A Reply to the Ramsey Colloquium 

In John Corvino, ed., Same Sex: Debating the Ethics, Science, and Culture of Homosexuality, pp. 69-80.  Studies in Social, Political and Legal Philosophy.  © Rowman & Littlefield, 1997. 

In "The Homosexual Movement," the members of the Ramsey Colloquium offer little direct criticism of homosexuality or of the movement that defends it. Instead, they first criticize the sexual revolution and then defend what they call "the heterosexual norm." These two strategies are supposed to amount to criticisms of the homosexual movement, since that movement allegedly embraces the false and dangerous claims of the sexual revolution and attacks the heterosexual norm. In the first section of this paper I argue that the homosexual movement is not in fact committed to the false and dangerous claims of the sexual revolution; in the second section I show that the authors' defense of the heterosexual norm in no way implies a condemnation of homosexuality. I then go on to offer more general criticisms of their paper: in the third section I try to expose some of the false dichotomies that underlie the authors' thinking, and in the fourth section I discuss their mistaken understanding of friendship and chastity.

I. Deserters from the Sexual Revolution

The authors begin by criticizing the "homosexual movement" indirectly—as part of a larger phenomenon, the sexual revolution. In this section I shall consider three of their criticisms of the sexual revolution. For the sake of argument, I shall simply admit that the views the authors discuss are in fact false and dangerous; but in each case I shall argue that homosexuals need not endorse them. So if those views are indeed part of the sexual revolution, homosexuals can simply be deserters.

A. The Demeaning of Heterosexual Marriage

The argument: According to the authors, the sexual revolution dishonors and demeans the traditional understanding of marriage and the family. That traditional understanding, they argue, protects norms that are "essential to human flourishing," and so the sexual revolution is a threat to human flourishing. Since the homosexual movement agrees with this attack on heterosexual marriage, it too is a threat to human flourishing.

My response: It seems clear to me that the sexual revolution has indeed been aimed at undermining the traditional understanding of marriage and the family. But it seems equally clear that homosexuals need not go along with the sexual revolution on this point. Admittedly, there are homosexuals who talk about attacking the very institution of marriage. But as far as I can tell, they are a small and radical minority. Most homosexuals seem to agree that heterosexual marriage is a wonderful thing and that forces in society that make it difficult for marriages to endure and flourish are to be deplored and resisted.

B. Hedonism and Selfishness

The argument: According to the authors, "any understanding of sexuality . . . that makes it chiefly an arena for the satisfaction of personal desire is harmful to individuals and society." Since the sexual revolution "accepts or encourages sexual relations for pleasure or personal satisfaction alone," it is harmful to individuals and society. And since the homosexual movement endorses the hedonism and selfishness of the sexual revolution, it too is harmful.

My response: Once again it seems plausible to suppose that the sexual revolution really does accept and encourage sexual relations for the sake of pleasure and personal satisfaction alone, but once again it also seems clear that homosexuals need not go along with the sexual revolution on this point. There is nothing intrinsic to homosexuality that prevents homosexuals from seeking more than just personal satisfaction in sexual relations. In fact, many homosexuals are drawn precisely to that "disciplined community that marriage is intended to engender and foster." Perversely enough, the pressures placed upon homosexuals by the authors and other like-minded people make it difficult for homosexuals to develop and sustain such community—make it, in fact, impossible for such community to have any recognized social standing—and therefore contribute to the idea that homosexual sex cannot be anything more than a means of achieving pleasure and personal satisfaction.

C. The Rejection of Restraint

The argument: According to the authors, "Perhaps the key presupposition of the [sexual] revolution is that human health and flourishing require that sexual desire, understood as a ‘need', be acted upon and satisfied. Any discipline of denial or restraint has been popularly depicted as unhealthy and dehumanizing. We insist, however, that it is dehumanizing to define ourselves . . . by our desires alone." The homosexual movement, they imply, shares this rejection of all restraint, and so it too is dehumanizing.

My response: To this argument I will respond, not by saying that homosexuals can be deserters from the sexual revolution on this point, but by saying that the sexual revolution does not involve any such claim. Perhaps some enthusiasts with more rhetorical fervor than common sense might have said that all restraint is unhealthy, but even the most superficial examination shows just how foolish such a view would be. Obviously I should not hit someone whenever I feel like it; if I did, I might harm an innocent person or fail in the respect due even to a guilty person. Obviously I should not eat whenever I feel like eating; if I did, I would soon grow fat and sluggish and render myself unfit for the ordinary business of life. Obviously I should not take off work whenever I feel like goofing off; if I did, I would be cheating my students and colleagues and developing bad habits that would frustrate my own goals as a scholar and teacher. And obviously I should not have sex whenever I happen to feel aroused; no one could sensibly think that I should. There are often good reasons not to act on a desire I happen to have, and sexual desires are no different from other desires in that respect.

So of course I admit that there are often good reasons for us not to act on our sexual desires. The real dispute is not over whether there are sometimes good reasons for restraining sexual desire, but over what exactly should count as good reasons. According to the members of the Ramsey Colloquium, the fact that a sexual desire is homosexual desire is, in and of itself, a good reason not to act on it. In the next section I examine their arguments for this claim.

II. What's Normative about the Heterosexual Norm?

The authors do not actually argue directly that there is always good reason to restrain homosexual desire simply because it is homosexual. Instead, they argue for what they call "the heterosexual norm." Heterosexual marriage is normative, they contend, because it manifests and supports three important elements of human life. Let's look at each in turn.

A. The Commitment to Time and History

The argument: "Human society extends over time; it has a history. It does so because, through the mysterious participation of our procreative powers in God's own creative work, we transmit life to those who succeed us. . . . Only the heterosexual norm gives full expression to the commitment to time and history evident in having and caring for children."

My response: That last sentence hides a crucial ambiguity. It might easily be taken to mean that a commitment to time and history is evident only in the bearing and rearing of children. After all, when explaining what they mean by saying that "human society extends over time" and "has a history," the authors refer only to procreation. And so they seem to be inviting us to reason in something like the following way: "Human society has a historical dimension because it involves the bearing and rearing of children. Homosexuals as such do not procreate, and so they do not exhibit any commitment to time and history."

If we construe their argument in this way, it clearly fails. People contribute to the historical dimension of human society in many ways, of which the bearing and rearing of children is only one. Consider, for example, a rabbi who passes along centuries of hard-won wisdom, a scientist who builds on the accomplishment of her predecessors and trains others to carry on her work, or a judge who has great respect for the precedents of the past while carefully applying them to changing circumstances. We need not check on whether these people are also parents in order to know that they have a deep commitment to time and history.

There is a second way to interpret their argument. Note that in the last sentence I quoted above, they say that only the heterosexual norm gives full expression to the historical dimension of human society—thus leaving themselves room to acknowledge that there are other, less satisfactory ways to express the commitment to time and history. Now if we assume that they are indeed willing to acknowledge that fact, we can restate their argument as follows: "Of course there are many ways in which people express their commitment to time and history. But procreation is the best way—in fact, the only fully adequate way—in which to express that commitment. Homosexuals as such do not procreate, and so their commitment to time and history is, at best, inadequate."

Unfortunately, if this argument works against homosexuality, it works just as well against celibacy. Celibates do not procreate either; if procreation is the only fully adequate way in which to express a commitment to time and history, celibacy will be every bit as objectionable as homosexuality. We know that the members of the Ramsey Colloquium do not object to celibacy; indeed, they express concern over the fact that "the place of . . . religiously motivated celibacy is gravely jeopardized." So if they want to be consistent, they cannot hold that procreation is the only fully adequate way in which to express a commitment to time and history. And once they give up that premise, this argument against homosexuality collapses.

B. The Value of Complementarity

The argument: "Human society requires that we learn to value difference within community," and only the heterosexual norm adequately values the complementarity that needs to be taken seriously if we are to have genuine and fulfilling human community.

Now there is an obvious objection to this argument. One might very well ask, "But aren't there all sorts of differences? Why think that the complementarity of male and female is somehow paradigmatic?" The authors are aware of this objection and try to forestall it. "Of course," they say, "persons may complement each other in many different ways, but the complementarity of male and female is grounded in, and fully embraces, our bodies and their structure."

My response: Obviously the authors are correct in holding that in heterosexual relationships there can be both spiritual and physical complementarity, while in homosexual relationships there can only be spiritual complementarity. But why is physical complementarity essential? The authors offer two reasons. The first is that physical complementarity contributes to the important goal of teaching us to value difference. "[I]n the creative complementarity of male and female we are directed toward community with those unlike us. In the community between male and female, we do not and cannot see in each other mere reflections of ourselves."

If they mean to imply that the partners in a homosexual couple do see in each other mere reflections of themselves, they are wildly mistaken. For example, suppose I am attracted to a woman who mirrors practically all of my important qualities. Like me, she is a Southerner, a philosopher, an Episcopalian, and a musician; she agrees with my fundamental political views and shares my basic outlook on life. We might well be inclined to say that I see in her a mere reflection of myself, notwithstanding the fact that she is a woman and I am a man. But suppose instead that I am attracted to a man who is from California, is a chemist, holds no particular religious beliefs, and can barely carry a tune, someone whose political opinions I find consistently perverse and who often disagrees with me on matters I think are important. It would be foolish to say that I see in him a mere reflection of myself, simply because we are both men. As this example shows, physical complementarity does not guarantee that we will be "directed toward community with those unlike us," and the absence of that complementarity does not prevent us from learning to value difference—if it did, celibacy would be just as immoral as homosexuality, since celibate people do not seek physical complementarity with anyone either. So the authors' first argument that physical complementarity is necessary clearly fails.

According to their second argument, a relationship that lacks this physical complementarity denigrates the body and treats people as if they were purely spiritual beings. The authors imply that if I value another man, who is not physically complementary to me in the way that a woman is, I am somehow "sever[ing] the meaning of the person from bodily life" and acting "as if human beings were simply desire, reason, or will."

This implication is clearly false, however, as we can see by considering three different ways in which I might value another man. First, I might simply be physically attracted to him. In that case, I am clearly not treating him as if he were simply desire, reason, or will; on the contrary, I am valuing him precisely because of his bodily life—I "want his body," as we might say.

Second, suppose I am in love with a man. It would no longer be true to say simply that I want his body; rather, I want him, the whole person. I cannot separate his body from his desire, reason, and will; I do not see him as bits and pieces of which I desire some and disparage others. In fact, in this case I am especially likely to see his bodily life as intimately bound up with his spiritual features: his smile, for example, reminds me of his wonderful sense of humor.

The third possibility is that I value the man simply as a non-sexual friend. Perhaps here we might think I am separating his desire, reason, and will from his bodily life, but such a conclusion seems to overstate the case. For if such a friendship must be said to denigrate the body, then celibate people are constantly treating everyone they meet as disembodied spirits. So they should come in for an even greater share of condemnation from the Ramsey Colloquium than homosexuals do—a conclusion that the authors ought to find disquieting.

Note, by the way, how the authors' arguments have shifted. In much of their paper, they write as if homosexual activity invariably treats people as sheerly physical beings; here they are arguing that it treats people as disembodied spirits. The two charges are inconsistent, and both are unfounded. No doubt homosexuals sometimes treat sex as if it were nothing but a physical event; but then, so do heterosexuals. Perhaps homosexuals sometimes treat sex as if it were detachable from their bodily existence (although I have trouble understanding exactly why two disembodied spirits would bother to have sex with each other), but if homosexuals are capable of doing this, so are heterosexuals. Moreover, even if homosexual sex can embody "a radical dualism between the self and the body," it need not do so. And so an argument against such a dualism is neither an argument against homosexual sex nor a defense of heterosexual sex as normative.

C. The Importance of Restraint

The argument: "Human society requires the direction and restraint of many impulses." In a faithful heterosexual marriage, "our waywardness begins to be healed and our fear of commitment overcome . . . [and] we may learn to place another's needs rather than our own desires at the center of life."

My response: Obviously the partners in a faithful homosexual couple are also restraining their impulses; they have presumably overcome their fear of commitment; and each can learn to place the other's needs at the center of life. Even in a non-sexual friendship, each friend will gladly put the needs of his or her friend at the center of life. Good teachers will often give more weight to a student's needs than to their own interests; good legislators act primarily for the well-being of their constituents rather than for their own individual well-being. So there are many relationships in which we must redirect "our tendency to place our own desires first"; most of us are involved in several such relationships at any given time. Heterosexual marriage is not the only, or even the primary, domain in which we restrain our impulses in the interest of others.

III. False Dichotomies
Much of the argument in "The Homosexual Movement" rests on false dichotomies, and those false dichotomies in turn rest on an impoverished view of human nature. What is perhaps most striking in all of this is the authors' view—which is implied rather than expressed—that human beings are motivated almost exclusively by selfish concerns. They come very close to suggesting that people need to be socially pressured into marrying and starting families lest they be so relentlessly selfish that society collapse under the weight of conflicting egoisms. And thus the authors arrive at their first false dichotomy: either heterosexual marriage on the one hand, or rampant selfishness on the other.

This dichotomy, as I have said, arises from a false view of human nature. Human beings are simply not exclusively selfish, and so they do not need to be pressured into marriage in order to be saved from their egoism and individualism. Love of parents and friends is every bit as spontaneous as love of self. A person who finds no happiness in the happiness of others is not a typical specimen of humanity but a sociopathic freak.

It is surely true that no marriage can be successful unless each partner treats the other's happiness as being just as important as his or her own. But if human nature were as selfish as the authors seem to think, no one would ever want to get married in the first place, and all those marriages into which people were forced for their own good would have no chance of succeeding. In reality, of course, people sometimes fall in love; when they do, they come to care deeply about the happiness and well-being of the person they are in love with. And homosexuals are just as apt to fall in love as heterosexuals are.

A lively concern for the welfare of others is therefore as much a feature of human nature as is a lively concern for self-interest. But even if it were not, this first dichotomy—either heterosexual marriage or rampant selfishness—would still be a false one, since heterosexual marriage is not the only arena in which unselfishness can be cultivated. I can cultivate unselfishness not only as a husband, but also as a friend, as a teacher, and as a son. Indeed, if I cannot see past my own narrow self-interest, I will be a dismal failure in all of these relationships. As so often in their paper, the authors are confusing what is useful with what is necessary, what is good with what is mandatory. Heterosexual marriage is a useful forum in which to cultivate one's concern for the well-being of another, and for that reason (among many others) it is a good thing. But heterosexual marriage is not necessary for the cultivation of concern for others, and so it is no sense mandatory. We are not limited to a choice between heterosexual marriage and rampant egoism.

Second, the authors consistently write as if self-interest were opposed to morality; but this dichotomy is also an illusion. Self-love, properly understood, is not the enemy of morality but one of its greatest supports. Now proper self-love does not mean gratifying every desire one happens to have; it involves careful attention to what will make one happy over the long haul. The authors paint a picture of homosexuals as living for the moment, slavishly gratifying every desire as it arises, whereas heterosexuals (married heterosexuals, at any rate) have settled down to a disciplined life of "self-command" that looks past momentary gratification and values human flourishing over time. Here is a third false dichotomy. Homosexuality does not automatically incapacitate people for pursuing long-term well-being at the sacrifice of short-term pleasure. Homosexuals are just as capable of proper self-love as anyone else.

Since the authors see human beings as basically selfish and short-sighted, they are naturally inclined to see the unselfishness and long-term commitment of marriage as an extraordinarily difficult business. They repeatedly emphasize that "marriage and the family . . . are fragile institutions in need of careful and continuing support" and that "having and rearing children is among the most difficult of human projects." Now I agree that any sustained course of action will encounter difficulties, and marriage is surely an especially demanding relationship. I even agree that the institutions of marriage and family need support, and that such support is a legitimate end of public policy. But the authors want to claim even more than this. Marriage is so fragile, they say, that it is not enough for public policy to support marriage; it must also actively suppress homosexual relationships. Thus they arrive at their fourth false dichotomy: either we tolerate homosexuality and thereby show indifference to attacks on marriage, or else we support marriage and therefore condemn homosexuality.

Nonsense. Society has no more business condemning homosexuality in order to buttress marriage than condemning celibacy in order to ensure the preservation of the species. The two cases make a useful analogy here. Our society rightly permits celibacy, even though of course the preservation of the species is a morally important goal. Why? Because we recognize that celibate people contribute to the well-being of society in other ways, and that most people are going to want to get married even though celibacy is an available option. (The usual reaction to a celibate person, after all, is not "How come he gets to be celibate and I don't?") By exactly the same reasoning, society would be perfectly justified in permitting homosexual relationships, even though of course traditional marriages and families are morally important. Why? Because we should recognize that homosexual people—even homosexual couples—contribute to the well-being of society in other ways, and that most people are going to want to get married to persons of the other sex even if homosexual relationships are an available option. Most people are, after all, heterosexual; tolerance of homosexuality will not lead people to flee in droves from the institution of marriage any more than tolerance of celibacy does.

The alternatives before us are not so stark as the authors would have us believe. Heterosexual marriage is not the only relationship in which selfishness gives way to a concern for others. The pursuit of self-interest is not the deadly enemy of morality. Homosexuality is not incompatible with proper self-love. Tolerance of homosexuality is no threat to heterosexual marriage, or to the socially important ends that heterosexual marriage serves. The authors can justify their position only by setting up one false dichotomy after another. Such simplistic thinking may be rhetorically effective, but it is philosophically bankrupt.

IV. Friendship and Chastity

In this last section I want to try to figure out what the authors mean when they claim that the sexual revolution, and in particular the homosexual movement, involves an attack on friendship. They say that "[i]n the current climate of sexualizing and politicizing all intense inter-personal relationships, the place of sexually chaste friendship . . . is gravely jeopardized," and they insist that we must "affirm the reality and beauty of sexually chaste relationships." Now unless we know what is meant by calling a friendship "sexually chaste," we cannot know whether to agree that sexually chaste friendships are a good thing; nor can we evaluate the charge that the homosexual movement involves an attack on such friendships.
 As a first guess, we might apply the word ‘chaste' to any friendship that does not involve sexual interaction. But that is far too broad a use of the word. Suppose we are talking about two friends who are not sexually attracted to each other in the first place. It seems odd to describe their friendship as ‘chaste'; for we usually think of chastity as the virtue that restrains sexual desire, and these friends do not have the desires that chastity is supposed to restrain.

Or so we might think. But some philosophers say that those who have a virtue do indeed lack any desire to act against that virtue: the truly honest person is not the one who struggles not to lie but the one who is not even tempted to lie. And so, to these philosophers at least, it might seem appropriate to describe such a friendship as "sexually chaste" precisely because the friends have no desire to have sex with each other. But such an argument misses my point. Truly honest people are not even tempted to lie because they value honesty so highly that dishonesty seems simply repulsive to them. In this example, though, the friends are free from the temptation to have sex with each other, not because they value chastity so highly, but because they happen not to be sexually attracted to each other. The non-sexual character of their friendship is merely evidence of the current state of their hormones, not of their deepest ethical commitments. So if by "sexually chaste friendship" the authors mean any friendship that does not involve sexual interaction, they are misusing the word ‘chaste'.

Perhaps, though, they mean a friendship in which the two friends are sexually attracted to each other but do not act on that attraction because they are committed to an ideal of chastity that would be violated if they had sexual relations. Is such restraint admirable and praiseworthy? Not necessarily. We must examine the reasons behind the restraint. There are some obvious reasons: one or both of the friends might be married to someone else, for example. And there are many less obvious reasons that might be quite good ones. Suppose any sexual relationship between them would be only a temporary fling, and they do not wish to invest so much of themselves in something that cannot last. Or suppose one of them simply thinks he cannot become the kind of person he is striving to become if he gets sexually involved with the other—he fears that his moral sensibilities will be coarsened, that his religious faith will be weakened, or that his professional effectiveness will be undermined.

If this is the sort of friendship the authors have in mind, then they are using the word ‘chaste' properly, but the charge that the homosexual movement involves an attack on chaste friendship becomes patently slanderous. Homosexuals are not suggesting that people cheat on their spouses, violate their religious vows, or even just settle for less than the very best in their lives, simply in order to have sex with (apparently) as many of their friends as possible.

Now suppose that the two friends would be breaking no promises and violating no commitments if they became sexually involved. Suppose also that their relationship would not interfere with their pursuit of excellence—that in fact it would permit both of them to lead richer, better, nobler lives. Why should they then maintain a "sexually chaste friendship," when both reason and desire press them to become sexually involved, and no reason holds them back?

The authors offer no good reason for anyone to refrain from homosexual sex simply because it is homosexual, and yet they think people should "experience a reflexive recoil" from homosexual sex. Recoiling from something for no good reason is not a sign of virtue but of neurosis. Anorexia is not temperance, and neurotic loathing of a certain kind of sex is not chastity. If this is what they mean by "sexually chaste friendship"—a friendship in which the friends "experience a reflexive recoil" from a sexual relationship that they deeply desire and from which there is no good reason to refrain—then the authors are again misusing the word ‘chaste'. Furthermore, sexually "chaste" friendship of this sort is not desirable in the least. To the extent that the homosexual movement involves an attack on this sort of "chastity," it is a movement towards sanity, and homosexuals—and everyone else—would do well to embrace it.