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The End of Sexual Ethics: Love and the Limits of Reason

July 16th, 2015 | 8 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Dianna Anderson (no relation) recently penned a very spirited critique of my recent essay on why I am opposed to gay marriage. I had been notified about the essay a while ago: in fact, a reader asked me about the comments and I suggested that I would not be responding because I didn’t think it allowed for any meaningful conversation.* Why now? Therein lies a tale, which I will take up below.

While she alludes to other concerns she has with my essay, Dianna takes issue with my suggestion that in the debate over gay marriage, someone is deceived. As she puts it:

[Matthew Anderson] is allowed to say what he wants because he is positioned as having a monopoly on the moral rightness of his married love. I, as a single, bisexual woman, have not the moral authority to speak on the issue because I am deceived, I have interpreted my own life incorrectly, and I am necessarily wrong – not because I am an inhuman beast, but because “objective” moral reasoning necessarily carries dehumanization of the subject as a consequence.

You can read the part that Dianna is referencing for yourself, in section six.**  The criticism is surprising to me, as I actually meant that section as something of a unifying moment in the piece. Having made the bulk of my argument against gay marriage, my intent was to highlight a puzzle about the debate that everyone has to address. I think those who approve of gay marriage are wrong to do so—but I think it’s possible I’m self-deceived as well. That possibility is one that unites us all.

And Dianna’s rejoinder proves my point. For her, my alleged failure to engage in what Dianna calls “empathy” is an indication of my captivity to the Objective Male form of reasoning, which has allowed me to judge others and “dehumanize” them. It’s fair to conclude, I think, that Dianna would suggest that I’m ‘deceived’ in my moral conclusions, that I have in fact interpreted my “life” and world incorrectly, especially if I have listened to those who do identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Dianna’s moral conclusion about me may not ‘dehumanize’ me. But I have no way of seeing how I am anything but deluded in my conviction that the moral conclusions are compatible with a serious interest in and care for the lives of gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals. Perhaps Dianna would suggest I am a bigot, as she has concluded of others. (How such a conclusion is any less ‘dehumanizing’ than the conclusion that gay sex is morally wrong, I have no idea.)

But Dianna goes one step further, suggesting that I have taken “objective reason into a space that is inherently unreasonable,” namely the nature of love. But if critically reflecting on other people’s desires is inherently dehumanizing, then sexual ethics becomes impossible as ethics.*** Is it ‘dehumanizing’ to reflect about, say, the sexual desires that two consenting brothers have for each other? Why? Or any number of other formerly deviant sexual desires? Is it dehumanizing to deliberate about the moral permissibility of using sex dolls?  On what basis can we even ask the question of what counts as a deviant sexual desire, since reflecting about another’s sexuality strips them of their humanity?

Ethical reflection requires not simply what we give ourselves permission to do, but what we will approve in the lives of others. To think otherwise is to treat ourselves as islands, isolated from each other with impenetrable walls surrounding us. But no one lives that way, even if we occasionally think that way.  Identifying what we should approve requires reasoning together, that is, talking together in a manner where we exchange reasons for our positions.

And it is just such reasoning together that Dianna candidly acknowledges her view forecloses. The “empathy” Dianna seeks is functionally approval: it is impossible on her view that a person might listen patiently, closely, and sympathetically to the stories and lives of those with same-sex sexual desires and still conclude that such desires are morally disordered. But by foreclosing the question of the permissibility of such desires, she treats her own moral outlook as immune from any “moral blind spots”: her sexual ethics cannot be self critical, because that requires the possibility of being wrong. And having staked her ‘humanity’ on this singular moral position, such that anyone who disagrees has dehumanized her, she certainly cannot bear any criticisms from outside herself. Diana’s position is a sophisticated moral solipsism, turned in on itself and no longer able to countenance dissenting opinions or reasons from the outside. It is a vicious form of moral pride, precisely because it must deny the possibility of self-deception. If this is what the confident progressive Christian account requires, conservative Christians should take hope.

There is also a considerable anthropological gap between Dianna and me that is worth highlighting. There is nothing magical about an ‘orientation’ that means the regular and stable set of sexual desires that it identifies should be exempt from moral scrutiny, as Dianna seems to think. The language of ‘orientation’ helpfully describes a phenomenon: but if the sexual content of one instance of desire is morally wrong, the mere fact that such desires are reoccurring in a person’s life does not provide any meaningful moral absolution for them, even if they so pervade a person’s self-understanding that they become a part of their identity (whatever that is).

Dianna might suggest that evaluating any sexual desire between consenting adults is “dehumanizing”, as long as such desires do not harm anyone.**** But if that is her view, it suffers from a number of problems. For one, it’s just not clear why we should accept “consent” and “harm” as sacred moral categories that we can somehow use to evaluate other people’s sexual desires while the categories I deployed are necessarily “dehumanizing.” Consent and harm offer reasons why certain sexual acts are right or wrong, after all, and for Dianna love escapes “reason.”

But consent and harm also can’t meaningfully deliver conclusions on a number of situations: they are, at the very least, way too thin to be meaningfully Christian. What of the sexual desires of two adult brothers who are seeking a fruitful, flourishing, incestuous relationship because they are experiencing great spiritual fruit in their relationship? Or the sexual desires of someone who chooses to make love to a sex doll? Or an adult pedophile who, being committed to never harming a child, creates and watches pixel-porn, digitally created child pornography that harms no one and requires no consent?  The mere fact that a person regularly experiences sexual desires for a given sex (or both sexes) tells us nothing about the moral appropriateness of those desires, and no gussying that phenomenon up with the language of ‘orientation’ or simply considering those desires through the lens of consent and harm can escape that fact.

Contra Dianna, in fact, my proposal that those who disagree with the traditional view are in some manner ‘deceived’ humanizes them by treating them as real moral agents, capable of reflection about their lives and their world and of coming to different moral conclusions than those they have reached. It dignifies their moral freedom, that is, and views them as agents with a moral character that can be formed and mal-formed regardless of whether anyone else in the world is ‘harmed’ by their desires. If anyone’s position dehumanizes those with gay or lesbian sexual desires, it is Dianna’s, for it puts an end to inquiring about the normative shape of the moral order and whether one has, in fact, arrived at the wrong conclusions about it.


Why write this now? I had said that I was not going to respond to Dianna’s piece on grounds that I didn’t think reasonable discussion was possible. Dianna affirmed my intuition on Twitter, suggesting that to try to say anything would dehumanize her further.

My motivation is that I needed to clear up a tweet that I sent out which contained the conclusion of my train of reasoning, but not the reasoning itself. I was struck by progressive Christian Rachel Held Evans’s effusive admiration for the essay. The conversation which ensued with Evans was curious, given that she went on to indicate that she appreciated Dianna’s point but seemed to prefer arguments against my view that Dianna didn’t make in the post. I confess myself at a loss now about what Evans makes of Dianna’s essay, given that she was willing to give it a ‘standing ovation’ before telling me she didn’t agree with it 100% but never signaling anything she disagrees with about the essay itself. My hope is that she misread it and did not realize that it commits her to an account of sexual ethics that is not only far more permissive than Scripture, but unremittingly hostile toward traditional Christians.

Evans’s perspective is important on these questions, of course, precisely because her audience is considerable and she is an authoritative figure in the progressive Christian world.  I suspect Evans neither likes nor agrees with the idea of completely closing down debate on this question. But Dianna and I agree about one main thing: logic can be cruel, and in this debate Dianna sees and has articulated the consequences of the progressive position on sexual ethics with a clarity and consistency we should all appreciate. Rachel has suggested in the past that Russell Moore and those like him have “suicides on our conscience” for our views; but given that, it’s hard to avoid Dianna’s position that conservatives should not be reasoned with, but shamed and shouted down. People live with inconsistencies all the time, but we shouldn't fall into the trap of making inconsistency a virtue. Progressive Christians like Evans, who are trying to leave room for conservatives within the church, may not like Dianna’s conclusions: but that is different than providing arguments for why they do not follow from positions they have already committed themselves to.


*My actual comment: "Given that Dianna says these things are outside the boundaries of reason altogether, I'm not very confident we will have a very meaningful or productive disagreement about things."

** As our last names are the same, I’m going to use her first name, in hopes she won’t take it as a sign of disrespect.

*** This was the claim which got me into such trouble on Twitter.

****Whether this is her view, I do not know. I put it here as a possibility.

Update: Dianna Anderson has responded here.  I am not going to write a full response, as given her position it is clear to me that any further conversation about this will be taken as simply reinforcing her point. Which I think proves mine.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.