Does being “born this way” have limitations?

Three new articles came out recently discussing same-sex attraction.  What really struck me on both articles is the idea that being “born this way” should be done with.

The first article is a short interview of Lisa Diamond.  Lisa Diamond, developmental and health psychologist at the University of Utah, has written and studied extensively on sexual fluidity.  There’s an interview about her take on many issues such as sexual fluidity:

people are born with a sexual orientation and also with a degree of sexual flexibility, and they appear to work together. So there are gay people who are very fixedly gay and there are gay people who are more fluid, meaning they can experience attractions that run outside of their orientation. Likewise for heterosexuals. Fluidity is the capacity to experience attractions that run counter to your overall orientation.

Whether being around same-sex sexuality makes others become same-sex oriented:

same-sex attraction does not appear to be contagious. There have been a number of really cool social network studies done over the years looking at whether some traits, such as obesity, can spread through social communities. And they can. So researchers used data from theNational Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, took the same analytic technique and applied it to same-sex attraction. If a lot of your friends are same-sex attracted, are you more likely to be same-sex attracted? Are the attractions themselves spreading? And they found that they were not.

And the idea that being born gay needs to be put to rest:

It is time to just take the whole idea of sexuality as immutable, the born this way notion, and just come to a consensus as scientists and as legal scholars that we need to put it to rest. It’s unscientific, it’s unnecessary and it’s unjust. It doesn’t matter how we got to be this way.

A really short, but good interview.

The next article is long, but really good.  In it, the author claims that being born that way isn’t good politics:

While this biological determinism of sexuality has been associated with a great triumph for the gay-rights movement, it’s been a great loss for our public discourse.

Why is this?  Because being “born this way” has been associated with oppression.

To the Nazis, immutable genetics required a programme of extermination; in a very different context, the genetics of ‘difference’ require acceptance. But both share the presupposition of biological determinism: that genetics determine identity; such genes must result in either elimination or embrace. This suggests why the activist alliance with genetic determinism yielded such successful results.

Thus, the author argues for a social construction of sexuality rather than biological determinism.  With this view, it avoids the pitfalls of determinism vs. free will.

‘Born that way’ is a simple mantra, one that cuts through the concepts and challenges I have outlined. But it is also dangerous. For embracing the fiction of biological determinism risks consistently misunderstanding the most important part of our lives – our intimate relationships. We invented romantic love. And homosexuality. And just about every other kind of relationship. That doesn’t make any of these things less important or less real. But our inventions are not part of a biological nature: they are part of a conversation between a biological and social order of life.

The third article discusses how being “born this way” is itself homophobic.

The author uses great examples to make her case.  This phrase was key to me:

arguing that people are born gay isn’t going to convince anyone who thinks it’s immoral to be gay. When we say “they can’t help it”, we’re not actually arguing that someone’s behaviour isn’t immoral – just that they’re not as blameworthy as we once thought. Instead of arguing that people can’t be blamed for being gay because they are born gay, we need to argue that there’s nothing wrong with being gay in the first place.


And to say that they can’t help it, future drugs could change that if people still find it immoral:

We don’t yet have enough evidence to know for sure that sexual orientation is something you’re born with, and something you can’t change (albeit with a lot of effort.) Suppose we were to find out that people actually do have significant control over the gender they are attracted to. Would this mean a significant reason to support gay rights would have been undermined? Would we think it was ok to then revoke those rights? Surely not.

I would like to offer another reasoning why “born this way” has limits.  I’m mainly getting this from John Corvino’s articles.  But think about how being born this way can lead to some major problems.  In a regime that is dangerous, like the Nazis, they used “born this way” as a reason to exterminate certain groups of people.  Perhaps not, but suppose that people find out that being non-monogamous is genetic, would people still act as if they are acceptable in society?  Many people still act racist or sexist to those who are “born this way.”  Now, many people will say that this is a perversion of the principle that being “born this way” should have some acceptance in society.  The argument, I presume, is something like this:

  1. If you are “born this way,” you cannot help but have those predilections (e.g. certain desires, actions, thoughts).
  2. If you cannot help but have those predilections, then it is not your fault—or perhaps more specifically, it was not your choice—to have those predilections.
  3. If it was not your fault to have those predilections, then society ought to accept those who were simply “born this way.”
  4. Therefore, if you are “born this way,” then society ought to accept those who were simply “born this way.”

This argument is flawed because premise three is faulty.  There is some evidence that pedophilia has some genetic component.  Or we can imagine a scenario where an activity does have a genetic component.  Suppose being a serial killer was biologically determined.  Based on the argument above, we would have to accept them.  But this is flawed.  Now, I’m not saying we should therefore get rid of such people.  If they can’t help but have these predilections, then we should have some cautionary concern and place limits around them, but to forever lock them up and punish them is analogous to punishing people for being gay or for being a non-dominate race.

The “born this way” mantra has some leeway, and from a scientific lens, it may be an interesting question, but for progressive politics, it seems best to let it go.


About shaunmiller

I have just completed a visiting position as an assistant professor at Dalhousie University. My ideas are not associated with my employer; they are expressions of my own thoughts and ideas. Some of them are just musings while others could be serious discussions that could turn into a bigger project. Besides philosophy, I enjoy martial arts (Kuk Sool Won), playing my violin, enjoying coffee around town, and experimenting with new food.
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1 Response to Does being “born this way” have limitations?

  1. Thank you for sharing the links. I agree, and I’ve long bristled at the “born this way” arguments in support of LGBT rights in particular. I’ve never thought it mattered whether or not homosexuality was genetically determined or a choice. I see nothing morally nor legally wrong with it in either case. The “born this way” approach seems designed to counter certain (primarily religious) objections. What if we discovered that same-sex attraction is, in fact, a choice? Should that change anything? I don’t think so.

    On the other hand, it is surely not a choice, phenomenologically. I certainly didn’t experience myself choosing to be straight. I just happened to have opposite-sex attraction that became realized as I matured into puberty. This experience of mine is considered natural and normal. Part of why we consider my experience natural and normal is because we consider it a part of our natural state. We’re “born this way.” In this sense, I think there is a value in acknowledging that same-sex attraction is equally natural and normal. I think the value of the “born this way” argument falls more in line with normalizing same-sex attraction. Certainly, I get the argument being made in the second article, but I’m not convinced it is required in the normalizing of homosexuality. We can also normalize it by thinking of it like baldness. Baldness is perceived as normal. We may not all end up bald, but those of us that do are born that way.

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