Home > Values > Science, tolerance, and homosexuality

Science, tolerance, and homosexuality

William raised some good points on my last post:

Now, as for why we gay people might be touchy about whether we are EMPIRICALLY mentally well, OR whether maybe it is just by the grace of genteel, liberal, enlightened psychologists that we can be judged morally (but perhaps not scientifically) well – you’d be touchy too! Obviously, mental illness cannot be measured in centimeters, but I believe psychologists have some objective standards concerning what mental illness is and isn’t…Homosexual is a normal variant of human sexuality. It has always existed, and baring genetic engineering to eliminate it, it always will exist. The fact that homosexuality is not a mental illness is just that: a fact. It is not a moral judgment that allows us to politely TREAT gay people as normal when in fact, we believe that the question of their mental health is just unknowable.

I think there are a few issues getting conflated here.  First, to what extent is homosexuality as mental illness an objective scientific judgment? And second, to what extend did a greater empirical and scientific understanding provide the catalyst for greater tolerance? We could agree on the first point while still recognizing that moral values as well as  science advanced the cause of tolerance.

I admit I may have overstepped the bounds of trans-science with this example, although the continued discussion at Sanchez’s post shows it’s far from settled.  I’ll punt on that issue for now to address the more interesting question of science and tolerance.

The empirical rigor provided by science may indeed help overthrow prejudice.  We can and should apply sound research methods to try reach a conclusive answer.  But we should remember that these questions are not studied in an an imaginary world by imaginary scientists.  They are studied by actual human beings, some of whom possess the very biases William tells us science can eliminate.   To believe science will set us free therefore requires us to believe that all-too-human scientists will both conduct sound experiments and interpret the data correctly.  But if the history of craniometry is any guide, we can’t be counted on to do so.  More often than not, sloppy science and faulty analysis has bolstered and supported those in favor of discrimination.  Some would argue that the pattern continues today.

Which is why I’m a little perplexed that William so opposes the notion that moral values along with science can help advance gay equality.  Yes, it may be that homosexuality is objectively not an illness and gay mental health is an empirical, knowable fact.  But it’s important to remember that it wasn’t until at least 1973 that we recognized these facts.  Until at least 1973, the best available data indicated that homosexuality was, in fact, an illness.

So wouldn’t it have been a good thing if moral judgment forced us to treat gays equally regardless of empirical data? Wouldn’t it have been a good thing if genteel, liberal, enlightened psychologists insisted before 1973 that (in Sanchez’s words) “we shouldn’t stigmatize dispositions and behaviors that are neither intrinsically distressing to the subject nor harmful, in the Millian sense, to the rest of us.” And finally, wouldn’t it have been a good thing if we realized that tolerance is an intrinsic good that should not be held hostage to the vagaries of an ever-changing scientific consensus?

William is ultimately too eager to embrace science and too quick to dismiss morality in the service of gay equality.  Both can play a role, and if Sanchez is correct, both did play a role. Admitting this does not undermine the case for tolerance.  Rather, it recognizes that some things in life are too important to be left to science alone.  Opposing discrimination is one of them.

Categories: Values
  1. June 15, 2010 at 8:06 am

    I agree with you that because science is conducted/funded/interpreted by humans, it will inherently be biased. That’s how we humans roll! I also agree that moral values in and of itself should be a good enough reason to give everyone equal rights because frankly, the biases that exist in interpreting scientific results will really muddle things. For example, there has been this hunt for a “gay gene” (a hunt initiated by a gay scientist). Finding this gene will allow the gay population to say “See? It’s not a choice, we can’t just switch it on or off, so stop trying to demand that we change to fit society’s heterosexual norms.” But it also opens up the grouping of homosexuality with other genetic “mutations” like Downs Syndrome or Tay-Sachs disease, subject to genetic engineering and perhaps becoming worse than a mental illness, but a full blown disease. In the arena of human civil rights, sometimes science should take a back seat to moral values.

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