Review: John Corvino’s “What’s Morally Wrong With Homosexuality?”

Jim Burroway

December 19th, 2007

I’m sure our postal delivery person is confused by some of the mail she delivers to our house. Catalogs from Christian booksellers and mailers from Focus on the Family often arrive in the same day’s delivery as my copy of the Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide and fundraising solicitations from Wingspan, our local LGBT center. My partner, who has little stomach for much of the mail I receive, just piles it on the dining room table for me to sort through when I get home.

So one day last week, I was sorting through my mail and opened a package containing a DVD titled, “What’s Morally Wrong With Homosexuality?” He glanced over my shoulder and muttered, “Great! Another freak show…”

John Corvino - What's Morally Wrong With Homosexuality?Before I even had the chance to pop the DVD into the player, I already knew that John Corvino was really onto something with his latest DVD offering. That title — “What’s Morally Wrong With Homosexuality?” — challenges us to confront one of our most glaring problems in the debates over homosexuality today. It’s the idea that the word “morality” is automatically associated with anti-gay positions. In fact, in today’s cultural debates, all one has to do us utter the words “moral” or “morality,” and right away he has signaled that that every word that follows will be hostile to gays and lesbians.

The problem though is that this suggests that pro-gay positions cannot be articulated from a moral standpoint. And we really can’t blame the religious right for that. Too many pro-gay advocates won’t touch the subject of morality with a twenty-foot pole.

There’s a reason for it, even if it’s not a good one. We should care deeply about moral principles, and I’ve argued that in fact, we really do build our lives around deeply held moral precepts whether we acknowledge it explicitly or not. But we’ve been afraid to talk about morality, or even to acknowledge that moral standards are important and ought to be espoused. Instead, we instinctively shrink back wherever we hear the word “morality” because we’ve too often experienced the word as a bludgeon and not for what it really is:

moral: mȯr-É™l, mär-) adj. [Middle English, 14th century, from Anglo-French, from Latin moralis, from mor-, mos custom] 1 a: of or relating to principles of right and wrong in behavior : ETHICAL <moral judgments> b: expressing or teaching a conception of right behavior <a moral poem> c: conforming to a standard of right behavior d: sanctioned by or operative on one’s conscience or ethical judgment <a moral obligation> capable of right and wrong action <a moral agent> …

Dr. John Corvino, associate professor of philosophy at Wayne State University, is a prolific author and an engaging lecturer on the moral dimensions of gay rights. He writes the bi-weekly column called “The Gay Moralist” for and he’s a regular contributor at the Independent Gay Forum. He also appears with Focus On the Family’s Glenn Stanton several times a year in a series of debates on same-sex marriage.

This latest DVD captures the lecture by the same title that Dr. Corvino been giving in various forms since 1992. It’s a great topic and one that’s rarely explored, which is a shame since the discussion of homosexuality as a moral mode of existence is every bit as vital today as it was when he started fifteen years ago. Lectures often come across as dull and dry on DVD, but Corvino tackles the often eye-glazing topics of morality and ethics with a sharp wit, engaging empathy, and an intellectual rigor that is both accessible and memorable. Who knew philosophy could be so much fun?

The DVD begins with three simple questions: what is wrong with homosexuality? If it’s wrong, how do we know it’s wrong? And if there’s nothing wrong then what is all the fuss about? And he tackles these questions from the anti-gay activists’ home turf: theology (It’s wrong because the Bible condemns it), social science (It’s wrong because of diseases or it harms families/children), and nature (It’s wrong because it’s unnatural).

This web site routinely delves into the social science and the “nature” aspects on homosexuality. Regular readers will find Corvino’s take on these topics familiar, so I won’t go into them in much detail. But that first aspect, theology, is something we generally try to avoid on this web site. Sure, we discuss homosexuality as it relates to how different religions and denominations talk about it, but we generally avoid explicitly theological discussions. A lot of this has to do with the fact that I’ve never really seen this handled this convincingly — by this, I mean in a way that a Christian fundamentalist, for example, might shake his head and say, “Hmmmm. There might be something to this.” And when it looked like Corvino was going to tack the theological objections himself, I feared he would fall prey to the same problems that have plagued so many other well-meaning apologists.

The problem with getting into theological arguments about homosexuality is that they often devolve into discussions of what this word means in the original Hebrew or what that word was referring to in the Greek, or which cultural influences play what role in which passage. You know, context. The word that everyone uses to try to explain out passages or explain in others. But the problem with this approach is that once we reach this level of Biblical exegesis, it requires that everyone be on the same page in how they view the specifics of Biblical understanding. And this simply never happens. Whenever one side of a debate like this begins to make headway, the other side invariable says, “you’re taking it out of context.” And since nobody can agree on the proper context to begin with, we quickly reach a stalemate.

This problem isn’t unique to the topic of homosexuality. Take a look around. There are literally tens of thousands of independent Christian denominations worldwide, mostly because people can’t agree on Biblical context or interpretation on one point or another. And so it often seem that trying to throw another interpretive argument into the mix ends up looking like trying to throw a teaspoon of fresh water into the ocean and hoping it will make a difference.

So as I said, I had a lot of trepidation when Corvino began diving into the theology of homosexuality. Thankfully, Corvino avoids this pitfall. Sure, he brushes lightly into some of the pro-gay theological arguments but he doesn’t invest much energy there. Instead he quickly arrives at what I think is a much stronger position: discussing not so much the theology itself, but how the anti-gay theology is derived and used in the debates. To illustrate this, Corvino uses two well-chosen passages from Leviticus. The first one is Leviticus 18:22, the one we all know very well:

Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable.

Most translations (including the translation Corvino read out) use the more famous word “abomination.” But either way, the passage is unmistakable to one who holds to a literalist Biblical point of view. If one were to take everything from the Bible in a consistently literal light, then there’s no way around it: The Bible says that homosexual acts are “detestable” or an abomination. And for one who derives their morality from a literal view of the Bible, it logically follows then, that all homosexual acts are immoral — no if’s, and’s or but’s.

John Corvino reading LeviticusBut as Dr. Corvino points out, the Bible holds a lot of things to be immoral that we no longer condemn with such fervor (for example, divorce, or women speaking in churches or wearing slacks), and the Bible gives explicit approval — and even instruction — on some things that we today consider to be immorally outrageous. The best example of the latter comes from an equally unmistakable passage of Leviticus. This time it’s Leviticus 25:44-46:

Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can will them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.

The passage is as unmistakably clear as the first one. And if one were to take everything from the Bible in a consistently literal light, then there’s just no way around it: the buying and selling and inheriting of people as chattel slaves is not immoral; it is instead expressly permitted — with rules laid down for its proper execution. But there are very few Christians who are so consistent in their literalism that they would always “approve what the Bible approves and condemn what the Bible condemns” when it comes to slavery. Only Christian Reconstructionists and a few other theonomists are able to sustain this kind of consistency.

So why is it that some people are consistent with literalist interpretations of Scripture where homosexuality is concerned, but when the subject of slavery comes up it’s suddenly all about context, original language and cultural norms? Corvino suggests that we either have to commit ourselves to the idea the authors’s concerns and ours might be very different, and understanding that difference is vital to understanding the text. But understanding context still might not get us to a satisfactory explanation for some of these passages:

I”m not convinced that any amount of context is going to help the slavery passages. I think when we look to those passages, we have to admit that the prejudices and limitations of the Biblical authors crept into the text. And if they did that with respect to slavery, it could happen with respect with homosexuality.

John Corvino: The parts don't fit! — yes they do!Corvino tackles the other objections with great wit and grace, whether they are the more profound and complex arguments (the implications for both sides of the nature/nurture debate, or the roles that sex play in the lives of ordinary people) or the trivial and silly ones (“The parts don’t fit” — yes, they do!). But through it all, he never takes his eye off of the bigger picture: the impact that morality — more specifically, a moral code that is illogically derived — has on those it is cast against:

One of the biggest misconceptions about the work that I do is that people think I’m out to attack morality, that I’m out to espouse some kind of moral relativism…

Nothing could be further from the truth. So much of what I’ve said tonight is based upon my moral convictions — convictions about fairness, convictions about justice. I think the way gay and lesbian people are treated in our society is wrong. Not just irrational, but morally wrong. I think there’s something perverted about the fact that we hate people because of whom they love. We do violence against people because of the affection that exists in their lives. And the effects of that treatment are a far greater moral tragedy than sex between consenting adults could ever be. …

You see, morality has a point. It’s about enabling us to flourish as human beings in a society where other people are trying to do the same thing. And that’s everybody’s concern. Conservative or liberal, red state or blue state — all of us have a responsibility to stand up for morality.

So let me make myself very clear. I am not asking you to stop making moral judgments or to keep your judgments to yourself. I’m all about the moral judgments. I’m asking you to make sure you have reasons for the moral judgments that you make. I’m asking you to put yourself in people’s shoes before you judge them. And I’m asking you to judge people not on whom they love, but on whether they love. That’s my moral vision. That’s my “agenda.”

You can buy a copy of “What’s Morally Wrong with Homosexuality?” at the Gay Moralist web site, where you can also find the DVD’s trailer. And this shorter clip has just been posted on YouTube by the DVD’s director, Marc-Antoine Serou:

Bill Ware

December 19th, 2007

I always argue that Jesus’ “love thy neighbor” commandment allows for no exceptions.

Here’s a snippet from my latest post at Charisma:

David wrote:
You’ve been told repeatedly, and in a gentle way, that such concepts are nonsense, yet you persist. I don’t believe you’re an idiot, all evidence aside, so you must be deliberately introducing these lies and strange rationale.

I don’t consider Jesus’ commandments to us in regard to how we treat others to be “nonsense”, “lies” or a “strange rationale.” I consider them the basic principles we go by in the conduct of our Christian lives.

David wrote:
There is nothing “primitive” about Christians who maintain the teachings of Christ by calling homosexual sin a serious sin that keeps one out of Heaven.

There you go again. Christ never taught that homosexuality was a sin. Saying he did when he didn’t is simply not telling the truth. The fact is, he never said anything about gays, one way or the other. Please stop disparaging Jesus’ character by implying he would treat gays in the same inappropriate way that you do.

David wrote:
We can show Christ’s love for the person while speaking the truth in love asking them to repent and turn to Christ so they can have eternal life and be free from the perversion of homosexuality. The Truth does set you free.

Being gay isn’t a perversion, it’s a normal variation in human sexuality, and one need not repent for the way one is born. Christ never changed anyone’s sexuality during his earthly ministry, so there’s no reason to suppose he would ever want to do any such thing.

Let Jesus and his teachings come first in your life and set these unwarranted anti-gay prejudices aside.

_____________ end post

The moral high ground is Jesus’ teaching. Anything else must be measured against this high standard.


John Holm

December 19th, 2007

I really like this John Corvino guy. I remember a friend once showing me a YouTube clip from one of his presentations of the “What’s Morally Wrong with Homosexuality?” talk. Then I read a thoughtful commentary on and decided to learn a bit more about the author… upon following up, I discovered it was the same John Corvino.

I just watched the trailer for the new DVD. Looks great! Thanks for covering it here, Jim.



December 19th, 2007

spot on. I’m glad someone else has brought this up. Is it moral to deny a person equal rights because you don’t like who or how they love?

Patrick ONeill

December 19th, 2007

The reason that the churches are so adamant in their anti-gay stances is that it is a threat to what they consider to be their monopoly on sexual morality.

Their authority may be the Bible or the Pope or the Koran or the Torah but whatever they use someone stating that gay sex is just as good as straight “married” sex strikes directly at their authority – an authority they are scared to deat to lose.

As a practical matter convincing Bible believers that the Bible doesn’t say what they think it says seems to work with some people but legally I think that it avoids the real issue of criminalizing other people because of your religious beliefs.

I don’t care if they think it’s a sin – if thats what they think then I would advise they not enter into a same sex marriage and I am happy to have them follow their religion.

The problem always arises when they use the government to criminalize others who do not believe as they do.


December 20th, 2007

“The problem always arises when they use the government to criminalize others who do not believe as they do.”

Right, they don’t seem to get that freedom religion is for everyone, not just them, and that their religious rights end where another person begins.

Somewhere in cyberspace there is a video that puts it more bluntly : “Keep Your Jesus Off My P*nis”.

(I apologize to the mods if that’s not appropriate)

Emily K

December 21st, 2007

It’s “keep your Jesus off my p****, I’ll keep my p**** off you.” Love it.

The Gay Species

December 24th, 2007

Since some philosophers conflate morality with ethics, it is appropriate to distinguish between the two. Ethics is a teleological, prescriptive, subjective, way of life, based on prudential choices. Morality, in deontological, proscriptive, objective rules universalized to all humans. Both ethics and morality are part of axiology, the study of values and value judgments, as are politics, law, art, aesthetics, and economics.

I know of only ONE moral law: Do No Harm. The ancient Greeks Epicurus and Hippocrates are explicit about it. It is a bounden duty, proscriptive (banning), objective, and universifible to all humans. No other moral law meets these tests. J. S. Mill in the 19th century used the “Harm Principle” as foundational for the Utilitarian Calculus — the latter, of which, is largely rejected.

So, from the moral point of view, do homophiles acting homoerotically harm each other? Do they harm others? If so, I am unaware of it. (Cases of paraphilia may be exceptions.) Indeed, many, if not most, homophiles lead productive, loving, and engaged lives in their various communities. So, the issue of homophilia and morality is pretty clear cut: No reason exists for harboring ill will or moral repudiation of homophiles, based on the moral law.

The other moral laws are Kant’s Categorical Imperative or the British Empiricists’ Benevolence Theory. The latter is hyper-rational, the latter is necessary, but not sufficient.

Conversely, from an ethical point of view, homophiles tend to be more “hit-and-miss” ethicists, and for very good reasons. Ethics is not a single “rule” in order to “follow a rule.” Its objective of choosing the “mean” between excess and deficiency most suited to the situation requires training and habituation as well as practical reasoning. By pursuing these objectives one flourishes as a human in human societies.

As for other axiological concerns, they are not the topic. But clearly, the values that homophiles share and differ is entirely desirable as human diversity and pluralism in a liberal democracy requires. Any particular homophile who harms another is subject to civil and criminal prosecution like all other citizens, but neither homophilia nor homoeroticism can be excluded on moral grounds, nor on ethical grounds.

Those superstitious people who think deities write laws for them really do need to get an education, rather than demand their theocratic impulses prevail in a liberal democracy. Those revolutionary sorts who use immoral resistance and lawlessness to achieve their objectives improperly use the ends to justify the means. In ethics, only the “mean” (virtue) justifies the means to any end. So, Marxists and Judeo, Christo, Islamic morality is not a “natural morality,” does not command “do no harm,” and thus excludes the ONE, TRUE, and ONLY moral law humans have acknowledged since recorded history — save for these folks’ sacred writings, which seems to have skipped the revealer’s mind.

Randi Schimnosky

December 27th, 2007

Gay Species, I read your differentiation between ethics and morality and I’m not sure what you meant. There’re still the same thing to me.

Rick Brentlinger

January 1st, 2008

Excellent information Jim, as usual. I’m going to order Dr. Corvino’s DVD.

Rick Brentlinger

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