us for two people that had just killed his wife, then that would be a mitigating factor. However, if the person has a wrongful intent to inflict harm, then the differences between being motivated by greed, general rage, hatred of runners or hatred of homosexuals seem to be largely irrelevant. What matters the most is the actual harm done and not the distinctions between such wrongful motivations. As such, treating such assaults as federal crimes would add an unjustified level of possible punishment.

Of course, a case can be made as to why such intentions make a crime worse-and I invite someone to make that case.

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Aristotle, Halo &ThinkB4YouSpeak.com

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on August 20, 2009

The goal of ThinkB4YouSpeak.com is to attempt to counter the homophobic remarks (such as “that’s so gay”) that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) teenagers face. The main motivation for this campaign is that the casual use of such phrases, it is claimed, can lead to more overt hostility against LGBT.

As a college professor, I do deal with some teenagers (mainly 18-19 year old students). However, students tend to feel some small degree of reluctance to throw slurs around in front of professors (but less so than in the past). My main dealings with teenagers “in the wild” has been in the context of online gaming, mainly Halo 3 and other such shooters.

I  used to play Halo 3 online on Xbox live quite often. While I enjoy the actual game, the post game banter can be rather horrific. If my team wins, the vanquished all too often throw out a chorus of vulgarities and insults. In the rare event that my team loses, we are regularly treated to shouted obscenities. If I am playing a “pickup game” with random people, woe to the player who has a bad game-his performance is critiqued with such phrases as “fag” , “that was so gay”, and “you c**k sucking, a** f***ing fag!” While this does not happen all the time, I am always surprised when I hear a calm voice saying “good game” or “wow, that was close…you guys played well.” So, if my own experience is any indication of how teens (and adults) behave, the folks at ThinkB4YouSpeak.com have their work cut out for them.

One question that arises is the matter of whether the use of such phrases and terms should be a matter of concern. On the one hand, kids just use whatever words happen to be in vogue as insults at the time. As such, I suspect that most kids who use “gay” or “fag” as an insult do not really harbor deep hatred of homosexuals and the use of such terms does not cause them to act against LGBT. They use such phrases reflexively and without much thought. In fact, the terms are most often applied to straight people in response to things that have no connection to sexual orientation at all. For example, if someone says “that was gay how that guy sniped me like that” in a Halo game, he is just expressing his displeasure at being sniped and not expressing any hostility towards LGBTs. Of course, LGBTs will feel upset if they here such terms being used, but we all have to face things that upset and annoy us.

On the other hand, some people who use the phrases and terms do harbor hostility towards LGBTs and the repeated use of such terms no doubt adds to their views. After all, as Aristotle argued, we are what we do. Someone who regularly uses such phrases and terms will be affected by them and it will shape his character. In the Republic Plato also argues about how what we observe can corrupt us. While he was discussing poetry and the arts, his arguments would seem to apply here as well. If someone hears such phrases being used as insults, they can be corrupted into using those terms and also corrupted into the mindset behind such views. While it is a long distance between saying “that is so gay” and attacking homosexuals with a baseball bat, the first step towards that swing begins with the language.

Further, there is the harm done to the LGBTs. While I am straight, I can imagine what it would be like for a LGBT to hear those things. After all, I was called “nerd” and “track hack”(an insult against people who run track)  in school and did not like that. Even if it never escalated into more overt hostility, it would still be needlessly unpleasant.

Granting that it is harmful for such phrases to be used, the next matter is what is to be done about it.

The folks at ThinkB4YouSpeak.com have launched a campaign to attempt to curb the use of such phrases. Their current campaign works like this: they have various advertisements that replace the “gay” in the phrase “that’s so gay” with the target of the ad (that is, the type of folks who tend to use the “that’s so gay” phrase). One example is “that’s so jock who can complete a pass but not a sentence” and another is “that’s so gamer guy who has more video games than friends.” They even have on targeted at cheerleaders that says “that’s so cheerleader who like can’t like say smart stuff.”

Like the fine folks at Penny Arcade I have my doubts about the effectiveness of such an approach.

First, there is the point made by Aristotle in his writings on moral education. Aristotle argues that most people cannot be made good (or at least less bad) by mere words. As he argues, most people are ruled by fear rather than shame and are only deterred by punishments. The main reason he gives as to why mere words will not work is that “dislodging by arguments long embedded habit is difficult if not impossible.”

Having faced off against the target audience for these advertisements online, I am quite confident that they will not work. I will admit that there are some people who use “that’s so gay” in a state of naive ignorance and can be corrected by being made aware of the serious implication of their usage. However, the sort of folks who scream “fag” and “that is gay” as they play Halo 3 are most likely not amenable to reason. They are folks of this sort and are largely immune to attempts to get them to reflect. The folks that are most likely to be more overtly hostile towards LGBTs are of this sort or even worse and clearly will not be lead into the light so easily.

Second, the specific approach taken is a poor one. The ads seem to be an attempt to get the target into a “reversing the situation” mode. That is, the target is supposed to feel the cruel sting of the insult and thus be made the feel the pain the LGBTs feel when they hear “that’s so gay.” There are numerous problems with this.

The main problem is, as noted above, the target audience most in need of enlightenment is the most resistant to such an approach. A secondary problem is that trying to be a jerk (even in a weak and lame way) to counter jerks is not an effective strategy. This is like trying to counter stupidity by acting stupid or hatred by hating. Another problem is that the ads lack sting. While the “that’s so gay” probably really hurts some LGBT folks, I suspect that almost no one will feel the cruel sting of oppression from these lame attacks. To use a game analogy, the ThinkB4 folks have entered the battleground wearing tie-dyed t-shirts and cut-off jeans. They are armed with bouquets of flowers. Their opposition is wearing battle armor and armed with big guns. Did I mention that the guns have chain saws on them? They are, as was pointed out at Penny Arcade, woefully under armed for the opposition.

Thus, while the campaign has noble motives and goals, their methodology is lacking.

Because of the moral right to free expression, it would be wrong to compel people not to use such language. Naturally, the overtly hostile behavior can be checked and stopped, but merely saying nasty things is not adequate grounds for the application of compulsive means.

So, what should be done? Well, it does make sense to try to correct people. That can, in some cases, work. While it won’t change how people think in a direct way, it can deter people from saying obnoxious things in public.

Another option, the one I have used when really annoyed, is to forgo slapping folks with a bouquet of flowers and rip at them with a real verbal weapon. While this is probably morally dubious, it is quite satisfying. For example, here is an incident from when I was playing Halo 3:

Player: “You fag! You f@cking suck! You f@cking suck! You f@cking suck!”

Me: “That is not very sportsman like.”

Player: “You’re a fag! You F@cking suck! You F@cking suck!”

Me: “Is that all you’ve got? Don’t you have anything original in the way of insults?”

Player: “What?”

Me: “You just keep saying the same thing over. What about some originality, buddy?”

Player: “You’re a fag!”

Me: “That is not original. You just keep saying that.”

Player: “F@ck you, you fag!”

Me: “It is my considered opinion that you f@ck dogs.”

Player: “What!? What did you say, you fag?”

Me: “You heard me just fine, you poodle f@cker.”

While I probably should not advocate this approach, if you want to make someone feel the cruel sting of language, you need to use something with the right sort of caliber. The lame approach of ThinkB4 lacks that sort of firepower, but my approach worked quite well.

Naturally, I think that a more rational approach would be preferable. But, to paraphrase Aristotle, some people listen to reason, but you have to put the f@cking boot to others.

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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.