Ryan Tonkens – a lecturer at Monash University – welcomes serious discussion about homosexuality in bioethics. I will summarize here what he has to say about my book Ethics, Sexual Orientation, and Choices about Children. (Those interested in the full review may consult Ethics 2014, vol. 124, no. 2: 431-435.) Tonkens takes a few swipes at some of the particulars of my analysis, but – most importantly – he thinks my approach is unfounded where it is not significantly incomplete, and that there is a better prospect for exploring the ethical questions I raise.
[Murphy Reply 1: I appreciate the effort Tonkens put into his nearly 2,500-word review, which with a little more work could have been and probably should have been a full-length article rather than a book review. Even so, I think the praise he offers sits badly alongside the critique he offers. In other words, the criticism he offers is far more damaging to my view than he lets on. Fortunately, that criticism does not succeed in any meaningful way.]
First, as a matter of the book’s structure, Tonkens thinks I give away my ending early on, namely that “parents should generally have the right to use safe and effective prenatal interventions to influence the sexual orientation of their children.” He says I nevertheless offer “a well-rounded discussion of the main philosophical and ethical issues in this area, grounded in a “realistic understanding of what we do and can know about the genetic, biological, evolutionary, and cultural underpinnings of human sexual orientation.”
[Murphy Reply 2: Again, I appreciate the praise, but as I plainly say, the book is is an analytic history of a debate. I mention this because that framework defines what will be in the book and what will not be in the book. I mention this because Tonkens wrongly expects more from the book than its focus allows.]
Despite the praise, Tonkens does not like some of the things I do and – worse – some of the things I don’t do. He finds it interesting that I connect Joel Feinberg’s views about a child’s right to an open future to the idea of controlling the sexual orientation of children interesting. But “for Murphy, sexual autonomy is the right under which its possessor would be protected from undue influence on his or her sexual orientation – among other things -- although he does not take the time to flesh out this concept in any real detail.” Moreover, Tonkens finds that this approach does not square with my view that the law should not intervene if parents decide they wish to influence the sexual orientation of their children.
[Murphy Reply 3: My engagement with Feinberg is to show that choosing one sexual orientation over another – heterosexual or homosexual – does not undermine a child’s sexual autonomy. I don’t know what more Tonkens could want. I offer in fact more fleshing out of the idea of future autonomy as a regulatory ideal than Feinberg himself did. I think it’s a novel contribution to the literature to point out that a homosexual orientation affords someone as much autonomy as a heterosexual orientation, as against being an orientation that is some kind of developmental maladaptation, some kind of compulsion, some kind of emotional immaturity. I also show that a sexual orientation – insofar as chosen – does not undercut sexual autonomy. As for the role of the law, there are lots of things that are morally dumb, and the law takes no responsibility for their correction. If people want to believe that a straight child is the only valuable child, well, go ahead and let them use the prenatal interventions they want: Doing so will not undercut anyone’s sexual autonomy, so what more does anyone want from the law?]
Tonkens doesn’t like either the fact that I more or less take for granted the United States as my context, and other places where gay men and lesbians can live without too much trouble these days. In this context, he quotes me as saying that “the wish or hope for a homosexual child is no longer a betrayal in itself of a child’s prospects for happiness.” I actually know some people who – if given the chance – would have tried to have gay and lesbian children if they could. In the United States, Canada, France, Etc., this choice seems to me to carry no ill effects. But what about the Evil Rest Of The World? Tonkens thinks that if someone in Nigeria were to want to have a gay or lesbian child, that very motive would amount to a betrayal of the child’s interests. So, don’t I show myself to be culturally bound? Worse, he muses, wouldn’t countries like Nigeria want to develop technologies that would help them select against gay and lesbian children?
[Murphy Reply 4: Would it be a betrayal of a child’s interests if parents in a deeply homophobic country took steps to ensure a homosexual orientation in that child? It seems to me that we need to separate out the motive and the effect here. Unless the motive is deeply twisted – to have gay or lesbian children in order to see them suffer at the hands of homophobic society – then the parents’ motive need not be morally suspect. They might want, for example, to have a gay or lesbian child in order to help combat society’s prejudices. Any such parents are likely to cloak their children in some measure of extra psychological protection to help ward off the dire effects of their homophobic culture. So, I’m not persuaded that any parent having a gay or lesbian child in a bad place for homosexual people generally must necessarily betray that child’s interests. As for the need for deeply homophobic countries to develop technologies to help select against gay and lesbian children: Who needs them? Those countries pretty much have everything they need in their campaign against gay and lesbian people: enforced social invisibility, legal prohibitions, deep-seated cultural taboos. Would they really spend the time and money on an effort likely to fail? I wrote about this extensively in my book Gay Science: The Ethics of Sexual Orientation Research, but people deploy this this objection as if it were a moral trump card. It’s not.]
Tonkens is exercised with my tongue-in-cheek reductio of the sexual autonomy argument. If promoting the sexual autonomy ought to be parents’ goal for their children, should they not try to have bisexual children? (Woody Allen probably said it better when he suggested that bisexuality doubles the chances of a date on Saturday night.) Tonkens sees in the issue only a lost opportunity, since he says I fail to identify the upper or lower limits of what sexual autonomy should be for children. Where does sexual interest in trees and dead bodies (his examples) fit in, he wants to know. And what about asexuality? Tonkens finds the lack of thresholds here to be a deficit of my analysis.
He thinks, moreover, that “this sort of worry” – about lack of boundaries – “can be directed equally toward Murphy’s ultimate conclusion, i.e., that parents have the right to use safe and effective prenatal technology to control the sexual orientation of their offspring.” What criteria am I invoking, he wants to know, that would set limits for parents as they took steps to select for asexuality in their children, or – again – sexual interest in trees?
[Murphy Reply 5: Suppose I argue that it is safe for cars to travel on highways at 65 miles per hour. Do I need to also show what the upper limit of safe speed might be or the lower limit of safe speed? Tonkens loses sight, I think, of what I’m trying to do: describe the history of a debate and analyze the claims in that debate. Getting to a philosophically defensible conclusion about the ethics of intervention in homosexual and heterosexual orientations does not require a full theory of the extent to which parents may influence the sexual interests of children in their entirety. That seems to be what Tonkens is looking for in my book. It’s not there, because that’s not what I need to resolve in order to make sense of the debate over one particular topic. And sexual interest in trees? Well, that’s a new one for me, but I wonder if I’ll ever be able to look at a tall brooding oak tree or lithe and limber willow tree in the same way again.]
Tonkens credits me with an “interesting claim” that people who do not want homosexual children and who would be bad parents of homosexual children probably should not have them, in order to protect the welfare of children. He says “This conclusion seems plausible, especially if we focus exclusively on rights and harms/benefits as our normative starting point—something Murphy does in this book.” But Tonkens gives with the left hand here what he will take away with the right. He says that I “offer no justification to support this choice of normative framework over others.”
This move sets the stage for Tonkens to gesture toward some other starting point which would somehow provide a convincing rationale that parents who do not want gay and lesbian children should go ahead and have them and that their doing so would not be harmful for those children. That other starting point is “contemporary virtue or character ethics.” Tonkens suggests that this perspective would require parents to abstain from prenatal interventions to control the sexual orientation of their children. The general idea can be summed up this way: What person with well-developed values, what person with well-developed character would even care about the sexual orientation of their children? What’s more, these upstanding parents would shy away from any interventions that could carry risks for their children, and since techniques of prenatal intervention would presumably carry some risk, wouldn’t they be imposing risk by using them when they could avoid those risks entirely by not using them? As Tonkens sees things, one of the shortcomings of my analysis is that I do not “mention any such virtue-based considerations, and thus we are left to speculate about what his reaction to them might be.”
[Murphy Reply 6: I don’t think Tonkens faces up to the full effects of his invocation of virtue ethics. He seems to be suggesting that virtue ethics should be a framework by which to analyze these matters and that it opens the door for an entirely different conclusion than the one I offer. First, let me say that I did not take up virtue ethics because no one has to date offered any such analysis of the issue and – forgive me for repeating this for the umpteenth time – my book is the history of an actual debate, not the history of an encounter with all possible views on the topic. If Tonkens wants to wade into this territory under the banner of virtue ethics, he is welcome to do so. But it is just carping to complain that I did not review a kind of analysis that has not yet been deployed. In any case, I do not believe that any virtue-based approach would alter the conclusions I offer. What does virtue ethics want? Something like this: decisions guided by their conformity to certain virtues or expressive of certain virtues so far as possible. Under such an approach, is it possible to say that no parent should ever take steps to influence the sexual orientation of children? This seems to me an impossible position to defend. Let’s remember our parents in Nigeria. Would they not be acting in conformity with various virtues if they took steps to ensure that their children would be heterosexual? After all, Tonkens himself has said that taking steps to have a homosexual child in that country would be a betrayal of their interests. I do not see that virtue ethics has anything to add here. Really, not anything capable of altering a strong presumption in favor of parental choice, both as a matter of ethics and law.]
Despite setting out a framework he thinks is positioned to demolish my conclusions, Tonkens concludes his quite-long review with the generous praise that “For its engagement with important, philosophically rich issues in a well-rounded, scholarly manner, this book is a positive addition to the debates that Murphy surveys therein.”