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  • I want to start with a thought experiment. Suppose I told you that I'm imagining an activity

  • that takes place between consenting adults, doesn't hurt anyone, and results in a great

  • deal of pleasure for the people involvedand that's all that you know about the activity

  • that I'm imagining. Given that information, it sounds pretty good. Suppose I fill in the

  • picture a bit more and tell you that not only does it result in pleasure for the people

  • involved, but it's an avenue of communication and a source of deep meaning in their lives.

  • And, again, that's all you know about the activity that I'm imagining. Given that information,

  • it sounds greatthe kind of thing we'd want to encourage. But, of course, when I fill

  • in the picture a bit more, and tell you that the adults in question are two men or two

  • women, and the activity is some kind of sexual activity, suddenly people are not so keen

  • on it anymore. In fact, not only would many people condemn it, some would call it a moral

  • abomination.

  • Consider the fact that right now there are thousands of people across the world having

  • sex. It's kind of disconcerting when you think about it. Especially when you realize you're

  • sitting here listening to me. Some of those people are with partners of the same race;

  • some of them are with partners of a different race. Some of them are with partners of the

  • same age; some of them are in what we call "May-December relationships." Some of them

  • have known each other a long time; some of them met last night on the Internet. Some

  • of them are in loving, nurturing relationships; some of them are in abusive relationships.

  • Now those facts all have varying moral significance. But when I tell you that some of these people

  • are with partners of the same sex and some of these people are with partners of the other

  • sex, that fact seems to take on a significance all its own. And the question I want to explore

  • tonight is "why?" What's morally wrong with homosexuality, if anything, and if nothing,

  • what's all the fuss about? And the way I'm going to do this is I am going to look at

  • some of the most common arguments against homosexuality and subject them to philosophical

  • scrutiny. It sounds fancier than it is; really, we're just going to look at these arguments,

  • see what they are, and see if they work.

  • Before I get to the arguments, there are a few preliminary things I want to get out of

  • the way. We're talking about homosexuality tonight. What is that? A lot of people like

  • to make a distinction between homosexual orientation and homosexual activityhomosexual orientation,

  • being attracted to people of the same sex; homosexual activity, engaging in some kind

  • of romantic activity with people of the same sex.

  • Like many such distinctions, this one is both useful and problematic. It's useful, in part,

  • because it reminds us that we all have feelings that we don't act upon, and maybe shouldn't

  • act upon. I'll give you an example. Sometimes I'm in line, and there's somebody in front

  • of me with one of those bluetooth earpieces on. They're chattering and chattering, completely

  • oblivious to the people behind them, and we're all waiting while they keep chattering. And

  • sometimes, when that happens, I fantasize for just a split second about pulling out

  • a sword and chopping of their ear. Whoosh!

  • I don't act on that feeling; don't act on that feeling. You may have had similar feelings.

  • We all have feelings we don't act upon, and that's part of being a grownup. That's part

  • of being a human being; you have self-restraint. Just because you have a feeling, doesn't mean

  • you ought to act on it, and this distinction reminds us of that.

  • It's a problematic distinction because it over-simplifies. For one thing, it draws a

  • very sharp contrast between feelings and activities, when the contrast between those things is

  • not always so sharp. Sometimes they're intimately connected. Sometimes who we are and what we

  • do are profoundly connected, and this distinction maybe makes us forget that a little bit. It's

  • also problematic because it over-simplifies each of the elements involved, both sexual

  • orientation and sexual activity. Let me say something about each of those elements. Let's

  • start with activity. What do I mean when I say, "homosexual activity?" Well, what do

  • I mean when I say, "heterosexual activity?" Intercourse? Sure. What about kissing? Sometimes.

  • What about holding hands? What about going for a romantic walk with someone? What about

  • making a nice dinner for someone? What about waiting outside someone's door because you

  • have a crush on that person? Yeah, you know who you are.

  • Think about all of the activities that make up our romantic lives, broadly understood.

  • When we talk about heterosexuality, we talk about that wide range of activities. When

  • we talk about homosexuality, we focus on the sex part of it. That gives us the kind of

  • picture like the bedroom is the only room in the homosexual person's house or the most

  • important part of our lives and relationships, and it's a false picture. This is not the

  • only time we get this sort of false contrast. We say things. With heterosexual people, we

  • talk about relationships. With homosexual people, we talk about sex. We say heterosexual

  • people have lives; homosexual people have "lifestyles." I teach at a state university.

  • I don't make enough money to have a "lifestyle." We say heterosexual people have a moral vision;

  • homosexual people have an agenda. The words we use to talk about these things really affect

  • our way of thinking about them. Now, I'm going to focus on homosexual sex tonight because

  • that's the part that bothers people, but I don't want you to get this kind of skewed

  • picture that's the only part of homosexual activity, homosexual relationships, or homosexual

  • people's lives.

  • What about the other side of this contrast? Sexual orientation. I have a certain sexual

  • orientation. What is that? I'm attracted to people of a particular gender. That's true.

  • I'm also attracted to people of a particular age range, body type, personality type, and

  • certain kinds of senses of humor. All of these things make up my sexual orientation, broadly

  • understood. But when we talk about sexual orientation, we focus very narrowly on the

  • gender of people that you're attracted to, and then we divide everyone into these nice,

  • neat categories. There are heterosexual people, and there are homosexual people. Then there

  • are bisexual people, and they mess up our neat categories!

  • Everywhere I go, people say to me, "I just don't understand bisexuality." Let me take

  • a little time to explain it; it's not a complicated concept, really. Some people are attracted

  • to both men and women. That's it! It doesn't mean they're attracted to everyone. That'd

  • be exhausting. It doesn't mean they're confused. It doesn't mean that gender is not important

  • to them. It doesn't mean any of those things. It just means it's not an overriding factor

  • in what makes people attractive to them. I mention this because many of the same problems

  • faced by gay and lesbian people in our society are faced by bisexual people. Bisexual people

  • are not half kicked out of the house or half fired from their jobs or half harassed for

  • being bisexual. I'm going to be focusing on homosexuality tonight, but much of what I

  • say can be applied with the appropriate changes to bisexuality.

  • Finally, in the years that I've been doing this, a number of people have made the comment,

  • at least in the early years (I started doing this in Texas in the early 90's), people said

  • to me, "You know, your approach seems so negative. You're always talking about the arguments

  • against homosexuality. Why don't you ever give an argument in favor of homosexuality?"

  • I say, "You know, that's a good idea." So, I want to start with a kind of preliminary

  • argument in favor of homosexuality. It's just a preliminary argument; there's a lot more

  • to be said, but, in a way, the preliminary argument is quite simple: Homosexual relationships

  • make some people happy. When I say it makes some people happy, I don't just mean that

  • they're pleasurable, although that's part of it. But, there's more to it than that.

  • A homosexual relationship, like a heterosexual relationship, can be an important avenue of

  • meaning and long-term fulfillment in people's lives. This is the kind of thing that we celebrate

  • when we talk about heterosexuality. We celebrate it everywhere from great literature to romance

  • novels to trashy shows on MTV. You know these shows? You can feel your brain cells dying

  • as you watch some of these shows; you know the ones. But they have this point in common

  • about finding a special someone, connecting with that person, expressing your feelings

  • for that person in a way for which mere words would be inadequate. This is a wonderful,

  • beautiful part of the human experience. If we're going to deny this to a whole group

  • of people by saying, "You can't have that. That's wrong," we better have a darn good

  • reason. So, let's look at what some of those reasons might be.

  • This first reason that I'm going to look at, the first argument is the argument that homosexuality

  • is wrong because the Bible condemns it. Now, when I say "the Bible," I could be talking

  • about a lot of different things. There are many different scriptural texts that different

  • groups of people recognize as authoritative. Even if we focus on the Judeo-Christian tradition,

  • which is actually a melding of different traditions, there are arguments about which books should

  • be included, which translations are authoritative, and so on. We could go through all of that,

  • but let's put that aside. Suppose you know what I'm talking about when I talk about the

  • Bible. When we look to that Judeo-Christian Bible, we find some things that actually sound

  • pretty negative with respect to same-sex relationships. The book of Leviticus says, "Man shall now

  • lie with man, as with woman. It is an abomination unto God." Of course, the book of Leviticus

  • calls a number of other things abominations that we don't tend to pay attention to quite

  • as often. The book of Leviticus says that eating shellfish is an abomination unto God.

  • Shrimp cocktail? Not if you follow Leviticus. The book of Leviticus says that wearing clothing

  • of mixed fiber is an abomination unto God. Cotton-polyester blends? Not if you follow

  • Leviticus. The book of Leviticus says that touching the carcass of a dead pig is an abomination

  • unto God. Football? Not if you follow Leviticus. They used to be made of pigskin. Stay with

  • me. It's not just the book of Leviticus, and it's not just the Old Testament.

  • As we look through the Bible, we find a number of things that seem, at best, morally problematic.

  • St. Paul says, "Women must remain silent in the churches." Doesn't seem to me like good

  • moral advice. The Bible suggests that those who divorce and remarry should be put to death.

  • Why? Well because the New Testament defines divorce as adultery; the Old Testament prescribes

  • death for adultery. Again, this doesn't sound very good. The Bible suggests that slavery

  • is morally acceptable. People don't believe me when I tell them this. I say, "Okay, I'll

  • read to you." This is from Leviticus 25:44-46:

  • You may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are round about you. You

  • may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their families that are

  • with you, who have been born in your land; and they may be your property. You may bequeath

  • them to your sons after you, to inherit as a possession forever.

  • Who says this, according to the Bible? God says that, according to the Bible. And yet,

  • we have a hard time imagining how an all-good, all-loving God could condone an institution

  • like slavery. And it's not just the Old Testament, either. St. Paul says in Ephesians, "Slaves

  • be obedient to your earthly masters, in fear and trembling, in singleness of heart as you

  • obey Christ."

  • Again, you look at this and say, "Well, what's a believer to do?" One thing I think you can

  • do is to say maybe the Bible is wrong about certain things. This does not mean that God

  • is wrong. Rather, maybe human beings have been wrong in discerning God's word. After

  • all, we should not confuse complete faith in God with complete faith in our ability

  • to discern God's voice. And, in fact, any honest look at history should tell us that

  • we should be wary of people who are too certain that they speak directly for God.

  • But, some people want to say, "No no no, the Bible is God's word. The Bible is infallible.

  • The Bible contains no error." And, I say, "The Bible contains no error? What are you

  • going to do with those slavery passages?" And you know what the people say to me? They

  • say to me, "John, you are pulling those passages out of context. You can't just take passages

  • out of the Bible and quote them as if they mean the same thing today as they did for

  • the people at the time. You can't just pull the passages out of context!" And I say, "Well,

  • wait a second! If it's not okay to do that with the slavery passages, then why is it

  • okay to do that with the homosexual passages?" Because, after all, the context surrounding

  • same-sex relations was very different in Biblical times than it is during our own day. And indeed,

  • in the handful of places that the Bible talks about homosexuality, it's almost always in

  • the context of a discussion of idolatry because homosexuality was very much associated with

  • certain pagan practices. If that's the kind of thing that Biblical authors had in mind,

  • if that's what they meant, then what they're talking about and I'm talking about are very

  • different things, and to use those passages that way would be to pull them out of context.

  • Now, a few caveats and clarifications. First of all, I want to make it clear what I'm not

  • saying here. I'm not saying , "Hey, the Bible is old, so forget about it. Ignore it. Just

  • pick the parts you like." A lot of people do that on different sides of the debate.

  • I don't think that's a very good way to proceed. Rather, I'm saying that if you're going to

  • understand what the Bible means for us today, we have to understand that the Biblical authors'

  • concerns and our concerns may be different, and that's relevant to our interpretation

  • of the text. And the alternative to that is to commit ourselves to very strange views

  • on women's roles, on slavery, and a host of other things.

  • Second, having said that, I'm not so convinced that any amount of context is going to help

  • the slavery passages. I think that when we look to those passages, we have to admit that

  • the prejudices and limitations of the Biblical authors crept into the text, and if they did

  • that with respect to slavery, then it could have happened with respect to homosexuality.

  • Finally, it seems to me in many cases, not all, but in many cases the Bible is not really

  • the root of the objection here. What often happens is people have an objection to homosexuality,

  • maybe for reasons they don't quite understand, and then they use the Bible and bring it in

  • to back that up. Why do I think this? Well, let me tell you a story. Many years ago, I

  • was briefly a graduate student at Notre Dame, which, as you know, is a major Catholic university.

  • At Notre Dame, we were told by the administration that we could not have a gay and lesbian organization

  • on campus because that would conflict with Catholic teaching. Over and over, the administration

  • would say, "You cannot have a gay and lesbian group. That conflicts with Catholic teaching."

  • We did have a Muslim student group on campus and a Jewish student group on campus. Muslims

  • and Jews both deny the Divinity of Christ, which, when I went to Catholic school, was

  • a very important part of Catholic teaching. This wasn't really about Catholic teaching,

  • I don't think... You know, they had this objection, and they pulled in Catholic teaching when

  • it was convenient.

  • So, what is it really about? We need to look to some of the non-religious, or secular,

  • arguments against homosexuality, and we especially need to do that if we are genuinely committed

  • to living in a society that embraces freedom of religion.

  • So, what are some of those non-religious arguments against homosexuality? Well, the second argument

  • I'm going to look at tonight (the first non-religious argument) is the argument that homosexuality

  • is wrong because it's not universalizable. That's not a word you get to use every day.

  • What does that mean? I first heard of this argument back in '92. I gave an early version

  • of this lecture at St. John's University in New York, where I had previously done my undergraduate

  • work. There was a priest, Father Prior, who wrote to the school paper. He was very upset

  • that I had been invited to give this lecture, and he wrote this long letter to the school

  • paper. In his letter to the school paper, on of the things he said was, "Of course homosexuality

  • is bad for society. If everyone were homosexual, there would be no society." And I call this

  • the "universalizability argument." If everyone were this way, if we universalize the activity,

  • that would be bad; therefore, the activity is bad. Now, I disagreed with a lot of what

  • Father Prior said in his letter, but I thought it was nice that he took the time to write

  • to the school paper. And I said, "You know what, I'm going to write to the school paper,

  • too." And, I did. I wrote an open letter to Father Prior. It said, "Dear Father Prior,

  • if everyone were a Roman Catholic Priest, there would be no society, either. Sincerely,

  • John Corvino."

  • What's the problem with this argument? There are a few problems. One, Father Prior seems

  • to assume that just because society needs some people to procreate that everyone is

  • obligated to procreate, but, of course, that doesn't follow. Society needs some people

  • to be doctors. That doesn't mean everyone is obligated to be a doctor. Society needs

  • some people to be sanitation workers, which doesn't mean that everyone is obligated. Yes,

  • we need some people to procreate, but it doesn't follow that everyone is obligated, as Father

  • Prior surely recognized. People have pointed out to me, "Yeah, well some Catholic priests

  • actually do have children." Fine. The point is the argument applies equally well to celibacy.

  • But, let's suppose that we were to grant this premise that everyone is obligated to procreate.

  • Even that would not be an argument against homosexuality. At best, it would be an argument

  • against exclusive homosexuality. Homosexuality doesn't prevent a person from procreating,

  • anymore than you sitting here listening to this lecture prevents you from procreating.