Sexuality, Free Will and Determinism

There are essentially three positions on whether human actions are wholly determined by antecedent causes and whether free will is compatible with that determinism. Soft determinism affirms that actions are wholly determined by antecedent causes yet that free will is somehow compatible with this determinism. Hard determinism affirms that actions are wholly determined by antecedent causes and denies that free will is compatible with this determinism (i.e., there is no free will). Libertarianism (not the political version) denies the wholly determinate relation between actions and antecedent causes and affirms that free will obtains in all human actions.

Libertarianism and hard determinism seem rather straightforward–whether or not one accepts their respective positions. Soft determinism, however, leaves some difficulties: how is it that all aspects of human actions are determined yet humans may freely choose or not choose to do a certain thing? On the one hand, soft determinism takes what is a common experience–that we appear to freely choose our acts–and attempts to reconcile it with the deterministic processes of the natural world. (Appeals to quantum physics do not help, because although some indeterminacy obtains at the submicro level, at the macro level Newtonian physics still holds.) But on the other, it fails to coherently account for how it is that one may freely choose what one is determined to do. While Kierkegaard can address this matter in existential terms (I freely choose this inescapable absurd reality in which I live), this hardly clarifies the difficulty.

I mention the issues of determinism because it seems to me that the positions taken on the matters of human sexuality, specifically sexual orientation, align themselves with one of the above positions. For example, one frequently hears from gays and lesbians that they did not choose their orientation, that, in a sense, they cannot help but be who they are. This is determinism. Opponents of gay and lesbian sexual behavior speak in terms of free will, that such behavior is sin and that those who engage in those behaviors freely choose to do so. This is libertarianism.

Persons who take a determinist stand on sexual orientation usually appeal to biology (a gay gene, brain formations, or other biological states) and/or to sociology (family environment, culture, religious faith, etc.). Either of these factors, or both, serve to determine someone’s sexual orientation before they consciously “choose” to act in conformity to that orientation. Thus they may not freely choose to be gay or not. Homosexuality is their constitutional makeup.

Persons who take a libertarian stand on sexual orientation sometimes (though clearly not always) deny any biological connection, frequently accept that sociological factors strongly influence human choice, but ultimately deny that any sexual behavior is completely determined by biology or sociology and is, ultimately, behavior freely chosen.

It seems to me that the hard deterministic stance in sexuality questions is not consistently held. Proponents for the acceptance of homosexual acts frequently want to claim that these acts arise from some sort of determining factors and cannot be helped. On the other hand, other venues of human action are not determined. For example, violent attacks on gays and lesbians (because they are homosexual) are rightly and widely condemned. But if sexual orientation is biologically and/or sociologically determined and gays and lesbians cannot freely choose to act in any other way than in accord with such orientation, doesn’t it stand to reason that homophobes similarly are so constituted biologically and/or sociologically that they cannot but act in ways that conform to their homophobia? Or is it the case that only sexual orientation is deterministic while violence against gays and lesbians (because they are homosexual) is freely chosen? But how is that the case? And why are the two matters different? If determinism obtains, surely it obtains for all human action?

Some who argue from the deterministic stance take something that looks like the soft determinist approach. That is to say, orientation is wholly determined, but we are free to act in ways that either go against that orientation or are in conformity to it. That is to say, while orientation cannot be helped, sexual acts are freely chosen. This is the experience of many “ex-gays,” that though they have (or, in some cases, the claim is that they once had) a same-sex orientation, they freely choose to act sexually in heterosexual ways, marrying persons of the opposite sex, raising biological children, etc. It is not clear to me, then, given this position, why there is an animus in the gay community against these “ex-gays,” unless, that is, the criticism comes from hard determinists. Or unless there is an unspoken moral principle that acting against one’s predetermined sexual orientation is illicit. But this is a matter that steps outside of the question of determinacy. On the simple issue of determinacy, if one is free to choose one’s sexual acts, then whether or not one is determined in one’s sexual orientation carries no moral weight.

The libertarian position is that sexual orientation is composed of many factors, but is ultimately chosen (and in some cases unchosen) of one’s own free will. There may be biological and sociological influences, but ultimately the determining factor is human volition. These freely chosen acts then become habituated and gays and lesbians experience their orientation in what feels to them like deterministic ways. For my money, the libertarian position is the only consistent position in the sexuality debate.

But if the libertarian position is the best position to take on these matters, it only answers the question as to whether or not sexual acts are freely chosen or wholly determined. It does not, of itself, answer the question as to the licitness of same sex acts. That, it seems to me, is the responsibility of religion and ethics.