In the war currently being waged about gay rights (are there any?), there are people who say there is nothing at all wrong with homosexuality and people who say there is everything wrong with it. It almost goes without saying that the proponents don’t have the same ideas about just how something gets to be “right” that the opponents have. The result is that those of us on the sidelines of this fight get to hear a lot of really bad arguments.
Most often, I don’t have strong views about social claims of right and wrong. It’s not my department. I’m sure someone is covering that. I tend to have stronger feelings about how cases are made. A patchy and disreputable case on behalf of a social value I favor will probably make me angry. A case that bad on behalf of a value I oppose will leave me dyspeptic.
The U. S. Supreme Court has recently heard two cases that have engaged the gay and anti-gay communities. The odd commonality these cases have is that no one seems to want to defend them. The State of California is not defending its Proposition 8 measure, which defined “marriage” in exclusively heterosexual terms. The federal government is not defending the case that its 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which allows other states to refuse to recognize legally binding marriages made in other states, is unconstitutional.
People don’t have trouble saying that they do or don’t like gay and lesbian marriages. It is in saying that they are “right” or that they are “wrong” that has proved difficult. Are they wrong because they have bad effects? “Bad” compared to what? And according to whom? Are they wrong because they are illegal? Lot of things used to be illegal and are legal now because people wanted the values embedded in those laws to be changed and went out and changed them.
The most interesting part of this argument, to my mind, is the charge that homosexuality is “unnatural.” Let’s spend a little time with that argument. “Natural” is the adjective form of “nature.” So a charge that something is “unnatural” is a charge that it is not to be found in nature. Homosexual behavior is, in fact, found in nature. If you look up this article in the New York Times, you can see the hyperlinks. The first one takes you to a set of studies by the World Health Organization (WHO). The scientists at WHO who study this regard the expectation that homosexuality occurs naturally the way climatologists regard the claim that the atmosphere is warming. It isn’t something they debate about among themselves.
The good part about the argument that homosexuals ought not to be allowed to marry because homosexuality is “unnatural” is a good claim because it asks questions that can be studied. Does homosexuality occur naturally or not? It does. OK, that’s the end of that. It isn’t “unnatural.” (Some things are not unnatural, but they are very difficult. I have an example here.)
People can still say it is wrong, of course, but if you can’t say it is wrong because it is harmful, you are left looking for some other basis. Sacred texts are very persuasive for the communities who have pledged themselves to honor those texts, but there are so many sacred texts and sacred communities and government in the U. S. is formally secular. People expect to be free to practice their religions and to be free from the demands that they practice any religion at all. So saying that homosexuality is “wrong” is the very broad sense is hard to do.
There is another meaning of “unnatural,” however. This meaning does not have to do with nature as such, but with human nature. Humans have, by this argument, “a nature” and things work best when we honor the nature we have. We violate this foundation of our species not when we do things that are “against nature,” but when we do things that are against our nature.
I haven’t read anyone in a long time who thinks there is “a human nature” in the sense that we can say what it is. Some people are still hospitable to the idea that there is such a thing, but no academics I have seen recently want to say what it is. Ethnologists have had a shot at it. Animal behaviorists have had a shot; evolutionary anthropologists have had a shot; philosophers have had a fusillade.
For my own contribution to this issue, I would like to ask two questions. The first is, is “natural” good? If you think it is good, you will talk about “violating” our nature. If “natural” is good, then being in conformity with our nature is good and deviating from it is bad. That’s why we say “violate.” On the other hand, we believe a lot of bad things will happen if we allow our human nature free play. Philosopher Thomas Hobbes said that without society—without, that is, constraining our nature by social regulations—our lives would be “solitary, nasty, poor, brutish, and short.”
According to these philosophers, we can “transcend” our natures by making agreements—society—among ourselves. This view holds that our nature is not good in the sense that what we do “naturally” is the right thing to do, but that a part of our nature is the ability to make social contracts to constrain our conduct.
Two football players were convicted recently in Steubenville, Ohio for raping a girl at a party. Is what they did “natural?” Would they have said that what they did was a perfectly natural thing to want to do, even had they been sober, and that the court that found them guilty was “unnatural” because it was a social construction? Would violent retaliation by the girl’s family be natural, and the laws against that retaliation invalid because they went against nature? Are questions like this useful questions?
I said there were two questions. The first was, “Is natural, good?” Here’s the second. What does it mean to talk about the “nature” of a radically evolutionary species like ours? It’s an awkward question, really. You can take a given population and demonstrate “what they are like” for ten thousand years. That is their nature. But then something happens. Tools happen. Agriculture happens. Moving from the forests to the savannah happens. Language is created. Then languages. Tribes are linked together into clans. We learn to live in oppressively hot and prohibitively cold environments and the bodies of the survivors in those environments adapt to its demands.
Are all those our nature? Surely not. Would it make more sense to say that our nature, such as it is, is innovative? We are the species that has adapted so well to so many kinds of environment that we have learned how to buffer ourselves against the most extreme environments. We are the species that has learned how to live in small nomadic groups and in large ordered groups and in huge impersonal societies. It’s the adapting, rather than any particular adaptation, that characterizes us. We are a “grab the brass ring when it comes around” kind of species and “grabbing it when we have a chance” is our nature.
It is a little difficult to picture our adaptation to stable agricultural communities as a kind of “brass ring” that we “grabbed,” but we really didn’t need to do it. Many early groups chose not to do it. They continued in social forms they found more “natural” even as their brothers, the agriculturalists, came to feel that the production and consumption of foodstuffs was “cooperating with nature.”
It is hard for me to think that “human nature” is a very useful idea. It is sabotaged in the short run by the way we define ourselves as members of our societies. That feels pretty natural to us. It is sabotaged in the long run by how aggressively we have pursued opportunities—I have given language, tools, and agriculture as instances—which have fundamentally changed who we are.
So I ask these questions and find no ready answers to them. I’ve done this for a long time. It seems so…well…so natural to me.
 It is not hard to do in a fundraising letter, of course. Saying it is right and needs to be defended is the other way to write a fundraising letter.
 Theologians, by the way, come at this from an entirely different side. Christian theologians can and do say that humankind has a “nature” and a Creator, whose “image” we share, and that we have allowed that image to become seriously corroded, but that there is a way to get the crud off of it and so on. None of this is empirically verifiable, of course, but it hangs together very nicely given the first premises.