Saturday, April 26, 2003
Let Them Be Squicked

Revised, 7:00 p.m. EDT, 25 April 2003 to fix some pre-coffee weird constructs.

One of the chapters in Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature is called "The Sanctimonious Animal." In it, he argues that the moral sense is just as much a part of our evolutionary design as are sight, vision, balance, etc. And just like each of our primary senses can be fooled by optical, auditory, vestibular illusions that yield the "wrong" output, so can the moral sense.
Our moral sense licenses aggression against others as a way to prevent or punish immoral acts. That is fine when the act deemed immoral truly is immoral by any standard, such as rape and murder, and when the aggression is meted out fairly and serves as a deterent. The point of this chapter is that the human moral sense is not guaranteed to pick out those acts as the targets of its righteous indignation. The moral sense is a gadget, like stereo vision or intuitions about number. It is an assembly of neural circuits cobbled together from older parts of the primate brain and shaped by natural selection to do a job. That does not mean that morality is a figment of our imagination, any more than the evolution of depth perception means that 3-D space is a figment of our imagination.... But it does mean that the moral sense is laden with quirks and prone to systematic errors -- moral illusions, as it were -- just like our other faculties.
He then goes on to present the following scenario, created by the psychologist Jonathan Haidt and colleagues:
Julie and Mark are brother and sister. They are traveling together in France on summer vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach. They decide it would be very interesting and fun if they tried making love. At the very least it would be a new experience for each of them. Julie was already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom, too, just to be safe. They both enjoy making love, but they decide not to do it again. They keep the night as a special secret, which makes them feel even closer to each other. What do you think about that; was it OK for them to make love?
Most people, presented with the scene, immediately declare that what happened was wrong, then try to come up with justifications for their response. Since most of the usual objections -- inbreeding yielding damaged kids, emotional damage, community damage -- are already deflected by the premises of the scenario -- use of protection, closeness of the sibs, agreement to keep what happened secret -- people eventually just declare, "I don't know, I can't explain it, I just know it's wrong." Pinker goes on:
But for everyone else, such argumentation is beside the point. People have gut feelings that give them emphatic moral convictions, and they struggle to rationalize the convictions after the fact. These convctions may have little to do with moral judgements that one could justify to others in terms of their effects on happiness and suffering. They arise instead from the neurobiological and evolutionary design of the organs we call moral emotions.
Maybe this is where we are when it comes to homophobia and related irritations: There's a distribution of the degree to which people come into this world with a tendency or a capacity to be squicked by homosex, and some fraction -- maybe some substantial fraction -- of folks turn out to be the kinds of people who are immediately and seriously squicked by the idea of two men going at it sexually. Completely without any family or social or class or teevee input at all. Those people might, for all I know, have true and honest yucky feelings about gay sex, or about the men and women who have it (although my own gut feeling is that there's a gender difference regarding who the people having homo-sex are as well as who the people having the feelings about homo-sex are).

Fine. Let them have their feelings of disgust and irritation. No one can stop them short of Saddam-style torture, which would be wrong. I'm surely not inside their skin to be able to say that their feelings are phoney, and I would rather believe an evolutionary-biological explanation for their feelings rather than "if only we organized society/families different" kinds of thought. But their feelings justify neither laws nor threats nor violence against lesbian or gay or bisexual or transexual people for being who they are or having consensual sex with other adults.

Santorum may be right that respecting the right of gay adults to do what they want in their bedroom could, er, open the door (!) for all adults to do what they want in their bedroom. No big whoop. That doesn't mean that the state/community has to recognize bigamous or polyamorous arrangements if it recognizes same-sex coupling. That doesn't mean that the state/community has to respect forms of sexual behavior -- adult/child or interspecies -- that require mental gymnastics to manufacture a meaning of "consent".

The bottom line to me is that Santorum's attitudes, like those of the Ocala, Florida, legislator involved in the end run at the state level attempting to overturn local anti-discrimination ordinances, are likely just based on being squicked, with the Bible, threat to families, threat to the traditional order, etc., brought in after the fact, as suggested in the research referenced above, for justification.