Book Review: Sexual Orientation and Human Rights

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I have far too many things to do to write much today, so I'm following Jollyblogger's example and posting a review I wrote for Amazon almost four years ago of Sexual Orientation and Human Rights, by Laurence Thomas and Michael Levin.

[Help! I can't get the MTAmazon code to work. It's the same code that works fine in the sidebar. Any ideas?]

In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that Laurence Thomas is a faculty member in my own department at Syracuse University. I worked as a teaching assistant for him for five semesters, four of them as the TA Coordinator (there were six TAs for this class of 400+ students), and he's someone I expect would always be happy to write a letter of recommendation for me. We used this book in the class I TAed for him, and I was his editor for the portion he wrote. I do admit being influenced by his thinking in a number of ways, and I'm pleased to say that there are a couple places where he had to change some of his positions or arguments in the book due to my comments (though not enough, as the review shows). On to the review:

Laurence Thomas and Michael Levin pose a stark contrast, not because they disagree but because their methods and approach are so different. There's a real irony in how they approach the issue. Laurence Thomas is an orthodox Jew who places much stake in the religious arguments, while Levin has little interest in anything religious. Because of this, Thomas seems more conservative, while Levin seems quite secular. However, it is Levin who is against "homosexual liberation" and Thomas who officially defends it, though his actual position is not very liberal. It is quite nuanced and unusual but would be considered more moderate in standard U.S. political categories.

Thomas argues that gay people should not be treated differently from any other group of people if the different treatment is simply because they are gay. He thinks the government should recognize lover-unions between gay people as much as it should recognize them between straight people. However, he argues that this should not be confused with marriage, which he says should be regulated by religious organizations not under the jurisdiction of the government, where married couples are formed explicitly (though not exclusively) for the purpose of raising a family. This is quite a conservative view, one that accords with the recent interest in covenant marriages.

Thomas is concerned to show that Biblical texts, even if they clearly condemn homosexual behavior, do not give any grounds for the hateful venom directed by religious people against the homosexual community. In this he agrees with many highly conservative religious-right-type people, though many of the public ones seem to disagree at least in their behavior, at least the ones vocal on this issue. I think he goes a bit too far when he suggests that someone who finds homosexual behavior appalling should nevertheless be happy about the union. That seems unrealistic to expect.

Levin, on the other hand, refuses to rely on religious arguments for the view that what is often called "hate speech" or "hate behavior" should be tolerated (excluding physical harm, of course). He argues that those who are made uncomfortable by homosexuals should be able to avoid them, even in public circumstances and in roles of hiring and renting. I find his arguments to be fairly bad in most cases, something unusual for such a well-trained philosopher, whose work in the philosophy of mind is quite respected. These are the sort of arguments I teach my undergraduate students not to use. He makes a few nice points, but his arguments on the whole seem just unmotivated, and his criticisms of Thomas seem to miss the point in many cases. It's unfortunate that someone else couldn't have been selected for the "conservative" view, but Thomas seems to have done a good enough job satisifying this conservative.

2 Comments

MT doesn't process tags in an entry body. It doesn't even look for them. I think I know of a plugin that will fix the problem but it will have to wait till Sunday.

"It's unfortunate that someone else couldn't have been selected for the "conservative" view".

Indeed. As long as they're looking for analytic type philosphers, the publishers should have asked John Finnis or Robert P. George, both of whom have written excellent articles about sexual orientation and the law.

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