The Unverifiability of Claims Based on Unreplicable Personal Experience
Sometimes arguments are made for particular points of view by means of appeal to personal, unsharable experiences, or "personal testimonies." One example of this I've run across a lot comes from the Latter-day Saint community. "I know that the Book of Mormon is true and I testify to you that it is true." How do you know that? "I prayed about it, and God has testified it to me by the Holy Ghost in my heart." How did that happen? What was that like? How did you know it was the Holy Ghost? "I can't explain it. It was so clear, so real . . . I just knew it was the Holy Ghost!" Well, how do you know it wasn't just your feelings? Perhaps your praying worked on your emotions so that you got a powerful feeling, maybe even had something like a mystical experience of some sort, but it had nothing to do with the truth of the Book of Mormon but was simply a subjective experience. "No, no, I know it wasn't that." How do you know? ". . . I can't explain it. I just know. There is no way for me to communicate my experience to you. You'll just have to have the experience for yourself." (I've had conversations very much like this in the past with Latter-day Saints.)
This kind of conversation seems to leave things at a bit of an impasse. I have no way of proving directly that the person I'm talking to did not have a personal, revelatory experience of some kind that proved, conclusively, that the Book of Mormon is true. I have no access to that personal experience to prove or disprove it. Nor can my Latter-day Saint friend prove to me the verity of her personal experience. So where can we go from here? Actually, the Latter-day Saint way of thinking provides a way out of the impasse, at least to some degree. I can replicate the experiment, so to speak. I can pray about the Book of Mormon too, and see if I get the same experience. If I don't, my Latter-day Saint friend will often suggest possible reasons for the failure--perhaps I was not sincere enough, or I didn't pray in quite the right way, or something like that. I can then check my procedures, my motives, etc., and if I determine that I was indeed acting with honesty, integrity, and sincerity, that I was praying in the appropriate way, etc., then I can probably conclude from that that my friend's testimony has been falsified. So there is a way forward there.
It becomes harder when the emphasis is placed on the personal experience and no way is provided by means of which I could replicate it. If, upon reporting to my Latter-day Saint friend that the Holy Ghost did not testify to me of the truth of the Book of Mormon, she continues to insist that, nonetheless, her personal experience was real and proves the Book of Mormon to be true, despite our ignorance as to why I was not able to receive the same testimony, we are again back at an impasse. She can't prove her experience true, and I can't prove it false.
This impasse is even more at the forefront in other conversations. In recent years, a "personal experience" sort of argument has been made use of quite a bit in the areas of homosexuality and transgenderism. The conversation often goes a bit like this (I'm simplifying to focus in on the point at hand, of course):
ALBERT: You Christians are wrong to tell gay people they can't live the gay lifestyle.
RICK: How do you know that?
ALBERT: Because it is cruel. Gay people are wired to be attracted to members of the same sex. It is hard and cruel to tell them they have to suppress this part of themselves.
RICK: Well, it all comes down to whether or not Christianity is true, doesn't it? If Christianity really is true, then the all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good Creator of the universe and author of the objective moral law has told us that homosexual acts are unethical and we should not engage in them. He would know, wouldn't he? So if there is good reason to conclude that this worldview is true, then it follows that homosexual acts are unethical, doesn't it?
ALBERT: But that is cruel! You are telling people they can't be themselves! It is unjust to ask this of anybody!
RICK: I understand and sympathize. I don't doubt that following the objective moral law in this area is very hard for those attracted to the same sex. Perhaps it can be a comfort to them to realize that following the objective moral law tends to be hard for everyone, though the "hardness" manifests itself in different ways. Ethics asks hard things of people. It calls some to be martyrs, to endure death and torture rather than follow the crowd. It calls us all to learn self-control, to suppress natural desires and bring them under the control of reason, which is an incredibly difficult thing to do. Restraining sexual desires in particular is notoriously difficult, and yet we are all called to self-control. It takes little imagination or empathy to consider all the ways in which, not just homosexuals, but lots of people have to struggle hard to control and redirect sexual desires that would lead them down paths most of us would recognize as harmful or unethical. It is notoriously hard to "do the right thing" sometimes. We should sympathize with each other, but we have no rational basis to conclude that something must be OK to do simply because it is very hard not to do it.
ALBERT: All your answers are glib and cold and meaningless. You can't possibly understand what homosexuals go through because you aren't a homosexual.
RICK: I may not be a homosexual, but I am a human being, and I do have some idea of how hard life can be. I recognize though, certainly, that I cannot really know, experientially, fully what it is like to walk in someone else's shoes. But that doesn't prove that my ethical beliefs are incorrect.
ALBERT: Yes, it does! Since you can't know what it's like to be me, you can't tell me my feelings are invalid. I'm telling you that I know, from personal experience, that a good God could never demand that homosexuals suppress their homosexual impulses. It would be too cruel. You can't understand that, but you have to believe it, because I am telling you from my own personal experience.
RICK: But how do I evaluate your personal experience? You claim to have experience that proves that homosexual acts cannot be unethical. But I cannot have that same experience, so how can I verify whether or not it shows what you think and claim it shows?
ALBERT: You don't have to verify it! You just have to accept it! I'm me, so I get to testify to my own personal experience! You don't get to say anything about it! You just have to accept what I'm telling you.
RICK: But that would be irrational. Just because you have personal experiences and have interpreted them in a certain way, that doesn't prove that you might not be interpreting them wrongly. I can't just accept your point of view without critical analysis. That would be to believe things without sufficient evidence, which would be dishonest.
ALBERT: No, it would not be dishonest. It is the only just, the only compassionate thing to do. If you respect me, you will accept my personal testimony about myself without question.
(Again, this is a hugely oversimplified and unrealistic conversation, of course. For a somewhat closer approximation to a real conversation, though still fictional, see here.)
Rick is right not to accept Albert's personal testimony uncritically, despite Albert's attempts to persuade him that compassion requires him to do so. While we ought to be compassionate and empathetic towards people and the personal difficulties they struggle with, if we are interested in truth, we cannot accept conclusions without adequate grounding in the evidence. As Rick noted, just because a person claims to have had some particular experience, it doesn't prove that they've really had that experience or that they've interpreted their experience correctly. The simple fact that I am me doesn't make me infallible in the interpretations of my own experiences. We all know that, if we are sufficiently self-aware. People can often be misled by false interpretations of their own subjective experiences, especially if those experiences are tied to deeply-felt emotions or desires. Again, just because my Latter-day Saint friend had some "religious experience," that doesn't by itself prove to me that they have rightly interpreted their experience to have given them infallible proof that the Book of Mormon is a revelation from God. Very few of us, rightly, are going to become Latter-day Saints simply on the basis of such personal-testimony claims, which is why Latter-day Saints typically go on to tell people how to replicate that experience in their own lives.
Another example of an area where, today, we often run into the "personal experience proves everything" kind of argument is transgenderism. "I'm a boy." But you're a biological girl. "I don't care. I know I'm a boy." On what basis do you claim to be a boy? "I feel that I am a boy." How do your feelings show that you are a boy? What is your linguistic and philosophical justification for redefining the word "boy" to mean something different than it has meant in the past history of the English language, in Christian theology, etc.? And what do you even mean by "boy" now that you've divorced the word from its original objective meaning? "Look, I feel that I am a boy! So if you will be compassionate and respectful toward me, you will simply accept that I am a boy and not ask any further questions! I'm me, so I get to define myself, and you simply have to accept it, or you're a hateful bigot!" (Of course, not all advocates of transgender ideology are so belligerent, but the belligerence is common enough in such circles that I do no injustice in making it a part of what a standard conversation of this sort often looks like.) The problem with this, of course, is that this appeal to personal testimony provides no real evidence--or, rather, no evidence that is sufficiently accessible to people in general. Just because I testify that I feel strongly that I should be identified as the gender opposite my biological sex, it does not follow that that feeling is correct. It takes little imagination to understand how one could misinterpret one's feelings in such an area. Personal experiences and feelings are interpreted in light of beliefs and assumptions a person has, and so those interpretations may only be as true as the truth of those beliefs and assumptions. Therefore, a claim of personal feelings cannot be used to trump critical questioning of beliefs and assumptions that may underlie the interpretations.
So a claim based on unreplicable personal experience cannot, by itself, prove a belief to be true. However, it is also true that, because the personal experience is unreplicable and out of the reach of the experience of others, claims based solely and completely on such experiences are impossible to directly disprove. Sometimes the argument is made that because they cannot be disproved, that amounts to a good reason to accept them as true. "I claim to have seen God! You can't prove that I haven't seen God, so you have to accept that I have!" But not being able to disprove something is simply not the same as proving something to be true. If I can't disprove that elves exist, it doesn't follow that that in itself gives me good reason to believe that they do. Again, testimonies of personal experience, when this is all we have, leave us not with proof or disproof but at an impasse. We simply cannot know whether the claims based on the experience are valid or not. The only rational position, then, is to be agnostic on those claims.
So does that mean that we must always be agnostic with regard to anyone's claims based on personal experience? No. If all we have is personal experience to go on, we would have to be agnostic, but we very often have more than that to go on. With regard to Latter-day Saint claims, for example, we can investigate those claims at many points, as the claims touch on history, philosophy, theology, etc. My primary reason for rejecting the claims of the Latter-day Saint worldview is because I have found them to fail philosophically and theologically. I believe Latter-day Saint claims about God and other matters are falsified philosophically; they fail to stand up to logic. Also, I believe I have positive reasons to believe in the truth of historic, Catholic Christianity, which entails the falsehood of the foundation of the Latter-day Saint worldview (the conviction that Joseph Smith was a true prophet, etc.). If, having concluded that Catholic Christianity is true on the grounds of various solid evidences, I am confronted with an argument based on Latter-day Saint personal testimony, I will simply respond that, while I can't directly disprove claims based in such personal testimony, yet the mere claims do not prove themselves, and I can indirectly disprove them based on their incompatibility with other things I have reason to believe to be true. If the Latter-day Saint protests that he knows his personal experience proves the Latter-day Saint worldview, and that I have to just accept that because I can't possibly know what he's experienced, I will reply that I have no good reason to think that he cannot have misinterpreted his own personal experience, and I have good, positive reasons coming from other sources to believe that, in fact, in this case, he has done precisely that. If he insists that it is disrespectful of me not to accept claims based on his personal experience, I will reply that it is not a matter of respect or disrespect; it is a matter of intellectual honesty. If a person believes he is being disrespected simply because his claims, even claims based on unreplicable personal experience, are not uncritically accepted, he needs to reconsider whether his requirements for "being respected" are actually reasonable ones or not. We deserve to be respected as human beings, but no human being can justly claim to deserve to have everyone accept his own ideas without critical analysis. This is not a genuine requirement for the respect we are owed as human beings.
With regard to homosexuality and transgenderism, I think the same analysis holds. A homosexual may claim to have personal experiences that prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that homosexual acts are not unethical. If I question this claim, he may object that I am in no position to judge his subjective, personal experience. I must reply that while it is true that I cannot directly disprove his claim, the mere fact that he claims it falls short of proving it true, for I have no reason to believe that he is an infallible interpreter of his own personal experience, and it is clear to me that there are many ways a person might be mistaken about the real meaning of their own personal experiences. Ironically, there are plenty of personal testimonies from people out there who admit to having interpreted their own personal experiences wrongly at various points. So it would be intellectually irresponsible for me to accept claims based merely on such personal experience as if they proved themselves. And, in the case of homosexuality, I believe I have good, solid reasons to believe that Catholic Christianity is true, and Catholic Christianity tells me, among many other things, that homosexual acts are unethical. Therefore, I have good reason to believe they are unethical, and this evidence is not trumped by mere claims based on unreplicable personal experiences. With regard to claims based on transgender experiences, again, I am not going to accept claims simply because they are made, without any good reason to think they are actually true, and the mere fact that a claim is rooted in someone's unreplicable personal experience does not constitute sufficient reason to believe that it is true. I am going to evaluate that claim in light of everything that I know from history, science, philosophy, theology, etc.
What About the Lucy Argument?
An argument for trust in claimed personal experience might be made based on the sort of reasoning famously laid out in C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, four children--two brothers and two sisters--go to stay for a while at the home of an old professor. The youngest sister, Lucy, stumbles through a doorway into another world inside an old wardrobe. When she comes back and tells her siblings about the experience, they don't believe her. They are very uncomfortable, because Lucy has always been honest before, and they begin to fear that she might be developing some kind of insanity. They finally decide to go and talk to the professor about her, but he surprises them by suggesting that they accept her word along with the existence of the other world she claims to have discovered. He points out that everyone accepts that she is an honest girl, and he rules out insanity by observation of her behavior, and so he deduces that the most likely explanation is that she is telling the truth. (You can find this conversation in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, chapter 5.)
Lewis makes a fascinating argument here, and one that, I think, has a lot of value and validity. In the story, Lucy's siblings suffer under a preconceived bias without any real foundation--that there cannot be other worlds occasionally accessible through things like old wardrobes--and they use that bias as a basis to reject an exceedingly credible eyewitness testimony. The professor points out the absurdity of calling into question the honesty or the sanity of a person well known to them merely on the basis of a felt need to preserve unwarranted assumptions about reality. It is very easy for us to let our preconceived biases affect our objectivity in analyzing arguments and evidence. Instead of letting our prejudices determine which evidence we will allow to have its say, we should instead allow the evidence to stand judge over our prejudices--even if that means questioning deeply- and long-held, and even fundamental, assumptions about the nature of reality.
But saying that we should allow even deeply-held assumptions to be questioned by credible evidence, including credible evidence from eyewitnesses, is not the same as saying we should give an uncritical pass to all claims based on personal experience. Some claims based on personal experience are going to be more reliable than others. We have to look at the specifics. In the case of Lucy, we have an honest girl, with signs of sanity, telling a very detailed story about specific incidents involving specific individuals that occurred in a specific world with a specific name which she got into by going into a specific wardrobe, etc. Lucy's siblings really had no reason to disbelieve her story, for they had no basis for their assumption that such a thing was impossible. Given the incredible specificity of Lucy's story, there was no plausible explanation for her account beyond the possibility that she was deliberately lying, subject to some form of insanity (vivid, detailed hallucinations, etc.), or that she really had the specific experiences she related. Given that her siblings knew her well and had strong reasons to believe her an honest person and not insane, and given that they had no real reason to disbelieve her story, no matter how counter-intuitive it was, the professor was right in pointing out that the best conclusion was to accept her story as legitimate. (Of course, there might still be a question about how to interpret her experiences, but there was good reason to accept that, whatever the explanation, she actually had the experiences she claimed to have had.)
This is far different from the situation of the Latter-day Saint testimony I described above. In that case, we would need to ask some further questions. How well do I know the Latter-day Saint I am talking to? Although it is charitable to assume honesty when reasonably possible, it would be foolish to ignore the fact that people often lie. I can't just discount that possibility out of hand if I do not know how trustworthy a particular person is. And there are degrees of lying. Sometimes people lie outright, fully consciously and calculatingly. Other times, there is a fair amount of self-deception going on, more or less consciously. With a relative stranger (like a missionary coming to my door), I don't typically have the personal background necessary to evaluate levels of trustworthiness. Also, in the case of the Latter-day Saint testimony, as well as lots of other kinds of "religious experience," there is often quite a lot of interpretation going on between the actual experience and a person's conclusions or beliefs based on that experience. With Lucy, there was hardly any. She either had those experiences or she didn't. But a Latter-day Saint might really have a kind of deep, emotional experience when praying, and she might honestly and with strong conviction be persuaded, for whatever reason (background biases, expectations, etc.), that that experience means that the Book of Mormon is true, and yet she might quite easily be wrong in that interpretation. It would be good to know more details about the exact nature of the particular experience a particular person is telling us about. With Latter-day Saints, in my experience, it often comes down to a kind of feeling of joy or peace, perhaps accompanied by a strong sense of conviction that the Book of Mormon is true. It is easy to see that an experience like that is highly ambiguous in itself and could be due to any number of factors, and that the leap from such an experience to a specific propositional claim like "The Book of Mormon is a revelation from God" is quite a large one, and not necessarily well warranted. It is easy to imagine how people around the world might have similar experiences but interpret them differently based on different religious backgrounds, etc. A person need not be insane or dishonest to be fooled by such an experience into thinking they know more than they actually do. So it makes sense to take claims in this kind of context, generally speaking, with much, much more of a grain of salt than Lucy's siblings should have taken her eyewitness testimony. Although both cases involve claims based on unreplicable personal experiences, the specifics of the cases are vastly diverse and the responses called for are very diverse as well.
The same can be said with regard to personal-experience-based claims connected to homosexuality or transgenderism. If a person tells me that, as a homosexual, they can tell from their feelings that being asked to control and redirect homosexual desires is too much to ask for, so that it is impossible that there could be a God who would ask that, this claim seems to be based on very subjective and ambiguous evidence. How difficult does a task have to feel like in order to constitute objective evidence that an objective moral law from God would not require it? I find it interesting that people who would not balk at being asked to die, and even possibly to endure torture, in order to defend their values and do what they think is right, think that the difficulty involved in being asked not to engage in homosexual acts is "too much" to such an extent that they think that constitutes objective proof that such an ethical requirement cannot exist. I am not aware of any objective argument that can show me the upper limit of what the objective moral law of God might ask of a particular person. If, upon receiving such a reply as that, the homosexual responds by saying, "Well, of course you can't understand, you're not homosexual! No one can understand me but me! You'll just have to take my word for it that my experience constitutes a valid basis for such an objective argument," I'm going to have to answer that I cannot accept that claim as constituting sufficient evidence to abandon my entire Christian worldview and adopt their view on the ethicality of homosexual acts. There is far too much subjectivity and room for error here. Even if the person I am talking to is being perfectly honest, how do I know he is not leaping to his conclusion in a way similar to my Latter-day Saint friend--taking an ambiguous, though deeply-felt, emotional experience and jumping to an unwarranted conclusion based on it, a conclusion lacking in an objectively solid foundation and perhaps influenced by preconceived biases, assumptions, strong desires, etc.? So I really have no basis to agree with my homosexual friend's conclusion based simply on what he perceives his personal experience to be telling him. And, also similarly to the Latter-day Saint case, I have strong evidence coming from other sources telling me that his interpretation of his personal experience is incorrect. I have good reason to believe that Catholic Christianity is true, and that worldview tells me that homosexual acts are unethical. The personal-evidence-based claim of the homosexual can no more overturn that than can the personal-evidence-based claim of the Latter-day Saint.
Intellectual, Emotional, and Pastoral Considerations Regarding Personal Testimonies about the Ethicality of Homosexual Acts
I am going to conclude all of this by pasting a portion of a conversation I had with someone recently regarding these sorts of issues, and specifically regarding claims of personal experience having to do with homosexuality. The conversation was useful, I thought, in bringing out some important points on these topics both on the intellectual level and on the emotional/psychological/pastoral level.
This is very interesting and crucially important, I think. My conversations with you and with others expressing similar convictions has made me think about this a great deal in recent times. . . . A couple of thoughts:
1. It is very understandable that our emotions will accompany our reason as we think about these sorts of issues, issues which deeply impact our worldviews, our practical lives, our sense of identity, our feelings about social justice, etc. It’s wholly appropriate for our emotions to be involved; it would be un-human to exclude them or assume they would be excluded. In dealing with these issues, both the emotional side and the intellectual side have to be addressed. . . . It’s a hard balance to properly respect and respond to the emotional aspects while at the same time not allowing those aspects to cripple the ability to deal with the intellectual issues thoroughly and effectively (or vice versa). It’s something we think about a lot.
2. An important question is what role emotions have to play in informing or making intellectual arguments. What weight should emotion have in our reasons for believing things? There are pitfalls to avoid here. On the one hand, we want to take the concerns arising from our emotions seriously and not neglect important things they have to say to us. On the other hand, we don’t want to allow our emotions to give us an excuse not to deal honestly and thoroughly with the intellectual issues. Sometimes reality might be painful and difficult, and I might need to choose to endure some pain in order to truly question my beliefs and assumptions and allow myself to be challenged by reality. I might have to come to conclusions that are greatly painful and hard for me. But if I care about reality and don’t want to try to escape into a false fantasy world where I feel safer, I have to learn to take that journey despite the difficulties--at least as much as I can.
3. Following #2, emotions cannot be regarded as immune from questioning or criticism. I think there is a temptation that some people give in to these days (I think it is a bit of a fad these days) to think that if they feel very, very strongly about something, and that something is very deeply personal to them, that that exempts them from having to question those emotions, or to allow others to challenge them. Questioning beliefs tied up with those emotions is often seen as a kind of personal attack and offense, and that sense of offense functions as a kind of screen against questioning and criticism. This is dangerous, because it makes people feel a kind of justification for exempting themselves from questioning deep-seated, strongly-felt, and strongly-held-and-valued assumptions. But this is a sure recipe for maintaining unjustified beliefs and prejudices. If we want reality, we cannot exempt even our deepest beliefs and feelings from critical questioning. These days, it has become popular in some circles to feel this way especially about moral issues and feelings. A lot of people feel that if they have beliefs or feelings about moral and social issues they care deeply about, that somehow the depth of those feelings and the importance of the concerns justifies exempting those assumptions from critical questioning or challenge, as if allowing those assumptions to be questioned is a kind of betrayal of the moral convictions. But moral convictions are only valid if they are based on truth, on reality. They must be well-founded in the evidence before we have reason to take them as valid moral convictions. So they cannot be exempt from questioning--at least not if we care about truth and reality.
4. So simply feeling strongly that homosexual acts should be OK, or being greatly concerned for social justice for homosexuals, do not in themselves prove that homosexual acts are ethical. We also have to keep distinct different questions. For example, it could possibly be true BOTH that homosexual acts are unethical AND that homosexuals have been treated unjustly and unlovingly in society. If homosexuals have been treated unjustly, it does not necessarily follow that homosexual acts are ethical, and we cannot use the former as an argument for the latter (or at least I don’t see how the former actually proves the latter). We can’t let our feelings about social justice cloud our judgment about the actual merits of arguments and evidence. Also, being personally involved in this question does not, in itself, provide a reason for coming to a certain conclusion. If I am homosexual, much might be at stake for me personally in the quesiton of whether or not homosexual acts are unethical. This shouldn’t be minimized on an emotional level, but, at the same time, it cannot be used to provide a shield against crtitical questions.
5. One possible intellectually-meritorious argument that I could see arising out of the strong, personal emotions regarding homosexuality would be the one you have alluded to--the concern, as you put it, that “it’s wrong to suppress a natural part of life.” I’ve addressed that in some of my earlier responses . . . but it’s an important objection that shouldn’t be dismissed too quickly. I think the argument, if we articulate it out, goes something like this: “God would not have made the world such that some people have a natural proclivity towards homosexuality and then also have forbidden homosexual acts in his moral law. His moral commands would be at odds with what he created, and it would be inherently wrong for there to be a moral requirement to suppress a natural part of our created identity.”
I’ve addressed some of this in earlier responses. For one thing, the situation we are currently in, where people are required by morality to suppress their desires in a painful way, is not the ideal state of creation, but is rather a part of the world in a fallen state. As to why God would allow the Fall to occur, or in general to allow evil and suffering to happen in the world, this leads to the discussion of the problem of evil which we’ve looked at elsewhere. In this fallen state of things, morality and our desires often conflict, and doing the right thing is often very difficult. Most people recognize and accept this fact, that morality often asks hard things of people, and we often praise people for doing the right thing at great personal cost to themselves.
Can any objective argument be made showing that an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-wise, and all-good God would not have done what the Catholic worldview says he has done, in creating this world, allowing the Fall, commanding what he has commanded, etc.? Can it be shown that it could not be the case that the objective moral law of God might require people with homosexual orientation to have to work to redirect their desires in the area of sexuality and not do what comes most naturally to them? Perhaps an objective argument can be made here which rises above only the protests of feelings (which aren’t to be taken lightly, but also don’t necessarily constitute an objective argument) or is not mired in subjectivity and unquestioned assumptions, but I have not yet seen such an argument so far as I can tell. But I’m open to such an argument being shown to me.
In making such an argument, we must also keep in mind the complexity of the issue and all the many factors involved. We must recognize and give full credit to the great practical, psychological, and emotional difficulties of following Catholic teaching (in the area of homosexuality, but also in many other areas), but there are many other factors to remember as well. We should note, for example, that while sexuality is often bound up with other aspects of human relationships, relationships can exist without sexuality, and there might be ways in which many of the needs of homosexuals and others can be at least partially met by other kinds of relationships that don’t involve sexual acts. There is much to think about in that area. While we don’t want to underestimate the difficulties of living Catholic teaching, for homosexuals and others, we also don’t want to overestimate them, in the sense of painting a more dire picture than is actually the case or overlooking ways in which the difficulties can be assuaged to some degree.
At any rate, there is much to think about here. It can be very difficult to ask these kinds of critical questions, and we must do so with great care and sensitivity and empathy. At the same time, again, if we are concerned not only with validating our feelings but also with making sure our beliefs are in accord with reality, we have to ask these questions. We cannot consider such questions off limits on the grounds that they are too personal, too painful, offensive to a person’s sense of identity, etc.
And one more short snippet:
This is another form of the objection we discussed above, and, again, I think it is a very important one that can’t be easily dismissed. But it must be looked at with all the complexity it truly involves. Again, most people recognize that morality, or even just prudence, tends to ask us to suppress or redirect natural desires, to deny ourselves things we have a natural inclination towards. Take dieting, for example. It’s a very hard thing to do, because in order to eat right and healthily we often have to fight against our natural inclinations, and this is a very difficult thing to do, especially for people who really enjoy eating and get a lot out of it. I take that very seriously, being a person myself who really enjoys eating and looks forward to it. Eating for me is kind of an oasis that eases the difficulties of life, and it really means a lot to me (even though that might sound kind of strange to someone who doesn’t feel this way, I am quite serious). A friend of mine has a child who was recently diagnosed with celiac disease. And the child has Down’s Syndrome, to make it worse. She has to avoid her favorite foods now, and her parents will enforce this. If I had that happen to me, it would be very, very difficult. But that doesn’t mean that it can’t be the right thing to do, and that’s my point. We can’t necessarily easily reason from “this will be really, really difficult and asks me to suppress and redirect strong and important natural desires, leading to great difficulties in life” to “I can’t possibly be required by morality or prudence to go down this path.” And I could add a ton of other examples of all sorts, as I know you could as well with your creativity, intelligence, and empathy. We could write a large series of books just listing the situations in which we would both agree that people are morally or prudentially required to suppress or redirect natural desires in a way that is very painful and difficult. So why, then, should we think it so easy to assume that homosexuality must get a pass on this, must be exempt from all these other examples? It is not evident to me that that case can be made objectively. Another thought: Even if, in some cases, we have to suppress or redirect our natural desires, there are more or less healthy ways of doing that. I’m sure there are plenty of very ineffective and unhealthy ways of trying to suppress homosexual desires. I’m sure there are plenty of ways of suppressing or redirecting other kinds of desires as well that are unhealthy and ineffective. I’m sure there are different ways of dieting that are more or less psychologically healthy or unhealthy. We should obviously pursue the most healthy ways possible when we are called on to deny ourselves something we want very much. And we have to be careful to define words like “healthy” too. Does “healthy” mean “living happily, feeling fulfilled, etc.”? Perhaps, in that case, sometimes morality and prudence require us to live less-than-fully-healthy lives. We might have to sacrifice some goods and sources of contentment in order to pursue things of greater value--like forgoing an adulterous relationship to respect spouses, or controlling not eating the things we want in order to take care of our bodies. On the other hand, if we define “unhealthy” to acknowledge we might have stress from living life, and we focus more on more specific kinds of unhealthy states of mind, we might find we can redirect our desires to a great degree without being “unhealthy.” In short, we have to ask specific questions and look at definitions, nuances, and complexities in these kinds of things if we will avoid making question-begging arguments.
For a larger dialogue on homosexuality and transgenderism, see here. For a short article discussing how current "woke" culture tends to commit the error discussed in this article, while also making some positive and valid points, see here.