Musings of the Great Eric

Why Gay Sex Is a Moral Issue

leave a comment »

Morality has always puzzled me; not least of which because it seems to dwell so much on individual sexual behavior, rather than how we treat our fellow humans. In a world with such suffering, where so many wrongs are committed by human beings against each other… it’s just mind boggling that what two consenting adults do with each other can be of any concern others. Yet this is the front and center issue of morality crusaders, and in their minds takes precedence over suffering, poverty, violence, the environment… all things that strike me as being of far greater moral concern than who’s boinking whom. Why is that?

The answer seems to have come in a fascinating article in the New York Times yesterday (now without a pay wall!), which examines the biological basis for morality and is titled Is ‘Do Unto Others’ Written Into Our Genes?

Dr. Haidt (pronounced height) began his research career by probing the emotion of disgust. Testing people’s reactions to situations like that of a hungry family that cooked and ate its pet dog after it had become roadkill, he explored the phenomenon of moral dumbfounding — when people feel strongly that something is wrong but cannot explain why.

Dumbfounding led him to view morality as driven by two separate mental systems, one ancient and one modern, though the mind is scarcely aware of the difference. The ancient system, which he calls moral intuition, is based on the emotion-laden moral behaviors that evolved before the development of language. The modern system — he calls it moral judgment — came after language, when people became able to articulate why something was right or wrong.

The emotional responses of moral intuition occur instantaneously — they are primitive gut reactions that evolved to generate split-second decisions and enhance survival in a dangerous world. Moral judgment, on the other hand, comes later, as the conscious mind develops a plausible rationalization for the decision already arrived at through moral intuition.

In a nutshell, evolution shaped the things we’re disgusted by. Those who felt disgust at the mistreatment of others in their tribe were more likely to survive and pass their genes on, because they could participate in a society and reap the benefits of belonging to that group. But so to did evolution program us to feel disgust at certain sexual acts – homoeroticism and female promiscuity being chief among them. Again, because those who didn’t were less likely to pass their genes on.

According to Dr. Haidt, this forms our most basic level of morality – an emotional reaction of disgust towards certain acts. After we evolved language, we rationalized and codified this emotion, thus forming the basis for morality, religion, and social norms. And so non-moral issues like sex got grouped together with truly moral issues like theft and murder.

Of course, this just raises a question about results produced by that second mental system discussed in the article. People, once we evolved language and reason, naturally enough, began to question why they felt such disgust at certain behaviors. But rather than correctly reason (as I did above) that an aversion to homosexuality is an adaptation to guide us towards lots of heterosexual sex and therefore grandchildren, our ancestors made a rather astounding leap of logic and assumed it to be a universal law, enforced by a diety. “God wants it that way”. This impulse towards religious explanations over rational ones is another thing that’s always baffled me, but it’s something the article fails to explain.

The article also begs the question of why this seems to be something less than universal. Why do some people (such as myself) have such low regard for authoritarian morals and social norms, and instead hold to an ethic driven by a respect for individual rights and freedom? Dr. Haidt touches on this question. He describes five categories of morality, and notes that liberals essentially disregard three of them – these happen to be the three that sexual morality could conceivably fall into. Overall I find this explanation lacking though. I disagree with several of the points he makes – most notably an assertion that conservatives are better able to understand liberals than vice versa (anyone who’s spent any time dealing with the religious right or who’s listened to right wing talk radio would beg to differ). Mostly however, I think it just lacks explanatory power; it describes the thinking of liberals and conservatives, but doesn’t attempt to explain from where those differences emerge.

Overall it’s a thought provoking piece though.

Advertisements

Written by Eric

September 19, 2007 at 11:51 am

Posted in Philosophy, Science, Society

Tagged with

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: