In a recent presentation at the Society for Christian Philosophers, Richard Swinburne (Oxford) argued that homosexuality—i.e. exclusive, erotic, attraction to members of the same-sex—is a disability that ought to be eliminated. Towards this end, he suggested that we should “encourage research into how the orientation can be cured” (see the full paper here). Not surprisingly, Swinburne has met harsh criticisms from philosophers, the mainstream media, and even the Society for Christian Philosophers.
One of these criticisms, raised by Rob Hughes, a young moral, political, and legal philosopher teaching in the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, targets what Hughes takes to be Swinburne’s “false and unjustified empirical assertion” that sexual orientation is or could be “to a considerable extent reversible.” Hughes claims that there is no credible evidence (at least that Swinburne cites) that suggests that sexual orientation can be changed. Indeed, to the contrary, available evidence suggests that attempting to change one’s sexual orientation through so-called conversion therapies can actually be harmful. Hughes concludes that Swinburne’s argument is unsound.
I share Hughes’ conviction that something is wrong with Swinburne’s argument, but I don’t believe it is this premise, and I think his objection misses Swinburne’s larger conceptual point. Hughes is correct that given the current state of the relevant sciences, conversion therapies cannot reorient sexual orientations. But, as Swinburne points out, “medicine has made great strides in recent years. Diseases of mind or body hitherto believed incurable have proved curable; it would be odd if sexual orientation was the only incurable condition.”
Though I don’t believe that being gay is a disease, I agree with Swinburne that one day sexual orientation may be reversible. Indeed, as Brian Earp and I have argued elsewhere, “based on current scientific research, it is not unlikely that medical researchers – in the not-too-distant future – will know enough about the genetic, epigenetic, neurochemical and other brain level factors that are involved in shaping sexual orientation that these variables could in fact be successfully modified.”
And here is the important point. If such neuro-interventions become available, Hughes’ objection will no longer be sound, and what happens then?
I think a more promising approach is to object to the far weaker premise that homosexuality is a disability. If homosexuality is not a disability, and it is not morally wrong to have sex with members of the same sex, then it is not clear why we ought to invest in research on conversion therapy or encourage the use of such therapies if they become available. Without this weaker premise, Swinburne’s argument is not successful.