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On homosexuality – Why we’re asking the wrong questions June 15, 2009

Posted by laïcité in Liberalism v Conservativism, Science.
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Debates about the acceptance and neutrality of homosexuality often revolve around the issue of whether homosexuality is a lifestyle choice or whether it is a natural occurrence. Those who justify the discrimination against homosexuals often argue that homosexuals choose to partake in such “immorality”, and that they can even be “turned straight”. On the other hand, liberals and gay activists would argue that homosexuality is not a choice, and that it is unfair to punish someone for something that he or she had no control about.

Obviously I am not one to be swayed by faith-based arguments. To me it is obvious that homosexuality is not a choice; gays do not consciously choose to be gay, just like how I did not consciously choose to be straight, and neither can we consciously choose who we are sexually attracted to. It is also pretty clear that homosexuality is not unique to humans; homosexual behaviour has also been observed in no fewer than 1,500 species of animals, including swans, sheep and apes. Numerous studies by reputable medical and psychological journals have evidence to back up this position, and the facts of this issue have already been thoroughly discussed in many blogs and articles. In fact, there is even much discussion about whether there is in fact a strict binary straight/gay dichotomy, or if human sexuality falls along a continuous spectrum.

But I digress. In my opinion, the question of whether or not homosexuality is a choice is not even an issue. So what if it were a choice? Why would that do anything to justify discrimination against people who make a certain choice about something as private as their sex lives and sexuality? What has someone’s sexuality got to do with society’s approval? As long as it’s between consenting adults and done in private, I fail to see why the law, or conservatives, or the moral police (also known as right wing religious fundamentalists) should have any say in the matter. In this way, it’s not an issue of whether homosexuals are born that way. It is an issue of how much we allow society and the law to dictate what we can and cannot do in our private spheres, when those choices and actions cause no direct harm to others, and are basically none of anyone else’s business.

Of course there are also those who argue that the question matters, because those who “choose” to be homosexuals are choosing to sin. Even if we ignore the fallacious and cherry picking nature of those who believe homosexuality to be a sin, we are left with a religious based argument – homosexuality may be a sin to Christians or Muslims, but not to Buddhists or secular humanists or atheists/agnostics. There is no reason why a secular’s country’s position should be based on the teachings of one or a few religions, or even the beliefs of conservatives. It is simply not justifiable for a law to discriminate against a group of people, regardless of whether or not they chose to be in that group, for no reason other than to reflect and reinforce religious or conservative opinions. The question we must ask is this: Is the purpose of the law to perpetuate social norms, regardless of the harm that such a position may cause to the minority being persecuted, or is the purpose of the law to protect the freedoms of its people, so as to allow the maximum amount of individual freedom as long as it does not encroach onto the freedoms of others?

Conservatives may argue that society and the law should have a say in sexuality and sexual practices, because the “immoral” nature of such practices would have a negative effect on society. But such arguments are not backed by evidence. Instead, they are usually backed by powerful emotions such as disgust for homosexual acts, and fear of committing a sin. But when we take away such biased conservative emotions, we will see that there is no reason to assume that tolerating, or even accepting homosexuals has a negative impact on society. Plenty of civilized, liveable, family friendly countries do not have laws against homosexuality or homosexual sex, and studies have even found that homosexual parents are no better or worse than heterosexual ones. In fact, the demonizing of homosexuality and discrimination of homosexuals increase the occurence of suicides and have negative effects on health issues. In any case, the burden of proof lies with the conservatives to provide us with evidence to justify the discrimination against homosexuals by showing that  the social “benefits” of such discrimination outweigh the invasion of privacy and intrusion of individual freedoms that such a position entails. Until then, the practice of judging, labelling and criminalizing the private actions of a group of individuals, regardless of whether they can help being the way they are, remains unethical and unjustifiable.

What it all boils down to is how much of our private lives do we want to be controlled by the government or by the self-righteous conservatives. If groups of people continue to be discriminated against because of who they are or the choices they make, Singapore will never become the open and inclusive society that it aspires to be.

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1. The Singapore Daily » Blog Archive » Daily SG: 16 Jun 2009 - June 16, 2009

[…] Pink Issues – Laïcité: On homosexuality – Why we’re asking the wrong questions […]

2. skeptic - June 16, 2009

“In my opinion, the question of whether or not homosexuality is a choice is not even an issue. So what if it were a choice?”

This is the most important statement. It doesn’t matter if it is a choice or not. It is like saying that we should ban driving cars because driving is not biologically natural and we can ‘choose’ not to drive.

laïcité - June 16, 2009

Hi skeptic, yeah I think in Singapore, the conservatives are so focused on bashing homosexuality, and the liberals are too busy trying to defend it, that everyone tends to forget that the real issue is about freedom of choice and privacy.

3. Seelan Palay - June 16, 2009

Hi friend, you might also want to take a look at my friend Charles’ (of the Singapore Democrats) comments on Human Rights Watch’s LGBTQ report on Singapore – http://aussgworldpolitics.wordpress.com/2009/06/12/hrw-lgbtq-report-on-singapore-comments-and-thoughts/

laïcité - June 16, 2009

Hi Seelan, thanks for the link! :) A really interesting read… but then again to be honest I was never really hopeful about the effect of the pink dollar on the gay rights issue. It’s really quite stupid (and sad) that homosexual issues continue to be so heavily censored in Singapore. So much for Singapore being a pragmatic country. With this stance we’ll never be able to tackle the practical issues of homophobic bullying, suicide rates among gay teens, std’s among homosexuals etc…

4. la nausée - June 16, 2009

To take the 377A issue, there are basically 2 questions involved:
1. Whether homosexual sex is morally wrong.
2. And if so, whether this is a sufficient basis for criminal penalties.

The argument from choice addresses only Issue (1), and only a part of it. It says that homosexuals can be regarded as responsible for their acts, but does not show that these acts are in fact wrong or blameworthy.

The argument from choice doesn’t deal with Issue (2) at all. And you’re right, in that that’s where all the other considerations come in, such as the rights-based arguments of privacy and autonomy, and the prudential arguments of what’s the best way to deal with public health or even public morality concerns.

laïcité - June 16, 2009

Hi la nausée, I saw from your blog that you’re a law student. I would just like to ask you if it is even appropriate for the issue of morality to play a part in the legality of an action? I’ve always thougt that an action’s moral status and its legal status were two wholly separate issues.

Firstly, the law is (ideally) meant to protect the freedoms and rights of the people and in the case of s377a, homosexual sex is clearly not violating the harm principle.

Secondly, if the issue of moraliy came to play in the law, then we are faced with the problematic question of “Whose morality?”, because clearly each individual and group has its own idea of what is considered moral and what isn’t.

Thirdly, many other acts which most of us consider immoral or even sinful, such as adultery, standing by to watch someone drown when i am perfectly capable of offering help etc, are not criminalized. So clearly what is defined by the law as criminal is more than just something that is immoral.

la nausée - June 17, 2009

@laïcité, actually, morality can play a role in the legality of an action. I assume you’re referring to the school of legal positivism; that only states that there isn’t a necessary connection between morality and the law. Nevertheless, even accepting legal positivism, the law might well (as a contingent fact) incorporate moral elements, or explicitly permit judges to bring in moral reasoning. One example is the Constitution — the fundamental rights it refers to are arguably based on moral rights. Another example is the law of negligence — the whole notion of a ‘duty of care’ has its roots in the “neighbour principle”, i.e. that you must not injure your neighbour.

The vexed question is, even if the law can enforce morality, should there be principled limits on its power to do so? The school of thought known as ‘legal moralism’ contends that there isn’t… that theoretically, the law can criminalize adultery, masturbation, and so on. The argument is usually that the State, given its responsibility to promote the common good of the community, is entitled to preserve a healthy ‘moral environment’ on behalf of all its citizens (you may recall that Thio Li-ann used this argument in the 377A debates). The only bar, according to legal moralists, comprises of pragmatic or ‘prudential’ factors… for example, that such a law would be impossible to enforce, or that it would backfire (e.g., people deliberately disobey it), or that it’s too economically onerous (as in the case of a ‘duty-to-rescue’ law), and so on.

A competing school of thought, ‘liberalism’, insists that there should be, not just ‘prudential’, but principled limits on the State’s power to enforce morality. One way to express this is through the harm principle, i.e. that the State may act only to prevent harm to others, but not on the basis of the individual’s own good. Such arguments are generally based on the rights of privacy and autonomy, which act as a shield against the State’s coercive force. The underlying idea is that individuals have a supreme interest in shaping and pursuing their own conception of the good life, that a ‘virtuous’ life cannot be forced upon someone who doesn’t desire or endorse that lifestyle. So, if someone believes that a good life for himself or herself includes an intimate companionship shared with a member of the same sex, the State cannot rightfully deprive him or her of that.

It’s a complicated though tantalizing debate. But there are no decisive knock-down arguments, as far as I can tell. For example, Daniel below refers to yet another basis for legislating morality, ‘legal paternalism’, or enforcing a law for the purported good of that individual himself. Archetypal examples are laws requiring the wearing of seat-belts or motorcycle-helmets. Liberals who accept these paternalistic laws have grappled at reconciling them within their political philosophy.

laïcité - June 17, 2009

Hi la nausée, thanks for your informative and insightful post! :) It definitely helps to put a name to the position that I hold (i.e. liberalism) and how it stands in relation to other schools of thought. However, i still think that the “legal moralism” position is rather problematic, especially in the case of s377a, because how can one prove that homosexual sex is immoral? Right now there is no sociological or scientific evidence, only “evidence” based on holy text. In this way it is definitely not universally regarded as immoral, and how is the State supposed to decide which set of moral values to adopt? I guess this is why I tend to believe that the only way for laws to be fair and objective is to be based on something more concrete and less subjective, such as the harm principle.

la nausée - June 17, 2009

You\’re welcome ;0)

Just like to note, though, that the concept of \’harm\’ is actually also morally-laden and controversial. Some cases (those concerning physical harm) are clear-cut (like killing another person). Other cases are in a grey area (e.g., harm to one\’s reputation, PTSD resulting from an accident caused by someone\’s fault), but are still rightly recognized by the law. Still other acts may be said to give rise to \’harm\’ (e.g., others being offended by the sight of a nude person; Lionel de Souza being offended by postings on TOC), but now we\’re in very controversial terrain. And at the most controversial end of the scale, there\’s the alleged concept of \’moral harm\’, i.e. harm to society\’s moral code… that\’s a position identical with legal moralism.

But I think the liberal position would be that, in cases other than those involving physical harm, you need to satisfy a high threshold before a prosecution can be made, or compensation granted. And the notion of \’moral harm\’ would probably excluded entirely.

5. Daniel - June 17, 2009

Regarding the idea “to allow the maximum amount of individual freedom as long as it does not encroach onto the freedoms of others”..

So how about use of mild drugs such as ecstasy or cannabis? They have both been shown to be only mildly harming to one’s own health – something on par with cigarette smoking and alcohol. Please see the study shown in the following link, where both of these drugs’ harms were compared scientifically, and shown to be safer. Now, why do we EXECUTE people for possessing drugs that do not harm anyone (other than oneself possibly) nor encroach onto the freedoms of others. Not to change the debate topic, but I’m just following your argument and probing to see if you agree. Check this out:

http://health.howstuffworks.com/health-illness/treatment/medicine/medications/drug-ranking.htm

laïcité - June 17, 2009

Well yes, you’re right. It is precisely because I believe the law is supposed to protect the rights and freedoms of its people that I strongly disagree with Singapore’s stance on the use of such drugs. Perhaps a case could be made for the negative societal impact of such drugs, but then from what we see in America, making such drugs illegal only introduces a black market and funds gang activity. And even if the harmfulness of drugs to society could be proved, I am strongly against the use of the death penalty for such non violent crimes, because the mere possibility of protecting some people from making bad choices about drugs is not enought to warrant the taking of another’s life.

6. Father of three - June 17, 2009

Hi. I am what you would call a Christian fundamentalist, meaning, I believe in the literal teachings of the bible. I attend a church of about 400 like-minded worshippers and I know there are several churches in Spore just like ours.

I really resent being labeled by you as a moral police. This label paints the picture of somebody who goes around hounding and arresting people who commit sin. Even the Islamist police in Malaysia don’t do that. They only enforce their Islamic laws on fellow Muslims.

Even within our church, we don’t do any ‘policing’. We only preach and teach what the bible teaches. If members openly commit sinful acts, our leaders will probably counsel them, and if they are openly defiant, they will just be asked – quietly – to leave and go worship elsewhere. Thankfully, that rarely happens.

The only people I ‘police’ are my own children. Even then, I can only do that when they are young and under my care and rule. And if, I repeat, if, my neighbours were to engage is what the bible teaches as sinful activities such as gambling, adultery, abusive to parents, and of course homosexuality, I won’t even dare to pass a comment to them. In fact there is a young men who lives a few doors away who often scolds an old man who looks to be his father or father-in-law, I don’t dare interfere. The only thing that I can and should do, which I am not doing, is to share the gospel with them and pray for them.

Now I have a question for you. If you were in my shoes; and your neighbours start to tell your children and even invite them to do those things which you strongly believe are wrong, would you object? Would you be worried? What would you do? Please give me a clear answer.

I must clarify that I am not here to engage you in a debate on the rightness or wrongness of homosexuality; or to justify biblical teachings. So please don’t start asking me questions about Old Testament Mosaic laws.

laïcité - June 17, 2009

Hi Father of Three, while I respect that you, and every other person has the right to their own religious and moral beliefs, I don’t believe that this extends to the right to impose such beliefs on others. When I mention “moral police”, I am referring to the religious fundamentalists who assume that everyone else, even those who are not of their religion, should share their beliefs and that the law must reflect their brand of morality. Of course I am not accusing you of doing so, but you can’t deny that many of those who are vocal about issues such as keeping s377a and the steeplejackers of Aware are indeed making such an assumption and judgment when they claim to represent Singaporean’s collective interests. In fact, especially in the case of s377a, these people really are acting like a “moral police”, in that they believe that it is justified to criminalize a practice based on the teachings of their own religious beliefs, regardless of the possibility that a portion of the population, and most possibly the “offenders” themselves, do not share such beliefs.

To me, this is akin to a vegetarian saying that all meat eaters should be prosecuted. While he may have a very valid case that eating meat may be immoral, it is not his place to self righteously assume that his moral values must apply to everyone else, or judge other meat eaters as “evil”. What he, and perhaps everyone must accept is that every one and every group has its own different set of moral values, and that it is self centred to judge or criminalize actions based on the beliefs of one group.

Regarding your question, I’m not really sure what you mean when you say my children are being invited to do things I believe are wrong. Take adultery as an example. I believe that adultery is morally wrong because it involves dishonesty and breaching of trust. I would not lecture an adulterer, nor would I want adultery to be criminalized, and I would probably teach my hypothetical children why I believe adultery is wrong. If, for example, schools taught something like men are “naturally promiscuous” and that the tendency to commit adultery was somehow scientifically explained, I would accept the scientific facts of the issue, but i don’t feel that it would compromise my opinion on the issue.

In any case, I fail to see how anyone is advocating or even “inviting” children to become homosexuals. Making an action legal in the eyes of the law, and saying that different people have different opinions on it, is not equivalent to encouraging people to partake in it. In Singapore especially, it is important that we take a pluralistic view on things; it is pointless and counterproductive to shield children from the fact that on issues like homosexuality, there are many different opinions on the matter. In fact, I would personally want my future children to consider all views, and if he ends up seeing homosexuality as immoral, I would still be proud that he made that informed opinion based on his own reasoning.

I would like to ask you in return, what if you found out one day that your children were being taught in school that pork was forbidden because it is dirty? I trust that you would agree that Muslims have the right to impose their dietary restrictions on their own children and their believers, but would you think it is fair that your children should be subjected to such teachings as well? This is how I feel whenever I am faced with the possibility that my future children could potentially be taught in school that homosexuality is wrong, when I myself do not share such beliefs. In fact, this would directly contradict my own values of inclusiveness and tolerance.

7. Father of three - June 18, 2009

Dear Laicite.

You really give too much credit to us Christian ‘fundies’ (another derogatory term the liberals are fond of using). Christian account for only 15% of Spore’s population (compared to 54% for Buddhism). But I know for sure, the majority of Christians in Spore, such as those of the mega churches belong the modern liberal school. Truly fundamentalist bible-believing churches constitute less than 10% of this figure I estimate.

Thus the majority of those who oppose Section 377a are not “right wing Christian fundamentalist moral police’.

I personally believe it is futile to resist the homosexual trend. Spore will surely go the way of the Western societies. No lesser authority than Jesus Christ Himself prophecied that. The only mandate we Christians have is to lead godly lives and share the gospel with the unsaved. I thank God that He sent someone do that for me because 25 years ago, I was just like you and your readers.

laïcité - June 18, 2009

Dear father of three, it is interesting to me that you take offense at the derogatory term us liberals use on fundamentalists, yet a mere 2 paragraphs later you illustrate exactly why we tend to have a negative view of “fundies”.

You say “I thank God that He sent someone do that for me because 25 years ago, I was just like you and your readers.”, yet you seem totally unaware of how condescending and self-righteous that statement can be perceived when you imply that you are now somehow better off than me and my readers. To each his own. I personally do not believe that anyone’s beliefs or moral values are superior than anyone elses, because we all arrived at our own conclusions from our own reasoning and circumstances. It takes arrogance and haughtiness for one to assume that he has the right answer and that everyone else is wrong.

8. The Singapore Daily » Blog Archive » Weekly Roundup: Week 25 - June 20, 2009

[…] “Is the purpose of the law to perpetuate social norms, regardless of the harm that such a position may cause to the minority being persecuted, or is the purpose of the law to protect the freedoms of its people, so as to allow the maximum amount of individual freedom as long as it does not encroach onto the freedoms of others?” laïcité […]


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