Saturday, May 13, 2006

Genetics and Sexual Identity

Apparently, some study has come out noting a difference in brain chemistry between lesbians and straight women. Kevin Nelstead at The Earth is Not flat, writes:

While genetics is important, it is a poor foundation for ethics.

It's still ethically relevant, though. To the extent a trait is immutable, the ethical calculus changes. In that case, the Christianist has to resort solely to the notion that homosexual acts are wrong while homosexuality itself isn't (much as in the alcoholism analogy).

In the long term, that's a loser distinction for Christianists. Most people rightly feel that sexuality is deeply tied to identity in a way that the decision to drink or not isn't. Given that deep tie between identity and sexual identification, the distinction between actor and activity becomes pretty hard to make, if not downright incoherent.

Here's Kevin again:

This kind of reasoning is easy to counter: if chimpanzees eat each other (yes, chimps in the wild have been observed to be cannibalistic), than it should be okay for humans to do the same.

Kevin is right that genetic disposition is insufficient for the morality of a given action. Genetics doesn't determine the moral calculus; it needs to be supplemented by a moral proposition. I'd suggest that a principle of non-harm is sufficient to transform genetic disposition into a morally neutral activity or state. In other words, if the behavior or state doesn't unreasonably do harm to another, and it's genetically predisposed, it's morally acceptable. That seems to track my intuition: if ya can't help it, and it's not hurting anybody, what's the fuss about? The principle of non-harm crisply differentiates being gay from both alcoholism* and cannibalism.

* The rejoinder: what if an alcoholic doesn't know anybody - say the alcoholic lives on his own island with no human contact, such that his alcoholism doesn't run afoul of the principle of non-harm. This is an appeal to eudaimonia: he's not hurting anyone else, yet he clearly isn't thriving or living up to his potential. That's an argument that could certainly be made. Suffice to say for the moment that I don't find it too compelling: while his actions couldn't be said to be good, I don't know if one can go so far as to call them unethical. I tend to see thriving as supererogatory icing on the ethical cake, if you will.