Yawning Bread. July 2007

Homosexuality and the moral imperative




On 26 July 2007, the online edition of the Straits Times carried 9 letters on the subject of homosexuality [1]. Five of them were anti-gay. These 5 letters used the word 'moral' and its permutations (e.g. 'morality', 'immoral') a total of 25 times. In the other 4 letters, the word appeared just once.

You might be led to think that the anti-gay position had morality on its side. In fact, Vincent Chia Wei Meng, in his letter (26 July 2007), contended that

the homosexuality debate cannot escape a moral argument if our legislature is to respect the moral values of the majority of Singaporeans.

By that he was suggesting that the gay equality argument was not founded on moral values; that law should reflect moral values, and therefore law should criminalise gay people.

He is partly right. There is a case for law to reflect a society's moral values, but precisely because of that, Section 377A should be repealed.

Read the above sentence again.

As tinyRedLeaf wrote in the comments section following Vincent Chia's letter (26 July 2007),

I read the recent flurry of letters on homosexuality with a mixture of disappointment and despair. It is clear to me that many people have a poor understanding of moral philosophy, and more particularly, on how it is applied to the issue of homosexuality. Morality, in essence, is about asking what is right, and what is wrong. The best conclusions derived from such debates are those that can be universally applied. In other words, something that is morally right applies to all people, regardless of race, language or religion. Majority opinion is absolutely irrelevant. (What is more, the majority can often turn out to be morally wrong. Whether or not that is the case here, however, is something that needs to be discussed further.)

As such, it is a grave fallacy to assume that simply because the majority of Singaporeans are opposed to homosexuality, that therefore it is morally right to criminalise homosexuals.

Furthermore, let's be very clear about what has been proposed. What we are discussing here is the repeal of Section 377a of the Penal Code. It is an archaic and repressive legislation because it criminalises an individual for something he could not help - being born a homosexual (of course, this brings up another hot potato - are people born homosexual, or is it a lifestyle he consciously chooses. Uninformed homophobics tend to believe the latter.)

Let's use an analogy to show why this piece of legislation is morally wrong. Supposed we have a law that criminalises anyone who is born with dark skin colour, or categorically defines such people as "untouchable". Sound familiar? This has been the basis of apartheid in South Africa, and the basis of the caste system in India. It is, at heart, a gross abuse of individual human rights.

Repealing it does not necessarily mean condoning homosexual behaviour, by the way. That is a philosophical strawman that supporters of Section 377a are using to divert attention away from the real question -- which is whether Section 377a is an oppressive law or not. I believe that it is extremely difficult to justify Section 377a on moral grounds, regardless whether you are religious or aetheist, so for that reason, it is high time we do away with it.

For there are morals and there are morals. One which (I hope) every child is taught is this: Don't do to others what you would not have others do to you. This dictum is as near to universal as any moral principle ever expressed by humankind. Virtually all other moral principles, by comparison, suffer the defects of being either limited in the number of adherents, or disputed in their interpretation and application.

One can put moral principles into an hierarchy. When one moral principle conflicts with another, choose the one higher-up (i.e. more universal) to prevail. Any attempt to foreground a petty-order moral principle in pursuit of coercion over other people, particularly those do not subscribe to those petty-order morals, is not morality, but moralism. We should make that distinction the same way we make the distinction between Islam and Islamism.

The argument for gay equality is ultimately an appeal to the universal principle of fairness, and is therefore invested with resounding moral force. The anti-gay lobby may claim that they have (their) morality on their side, but their moral citations pale in comparison to the urgency of the highest moral imperative: Treat others they way you would want to be treated.

It would be a sad day for Singapore if we do not recognise this supreme principle of fairness, and if our laws fail to reflect it.

Trying to wiggle out of that moral imperative

The only way the anti-gay lobby can get around the subordination of their moralistic claims to a higher morality is to claim that gay people do not constitute "others". That way, they hope the dictum 'Don't do to others what you would not have others do to you' would not have to apply. Reciprocity is not required then, because the humanity of the "others" is not accepted.

Critical to this quest is to deny that homosexual orientation is a fundamental facet of gay people's personhood. That is why there is so much panic at the accumulating evidence that homosexual orientation is innate. This denial is then phrased in terms of how homosexuality is chosen, reversible, and "only the behaviour is frowned upon" which segues into "love the sinner, hate the sin".

If you still think the latter statement makes sense, try this for size: "love the Chinese, hate Chineseness."

A more insidious attempt involves the 'free will' argument. It goes like this: Even if you're born with homosexual inclinations, you can still exercise free will and choose to go straight.

The problem is, this argument collapses in a heap at the first hurdle when someone asks, but why should one go straight? Why should heterosexuality be considered the more moral choice? There is really no answer except by reference to one or more petty-order moral principles, found in sectarian scriptures or cultural habits.

In fact, even if homosexual orientation is chosen, the "free will" argument works in favour of gay equality. If you want your free will respected, then you should respect the other person's free will when he chooses to be gay. Again, this is a direct corollary from the highest-order moral principle.

Thoughtless assertions

Sometimes, it seems the anti-gay lobby is in such a fit, they have no time to think. The result can be seen in many statements they make in their letters, statements that, upon the slightest reflection, will prove hollow.

The easiest to pick out are the bald assertions. Many letter writers take certain assumptions as given and universally held, and upon these assertions build an entire citadel of arguments. But the assumptions do not withstand scrutiny.

For example, Andrew Lim Chia Wei in his letter (26 July 2007) said,

mainstreaming homosexuality harms our common welfare.

He doesn't explain why that must necessarily be so.

Yu Yin Wei (26 July 2007) said,

Therefore, we should be wise and learn from the mistakes of others like groups of Canadians who regret allowing same-sex marriage or the Americans who regret liberal abortion laws. These contentious issues are still not settled in the West and their societies remain split on such public issues. Let us not pay the same price that would cause us the pain of regret of not learning from the mistakes of others.

But the majority of Canadians do not think it was a mistake. In February 2007, it was reported that

Most Canadians believe sexual orientation rights are just as important as other existing rights, according to a poll by SES Research. 62 per cent of respondents would approve of the inclusion of sexual orientation equality rights in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Additionally, 54 per cent of respondents think the courts, and not Parliament, should have the final decision on the topic of rights issues.

Source: Angus Reid Global Monitor

If she would then point out that she was referring to the minority who thinks their country made a mistake, the next question would surely be: Why reference the minority? Why not reference the majority? Why the selectivity?

In his letter, Koh Yan Sang (26 July 2007) said,

As a married Singaporean man, I am deeply concerned by the call for equal rights for people with different sexual behaviour or perversions as this implies there is no difference between the social norm of heterosexuality and homosexuality, which deviates from the norm.

What does he mean by "norm"? Heterosexuality may be a statistical norm, but it doesn't mean it is a moral norm. The two are very different concepts. The statistical norm is descriptive, describing the population as it exists. The moral norm is prescriptive, describing what the right thing to do is, even if no one lives up to it. You can see the difference in this statement: The statistical norm of humans is that of being liars, since most humans lie; the moral norm is be honest and not to lie.

Koh appears to be suggesting that heterosexuality is the moral norm without justifying it. He's lazily conflating one kind of norm with another.

Then he makes this statement:

Each of us has an equal right to marry - but marriage is regulated by four prohibitions: we can only marry unmarried persons, of the opposite sex and who have come of age, with no bloodline objections.

Are readers supposed to take these 4 prohibitions as timeless and  unquestionable? Yet on every score, we can easily think of cultures that do not recognise one of more of these so-called prohibitions.

Take cultures which permitted polygamy, for example. China was one such civilisation that allowed it for millennia, as does the Islamic world. Prohibition #1 does not apply in such a culture. The woman who became the 3rd wife of a man most clearly did marry an already married person.

If he is suggesting that these supposedly solid-as-granite rules should forever rule out homosexual relationships, then he is sadly delusioned.

Benjamin Ng Chee Yong in his letter published 21 July 2007 [2] recounted how he had been groped and ogled at by dirty old men, and argued for the law to be retained.

As a father, I realised that my children are not so safe anymore.

He seems never to have reflected on the fact that if he had been female, he would almost surely have been groped and ogled at by heterosexual men. Would he have demanded a law criminalising heterosexuality?

His lack of reflexivity is matched by Vincent Chia's statement,

As homosexuals in Singapore are a minority, they should all the more avoid the disparagement of other minority, albeit opposing, views.

The Christian-motivated anti-gay lobby is also a small minority. Shouldn't he take his own advice?

However, Ang Su Yin gets the top prize for shallowness. In her letter published on 19 July 2007 [3], she wrote,

While in San Francisco for a medical conference, my attempt to explore the city was marred by the Gay Pride Parade. There were rainbow flags all over the city, and the public transport system was paralysed because of the event.

My spouse and I lived in Toronto several years ago, while on a work attachment at a reputable hospital in the city. When we first arrived, we stayed at a hostel at Church Street. The irony was that it's the street where homosexuals hang out in.

The first paragraph described the inconvenience she faced due to a public event (which on another day, could have been people rallying for ethical treatment of animals or a protest against the Iraq war). The second merely described her emotional discomfort at encountering gay people on the same street. And these are arguments for criminalising others?

The "own goal" prize goes to Soh Chai Lih:

The historical record demonstrates that Christians like William Wilberforce led the anti-slavery movement; in nearer times, Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu opposed apartheid, motivated by biblical teachings that oppose racism as, with the Fatherhood of God, comes the brotherhood of man.

She was trying to assert that Christian teaching about homosexuality is right because, in the main, Christians have long fought for morality. It is remarkable that either she does not know, or has chosen not to mention, that with respect to Wilberforce, he had any number of Christians and church leaders quoting the Bible against him. As for Archbishop Tutu, he has also been one of the most vocal proponents of equality for gay people. His beliefs on this score spring from exactly the same Christian spirit as his beliefs about race discrimination. It is incredible that Soh can cite him as an exemplar of Christian morality over race, while arguing against equality for gays and lesbians.

As the Archbishop has come to believe, the moral imperative is equality. Repeal.

Yawning Bread 



  1. Archived in At stake is public morality, not pragmatism are these 9 letters with publication date 26 July 2007
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  2. See Why is it so hard to repeal an archaic law? 
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  3. See Letters to the press re MP Baey supports repeal 
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