Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Homosexuality and Moral Arguments

In my introduction to ethics course, we spend some time discussing homosexuality. I don't know how common it is for philosophy instructors to discuss this topic, but I have found it to be very worthwhile, for many reasons. After our discussion, I have them write a paper. The papers I receive, for them most part, fall into two categories. I wonder if this is a problem and, if it is, how it can be avoided.

The format of our discussion is fairly standard (at least for me). I make a few distinctions (in this case, that by 'homosexuality' one might be referring to, at least, certain kinds of (1) actions, (2) feelings or desires, (3) relationships and/or (4) stereotypical "lifestyles." I observe that these are all different and none needn't entail any of the others.

With these distinctions in mind, I then ask them if they know of anyone -- or have ever heard of anyone -- who would say that homosexuality is wrong, i.e., morally impermissible, or bad. Of course they all say yes.

I then ask them to break up into groups and try to come up with as many reasons as they have ever heard or could imagine anyone giving in defense of that conclusion. I note that perhaps reasons might better apply to actions and not to desires, etc.

We then wind up with a fairly massive list, especially since I add a few that they might not have thought of, that I sum up in this handout. We then work through many of these arguments, first stating them in valid form (i.e., usually adding a missing universal generalization or conditional) and then evaluating whether there are any reasons to think that any of the premises are false (e.g., in particular, whether there are any obvious counterexamples to the universal generalization).

The papers are then pretty predictable. Many argue either that there are no sound arguments against homosexuality (or none that they have seen), so we should think that homosexuality is permissible. These papers, it seems to me, are often quite good: the arguments are carefully explained, counterexamples given to the premises, and there's often a bit of good reflection at the end about why there is controversy in many circles about this issue, given their estimate of the quality of the arguments.

The other kind of paper is like this: the arguments against homosexuality are presented, but in a very uncareful manner: e.g., various interesting claims, about what's 'natural' or what something's 'function' is, etc., are made but not explained or defended. And objections are typically totally ignored: they are not even raised, despite that being part of the assignment.

So my question is whether this is a problem and, if so, what can be done about it.

(I should also add that I never assert any "final" view about the morality of homosexuality or the arguments. If anyone asks what I think I simply report here that my role is a guide (or game show host) and that I'm just trying to get people to think about these arguments.)


  1. Depending on how many students are in your class, this might be the perfect opportunity for some peer review. You can encourage them to hone their skills at offering objections while using the principle of charity, avoiding rhetoric and remaining respectful. I have a peer review assessment handout if you'd like it.

  2. I wonder if you might avoid the second category of papers by focusing the assignment as one where the task is to select one (or n) arguments and demonstrate the failings of them. If the students are told in the assignment that they must find flaws in the arguments, perhaps this will help them focus on objections.

    I think the handout is fantastic, and could start a discussion about which of the arguments are stronger and are more worth critiquing. You could open up a nice discussion of the relative strength of arguments.

    This activity--determining which of the arguments is strongest--would make an excellent group activity, btw, inasmuch as it is a "decision making" activity, and such activities are excellent tasks for groups.

  3. Nathan, you asked originally whether this is a problem at all. I can see that there's a problem in that the anti-homosexuality papers are weak. There are various possible explanations for this: The students defending this view tend not to be as good at philosophy as those defending the other view; the sources you're providing arguing for the anti-homosexuality view are not as stimulating or as careful; etc.

    But there's another explanation that could generate an interesting teachable moment: Some positions are actually harder to defend (rationally!) than others. I believe that many students think that any philosophical position can be defended so as to seem as plausible as any other. But those of us in the field know this isn't true, and that in fact some views are sufficiently problematic ab initio that they have a tougher path to hew. We may disagree about which views are sufficiently problematic in this way. I'd put the view that homosexuality is immoral in this category, along with Cartesian dualism about the mental. And I've certainly emphasized with students that it's tough to find a really plausible argument for the intrinsic wrongness of recreational drug use.

    So maybe this can be turned into an opportunity to illustrate to students that not all philosophical positions start out on the same footing, argumentatively speaking. (And in the spirit of arguing against my previous posts, maybe this would be a situation where fairness might indicate a curve is appropriate, grading the pro- papers against one another and the anti- papers against one another.)

  4. I think there's something to what Michael is saying, though I do think that students at an early stage in their philosophical educations don't quite have the feeling for what a good argument is and isn't just yet.

    I have a slightly different take. The papers you're describing sound to me like papers written by people who feel defeated. They want to hold on to their beliefs, but don't have the same faith in them that they used to have (probably as a result of the lively discussion accompanying the many objections). They also may be somewhat scared of making the argument they really want to make within "liberal academia" for the fear that they might be marked down.

    This really presents a problem, because on an issue like the moral permissibility of homosexuality, the arguments are so good that it's hard to really be neutral. It's sort of like it's hard to be neutral on the immorality of slavery, and I expect you'd get the same quality papers from people who want to support slavery. Perhaps the solution would be to to the same exercise with a more academically controversial topic and see if you get the same breakdown.

    (For the record, we had an excellent philosopher come to campus to speak on the morality and ethics of homosexuality. It wasn't a philosophy department event, but it was initiated by the student activities board who found him at a national convention (where many speakers come to advertise their talks). The speaker was John Corvino and you can see some of his talk at the gay moralist.)

  5. Interesting assignment. I would suggest you are providing too little support for the folks who take the homosexuality is wrong approach: if you gave students more detailed directions for what constitutes a good paper and maybe even a checklist, then they could examine their own papers before submission and recognize, hey, I didn't do this and this and this. It sounds like students who take the opposite approach have done a better job of internalizing your standards, but this might help some of them too.

    I also suspect you're giving everyone too much scaffolding. Rather than examining the logic of all the positions they give, maybe just do a couple: and then tell students they can't rely on those in their papers. Then everyone is on a level playing field. It might be that the students who write good papers are better at writing up what you discuss in class rather than thinking critically. So the imbalance in papers might reflect an imbalance in how you set up the terms of the assignment (your handout puts the burden of proof on people who wish to argue that homosexuality is wrong).

  6. Have your class read Plato's Laws and the Republic. Then have your debate and write the paper. give them something to write about and to think about in their arguments instead of trying to manipulate them into parroting your "beliefs."
    You could also discuss the Celtic Druids (philosophers) that taught Socrates and draw from them.

  7. You should be careful to ensure it is not your own bias that is influencing your perceptions of the quality of their argument. All argument involves premise. Are you sure you are not simply discounting their premises because they are not aligned with your own? I suspect these students premises would be accepted as true with certain groups of people. Because you do not accept them does not necessarily make them false. You say you do not assert a final view about homosexuality, but you undoubtedly have one that influences your opinions about their arguments, no matter how objective you try to be.


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