Philosophical fight on homosexuality

Oxford University’s Richard Swinburne, arguably the world’s leading Christian philosopher, recently caused a firestorm when he argued that homosexuality is a disease and homosexual sex is wrong.

Following his comments, a nasty brawl broke out. Notre Dame professor Michael Rea, who is part of the leadership team that invited Swinburne to the Society of Christian Philosophers, apologized for his comments. Yale University professor Jason Stanley was harsher. He responded to Swinburne and people who think like him by posting profanity on Facebook. The phrase was then repeated by Columbia University’s John Collins and University of British Columbia’s Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa. Dan Steinberg stepped it up, posting, “Fist those guys.” Georgetown University’s Rebecca Kukla outdid them in her posting. Yale, Columbia, etc. are elite institutions and Ichikawa, Kukla, Rea, and Stanley are well-known in philosophy. The controversy reached Inside Higher Education and is still swirling about.

Swinburne gave two arguments in support of his claim that gay sex is wrong. First, God prohibits gay sex (see 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and Romans 1:24-27). Second, gay sex is wrong because a climate of disapproval would prevent some people from becoming homosexual.

Swinburne argued that homosexuality is a reversible disease (or disability). On his account, it is a disease because a homosexual cannot beget children through a loving act with a lifelong partner. He also argued that homosexuality should not be encouraged because children nurtured by homosexual parents do not do as well in life as those nurtured by heterosexual biological parents.

Swinburne’s arguments fail. First, even if the Bible condemns gay sex, the Bible is unreliable on moral matters. The Bible also condemns money lending (Ezekiel 18:13) and permits slave-owning (Leviticus 25:44-46). These absurdities are enough to disqualify it.

Second, the inability to directly beget children with one’s partner does not show that something is a disease unless we build into the notion of a disease something like Swinburne’s or the Catholic view of sex. This would make medicine depend on theology and they are independent. For example, one can be a fine doctor without knowing anything about Christianity.

Third, even if homosexuality were a disease (or disability), this does not make gay sex wrong. Infertility is a disability, but this does not make it wrong for a husband to have sex with his infertile wife. If gay sex wrongs no one, then it is not wrong. Even if gay sex encourages children and young adults to be gay, no one has a duty to be a role model, let alone a moral saint. The notion that it wrongs God is even less plausible because God has no right to tell people what they can do with their lives. They are not his chattel slaves.

There are other plausible arguments that homosexuality is a mental disorder. New York University’s Jerry Wakefield has the leading theory of a disorder. His theory is that a disorder is a harmful dysfunction. He asserts that harm is what makes someone’s life go worse. He argues that an individual has a dysfunction when he has an internal body part (or mechanism) that fails to perform its natural function, that is, the function for which evolution designed it. The natural function is on some accounts, although perhaps not Wakefield’s, the part’s contribution to reproduction (more specifically, reproductive fitness) and, perhaps, longevity.

On this account, whether homosexuality is a disorder depends on whether homosexuality is harmful and whether it prevents or lessens reproduction. The evidence here is mixed. Homosexuals are less likely than heterosexuals to say they were extremely or very happy and more likely to say they were fairly unhappy or unhappy most of the time. Gay men are more likely to suffer depression than straight men. My guess is that the greater unhappiness of gays has an external cause (homophobia) and is not a result of their orientation, but this is just a guess. Gays have a lower level of reproductive fitness. They also have higher rates of mental disorders than non-gay populations, although being associated with other mental disorders need not make a condition itself a disorder.

Wakefield notes that psychiatrists held that homosexuality is not a disorder because they think it is not harmful. Specifically, they think that it does not lessen people’s capacity for loving human relationships. He argues that psychiatrists sidestepped the thorny issue of whether it is a dysfunction.

Whether homosexuality is a disorder, then, is an empirical question and not one that can be answered by mere armchair speculation. My guess is that it is not.

Whether it is a disease, gay sex is clearly morally permissible because it wrongs no one. Relationships are good to the extent they make the partners’ lives go better. There is little reason to believe that gay people’s relationships contribute less to their lives than do straight people’s relationships and, hence, they are as good as straight relationships for participants. Whether it is a disorder is irrelevant to the rightness or goodness of gay life.

The ferocity of the philosophers’ condemnation is striking. First, even if Swinburne’s arguments are unconvincing, Wakefield’s theory of a disorder opens the door to the issue of whether homosexuality is a disorder. Second, if one thinks what the Bible says is true, then one is forced into adopting something like Swinburne’s approach to make sense of the Bible’s and churches’ pronouncements on sexual morality. Thus, the vicious criticism cuts deeply into Christianity. It likely cuts just as deeply into Islam. Third, given the influence of these philosophers and their schools, it is worth considering the degree to which these schools are hostile to Christianity. If the two are going to go to war, it is good that the rest of us know it.

Full disclosure: While at Oxford, I had Swinburne as a professor.

Stephen Kershnar is a State University of New York at Fredonia philosophy professor. Send comments to