Friday, May 23, 2008

Morality and Sexuality: Beyond Fallacy

The naturalistic fallacy assumes that what exists in nature must therefore be moral and that which does not exist in nature (i.e. that which is unnatural) is immoral. An simple example can be taken from the Black Widow spider, Latrodectus mactans, which is known to sometimes engage in (sexual) cannibalism. Just because some female Black Widows occasionally do this does not automatically make it "OK" for a women to decapitate and consume her husband after sex.

The converse is the moralistic fallacy, which is the assumption that because a particular human culture or all human cultures determine something to be immoral, it must not exist in nature. This charge was raised against those disputing the frequency and "normalcy" of infanticide by adult males in various non-human primate species. Those suggesting infanticide was primarily due to a disruption in the normal habitat and life cycle of these primates were accused of not wanting to see something they found repulsive as a normal part of the natural world. The moralistic fallacy can also be used to argue that because something is moral it must exist in nature as well as human culture, although this is used less frequently.

There are appeals taking the form of the moralistic fallacy nor the naturalistic fallacy on either side of the "Is homosexuality immoral?" debate, although not everyone on any "side" embraces the use of such fallacies. But what if we reject both?

Looking at the development of features, including behavior, we can use a continuum from mostly obligate (the feature is strongly influenced by biologically heritable influences to develop a particular way) to mostly facultative (there is a response to factors in the environment that modify the outcome of the feature being produced). We can also extend this facultative capacity or plasticity to include the social and cultural influences to which developing individuals are exposed to, giving us the classic dilemma of biological determinism (nature) versus cultural determinism (nurture) for some of the more faculative traits that may be sensitive to such influences (other facultative traits may be sensitive to other influences such as air pressure, temperature, etc). That is, we are forced to ask how much of who and what we are, including our psychology, is determined by our biology and how much by our culture for some . On the other hand, agency is the term for our capacity to operate within these influences to come up with behaviors that are not strictly determined by our biology or culture. So we have obligate versus facultative, biological determinism versus cultural determinism, and determinism (both kinds) versus agency.

Going back to the fallacies mentioned previously, some will argue that non-heterosexuality is obligate to suggest that people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual, transgender, etc have no "choice" in being what they are. Since we tend to posit morality as a matter of choosing "wrong" over "right", being non-heterosexual is not immoral. And this serves as a counter to the "homosexuality is unnatural and therefore it is wrong" argument rooted in the naturalistic fallacy. It can't be unnatural, one could argue, if it is strictly biological. However, even heterosexuality is not a monolithic thing. By emphasizing only whether one is sexually attracted to members of a particular sex or gender, the appreciation diversity existing within the heterosexual community is diminished. The same is true for the non-heterosexual orientations. Not all homosexuals, for example, develop their attractions in exactly the same way. It is possible that some are mostly obligate to be gay, some are primarily biologically determined to be that way with a small dose of cultural determinism, and some may reflect a good deal of cultural determinism as well as agency. Nor is sexual orientation synonymous with gender identity conflict or gender role inversion.

So we see and hear endless arguments on the internet, talk radio, cable news, and elsewhere appealing to one of these fallacies by trying to demonstrate that sexuality is either more or less obligate or facultative, more or less culturally or biologically determined, or is more a matter of such determinism or of agency. But what happens when we eliminate arguments based on the naturalistic and moralistic fallacies?

My two cents:

If we posit that only adults are likely to have the physical, mental, and emotional maturity to safely and sensibly engage in sexual relationships, and if we value the idea that such relationships must be consenting, then we are left with the following --

Adults having consenting sex with other adults, whatever their sex, gender, or number is their own private business and they are responsible for the consequences of their choices (physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually, etc).

Pedophilia, bestiality, and necrophilia would be out because they fail the criteria of requiring clear consent among adults. You cannot get any consent from a corpse, you cannot get unambiguous consent from an animal, and children are not mature enough to offer consent.

As for what forms of sexuality among consenting adults people practice, it should be left up to the "free market" of idea. If you can convince people that your preferred way is safer, holier, more pleasant, etc, then fine, go ahead and do so. If you can convince someone who is a mostly-obligate homosexual to be celibate without harassment or intimidation or emotional blackmail, go ahead. If you can convince, by non-threatening argument or example, a swinging heterosexual to give up sharing his wife at the local orgy as well as also giving up the several extra women he gets to hace sex with, fine. But don't try to legislate people into submission.

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