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Don't Upset The Homophobes

Matthew Yglesias proposes the following as a potentially significant utilitarian argument against gay rights:

For whatever reason, the thought of gay people, gay sex, and gay stuff in general just strikes me as icky. Contemplating it makes me uncomfortable, as does seeing it in real life or on TV. I find the thought of discussing a gay co-worker's marital problems intolerable. This may be irrational on my part, but there it is. The more closeted gay people are, the happy I'll be. Obviously, gay people will be less happy, but homophobes outnumber homosexuals by a sufficiently large number that our preferences, though less intense, should take priority.

Yglesias suggests three common ways out of the problem: discard utilitarianism for a rights-based ethical system, declare that such "other-regarding preferences" are not to be taken account of in utilitarian calculation, or challenge the setup on empirical grounds. The first is a type of intuition-based argument frequently used against utilitarianism, and which I find pretty weak -- the clash of the ends prescribed by utilitarianism and those prescribed by moral intution seems as likely to prove intuition wrong (indeed, moral arguments are made for that reason as often as they're made in order to give direction for situations that intuition doesn't give an answer to) as the other way around. The second argument seems to be an arbitrary restriction on the utilitarian scheme, especially since other-rgearding can be a powerful way to protect the interests of the minority (for example, the widespread feeling that, as offensive as the KKK is, it ought not to have its speech curtailed). The third I would agree with, especially when you consider that the other-regarding preferences that gay-friendly heterosexuals such as myself and Mr. Yglesias have outweigh some of the preferences of the homophobes.

However, I think that even if we concede the empirical issue, the situation described above is not an effective argument against gay rights. The situation can be summarized as a clash of interests -- gay people and homophiles have an interest in gays being able to do gay stuff, and homophobes have an interest in that not happening. One or the other has to give (or some combination of the two). The way Yglesias presented it presumes that the greater interest has a claim to being preserved, so the weaker interest -- in this case, gays' and homophiles' interest in gay rights -- must give way. But I don't think that's necessarily the operative consideration. The situation may favor the homophobes if our intention is to take both interests as fixed and ask one side to suck it up and deal with having their interests thwarted for the greater good.

However, utilitarianism should prompt us to ask whether either interest could be altered, so that the clash is eliminated and a higher overall utility can be achieved. In this case we should take into account the difficulty of making a proposed change. Regardless of the origin of one's sexuality, once it's there it's fairly resistant to change. While homophiles may be convinced that homosexuality is bad, it's unfeasible for homoseuxals to be made heterosexual. On the other hand, most homophobes can be convinced to accept homosexuality. Further, the relative benefits of changing the homophobes increase when you look at a long timescale. There will be homosexuals in every generation, requiring society to constantly expend effort in "fixing" them (presuming this can be done) in order to retain the optimal utility. On the other hand, social attitudes toward sexuality reproduce themselves, meaning that once homophilia is widespread, it will become engrained in the culture. (One counter-situation might be if homoseuxality is entirely genetic and can thus be removed once and for all, but the implications of eugenics on that scale would require a far longer post.) Forcing homophobes to endure a loss of utility can serve as a motivation to take that responsibility, just as condemnation of homosexuality is meant to motivate homoseuxals to fix the problem by acting heterosexual. This is similar to the way we might be reluctant to bail out the losses of people who choose to live in flood- or fire-prone areas -- giving them disaster relief is better than not, but withholding it can motivate them to choose the best course of action, which is to not put themselves in the situation of needing aid in the first place.


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