Sunday, June 18, 2006

Sexual Orientation and Personhood

From more than one speaker on the Anglican right one hears the canard that while there are homosexual actions and inclinations, such orientation is not truly a matter constituting the person--and you might even hear various therapies purporting to instill heterosexual orientation alluded to as evidence. Indeed, over at Whitehall recently I read this:

The notion that a homosexual orientation is a "part of who gays are" is a diabolical lie. Sexual attraction, homo or hetero, is not a part of who anyone is fundamentally. That would mean that without that homo or hetero inclination, they would stop being who they are. But that is incoherent. If I stop or start having a particular sexual inclination (a.k.a. "orientation"), I won't thereby stop or start being Father WB. On this score, +Robinson, +Griswold and co. need to go back and take a crash course on Aristotelian Metaphysics. That's not something I would normally recommend, but I think it would really help in their cases.

I was struck by how confident--note the grave phrase "diabolical lie"--the author was that Aristotle would support this take on sexual orientation. True enough, there may be no Attic for "sexual orientation", but the author is not making that kind of merely linguistic point. He has a sense of what a person is presumably issuing from Aristotle's metaphysics, and according to his view, sexual orientation has no part in what a person is. It is accidental, like sitting down or being six feet tall. That is, one can lose an accident--standing up from having been seated--and retain one's personal identity. Griswold and company, taking sexual orientation as necessary for retaining identity, are thus mistaken.

Pace the fact there is no contemporary consensus around what makes for our apparent persistence--we are talking Aristotle here. What of it? Does Whitehall have a good case? I fear not. In short, he has too thin and abstract a notion of personhood to fit in with what Aristotle has to say.

In his ethics, Aristotle makes heavy use of the notion of a habit or disposition (i.e. hexis)--for instance both virtues like courage and vices like cowardice are types of habits. Given a capacity for a given habit, one acquires the habit through repetition. Thus, one is not born virtuous or vicious all at once at birth. Rather, one's moral character is formed over time--indeed, must be formed over time if it is to be formed at all. We cannot attain our telos or proper end--arete or moral excellence--outside of a long process of performing actions guided by desire; there are many other necessary conditions on attainig arete. But if we act and desire well, in time we acquire virtuous character, which is to say we become virtous persons, attaining moral excellence.

What is the point of my thumbnail sketch of Aristotle's ethics? I want you to see that given an ontology of habits and dispositions, sexual orientation can indeed constitute personhood. That is, a homosexual orientation, confirmed by repeated action guided by homosexual desire, produces a habit in the agent, effecting a change in him or her by supplying a metaphysical entity--the disposition--that goes to constitute his or her character. Inasmuch as character in part constitutes personhood, and character is constituted in part by sexual orientation, lo and behold: personhood is constituted in part by sexual orientation.

The only plausible way to stop this deduction would be to cut personhood off from character--but what would become of personhood so conceived? I venture to say we would no longer be talking about actual persons, but an abstraction or a universal of some sort. Sticking with what constitutes actual persons means admitting actual character and actual sexual orientation as constituting at least in part who the person is. Thus a course in Aristotelian metaphysics would only confirm Griswold and company in what they already believe, I suppose: one can truly be homosexual. One may disavow Aristotle, but claims of incoherence and diabolical deception--the hyperbole of choice over at Whitehall--simply have to go.


At 12:14 PM, Blogger Caelius said...

It's pieces like this that make this blog so very wonderful. Over the last couple of years, I've been quite insistent that homosexuality must have a telos, since it arises from nature and leads to the cultivation of habits that most plainly obstruct a very basic end of biological life. Now it occurs to me that if you maintain that homosexuality is accidental, it doesn't have to have a telos. Why won't those like Father wb+ admit that we are not criminal revisionists of the ancients and the Fathers but simply adapting their logic to a revised set of premises?

At 3:26 PM, Blogger Göran Koch-Swahne said...

Now, is Aristotle in the Good Book?

Does Heathen Philosophy trump the Gospel?


Sorry about that :-(

At 5:43 PM, Blogger Pontificator said...

Trackback Pontifications

At 9:58 PM, Anonymous J.C. Fisher said...

It's so very conveeeeeenient: to challenge "Father WB" to PROVE his assertions, you'd say "OK, then: change your 'inclination' to the opposite one (and demonstrate the change!)".

To which he'd (presumably) reply: "I won't, because for me to change to the opposite one (and demonstrably act upon it), would be sinful."

With all his big (and/or Greek) words and concepts and references: how stupid does "Father WB" think we are, to fall for this patently self-justifying line o' bull? >:-/


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