Answering James Rachels’ Defense of Homosexuality

The late Professor James Rachels was a secular philosopher who dealt with moral issues like animal rights, euthanasia, and Darwinian ethics.  I once challenged someone to give me his best arguments in favor of homosexuality and he chose for me a collection of quotes from Rachels.  Here are those quotes, along with my replies.

Is homosexuality a threat to society? No. “Apart from the nature of their sexual relationships, there is no difference between homosexuals and heterosexuals in their moral characters or in their contributions to society. The idea that homosexuals are somehow sinister characters proves to be a myth similar to the myth that black people are lazy or that Jews are avaricious.”

  • I’m not sure where this idea of “sinister” comes from. The idea that they are largely bad or unproductive people does not capture the gist of the concern, which is in relation to the nature of homosexuality and attendant social issues.
  • One might also say that there is no difference between smokers and non-smokers in their character and contributions to society, but this says nothing about whether one ought to be a smoker.
  • It is not the people that are the “threat to society”; it is the normalization of homosexuality and the social engineering related to it.  Many homosexuals and their supporters want to redefine marriage, impose new sex education standards on our children, change adoption laws, impose special hate crime laws, silence opposition, and encroach upon the sovereignty of religious institutions.  As a supporter, Rachels may have thought it of no “threat,” but it is certainly true that (most) homosexuals are seeking to CHANGE society.

Is homosexuality unnatural? Statistically uncommon, yes. But so is left-handedness, hazel eyes, red hair.

  • The question here is whether or not it is “unnatural,” not “statistically uncommon.”  Rachels merely deflects the question to other, questionably analogous things.
  • The case of eye and hair color is distinct from homosexuality.  Coloration is part of the “natural” process of reproduction and is the normal and predictable result of Mendelian genetics.  It is the result of well understood allele combinations that are a standard part of our DNA and how it generates diversity in offspring.  This is DETERMINATIVE genetics.  That is to say, if you have the right gene combination you WILL have the associated eye/hair color.
  • Left-handedness is a better analogy for Rachels, since it is something more akin to a preference and is only arguably caused by genetics.  Even so, left-handedness can be successfully suppressed.  Even if it were found to be genetic, it could not be considered determinative.  In my experience, it seems that a determinative genetic cause is preferred by homosexuals so that no suggestion of environmental conditioning, suppression, or “overcoming” the condition has to be entertained.  Unfortunately, pure genetic causes have eluded researchers to date, even though conditions that are genetically determined are not particularly elusive to find.
  • Unlike homosexuality, there are virtually no social differences between people with different eye color, hair color, or handedness.  They all intermarry, can breed, and are generally healthy people.  There is no “hazel-eyed lifestyle,” if you will.  On the other hand, same-sex couples must use adaptive means to perform sex and cannot, in principle, reproduce (between the two of them, alone).  Since “nature” cares about reproduction, if nothing else, then it seems reasonable to think that a domestic/family arrangement that cannot in its best manifestation hope to reproduce should be thought “unnatural.”

 Is homosexuality unnatural because parts of our bodies seem to serve particular purposes? If the argument is “that gay sex is unnatural because it is sexual activity that is divorced from its natural purpose,” and “if gay sex were condemned for this reason, a host of other sexual practices would also be condemned: masturbation, oral sex, and even sex by women after menopause. They would be just as ‘unnatural’ (and, presumably, just as bad) as gay sex.” Not to mention couples who use contraceptives to avoid pregnancy.

  • This point is not specifically an appeal to reason, but rather to sexual preference.  His argument is basically this: 1) Suggesting that sex is only for reproduction makes any other kind of ‘sex’ taboo. 2) You’d never think to give up on masturbation or oral sex, which have nothing to do with reproduction. 3) Therefore, sex isn’t just for reproduction.  This “argument” is loaded with presuppositions.  Maybe it is true that sex is indeed only meant for reproduction, but he hasn’t argued rationally against that idea.  Rachels is merely defending one preference in question (homosexual urges) with other preferences that he presumes are not in question.  But if there are any moral categories at all regarding sex, then the entire project must be called into question.
  • Since Rachels’ moral qualifiers likely do not involve sexual design at all, but rather ancillary things like no-harm and consent, then a discussion of the pros and cons of each of Rachels’ reductio ad absurdum examples is of secondary concern here.
  • It is ironic that the church, which has historically been opposed to homosexuality, has engaged in just this kind of moral debate over what sexual practices are or are not appropriate.  For this reason, this line of argumentation is only compelling to those who are already committed to the idea that sexuality, in almost all of its wild and varied forms, is morally neutral.

This view “rests on the assumption that it is wrong to use parts of one’s body for anything other than their natural purposes, and this is surely false. The ‘purpose’ of the eyes is to see; is it therefore wrong to use one’s eyes for flirting or for giving a signal? Again, the ‘purpose’ of the fingers may be grasping and poking; is it therefore wrong to snap one’s fingers to keep time with music?” And what about using hands or feet for sex? Using one’s nose to rub another’s as a sign of affection? “The idea that it is wrong to use things for any purpose other than their “natural” ones cannot reasonably be maintained, and so this version of the argument fails.”

  • Rachels seems to be conceding here that the primary purpose of the sexual organs is reproduction.  Who can deny, after all, that male/female genitalia are made for each other?  Even if it is true that “nature” meant them for MORE than that, like the hands, then it is still an unusual thing to say that they don’t even need to be employed for their PRIMARY purpose (or even something near it, like having sex with the opposite sex).  Imagine saying something like this: “The eyes are indeed made for seeing the world, but you can use them however you want.  Therefore, it’s not unusual or unnatural if a sighted person chooses not to open them, or to look only at his own navel.”  And it’s even worse if we want to bring transgenders into the discussion, since the analogy would include removing the eyes and attempting to jury-rig something else in their place.
  • It is not so much that male/female sex is meant only for reproduction.  It is that gender complementarity and the primary purpose of the genitalia suggest something about the nature of relationships.  If it takes a man and woman to make a family, then that seems a strong clue as to the “natural” anatomy of families and the unique relationship reserved for the sexes.  Two persons of the same sex may have certain forms of relationships, but to equate them with those of heterosexual couples in intimate, sexual, familial relationships is not warranted.
  • The fruition of sex is conception.  The highest pleasure of sex is to climax.  The greatest expression of intimacy is to have sex.  The best and safest context in which to have sex is in a committed, monogamous relationship.  The best partner with which to share all these things is one of the opposite sex.  The teleology of sex is a logical chain that connects reproduction at the one end to an intimate relationship between a man and woman at the other, and it does not preclude all the pleasures that are found in between.

Is homosexuality unnatural “because the word unnatural has a sinister sound”? “[If so,] it might be understood simply as a term of evaluation. Perhaps it means something like “contrary to what a person ought to be.” But if that is what ‘unnatural’ means, then to say that something is wrong because it is unnatural would be vacuous. It would be like saying thus-and-so is wrong because it is wrong. This sort of empty remark, of course, provides no reason for condemning anything.”

  • It’s not that the “unnatural” is to be rejected and feared as though it were a mere word meant to invoke ideas like ghosts and magic.  It is a deeper matter of teleology (design/purpose).  He is quick here to dismiss the very notion of teleology, and does so with little more than a rational shrug.
  • If it can ever be said that there is a way that persons “ought to be,” then it is meaningful to derive some moral incumbency from that “ought.”  Indeed, that is what an “ought” is all about.  If we cannot derive “oughts” from the very cues of nature, then there is nothing left from which to derive them, especially since he rejects sacred texts and Special Revelation.
  • Is he, then, suggesting that there is no particular way that we ought to be?  It seems that he is making a case for moral relativism.  I am unsure how any of his own claims for moral grounding would not also qualify as saying “thus-and-so is wrong because it is wrong.”
  • I wonder how and if Rachels would argue against Amputee Wannabes? (http://abcnews.go.com/Primetime/Health/story?id=1806125&page=1#.T8Ddn4FtB8E)  If we cannot say that being a healthy human with all limbs intact is the way we ought to be, then we cannot hope to say that it is a shame when someone loses a limb, strange when someone removes one intentionally, or that any other use or misuse of the body could ever qualify as “unnatural.”  But if any use or abuse of the body is indeed problematic, then his point fails.

Is homosexuality contrary to “family values”? This seems silly when a key argument for SSM is that it would allow the formation of new families.

  • This is like saying that we like jobs, and green energy policy will create more of them.  But shifting to green technology is done at the expense of coal and oil jobs.  Every homosexual relationship takes two parties out of the normal “family” business.  Rachels presumes that homosexuals must sit on their hands if they cannot engage in relationships with each other.  I imagine that he accepts the idea that there is nothing else for them to do, since they cannot change, nor that they should try to do so or should deny their “orientation.”
  • This argument seems almost derogatory.  It’s like saying, “Homosexuality might be weird, but you might as well use them to make new families.  And there are unwanted children out there who need adopting.  It’s better than nothing.”  If this is all his argument amounts to, then the best that it does is to put same-sex couples at the back of the line for adoptions.
  • It’s not that the goal is making “families” and breeding as much as possible, as though the world is empty and in need of population.  It is “family values” that are desirable.  It’s not quantity but quality that matters.  Of course, this is a nebulous phrase as used here, but since it is presumably mine to own then I can darn well define it in a way that ipso facto disqualifies homosexuality, just like it would disqualify “families” with wolves as parents.  Rachels cannot simply define it for himself to include what he is trying to defend.  It’s circular logic, just as my own definition might be.  The point here should be about what makes values and what qualifies as good ones.  Whether same-sex couples fit into that model is of secondary consideration.

Is homosexuality wrong because the Bible says so? “Leviticus 18:22 says ‘You may not lie with a man as with a woman; it is an abomination’… suppose we concede that the Bible really does teach that homosexuality is an abomination… there are two problems with relying on the literal text for guidance. One problem is practical and one is theoretical.”

The practical problem is that sacred texts, especially ones composed a very long time ago, give us more than we bargain for. Not many people have actually read Leviticus, but if they did, they would find that in addition to prohibiting homosexuality, it gives lengthy instructions for treating leprosy, detailed requirements concerning burnt offerings, and an elaborate routine for dealing with women who are menstruating. There is a surprising number of rules about the daughters of priests including the notation that if a priest’s daughter “plays the whore,” she shall be burned alive (21:9). Leviticus forbids eating fat (7:23), letting a woman into church until 42 days after giving birth (12:4]5), and seeing your uncle naked. The latter, incidentally, is also called an abomination (18:14, 26). It says that a beard must have square corners (19:27) and that we may purchase slaves from neighboring states (25:44). There is much more, but this is enough to give the idea.

The problem is that you cannot conclude that homosexuality is an abomination simply because it says so in Leviticus unless you are willing to conclude, also, that these other instructions are moral requirements; and in the 21st century anyone who tried to live according to all those rules would go crazy. One might, of course, concede that the rules about menstruation, and so on, were peculiar to an ancient culture and that they are not binding on us today. That would be sensible. But if we say that, the door is open for saying the same thing about the rule against homosexuality.

Stick with me, there’s a long winding argument in here:

  • Yes, the “Bible really does teach that homosexuality is an abomination.”  In Leviticus, it puts this teaching in the context of other sexual prohibitions (ch. 18), like incest and bestiality, most of which are pretty uncontroversial.  Child sacrifice is included here, too (offering a child to Molech), and probably fits the category of sexual sin because it was one of the surrounding culture’s forms of birth control.  This particular chapter does not give much ammo for one asking the question, “Does this all really still apply?”
  • By the way, there’s no verse about “seeing your uncle naked.”  What Rachels is probably referring to is v. 18:14, which speaks of sex with an uncle’s wife.  The phrase used for engaging in sexual activities is sometimes translated as “uncover their nakedness.”  It would be more appropriate to think of it as “bring shame upon by having sex with.” Verse 20:20 is more clear.  It says, “If there is a man who lies with his uncle’s wife he has uncovered his uncle’s nakedness.”  Rachels is wrong in that v.18:14 does not use “abomination” or any other descriptive term.  The only things that get some sort of extra in-line condemnation are: sleeping with both a woman and her child, homosexuality, offering your child to Molech, and bestiality.  However, the entire list, at its end, is broadly characterized as “abominations.”
  • Rachels’ point would best be leveled at the Jews, who have nothing but the Law of Moses upon which to depend.  Orthodox Jews are at a disadvantage, because their entire infrastructure for ritual and sacrifice has been lost to them since the destruction of the temple around 70 A.D.  They couldn’t be obedient to all the laws even if they wanted to.
  • Indeed, the Nation of Israel, as it was decreed through the laws of Moses and the Covenant of God, is no more.  It was a special nation with a special purpose, under a direct covenant with God.  It was to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”  For this reason, one would expect it to have had the strictest laws and many ritualistic rules for priestly offices.  And as a theocracy, the civil and religious laws would be difficult to distinguish.
  • The Mosaic Laws were never commended to Israel as something that they should spread to, or impose upon, other nations.  Yet, somehow, “the seed of Abraham” was to be a blessing to all the nations.
  • Jeremiah records that “both Israel and Judah have broken the covenant I made with their ancestors.”  He goes on to speak of the day when a new covenant would be made and the laws would be written on the heart.
  • The Jews expected a Messiah to come, the role and nature of which were a matter of great speculation.
  • There are many other biblical grounds for understanding the nature of Israel and God’s relationship with humanity to change.
  • Jesus is the fulcrum of that change and the lens through which the Old Testament should be viewed.  He is the Messiah.
  • Jesus said, “I did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.”  By “fulfill” He meant two things: 1) He was the only one who actually kept the laws perfectly. 2) Many of the laws themselves were a type and shadow of His own person and work.
  • The most obvious and most important of the laws that Jesus fulfilled are the sacrificial ones.  Jesus is the ultimate sacrifice.  As John the Baptizer said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, Who takes away the sins of the world.”  The Passover itself is a pointer to Jesus.  Jesus revealed this fact when he took the bread and wine from this very ritual and said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you,” and “This bread is my body, broken for you.”  Messianic Jews are some of the most interesting and informative in their observations of the connections between the O.T. laws and rituals in regards to their fulfillment in Jesus.
  • Laws that are symbolic, placeholder, or foreshadowing of Jesus would be meaningless to keep in light of Jesus’ actual coming.  Most of the priestly and temple laws are of that nature.  Jesus prophesized the destruction of the temple, and it is theologically relevant that there should be no more ritual sacrifices and high priests to carry on the old ways.
  • Other laws of a non-messianic nature are simply theological metaphors, like not yoking an ox with a donkey or not planting two crops together.  These symbolize the problems of marrying believers and unbelievers (in the case of the former), and issues with religious pluralism (in the case of the latter).
  • I would argue that there are many laws that were primarily (though perhaps not solely) for the sake of Israel’s health.  The Kosher diet happens to be low in fat, sanitary, and allergy friendly, among other things.  And there are many other commands seemingly meant to avoid infections and sicknesses that would be quite sensible for a culture without modern medicine, especially when living together in close quarters for 40 years in the wilderness.
  • Some laws are difficult to understand or categorize, but theologians have roughly broken the Mosaic laws into ceremonial, civil, and moral laws.  The first two could most easily be considered temporal or contextual; the third would be less easily dismissed.
  • It is interesting that Rachels says that anyone who tried to keep the whole law would go crazy.  The New Testament writers agree with him.  When the Apostles were scolding those who wanted the converted Gentiles to keep the laws, Peter calls it a “yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear.”  Much of Paul’s writings are about the role and inadequacy of the law and the supremacy of Christ in salvation.
  • Paul says, “Let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or Sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ.”
  • The core message of the New Testament is that we are under a new covenant; we are no longer under the law, but under grace.  We are to be “led by the Spirit” regarding matters of righteousness and not simply keepers of rules.
  • When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, He says, “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind,” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  He then goes on to confirm that these are the enduring principles underlying the law by concluding that “on these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”
  • Even though Christians are under a new covenant, this does not mean that the O.T. laws are of no value.  Laws of the moral variety are certainly relevant guides for living.  The Levitical laws on sexual behaviors are a good candidate for being of the moral variety.  They are difficult to distill down to mere symbolism.  For example, one may sensibly ask what the deeper meaning or cultural context was behind cutting one’s beard in square corners, but sleeping with your mother or livestock seems problematic on face value.
  • We can imply that these Leviticus 18 laws were of the moral variety because God says that the prior inhabitants of the land were driven out because they practiced these things.  He does not say the same thing in regards to civil and ceremonial laws.  The Israelites were accountable to the special covenant that they had made with God; the rest of the world was judged only by the moral law.
  • Regardless of what we are to do with the O.T. and what it has to say on homosexuality, the N.T. happens to reiterate many of the moral commands found in the Old.  This includes mention of homosexuality, such as Paul’s treatment of men who had abandon the natural function of women and burned with lust for each other, and vice versa.
  • Since the N.T. contains statement about homosexuality, it is not even necessary to appeal to the O.T.  And given that many Christians exclusively use the N.T. as their moral guide (because they either haven’t unraveled the O.T. complexities for themselves, or mistakenly believe that it is entirely obsolete), it is not persuasive to merely cast aspersions on Leviticus.

In any case, nothing can be morally right or wrong simply because an authority says so. If the precepts in a sacred text are not arbitrary, there must be some reason for them. We should be able to ask why the Bible condemns homosexuality, and expect an answer. That answer will then give the real explanation of why it is wrong. This is the ‘theoretical’ problem that I mentioned: In the logic of moral reasoning, the reference to the text drops out, and the reason behind the pronouncement (if any) takes its place.

  • But an authority does indeed have the RIGHT to say what is right and wrong, even if you don’t know that authority’s reasons behind it.  That is precisely what it means to be the “authority.”
  • If the Bible truly is from God, Who is the maker of our very souls, the universe that we enjoy, and the moral intuitions that we awkwardly employ to judge Him, then what use or grounds are there for demanding an accounting from Him for anything that He says?  By what higher standard will we seek to judge Him?
  • Even so, it is not difficult to derive at least one reason behind the statements against homosexuality.  As Paul says in Romans 1:27, they have “abandon the natural function” of the opposite sex.  This is a teleological statement, meaning that same-sex relations are against the very design of the Maker.  And if our maker cannot set the moral tone, then what mere human could ever hope to?
  • Jesus sums it up by reiterating language from the O.T.: “He who created them from the beginning made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”  “One flesh”: this makes perfect sense in the context of two different, complimentary kinds of flesh coming together.
  • Those claiming that there is room for same-sex marriages in all of this will find no aid and comfort in the Bible.  In addition to the statements against homosexuality, there is nothing explicit in support of it.  The best any have done is to attempt to explain away the anti-homosexual passages and then to make strained claims that this or that hero of the Bible was probably gay.

But the main point here is not about homosexuality. The main point concerns the nature of moral thinking. Moral thinking and moral conduct are a matter of weighing reasons and being guided by them. But being guided by reason is very different from following one’s feelings. When we have strong feelings, we may be tempted to ignore reason and go with the feelings. But in doing so, we would be opting out of moral thinking altogether.

  • This is an ironic ending give the fact that it is the very existence of homosexual “feelings” that are causing us to have this “reasoned” debate in the first place.  If no male had a sexual attraction for another male, then who would care about this at all?  Would we think it odd that nobody had the urge to reject his biological design?  Would we think it odd that nobody wanted to cut off their legs if there were no Amputee Wannabes?  The nature of Rachels’ position is basically this: 1) People exist who have same-sex attractions (feelings). 2) Give me one good reason why they shouldn’t pursue those attractions.  Feelings are the preeminent thing here, and feelings notoriously prevail over reason, as Rachels points out.
  • Rachels violates his own principle of reason over feelings in at least one of his own arguments: To paraphrase, “if sex is only for reproduction, then we’d have to condemn masturbation, oral sex, etc.”  His entire point rests on the assumption that we like those things, therefore we should reject anything that would prohibit them.  He relies upon our feelings about them alone to make his point.
  • It is my own experience that the sexual preference itself trumps all rational considerations.  If we should be guided primarily by reason over feelings, then Rachels is scolding all those who I have previously tried to debate on this that simply call me intolerant, unfriend me on Facebook, left the conversation as soon as I began laying out my case, or who told me explicitly that the issue is not open for (or even a matter of) debate with them.
  • As I’ve said before, “reason” is not enough.  Reason is only a tool for bringing some particular goal to its conclusion.  A hammer does not tell you what to build or how to design it, it only aids in achieving the goal.  A car does not tell you where to go or why, it only gets you there quickly.  Math does not tell you what to do with your money, it only aids in your financial goals.  Unspoken in Rachels’ methodology are his own moral presuppositions by which he seeks to apply reason.  But if we are to take his arguments at face value, it seems that he has left no room for moral cornerstones at all.  This leaves a moral relativism that would, of course, say that homosexuality is morally neutral.  But so, then, is everything else, including “homophobia.”

Posted on February 11, 2014, in Homosexuality and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Wow. An excellent, thorough and comprehensive argument. I am enjoying your blog very much.

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