Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles 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 involved—and 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 great—the 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 activity—homosexual 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.