Grappling with Gay Rights

This write-up is written by Mr. Sharad Kumar Pandian, a member of our society as well as a student at the Nanyang Technological University. The write-up is first posted on Mr. Sharad’s Facebook as a note, you may read the latest version here.

This was meant to be my piece for the last issue of the Tribune this year. Unfortunately, the entire edition was cancelled, and so I decided to put this here so it wouldn’t be a complete waste. I was planning to make it a 4 page spread, so it is a really long write-up. If you’re a person who doesn’t care for reading much, you might want to jump to section III.

In recent months, it has become clear that the moral treatment of gay people is the question of the hour. A fierce debate has emerged, taking Singapore by storm. With Pinkdot bringing out an estimated 26,000 people in support of more inclusiveness, a subsequent “wear-white” campaign with diametrically opposite aims, and the NLB outrage, the nation seems all but poised on the edge of a culture war.

While the voices of everyday people are essential, it is vital that we hear from the group of people who spend entire careers thinking about these issues- moral philosophers. To remedy this oversight, I will draw extensively from philosophy and the social sciences.


I. A People Divided

First, it is important to know who makes up the different camps in this debate. At the risk of over-generalization, I call the pro-LGBTQ people ‘liberals’ and the others ‘conservatives’ (while ignoring the apathetic). It turns out that social scientists study people who self-identify as liberal or conservative, producing fascinating results. The psychologist Jonathan Haidt identified five traits that pop up repeatedly in academic literature regarding what people consider ‘moral foundations’

a. Harm/Care

b. Fairness/Reciprocity

c. In-group Loyalty

d. Authority/Respect

e. Purity/Sanctity

He then surveyed 132,000 people online who self-identified on the political spectrum from ‘really liberal’ to ‘really conservative’ to see how essential they thought these ‘foundations’ were. The results were as follows:

This explains how both groups use moral arguments to reach opposite conclusions- they subscribe to different ideas of what morality is. However, the difference isn’t in which foundations are accepted but rather in degree. So, as long as arguments are strong enough, we should be able to make moral progress, although at a slow pace.

And even the glacial pace of any possible moral progress might not be cause for lament. Conservatives with their cautionary approach to radical change ensure that societal stability is not imperilled. Meanwhile, liberals with their constant emphasis on fairness ensure that society keeps modifying itself to be more inclusive and just. And so while conservatives ensure that society endures, liberals ensure that society is worth enduring. And so, the next time you’re enraged by someone from the other camp, just remember that this dynamic might actually be desirable, with the larger picture in mind.


II. Philosophical Rigor

A key part of modern philosophy is an emphasis on clarity and rigor. To subject the debate on gay rights to philosophical scrutiny is to examine each argument presented, evaluate individual premises, look for consistency and ensure the inferences flow. Here are some illustrations of what this would look like.

1. Empirical Support

David Hume, the Scottish philosopher, pointed out that no amount of facts about the world can by themselves lead to moral truths. However, many moral arguments do depend crucially on facts about the world.

Consider, for instance, the argument that same-sex marriage should not be allowed because it would ruin heterosexual marriage. Clearly there is an empirical premise here- that there is some causal connection between the legalization of same-sex marriage and the degradation of heterosexual marriage. The empirical portion can be tested using the nations which have already gone down this road.

Here is data from the Norwegian statistics agency concerning heterosexual marriage and divorce rates. If the premise is true, then the legalization of registered partnerships in 1993 (which was same-sex marriage in all but name, since it ‘granted virtually all the protections, responsibilities and benefits of marriage’) should have accelerated the already declining marriage rates (and the marriage rates were in decline long before the gay-rights movement became influential).

Instead, there seems to be a marginal increase, after which the rates eventually settled at a rate higher than the 1993 one. Similar trends exist for Denmark and Sweden[1]. In the US, states that legalize same-sex marriage see a temporary increase in total marriages (predictably, since long-time same-sex couples rush to get married), but then eventually ‘return to virtually the same marriage rates as before gay marriage became legal'[2]. This data ensures that the original empirical claim and the argument it supports are suspect. While it is still possible that marriage declined in some way, the burden of proof now lies squarely with the conservative to articulate in what way.

2. Critical Examination of premises

On the liberal side, a lot of rhetoric involves alluding to the fact that people are born gay, or the fact that being gay is immutable. However, while these might be true, by themselves they are insufficient to establish the moral nature of gay sexual expression. After all a genetic, immutable tendency for alcoholism isn’t sufficient to establish the moral nature of alcoholism.

It has to remembered though that while being born gay isn’t sufficient to make this argument, it also isn’t necessary. Non-heterosexual sexual expression offers opportunities for pleasure, intimacy, companionship, and joy, and for these reasons must be treated as a source of good just like its heterosexual counterpart. This way, the moral nature of homosexuality is argued for in the same way as the moral nature of heterosexuality.

3. Consistent application of principles

One easy objection to the previous portion is that there is a morally relevant distinction between homosexual relationships and heterosexual ones- namely that the latter is reproductive. This usually leads to the conclusion that there is justification for privileging one over the other.

Such an argument needs to ensure that a policy of privileging reproductive ways of living is carried out across the board. In 1785, the Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham argued that if homosexuals were being punished, so should monks and priests for their ascetic lifestyles. Today, we can identify plenty of other examples that can join the list. Should we consider sterile heterosexual couples morally inferior to their more fecund counterparts? Should society deny marriage to any couple over 60, considering menopause? Can marriages where procreation hasn’t occurred even after a certain age be annulled by the state? After all, all of these would send a strong message that marriage is for procreation. And yet, these seem unappealing, if not downright unjust.

The conservative who wishes to argue that reproductive capability is morally relevant on its own, will need to provide a defensible demarcation criteria to distinguish between acceptable forms of non-reproductive relationships and the unacceptable ones.

4. Checking for fallacies

A fallacy can roughly be thought of as a sign of bad reasoning. To demonstrate this consider what the philosopher John Corvino calls the polygamy-incest-bestiality (PIB) argument[3]. This is essentially the argument that any liberal political or social attitudes towards LGBTQ people will result in the acceptance of social evils and so should be resisted. The crucial premises of this argument are:

P1: PIB is immoral

P2: If social and political attitudes towards LGBT people get more liberal, PIB will also be accepted

There is a reasonable case for P1. Polygamy tends to manifest as an intensely sexist version of polygyny, and so we might think the state has reasonable basis to discourage it. Incest comes with increased risk of genetic defects in offsprings, as well as increased risk of coercion. Bestiality produces suffering for animals, who can not provide consent.

We then move on to P2. We need to examine if there is a reasonable chance that there is a causal or logical link between gay rights and the acceptance of PIB. The causal connection can be tested by looking at nations that have liberal attitudes already. Denmark legalized same-sex sexual activities in 1933, which means more than 80 years have passed. The absence of any popular movements for acceptance for PIB makes the causal link dubious. The strength of pro-gay arguments is that it involves consenting pairs of adults. Hence, it is hard to take seriously a logical link between this and the acceptance of non-consensual practices (nor is there any bigotry institutionalized). Without reasonable causal or logical links, this argument is an example of the slippery slope fallacy.

The point of providing these argument snippets is not to serve as whole arguments, but rather to give an idea of what philosophical rigor would look like. It will certainly be laborious and difficult, but we should expect nothing less for a topic as complex as fundamental rights. Proper deliberation will also need to look at radical critiques as well as consider nuance. For instance, the empirical argument here already assumed that marriage was an essential, indispensable institution. Is it possible that this isn’t true? And even if procreation was a morally relevant distinction by itself, does this automatically mean that heterosexual relationships are morally better for non-heterosexuals also? The point is to make our arguments are complex as reality is, instead of favouring simplistic arguments that support our position.


III A. Away from a Politics of Disgust

A careful observer of the ongoing debate might notice something odd- the usage of terms like ‘filth’ and ‘disgusting’ in a debate on morality. As John Corvino points out, “With heterosexual people, we talk about relationships. With homosexual people, we talk about sex. We say heterosexual people have lives; homosexual people have “lifestyles”. We say heterosexual people have a moral vision; homosexual people have an agenda.”

Moreover, there seems to be some curious discrepancies between empirical evidence and certain people’s beliefs.

Despite decades of radically liberal attitudes towards gay people in Scandinavia, the percentage of gay people has stagnated in the low single digits. Still, some people are convinced that just knowing about homosexuality early can make children gay.

The largest study of its kind in Australia found that children raised by gay parents are doing just as well, if not better, than the general population[4]. However, some people are still sure that in some inarticulable way, different sex parents are the optimum family.

Marriage rates, as previously discussed, do not fall after marriage equality. And yet, some strongly believe that in some indescribable way the institution of marriage will be damaged.

The philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues that all these occurrences can be best explained by realizing that a pervasive “politics of disgust” is involved in most talk about gay people. The problem with disgust levied at a group of people is that it involves “magical ideas of contamination” and an irrational fear of a loss of purity.[5]

And this isn’t unsupported speculation. The “magical ideas” of contamination of disgust have been verified through psychological experiments. People refuse to eat insects, even after they are sterilized. People refuse to eat out of bedpans even the ones that have never been used before. People will even refuse to swallow a capsule with a cockroach in it, even if they are told the capsule will remain intact through their digestive tract.

With regard to gay rights, it was found that a person’s level of disgust sensitivity predicts both political orientation as well as socio-moral attitudes [6]. Just ensuring that people felt disgust through any unrelated picture or smell caused dramatic changes in their attitude towards gay people. With the potency of disgust to control people’s political views well established, we can understand why rhetoric evoking disgust is successful (and consequently still in use). We can now explain why the PIB argument, despite being a terrible argument, is still in use. By bringing up references to the PIB acts, each of which evokes disgust, the association of homosexuality with disgust is cemented. This is further aided by language, where the allusion to ‘filth’ can be explained.

Historical use of disgust against social groups like the lower castes in India, Jews in Nazi Germany, women, etc., provide ample reason why disgust by itself should not be used as a socio-political decision making tool. Disgust manifests as a tendency to treat the other group as alien and attempts to keep them as far away from oneself as possible. This is not how disinterested decisions are made.

Nussbaum argues that the fear of contagion (arising from internalized disgust at gay people) explains why people are convinced that heterosexual marriage will collapse if same-sex marriage is allowed, even though other non-reproductive marriages like that of the sterile 80-year old is ignored. Here it is feared that the entry of gay people will contaminate the institution is some irreparable way (the importance of purity for conservatives in Haidt’s research seems relevant here). She also thinks that this accounts for people trying to shield their children from any information about same-sex families, almost as if they could be infected by the information.

This thesis gains further strength when applied to different social phenomena. It is not possible to feel disgust for people in your intimate circle of care for an extended period of time (because they can’t be thought of in terms of an amorphous ‘other’). This could explain what happens when people find out that a close family member is gay. The gay person will either have to be ejected from the circle (contributing to the obscene number of homeless gay teens) or disgust will have to fade (explaining the sudden change of policy in conservative politicians like Dick Cheney and Rob Portman when their children came out). The fact that one of the strongest predictors of attitudes towards homosexuality happens to be knowing someone who is gay or lesbian[7] offers yet more support.

If it turns out that feelings, unhinged from fact, are the sole drivers of anti-gay sociopolitical attitudes, then there are major implications for what justice will obligate us to do. As the political philosopher John Rawls pointed out:

“The intense convictions of the majority, if they are indeed mere preferences without any foundation in the principles of justice…have no weight to begin with. The satisfaction of these feelings has no value that can be put in the scales against the claims of equal liberty.”[8]

Despite all of this, the sheer ambitious scope of Nussbaum’s ideas should give us just cause for being cautious. However, this is not an idea that can be casually dismissed. Each of us should use this as an opportunity to dig deep and critically examine what really makes us so sure about our beliefs- whether we’ve reached them through disinterested reasoning or through post-hoc rationalization.

While it might sound as if liberals have good reasons to oppose such a politics of disgust, it can be argued that there is a three-fold case for the rational conservative to do so too. The first is that any victory from irrational appeals seems morally vacuous in some essential way. The second is that by allowing disgust to be the main driver of arguments, all the disgust insensitive liberals will never embrace the conservative position. And third, allowing the rational arguments to be drowned out by the politics of disgust ensures that the public never hears about the rational conservative case. For instance, one of the strongest conservative arguments today is the New Natural Law argument put forth by Robert P. George and others. The fact that few outside academia use this argument shows what happens when the politics of disgust is given free reign- the standard of discussion comes crashing down. For all these reasons, anyone interested in rational discourse needs to work to dismantle the irrational rhetoric that grips so much of contemporary discussion.

III B. Towards a Politics of Humanity

What would a just framework for deliberation look like? Nussbaum considers two features essential.[9]

The first involves respect for persons and human dignity across the board. Respect for individuals also means respect for what those individuals hold important in their lives. This typically manifests as respect for a zone of freedom, from which we get privacy rights, the right to free practice of religion, the right to free sexual expression, etc. To recognize this zone is to recognize that often what people do is intimately connected to who people are. Just as we wouldn’t argue that banning a certain religion’s practice is not discriminatory towards people as it only targets certain acts, we cannot argue that  restricting certain forms of sexual expressions is not discriminatory. While society can withdraw these rights, it needs to show that there is clear rational basis and not mere majoritarian animus driving this restriction.

The second feature is a serious and sympathetic attempt to imagine the interests of all people. This involves treating everyone involved as complex individuals with emotions, desires, vulnerabilities, etc., and not as mere 1-dimensional caricatures. For instance, with regard to gay rights this will mean accepting that hundreds of thousands of same-sex couples are raising children even now, and that each of these units qualify as a family. This will then mean we need to recognize that the current gay rights struggle isn’t pro-family versus anti-family, but rather pro-family versus pro-families, where the latter is the demand for respect for both heterosexual and non-heterosexual families.

If we are to have a discussion, we cannot start off by assuming the inferiority and otherness of a certain group. In some ways, these are lofty demands and will make a lot of contemporary rhetoric more difficult to employ. But I don’t think that is too much to ask- after all it shouldn’t be easy to treat any group as sub-human or deny liberty. And a politics of humanity needs to be extended to all people- majority, minority, immigrants, and even criminals. Any argument we make should be made with full recognition of people’s dignity and civic equality.


IV. Looking Ahead

Consider the following statement:

“The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.”

Contrary to expectation, this isnt from an anti-gay manifesto. It is part of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The state of affairs is so dire that any pro-family statement today is almost unfailingly something anti-gay. This means that as a society, we’ve become so caught up with the spectre of non-heterosexuality that we’re squandering resources that could actually be used on pro-family ideas. Why not spend more on trying to change divorce rates? Why not research what makes families last? Instead, we’re hung up on definitional questions, rendering the entire current pro-family endevour impotent and farcical.

In the mean time, we need to ensure that we create and maintain a framework for deliberation. We need to recognize that the views of religious people come from beliefs that are both deep and meaningful to them; but we also need to keep in mind that perfect faith in a perfect being does not bestow perfection onto all our beliefs. We need to keep in mind the importance of people’s right to freedom of speech and action; but we need to recognize the asymmetry between the freedom to live as you choose and the freedom to impose. We need to accept that most of the empirical data from progressive nations are limited to small periods of time; however we cannot ignore the information we have. We need to accept that societies can try to uphold a vision of the good life; we also need to accept that no truly moral vision can treat any group of people as insignificant. There aren’t many easy answers here, and yet we need to engage with the questions because they go to the heart of society, family and our common humanity. All we can do is keep pushing for what we believe to be right, all the while ensuring that we submit to both reason and compassion.


[1] Gay Marriage: For Better or for Worse?: What We’ve Learned from the Evidence, William N. Eskridge, Darren R. Spedale


[3] What’s Wrong With Homosexuality?, John Corvino


[5] Hiding from Humanity:Disgust, Shame, and the Law, Martha C. Nussbaum

[6] Disgust sensitivity predicts intuitive disapproval of gays, Inbar Y, Pizarro DA, Knobe J, Bloom P.

[7] Heterosexuals’ attitudes toward lesbians and gay men: Correlates and gender differences, Gregory M. Herek

[8] A Theory of Justice, John Rawls

[9]  From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and Constitutional Law, Martha Nussbaum