One of the more amusing responses to my post on the recent Moldbug/Lambdaconf affair was Orthosphere‘s objection that conservatives cannot make an anti-homosexuality argument that appeals to atheists because, “if God doesn’t oppose homosexuality then there’s ultimately nothing wrong with it.” In other words, the only argument against homosexuality is religious, ergo, atheists will always be pro (or at least neutral) on the subject.
Yes, I recognize that this does not actually have anything directly to do with the Moldbug/Lambdaconf affair. Don’t worry; it doesn’t matter. My relevant bit was:
Take the most common argument against homosexuality: “God says it is a sin.” Young people are fairly atheist, believe in separation of church and state, and think a god who doesn’t like gay people is a jerk. This argument doesn’t just fail at convincing young people that gay marriage is bad; it also convinces them that God is bad.
By contrast, a simple graph showing STD rates among gay people makes a pretty persuasive argument that the “gay lifestyle” isn’t terribly healthy.
A further argument (made elsewhere, I believe, but on the same subject,) is that atheists simply do not believe in moral absolutes, because only god can command belief in moral absolutes, and since the argument against homosexuality is a moral absolute, therefore, atheists cannot be convinced.
So I thought this would make for an interesting bit of rumination: do there exist any arguments that can convince atheists that homosexuality is bad? And if not, why have Republicans harped on a guaranteed losing issue?
(Since my original post was only using the arguments for and against homosexuality as a means of illustrating a broader point germane to the Moldbug/Lambdaconf topic, I attempted to treat the matter quickly and without much depth. The version of those paragraphs I hashed out originally went on for much longer, but little of that could fit in the post without overtaking it and distracting from the actual point.)
First, can atheists hold absolute moral values?
As a practical matter, we do. We might not be able to justify why we believe something, but that doesn’t stop us from believing it.
For example, I believe that child abuse/neglect/rape/murder is absolutely, 100% morally wrong. I am normally a peaceful, tree-hugging person who feels guilty about eating animals, but harm a child, and I want to see you drawn and quartered.
I feel no compelling need to justify to myself why I believe that. It is obviously true, in the same sense that scraping my knee on the sidewalk is obviously painful.
I also believe other things in a fairly absolutest way, like “don’t torture puppies” and “don’t poop on the sidewalk.”
But to use a source with possibly a little more authority than me, the Spring 2006 volume of Religious Humanism, published by the Unitarian Universalists contains an article titled, “Theistic Moral Intuitions in a Secular Context: A Plea for Ficionalism in Moral Philosophy,” by Loobuyck, which essentially proposes that atheists should “fake it till they make it”:
Some essential ideas about the nature of morality are survivals of Judaic-Christian ideas, and function now outside the framework of thought that made them intelligible. Our ideas of the moral self, human dignity, and the Kantian summum bonum also survive from an earlier conception of theistic ethics. All these ideas became “self-evident” and essential elements of our secular moral discourse, but they belong to theistic metaphysics and do not easily fit into secular metaphysical naturalism.
Secular moral philosophers are confronted with the following dilemma: since the moral discourse is useful and confirms our deepest moral intuitions, doing away with it incurs a cost; a price is also paid for keeping a flawed discourse, for “truth” is a very valuable commodity. … the stance of moral fictionalism makes it possible to keep a discourse while knowing it is inherently flawed. …
Nietzsche seems to be suggesting that the acceptance of the death of God will involve the ending of all our accepted standards of morality, but if we look around, this has not proved correct. As for losing our European morality, the opposite is true. We still think about morality as theists did: as a system of objective prescriptive laws with special authority, and many of the so-called universal secular values are values we can find in the Judaic-Christian tradition. We did not reject the slave-morality, and most people will not see the Nietzschean superman as a paragon of moral excellence. We still believe in the intrinsic and equal value of human being, and moreover, we build a whole construction of human rights on these fundamental but religious ideas. …
some intuitions can be so successful that they can persist as self-evident even when the philosophical context that gives meaning to those intuitions vanished. … Secular ethics is modeled upon theological ethics and talks abut a moral agent in such terms that it structurally parallels the notion of God… someone who argues that morality is a “myth” is seen frequently as maintaining not merely a counter-intuitive position, but also a pernicious or dangerous position. …
we can suggest the stance of “fictionalism”: the possibility of maintaining the discourse but taking an attitude other than belief towards it (disbelieving acceptance.) … atheistic Darwinists live as if their life has and ultimate meaning, we look at our child as if it is the most wonderful baby in the wold, and we think as if there is a real difference instead of a gradual difference between animals and human beings. … We could say that we must live and think as if there are absolute prohibitions, intrinsic values, human dignity and act as if morality is not a Sartrian passion inutile. … fictionalism… helps to save morality in our age of secularization, science, and deconstruction.
Now, I understand that religious folks might not be comfortable with the philosophy of “If we’re all going to act like we have a coherent theoretical basis for our moral intuitions, then let’s just go ahead and pretend we have one,” but as a practical matter, I think that’s what most atheists are basically doing.
Consider that about 20% of Americans are pretty openly atheists, (and about half of the “religious” people seem like they’re just going through the motions.) And yet, these 20-50% of Americans don’t have higher than average rates of murder, theft, abuse, or public defecation than the rest of the country. We also don’t have higher than average rates of sins like gluttony, premarital sex, drug use, or divorce.*
When you encounter an atheist, do you feel a sudden surge of fear that here is someone who might randomly stab you in a fit of Nietzschean ubermenschen glory? Or are you generally pretty confident that this person will act a lot like a normal person who believes in the principles laid down in the Ten Commandments?
To turn this around, to many atheists, the Christian reliance on an outside source for their morality makes their morality seem less absolute. Atheists see, “Do not sacrifice your children to Moloch,” as obvious, not something that needs to be spelled out multiple times. Suppose those verses had not made it into the Bible: would it then be acceptable to sacrifice one’s children to Moloch?
Consider the story of Abraham, Isaac, and the ram. When God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham obeyed. God stopped him, not Abraham’s own moral conscience.
To an atheist, this story is horrifying. You do not murder your children. It does not matter if human sacrifice is common in your neighborhood; it does not matter if god told you to. Murdering your children is always immoral.
I can hear your objection: I’ve misunderstood the story; the point is not that sacrificing your kid is good, but human sacrifice was common in Abraham’s time and God changed this by showing Abraham a new, better way. Yahweh was not like those other gods; Yahweh’s morality is superior to those other gods’.
But this is at odds with the text, in which “the Angel of the Lord” praises Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son:
“Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son. … I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, 18 and through your offspring[b] all nations on earth will be blessed,[c] because you have obeyed me.” (Genesis 22)
Further, there is that whole affair with Jephthah sacrificing his daughter and not even getting smited for it, but becoming a Judge of Israel.
To be fair, the Bible is pretty anti-human sacrifice overall–there are just exceptions.
I don’t think moral absolutes are supposed to have exceptions.
Nevertheless, every religious person I’ve ever met treats “don’t sacrifice children” as a moral absolute; I certainly don’t feel any fear upon meeting a Christian that they might sacrifice me as a result of an awkwardly worded and poorly thought-out vow.
As far as daily life interactions are concerned, Christians and atheists perform remarkably similar moral actions.
We ascribe, however, different origins to our beliefs. Atheists attribute theirs to “common sense,” Christians to “God.” Perhaps common sense is actually God or was created by God, allowing atheists and theists alike to act like moral beings, or perhaps religious people have just as much common sense as everyone else.
Personally, I think morality is basically instinctual.
First, most people–atheist or theist–tend not to think too much about philosophical issues like, “What if we had a 2-ton Hitler on rollerskates to push in front of the trolley? Then would it be moral?” We all use mental shortcuts that make dealing with 99.99% of everyday life easier rather than spend time thinking about the 0.01% exceptions. Likewise, I am content to proclaim that it absolutely morally wrong to torture babies without wasting my time trying to think up extremely rare exceptions.
Second, people who murder their own children have historically probably been evolutionary failures, while people who have a strong urge to nurture and protect their children have had better luck at actually passing on their genes to the next generation. As a result, any genes that lead to murdering one’s own children probably get selected against, while genes that lead to caring for one’s children are selected for.
The result is an instinctive desire to protect and care for your children. This desire to care for your children is so strong that it can even be triggered by baby animals, cute toys, and other people’s unborn fetuses.
Obviously there is some cultural variation on this; some groups today still practice ritual child sacrifice, though typically apparently not of their own children, but of other people’s children whom they’ve kidnapped. But I don’t live in one of these societies; I live in a society where human (and animal) sacrifice has never been practiced. So for me, at least, child sacrifice is a giant NO.
We can extend this argument to all sorts of behaviors, like not stealing from your neighbors, that have lead to evolutionary success over the generations. In short: if your morals lead to you dying out without descendants, then your morals die with you. If your morals lead to you leaving lots of descendants, then lots of people end up believing in your morals. We don’t even need a genetic mechanism to cause this, but there is plenty of evidence in favor of one.
“Evolutionary morality” (and “game theoretic morality”) are the keys Loobuyck needs to unlock why atheists still have moral intuitions.
Second: Having established that atheists do basically act like they believe in moral absolutes, do there exist any arguments against homosexuality that would actually work on atheists?
Now, obviously, the argument, “God says so,” does not work with atheists. (It doesn’t always work on Christians, either, given that the New Testament forbids women from braiding their hair or wearing pearls, and commands them to keep their hair covered.) When atheists do engage in moral reasoning, they tend toward utilitarian arguments–X makes people happy, Y makes people sad, therefore X is good and Y is bad.
There are many critiques of utilitarianism, especially when it comes to experiences outside of people’s normal, everyday lives, but it’s not a bad way of articulating why you shouldn’t hit your brother. Therefore:
Potential Argument A: “Homosexual Happiness”
If you can demonstrate that homosexuality causes harm/suffering and that somehow convincing people not to be gay prevents this harm/suffering, then you have a good chance of convincing the atheists.
So far, people have not convincingly made this argument. Yes, gay folks have high suicide rates, but no one has convincingly argued that being gay causes this and that, say, outlawing gay marriage or convincing gay people that homosexuality is wrong lowers their suicide rate. By contrast, the other side argues pretty loudly that gay people are less happy when you tell them they’re immoral, and more happy when you say they aren’t.
Of course, you do not actually have to prove a point so much as argue it loudly and effectively. Most people are not strict utilitarians who check the statistical validity of other people’s arguments–they just react to the funny pictures they see on TV and process things in a fairly instinctual way. If they are surrounded by the narrative that gay people are happy being gay and that only meanie pantses who make them sad are opposed to them, then they will be fine with gay people. If they are surrounded by the narrative that gay people are miserable, rape children, and die of AIDS or suicide unless convinced to reject homosexuality, then they will (probably) view homosexuality as a weird aberration.
Outside of San Francisco and a few scattered neighborhoods across the US, most people encounter very few gay people in real life, just because gay people are a relatively small % of the population that is highly concentrated in a few places. (The 10% statistic turns out to be false.) Perhaps you know 2 or 3 gay people–of those, maybe one reasonably well. What do you know, genuinely, about them? How happy are they? How productive? How much do they give back to their community or civic organizations? By contrast, how many gay people have you encountered in books, TV shows, movies, or newspapers?
I’ll go ahead and admit it: far more of my “knowledge” of gay people comes from fiction of various sorts than from real life. The random vagaries of life simply have not led to me knowing that many gay people.
(Which means that that my entire conception of “what gay people are like” could be wrong.)
You will point out that there are practical issues with influencing the media narrative. So there are. No one ever said convincing people was easy. But conservatives do get enough opportunities to share their point of view that people are amply familiar with their arguments on the subject of homosexuality–so I don’t see this as a good reason to use arguments that don’t work.
Potential Argument B: “Disease Rates”
Whether you are concerned for gay people themselves or just concerned about diseases, gay people do catch STDS at a higher rate than straight people. Personally, I happen to really dislike being sick, so anti-disease arguments work pretty well on me.
An anti-disease argument doesn’t have to be rational. My fear of Ebola may not be rational, because I worry about it even though no one in my entire continent, to my knowledge, has the disease. I just think Ebola is really scary. Likewise, put some disease statistics and quotes from “bug chasing” forums on TV or in the papers every so often, and you’ll completely disgust and horrify people. Even atheists will want to hear about “gay rights” about as much as the average person wants to hear about poop.
Yes, a libertarian would argue that it’s gay people’s business if they want to engage in high-risk activities, but it does not follow that lots of people would therefore go out of their way to advocate in favor of gay peoples’ rights to do risky things. I believe that people have the right to bathe in pudding if they feel like it, but I don’t spend much time advocating it.
Further, most people are not libertarians, which is why the libertarian candidate never gets to be president.
Someone partial to gay people would point out that bug chasers are not representative of the gay population as a whole and that non-promiscuous gay people who use condoms don’t get a bunch of diseases, but since this is an argument based on triggering peoples’ instinctual disgust mechanisms, they’re probably not going to hear anything over their brains going “EW EW EW.”
Most people act on instinct, and one important instinct that’s pretty solidly embedded in most people is to avoid disease vectors. This is why poop and rotting corpses are icky–so icky, you might actually throw up from being near them.
So, even though someone could make all kinds of reasonable counter-arguments about personal liberty, medical advances, safe sex, monogamy, etc., you can may be able to hijack people’s instinctual fear of disease to make them completely unwilling to even listen to counter-arguments.
Potential Argument C: “So Few Homosexuals”
Americans vastly overestimate the number of gay people–when Gallop asked people to estimate the % of people who are gay, 33% of responders estimated that more than 25% of people are gay; 20% of responders estimated that 20-25% of people are gay. Only 9% of people got the correct answer, “Less than 5%.” (Actually, about 3.8% of people are gay.) Of these, about 60% say they would like to get married–or 2.3% of Americans.
Let’s step back for a moment and wonder at the fact that liberals and conservatives alike have devoted untold hours and dollars to fighting over the legal marriage status of 2.3% of Americans while 8% of people are unemployed; in 2013, 2.5 million American children were homeless, and 15% of Americans live in poverty and face “food insecurity.” 52% of Americans will be victims of multiple violent crimes in their lives; 1 in 30 black men will be murdered. About 50% of marriages end in divorce; the Iraq war cost between 2 and 6 trillion dollars (not to mention the continuing cost of fighting ISIS). And if you are the kind of person who cares about people in other countries, there are a few billion poor people in the third world who would appreciate some help.
In other words, there are a lot of problems in this world that a reasonable person might consider higher priority than whether or not gay people should be allowed to “get married” or have “civil unions.”
Why let the other side take the moral high ground? Whenever the subject comes up, just divert to something else that affects far more people and claim that your opponent is trying to use an obscure, tiny issue to distract from the real problems facing America.
Potential Argument D: “Functional Purpose”
This is very close to an argument that conservatives do make, which is that the purpose of marriage is to produce children. This, of course, sounds like total nonsense to young people, who don’t think marriage has a function other than to serve as a means of saying “we like each other.”
Skipping over the potential misunderstanding, let’s talk about things like insurance benefits. Why does one spouse working entitle the other spouse to health insurance?
So that one spouse can work while the other takes care of the children. “Taking care of children” and “making socks” are both activities that someone has to do for society to keep functioning, but we recognize that factories produce better socks and parents produce better children, so we try to keep sock-making in factories and child-rearing at home.
Sometimes people get confused on this point, so I’m going to spell it out in more detail: not all valuable work is paid. You could pay someone to wash your dishes, sweep your floors, cook your meals, and take care of your children, or you could do all of these jobs yourself and get the exact same benefits. These are all things that have to get done; sweeping the floor does not become “legitimate work” just because you pay someone to do it and stop being “legitimate work” the moment you do it yourself.
100 years ago, most people lived on farms and did almost all of their work themselves–they planted their own crops, built their own houses, installed their own plumbing (or outhouses), sewed their own clothes, cooked their own food, and raised their own children. Few people were formally employed. The vast majority of economic production occurred–and was consumed–within families or small communities.
But this does not mean the economic production did not occur.
Today, the locus of employment has shifted outside the home–to factories, offices, shops, etc.–and we have decided to route many valuable social functions–like health insurance–through paid employers.
This runs into a problem, because some people (mainly women) are still engaged in the valuable economic work of raising children and running households. Moms get sick, too, so the health insurance men get through work extends to cover their non-working spouses.
The same is true of various other legal/inheritance benefits accorded by marriage–they basically exist to protect the non-working spouse who is raising children instead of engaging in paid employment.
Health insurance is not some special perk society decided to give people just because they’re in love. You’re not supposed to marry someone just to get health insurance benefits. That is an abuse of the system. If you have no intention of having children (or cannot have children,) then there is no reason for you to stay home while your spouse works: you can get your own job and qualify for your own health insurance.
Of course, some gay people do have children, whether biologically or through adoption, and I see no reason to deny these children health insurance, inheritance, etc. But even fewer gay people want children than want to get married–only about 16% of gay people have children.
The point of this post has not been give any of my own, personal opinions on the morality of homosexuality or gay marriage, but to explore potential arguments on the subject besides “God doesn’t like it.”
Some of these arguments are appeals to emotion or otherwise dishonest, but they still exist; people could have used them. Instead, Republicans have chosen for the past 20 years to focus primarily on an argument that comes across to young people as violating the establishment clause of the Bill of Rights, which I suspect has done more to alienate young people than convince them.