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A Plea for Philosophy

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There's a reaction I sometimes hear to my work as The Gay Moralist, including my new book What's Wrong with Homosexuality? It goes something like this:

Rational argument is all fine and dandy, but people don't become homophobes via rational argument, and they're not going to get talked out of homophobia that way, either. By now, virtually anyone who's going to be convinced of equal rights for gay people has already joined us. The rest will cling to arguments as clever rationalizations for their underlying prejudice--but those arguments are just a fig leaf. By responding to them, you are at best wasting your breath and at worst enhancing their veneer of plausibility.

I take the point seriously, and I've mulled on it quite a bit. I still think it's badly mistaken.

First, I reject the premise that rational argument on gay rights has outlived its usefulness. Watching the rapid shift in public support lately--a recent poll suggests that 58% of Americans favor marriage equality--it's easy to forget that plenty aren't there yet. Furthermore, those who are there aren't necessarily robust in their support. While 58% support our legal right to marry, some still believe deep down that there's something wrong with being gay, and quite a few would probably prefer that their children don't turn out that way.

Now combine the "soft" supporters with the remaining 42% of Americans. Are all of these just bigoted homophobes who are immune to rational persuasion? I suspect not--and certainly hope not.

Second, even if one supposes that anti-gay arguments are just fig leaves, there's a value to ripping off fig leaves. (Reminds me of a party I attended in West Hollywood recently--but let's not go there right now.)

In all seriousness: the "veneer of plausibility" works only insofar as people can continue making such arguments unchallenged. Vigorous public refutation is an antidote.

Of course argument is not always sufficient to do the job, and no one denies the powerful role that personal visibility plays in combating anti-gay stereotypes. But to acknowledge that people's minds are changed mainly through knowing flesh-and-blood LGBT people is not to deny that argument has an important task as well. It can hasten the process by uncovering hidden assumptions and neutralizing self-serving rationalizations.

Third, and perhaps most crucially, there's the kids.

I'm talking about LGBT youth, the ones who have heard these arguments from their parents, pastors, and teachers and who accept them on authority. Because they've internalized the attacks, they mistakenly but deeply believe that there's something sick, unnatural, and perverse about themselves.

I want to help these kids. Carefully picking apart the anti-gay case is one way to do that.

And so I continue to make a plea for philosophical argument--and specifically, for moral philosophy, a.k.a. ethics. Speaking of which, here's another video from my new series of 11 in the gay-rights debate. It's on the question "Where does morality come from?" and it pushes back against both "conservative" and "liberal" misunderstandings of morality's nature: