In reading Scott Alexander’s generally-fascinating take on political tribalism and false tolerance, I was struck by this claim:
Some of it [political tribalism] is certainly genetic – estimates of the genetic contribution to political association range from 0.4 to 0.6. Heritability of one’s attitudes toward gay rights range from 0.3 to 0.5, which hilariously is a little more heritable than homosexuality itself.
In other words, he’s saying that the gay marriage opponent has a stronger genetic basis to say “I was born this way” than does the practicing homosexual. I was surprised, and more than a little skeptical, by this claim, so I did a little digging.
Unsurprisingly, there’s a good deal of controversy over the extent that your genes influence your views on homosexuality (and other moral or political questions), but plenty of studies have suggested that genes play some role. “Genetic and Environmental Influences on Individual Differences in Attitudes Toward Homosexuality: An Australian Twin Study,” published in the May 2008 issue of Behavior Genetics, concludes:
In summary, this study concerning the aetiology of homophobic attitudes revealed that familial aggregation in attitudes toward homosexuality is accounted for by genes as well as by shared environmental factors. However, when the plausible effect of assortative mating on our estimates is taken into account, familial aggregation for homophobia scores might be almost totally accounted for by genetic effects.
That is, these researchers concluded that genetics was the major factor behind what they term “homophobia.” Even if that (as I suspect) over-estimates or exaggerates the role of genetics, it seems fair to say that (1) genetics play a role in your personality and disposition, and (2) your personality and disposition play a role in how you view moral and political questions.
The researchers, without any sense of irony, openly side against traditional views of sexuality and marriage, saying:
Homophobia can be defined as ‘the fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against homosexuality or homosexuals’ (Merriam–Webster’s Medical Dictionary 2007). Although the social and cultural status of homosexuality has improved, Kite and Whitley (1996) concluded from their meta-analyses of 112 studies that many heterosexuals still hold very negative attitudes toward homosexuals and their sexual behaviour.
Both in describing the cultural shift on homosexuality as an “improvement” for “the social and cultural status of homosexuality,” and writing off the traditional views as “homophobia” (a politically-loaded pseudo-diagnosis that falsely clinicalizes moral and political views), the researchers make it clear that they think people are wrong to hold to these “homophobic” views. But they’ve just established that there’s a genetic component, which produces a bizarre result: it’s morally wrong for you to act on moral beliefs that you’re genetically disposed to about homosexuality, because homosexuals are genetically disposed to that behavior?
Such a conclusion is absurd: if it’s wrong to oppose homosexuality because certain people are “born that way,” then it’s even worse to oppose “homophobia,” since even more people are “born that way,” and the genetic link is stronger.
All of this shows points to a deeper problem. For short-term political gain, those favoring gay marriage adopted a dangerous argument: that certain behaviors are morally licit (or at least, outside of the realm of moral or political evaluation) because they’re rooted in genetics. One problem with that deterministic view is that all sorts of things, from sexual proclivity to racism to alcoholism to violence, have a genetic component. Or to put it in plainer English, some people are more naturally prone to certain behaviors than other people.
We’ve always known this, long before we knew anything about genetics. But it’s never been a get-out-moral-evaluation-free card that make your behaviors immune from criticisms. Because even if you’re biologically inclined to want to sleep with someone, you still have a moral decision to make in acting upon that impulse, or resisting it. That’s true whether we’re talking about homosexuality, fornication, adultery, or sex between spouses.
A deeper problem with determinism is that it’s self-refuting. You can’t coherently write everyone else’s beliefs and behaviors off as the mechanics of genetics. To do so would be to implicitly hold that your own beliefs (including your belief in determinism) are mindlessly determined.
Alasdair MacIntyre explains the core problem in After Virtue:
It is clear that the Enlightenment’s mechanistic account of human action included both a thesis about the predictability of human behavior and a thesis about the appropriate ways to manipulate human behavior. As an observer, if I know the relevant laws governing the behavior of others, I can whenever I observe that the antecedent conditions have been fulfilled predict the outcome. As an agent, if I know these laws, I can whenever I can contrive the fulfillment of the same antecedent conditions produce the outcome. What [Karl] Marx understood was that such an agent is forced to regard his own actions quite differently from the behavior of those whom he is manipulating. For the behavior of the manipulated is being contrived in accordance with his intentions, reasons and purpose; intentions, reasons, and purposes which he is treating, at least while he is engaged in such manipulation, as exempt from the laws which govern the behavior of the manipulated. [….] And that imprinting [of the agent’s will on nature or society] he will treat, as Marx saw, as the expression of his own rational autonomy and not the mere outcome of antecedent conditions.
So we’re either left with two possibilities. First, we can buy genetic determinism. In this case, person A is actively homosexual simply because he’s genetically prone to, and we can’t evaluate that action positively or negatively. But if that’s the case, person B is actively hostile to homosexuals simply because he’s genetically prone to, and we can’t evaluate those actions positively or negatively, either. And our own belief in genetic determinism is simply a belief that we’re genetically prone to, so we can’t evaluate our beliefs positively or negatively.
The other view is to recognize human free will. Yes, human freedom is impacted by our genetics, our family upbringing, our past and present social environment, and our own past choices. But person A still retains the power to act on, or resist, his sexual impulses, just as person B retains the power to act on, or resist, his aversion to homosexuals.
It’s an injustice — and frankly, dehumanizing — to reduce either the homosexual or the “homophobe” to the sum of their genes. Both of them have human agency. But that also means that their freely-chosen actions (whether to fornicate with a member of the same sex, or to mistreat someone based upon sexual orientation) are morally evaluative. We can judge their behaviors, and it’s no excuse (or at least, not much of one) to plead that they were born that way. So please, abandon the cheap “Born This Way” rhetorical ploy unless you’re willing to extend it to “homophobes,” too.