The Possibility of Dogmatism

Over on Mere-O Abridged (the sidebar), where I highlight interesting articles by attempting a pithy line about them, I highlighted a review of the recently released research indicating that homosexuals can, in fact, change their behavior.

The main thrust of the research calls into question this rather dogmatic position by the American Psychological Association:

Can Therapy Change Sexual Orientation?

No. Even though most homosexuals live successful, happy lives, some homosexual or bisexual people may seek to change their sexual orientation through therapy, sometimes pressured by the influence of family members or religious groups to try and do so. The reality is that homosexuality is not an illness. It does not require treatment and is not changeable.

What’s more, the APA expresses its concern that therapy may harm those homosexuals who do seek treatment.

In a response, my brother highlighted the shortcomings of the study’s sample group, shortcomings about which the authors seem quite candid.  He concludes:

So people who really, really, really want to change can change–somewhat.

Maybe.

To borrow the phrase, sexuality is indeed “meaningful and complicated.” Dogmatism about its biological nature, its ethical import, and its psychological malleability isn’t warranted on any side. Fundamentally, though, the moral question comes first. Even if we could, through patience and therapy, make gays turn straight–or straights turn gay–it wouldn’t make it right.

I am happy to acknowledge the tendentious and limited nature of the study.  But Jim seems to confuse things when he says that “Dogmatism about…[sexuality’s] ethical import…isn’t warranted.”  In making the claim in this context, it seems Jim thinks that dogmatism about ethics is derived from the conclusions of the social scientists.*  While this may be a plausible position to hold, it puts Jim in some unexpected (and perhaps undesirable?) company:  that of natural law theorists.  Using inconclusive scientific results to justify agnosticism about the moral status of what is being observed is another form of deriving the “ought” from the “is.”

Jim and I probably admit different categories into the “is” that we consider to be reality (in this case, at least), but in our ethical reasoning we may share more common ground than we have yet realized.
*I feel quite free to make this claim because I know Jim will correct me if I’m wrong!

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  • http://decorabilia.blogspot.com Jim Anderson

    Right on cue: you’re wrong. My later sentence–which you quote–says, quite clearly, “[T]he moral question comes first.” Certainly we should revise some moral claims in the light of scientific findings. If we learn, for example, that someone’s cursing is a result of Tourette’s, and not simply a “potty mouth,” we can revise our standard of blame. Furthermore, if we are making a claim about harm, we require some sort of empirical evidence that actual harm is being committed. The APA is dogmatic because it has not provided that evidence.

    In the other direction, being able to safely amputate someone’s arm doesn’t warrant amputating it. “Ought” may imply “can,” but “can” doesn’t imply “ought.”

  • Matthew Lee Anderson

    Right. I agree with you entirely. The question that I had, however, was, “On what basis can we answer the moral question?” In conflating ethical dogmatism with dogmatism about sexuality’s biological nature and pscyhological malleability, it seems you are basing whether or not we can be “dogmatic” in each of the three cases on the same ground.

    For clarity’s sake, would you admit that this study has nothing to do with whether we can be dogmatic about sexual ethics?

  • http://decorabilia.blogspot.com Jim Anderson

    I listed each, but didn’t “conflate” all three. Though some of the issues are entangled, they’re each in their own way not conducive to dogmatism. I thought I was being clear, so I didn’t do the work to fully draw out the point.

  • Matthew Lee Anderson

    Sure, that makes sense. I’m unclear, then, on what you think the relationship between this study and sexual ethics is, if any.

  • http://decorabilia.blogspot.com Jim Anderson

    This study in particular: not much, because of its methodological problems. If a better-designed study could convincingly demonstrate that people can change orientations without psychic damage, then at least one of the APA’s moral objections would have to be withdrawn as empirically denied.

    That’s about all I see.