Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Ethical argumentation and homosexuality in Africa

I am part of the teaching faculty in a NIH-funded bioethics capacity building program in Cape Town, South Africa, named Advancing Research Ethics in Southern Africa (ARESA). The program targets mid-career health professionals who are liable to contribute to the bioethics culture in their home institutional environment: when serving on their research ethics committees, writing articles, teaching classes, and so on. Part of the bioethics training is in philosophy: after all, bioethics is a form of applied ethics, and ethics is a central branch of philosophy. This means that critical thinking and argumentation are core skills for those in the field: when moral claims are made, bioethicists are supposed to examine and evaluate the ethical reasons that support them.

In principle, the idea of philosophical argumentation is not difficult to convey. But in my experience, sympathy towards the practice depends what specific claim is being examined. Predictably, the holier the cow, the greater the reluctance. Examining the moral claims "Homosexuality is immoral" and/or "Homosexuality should be illegal", in the African context, seems to be even harder than exploring the reasons against abortion. This is unfortunate, given the topicality of the moral and legal status of homosexuality, now that Ugandan President Museveni has recently signed anti-gay legislation. It is also unfortunate given the painfully low quality of the debate. It is just supposed to be obvious why homosexuality is wrong, dangerous, to be outlawed. If you ask for reasons, the responses are not promising.

Case in point. Take this editorial in The Observer, a prominent newspaper in Kampala, Uganda. Entitled "Uganda must resist resist West on anti-gay legislation." The 'must' indicates that a normative claim is being made, i.e. that there are good reasons for laws against homosexuality in Uganda. So what good reasons are offered? Let me sum them up:

  • A book written back in 1989 set out a six-point plan to promote the rights of same-sex persons. According to conservative groups in the USA, the book initiated an agenda in which anti-gay legislation is packaged as an affront in terms of human rights, justice, and freedom.
  • Gay groups use scientific research to prove that homosexuality is innate, and some gay people claim to know they were gay at the age of five, which is ridiculous. 
  • Gay groups claim that all dissent against their views is homophobia. 
  • All religious denominations in Uganda say that homosexuality is abominable, detestable, repugnant and offends God. 
When potential harm is connected to a moral claim, then the arguments in support of that claim should be very robust. Given that anti-gay legislation means prison for sexual orientation -- not to mention encouragement of anti-gay 'street justice' when names of gay persons are published -- the standards for rational justification should be high. Suggestions of that the global rise of gay rights is due to a 'roadmap' in an obscure book does not do it; if scientific research on homosexuality is dubious, that should be argued for, not insinuated; the weaknesses of (selectively) using holy scripture to support moral claims are well-known. This is just one editorial (by a lecturer at a higher education institution in Uganda), but there is a pattern. Backed against a wall, those in Africa in favor of outlawing homosexuality are asked to give reasons, and then out comes everything and the kitchen sink. Except good arguments. And when you are violently opposed to homosexuality, without being able to give good reasons, then homophobia might just be the best explanation of what you are doing. When will the Ugandan bioethicists rise up and start a meaningful debate? 

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