Act/Orientation

August 9, 2010 § 1 Comment

It is said there is a distinction between an act, and being orientated or predisposed to perform the act. This usually comes into play with homosexuality, in defence of positions like:

“Gay sex is wrong but I don’t have a problem with gays as people.”

Or:

“Although we oblige members not to have gay sex, that isn’t discrimination against homosexuals.”

In one sense, this is obviously right. Particular moral judgements about behaviour don’t imply particular moral judgements about the people who behave this way. You can ‘hate the sin love the sinner’.

In other senses, though, some thing’s off. We wouldn’t take seriously someone who didn’t mind orientation of Jewishness, yet wanted to ban behaviours like reading the Torah, Rabbinical office, and Jewish religious services. They’re just anti-Semitic under a pretence. So what is it about certain behaviours (or sets of behaviour) of people that mean being ‘against’ these behaviours implies you are ‘against’ these people?

Identity and action

The issue with the Jewish case is perhaps this: the sort of actions listed above are intrinsically linked with being an (observant) Jew. Stopping these sorts of behaviour targets and suffocates a particular identity. This is unlike other generalized restrictions on behaviour (e.g. owning a car) that affects everyone fairly equally. It follows that which behaviours target identity depend on the relevant identities going around: if there was a group of people who found driving cars profoundly important (religious petrolheads?) then a driving ban would suffocate some sort of petrolhead identity.

The important test for liberal societies in deciding what sort of behaviour to censure should have something to do with broadly recognized harms. Neither reading the Torah or driving a car should be banned unless some reason can be found beyond moral approbation.

The reason why the act/orientation issue seems so fishy is because gay sex plainly passes this test – gay sex is about as safe as straight sex, and certainly safer than all sorts of ways we allow people to endanger themselves. There simply seems no reason to have a problem with the act which warrants getting the law involved. So the act/orientation stuff seems to be smokescreen for people wanting to use the law as a cudgel against the gay identity.

Two sorts of gay contempt

Yet you needn’t be anti-gay and want to do this. You might think the state should stay away from it and yet hold particular moral views about homosexual acts, yet be surprised when people seem to take such exception to them. After all, you stress repeatedly you have no problem with those who have the orientation, but regard the acts orientated towards as morally wrong. Why are they so angry?

One sort of anti-gay view everyone rightly abhors is homophobic hatred and violence. To hold gay people in contempt as people. To regard homosexuality as some form of sub-humanity. Views like this are simply a disgrace to the human condition. I believe that a tiny minority of those who are anti-homosexuality hold this view of homosexuals.

Yet the sort of view people hold instead isn’t much better. Acts and orientations are not so distinct as that. If homosexual acts are morally wrong, then homosexuality is, if not character staining, at least regrettable. Comparisons to paedophilia, addiction or alcoholism wouldn’t be far off the mark. It is some sort of compulsion or pathology that leads one to do wrong things. It would be better if one was straight.

This won’t be taken well by homosexuals, and for good reason. They don’t consider their sexual identity cause for regret (PRIDE, remember?) nor, if they have a partner, will they consider this relationship some sort of psychosexual cancer that would be better off excised. For those who are anti-gay, the only acceptable homosexuality is one disowned, demeaned, and neutered. This is contemptible.

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