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Jul 16 2008

Natural and unnatural lifestyles

I recently had a discussion with someone whom I had known well growing up in Sri Lanka and who was visiting the US. She asked me my opinion about the recent highly publicized raid by the Texas Child Protective Services on the compound where polygamous Mormon families lived. All the children were separated from their parents by the Texas CPS on the basis of a single anonymous phone call alleging that sexual abuse of a minor had occurred. The decision by the CPS was first upheld in the lower court but an appeals court overthrew the verdict saying that you could not separate children from their parents without finding specific cause in each individual case. The CPS then appealed to the Texas Supreme Court but they lost and were ordered to reunite the children with their parents.

I responded that I agreed with the appeals courts. In my view the child welfare authorities had gone completely overboard and had resorted to such drastic action because the targeted community was a polygamous one and thus was disapproved of by the authorities. They would not have dreamed of entering a village of monogamous, heterosexual couples and separated all the children from their parents on the basis of a single anonymous and unsubstantiated allegation of child abuse. I personally have no problem with the practice of polygamy and think it absurd that we are still trying to regulate by law those things that should be strictly the private concern of individuals.

My visitor from Sri Lanka also asked me my views about gay marriage and the adoption of children by gay people. I said that I had no problems with this practice either and that the kind of prejudice that exists against polygamists was also at play when people argued against the adoption of children by gay couples.

She made the point that the adopted children of gay couples or the children of polygamous families might suffer harm from the stigma associated with their families’ nontraditional lifestyles, and thus such arrangements might not be in the best interests of the children. In addition, she suggested that the lifestyles of these people were not ‘natural’ and that was why it may be appropriate to discourage them by treating them differently.

One hears these arguments all the time, that the norm is that marriage is between one man and one woman and that anything else is deviant behavior, worthy of disapproval, if not outright banning.

To counter this, some people try to argue that such nontraditional lifestyles are ‘natural’ because parallels can be found to occur in nature, that nonhuman animals often practice homosexuality or have multiple partners. In addition, there is currently some evidence that homosexuality is at least partly genetic and thus influenced by biology and is thus not a free choice. Such studies are used by gay rights advocates to support the view that homosexuality is as natural as heterosexuality.

I frankly do not see the point of this argument. Whether some behavior is acceptable or not should not depend on whether it occurs ‘naturally’ (i.e., spontaneously) in nature or whether it is encoded in our genes. After all we, as humans, do any number of things that are not found in nature or are in defiance of our genetic drives. Practically our whole lives involve activities that do not have analogs in the animal kingdom. That is because we have developed language and culture and technology that enable us to be social animals capable of functioning at a highly abstract level and make collective decisions. Furthermore, there are lots of things going on in the animal kingdom (killing, cannibalism, forcible sex, infanticide, among others) that we consider unacceptable behavior. The idea that we should take our moral cues from the nonhuman animal world seems bizarre. We would not accept a defense of murder, for example, that argues that it is ok because animals do it to each other.

It seems to me that the evolved ability to converse and create culture enables us to transcend out biological drives, to be more than our instincts. Because of our ability to converse and arrive at agreed-upon norms of behavior, we can develop general principles as to what is acceptable and what is not that are independent of whether other animals do similar things. The principle of ‘justice as fairness’ advocated by John Rawls in his book A Theory of Justice seems like the kind of thing we should be seeking to order our lives and society, not borrowing from animal behavior.

So if it turns out that future research shows that there is no genetic basis whatsoever for homosexuality and that it is purely a matter of choice, so what? As long as they are not harming others, why is it of any concern to me if other people choose partners of the same sex or opposite sex? As for the argument that adopted children of gays or the children of polygamous families might suffer from the stigma, the only reason there is a stigma at all is because the rest of us have an intolerant view of such lifestyles. It is we who have a problem and who should change, not them.

Similarly, if a woman decides that she wants to marry three husbands and they all freely consent, why should I care? If for whatever reason, two men and three women decide that they would like to all be married to each other and live together as a single family unit, they won’t get any objection from me.

I think my relative was a little startled by my views. Since I have lived in the US for about three decades, many of the people I grew up with in Sri Lanka have little idea of my thinking on many issues and these often come as a surprise to them. She did ask if my views have changed as I have got older and I had to agree. As I age, I have become more and more accepting of the lifestyle choices made by others. Perhaps it is because I have an increasing sense that life is a precious gift that we each possess for just a short time and thus people should not be denied the harmless pleasures that life affords.

As long as decisions are being freely made by consenting adults and do not harm others, people should be free to choose whatever lifestyles that suits their needs.

What surprises me is that such a viewpoint is not more universally held.

POST SCRIPT: Solar powered car

See the video of a completely solar-powered car that is on a round-the-world trip without using a single drop of gas. It has already been to 27 countries and the US is the 28th. Quite amazing.

(Thanks for the link to my daughter Dashi who was lucky enough to actually see the car in Berkeley, California and listen to a presentation by its inventor Lewis Palmer, a Swiss schoolteacher.)

9 comments

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  1. 1
    A Nonny Mouse

    Mano,

    While I greatly agree with your result, I wonder a bit at your method. You appears to argue that the basis for societal decision is whether it causes harm on and individual basis. While I don’t disagree that such is a significant component, it appears to me that the decision should also take into account what the result is for the society.

    For instance, there has been argument about the health insurance industry and the damage they will likely take based on genetic testing. While a deep understanding of the many facets of the effects on health industry alone is beyond my current knowledge, much less the result in a larger basis, should we be in a position to protect an industry against scientific discovery because the company has the protection of an individual and can present demonstrable harm? Wouldn’t we be better served by instead reviewing whether the results of discovery improve the societies longevity, health, balance of wealth, and maybe happiness and be open to letting go something that is no longer needed?

  2. 2
    James

    Mouse,

    You present an interesting conundrum about genetic testing and the health insurance industry. On the one hand, it might very well lead to unfair discrimination based on the remote possibilities of diseases/problems an insured might contract.

    But playing devil’s advocate on the other hand, why shouldn’t the insurance industry be allowed to be more specific (with enough oversight and open standards) in how they choose to insure/not insure their clients? We already get dinged on fairly generalized probabilities regarding driving habits, gender and age, why not tailor it to specific individual habits (via yearly checkups) and genetic info? Say my family has a history of heart disease, but I lead a healthy lifestyle, get plenty of exercise and yearly physicals show this. Wouldn’t it give the insurance provider a far more accurate model of me to base their cost on? (On a slight tangent, this may also encourage people to get yearly checkups if there is a possibility to lower premiums)

    While there will certainly be issues regarding abuse of this information (which is why I would only accept it with satisfactory oversight and transparency), knowing more about what problems plague our citizens’ health seems like it would benefit our society more than hurt it.

    Sorry for taking your post onto a tangent, Mano, I just thought Mouse presented an interesting question on methodology regarding societal decisions. =)

  3. 3
    A Nonny Mouse

    Mano,

    I also apologize, for continuing the tangent.

    James,

    While you are correct, or at least I agree, that part of the solution to the health industry conundrum is a greater amount of information as a person’s genetics amount to a single parameter of a likely nonlinear and potentially intractable problem, the likelihood of personal gain by fitness or doctor feedback seems unlikely to me until and unless an insurance deal is between policy holder & insurance company without a middleman of employer. Potentially a single-payer system run by a government or other entrusted body could implement it, but the gaming of such a set up for abuse becomes far easier. Moreover unless the new modeling allows a provably correct reduction in projections on future costs, this would run into the problem that insurance is set up for those who don’t need the payout to partially repay for those who need more than paid in.

    Regardless, I had used that as the first example to mind only. I was wondering more at whether the judgement that harm has been caused must or even should be on an individual basis.

  4. 4
    Mano

    Mouse and James,

    Don’t worry about going off on tangents – they are often more interesting than the original topic!

    As to the question raised, my post was about personal lifestyles and so I am at a bit of a loss as to what the concern is about the impact on society. I think I am missing something in the argument. Can either of you clarify?

  5. 5
    Greg

    Hi Manu,

    It’s very easy for people to attached a stigma against homosexuals as they are a minority. Throughout history people in power have used minorities to place all of society’s problems. I think that in the case of homosexuals it mainly comes from the people who have their own insecurities about their sexuality and go overboard in their attempts to prove their masculinity. They can’t think past what consequences their hateful and bigoted messages bring. A climate of hatred, fear and blame is created especially when people with influence or power do it. They also find backup to their hate from the bible which has a verse that promotes death and violence against homosexuals.

    However… I do not believe they base their anti-gay views from the bible as there are numerous things that it declares capital punishment for too. If it were purely because the bible says so then why aren’t they promoting capital punishment for disobedient sons, woman who are virgins when they marry, etc? I’m convinced it is just used as a cover to help them attack a minority without giving away their true reasoning or insecurities. As well as giving them a “holier than thou” mentality that in their mind justifies their actions.

  6. 6
    A Nonny Mouse

    Mano,

    Perhaps I’m confusing issues, but your post appeared (when I read it) to indicate how aspects of sexuality, marriage, and perhaps other issues should be judged. It seemed implicit to me that this was an argument that would be made as a societal judgement such that a person could disapprove of another’s actions, but no law would be passed unless harm was being done. Maybe I’m misinterpreting your point.

  7. 7
    Mano

    Mouse,

    Yes, that is right. No one can stop people from approving or disapproving other people’s chosen lifestyles. An issue only arises if they try to prevent them from doing so, legally or otherwise.

  8. 8
    Sam Rees

    Being polyamorous, I get these stigmas alot. That somehow I don’t love my girlfriend of 18 months as much because we each can have (and do, depending) long term meaningful relationships with others. I personally am very curious on what kind of brain chemistry (or is it all social?) has made monogamy the norm.

    Some people have told me they can only have one serious relationship at a time, which I understand. I just would expect mono/poly people would be split in a more 75/25 ratio or similar. But then I wouldn’t expect the percentage of atheism to be so low either.

  9. 9
    Mano

    Sam,

    I don’t think it is brain chemistry as such. It is partly genetic, since fathers benefit from knowing who carries their genes, and monogamy enables that. Also, it makes property rights inheritance more orderly. A society that prizes private property needs a system to clearly decide who gets what. Polygamous societies complicate both these things.

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