By John Corvino
Some bad arguments never die. Such is the case with what I call the “PIB” argument: the idea that if homosexuality is morally permissible, then Polygamy, Incest, and Bestiality (hence PIB) are morally permissible as well.
The main problem with the PIB argument is that it’s not really an argument at all: it’s an assertion of a connection where no connection exists. Polygamy, incest, and bestiality can be either homosexual or heterosexual, so what does one thing have to do with the other?
This lack of substance has not deterred our opponents from using the argument, which makes sense as a rhetorical strategy: if you can’t produce a good argument against homosexuality, change the subject!
I have argued elsewhere that gay-rights advocates have perfectly good reasons to oppose most cases of PIB, and my arguments have inspired some responses. Now opponents are claiming that the point of the PIB argument is to show, not that gay-rights advocates have no argument against PIB, but rather that they have no PRINCIPLED argument against PIB. Several have pointed to my position and said “Aha! Even Corvino admits that he has no principled argument against PIB.” Some clarification is obviously in order.
It is true that I do not object to PIB acts in principle Ñ that is, in themselves. Part of the reason for this is that I do not believe one should lump together all PIB acts as a single kind of moral entity. There is quite a moral difference between, say, a consensual polygamous human relationship and the rape of a sheep. But the main reason is that I believe that the problems with PIB stem from the violation of more general moral principles, such as the duty not to harm. So for example, insofar as I object to incestuous acts, it is not because they are incestuous, but because they are harmful, and I object to harm.
Notice, however, that there is a difference between having “no objection in principle” to PIB and having “no principled objection” to PIB. The former suggests that PIB is not wrong in itself, while the latter suggests something stronger, namely, that PIB is not wrong even derivatively. That is, the latter rules out the possibility of a principled EXTRINSIC objection to PIB (for example, on the grounds of its being generally harmful). Most gay-rights advocates, myself included, have precisely this sort of “principled objection” to PIB.
These are fine distinctions, and an analogy might be helpful. Consider whether it is wrong to throw knives at people. I think the answer is obviously “yes.” Nevertheless, I do not hold that throwing knives at people is wrong in principle Ñ that is, in itself, apart from more general moral principles. Rather, throwing knives at people is wrong because it is gravely dangerous, and if it were not dangerous, it would not be wrong.
Further, I am willing to allow (just as with PIB) that there might be such non-wrongful cases, although it is hard to imagine them without getting a bit bizarre. Suppose that human beings had metal exoskeletons, such that knives could not harm them. In that case it would not be wrong to throw knives at people (apart from its being annoying). But it doesn’t follow that I have no objection to throwing knives at people, or no serious objection, or even no principled objection, given our actual real-world situation.
My position on PIB is much like my position on knife-throwing. In most cases in the actual world, it is harmful and wrong, and thus I’m generally against it. But I’m willing to allow that there might be exceptions (such as genuinely consensual polygamy). I just fail to see how they have anything to do with the moral status of homosexuality.
Our opponents, by contrast, are not willing to entertain exceptions. So it seems that their view has the advantage of greater moral certainty on this issue. But not so fast. For on what grounds can they argue, for example, that polygamy is always wrong?
Certainly not on the grounds that it is not open to procreation, for it clearly is (indeed, abundantly so). Nor on the grounds that the Bible condemns it, because it doesn’t (quite the contrary, actually). If polygamy is wrong, it must be wrong because it undermines human well-being in some way Ñ say, by promoting sexism, encouraging marital jealousy, or hurting social stability.
Do such problems provide a good “principled reason” for condemning all polygamous acts? If they do, then gay-rights advocates should adopt them. If they don’t (and I have my doubts) then gay-rights opponents are in the same boat as gay-rights advocates.