John C. Wright’s anti-gay argument

John C. Wright’s case against homosexuality, laid out mostly in Part V of his essay on sex (links to all six parts available here), can be summarized as follows:

  1. It is in society’s interests, for various prudential reasons, to insist that the sex act proper (copulation) be restricted to marriage.
  2. People will be able to comply with the above restriction only if they cultivate habits of sexual self-command (chastity) rather than sexual self-indulgence (unchastity).
  3. All sexual acts other than actual copulation — that is, sodomy and other acts called “unnatural” in less sensitive times — are “unchaste in essence” because they “mock or impersonate the sex act with the same physical sensations as the sex act, but they are [sexual] by accident, not sexual essentially.” Unnatural sexual acts may nevertheless be permitted within marriage as an adjunct to, but never a replacement for, the sex act proper, “provided these acts increase the union and love of matrimony.”
  4. A preference for unnatural acts over copulation, such that one’s preference weakens one’s appetite for copulation rather than strengthening it, is a neurosis. Unnatural sex acts should be treated as we treat drinking and gambling: “If done in moderation, in certain times and settings, no opprobrium attached. When they become addictive, obsession, or neurotic, they become vices, and must be deterred.” “Customs and manners therefore cannot support non-copulation forms of neurotic sexual deviance without eroding matrimony. The two are mutually exclusive.”
  5. Therefore, regardless of whether or not homosexuality is in itself harmful or bad, “it still cannot escape the general prohibition against non-essential forms of sexual gratification neither leading to nor supporting copulation.”

I basically agree with (1), though it must be stressed that the marriage-only rule works only if it is enforced by society, and that in a society which does not enforce it there’s no particular merit in choosing to live by it as a matter of personal principle. In this way marriage is a bit like a driver’s license. It’s in society’s interest to insist that all drivers have a license — but if driver’s licenses were considered by the law and society to be completely optional, a driver would be under no moral imperative to get one. He would be under a moral imperative to drive competently and safely — the behaviors which the institution of driver-licensing is meant to enforce — but provided he did so, there would be no need for the formality of getting an actual license. That formality is of no benefit to society unless it is mandatory. The same goes for marriage, which is basically a license to have a sexual relationship. It’s arguably a good idea for society to require that all sexual relationships be licensed (more on this in another post, perhaps), but absent such a requirement, there’s nothing particularly moral about getting such a license yourself (though in some cases you might do so for reasons of self-interest). As with driving, the important thing is not the license itself but the behaviors the license is meant to enforce. But, all that aside, I’m going to grant (1) for the sake of argument here. Whether or not you agree with it, it should be interesting to accept it as a premise and see whether the suppression of homosexuality follows — whether, that is, any valid line of reasoning lies behind the common use of “pro-marriage” as a euphemism for “anti-gay.”

Point (2) is an interesting one. Though it seems almost a truism, it’s often overlooked in discussions of sexual morals. If it’s important to control one’s sexual urges in at least some situations (and everyone agrees that it is, though they may differ on what those situations are), then there’s a case to be made for sexual self-control as a general principle, for chastity as a virtue to be cultivated. Masturbation, for example, may be a harmless habit in itself, but by abstaining from it one develops a habit of controlling one’s sexual urges, making it easier to refrain from committing actual sins such as adultery and rape. (Quoting Hamlet at this point is almost a reflex, but I’ll control myself.) That’s one theory, anyway; the other theory is that suppressed lusts eventually burst out in a far more virulent form — that, as Nietzsche has it, lust begs for a piece of spirit when a piece of flesh is denied it. The latter idea is so fashionable, and the intellectual fashions these days are so uniformly obtuse, that my natural inclination is to side with Wright on this one — but really it’s an empirical question, to be settled by psychological observation and experiment rather than armchair philosophizing. In any case, let us grant this point also for the sake of argument.

Point (3) is more of a jump: that all unnatural/non-coital sexual acts are essentially unchaste — by which word Wright means vicious rather than virtuous in the Stoic sense, demonstrating (and, through the power of habit, reinforcing) a tendency to self-indulgence rather than self-mastery. It’s not immediately clear to me why yielding to lust should be considered less self-indulgent when done in the biologically correct manner, and the bit about their being sexual only accidentally rather than essentially doesn’t really clear it up much. Reading between the lines, though, I think Wright’s point is something like this. Sex has three basic functions: reproduction, bonding, and personal gratification — the last of which is obviously self-indulgent in nature. Even in cases where personal pleasure is one’s primary motivation, the fact that other purposes are also being served makes it fundamentally less of a vice than, say, solitary masturbation, which has only one possible purpose and has therefore rightly become synonymous with self-indulgence. To borrow an analogy Wright has used elsewhere, we may often eat primarily for pleasure rather than nutrition, but the latter end is also being served; eating for pleasure and then making oneself vomit it up, on the other hand, has no possible function apart from pleasure and is therefore fundamentally vicious.

But are non-coital sex acts really vices pure and simple, in the same category as masturbation and bulimia? They may not have any reproductive function, but they retain the bonding function of sex proper. Wright admits as much when he allows for non-coital acts so long as they “increase the love and union of matrimony.” Even outside of a matrimonial context, it’s hard to argue that these acts are purely vicious, since personal pleasure is not their only function and is sometimes not even a function. (For many people, I suspect, performing fellatio or cunnilingus or allowing oneself to be sodomized is actually an act of self-sacrifice, something in which they take little pleasure themselves but which they are willing to do as an expression of love and to give pleasure to their partner.) So I can’t agree with Wright’s classification of these acts as “unchaste in essence,” a designation which should be reserved for acts which have no function apart from self-indulgence.

Point (4) is that any sexual preference or appetite that draws one away from the sex act proper rather than towards it — i.e., homosexuality — cannot be supported by society without eroding matrimony. I find this to be a very weak argument. First of all, the “matrimonial position” Wright advocates is not that everyone must get married (as a Catholic, he obviously has no problem with celibacy), but that no one should be having sex outside of marriage — and, as Wright emphasizes again and again, the sexual practices of gays are not really sex. Gays are not engaging in extramarital sex and are thus not part of the problem marriage was instituted to solve. Wright tries to argue that non-coital acts are nevertheless a problem because they are detrimental to sexual self-control, and that a person who indulges in such acts makes himself less able to resist the temptation to indulge in extramarital sex. But, as Wright emphasizes again and again, gay sex (unlike non-coital heterosexual acts) draws people away from copulation rather than towards it and therefore cannot be said to be making anyone more susceptible to the temptations of extramarital sex. Once again, the matrimonial position is that extramarital sex (in the narrow sense of copulation) should not be allowed. Since homosexual acts are not extramarital sex, and presumably do not make one more likely to indulge in extramarital sex, it’s hard to see what the problem is.

The only way I can see that tolerance for gay sex could undermine marriage would be if the sexual liberties of gays somehow had a tendency to negatively affect the chastity (sexual self-control) of straight people — a possibility which is perhaps not as far-fetched as it seems. One could perhaps make a case for gay abstinence similar to St. Paul’s argument that Christians should not eat food offered to idols. (See 1 Corinthians 8.) If you’re a staunch Christian, says Paul, eating food that has been offered to a pagan god doesn’t mean anything and is not an act of idolatry, since you know that the god in question doesn’t actually exist and are therefore not worshipping it — but for someone less firm in his monotheism, less sure of the nonexistence of the pagan gods, the very same act would be idolatrous and potentially damning. Therefore, writes Paul to his Christian audience,

take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock to them that are weak. For if any man see thee which hast knowledge sit at meat in the idol’s temple, shall not the conscience of him which is weak be emboldened to eat those things which are offered to idols; and through thy knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died?

In the analogy I’m proposing (one which will undoubtedly rub some Christians the wrong way), the strong Christians Paul is addressing represent gays, the Christians whose monotheism is shaky represent straights, idolatry is extramarital sex, and the eating of food offered to idols stands for extramarital sex-like acts other than actual copulation (for the sake of brevity, I’ll just use the word “sodomy” in its broad sense). For gays, extramarital sodomy does not lead to extramarital sex and is therefore not (or not always) wrong — but, if practiced openly and with society’s approval, this liberty of theirs could embolden straights to indulge in similar acts, which for them do lead to extramarital sex and are wrong.

The obvious solution is to eliminate the double standard, not by suppressing homosexual acts altogether — that would be a double standard the other way, leading to the opposite problem of gays being emboldened by the liberty of straights — but by creating an institution of gay matrimony and insisting that all sex and sodomy be limited to marriage. Aside from the Corinthian argument, there are other reasons this is a good idea. Although the strongest arguments for matrimony involve children and are therefore not directly applicable to sodomy, other arguments — about minimizing emotional pain, dealing with the problem of violence between sexual rivals, and controlling the spread of venereal disease — apply to both equally.

This proposal is unlikely to find many supporters. Advocates of gay marriage are, after all, accustomed to thinking of it as a freedom rather than a restriction, a right rather than an obligation, and might not be so enthusiastic about it if it comes at the price of suppressing gay fornication. Nor are conservative Christians likely to think much of it. Still, I think it’s the logical conclusion of Wright’s argument.

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Filed under Ethics, Sex

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