Thursday, August 13, 2015

Homosex, Slavery, and Self-Ownership: A Dilemma

On the traditional view, Christianity stood out from pagan Rome (in part) because Christians held that sex outside of a one man, one woman marriage was sinful.  In fact sexual sins seem to be of the mortal variety: If persisted in, the unhinged power of sexuality leads to the spiritual death of one's very soul.

But the traditional view has currently fallen on hard times (at least in the West.)  Christians who promote gay marriage typically think that there is nothing morally problematic with homosex.  If pressed, they will admit that on the best historical evidence, the early church believed that homosex was immoral.  Still, those Christians were not in the same (enlightened) position that we are today.  They didn't know that homosexuality was biologically determined (it's not, but let's play along).  They hadn't considered the possibility of two loving homosexuals being in a committed and exclusive relationship (ancient writers before them certainly had, but let's run with it).  And so forth.

And now to the point of this post. Just consider the New Testament view on slavery, they say.  Nothing in the Bible seems to forbid slavery.  Moreover it seems as if, even though the basic trajectory of the Bible is moving towards the abolition of slavery, at the time it was written, it was condoned.  Yet of course we know today that slavery is wrong.  In fact, slavery is intrinsically wrong.  We are privileged today in a way that those in antiquity were not.  (An unsympathetic reader, following a line from C.S. Lewis, might call our new-found vantage point "chronological snobbery;" a more sympathetic reader drawing on its Caucasian cousin might call our viewpoint, "Western Privilege.")

So one thesis of Christians who liken the homosexual sex issue to slavery is that slavery is intrinsically wrong.  Let this be Thesis #1.

But it is not enough to note that slavery is intrinsically wrong to show that there is good reason for thinking that homosex is permissible and all things considered, good.  Why, then, do Christians who promote gay marriage think that homosex is morally permissible (and even morally good and praiseworthy)?  Why not think that slavery is wrong but homosex (adultery, incest, etc.) is as well? 

One of the primary defenses one comes across also involves a plank quite common in a defense of abortion: Just as women have a right to do what they want with their own bodies, so too do all people have a right to do what they want with their bodies.  Now, of course, a sensible person holding such a view will soon note that there are restrictions on what one can do with one's body.  It's not permissible that I grab an axe with my hand and whack you over the head with it, and so on, and so forth.  In fact, since most (if not everything) we do is something we do with our bodies, in order to have some normative bite, we need to supplement the account with a deeper principle which explains the general intuition that one can do what one wants, more or less, with one's body.

How might such an account proceed?  Here is one avenue: The reason one can do what one wants more or less with one's own body is because one owns one's body just as one owns oneself.  The reason I cannot whack you over the head with an axe is because you own your head and your neck.  The reason you cannot slip me drugs in my drink is because I own my body and have not consented to drugs being in my drink and then in my body.

Let this be Thesis #2: The reason why (e.g.) it is wrong for you to harm me is because I own my body and have not consented to harm.  The reason why (e.g.) it is permissible to have homosexual sex is because two (or more) people own their bodies and have consented to homosexual sex.

Now we have the makings for a dilemma.  On the one hand, it is held (by some Christians currently under consideration) that slavery is intrinsically wrong--that is, there are no circumstances in which it is permissible.  On the other hand, homosexual sex and all sexual activities are permissible if they are between two people who own their bodies and who have consented to such activity.

But the problem with this view is that, if the self-ownership thesis were correct, slavery would not be intrinsically wrong.  For as Robert Nozick infamously (or famously) argues, if one owns one's body, then one can voluntarily consent to being a slave.  If I own my body--and there is nothing more to my rights with respect to my body beyond my ownership of it--I can legitimately sell myself into slavery.  I can give you the right to own me.  And if I voluntarily give you the right to own me, then it is not impermissible that I am your slave.  This, of course, is not to deny that slavery is wrong for other reasons, especially in cases where one does not sell oneself into slavery (which obviously would be most if not all cases). 

But if one thinks that the self-ownership thesis undergirds why slavery is wrong, then slavery is not intrinsically wrong. 

So either the self-ownership thesis must go if slavery is thought to be intrinsically wrong, or the defense of sexual acts which relies on the self-ownership thesis must go (or both).  If the self-ownership thesis is rejected, we need another account of why it's permissible for any two consenting individuals (gay, brother-sister, etc.) to engage in sex.

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