Homosexuality & Choice

English: Gender symbols, sexual orientation: h...

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Since the matter of choice is rather interesting to me, it is hardly a shock that I would be interested in the question of whether or not sexual orientation is a choice. One obvious problem with trying to settle this matter is that it seems impossible to prove (or disprove) the existence of the capacity for choice. As Kant argued, free will seems to lie beyond the reach of our knowledge. As such, it would seem that it could not be said with confidence that a person’s sexual orientation is a matter of choice. But, this is nothing special: the same can be said about the person’s political party, religion, hobbies and so on.

Laying aside the metaphysical speculation, it can be assumed (or perhaps pretended) that people do have a choice in some matters. Given this assumption, the question would seem to be whether sexual orientation legitimately belongs in the category of things that can be reasonably assumed to be matters of choice.

On the face of it, sexual orientation seems to fall within the realm of sexual preference. That is, in the domain of what a person finds sexually appealing and attractive. This seems to fall within a larger set of what a person finds appealing and attractive.

At this time, it seems reasonable to believe that what people find appealing and attractive has some foundation in neural hardwiring rather than in what could be regarded as choice. For example, humans apparently find symmetrical faces more attractive than non-symmetrical faces and this is not a matter of choosing to prefer one over another. Folks who like evolution tend to claim that this preference exists because those with symmetrical faces are often healthier and hence better for breeding purposes.

Food preferences probably also involve hard wiring: humans really like salty and sweet foods and the usual explanation also ties into evolution. For example, sweet foods are high calorie foods but are rare in nature, hence our ancestors who really liked sweets did better at surviving than those who did not really like sweets. Or some such story of survival of the sweetest.

Given the assumption that there are such hardwired preferences, it is conceivable that sexual preferences also involve some hardwiring. So, for example, a person might be hardwired to have a preference for sexual partners with light hair over those with dark hair. Then again, the preference might be based on experience—the person might have had positive experiences with those with light hair and thus was conditioned to have that preference. The challenge is, of course, to sort out the causal role of hard wiring from the causal role of experience (including socialization). What is left over might be what could be regarded as choice.

In the case of sexual orientation, it seems reasonable to have some doubts about experience being the primary factor. After all, homosexual behavior has long been condemned, discouraged and punished. As such, it seems less likely that people would be socialized into being homosexual—especially in places where being homosexual is punishable by death. However, this is not impossible—perhaps people could be somehow socialized into being gay by all the social efforts to make them be straight.

In regards to hardwiring for sexual orientation, that seems to have some plausibility. This is mainly because there seems to be a lack of evidence that homosexuality is chosen. Assuming that the options are choice, nature or nurture, then eliminating choice and nurture would leave nature. But, of course, this could be a false trilemma: there might be other options.

It can be objected that people do chose homosexual behavior and thus being homosexual is a choice. While this does have some appeal, it is important to distinguish between a person’s orientation and what the person choses to do. A person might be heterosexual and chose to engage in homosexual activity in order to gain the protection of a stronger male in prison. A homosexual might elect to act like a heterosexual to avoid being killed. However, this choices would not seem to change their actual orientation. As such, I tend to hold that orientation is not a choice but that behavior is a matter of choice.


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  1. Yes, but the real question is why do we care either way?

    How is sexual orientation anyone’s business (whether by nature or by choice), but the person holding it? We need to seriously ease up on our insecurities around sex, it’s downright childish.

    The minute people stop forcing their opinions and “values” onto others, the world will become a better place 🙂

  2. Frank, how many logical fallacies are found in your statement?

  3. Mike, Re “other options” for how homosexuality could be unchosen, here are a few– (1) There’s the theory that intrauterine environment is a factor. (2) There’s the theory that the causes are “epigenetic”–in other words, they have to do with how genes are switched on and off, not he genes themselves. (3) There’s the theory that it’s developmental–i.e. personality and environment in early childhood shape sexual orientation, long before a person’s aware of the social costs of being gay. I think all these views (as well as the straightforward genetic view) have their proponents.

  4. “Frank, how many logical fallacies are found in your statement?”

    enlighten me Rich

  5. Frank,

    People do care, even if it is not their business. But, I do agree that orientation is the business of the person and not the rest of us.

  6. Jean,

    True. Plus, there is metaphysical determinism. For example, for Spinoza people who are gay are necessarily gay and could not be otherwise. They are also modes of God.

  7. Modes of God. Cool!

  8. Of course for Spinoza everything and everybody are modes of God, including serial killers and psychopathic liars. Serial killers are necessarily serial killers and I necessarily write this comment.

    If reality is God, then the individual things are modes of Being.

  9. Frank, for one you made two value statements in the context of saying that we shouldn’t care what a person’s sexual orientation is.

    1. “We need to seriously ease up on our insecurities around sex.”
    2. “The minute people stop forcing their opinions and “values” on others, the world will become a better place.”

    When you journey into the world of telling people what we “should” or “shouldn’t” do, you’ve effectively forced your set of values on others. In essence, you’ve told us what we shouldn’t do all the while saying that we shouldn’t tell others what they shouldn’t do. This is self-defeating.

  10. It can be objected that people do chose homosexual behavior and thus being homosexual is a choice. While this does have some appeal, it is important to distinguish between a person’s orientation and what the person choses to do.

    Appeal? To whom?

    As such, I tend to hold that orientation is not a choice but that behavior is a matter of choice.

    The Catholic Church holds the same position. Yours is not a new, or even interesting, conclusion. Such a position is most often argued by antigay persons who believe that gay people should not act on their orientation, that they should choose to not engage in “homosexual acts” despite their orientation.

    To take this position a step further, in arguing for a difference between sexual orientation and behavior, and then forbidding the behavior (like the church does), one condemns gay persons to a life void of sexual intimacy and erotic love. How can such a position be ethical? Why do we need to make the distinction between sexual orientation and sexual behavior in the first place? Where does it get us? What advantage does it confer? And upon whom?

  11. David,

    I would never claim to be new. Or interesting.

  12. s.wallerstein,

    Quite right. That is why metaphysics matters. 🙂

  13. Mike:

    What is truly wondrous is not that metaphysics matters, but that the metaphysics which matters and is worthy, as you point out, of a bumper sticker, comes from a fellow who lived in the middle of the 17th century, without access to internet or to a smartphone or to scientific laboratories or to a contemporary university library, almost totally alone, so weird that the Jews of Amsterdam, the most tolerant city in the world then, excommunicated him, so rationalistic than he wrote philosophy as if he were doing geometry.

  14. excellent article pointing out the downsides in terms of gay rights/politics of insisting that being gay is a question of genes.


  15. Rich you completely missed the point!

    Both of my statements specifically center around NOT judging others and therefore NOT telling others what to do. That’s exactly what I’m saying you should NOT do!

    I have nothing against voicing an opinion, which I have done. Voicing an opinion is an absolutely necessary part of free speech. Force is only exerted by taking opinions and using them without good reason to restrict others by means of laws and regulations for example. I seek no restriction of others at all, I seek less restriction on gays for example.

    I hope that clarifies my points.

  16. Frank:

    When you tell others that they should not tell others what to do, you’re telling others what to do yourself.

    In other words, telling others not to moralize is a form of moralizing.

  17. S. Hammerstein hit the nail on the head. Frank, we understand your intention but your argument, which is common, is self-defeating.

  18. Sorry, s wallerstein, for butchering your name. :/

  19. s. wallerstein (aka amos)


    That’s ok.

    I felt flattered to be mistaken for the great songwriter Oscar Hammerstein.

  20. This is very interesting.. but I believe that accountability for my actions does not cease to exist due to orientations.. I may be oriented to be a lesbian in entertaining sexual pleasure or mere curiosity.. but I may also be entertained to be with a man because I feel protected and designed in this manner. Design is an argument we seldom pick up in these debates. if we think of purpose… we must evaluate sex in a whole new light… A woman is designed to conceive children and be impregnated by a mans sperm… Now I am asking the question, What then is the highest purpose of sex? Surely pleasure is only a part of this . But if I just look at biological design then I am forced to ask the question about purpose. So if homosexuality is wrong by religious edict alone then we have all missed the point… Is not purpose a fact in discussion ? orientation is not the only issue… What about design ?

  21. s. wallerstein and Rich,
    first of all why are we playing schematics when apparently my intention was understood? Shouldn’t my actual intention be the focus of discussion? Are we going to scrutinize my punctuation next?

    Yes I agree my argumentation wasn’t very refined, I thought the question I posed had enough merit. But ok let me clarify the additional two points.

    “We need to seriously ease up on our insecurities around sex, it’s downright childish.” – What I’m trying to say is that, apparently a lot of people appear to apply a very different logic/ moral standard when it comes to sex. We don’t care that the another person prefers golf over tennis. We understand the concept of taste. The intent of anal sex is to be intimate with a partner for both their enjoyment, just like regular sex. No hidden agendas. No ulterior motives. This is the basis moral judgement should derive from. Two people enjoying themselves. Now look at how society’s by means of archaic traditions has managed to pervert this intrinsically good act.

    “The minute people stop forcing their opinions and “values” on others, the world will become a better place.” – Ok, let me try rephrase. I think voicing an opinion is an extremely necessary human right. I think on this point we all agree. This will result in an inevitable clash of opinions, which isn’t always pretty but it’s necessary to freedom of expression and it’s completely fine. The problem arises when one of the party forces their values for example via legislation, government rule, etc with no basis in preventing harm. For example anal sex is no better or worse than regular sex just like golf isn’t better than tennis (the intent and result of anal sex was described above), it’s just a different flavor of personal enjoyment and yet one is precious (at least in marriage) and the other an “abomination”.

  22. debi,
    in my opinion neither form of “design” is a valid argument:

    The religious design argument – it’s a mere ruling made in the bible, no analysis, no reasoning, no evidence of harm. Just like a parent saying to a child “you should hate blue, cause I like red”.

    The biological design argument – I don’t think nature restricts the purpose of sex to a specific use. Do as you please without harming others is the sensible motto, I would say.
    So nature’s intent of sex may be to procreate that doesn’t mean if we “just have fun with it” nature will punish or us or similar. To the contrary I think nature gave us the orgasm so we’d have more sex and survive as a species 🙂
    We can use our feet to walk but also to enjoy playing a game of football. We can eat to survive but we can also bake a mango cheese cake just to indulge our taste buds.

  23. Frank:

    This is a philosophy blog. You made a simple error in philosophical reasoning, which we’ve probably all made the first time we ventured into philosophical territory and which being an obviously intelligent person, you will not make again. What’s more, you’ve learned a new ploy to use in future arguments.

  24. ok thanks s.wallerstein

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