Over at Pharyngula, PZ Myers discusses the case of a professor — teaching at a public university — who presented his Catholic views, disguised as philosophy, on homosexuality to his students. One student complained to the administration, calling the professor’s position “hate speech.” PZ Myers disagrees and calls it “stupid speech.” Myers then proceeds to dismantle the professor’s arguments (using the professor’s own logic, which is similar to the logic of the perfectly designed and created banana), which have been made publicly available in this email that the former professor (foolishly) sent to his students. There are several ways to dispute the fallacies contained in the email, and Myers’ approach is a good start.
I want to comment on the infamous email because there are other ways to approach the issue. Like Myers, I will begin with this portion of the email, which contains an army of assumptions, none of them self-evident, and all of them used to advance a narrow theological perspective:
But the more significant problem has to do with the fact that the consent criterion is not related in any way to the NATURE of the act itself. This is where Natural Moral Law (NML) objects. NML says that Morality must be a response to REALITY. In other words, sexual acts are only appropriate for people who are complementary, not the same. How do we know this? By looking at REALITY. Men and women are complementary in their anatomy, physiology, and psychology. Men and women are not interchangeable. So, a moral sexual act has to be between persons that are fitted for that act. Consent is important but there is more than consent needed.
Our moralizing professor has helpfully emphasized his key contentions using CAPITAL letters. First, we have an appeal to “NATURE.” Second, we have something called “Natural Moral Law” or “NML.” Finally, we have “REALITY.”
Before analyzing these socially constructed, highly contested, and historically situated concepts, I want to refer my readers to one of my favorite bloggers and one of his recent posts. Over at Missives from Marx, a religious studies professor recently defined some key concepts in critical thinking that we should keep in mind when considering the professor’s email:
Naturalization: the process that results in taking human products (whether cultural products, social products, social relations, etc.) as if they were natural.
Reification: the process that results in seeing fixity and permanence where there is none (sometimes called misplaced concreteness). Or, this could be the same as hypostatization: to project the real existence of a conceptual entity (like when people start talking about “religion” and “science” as things).
Mystification: the process that obscures social relations or the extent to which social relations [and history] constitute the world.
Applying these critical concepts to the professor’s contingent categories — NATURE, NATURAL MORAL LAW, and REALITY — we can immediately see he has naturalized them (presented Catholic constructs as if they were biological), reified them (discussed these thought categories as if they were real things having an independent existence), and mystified them (obscured the Catholic social and historical circumstances which produced these concepts).
With these things in mind, let’s look at another portion of the offending email:
Natural Moral Theory says that if we are to have healthy sexual lives, we must return to a connection between procreation and sex. Why? Because that is what is REAL. It is based on human sexual anatomy and physiology. Human sexuality is inherently unitive and procreative. If we encourage sexual relations that violate this basic meaning, we will end up denying something essential about our humanity, about our feminine and masculine nature.
I have it on good papal authority that the Catholic church’s position on homosexuality derives from the belief that the nuclear family is — and has always been — the fundamental social unit, and that the procreative bond between husband and wife is the anchor of this unit. My authority contends that this is a universal feature of humanity (i.e., holds across cultures) and has always been this way (i.e., holds across history). Anyone who holds these views is either profoundly ignorant of biology, history, and the ethnographic record, or simply dismisses these things as unimportant.
Why do I say this? Let’s begin with biology. It is abundantly evident that there are no clear sexual lines when it comes to the natural world. The lines we create are largely artificial and are the product of Aristotleian essentialism; they ignore the immense sexual variation thrown up by nature. These variations, in turn, create continuums of sexuality that manifest themselves in two distinct ways.
First, we have people who are born with ambiguous sexual organs (sometimes called hermaphroditic) — they are neither male nor female or are both male and female (I prefer the latter characterization because it is non-normative). Second (and this is consistent with the first point), nature throws up variations in sexual preferences. While homosexuality may, at first blush, appear to be an evolutionary enigma because homosexuals do not usually reproduce (which is a key aspect of evolutionary fitness), many studies have shown that selection may favor (or not select against) these phenotypes because homosexuals often play a critical role in the care of siblings and kin. Ethnographic studies have shown this to be the case. In addition most studies show that sexual orientation is genetically coded, as explained in this excellent survey over at Gene Expression.
That humans should sometimes be born with ambiguous sexual organs or alternative sexual preferences should come as no surprise, especially if one considers that all humans begin life as females and all humans are constructed on a female body plan. Males, in other words, begin life as females and only through the later activation of certain regulatory genes and hormones do they begin developing male characteristics. This explains why males have breast nipples, which are functionless artifacts of their female beginnings. It stands to reason, therefore, that this differential development will generate physical and behavioral characteristics that exist along a sexual continuum. Ontogeny is never uniform and certainly does not result in neat dichotomies.
Let us now turn to history and the ethnographic record. Contrary to ahistorical Catholic beliefs and teachings, the nuclear family — with the procreating husband and wife at its center — has not always been and is not everywhere considered the foundational social unit. In many (if not most) small-scale or tribal societies, the husband and wife were but a small part of the family unit and were not exclusively tasked with the raising of their biological children.
Small-scale societies are most noted for fictive and extended kinship, which creates a basic social unit much larger than the nuclear family. In many cases, mothers and fathers are not responsible for the primary caretaking and education of their biological children. Biological and non-biological aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings, and relatives are often given this responsibility. In many such societies, a child can have several “mothers” and “fathers” and multiple sets of grandparents, not all of them biologically related to the children. Recognition of these facts is often paraphrased by the saying “it takes a village to raise a child.”
The Catholic emphasis on marriage, procreation, and the nuclear family is therefore a recent development, limited in both time and space. It generally coincides with the rise of city-states and the need for mobile labor units (i.e., the nuclear family) who could be deployed in ways most advantageous to economic needs. Societies that are Christian and capitalist vigorously promoted this idea, to the point where it is now considered to be “natural” and timeless.
Also contrary Catholic beliefs and teachings, there have been many societies — past and present — in which homosexual relationships are not only accepted but also are approved. This acceptance usually results from the perception that such preferences or activities are “natural.” These relationships may occur at certain limited times in a person’s life (i.e., at certain ages) or under limited circumstances (i.e., as a rite of passage). They may also be lifelong, depending on a person’s preferences. This has been well documented in both small and large scale societies, including the Sumerians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Chinese, Maasai, Azande, Papuans, and Native Americans.
Native Americans in particular are notable for their acceptance of — and reverence for — persons having either ambiguous sexual characteristics or same-sex preferences. In most Native American cultures, such persons were known as berdache or “Two Spirits.” They often performed roles and assumed duties that are perfectly consistent with evolutionary theory which recognizes the adaptiveness of persons who may not reproduce, but play a critical role in the raising of children and tribal well-being. While they may not reproduce, they help ensure the survival of their kin (and benefit the group) by performing a wide variety of useful tasks.
Ironically, Native American reverence for berdache stems from their close observation of nature (i.e., what is “NATURAL”). They noticed, in other words, that some people were born with ambiguous sexual organs and different sexual preferences. Rather than condemning these things as “unnatural” or “immoral,” they accepted it as perfectly natural. And because berdache were unusual, Native Americans extended this acceptance into elevated status. Berdache were often accorded special treatment and considered to have powerful medicine.
So here we have factual descriptions of NATURE and REALITY that contradict the Catholic construction of NATURE and REALITY. From this, we may conclude that the NATURAL MORAL LAW referenced by the Catholic professor in his email to students is neither NATURAL nor LAW. He should have been honest and called it CATHOLIC MORAL LAW.