by Dr Ananya Barua & Aradhana Gupta.
Sexuality is a complex phenomenon, particularly when looked at from a social perspective. This is primarily because the various dimensions of sexuality are not alike in all individuals. This is to say that everyone exhibits a variety of different desires and behaviors that shape and structure their sexual identities. For years now, there has been widespread debate over certain sexual preferences, behaviors, and identities. Some people have outrightly rejected and condoned homosexuality or same-sex relationships. It would not be wrong to say that in India, homosexuality has often been viewed through the most disrespectful, degraded, and derogatory lens, to completely and wholly disregard its existence and throw it into the dark abyss. It has been perceived as being dirty, sinful, and even a pathological condition. But as surprising and shocking as it may seem this has only strengthened the discussions surrounding it. Every time, an unreasonable argument is made against homosexuality, powerful perspectives emerge that not just expose the lack of substance in the arguments of its opponents but also the deep prejudices and biases that blur their vision. One of the perspectives that emerge in this discussion is the ethical stance on homosexuality.
Ethical theories, especially those that fall under the purview of normative ethics have the function of providing possible answers to questions that arise when considering how one ought to act. Normative ethics is concerned with setting the criteria for what is morally right and what is morally wrong. In contrast to descriptive ethics, which deals with describing ‘what is the case’, normative ethics deals with ‘what ought to be the case’. Some of the most powerful and significant moral theories are normative in nature, like virtue ethics, deontological ethics, and utilitarianism. This article seeks to approach homosexuality not just from a clear, untainted lens but to understand it from one of the major ethical perspectives in philosophy known as Utilitarianism. An attempt shall be made to look at the morality of criminalizing homosexuality and whether it can be justified as being morally right based on the ‘norms’ that this theory lays down.
Homosexuality: the debate continues
Homosexuality is not a plain problematic concept of sexual behavior; it is what defines the identity of many. The intensity and enormity of the debate that surrounds homosexuality is not something that remains detached from the field of academia. Be it in the social sphere or even in the philosophical domain, extensive discussions and debate continue to take place to dissect, understand, analyze and judge what its place is in the lives of millions of people. The de-criminalization of homosexuality in India in September 2018 is a judgement that has set the stage for a more powerful, fresh, and progressive view on social and legal reforms in India. After an intense period of struggle, a step in the direction of granting every individual a right to express their sexual identity freely and completely is a leap into a bright future. Though people from all walks of life have debated extensively both for and against this issue over the years, this decision has come as a reminder to many to evaluate their standards of judgement on issues as sensitive as this one.
But it is important to remember that homosexuality is not a mere topic of discussion over coffee. Neither should the scope of its discussion be limited to courtrooms. It should be considered one of the most significant moral dilemmas that philosophers and ethicists face. Though each moral theory may approach this theme differently and offer varied responses, the scope of this article is limited to a discussion from the perspective of utilitarianism.
What is Utilitarianism?
Utilitarianism was propounded in the 18th century and to date remains one of the most influential and widely discussed moral theories. Classical Utilitarianism, in particular, connotes the kind of utilitarian thinking prevalent in the late 18th and the whole of 19th century. The originator and strongest advocate of utilitarianism in the history of utilitarian thinking is Jeremy Bentham. It is Bentham’s theory that laid the very foundation for the succeeding utilitarian theories that emerged, like that of John Stuart Mill. Mill is another popular utilitarian thinker who worked upon Bentham’s theory of utilitarianism and made some significant advancement in it. The major reason for choosing utilitarianism as an aid in the discussion of homosexuality here is because it has grown in different directions, trying to expand its reach. One of the main reasons why utilitarianism is so widely popular is because its basic principles seem so intuitive, though they present complex dilemmas when they are further analyzed. Utilitarianism derives its name from the word ‘utility’ which primarily refers to happiness or pleasure. Here, a passing remark maybe made in the context of understanding utility as pleasure, which is that the blunder of understanding pleasure in its grossest form and utility as usefulness must be strictly avoided. When utilitarianism speaks of utility, it necessarily refers to pleasure itself along with the avoidance of pain.
One of the most fundamental features of utilitarianism is that it views an action as being moral if it maximizes utility and promotes the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people. This is often known as the ‘Greatest Happiness Principle.’ Hence, for Bentham and other utilitarians, the rightness or wrongness of an action depends solely on it fulfilling the greatest happiness principle. Therefore, actions are morally right if they tend to promote happiness and wrong if they tend to promote the reverse of happiness. Another key feature of utilitarianism which is of utmost significance, especially here since it serves as an aid in the discourse about homosexuality, is that utilitarianism would outrightly reject moral systems that are based on cultural traditions, customs and the commands of God and so, moral laws like ‘I ought to not do this because God said this is immoral’ are of no relevance to a utilitarian. According to utilitarianism, moral systems should serve only to increase utility or happiness in society. Thus, even before progressing into a full-fledged discussion about homosexuality through this perspective, utilitarianism as a moral theory nullifies the possibility of any cultural, religious or even political biases. For it, the rightness or wrongness of homosexuality solely rests on its fulfilling the criterion it lays down for distinguishing any moral action from an immoral one.
Understanding the notion of utility
Bentham argued that the criterion for judging the rightness or wrongness of action was that if it ‘maximizes utility’, it is right, else it is wrong. The question now arises as to what this means. By saying that an individual ought to choose that action that maximizes utility when faced with a moral dilemma is to say that the individual ought to do that which produces the maximum amount of good. Initially, it may seem as if the question has been sufficiently answered, but on a closer look it may be observed that a mere exchange of words has taken place here, that is, the utility has merely been replaced with the word ‘good’. Thus, in order to make sense of what this maximization of utility means, which forms the very foundation of Bentham’s moral theory, an attempt should be made to understand what is meant by ‘good’ here.
Hedonism as the foundation of utilitarian thinking
Bentham defined ‘good’ by bringing in his notion of hedonism. The role that hedonism plays in Bentham’s theory is so essential that it is also sometimes referred to as ‘Hedonistic Utilitarianism’. The word ‘Hedonism’ comes from an ancient Greek word for pleasure. To say that his theory is hedonistic is to say that happiness is the same as pleasure and it is the only thing that is ‘good in itself’. However, he does not deny the existence of other things that can be said to be good, for example, knowledge, beauty, power, and so on. It is only that pleasure is the ultimate good, while all other goods are good only in that they further lead to pleasurable experiences. So, all these others goods are only ‘instrumentally good’ while pleasure is ‘good in itself’. Hedonism is generally divided into two sub-branches, namely, Psychological Hedonism and Ethical Hedonism. While the former states that it is only pleasure or pain that motivates us to perform actions, the latter states that pleasure is that which is supremely important and good and hence, all our actions must be evaluated in light of the amount of pleasure they result in, whereas, pain is of no significance and must be avoided under all circumstances. Bentham incorporates both psychological and ethical hedonism in his moral theory. In his book ‘An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation’, Bentham says that “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain, and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do”.
Quantity of pleasure vs Quality of pleasure
Bentham did not just argue in favor of pleasure as being the desired end of all our actions but also gave the quantity of pleasure more importance than the quality of pleasure. For him, it was primarily the case that the larger the amount of pleasure produced, the more morally desirable the action was. To strengthen his moral theory on this ground, he even invented what came to be called the ‘hedonic calculus’. This calculus provided individuals with a method to measure the amount of pleasure against seven categories. The categories are intensity, duration, certainty, fecundity, nearness, purity and extent. One of the harshest criticisms levied against Bentham’s theory is against his hedonic calculus. Firstly, Bentham does not recognize the fact that pleasurable experiences are incalculable and cannot be accurately and objectively quantified. Moreover, the major question that arises in this context is – is quantity all that matters when we look at pleasurable experiences? Does quality play no role here?
It is because of this significant error on Bentham’s part that sometimes his theory is said to be ‘fit only for swine’. Mill, a strong advocate of utilitarianism himself, even tried to make up for this lack in Bentham’s theory by doing away with the hedonic calculus and instead introducing a distinction between higher and lower pleasures. Essentially, Mill brought the qualitative aspect of pleasure/happiness into the picture. Higher pleasures referred to the pleasures of the mind, those that are intellectual in nature. Whereas, lower pleasures referred to pleasures of the body, such as eating, drinking, and sex. Hence, for Mill, an intellectual pleasure such as reading a book was more valuable than merely eating junk food. To put it in his words, ‘it was better to be an unhappy intellectual than a happy idiot’. But how much progress Mill made compared to Bentham’s theory is questionable. This is because rather than simplifying the measurement of pleasure, it made it harder to calculate. Measuring and deciding between higher and lower pleasures assumes that there is a group of experts who have had extensive experience in conflicting pleasures and who can help individuals in deciding which action is preferable in a given situation. But clearly, this is not a possibility. Firstly, there cannot be any individual who has fully experienced both types of pleasure and that too in all their varied forms. Secondly, such an individual may have an error in their judgement. Thirdly, Mill himself admitted that an individual may give in to the lower pleasure as a result of weak will. Therefore, the judgement of such experts is also prone to error. Even though Bentham’s hedonic calculus was not the best way to calculate pleasure, it nevertheless was a more systematic way of calculating pleasures, in the sense that it laid down seven categories with the help of which pleasure can be measured. But in the case of higher and lower pleasures, there is no clarity as to how pleasure is to be measured. Moreover, by introducing such a distinction between higher and lower pleasures, Mill is often accused of introducing standards other than pleasure for judging which action is preferable. By saying that going to the opera, though it may give me less pleasure than watching TV at home, is still a better alternative when deciding which action to perform, Mill was shaking the very foundations of utilitarianism. Nevertheless, both the quantitative and the qualitative aspects of pleasure make an appearance in our discussion of homosexuality.
Whose happiness/pleasure matters?
After looking at what ‘good’ means to the utilitarians, another question arises. The question is – whose pleasure and happiness are we aiming for? One response to this question can be that it is primarily the individual or the doer of the action whose interest matters. So, going in accordance with the principles of utilitarianism, an individual will judge the rightness or wrongness of an action only based upon the amount of pleasure it produces for him. This sort of response is often known as ‘ethical egoism’ and is even rejected by a majority of ethical theorists for it primarily focuses on the individual and his interest, whereas they believe that for a just and moral society to function well, it is important that altruistic behavior is appreciated and promoted. On the other hand, some utilitarians including Bentham emphasize the maximization of pleasure and avoidance of the pain of groups of people, such as family, friends, colleagues, fellow citizens, and so on. Thus, for them, an action is moral if it produces a large amount of happiness or pleasure for the entire group. A final response to the question raised is that it is the interests of all the people involved in the given situation that must be taken into account when faced with a moral dilemma. This response essentially points to what Bentham emphasized significantly in his moral theory, that is, the pleasure of all individuals must be considered equally. It is this liberal account of Bentham that plays a major role when looking at moral issues like homosexuality. Bentham along with some other utilitarians gives equal importance to the pleasure/ happiness of all individuals. Thus, there is no hierarchical structure among individuals and their respective interests. All individuals have an equal right to seek happiness/ pleasure and this must be kept in mind while judging the rightness or wrongness of an action.
A Utilitarian Approach to Homosexuality
How can these concepts and principles laid down by utilitarianism be incorporated into a discussion of homosexuality? Firstly, let’s see how a utilitarian would approach homosexuality in the context of the principle of utility. According to the principle of utility, an action is right if it promotes utility. Now the question may arise that in the discussion of judging whether homosexuality is moral or immoral, first, we need to know whether it promotes utility and if yes, then how? A response to this could be that same-sex relationships provide utility in the same way as any other relationship may provide, that is, it leads to a sense of fulfillment and happiness in the individuals which helps them in reaching their highest potential. Moreover, the question should not be how homosexuality promotes utility but rather the question must be put the other way round. In other words, the question should be how depriving individuals of the right to express their sexual identity fully and freely affects utility. When we approach the question in this way, we realize that forced conformity to specific identities, be it sexual, political or religious, not only hampers the possibility of producing more pleasure/happiness/utility but it also diminishes the amount of existing utility. When individuals in society are denied the freedom to express their true, authentic selves fully and completely, it not just distorts their view of the world but more importantly, their view of themselves. They are forced to believe that who they are as people is not ‘normal’ and somehow they need to fit themselves into these perfect, well structured moulds of the society, only to realize much later that in their attempt to fit into these moulds they were actually being tied in rusty iron chains, freeing themselves of which would be unimaginably hard. Due to this strict compliance to the standards of society, most people spend most of their lives living with a distorted, inauthentic, and compromised version of themselves. The question then is – when we don’t allow individuals to be who they are sexually, how can we expect them to fully express themselves professionally, artistically, emotionally, or even spiritually?
Criminalizing free expression of certain sexual identities based on how much utility they produce becomes secondary. Instead, the focus must be shifted to how legal norms such as the criminalization of homosexuality leads to dissatisfaction and painful experiences for a group of people in society. Thus, we must understand that placing restrictions on the expression of the sexual identities of individuals diminishes the existing amounts of happiness let alone pave the way for future possibilities of creating more of it. Clearly, utilitarianism would not profess the implementation of any such action that produces pain or misery even if it does not produce pleasure itself. So, even if it is argued that homosexuality somehow deviates from other kinds of relationships and so it does not produce pleasure or happiness in what is to be considered the ‘ideal’ way, it does not matter. On the contrary, if denying individuals, the right to fully accept and express their sexual identities results in painful experiences for them, then it must be avoided at all costs. Therefore, maybe looking at the criminalization of homosexuality and its consequences instead of advocating its contrary directly, would lead to a better understanding of the bigger picture here. Secondly, for utilitarianism, it is the interests of all individuals that matter and that too equally. Thus, to disregard the interests/happiness of a specific population is in no way keeping in line with the principles and ideals of utilitarianism. Hence, for utilitarianism, irrespective of whether an individual is a homosexual or a heterosexual, his pleasure and happiness are of importance when looking at the rightness or wrongness of an action. So, with its decision to de-criminalize homosexuality, the Supreme Court granted every individual the right to seek their happiness and pleasure. Moreover, the order comes in direct accordance with the greatest happiness principle, as it resulted in more people being happy. Some may argue here that the de-criminalization of homosexuality by the Indian legal system also caused displeasure to various religious and political groups. For utilitarianism, as long as one person’s happiness does not cause harm to another, there is no reason to declare such happiness as unjustified or wrong. Clearly, the freedom to express one’s sexual identity in no way causes harm to any other individual in society.
Homosexual relationships like heterosexual relationships are completely acceptable as long as they are shared by two consenting individuals. So the question of causing displeasure or discomfort to a third person due to one’s sexual preferences does not arise. Moreover, as stated before, for a utilitarian, religious, political, and cultural beliefs should be of no relevance in the declaration of our standards of morality. One of the major arguments that have been levied against homosexuality over the years is that it is an ‘unnatural relation’. It is termed to be unnatural on the grounds that the purpose of sexual activity is procreation and since same-sex relationships cannot result in procreation, they are not natural. Firstly, if such an argument is put forward against homosexuality, then the very same argument stands true for the use of contraceptives or any sexual activity that is undertaken without the intention of resulting in childbirth. But clearly, there is a strong disassociation that is made between sexual activity and procreation. Not all sexual activity may or must result in childbirth. However, these arguments though of relevance in broader discussions of homosexuality, are not of much importance when we approach it through the utilitarian’s lens. This is because, for a utilitarian, the highest good is happiness/pleasure. If being in a relationship with an individual from the same-sex results in greater happiness and utility, then the question of procreation does not even arise. The same holds true for relationships where two individuals may agree to not procreate. Therefore, for a utilitarian, it doesn’t matter if homosexual relations or heterosexual relations result in the birth of an offspring. What matters is whether it leads to greater happiness for people involved.
It is not just the quantity of pleasure that is being taken into consideration here but also the quality, just as in the case of any other relationship. For utilitarianism, homosexuality is acceptable as being right/moral not just because it results in a greater amount of pleasure/ happiness but also because it promotes happiness in the form of freedom to be who you are, companionship, and fulfilling relationships. To some people, homosexuality is problematic primarily because it results in sexual pleasure, which is seen as a lower order pleasure by Mill’s utilitarianist perspective. But once again, this is a highly mistaken way of looking at same-sex relationships. Just because, the question of homosexuality focuses on one’s sexual dispositions, it is not primarily restricted to it. Homosexual relationships are not merely sexual relationships. They are much more than that. Like all relationships, they are a union of two individuals at the levels of the body, mind, and soul. Once we recognize that a free and full expression of one’s sexual preferences results not just in a greater quantity of happiness but also in highly qualitative experiences for the individuals involved, we realize that homosexuality is not different from heterosexuality at all. Thus, like any other relationship that adds value to the individual’s life, same-sex relationships too are worthy of being considered valuable and fulfilling.
Going by the ideals and principles put forward by the utilitarian thought, a restriction on homosexuality is completely unacceptable and immoral. We must remember that heterosexuality is just one kind of sexual orientation and our attempt to put every individual in one small box made up of walls of rigid and strict sexual identities and behaviors is to commit a great mistake. But we must also remember that to go beyond these well-established identities is not to somehow think ‘out of the box’. Instead what we must understand is that there are no boxes. The notion of identity and particularly sexual identity is much more complex and fluid than we like to believe. And so, to proclaim and assert the rightness of one kind over the other is not justified in any way. In fact, it is here that ethical theories like utilitarianism can be of help in showing how truly unjustified these assertions are when looked at from the standpoint of morality, happiness, and freedom of expression.
• Fred Feldman, ‘Hedonism’ in Encyclopedia of Ethics, L.C. Becker and C.B. Becker (eds.), London: Routledge, 2001.
•Jeremy Bentham, “An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation”, 1789. • John Plamenatz, “The English Utilitarians”, Oxford, 1949.
• J.S. Mill, “Utiliarianism” in Mill: Utilitarianism and Other Writings, Mary Warnock (ed.), Collins: Glassglow, 1962.
• J. J. C. Smart, “An Outline of a System of Utilitarian Ethics” in J. J. C. Smart and Bernard Williams, Utilitarianism: For and Against, Cambridge University Press, 1973.
• Michael Safi, “Campaigners celebrate as India decriminalizes homosexuality”, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/sep/06/indian-supreme-court-decriminalises-homosexuality (accessed on 27th November 2018).
• Torbjorn Tännsjö, “Hedonistic Utilitarianism”, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998.
• Tim Mulgan, “Understanding Utilitarianism”, Acumen, 2007.
• William Shaw, “Contemporary Ethics: Taking Account of Utilitarianism”, Blackwell, 1999.