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The Possibility of a “Third Thing” Between Society and Biology

March 7th, 2010 | 2 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

David Schaengold has a fascinating post up over at Ordinary Gentlemen (one of the most interesting spots on the internets) that examines the steps our social views on homosexuality have undergone.  He writes:

This response further solidifies the reality of an identity constituted by a permanent, unchosen desire, and in seeking to make the object of hatred an object of compassion brings the object further into being.

With regard to homosexuality we are still undergoing the third step in the process, which is the move from twinned compassion and hatred for a group constituted by pathological desire to tolerance of a group constituted, like racial groups, by a merely superficial difference from the norm.

I haven’t (yet) done an extensive study of history of homosexuality either, but offhand it strikes me that the central argument not only for gay marriage has been grounded in the premise that gay desires are just as “natural” as heterosexual desires–which is to say, biologically determined and hence not culpable.

At least that’s one side of it.  The more popular position in academic circles seems to be the Foucauldian one:  all sexual behaviors are cultural constructs, or ‘discourse all the way down.’  In this framework, homosexual behavior are resisting the ‘normativity’ of cultural heterosexism, the arbitrary nature of which precludes any claim to moral objectivity.

Schaengold’s piece focuses on the former strategy, and he’s right that there isn’t really room for a slippery slope toward pedophilia. But the parallel at least highlights that demonstrating the biological basis of homosexual desires isn’t enough to justify their licitness.

In that sense, biology isn’t morality.  At least not without some additional argumentation.

But this is where the language seems to matter, as the arguments for homosexual marriage depend upon rights, consent, and adults. And ‘adults’ almost always takes on some sort of biological explanation, which there is some evidence to suggest may be more dictated by cultural norms than any of us might like to accept.

The confluence of rights-language with the stripped down biology is near the core of the failure of natural law arguments against gay marriage (and against gay sex).  Fundamentally, natural law arguments depend upon the existence of a third thing which isn’t biology and isn’t culture or society.  For the Robert George crowd, that third things are principles that are self-evidently known and are tied to the structure of creation.  More traditional natural lawyers point toward non-reductive accounts of natures.

But both of those point to something beyond individual rights that ground moral behavior (and social norms).  Without them, rights-language becomes untethered from its moorings and is reduced to the assertion any desire we have should be protected.

There’s more to be said on this, to be sure.  But that’s enough for tonight.  Mostly, I was trying (in vain, no doubt) to keep you around for a while before moving on to other exciting and intelligent confabs.

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.