Orientation and action

By Lorenzo

The case of Gordon College (via) in Massachusetts, which propounds a traditional Christian view of homosexuality with a rather less traditional coda of sympathy, puts into sharp relief the “orientation is not sinful, acts are” position.

The policy of Gordon College is:

The orientation/action distinction has two major problems with it. First, it sets up an utterly unreasonable standard. Homosexuals are not permitted to act upon their erotic desires or to seek intimate companionship. To see how unreasonable this is, consider telling heterosexual people: you cannot have sex with anyone of the opposite sex, but marrying someone of the same sex is just fine.

Clearly, this is a standard that people are (mostly) not going to achieve. When the (predictable) high level of failure to achieve it then occurs, homosexuals are held blameworthy for failing to keep to an utterly unreasonable standard.

This is, of course, very much in the interest of priests and clerics–that a vulnerable minority have this completely unreasonable standard, that they are mostly bound to fail, imposed upon them. (Remembering that queer folk grow up us isolated individuals in overwhelmingly straight families and social milieus.) When you are in the gatekeepers of righteousness business, differentiation, complexity and effortless virtue are very much part of the game. This imposing of an unreasonable standard on a vulnerable minority sells effortless virtue to the overwhelmingly heterosexual majority (imposing a standard that is little or no effort for them, but which they can feel terribly virtuous for keeping and terribly morally superior to those who do not), distinguishes between the “righteous” and the “unrighteous” and establishes a criteria of righteousness that has to be (at least originally) told to folk by said gatekeepers. (Most human societies, at least pre-monotheism, did not find such matters to be of much moral moment. Nowadays, it tends to be a differentiator between the West and much of the Rest, many of whom–outside Islam–were taught that it was of moral moment by European colonial masters. What this piece does not get is that queer folk being a relatively small minority is, and has always been, the point–much like with the Jews, really.)

Devaluing people

Second, the action/orientation distinction wildly devalues the moral fact that there are people–millions and millions of people–with such orientation. In theist terms it amount to “God made a mistake, again and again and again; millions upon millions of times, and God keeps making it”. Claims about homosexuals having a “special calling” are nonsense on stilts, as we can see from the (finally now failing) endless efforts to deny homosexuals who act upon their erotic nature access to social goods. (That queer folk grow up as isolated individuals in overwhelmingly straight families and social milieus also means queer folk disproportionately benefit from urbanisation and improved information technology, hence the increased contemporary saliency of queer rights.)

More generally, the action/orientation distinction holds that people (and the moral implications to be drawn from that) are not to defined by how all people are, only by how some people are. I have been reading Pierre Manent‘s The Metamorphoses of the City: On the Western Dynamic, a book I find alternative frustrating and enlightening. Manent spends considerable time on Augustine‘s masterwork De Civitae Dei (The City of God), providing a revealing summary of Augustine’s views on nature and will:

We have here a fundamental Christian thesis that Augustine more than anyone else contributed to formulate and sharpen: man’s nature is good; his will is bad or inclined to evil … The very definition of a bad will is that it is the perversion of a nature that is good or capable of good. Augustine explains at some length how the human will, naturally attracted by the good, can nonetheless choose evil. The bad will does not have its cause in good nature; it is some way without cause.

Augustine was not an Aristotelian as such, his philosophical roots were in Neoplatonism, but that in itself is very much a philosophy after Aristotle. Moreover, Augustine looked widely for ideas and was a child of Aristotle in the sense that almost all Westerners are (and Muslims are generally not), accepting that there was a moral realm beyond revelation and that the world has an independent existence beyond the habits of God–so Augustine argued that, being the direct creation of God, the created world had greater authority (if they were in contradiction) than Scripture, which was the word of God mediated by fallible humans. (The Quran, by contrast, is the eternal, direct word of God unmediated by anything.)

We can see here the issue with same-sex attraction in this worldview. On the one hand, it is simply perverted will against nature. On the other hand, it is an orientation–people are strongly inclined to such “perversion”; millions of people. Hence formulations such as being “intrinsically disordered“. In the words of the then Cardinal Ratzinger:

At the same time the Congregation took note of the distinction commonly drawn between the homosexual condition or tendency and individual homosexual actions. These were described as deprived of their essential and indispensable finality, as being “intrinsically disordered”, and able in no case to be approved of (cf. n. 8, $4).

As this author reminds us, Aquinas–the supreme reconciler of Catholicism and Aristotelianism–held that all sexual desire outside marriage was “intrinsically disordered”. But there is a difference between heterosexual eros–which can find an approved outlet in marriage–and homosexual eros, which never has any approved expression ever, but must always be denied and sublimated. The latter is “intrinsically disordered” at a much more basic level.

Presumptions selectively natural

We can also see where the muddle comes from, at least in natural law terms. The typical natural law theorist is a heterosexual male, his sexual desires are directed towards women, casual empiricism shows that male and female animals mate to produce offspring. So, easy conclusion–his desires define human nature and mating defines the purpose of sex.

Where, in economics, the representative agent can only be properly modelled if they do not know they are the representative agent, the typical natural law theorist is much more arrogant. He, and folk like him, define human nature and what he has noticed about the natural world defines the nature of sex.

But some men have sex with other men and some women have sex with other women. Well, they are unnatural, they are acting against nature. Then folk even notice that some animals do the same (in the medieval period, hares, hyenas and partridges had that reputation). Well, they are being unnatural too, they are also acting against nature.

And so does the conclusion set the ambit of its premises. People who do not conform to the decreed nature do not count (as evidence toward human nature), observations of nature that do not conform to the decreed purpose of sex also do not count (as evidence about the purpose, function or role of sex).

The entire argument about queer emancipation is, at bottom, literally about whether they count as “real people” or not. Hence conservative monotheists define them out of such, and are outraged at any attempt to include them in. It is literally about defining the human and about whether everyone with a human face is “properly” human.

I (mostly) agree with Andrew Sullivan’s plea for genuine liberalism (and Scott Alexander has a helpful post about political tribalism and tolerance which is apposite), especially as Gordon College has a general ban on sexual activity amongst its students. Even more so given the rather repellant “secular commissars” trend identified by Damon Linker:

Contemporary liberals increasingly think and talk like a class of self-satisfied commissars enforcing a comprehensive, uniformly secular vision of the human good. The idea that someone, somewhere might devote her life to an alternative vision of the good — one that clashes in some respects with liberalism’s moral creed — is increasingly intolerable.

As someone has said in a related context, no one expects the Secular Inquisition.

And yet, the idea that Gordon College has, in a free society, a right to act upon has a deeply disturbing core. Even with the Christian missionaries in Africa Linker discusses, Christian evangelising has also had repellant consequences, notably in the recent attempts to make homosexuality a capital crime in Uganda. To be fair, it is not heroic doctors but more spin-offs from tele-evangelising (to which effortless virtue is such an attractive sell) that is responsible, but the latter are partly levering off the former.

The position that Gordon College takes has roots deep in Christian tradition and they are, if anything, being much more liberal than that tradition generally was. But the orientation/action distinction used to make that tradition more palatable remains deeply problematic in ways which very much touch on basic moral protections and participation in society.

 

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

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