The Scientific Study of Homosexuality and Social Policy

One of the most common philosophical mistakes is to confuse what is with what ought to be. One variation of this confusion is known as the naturalistic fallacy—the idea that if something is natural, then it is good (i.e., ought to be). As Sommer (1990) points out, the presence or absence of homosexual behavior among animals has been used since ancient times either to defend or to condemn the practice. The contradictory conclusions of different authors illustrate well the problems in trying to conclude from what is "natural" (found among animals) to what "ought to be": In Laws, Plato argues against homosexuality because it does not occur among animals. But the 2nd century Pseudo-Lucien defends homosexuality by arguing that "lions have no homosexuality because they have no philosophers," and "bears have none because they know not beauty." On the other hand, the 2nd century author of Physiologus argues that impure hyenas do exhibit homosexual characteristics and thus humans should not engage in homosexuality, while the 20th century author, André Gide, argues that homosexuality does occur in animals and thus is "natural" and so "good." As these arguments make clear, simply knowing whether animals do or do not engage in homosexuality tells us nothing about whether human homosexuality is good or not. The same holds for arguments about evolutionary adaptiveness.

Likewise, knowing whether homosexual behavior is common or highly regarded in different cultures tells us nothing about whether it ought to be common or highly regarded there or anywhere else. This confusion is known as the relativistic fallacy. In 1986 Chief Justice Burger of the U.S. Supreme Court argued that historical evidence of proscriptions against homosexuality in different cultures justified upholding the Georgia sodomy laws (Bowkers vs. Hardwick, 1986). More recently, the Zimbabwean dictator, Robert Mugabe, initiated a violent antihomosexual campaign in his country with the justification that homosexuality did not exist there prior to European colonization (Murray & Roscoe, 1998). Actually, both are wrong about history, but even if they had been right on the facts, they would still be committing the relativistic fallacy.

The confusion of "is" with "ought" is so common that some scholars have fallen into the reverse error of concluding about what "is" based on what they think "ought to be," thus committing the moralistic fallacy. For example, the Soviet scientist Lysenko decided that the theory of natural selection must be wrong because it implied that reality was based on unjust non-Marxist principles. Some more contemporary scholars have attempted to conclude that men and women, or gays and straights, "are" equal because they "ought to be" equal.

Science deals with what "is," not with what "ought to be." How, then, can science help us to draw conclusions about what social policy "ought to be." The answer depends on the principles we accept (for nonscientific reasons) as the basis for our moral, ethical, or political decisions. For example, one of the most respected principles sees "increasing well-being" as the basis of moral decisions. Many religions have adopted similar principles, such as "love thy neighbor as thy self."

If we accept "increasing well-being" as our moral aim, then science can help us establish what policies enhance both physical and mental well-being. In the study of homosexuality we need to understand what can be done to increase the well-being of all involved. Many topics are amenable to this type of research. For example, can we predict beforehand who will benefit from transsexual surgery? What kinds of programs diminish problems like bullying behaviors in school? What social policies can help reduce AIDS contamination? What kinds of domestic arrangements lead to most happiness for different kinds of people? What kinds of laws most encourage these arrangements? As we learn more about homosexuality and its many possible manifestations, we will surely be able to answer these and other questions with greater confidence.

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