Monday, June 18, 2012

Case Studies of Aesthetic Morality: Abortion and Gay Marriage

In Morality and Aesthetics, I argue that an aesthetic conception of what we ought to do should replace the moral view, since morality is as defunct as exoteric theism. The aesthetic conception includes the distinctions between ugliness and beauty, and between cliché and originality. The former distinction identifies ugliness as a startling reminder of our existential situation, including our mortality which horrifies us. The latter one amounts to the difference between conformity and rebellion, prescribing that we should resist degrading natural processes and social traditions instead of succumbing to them with no creative vision. From a broader aesthetic standpoint, each side of an issue should be appraised according to artistic standards, and then a judgment should be made as to which side is aesthetically preferable, just as though the appraiser were evaluating two paintings side-by-side in a gallery. To clarify further how the aesthetic norms would work outside of aesthetics proper (painting, sculpture, music, etc), I’d like to apply what I said to two hot-button issues: abortion and gay marriage.

The Mediocre Art of the Pro-life and Pro-choice Positions

According to what I’ll call the Rule of Infotainment’s Antithetical Relation to Philosophy, the more a philosophical issue appears in the news, the more the discussion of that issue is characterized by confusion. There are at least two reasons for this. First, when an issue is discussed not just once but repeatedly in the mainstream media, especially on the American 24-hour cable news stations (Fox, MSNBC, CNN), this indicates a high public interest in the issue, but since the majority are opposed to, or ignorant of, philosophical standards of argument, those people will degrade the discussion with their biases and fallacies. To please their audience, the news stations will dutifully reflect the public’s cognitive deficiencies, because of the second reason which is the following. As is well-known, the corporate media are currently in the business mainly of entertaining rather than investigating or educating, and so the media are more interested in pleasing the intellectually lazy members of the public than in challenging them with rigorous analyses. Both abortion and gay marriage are highly controversial and thus popular subjects of conversation, especially in socially conservative places like the US, which means that, as these issues are sliced and diced on the major cable news shows, the quality of the public discussion of them is bound to be appalling. This is certainly the case regarding abortion.

The moral issue of abortion is whether parents should be able to terminate their fetus or whether the fetus has the right to live, in which case abortion amounts to murder. Now, the expression “pro-life” is an abuse of language, one which is more clumsy than bold since the abuse is unintentional. Obviously, the issue isn’t as general as the question of life or death, since most of the anti-abortion folks are in favour of killing nonhuman animals for food and don’t contend that all animals have a moral right to live. Even the slogan “pro human life” would be a misnomer, since the anti-abortion side tends to favour war and capital punishment. The slogan “pro innocent human life” would be counterproductive, since it would call attention to the fact that whatever you think of a fetus, it’s far too early to speak of whether a person has lived well or badly, before the person has done anything. A fetus isn’t innocent as much as morally neutral, since the fetus could develop into a saint or into an evil-doer.

The reason that one side nevertheless favours the slogan “pro-life” appears to be that this slogan (very superficially) handles the primary retort which is stunningly hardly ever heard in the mainstream media. This retort is that a fetus isn’t a person, that is, a member of the species Homo sapiens--especially if we’re talking about the first trimester when the vast majority of abortions are performed in the US. The anti-abortion crowd attempts to get around this fact by pretending that the issue is only whether a fetus is alive in general--which it may well be in a biological sense, if something as simple as a virus is considered thusly alive. Pro-lifers then equivocate, shifting from talk of life to talk of human life, leaping to the conclusion that because a fetus is biologically alive (like a virus), the fetus has the right to live (like a human person). Because this fallacy is here so recklessly committed, it calls to mind our irrational nature and our slavery to instinct, to genetic manipulation, and to social pressures, which in turn remind us of our existential predicament.

Thus, the so-called pro-life side is hideous to look upon. Their hyperbolic outcries at rallies, as well as the evasive talking-points of their professional defenders are like so many grating noises from a fingernail running down a chalkboard. Their placards depicting bloody infants are shamefully irrelevant, and because those placards are created out of ignorance of the point at which most abortions occur, what’s shameful is the pro-lifers’ lack of humility, given that we’re all bound to so err at times because of our animal nature. That is to say, the anti-abortion side is guilty of the cliché of being overwhelmed by natural and social forces instead of artistically using or rebelling against them, even if only with a trace of humility or shame. 

However, the anti-abortion side makes a comeback with its theistic response that even a first trimester fetus is a human person, with the right to live, because this fetus is supernaturally linked to an immaterial spirit. At first glance, the theistic invention of the immortal spirit is a creative response to the fact of natural death. However, there’s a difference between art and delusion. Art should benefit the user by uplifting her, enabling her to overcome obstacles by opening up an elevated perspective. Delusions, or fantasies that invite a retreat rather than a transformation of natural reality, are traps that stultify rather than dignify the victim. Whether theism is aesthetically praiseworthy or delusory is a big question I won’t try to answer here. Theism’s certainly irrational, but that doesn’t settle the matter. (See Theism. And secular humanism is irrational too.) At any rate, the artistic merit of inventing the spirit (or of interpreting consciousness as being spiritual in the theistic sense) and then of assigning this essence of personhood to a speck of cells is questionable. The many fallacies sustaining theistic notions do count against theism’s artistic value, for the above reason regarding cliché. But theistic religion has clearly been crucial to social cohesion for thousands of years. It’s possible that theism once had artistic merit but that presently theism functions as a delusion, in which case the theistic notion of personhood wouldn’t save the pro-life position, after all, aesthetically speaking.

What of the so-called pro-choice side? “Pro-choice” is an interesting label since it calls attention to a weakness of the argument in favour of the choice to abort. The pro-choice side says that since a first trimester fetus isn’t a person but merely part of the woman’s body, the woman, together with her partner, have the right to choose what to do with that body part. The opponent sometimes replies that even if no fetus is actually a full-grown person, every fetus is potentially one. The pro-choicer then sometimes attempts to parody this reply by saying that sperm released from masturbation is potentially a person and so the pro-life crowd should be just as opposed to masturbation, which would be absurd.

But this parody doesn’t work, because the probabilities involved in the two cases differ by orders of magnitude: when one of the millions of sperm cells inseminates an egg and the process of conception begins, so much work has been accomplished, including the finding of a mate and the establishment of a pair bond, that the probability is very high that the fetus would develop into a person--short of a spontaneous or artificial abortion; biology deals in ceteris paribus laws, after all. Because of this high probability, a fetus is properly regarded as an early stage of the fully-formed animal. But masturbation has no such natural connection to conception; sperm by itself obviously won’t miraculously become a person. The slogan “pro-choice,” then, concedes this point about the fetus’s special status, since were the fetus more like sperm by itself, there would be no choice, in the sense of a hard decision, of what to do with the fetus. It’s only because a fetus will very probably become a person that the potential parents face a decision of which future to create, the one that includes or excludes an additional person. The moral question, then, is whether personhood extends to this still-early stage of a person.

Consider this analogy. A woman is stabbed to death while she slumbers. Is that murder? Well, the victim isn’t then actually using the faculties that make her a person with moral rights, because she’s unconscious while she sleeps. But because sleep is a normal recurrence for a person, the probability is extremely high that were she not then stabbed, she would have awoken and behaved as a semi-rational, free, and conscious person like anyone else. Granted, the probability is higher in the connection between sleeping and waking than in the development of a fetus into a full-grown human, since many factors can intervene between the stages in the latter process. But do the probabilities here differ by orders of magnitude? Just as there are natural abortions of fetuses, a person can die naturally in her sleep. Broadly speaking, though, just as a sleeper will very probably awaken and act as a person who has moral rights, if anything does, so too a first trimester human fetus (likewise a part of a process) will very probably become a person, albeit after a number of years rather than hours. If killing a sleeper is murder, why isn’t killing a human fetus?

Such are the moral quandaries which are seldom aired in canned mass media presentations of the abortion issue. But I raise them here only to get at the aesthetic merit of the pro-choice position. Given that the masturbation parody of the point about potential personhood is spurious, and thus that the choice as to whether to abort the fetus is at the very least a grave decision, if not an act of murder, whether abortion is original or clichéd, superficially appealing or off-putting, depends on how the choice is made. If a fetus is aborted because the woman is raped and doesn’t want to bear the rapist’s child, the act of abortion resists the evolutionary forces that compel the beastly male to prey on the weak and to spread his genes. That resistance is novel, a middle finger surprisingly held up to the face of Mother Nature, a condemnation of natural suffering by a self-aware being and a refusal to submit to the forces that impose that suffering. That rebellion is of the essence of modern art.

But suppose, as is more likely the case, the parents undertake the abortion with little or no appreciation of the situation’s gravity, aborting the fetus as though undergoing cosmetic surgery on a whim. Were abortion the tail-end of a process of promiscuous sex, the act of abortion would be no such creative rebellion against oppressive forces; on the contrary, the act would conform to one of the most prevalent patterns in human life, being a technological enabler of a degrading lifestyle, like birth control. Of course, individualistic societies have social revolutions which are thought to bestow rights on men and women to do what they like as long as they don’t hurt anyone else. So the received wisdom in liberal, modern societies is that if people choose to have a lot of sex, they’re perfectly entitled. And so they might well morally be were it not for the fact that morality is bunk, as determined by the same self-destructive naturalistic perspective that ushers in the social revolutions in question. Looked at aesthetically, sex is embarrassing, as I argue elsewhere. Those proud feminists who see no shame in having abortions should be as open about their sex lives to which birth control and abortion are only accomplices. When someone is proud of the freedom to abort a fetus, but secretive about the details of his or her sex life, that person’s suffering from cognitive dissonance. If you’re secretly ashamed of humping like an animal, like a puppet of mindless genes that perpetuate themselves as the undead god which is the natural cosmos unfolds to some inhuman end, you should be just as ashamed of, or at least worried about, the enablers of sex. 

To clarify, my point isn’t remotely that birth control or abortion should be banned. I’m saying just that abortion can be as conformist and thus as aesthetically unappealing as sex. When an art critic pans a work of art, the critic doesn’t try to ban the artist from producing art. Rather, the critic lays out her reasons and lets others decide what to think. Both moral and aesthetic values are separate from legal responsibility. Whether action should be taken against anyone depends on legal institutions which are intertwined as much with politics as with moral traditions. Moral or aesthetic values determine how we live our private lives, and so just because an act is morally or aesthetically dubious doesn’t mean there should be any legal or other public consequence. On the contrary, the more natural and thus inhumane a society, the greater the discrepancy between the results of its legal system and the moral or aesthetic recommendations.

What, though, is my final analysis of the two positions? Were the pro-life and pro-choice stances reduced to works of art, and were I to compare them, side-by-side in a gallery, as it were, I’d be unmoved by either of them since in neither case are the aesthetic ideals unambiguously met. Neither stance inspires me with confidence that progress can be made in alleviating our dismal condition. Granted, the pro-choice position is less objectionable, but mediocre art is closer to failure than to success. One of the more aesthetically appealing options is asceticism, which bypasses the whole issue.

Dubious Arguments Against Gay Marriage

What of the current hot topic of gay marriage? Once again, I’ll summarize the moral arguments and then aesthetically evaluate them. From a modern perspective, there is no issue of homosexuality or of gay marriage. As long as gays, lesbians, and others with unusual sexual orientations are full-fledged people, capable of rational decision-making, and they don’t harm anyone else by having long-term relationships capable of being legally regulated, the modern verdict is surely that they have the right to marry.

Opponents say that when homosexuals adopt and raise children, the children are harmed by not having a female and a male for parents. This is unlikely, though, since the practice of raising a child in a household dominated by a single mother and a father is uncommon in human history; more commonly, children have been raised by the extended family or by the man’s multiple wives, so that the child’s impression of her parents has been of a small community rather than just of mother and father figures. For thousands of years, humans have been serially monogamous or, in most cases, polygamous. Only in industrially advanced societies, in which communities are fragmented and families are cut off and dehumanized by their local portals into the world of electronic hallucinations, beamed from their TVs, computer screens, and handheld devices, has the Western social breakdown been rationalized with the notion that a child should be reared primarily by one man and one woman. Half of Western marriages end in divorce; teens in impoverished Western communities have unprotected sex at ever-younger ages; and wealthier individuals follow the European model of virtually arranging marriages to forge economic alliances and of indulging in affairs out of lust. Conservatives hold up the 1950s American fantasy of the nuclear family as the solution, whereas this fantasy is a source of the problem because it runs against the most powerful instincts.

Another argument against gay marriage is that such marriage would cheapen the heterosexual institution and further degrade the social fabric. In advanced Western countries like the US, this argument is made most frequently by conservatives who live under rocks, unaware of the postmodern state of affairs in which the younger generations are hyper-skeptical of everything under the sun, including marriage. When they do get married at all, rather than just shacking, younger Westerners tend to get married for the legal benefits, not out of respect for the saccharine metanarratives spun around the institution of marriage in romantic comedies or in ads for wedding dresses and so forth. On the contrary, just as Jesus’ alleged birthday has been taken over by businesses with purely commercial interests, the secular marriage industry is a thoroughly commercial affair. A marriage is an excuse to throw a huge, fabulously expensive party, and the materialistic pleasures of weddings would be enjoyable by the relatives, friends, and associates regardless of the married couple’s sexual orientation.

No, the true source of opposition to gay marriage is religious. The prejudice in question derives from the tribal societies that produced the Bible and the Koran and has memetically made its way to present-day ignoramuses who know half as much about their own holy scriptures as does the average atheist. Nevertheless, the fact is that the Torah, Paul’s letters, and the Koran contain statements that are unequivocally opposed to homosexual sex. Moreover, the Genesis account of Creation, common to the main monotheistic religions, allegedly lays out God’s model for human social relations: God created Adam and then he created Eve to alleviate Adam’s loneliness (“It is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen.2:18), as Yahweh says), giving the impression that men and women are supposed to be sexually intimate just with each other, leaving no room for homosexuality.

The embarrassing weaknesses of this line of argument are as shockingly numerous as are the stars in a clear night sky. First, as Jack Miles shows in God: A Biography, the notion that the Hebrew Bible presents God as a figure who even has a clue what he’s doing from the outset, let alone as an omniscient mastermind who reveals a flawless life manual for humanity, is woefully wrongheaded and refuted by nearly every biblical line. Take, for example, the creation of Adam and Eve. God makes Adam first, then Adam gets lonely, and God learns from this unsatisfactory result of his initial handiwork that he’d better improve on what he’s made, and so he creates Eve. Thus, God didn’t always have in mind the ideal of heterosexual union. Then, of course, the heterosexual pairing of Adam and Eve proves self-destructive, as the two get entangled in intrigue with the serpent, and God punishes them for their evidently flawed relationship, by condemning them to a harsher life. What this means is that the alleged biblical blueprint for human sexual relations is nothing of the kind; if anything, what we learn from Genesis is that men and women shouldn’t live together, that the ideal human relationship--if there is such a thing--is something God hadn’t conceived of when he first populated Eden with people.

As for Leviticus, Christians can naturally exploit those biblical death threats against homosexuals only with extreme prejudice and with cynical contempt for the bulk of the Bible, since they ignore the comparable laws against blasphemy, apostasy, witchcraft, adultery, and so on. On the one hand, Christians say that Jesus’ life and death made Judaism obsolete; on the other, they cherry-pick useful passages from the Jewish scriptures, purely for political reasons (in the US, the culture war distracts Republicans from their Party’s key role in maintaining the American oligarchy). These conservative Christians are thus much like the Pharisees whom Jesus condemned for being preoccupied with their position in earthly hierarchies. As for Paul’s letters, I explain why most Christians hold his teachings to be on equal ground with Jesus’, in Christian Chutzpah. Jesus was a Gnostic, Essenic hippie who was opposed to what are now called “family values,” preferring asceticism which precludes such sexual controversies as gay marriage.

Of course, the more obvious--and for more consistently-rational people, decisive--objection to the exoteric scriptural influence on any present-day social phenomenon is that there’s no good reason whatsoever to defer now to the opinions of Iron Age priests, fishermen, and raving lunatics. If the Jewish and Christian conservative “thought” is that social relations were ideal thousands of years ago, which is why we should model our society on that of the ancient Israelites’, why don’t these conservatives emigrate from modern nations like Israel or the US to impoverished, premodern zones like Afghanistan, Pakistan or large parts of India or China? These so-called conservatives want to have it both ways, taking advantage of the technoscientific fruits of modernism and longing for archaic social arrangements. But conservatives are barred from fairly having it thus, since technoscientific progress doesn’t happen in such tribal, oppressive societies. Witness much of the Muslim world, which is consistently “conservative,” or backward-looking, and duly impoverished for lack of modern advances.

Muslim conservatives at least have a modicum of intellectual integrity on their side when they rage against homosexuality. Mind you, the refutation of their religious arguments against gay marriage can come in the form of a finger pointed at the squalor of their living conditions, together with the following sort of rebuke. “If your social conservatism is so ideal for humanity, having been revealed by God, why is the more secular and liberal standard of living in the West so much higher than that in socially conservative Muslim countries? Why are modern secularists so much happier than impoverished Muslims who have memorized the Koran and who follow it to the letter, bringing them little more than a desert wasteland ruled by opulent Middle Eastern dictators? Sure, these rulers are often supported by secular Western powers, but the point remains that God would had to have foreseen that strict Islamic societies would be so easily conquered by modern liberal ones. For all the problems with modernity, the evidence on the ground is that, if anything, God favours liberal secularism, not Islamic orthodoxy, which is why Muslims are currently so frustrated that they riot at the drop of a hat.”

So much for the religious arguments against homosexual relationships. One final objection before I turn to the aesthetic evaluation: social conservatives tend to conflate biological with social laws, assuming both that God created nature, in which case biological functions are normative, and that homosexuality is biologically dysfunctional. The pseudoscientific conclusion is that gay marriage is wrong because it’s unnatural. I’ll be brief with this. First, there’s homosexuality, as well as all manner of sexual perversions, elsewhere in nature. See, for example, the recently released 1910 records on the depraved acts of certain penguins. In a moment I’ll come to the reason for the difference between the repressed conservative’s naïve outlook on sexuality and the reality of life in the wild. Second, natural laws aren’t prescriptions and so biological “functions” aren’t normative. The exoteric theistic conception of the ultimate creative force as personal is strictly for children or for adults who will be manipulated as children by wily demagogues. Thus, whatever the natural status of homosexuality, biology has no implications for how people should live; moreover, exoteric theology is incompatible with evolutionary biology, especially at the epistemological level.

Homophobia as an Aesthetic Judgment

What, though, is the natural status of homosexuality? This question brings me to the main aesthetic point I want to make about gay marriage. From all of the above, it follows that opposition to gay marriage is repugnant because the blatant cognitive defects of that opposition indicate our smallness in the universe; any creatures who could reason so poorly must be fodder for natural forces, and the social conservative’s arguments against homosexuality should thus be panned for reminding us of that sad fact about our position in nature.

But any headway a proponent of gay rights makes by so refuting the objections is undone by the vacuity of moral argumentation in the postmodern context. As for the aesthetic standing of homosexuality, then, the problem is that even though the abnormality of homosexuality doesn’t make this orientation immoral, this abnormality may leave the impression that this orientation is ugly. Now, gays can be admired for trying to improve their sociopolitical situation, for overcoming the stigma which people attach to homosexuality. Perhaps the notion of Gay Pride is politically useful, to prevent the abuse of gay people at the hands of so-called homophobic bullies. Gay Pride parades and the prevalence of gay characters in sitcoms and movies have helped to normalize those with abnormal sexual orientations. Even were homophobia a natural and aesthetically telling reaction, this reaction would go too far were it to lead to the assault or murder of gays--and it has so led. As I said above, I’m not addressing here the question of legal rights. Legally, gays can obtain the right to marry if they can empower lawmakers to write the appropriate laws. My issue here is the aesthetic status of gay marriage. 

The aesthetic problem I see with homosexuality is that the political strategies that seem necessary to improve the gay person’s precarious position in heterosexual society run counter to a realistic appreciation of how homosexuality exacerbates our existential predicament. In evolutionary terms, there may be a complicated story about how this abnormal sexual orientation is naturally selected, whether because gays somehow increase the fitness of certain heterosexual people’s genes or because homosexuality is a byproduct of some naturally selected trait. Either way, what’s evidently happened is that in the case of our species, natural forces have thrown together a majority of heterosexuals and a minority of homosexuals, supplying the former with a powerful instinct to favour heterosexual unions for the sake of spreading genes, and this instinct causes the oppression of gays. My question is whether this natural process is aesthetically pleasing or off-putting, and I suspect that the answer for most people is the latter.

This doesn’t mean that gays should stop fighting for their legal rights. But I do think much of the hostility to Gay Pride parades and to any public flaunting of gay sexuality stems from this negative aesthetic reaction to gay people’s apparent delusional celebration of their sexuality. Again, I understand how this celebration can politically empower the gay community, but it seems to have the unintended consequence of trivializing homosexuality’s existential significance. In short, gay people protest too much: when they deliriously revel in their sexuality, they act as though they had not been cursed, as it were, by mindless yet undead, naturally creative forces, to square off against biochemically-biased heterosexuals, for precisely no greater rhyme or reason.

It’s well and good to exercise willpower in the Nietzschean fashion, to overcome obstacles, putting on a brave face and affirming harsh facts. But this existential battle requires in the first place a frank, no-nonsense assessment of where you naturally stand. In all cases, that assessment causes angst and horror, because our natural situation is absurd and tragic. How we creatively improve on our existential situation proceeds from that point, but I fear that those with minority sexual orientations skip the existential reckoning with their lot and leap to baseless enthusiasm. Perhaps they’re wise to do so to prevent the victimization of gay people, but all delusions are naturally off-putting. The paradigmatic delusion is the insane person’s which indicates a fundamental detachment from reality and an escape into an imaginary world that doesn’t redeem itself by enabling an uplifting transformation of the real one. To the extent that Gay Pride resembles that sort of delusion and gay marriage is made possible by that sociopolitical movement, gay marriage is marred, aesthetically speaking. 


  1. Hi Ben, I am a big admirer of your blog but I have to say I am rather disappointed with this entry. You take for granted the existence of a homosexual gene, even though to this date no evidence of such thing has been found! In your article on the emptiness of postmodern art (and its consumers) you begin by quoting Camille Paglia from a radio interview. I wonder, are you familiar with her work? More specifically, are you familiar with her conception of homosexuality as delineated in her book Sexual Personae?

    1. Thanks for reading. I do assume there's a genetic basis for homosexuality, but it's more a presumption based on my knowledge that heterosexuality has a genetic basis. It stands to reason that if the genes can produce one kind of sexuality, they can produce another. Still, that implies only that a gay gene is possible. Whether there actually is one is, of course, an empirical question.

      I'm not familiar with Paglia's view on homosexuality, but I googled it and found that she says "No one is born gay. The idea is ridiculous...homosexuality is an adaptation, not an inborn trait." That's actually consistent with the view that homosexuality is genetic, though, since likewise no one is born heterosexual. Babies are obviously asexual, so our sexual identity at the moment of birth is irrelevant. The question is about our genetic potential, something which becomes actualized at puberty and which depends partly on our environment. In the same way, we have a genetic potential to learn a language, but if we're not put in the right environment as children, we can become feral rather than civilized.

      In any case, I don't claim to know how homosexuality is caused. What I really want to say in this article is more conditional: even IF homosexuality were entirely genetic, there would still be something wrong about gay pride. The attitude of that pride is as existentially appalling as the happiness of modern folks who should know better. I'm not saying we should be gloomy all the time, but the ways in which nature, the undead frickin god toys with us in its alien, impersonal manner isn't something for us to take pride in. A better kind of pride would be that of the transhsumanist who creatively overcomes nature in something like Nietzsche's sense. Maybe some gay folks do overcome their sexuality, or at least creatively make it their own, but most are lazily proud of what seems to be a genetic quirk or a byproduct of what the genes do best, which is to produce bodies that reproduce themselves to preserve their genetic code.