I began reading Ayn Rand in my early 20s. I wasn’t a very happy person at the time. But, I had always enjoyed reading, and at some point I started reading philosophy books that I picked at random from whatever they had at the bookstore. One day, the random book I picked was “For the New Intellectual”. I still vividly remember sitting in a car outside Bookstop laughing out loud with elation as I read those first few wonderful pages.
Several books later, I had explicitly accepted the basic principles of Objectivism, and this forced me to act. I quit my recreational drug use, ended some unhealthy friendships, quit my crappy job, went through a training program, and got a new job that paid much better and that I actually enjoyed doing. Once I accepted that my highest moral purpose was my own long-term happiness, I had no choice but to turn my life around. It was a direct result of adopting the correct philosophical principles.
It never occurred to me that being gay might be inconsistent with those principles, but I later discovered that Ayn Rand clearly thought it was. In a question and answer session at Ford Hall Forum, Rand stated that all forms of homosexuality are immoral,
because it involves psychological flaws, corruptions, errors, or unfortunate premises. But there is a psychological immorality at the root of homosexuality. Therefore, I regard it as immoral, but I do not believe that the government has the right to prohibit it… Morally, it is immoral. And more than that, if you really want my sincere opinion, it’s disgusting.
Now, there are plenty of sexual acts people engage in that I think are disgusting, and it doesn’t particularly bother me if someone, even Rand, thinks mine are. To each his own. However, the question of morality is vitally important to me – as it is to anyone who takes ethics seriously, especially one who considers himself a student of Objectivism.
Unfortunately, Rand never explained her thinking on this issue in detail. In my own thinking, I couldn’t make the connection between the principles of Objectivism and the immorality of homosexuality. How did the hierarchy of concepts lead to this conclusion? The immorality of other parts of my former life – using drugs to escape reality, wasting my ability in an easy job – was obvious to me, and so I changed. But the connection to my sexuality was not so obvious.
Even after many years I still hadn’t figured out this puzzle, but I discovered two books on the subject. The first is “Ayn Rand, Homosexuality, and Human Liberation” by Chris Matthew Sciabarra. This book claims to “reclaim [Rand's] legacy for a human liberation that is open to all rational men and women – of whatever sexual orientation.” The second book is “The Hijacking of a Philosophy – Homosexuals vs Ayn Rand’s Objectivism” by Reginald Firehammer, which is basically a rebuttal of the first.
I ordered both of these books from Amazon, and recently I finally got around to reading them. I’d like to use this post to get my thoughts down, and I’d be very interested in any feedback from others who are interested in this topic.
I started reading the Sciabarra book hoping to find within its pages a clear statement of why homosexuality is consistent with Objectivism – or at least why it isn’t inconsistent with it. Unfortunately, the book doesn’t contain any logical argument to make this case. It recounts the opinions of various prominent Objectivists on whether homosexuality is moral or immoral, relates the experiences of various gays in their interactions with other students of Objectivism, and discusses today’s changing attitudes toward homosexuality. But nowhere does anyone present any detailed philosophical argument on why being gay is consistent with the principles of Objectivism. Obviously, I was quite disappointed with the book.
I started reading the Firehammer book with low expectations, and initially, those expectations were justified. At first the book covers tired old territory, asserting that being gay is a choice. I began to fear I had a very long, unpleasant read ahead of me. Then it launches into a series of criticisms of the Sciabarra book. I actually found myself agreeing with much of this part of the book. Finally, I reached a chapter called “What’s Wrong with Homosexuality” and a section called “Mission Concepts”. This is where Firehammer plainly explains his argument. Most of the book could have been distilled down to the next 18 pages.
I will try to summarize his argument here, though the risk of misrepresenting the thesis of an entire book in a brief summary is pretty high. I very much encourage anyone truly interested to read the book for themselves.
First, Firehammer’s argument relies on the idea that homosexuality is a choice. To the extent that something is metaphysically given, it is not a moral issue. Firehammer argues that even if homosexual desire is not a choice (though Firehammer repeatedly argues that even that is a choice), the choice to act on that desire is, and thus the act of having gay sex is a moral issue. Obviously, no student of Objectivism would argue that one’s actions should be based on desire – emotion cannot justify an action, only reason can. Let me quote from page 81,
We have already shown there is no such predetermined orientation, but even if there were, it would not justify any chosen behavior. If there were such an orientation, it would only be an inclination, a tendency, a ‘felt’ preference, a passion or an emotion. If tendencies, preferences, inclinations, and ‘orientations’, justified choices, on that grounds, necrophilia, pedophilia, bestiality, and self-mutilation must all be considered, ‘other orientations’, and perfectly justified and normal.
I have no real disagreement with this part of his argument. Of course, I think my sexual orientation (Firehammer thinks “sexual orientation” is a false concept, but I’m having trouble finding a replacement term) is not a choice. Pardon the graphic explanation, but I have never been able to choose who will get me sexually aroused. They are invariably men and not women. Not all men do, but everyone who does is a man. It is more than a simple ‘preference’ – I physically cannot have sexual intercourse with a woman unless perhaps I filled myself with Viagra. Of course, I do not automatically have sex with anyone who gets me aroused – that part is a choice, and thus falls under the province of morality. If by saying “homosexuality is a choice” you mean “having sex with others of the same sex is a choice”, then I agree.
The second part of Firehammer’s argument rests on the idea that homosexuality is not “normal”. In this context, Firehammer defines “normal” as “that behavior which is appropriate to the nature of an organism.” Let me quote a few important paragraphs. Then I will point out how I think Firehammer gets tripped up on this point.
Since normal behavior is automatically provided by instinct for all other creatures, only man must discover what the requirements of his nature are and what behavior is appropriate (normal) to that nature.
Normal use of our body’s organs is based on their natural function – normal use includes any use that conforms to an organ’s natural function or functions, including any harmless variations and extensions of those functions, but excludes any use that is opposite or contradictory to their natural function and any use that is harmful to the organs themselves or to the body in general. Since the genitals are provided to carry out sexual intercourse, everything about their nature will be to successfully perform that act.
Physiologically, those organs have the exact characteristics required for carrying out that act successfully, including the fact that it is simultaneously beneficial and harmless.
The only way they can be used outside the heterosexual context is in some way that contradicts their natural function and is both dangerous and harmful.
For an explicit example: the female vagina walls are several cells thick, ‘designed’ for sexual intercourse. The walls of the anus are only one cell thick, and easily damaged. The anus is not a sexual organ and has one specific natural function, the dispelling of waste. The common practice of male homosexuals called ‘anal intercourse’, is an opposite, contradictory, and harmful use of the anus, and a totally abnormal use of the male sex organs.
I’ll return to the issue of physical harm shortly, but here I want to focus on the idea that bodily organs must be used for their natural function. There are a few questions here that I wish Firehammer had explicitly addressed, because I am very curious if he really takes this argument to its logical conclusion – that all anal sex and even oral sex between a man and a woman is abnormal, and thus immoral. After all, the mouth is not a sexual organ – it has a specific natural function that has nothing to do with sex. Oral sex is not generally harmful, but that’s not the main point of this part of the argument – the point is that using the mouth to perform a sexual act “contradicts its natural function”. That’s what makes it “abnormal”, and he explicitly states that it is immoral to act in an abnormal way – that is, in a way that contradicts one’s nature.
I find this argument… hard to swallow (couldn’t resist that one). Just because a mouth has the “exact characteristics” required for eating and drinking, are we to limit human creativity by ruling out its use in a sexual context since that isn’t its “natural function”? I think not, and I wish Firehammer had explained his position on this point in more detail. This is not a convincing argument.
The third and final major leg of Firehammer’s argument is that “homosexuality is physically detrimental to those that practice it.” He cites the increased risk of STDs, rectal trauma, anal cancer, etc in men, and breast cancer, bacterial vaginosis, etc in women. This is the most convincing part of his argument because, of course, it’s true. There’s plenty of scientific evidence documenting the dangers of gay sex. Of course, this also implies that truly safe gay sex would not be immoral. For instance, what if two gay men with no diseases have only safe oral sex in a monogamous relationship?
Is this the only real moral challenge to homosexuality – the physical danger? Back on page 26, Firehammer admits, “It is certain those aspects of homosexual practice that are obviously immoral, irrational, and self-destructive, are not typical, if exhibited at all, among Objectivist homosexuals.” Indeed. This leads me to conclude that if I’ve minimized the physical danger, this really is not a very big moral issue, if it’s an issue at all. Ultimately, the book’s weak support of its main thesis leaves me with a stronger conviction that homosexuality is not inconsistent with Objectivism after all. The book actually comes across as more of a criticism of the Sciabarra book than of homosexuality as such.
While I do not agree with his overall thesis, I found the Firehammer book fairly helpful. He does make some disappointing mistakes along the way, such as trotting out the old faithful (and I’m paraphrasing here) “homosexuals don’t reproduce and thus there can’t be an evolutionary benefit”. He would do well to read some evolutionary theory such as Richard Dawkins’ work, which would help him avoid such mistakes on this topic. But overall, I liked this book because it attempted an answer to the question that’s been bugging me for years.
I can’t agree or disagree with the Sciabarra book because it doesn’t contain an argument. The Firehammer book does contain a specific logical argument, and though I disagree with its ultimate conclusion, that makes it a far more useful and interesting book.
There’s a lot more I could say about different parts of both books, but if I keep going, this post is going to turn into a book. I’ll probably return to this topic in a future post.