Sick and Wrong
[content notes: homophobia, spiders, liberalism, conservatism, conclusions drawn from introspection rather than evidence]
There is a popular refrain in liberalism: “just because something grosses you out, doesn’t mean it’s actually wrong.”
When asked to defend this, the usual defence of this sentiment is that something is “not hurting anybody”. This is, taken literally, nonsense.
Look, everybody likes hedonic utilitarianism. Pain is bad, pleasure is good, right? I tend to use it as a rule of thumb myself, sometimes. But isn’t *true*. Pain is bad, pleasure is good, yes (maybe – there are probably exceptions to that rule.) But people want *more* than pleasure and the absence of pain.
It’s neurologically trivial to constantly stimulate the areas of the brain responsible for “pleasure”; even before you figure out how to fiddle with the insides of people’s heads, most societies have crude biochemical ways of approximating that. But this is almost universally regarded as a pretty sorry fate. This isn’t sour grapes, either, born of the practical difficulties of financing a life of bliss; most people, if you give them the choice, don’t *want* it. People want occasional moments of pleasure, yes, but there is no demand for wireheading, and – anecdotally – people don’t take drugs if they *expect* to become addicted. It’s a *risk* they undergo to have a bit of fun.
Conversely, chloroforming a homeless person so you can murder them in their sleep is generally considered unethical, even though it wouldn’t *hurt* them at any point in the process.
Look, what humans value is complex. We want art and happiness and meaning and challenge and and and … not all of that can ever be reduced to “happiness” or “preferences” or “telos” or whatever other simplification you just came up with, in my experience.
But that isn’t to say morality doesn’t exist, anymore than pointing out how complicated math is means 2+2 doesn’t equal 4. Some things are just inherently wrong. (Let’s not get into what “inherently” means, here, please.)
We don’t actually need to understand what that means, to discuss it meaningfully. Because *we care about morality.* Our consciences point us toward *something*, and we can talk about that-thing-our-consciences-point-toward as the Good.
So … when feel like something is disgusting and, in a word, wrong – that *is* evidence that thing is unethical and should be prevented?
My suspicion is that there are two feeling that are being conflated here – grossness, and wrongness.
Grossness – the feeling that something is disgusting, gross, horrible – is a real and important feeling.
It’s roughly analogous to taste. Some things taste really bad; that’s because we evolved to instinctively avoid them, because they’re usually dangerous and unhealthy. Other things taste delicious, which is because we instinctively seek them out. Which is perfectly reasonable; you can’t expect humans to understand everything on the first try, and some things are important.
But there’s more to it than that; much of our tastes are learned, unconscious associations (for example, if you fall ill immediately after eating something, you’ll probably go off that food; even if it had nothing to do with it.) Others are genetic. Some are even based on other, subtler things; what you “need” at a particular time can be down to a complicated combination of biochemistry, neurochemistry, and Pavlovian association.
In short, we can *account* for taste. Cyanide is known to be both poisonous and fairly tasty, so we avoid it. Pizza is known to be delicious but relatively unhealthy, so we try to eat some (to experience the pleasure) but not *too* much. Many medicines taste disgusting. But *by and large*, we just go with it.
Grossness is similar. SPIDERS!
Personally, I rather like spiders. I think they’re cute little things. But even I freak out a little when I look at my reflection to find there was one sleeping on my headphones and it is now exploring my face.
This makes perfect sense. You don’t want to get creepy-crawlies anywhere they shouldn’t be, in case they lay eggs or whatnot. Spiders are *inherently* gross (to humans); but I’ve learned not to find them disgusting most of the time.
And in some cultures, they eat spiders.
Being gay is bad for you.
There’s a higher risk of disease transference, at least among men. But worse still, it’s bad for your *genes*. Making out with someone of the same sex – even if you don’t mean it to go anywhere – would risk activating all the handy mechanisms evolution has set up to make mates pair-bond and look after the children; and human children do need such a lot of looking after. From an evolutionary perspective, having this misfire is Very Bad Indeed, even if the host were to live *longer* (lesbians are less likely to go through humans’ unusually risky childbirth process, for example.)
– Science would like to chime in and say that, while there are almost certainly genes that are more or less correlated with homosexuality in humans, that is probably a *tradeoff*. Any gene that made everyone that had it would almost certainly go extinct. Such genes as persist are surviving by providing other advantages. (Fruitflies with gay siblings have been found to have more children, as this logic would obviously predict, although research into humans has yet to show anything really conclusive.) Personally, I’d imagine there are quite a few such genes, impacting homosexuality risk in different ways and offering different reproductive advantages –
So it’s not surprising that gayness is kinda gross. When internet trolls want to gross someone out, there are four things they go for – serious injury, particularly horrible diseases, bodily fluids, and gay sex. Preferably in combination.
… seriously, ew.
It’s also not surprising that some people don’t share that taste. Entire civilisations have institutionalized gay sex of various kinds. I’m *not* going to list fetishes that are kinda gay in one way or another, if it’s all the same to you, but they exist.
And then there’s the gender stuff. Heterosexuality has to activate based on both you and your partner’s sex, just like a taste for various nutrients has to activate when you’re in need of those nutrients. People who are atypical of one sex or another might accidentally activate the recognition mechanisms for the other one in people. The mechanisms for creating disgust at the idea of your on sex might fail to activate, and the mechanisms for creating desire for the opposite sex can likewise fail. And let’s not even get into how much of gender is designed to conform to semi-arbitrary signals decided on by your society, or to be learned via association with other things throughout your life, or even based on your own explicit beliefs about things.
There are just … *so* many ways it can fail. But how should we react when it does?
Because, ‘yknow, just because something is gross doesn’t mean it *isn’t* bad. Horrible torture is really, truly*disgusting*, but it’s also one of the most obviously, uncontroversially Bad things out there. Slipping faeces into someone’s food is both pretty disgusting and, y’know, terrible. Indeed, because our instincts were created largely to warn us against things *we don’t want to happen*, things that are absolutely horrible also tend to be terrible ideas.
We could try reasoning from first principles, but of course most of us don’t actually *agree* on those very much. I think you’ll agree that most people’s attempts at “first principles” are horribly flawed. I’m sure Objectivists have no problem with homosexuality, but “A=A” is not actually a good or even sane principle to extrapolate your ethics from. To be fair, though, most sets of First Principles can only be argued to condemn homosexuality if some external source of ethics condemns it; if God wants it, and humans “really” want it, then that wipes out most of the possibilities; and both of those, as Jesus tells us, essentially reduce to morality.
So *is homosexuality wrong*?
There’s a trick I know, for telling what motivates your distaste for something.
It doesn’t tell you what’s *right*, because you don’t know that. It only draws on what’s already in your head, on your own motivations. If you don’t know that berry is poisonous, you *really do* hate it because it’s bitter, not because eating it is a bad idea. But nevertheless.
Do you care if something is going on where you can’t see it?
With torture, the answer is obviously yes. I care a heck of a lot if someone is being tortured in the next room, or even in Guantanamo Bay.
But with *images* of injury – which are equally disgusting, often worse, because they can be taken with an aim to shock – not only do I not care, I’m positively glad that doctors with stronger stomachs are doing it for me.
So … gay sex?
Guys: please do not have gay sex next to me. Or anywhere I might see you. In fact, let’s just extend that to any sex that doesn’t involve someone I’m attracted to, shall we?
(Insert “sexy lesbians do what you want, please” joke here.)
But elsewhere …
Look. I like to think I understand sexuality and attraction in relatively excruciating detail.I don’t care who you are; there are people out there who find things sexy that would *boggle your mind*. But as long as your weirdness it doesn’t cross any lines, nobody really tends to mind. So, based on what we know of sexuality … *is* it crossing any lines?
Having children is good, and gay people tend not to be doing too much of that. And surrogacy – of which you could argue adoption is an involuntary subset – has other problems, not least of which is that kids tend to want to *know* who their biological parents are and were, no matter how much they may well love *you*.
But gay relationships are still *ordered toward* having kids together, even if it’s physically impossible to have any within them; they still pair-bond, they’re still just as likely to *want* children as anyone else. It’s the same emotional architecture, just pointed toward someone other than normal. It’s like infertile people; sure, no children, but everything else we value is still there in the relationship. Even the Catholic Church says it’s OK to have sex in ways you anticipate won’t produce children, as long as it doesn’t break any other rules.
Yeah, yeah, there are minor disease risks, less with our current technology, gay people already know about those, let’s move on.
It’s not injuring anyone, consent seems to be OK, no obvious psychological or safety risks beyond the usual and homophobic –
– can we talk about what a terrible word that is? Homophobia? It’s not a phobia, people. Phobia has an established meaning, and you know full damn well that’s not it. It means we don’t even have a damn *word* for *actual* homophobia, which almost certainly exists and is a real, if hopefully not too crippling, mental condition. Literally the only reason for using that word is to take cheap shots at your intellectual opponents for being “irrational” when they’re not able to complain about it. It’s stupid. I’d suggest using “heteronormativity”, which is a preexisting if slightly longer word and slightly more accurate from a social perspective to boot-
– heteronormative objections, attacks, prejudice etc; which are pretty obviously fading into nothingness with astonishing rapidity in our culture.
So yeah, I think people’s objection to homosexuality starts out with “it’s gross” – a reasonable starting place! – and continues to a few relatively flimsy objections, which are basically false and/or misguided. People think homosexuality is wrong because they think it’s sick. But it’s just kinda weird.
Gayness is, I think, about as objectionable as the way your favourite food is made. Kinda gross, yeah; maybe even slightly unhealthy. But the end product is love, and I think we can all agree that stuff is very tasty indeed.