This is going to be a rather long, philosophical post, so I'm going to put some comments right up front so that people can get this gist even if they don't have the time to read the whole post.
By now my readers have probably heard about the flap concerning a regional meeting of the Society for Christian Philosophers. If not, you can get up to speed on the facts via Maverick Philosopher, Ed Feser, or Rod Dreher.
Extremely eminent British, Christian philosopher Richard Swinburne presented a paper at a regional SCP meeting (an invited paper) on Christian sexual ethics and morality. In the course thereof he stated that people with homosexual orientation are disabled and that it would be good if they could be cured of this disability, and the left, including some so-called Christians, went hysterical, insane with rage. The President of the SCP, philosopher of religion Michael Rea, then publicly issued a brief and highly ambiguous semi-apology for the "hurt" caused by Swinburne's talk, implying that it did not properly advance the goals of "diversity and inclusion." Others have then called for Rea to apologize to Swinburne for this unprecedented move of apologizing for an eminent philosopher's invited talk just because it was controversial and also to "clarify" that a defense of traditional Christian sexual views is still welcome within the SCP.
In my opinion it is utterly ridiculous that Rea issued such an apology. It is an obvious act of appeasement to the left, unworthy of a philosopher or a Christian or even a man who has a firm grasp of the issues. Its fuzziness looks like calculated bureaucrat-speak, and its selective "sorrow" for "pain," handed to the left as a kind of trophy, is the kind of non-leadership or even un-leadership that has been destroying not only Christianity but freedom in the United States. It does harm and no good, and Rea should certainly retract it forthwith. In issuing this statement, moreover, Rea was lending the force of his position as President of the SCP as a tool in a quite deliberate campaign of bullying and intimidation against younger and more vulnerable scholars than Dr. Swinburne, who will now have that much more reason to fear for their careers. Not that Rea himself has such an agenda. He's too ambivalent and (I'm told) too nice a guy to have such an agenda. But others definitely do, and this apology entirely served their purposes. And not because of some official policy on the part of the SCP (we are assured that regional conference organizers will still choose papers just as they have always done) but because of the increasingly evident hostile climate, even in an ostensibly Christian organization, to such views, an hostility to which even the President of the organization is apparently willing to cater so far as to apologize and appease. This is both unacceptable and tragic. And probably irreparable. The trolls and bullies have come out in force (see the comments Dreher quotes here and the screen caps here) within "Christian" philosophy, and that sort of thing can't be put back in the bottle. Michael Rea is quite obviously not the man to lead the SCP in resisting the bullies and making crystal clear the ridiculousness of their demands, even if he now does the right thing and retracts his earlier statement. But he should do it anyway.
With all that said and my own support (which should go without saying) for Swinburne's right to espouse traditional Christian views of sexuality at a Christian conference fully established at the outset, I will now go on to discuss the ideas in his paper in more specifics, sometimes critically.
One of the reasons why I haven't posted on this yet (besides the fact that other people are doing a good job on the basic issues of bullying and the like and that I had little to add) is that I was hoping to get hold of a copy of what Swinburne actually presented. Numerous sources have stated (and one person has told me that Swinburne told him) that the ideas in Swinburne's paper at the conference were identical in essence to those in a chapter of the 2nd edition of his book Revelation. I only have a copy of the 1st edition and was waiting to get hold of the 2nd edition. Meanwhile, however, a friend passed on to me an electronic copy of the actual paper presented, from Swinburne himself. I won't be quoting it at any length here (not having permission to do so), but I will work on the assumption that his already-published views in the 2nd edition of Revelation are similar (and snippets on Amazon and Google Books confirm this) and use my own possession of the paper itself to move ahead.
My thesis in what follows is that Swinburne's views, if anything, are incorrect in that they are insufficiently robustly traditional/Christian on matters of sexual ethics, but that his use of the term "disability" for homosexual inclinations is the remaining bit in his views that reflects a recognition that homosexual acts and desires are unnatural. Therefore, it would be impossible to remove this disability language without leaving a lacuna in the discussion of homosexuality, unless one replaced it with something else that would be even more offensive to the homosexual lobby. Therefore, the unfortunate sniffing of eminent Catholic philosopher Eleonore Stump that the problem with Swinburne's presentation was not his views but his "inflammatory way" of expressing them, is balderdash. There would be no less "inflammatory way" of expressing the relevant content, and indeed if anything Swinburne is already making too many concessions.
In his paper, Swinburne divides ethical norms in the areas where Christian morality is most at odds currently with secular morality into those that would be binding even if God had issued no command and those that are binding only because of a divine command. The former list of wrong acts, those that he calls "intrinsically" wrong, is rather short, consisting only of adultery without permission from one's spouse (hence also divorce-with-option-to-remarry without consent of the other spouse, except perhaps in very limited cases), suicide (hence also euthanasia), and late abortion (after approximately 22 weeks).
The set of things that Swinburne says are wrong, but only because God commands against them, are homosexual acts, abortion earlier than approximately 22 weeks, divorce-with-remarriage (or a married person's having sex with someone other than his spouse) by mutual consent between spouses, fornication, and possibly contraception, though Swinburne is not completely decided on this last point.
Since Swinburne is dealing with such a wide variety of topics in one paper, his discussion is necessarily brief; hence, it might seem like caviling to say that his discussion at some point is too dismissive. But I do think it is noteworthy that he dismisses the entire Catholic natural law tradition on the underlying reason for the intrinsic immorality of homosexual acts in one sentence consisting of two independent clauses joined by a semicolon.
Swinburne's position on abortion is that fetuses prior to a particular stage of development at about 22 weeks are not persons and that killing them is wrong only because of a divine command. Yet notably, his presentation garnered outrage from some self-styled Christians only for an entirely different reason related to homosexuality. Swinburne is explicit at the end of the paper that there is "no point in rebuking non-Christians for not conforming to" those obligations created only by divine command, though of course we can try to induce them to become Christians so that they will "begin to appreciate arguments for conforming to them." This raises rather pressing questions about protecting the unborn in law, except for very late abortions. I, for one, find the selective outrage over the paper rather striking, though unsurprising.
Swinburne's taxonomy is puzzling in a variety of ways. Curiously enough, he states that the metaphysical grounding for the wrongness of suicide is the fact that God has created us, yet he considers suicide intrinsically wrong, not wrong only by divine command. But why could not a similar analysis be given of (e.g.) the wrongness of homosexual acts? Namely, that the metaphysical grounding of their (intrinsic) wrongness is the fact that God has created sex for the purposes of male-female bonding and procreation and that it is objectively a misuse of this gift to engage in same-sex relations, even if some people don't realize that this is wrong (as some don't recognize that suicide is wrong). If a theological fact--that God created man--can ground an intrinsic obligation to refrain from a particular act (suicide) in the one case, one would think that it could also do so in the other.
In any event, to move on to the "disability" language that caused such a stir: Even though Swinburne thinks that homosexual and other acts are wrong only on the basis of a divine command, he finds it philosophically interesting to discuss what reasons God might have for this prohibition. It's an interesting exercise, because of course if the reasons are sufficiently compelling, and if we can figure out what God's reasons might be, this would seem to raise a question as to why the acts aren't intrinsically wrong. Or, at a minimum, raise a question as to why purely secular people can't see the extreme consequential inadvisability of encouraging and celebrating the acts in question, be they fornication, homosexuality, or consensual divorce.
When Swinburne comes to discuss what God's reasons might be for prohibiting homosexual acts, he says this, "Having homosexual orientation is a disability – for a homosexual cannot beget children through a loving act with a person to whom they have a unique lifelong commitment." He goes on to say that it might even be hoped that a "cure" might be found for this disability, though he thinks this is unlikely right now for those who have been homosexuals for a long time, especially those who have acted upon their homosexual impulses.
And that's it. That's what caused all the hoopla. (See more below on "cure.")
So at this point what I want to ask is this: Suppose that Swinburne had left out that part of his discussion. What could he have put in its place? And would there have been anything less offensive (to homosexual sensibilities) that would have had the same contentful meaning?
Given what Swinburne does elsewhere with things like fornication, he could have left out the talk of homosexual inclinations as a disability and stated instead only that there is a special value to individuals and to society from the heterosexual nuclear family and a special value to society and to individuals of the production of children in the old-fashioned way. Hence, God might have believed that more people would be happier if homosexual acts were not normalized, if young people were encouraged to seek heterosexual relationships rather than to experiment with homosexual acts, and so forth.
If he had done this, however, it would have changed the content in an interesting way. First, it would have removed all hint of any explanation for the underlying reason why so much special happiness is generated by heterosexual nuclear families and by old-fashioned heterosexual procreation. The term "disability" gives a hint that this may be because having babies with (in the old-fashioned sense of "with") the person you love and to whom you've made a permanent commitment is more natural in a normative sense, more true to the telos of our bodily nature, than heterosexual sex acts. This might help to explain, causally, why the utilitarian benefits to individuals and to society arise from lifetime heterosexual pairings.
It's true that Swinburne has, earlier in the same paper, seemed to reject such teleological concepts, but here a hint of them is creeping back in. That would be eliminated and the probable greater happiness of a largely heterosexual society left entirely as an unexplained surd without the talk of a disability.
Second, the language of disability hints that heterosexual fornication is somewhat different from homosexual fornication. Consider: If a heterosexual man has a wandering eye and finds it hard to keep his thoughts and desires monogamous, we don't generally say that he has a disability. Yet such a man might find it difficult to make and keep a lifetime commitment to one woman and hence might at least find it difficult to beget children with a woman to whom he had a unique, lifetime commitment. Now, I suppose it's possible that Swinburne would also say that a man in that situation has a "disability," but I'm inclined to doubt it. The "disability" language, applied only to homosexual orientation, appears to be addressed to the absolute physical impossibility: A person with a consistent (unwavering) homosexual inclination is strictly unable, by means of sexual intercourse, to beget a child with the type of person to whom he is consistently sexually attracted and to whom he makes a social-sexual lifetime commitment. Once again, this distinction between a man with homosexual inclinations and a heterosexual man whose feelings are somewhat non-monogamous points to the telos of the human body.
How else might either Swinburne or someone else presenting the view that homosexual acts are wrong do without saying that homosexuality is a disability? Well, one way would be to say that the "disability" language is too mitigating, that it implies that there is some underlying biological cause of the inclinations that makes it difficult for people to act otherwise and mitigates the wrongness of the acts, but that in fact there is no such cause. A person who said this would take the view that all homosexual acts are entirely willful, chosen sins without a scrap of mitigation from an "orientation."
But this alternative position would obviously be far more offensive to homosexual sensibilities.
Another possibility would be to adopt thoroughly the natural law position, to say that homosexual acts are intrinsically wrong and that their wrongness springs from the fact that they are unnatural and perverse and that homosexual desires are intrinsically disordered, contrary not only to God's perfect and monogamous will for human sexuality but also to the very telos of the body itself.
Again, though, this robust natural law theory would hardly be less offensive than talk of "disability" to the pro-homosexual audience or those who heard about the paper.
In short, there simply is no way to replace the talk of disability with something less offensive that would not make a significant difference to content, a difference that would make the approach even less satisfactory, less clear, and less Christian.
Eleonore Stump, well-known philosophy professor at St. Louis University, said,
I was not at Prof. Swinburne’s talk, and my knowledge of what he said is derived from the comments about it by others. But it is clear from those comments that he took a strong stand on a highly controversial topic, which is divisive even among Christians, and that he expressed his views in an inflammatory way, so that those who disagreed with him were hurt and angry and even some of those who agreed with him were dismayed.
Stump very likely knows that the paper was allegedly a version of chapter 11 in the 2nd edition of Revelation. She doesn't cite any specifics of what she heard about Swinburne's talk but only the general commentary. No one is alleging that Prof. Swinburne got up and called homosexuals by nasty epithets. In fact, his paper expressly calls for compassion for those with these orientations.
My conclusion is that Stump is referring to Swinburne's talk of "disabilities" and his holding out (heaven forbid) the hope of a "cure" for homosexuality, as these were the allegedly "inflammatory" comments that everyone was having the vapors (or worse, the spittle-flecked, hateful rants) about.
A word about Swinburne's talk of the possibility of a "cure" for homosexual inclinations. It is entirely mild-mannered and consists merely of the hope for such a thing and of the fact that, if homosexuality is generally seen as a negative thing in society, there will be motivation to find a way to help people remove or ameliorate these inclinations, which will be for the general greater happiness of mankind. In no way does he remotely imply approval for forcible treatment, even if such could be found. Nor does he express enormous optimism about it. The most he says is that,
The evidence seems to me to indicate clearly that genes and environment (nature and nurture) both play a role in determining sexual orientation; and also that this orientation is sometimes to a considerable extent reversible. (Emphasis in original)
Medicine has made great strides in recent years. Diseases of mind or body hitherto believed incurable have proved curable; it would be odd if sexual orientation was the only incurable condition. But it looks as if for many homosexuals, but probably not for all, their condition is now incurable; and sympathy, not censure, must be our first reaction – as it must be for all those who find themselves in any situation not of their own choice where their sexual longings cannot be satisfied in a happy marriage.
This is hardly a ringing endorsement of the much-maligned reparative therapy. There is nothing remotely extreme about these statements, and no one would deem them inflammatory or even dismaying if they were made about, say, cancer or spina bifida! It would be utterly foolish to pretend that anyone deemed Swinburne's talk of the possibility of a "cure" offensive for any reason other than the fact that this implied disapprobation of homosexuality coupled with even a weak acknowledgement that homosexuality is in some special way unnatural and a disorder for the person who has the attractions. We get angry and offended and consider people creepy for talking about curing things when we don't think those things are the sorts of things that could need to be cured. One would get outraged over talk of curing Christian religious beliefs, for example. One would get outraged over talk of curing dissident political beliefs. So once again, any demand to remove this language is a demand for contentful capitulation, not simply a demand for some sort of trivial rhetorical tweak.
Dr. Stump is a smart enough philosopher that she ought to know that. I cannot help thinking that at some level she does know it. But for some reason she chose to say otherwise, implying that Swinburne was needlessly "inflammatory" and that he could and (implicitly) should have conveyed the same content (if he wished to do so), only in a somewhat nicer way that would not have changed the content. Well, no. He couldn't, and he had no obligation to try.
Where things will go from here in this particular flap, I don't know. My best guess is that Dr. Rea will stand pat on his vague statement, that the leftists, including the Christian left, will continue to rant, that nothing particularly bad will happen to Dr. Swinburne for his "inflammatory" comments except perhaps a few fewer invitations to speak (which he can probably do without anyway), but that younger conservative philosophers will take due note and warning.
It's extremely ominous that so concessive a paper as this one, presented at an ostensibly Christian conference, should have garnered so much rage and so much appeasement. I can't do much better than to echo Rod Dreher's conclusion on the significance:
Anybody with eyes can see what’s going on here. There is a cleansing underway. The fact that the Society of Christian Philosophers is allowing itself to be bullied by these people is deeply depressing.
Ed Feser makes the same point:
To pretend (as some Christian philosophers I know do) that this sort of thing is essentially just a regrettable but understandable overreaction on the part of wounded souls who have had some bad experiences with obnoxious religious people is naiveté. It is often rather a calculated political tactic aimed at making public dissent from liberal conventional wisdom on sexuality practically difficult or impossible.
What does all this have to do with Rea and Swinburne? Just this. Sophistries and ruthless political pressure tactics of the sort just described succeed only when people let them succeed – when they let themselves be intimidated, when they acquiesce in the shaming and shunning of those who express unpopular views, when they enable the delegitimization of such views by treating them as something embarrassing, something to apologize for, something “hurtful,” etc.
This, it seems to me, is what Rea has done in the case of Swinburne. Given current cultural circumstances, Rea’s statement amounts to what philosophers call a Gricean implicature – it “sends a message,” as it were -- to the effect that the SCP agrees that views like Swinburne’s really are disreputable and deserving of special censure, something to be quarantined and set apart from the ideas and arguments that respectable philosophers, including Christian philosophers, should normally be discussing.
That is unjust and damaging to philosophy itself, not merely to Swinburne. It is especially unjust and damaging to younger academic philosophers – grad students, untenured professors, and so forth – who are bound to be deterred from the free and scholarly investigation of unpopular ideas and arguments. If even the Society of Christian Philosophers is willing to participate in the public humiliation even of someone of the eminence, scholarly achievement, and gentlemanly temperament of Richard Swinburne, then why should any young and vulnerable scholar trust his fellow academic philosophers to “have his back” when questions of academic freedom arise? Why should he believe they are sincere in their purported commitment to reason over sophistry?