Friday, October 14, 2011

Corvino on the PIB Argument (Part Two)

Philosopher John Corvino (from Flickr user yksin)

(Part One)

(NB: For appropriate background and context, please read the introduction to part one.)

This is the second part in my series looking at John Corvino’s article “Homosexuality and the PIB Argument”. In part one, we introduced the PIB argument and followed Corvino in dismissing some of the traditional responses to it. In this part, we look Corvino’s attempt to come up with a better response. Corvino’s project is an important one since the PIB argument is surprisingly popular and it would be nice to be able to dismiss it.

As you recall from part one, the PIB argument is a slippery slope argument. It rests on the idea that once we accept that homosexual relationships are morally permissible, we will also have to accept that polygamous, incestuous and bestial relationships are morally permissible. This is not because of any causal connection between the acceptance of homosexuality and the acceptance of these other relationships, but, rather, because whatever principle we would use to ground the permissibility of homosexuality would also (so the argument goes) logically entail the permissibility of PIB relationships. To put it more pithily and more formally:

  • (1) If homosexual relationships are morally permissible, then PIB relationships are morally permissible as well.
  • (2) But PIB relationships are not morally permissible.
  • (3) Therefore, homosexual relationships are not morally permissible.

As with all arguments of this sort, there are two possible ways to respond: (i) reject premise (1) or (ii) reject premise (2). Since most people wouldn’t be willing to reject premise (2), we’re focussing on rejections of premise (1). We surveyed two such rejections in part one (from Andrew Sullivan and Jonathan Rauch, respectively). We found both to be lacking. Corvino thinks we can do better.

1. A New Strategy
The reason Corvino thinks we can do better is because he thinks defenders of homosexuality have been making a strategic error. To see what he is on about, we begin with a general observation about premise (1). The observation is as follows:

If it is right to say — as premise (1) does — that the moral basis from which we approve of homosexual relationships also requires the approval of PIB relationships, then this is only because the two sets of relationships are analogous in morally significant respects. Conversely, if it is wrong to say the approval of one requires the approval of the other, then this is only because the two sets of relationships are disanalogous in some morally significant respect.

This, in fact, was one of the key messages of part one: if you want to reject premise (1) you must present some reason for thinking the relationships in question are morally disanalogous.

The problem with this message is that it accepts that the burden of proof is on those who reject the PIB argument. Indeed, Sullivan and Rauch tacitly accepted that the burden of proof was on them to prove the disanalogy when they presented their objections. That is why they felt it necessary to point to things like the constitutive nature of homosexual preferences, and the denial of access to loving relationships that were present in the case of homosexual relationships but not in the case of PIB relationships. Corvino thinks they were wrong to accept this burden of proof. They should have realised that the burden is on the defender of the PIB argument to prove the analogy in the first place.

This leads Corvino to propose a new strategy for responding to the PIB argument. The strategy is desiged to reinforce the idea that burden of proof is on the proponent of the PIB argument. Corvino adopts this strategy by making an interesting reverse analogy. The reverse analogy links homosexual relationships to non-procreative heterosexual relationships. The reverse analogy is driven by the idea that whatever makes non-procreative heterosexual relationships morally valuable, will also make homosexual relationships morally valuable.

If Corvino’s reverse analogy works, it changes the entire complexion of the dialectic: the proponent of the PIB argument will then be forced to explain why it is homosexuality in particular, as opposed to nonprocreative relationships in general, that gives his argument its impetus.

2. The Good of Nonprocreative Sexual Relationships
It is generally agreed that some (not all) nonprocreative heterosexual relationships are good (or, rather, are a good). Those who believe that sexual relationships must have the consequence of procreation will disagree, but they are surprisingly few in number. Indeed, even the most ardent of contemporary natural lawyers, like Robert George, John Finnis or Patrick Lee, tends to think that sterile heterosexual marriages are good. So there really does seem to be widespread agreement on this point.

But what is it that makes some nonprocreative heterosexual relationships good? Leaving to one side the answer proposed by the likes of George, Finnis and Lee (this answer will be discussed in the next part), there seems to be a number of positive outcomes attached to such relationships. We could list them as follows: they are pleasurable for the participants; they assist in emotional and personal development; they create stability and security; and they provide fulfillment over an extended period of time.

Now ask yourself, are any of these things necessarily lacking in homosexual relationships? The obvious answer would seem to be “no”. Some homosexual relationships also provide pleasure, opportunities for emotional and personal development, stability and security, and fulfillment over an extended period of time. But if these things are all present in homosexual relationships, then how can we object to them? In other words, why can’t we say — as the proponent of PIB said of homosexuality and PIB relations — that the moral basis for approving of nonprocreative sexual relationships also entails moral approval of homosexual relations? Corvino sees no reason why we can’t.

3. Two Objections to Corvino’s Analogy
There are two obvious concerns one may have about Corvino’s reverse analogy. First, one may contend that the key features of nonprocreative sexual relationships — as listed above — are not really “sexual” at all. That is to say, one could contend that pleasure, emotional and personal growth, security and stability, and long-term fulfillment can be achieved in relationships with no sexual components. As in, for example, a long-term friendship.

Corvino rejects this contention. He thinks there are good grounds for thinking that sexual activity plays a key role in securing the positive outcomes just listed. To be precise, he argues that sexual activity builds, celebrates and replenishes the bonds of love between the two people within the relationship. And since it is these bonds of love that help the participants to attain the positive outcomes associated with their relationships, the sexual element is essential (in support of this he cites the example of sexless marriages being typically unhappy marriages).

Second, one may ask the obvious question: wouldn’t it be possible to achieve all those positive outcomes in PIB relationships too? Well, I suspect there are legitimate doubts to be raised about some of them ( e.g. Are polygamous relationships secure and stable? Do you really develop emotionally and personally through bestial relationships?), but in general this is the right question to ask. Indeed, the whole point of Corvino’s argument is effectively to get you to ask this question. His point seems to that once we understand what is good about nonprocreative heterosexual relationships, we will see that there is no greater reason for thinking that there is a slippery slope from those types of relationship to PIB relationships, than there is from homosexual relationships to PIB relationships.

Of course, this realisation can lead us in a couple of different directions. We could use it as a basis for challenging premise 2 of the PIB argument; or, as Corvino wants us to do, we could use it as a reductio of the PIB argument. After all, if there’s no reason to think there is a slippery slope from heterosexual relationships to PIB relationships, and if homosexual relationships are affirmed for the same reasons as heterosexual relationships, then there can’t possibly be a reason to think there is a slippery slope from homosexual relationships to PIB relationships.

This then is the essence of Corvino’s preferred response to the PIB argument. One difficulty it faces is that the “new” natural lawyers such as George, Finnis and Lee think they can avoid it. We’ll see why in the next part.


  1. "This is not because of any causal connection between the acceptance of homosexuality and the acceptance of these other relationships, but, rather, because whatever principle we would use to ground the permissibility of homosexuality would also (so the argument goes) logically entail the permissibility of PIB relationships."

    The first essay provided a decent rationale for rejecting the "causal" form of this argument (namely, that there is no empirical evidence of any causal connection), but I still find it odd that the "logical" form of this argument gets so much attention.

    On its face, this logic-based argument is completely pointless; it is just a reductio ad absurdum of some unspecified argument. It is ridiculous to assert that ALL principles that would permit homosexuality would also permit PIB, without specifying any such principle.

    This argument completely ignores that there are, in fact, arguments that are used to justify acceptance of homosexuality. When we actually look at these arguments, they do not also justify PIB (as described above; in addition, my own justification is based on the principle that males and females, as such, should not be treated differently -- outside of personal sexual relationships).

    So it seems that the only interesting question is "what do the proponents of the PIB argument think are the most compelling arguments for accepting homosexuality?"

    Finally, I think that the reason that this PIB argument is compelling to some people is due to a hybrid of the logical and causal aspects of this argument: they are using an introspective method to make causal inferences about minds. They don't care about empirical data, or logical necessity. Most likely, they are just using this simplistic reasoning: "I reject homosexuality for the same reason that I reject PIB; therefore, if I don't reject homosexuality, I cannot consistently reject PIB."

  2. I'm actually not entirely sure that the PIB argument is a slippery slope argument properly-so-called. I mean, I don't mind it being called that - I'm not a linguistic Nazi or anything - but I don't see the difference between it and any other argument with a conditional major premise. I feel like there should be more than one step for it to constitute a slippery slope. That's just me though.

    I think there is a reason why the principle driving the PIB argument is left unspecified: it makes the argument more broadly appealing. People can fill in whatever they want to make it work. Like you said, this might allow them to fuse logical and causal interpretations of the argument. That's also why the argument is dangerous. Because it's a bit of Rorschach blot, people can be easily led by it.

    Anyway, there'll be more on the reasons for and against PIB relations in the final part (4) of the series.