Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Moral Orientation

After over a year of looking at the variety in gay Mormon blogs, one thing sticks out: “gay” can mean a lot of things. Some experience their orientation as merely a defective response to physical cues, some see it as a psychological scar from bad parenting, and some, of course, don’t care from whence love springs :-). I’ve posted on how important these differences are (here). But I think I missed one and am having a sort of epiphany (bear with me; sometimes my epiphanies just fizzle out). There seems to be an ingrained moral component to only some people’s experience of being “gay.”

A long while ago I posted on research that has begun to tease apart the mechanics of our moral reasoning (here and here). To sum up and simplify, the research basically seems to show two main moral reasoning centers in the human mind: a so-called emotional moral processor and a more logical moral processor. For example, when people are given the option of killing one man to save five the emotional center only knows to shout “Don’t kill him” while the other does the math and says “5-1=4. Kill him!” (Read more in this post). Furthermore, if you physically damage the emotional moral processor, people begin to make very different moral decisions (Read more in this post).

Okay, now add to that a fact I just posted as a bit of a joke (at the end of this post): there seems to be a significant genetic component to homophobia. Looking back at those posts in the light of this idea of a moral component to sexual orientation, I’m struck by a couple things.

When I was coming out, homophobia was something to which I paid great attention. Some of my friends were simply not bothered at all by my being gay. My best friend, a very manly, 100% heterosexual guy, had and has no problems seeing Rob and I be affectionate. He should have a problem, by stereotypes: a guy from South Carolina with a conservative Baptist background in a hyper-masculine profession (firefighter). I know by experience, though, many straight men do reflexively gag at the idea of two men kissing. While all my friends were great, I did have some, even among the more liberal of them, who had a visceral negative response to homosexuality, and they basically learned to stifle this response when it came to Rob and me. I don't care a bit about such homophobia and greatly respect them for muting it. For themselves, though, I’m sure they never could.

So, I’m beginning to wonder if such gut reaction homophobia may be an inherited part of the emotional moral reasoning center of some human minds? 28% hereditable, in fact :-)? To me, that could make sense and would explain a couple things.

It would make sense in that we need to be preprogrammed to develop wills to do stuff like eat, keep warm and so on. While there may be a benefit to there being a small portion of homosexuality in a species, in humans (though certainly not in some other species), it’s most efficient for the majority to be oriented towards producing new offspring. Just as we’re programmed to not find, say, rocks attractive and suitable for pair bonding (well, most of them ;-)), and because the male and female human can be somewhat similar, perhaps some come programmed with a strong “no homosexuality” gut reaction in that particular moral reasoning region and some do not.

This would explain the difference I’ve experienced in homophobia in straight men. Though, logically, two straight men may have no moral problem with homosexuality, one may have this gut aversion and the other will not.

Such a preprogrammed gut aversion could explain the persistence of homophobia. It’s too easy to mistake disgust with moral disgust, and even easier to call something “immoral for everybody” when your gut moral reaction is “immoral for me.” It is clear why many organizations haven’t been fans of homosexuality; it hurt group numbers and when groups fight, physically or ideologically, numbers matter a lot. Today, some of that is certainly still a reason to pose homosexuality as immoral, but I think this gut personal reaction in some heterosexuals regarding a gay relationship may be a comparable player.

Finally, this would explain the differences I see in the gay men around here. Personally, when I think of heterosexual sex and intimacy, I feel a gut reaction of being repelled. I don’t want to say disgust, as I’m so used to seeing it in media and in my life that I’m effectively comfortable with seeing heterosexual behavior in others, but, for me, it strikes me as wrong to the core. I’m supposed to pair up with a man (Well, one in particular ;-)), and, as odd as it may sound to some, to think of doing the same with a woman strikes me as deviant, against some law of life. It's as though that logical part of my moral processor knows there’s nothing wrong with it, and in fact knows it’s a great thing for many, but there’s still this emotional moral sense in me that says it’s somehow wrong. I fear, if raised in gay bizzarro world, where I wasn’t conditioned to accept heterosexual behavior, I may have became a heterophobe :-). In all seriousness, I regret that I can see that potential in myself, as a one-time fan of conservative orthodoxy, and I fear, if I were a straight male in this culture and had the same gut aversion to relations with a man for myself as I do now for relations with a woman, I’d tend to homophobia. I can understand why some so easily become homophobic with little cultural prodding (thanks goodness I’m gay :-)).

Nevertheless, it seems some gay men may be oriented towards men in many ways, but not similarly morally oriented (away from women or towards men). This could be the same as the difference between the straight guy who can watch two men kiss without squirming and one who cannot, though both may be great allies to the gay community. This could also explain why so often it seems people around here may be talking about what it means to be “gay” or “ssa” or whatever, and totally miss the mark in the eyes of others.

I have to admit, though I knew there was much diversity, I came here more so thinking that my “gay” was what being gay means, particularly in this regards. I was wrong and there are clearly many aspects to orientation. Among them, the moral orientation may be amongst the most important factor for LDS gays, above the physical and emotional. As I guess, again, I already knew :-).

Anyway, I’d love to see the results of similar research on gay and straight men when shown images of various couples or asked about sexual hypotheticals, not to mention how those with the VMPC lesions in their emotional moral processor respond and how they express homophobia. If only I went into that area of study; too late now :-).


Mr. Fob said...

I don't know. I tend to assume such visceral reactions are culturally based, not biologically. As with all such conclusions I've come to, this is based not on scientific evidence but on personal experience. Despite the fact that I've always found the male form attractive, until a few years ago I had the "yuck" response to seeing two male forms doing sexual things together. As I've moved away from a moral belief system opposed to homosexual behavior, though, my visceral response to the same thing has now become anything from neutral to, ahem, a more positive reaction.

In the framework you're proposing, would you interpret that to mean that I've rewired my genetically-determined emotional moral processor? Or something else? Or am I misunderstanding you completely?

J G-W said...

Well, that's in interesting twist. Are you familiar with the work of Gregory Herrick, who did some studies a few years ago about the sources of homophobia? He mostly focussed on cultural sources though. He argued, among other things, that the least "curable" source of homophobia was the kind that comes because a same-sex attracted individual represses his sexuality and expresses homophobia as a psychological defense.

Like Mr. Fob, I'm aware of DRAMATIC shifts in my own sense of revulsion toward same-sex sexuality. So, unless my biological programming has changed dramatically, I'm inclined to view such things as cultural and psychological. But who knows? Maybe there are certain programmed gut reactions that come into play...

Scot said...

Okay, not my clearest post. :-)

Here’s a shorter, more organized summary of the idea (skip it if I was somehow clear enough in the post):

Sexual orientation (where the “sex” there means more gender than verb) is a composite of many sorts of innate and learned orientations (e.g. physical, emotional attraction). Among them there is a moral orientation, in both hetero and homosexuals, that gauges how right and how wrong coupling with a certain sex is for the individual. As the research has shown with moral decisions regarding life and death, there are two main players in the mind (in most people): 1. a more ancient moral gauge that has hard set, simple, and instinctual rules like “Don’t Kill” and 2. an area based more on nurture and doing the calculations that will say “Kill, if it means killing one man to save five.” This post shows how different in strength the two areas can be for two slightly different moral predicaments, even if the outcome is ultimately the same. We all know there’s a learned moral reasoning on sexual orientation but there is also this innate gut reaction (in #1), and evidence for it may be in the substantial hereditability there seems to be in political opinions of gay issues found in twin studies (here). This orientation, as with all the others, may be anywhere from pro- to anti- male or female, regardless of, say, a person’s orientation regarding physical cues. Such a mechanism could explain the differences between the straight guy raised liberally but who can’t stand the sights of gay intimacy and the guy raised conservatively who has no problem with it. It could also explain the differences between gay men who feel their conscience tells them gay is right, but find it at odds with their culture’s teaching (#1 fights with #2), and the gay man who either doesn’t feel a moral orientation towards men or feels morally repelled, in tune with his culture.

Scot said...

Mr. Fob: “In the framework you're proposing, would you interpret that to mean that I've rewired my genetically-determined emotional moral processor? Or something else? Or am I misunderstanding you completely?

I suppose the trouble is only one of these areas ultimately wins the fight and ends up being our feeling on any matter, and it’d be tough to tease them apart from just the end result without the aid of brain imaging (you volunteering? :-)). In the mentioned work it literally seems to be a war of numbers; the brain area with the most activity eventually wins the moral question. Even on ultimately the same moral question, posed to the same person, one area may win over another just by a slight rephrase of the hypothetical, and handily. The question then becomes did the “gay is evil and yucky” learned portion of moral reasoning become less strong for you by experience (not that kind of experience, more mundane ;-)), or did the learned “gay is okay” become stronger, or did that innate gut reaction somehow change to be inline with a physical orientation. I know I couldn’t say :-).

But you bring up a great example of this difference. I remember, as a teen, when I was just about to come out to myself, being plagued by the fact that I didn’t find the idea of physical intimacy with a man repulsive. When I queried my gut moral reaction about physical intimacy with a man I’d get back “right”; importantly too, with a women I’d get back “wrong” (if those poor girls I dated ever knew what I was thinking… :-)). Not only that, but the idea of family life with a man struck me as what was supposed to happen. One of the first things I ever did together with the friend I mentioned in this post was go to the movie Three Men and a Baby. Kind of embarrassing, but I remember being sick over the fact that, in all the seriousness that can be had with regards to a deep personal realization from such a movie, that’s what feels right (minus the extra man, but I’m not sure who, out of Gutenburd, Danson, or Selleck , we’d care to keep…).

All that gut reaction, however, was at vicious odds with how I’d been taught to see homosexuality morally and the conflict was terrible. Coming out was an exercise in untangling that convoluted reasoning, to find where it actually led; while my gut had been there all along. Until recently I had just assumed all gay men experienced it the same way. But, as you’re experience shows, that’s just not the case. Some people (men or women, gay or straight) may simply not have a (or have a very minor) gut moral response to their orientation; in which case it’s all up to experience.

I wonder, if you were raised in a culture that fully accepted homosexuality, do you think you’d still have initially felt a gut reaction against it?

Scot said...


Boy, I should have made all my comments into a separate post!

I can certainly understand the skepticism; I hope I didn’t come off as putting my foot down here. It just seemed like a couple things came together and I’d love to see research on moral opinions of homosexuality, similar to that done in the links I posted.

I don’t know if I’ve seen any of Gregory Herrick’s work, but I do have a couple papers that link homophobic views to increased arousal at images of the same sex (I’ll have to look and see if any are his). I do, though, agree this sort of self-assault is a significant portion of homophobia.

I kind of regret now using the word “homophobia,” though, with this notion of a gut moral aversion to gay intimacy. I know many straight men who have this gut reaction but they are great supporters and don’t mean to reflexively feel what they feel. I’m sure they aren’t all repressed homosexuals as many live lives in circles that would accommodate homosexuality. Nevertheless, the idea of gay intimacy makes something in them recoil, just as the idea of their sex lives does for me. Homophobic is probably too loaded of a word for such a reaction; it certainly isn’t something for which I’d fault a person.

Mr. Fob said...

Thanks for clarifying, Scot. That makes a little more sense to me now. I'm likely to believe in a combination of genetic and socio-cultural influences for just about any behavior or response.

My instinct is that I wouldn't have had that "yuck" reaction, had I been raised in a culture where homosexuality is the norm, or at least an acceptable alternative. I actually did grow up in a fairly open and accepting culture in Hawaii, but then that's a bit of a simplification. I remember in my high school health class when a gay man came to speak to us about AIDS and safe sex and whatnot, he asked for a raise of hands of who thought gay people should be able to marry; mine was one of maybe five hands in the class of thirty. And then of course there's the church culture, which led me to later participate in a rally at the state capitol against gay marriage, despite the fact that inside the protest felt very wrong to me. So it's safe to say that I've had a pretty complicated set of social (and likely biological) influences going into my feelings about homosexuality, and a pretty complicated range of reactions to match.

While I agree that the word homophobia has a lot of political connotations that you don't intend here, I think the use of the word referring to a gut instinct that could very well be described as a fear of homosexuality is a more accurate use of the term than the general use referring to political or moral opposition.

Scot said...

I wonder if I saw you at that rally :-).

I completely agree on the notion of homophobia, and you summed it up nicely.

I just don’t think there should be a worry about being homophobic, if it means just a gut reaction to feeling same sex intimacy is wrong for your self. I've an acrophobic friend but he's never shunned me for rock climbing :-).

Mr. Fob said...

There was an anti-protest protest across the street--this was a pretty poignant moment for me, to see how cruel the mass on my side of the street was to the small group on the other side, throwing rocks and insults at them--but unless you were in Honolulu in '97 I doubt you saw me. By the time same-sex marriage was a legal issue in Utah, I was old enough to ignore the church's urging me to make a political stand I didn't believe in.

playasinmar said...

I just wanted to chime in and say that I've read this post several times and something about it really resonates with me.

It's not a perfect pitch but it's not a strike. I think you're on to something.