Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Sex, Brains, and Morality

In the news yesterday I read of a study that concludes that, on matters of sex, the brains of lesbians are more the brains of heterosexual males than of heterosexual females. Specifically, with some exceptions, they tend to process pheromones (specifically, the smell of sex hormones) more like the former group than the latter. This is meant to explain why they are attracted to females rather than males.

Brains and Behavior

Some will argue that this has important moral implications. If homosexuality can be linked to a physical difference then, according to one argument, discrimination against homosexuals will fall in the same moral category as discrimination against blacks. Both would be classified as forms of discrimination grounded on an underlying physical characteristic.

This is a poor argument.

Every difference in human behavior will ultimately be linked to differences in the way the brain is structured. The person who is addicted to drugs, we will find, is addicted because of an underlying fact about how his brain is structured. The bully, the rapist, the thief, the serial killer all have an underlying difference in their brain structure. We may not be able to say exactly what that difference is at the moment, but we have reason to suspect that it is there.

If it is there, and underlying brain structure is taken to imply moral permissibility for the behavior that the brain structure causes, then every act is morally permissible.

Others will argue for a slightly different conclusion. The fact that behavior is grounded on brain structure implies that the very concept of moral responsibility is incoherent. These hard determinists would argue that we should abandon moral concepts entirely and speak instead entirely in the medical terms of 'illness', 'treatment', and 'cure.'

It seems like a natural progression, but it is flawed as well.

Value and the Concept of 'Disease'

We can start to expose this flaw when we ask questions like, How do we distinguish between a mental state that is a 'disease' needing a 'treatment' or 'cure' from a mental state that is not a disease? Before we decide whether or not to call something a disease, we have to make an evaluation. Diseases are bad, so we have to prove badness in order to prove that something is a disease. Once we enter into a realm where we are making value judgments, then this brings into question the assumption that we cannot make moral judgments.

I have argued throughout this blog that we can make value judgments, even in a world where behavior is based on brain structure. I have suggested that 'good' can be equated to 'is such as to fulfill the desires in question,' where a desire is a mental state. A 'desire that P' is a piece of mental programming code written into the brain that says, "Seek to create or maintain a state of affairs in which P is true."

Bad Desires

Using this same formula, we can evaluate desires. Good desires are brain states that tend to fulfill other desires -- desires like kindness and charity. Bad desires are brain states that tend to thwart other desires -- desires to do harm (e.g., rape), or desires that cause people to act in ways that expose others to harm (e.g., drunk driving).

Desires that tend neither to fulfill or to thwart other desires -- desires that simply exist -- are neither good nor bad. They simply exist. However, the objects of those desires are good, in the sense that the objects of those desires are still 'such as to fulfill desires.'

If the principles of pure and unfettered capitalism were true, then greed would be good, because greed would lead to perpetually increasing economic efficiency -- a tide that would 'lift all boats' as the cliché goes. If, instead, the principles of capitalism are not true or cannot be effectively established -- allowing the rich to get richer by manipulating the government so as to help them turn workers into serfs -- then greed is not good.

The Difference between Evil and Illness

If we determine that a desire is bad, the next question to ask is: How do we modify it?

Here, I want to recognize two major options.

We have the ability to modify desires by using the tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. Particularly when we use these tools on children, we have the ability to promote kindness and inhibit cruelty. We have the ability to promote a preference for truth-sharing over lying, sharing over selfishness, and respect for others over hatred.

If a desire is bad -- if it tends to thwart other desires, and if it can be molded using the tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment, then those who would be harmed, or care about those who would be harmed, have reason to apply these tools to molding those desires. This is where the language of morality comes in. This is where it makes sense to talk about moral praise and condemnation, and to institute those systems of reward and punishment.

If a desire is bad, and it is immune to the effects of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment, then it makes sense to use the language of medicine. Here is where we start looking for treatment and cures. The inducement for society in general is the same -- to avoid the harms that these desires cause individuals to perform. The method is not one of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment (because,, ex hypothesi it does not work). The method is one of medication and therapy. If necessary, confinement may be required. However, it would be wrong in this case for confinement to be punitive. No more restraint is permitted than that which is necessary to provide for the safety of others.

Moral Relevance of Brain Science

The morally relevant questions are these:

Is it a desire that tends to thwart the desires of others? Do homosexuals tend to engage in behavior that is harmful to others? If not, then it is not a bad desire, and the rest of us have no legitimate reason to inhibit it.

If a desire is harmful, can it be modified or mitigated using the tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment? If it can, then we use those tools. We put the institution of morality to work inhibiting those bad desires, so as to avoid the harms that they case.

If it cannot, then we enter the realm of medicine and start talking about treatments, cures, and, if necessary, confinement -- not as a form of punishment, but as a way of protecting those who would be harmed from those who would do harm.

Homosexual Desire

In the case of homosexual desire, we can stop at the first question.

First, technically, there is no such thing as a 'homosexual desire.'

Desires are identified by the propositions that are the objects of that desire. In this case, we are talking about a desire to have sex with men, or a desire to have sex with women. The gender of the person who has the desire is irrelevant.

For example, assume that we are talking about a desire to eat a chocolate cake. In this case, the desire is identified by the proposition, "I am eating chocolate cake." This does not become a different desire by changing the height or the hair color of the person who has it. Nor does it become a different desire by changing the gender of the person who has it.

The same is true with the desire to have sex with a man or woman. The fundamental qualities of this desire are independent of the gender of the person who has it. So, if we are going to be evaluating any desires here, we are left with the task of evaluating the desire to have sex with men, or a desire to have sex with women.

If either of these desires turn out to be 'bad' desires, then they are equally bad for those who have red hair or blonde, for those who are tall or short, or those who are male or female. So, heterosexuals who wish to have sex with women are going to fit in the same moral category as homosexuals who wish to have sex with women. They both equally desire to have sex with women. They are both equally guilty if this desire proves to be bad, or equally blameless if this desire is not bad.

I do not think that I need to go into a long argument in defense of the proposition that the desire to have sex with woman is, at worst, morally neutral. A desire for certain types of sex (e.g., forced sex) will clearly come out as bad. Yet, this is a clear example of a desire that is equally bad for men as for women.

So, as I said, when it comes to the morality of homosexuality, we cannot get past the first question. Because it is not a bad desire, we do not need to ask whether and to what degree it is possible to bring the tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to bear against this desire. Nor do we need to inquire into the possibilities of treatments or cures. These questions are irrelevant.


So, the news that homosexuality is related to brain structure is morally irrelevant. Of course it is related to brain structure. All types of behavior are related, in one way or another, to brain structure.

The relevant moral question is whether this desire tends to thwart other desires.

To answer this question, we have to specify the nature of the desire we are talking about. The things desired, not by the gender of the person who desires them identify desires. In this case, we are really talking about the desire to have sex with men, or the desire to have sex with women.

Since these desires are not bad, we have no reason to ask any further questions about whether the desire can be inhibited using the tools of morality (praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment), or if we should promote treatment.

On The Other Hand

If we apply this same analysis to the aversion to people engaging in homosexual acts, we get a different result. This clearly is an aversion that causes people to behave in ways that are harmful to others -- harmful of the interests of those who value homosexual relationships. We see them virtually obsessed with pursuing options that harm the interests of homosexuals.

So, here, we do make it past the first question and can ask the second. Is this aversion learned (can we inhibit it by using the moral tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment), or should we be looking for some type of medical treatment for those who have this aversion?

Observations suggest that this harmful aversion to others having homosexual relationships is learned. Consequently, this aversion can be categorized as an evil, rather than a sickness. Moral condemnation is quite appropriate against those who acquire this disposition.


Anonymous said...

Excellent post. By the way, I really love your site. I started reading all of the posts in the archive starting from the earliest.

I completely agree that homosexuality should not be made to be such a big problem. What two individuals willingly decide what sexual acts they want to perform should not be restricted. Other than that, I don't see what negative physical consequences homosexuality leads to. I am mainly referring to sex between two men. I have tried anal sex before and it is an enjoyable experience when done properly.

Some people might argue that anal sex is unnatural, only vaginal is. It is unnatural because it is condemned in the bible and because anus doesn't lubricate like vagina. Ignoring the criticism in the bible for obvious reasons, when we look at the practical reasons, the lubrication can be overcome by artificial means. In conclusion, my view on this issue is anal sex should be viewed as normal just like vaginal sex. It is very unfortunate that homosexuals have to suffer throughout the world, especially in places where sodomy is a misdemeanor/felony/death penalty.

P.S: I don't know if this post will get published in the comments section because it might be deemed too graphic for the visitors of this site.

Andy said...


Simply because something is a disease does not mean we can't blame people for it if they have it. If someone gets lung cancer because they were a heavy smoker, then they are worthy of blame. If someone gets cardiovascular disease due to laziness, then they are worthy of blame. And so on.

And of course, I'm not saying that in all cases where people get diseases, they are worthy of blame, just some of the time.

Anonymous said...

Something to rattle the cage, a desire with relative morality: hunger.

Under-fed - good desire.
Obese - bad desire.

Desires are to be judged by their effect, both individually and in general.
And in this particular case I agree. No positive or negative effect, weather individually or in general, therefore the desire is morally irrelevant.