It’s Just Not Natural

It always puzzles me when people dismiss homosexuality, or frankly, any particular human behavior, as “unnatural.” 

It puzzles me because people who hold this view are not thereby saying that homosexuality is physically impossible. Indeed, its physical possibility is a necessary pre-condition of its being either denounced or proscribed. But this then begs the question:

How can something that is physically possible be “unnatural”?

In other words, if a particular behavior can be observed in the natural world, we must admit of its “naturalness.” Since sexual interactions occur between members of the same sex in at least one species (ours), and possibly others, homosexuality is, ipso facto, natural.

So what is really going on when humans claim that a particular human behavior goes “against nature”?

Human Nature

Well, first, they are claiming that there is a set “human nature” and that certain behaviors pertain to this nature while others represent deviations from it.

The problem here lies not in the fact that “human nature” is a myth—it is undeniable that certain behaviors are extremely common among humans and others exceedingly rare—but that ANY manifest human behaviors are “naturally” occurring and thus, even when rare, have to belong to the set of natural (i.e., possible in nature) human behaviors.

That is, the only “unnatural” human behaviors would, by definition, be behaviors never exhibited by humans in nature.

Illness as Metaphor

The softer version of “against nature,” however, is “symptomatic of disease,” and there certainly are those who believe that homosexuality is an “illness.” The first problem with this line of thought is that this illness must needs be considered behavioral rather than physiological.

As soon as it is relegated to the realm of mental or character disorders without a physiological underpinning, however, difficult questions arise. Because this is a behavior that does not endanger the physical organism and, indeed, seems to only offend certain normative preconceptions, there would seem to be a high likelihood that pathologizing homosexuality bespeaks a cultural bias rather than a clinical insight.

(Note: The medical argument against homosexuality is the most insidious because it relies on medicine’s claim of scientificity: “This isn’t [mere] prejudice. It is simply a diagnosis.” While the utter lack of consensus in the medical community around either the etiology of homosexuality or,  frankly, whether it should be considered a pathology or aberration in the first place, would seem to indicate that the days of “homosexuality is an illness” are numbered. Whether that is actually the case, of course, depends on whether or not medicine, as a rational, scientific system, is capable of self-correction based on the evidence, as it claims to be, or whether it is, as Foucault suggested, a modern mode of social control.)

Which brings us to the second problem: the metaphorical nature of the assumption. Since a physiological basis for homosexuality is not forthcoming or, I suspect, impossible to adduce, describing it as “an illness” is really just a way to say that it is a behavior that should be controlled or eliminated because it poses a threat not to a physiological order, but to a particular social order, a social order, moreover, bent on controlling humans by arbitrarily labeling natural (in the sense of “occurring in nature”) behaviors unnatural.

The True Metaethical Conundrum

In the end, of course, it’s not about nature.

Instead, it’s about the simple fact that the ethical world and the physical (material) world are not the same. The physical world pre-exists the ethical world and, in point of fact, the latter is entirely dependent on the former (unless you are a Platonist, I suppose).

This can be difficult to grasp and accept, especially if you want to believe in moral absolutes or the unassailability of norms handed down by a deity. But, as I said above, it  only makes sense to claim that certain actions are right and others wrong if the actions precede these appellations. This means that right and wrong are not inscribed in the fabric of things but, rather, ascribed to it.

Which, of course, implies the appalling amorality of the physical.

Image Source: Michael Coghlan

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