People have a tendency to define morality strictly by altruistic terms, focusing on empathy and compassion in regard to the moral relationships we share with others. But, to me, this is a very myopic view on moral values, which ignores the fact that human beings do not seek to simply elevate particular positive attributes we consider to be moral, we also seek to shape the moral compass of others to align with our own image of what is to be deemed good and bad. The implementation of prohibition and imposition are inseparable from our species’ moral practices. It is not enough for us to hold to a particular moral standard, others must recognize the superiority of our personal values, too, and thereafter adopt it as their own standard, or face some degree of punishment (either in this life, or an ascribed next one). Morals built around human sexuality are the clearest example of the prohibitory nature of human values.
Take, for example, homosexuality. It would be one of the gravest of understatements to say that, historically, we heterosexuals care about the sexual practices of gay individuals (we are apparently absolutely obsessed with it!). Even though, technically, it has no binding affect on us, we have convinced ourselves through various moral inferences that somehow the sexuality of gay men and women is of the utmost priority to maintaining our own sexual “purity.” Why? Because it conflicts with the moral standard we have accepted, and, therefore, it is seen as a challenge to our values. Many self-appointed moralists will shriek for hours on end about the perversity of homosexuality, and the need to “cleanse” it out of human consciousness, lest we want to witness every moral framework of society crumble before our very eyes. Employing roundabout arguments that hold no real practical application to morality:
“Homosexuality is clearly immoral.”
“Because human sexual anatomy has clearly made opposite genders sexually compatible for the sake of reproduction. To do otherwise would be unnatural.”
“Even if we concede to the first part, how does that make homosexuality unnatural and/or immoral.”
“Well, if the point of sex is to reproduce, sexual relation that negates this will lead to less reproduction among the species, making it unnatural; thus, it poses a survival risk to humanity, which makes it immoral.
“Homosexual relations are not novel, but extend back to antiquity, and across the animal kingdom (including other members of our Great Ape family), and it has caused no detriment to human survival. In addition, on a planet that houses now 7 billion members of the human species, the greater threat to human health is increased overpopulation, not underpopulation. Furthermore, by your standard of what is unnatural and immoral, the fact that I wear glasses to correct my naturally weak eyesight is not natural, either. Would you, therefore, conclude that wearing glasses is immoral, because it is also unnatural?”
“No, because wearing glasses has no adverse affect on human survival.”
“Sure it does. If my myopia is genetic, then my children can inherit the adverse trait, contributing to its spread into the greater human population. One could argue that good eyesight can be quite salient to the survival of humanity. Thus, for us near-sighted individuals to procreate, and pass on our poor vision, is a negation of something that is vital to human survival; hence, by your logic, it is immoral. Not only that, but the fact that we wear glasses is itself immoral, since it is ‘unnatural’ to begin with.”
“Having poor vision is hardly crippling anymore in today’s age, and wearing glasses is not immoral since you did not choose to be near-sighted.”
“Worrying about human procreation is also redundant in a world inhabited by 7 billion people. And by what measure did gay people choose to be gay, and how does this relate to morality?”
“You can choose who you have sex with.”
“But you can’t choose who you’re attracted to.”
“And is there not a direct line between who you’re attracted to and who you want to have sex with?”
“So, how is being gay a choice?”
“Look, I’m not saying that being attracted to someone of the same sex is itself immoral, just that to engage in homosexual relations is not a natural expression of human sexuality.”
“My disagreement with you on the natural vs unnatural part is irrelevant in this discussion, since my greater issue lies with how you arrive at the conclusion that having gay sex is immoral.”
“It is simply my belief that it is so.”
“How does your personal belief and preference translate to a universal moral framework?”
“Well, I didn’t say it was universal.”
“But you didn’t qualify it as subjective, either. Meaning that you see your moral values as the ideal standard for others to follow.”
“Yes, I think ideally people shouldn’t be having sex with the same gender. You obviously disagree.”
“Again, my disagreement is irrelevant. I’m question the part in which you are trying to overextend your personal preferences to human morality. I would even go further to say that even if homosexuality did somehow cause some adverse affects on our current social conduct, you still have not demonstrated that it is by definition immoral, rather than simply undesirable to the current societal structure we happen to reside in.”
“Well, we’ll just have to agree to disagree.”
“I don’t agree with that.”
If such arguments seem lackluster, it’s because they are. I deliberately chose to discuss the morality of homosexuality because it is (at least, here in the American South) the primary example of how people tend to blur the distinction between what they might consider to be personally displeasing and what is morally wrong. For the sake of complete disclosure, the above scenario is one I know too well, since it was only a few years back that I was (much to my present shame) openly engaging in circular reasoning similar to the hypothetical person above [though my former homophobic stance didn’t rest on morality, as much as my idiotic cultural indoctrination that heterosexuality was the more normal mode of sexual expression, maintained through the stubborn fervor of adolescent arrogance]; realizing my error in thinking was only hard for as long as I bothered to construct faulty premises to support a prejudiced conclusion. Once this was pointed out to me, I had no choice but to tuck my tail between my legs and admit that my stance rested on nothing more but my acceptance of the mores of my cultural upbringing, and since I had in childhood never bothered to accept the prevalent values of my surroundings, it was downright baseless to continue upholding this one.
Much of what we deem moral is determined by both internal preferences, and external influences. It is also within our nature, as humans, to consider our personal moral preferences alone as insufficient standards on which to judge the actions of others, thus we are forced to create a greater authority for the origin of our moral values than ourselves, because we must convince others of the superiority in our way of thinking. In that, we profess not to be arbitrarily determining what is right and wrong, good and evil, but are merely vassals of a higher virtue that deep down everyone innately recognizes. Until, of course, we change our minds about something, then our new stance totally becomes the new higher virtue that everyone recognizes (no matter if it completely contradicts the innate virtue we were previously sure was the moral standard). We can’t just empathize through altruistic gestures, we must also prohibit that which is dangerous to our moral framework. Otherwise, how is it to reign supreme?