Mark D. Roberts

Mark D. Roberts


The Anthropology of Lady Gaga and Ethics

posted by Mark D. Roberts

Last week I began to examine the anthropology (understanding of human beings) in the recent hit song of Lady Gaga, “Born This Way.” I began by presenting the lyrics and main ideas of the song. Then I commented on whether her view of the human condition makes sense. She seems to believe that, however we may be and however we may act, this can be explained by the fact that we are “born this way.” This extreme view runs into scientific and social problems, though it is surely true that at least some human traits are considerably shaped by one’s genetic inheritance.

Lady Gaga’s belief that we are “born this way” provides a basis for her ethics. “There’s nothin wrong with loving who you are,” she tells us, quoting her mother, “cause he made you perfect, babe.” Because she’s born the way she is, Lady Gaga sings, “I’m on the right track baby.” In particular, her “born this way” ethic affirms diverse sexual behaviors: “No matter gay, straight, or bi, Lesbian, transgendered life, I’m on the right track baby.”

What Lady Gaga celebrates in her song represents a moral perspective that is widespread in our culture. It assumes that if someone is born a certain way, then that person is right to act accordingly. Thus, if one is born with same-sex attraction, then that person is right to engage in same-sex intimacy. It would be wrong, the argument goes, to claim that same-sex behavior is wrong if that’s what comes naturally to someone.

Confusion of Genetic Predisposition and Behavior

Unfortunately, there are several problems with this view. First of all, it confuses a person’s genetic predisposition with behavior. I can be a certain way, but that does not mean it is right for me to act in that way. For example, suppose that certain people are naturally inclined not to be sexually faithful to a single partner. I have heard scientists argue that males, in particular, are naturally suited for serial monogamy (one partner at a time, but many partners throughout a lifetime). If this is true, does that make adultery acceptable? Couldn’t the adulterer claim, “I was born this way”? And if that happens to be true, then are we forced to acknowledge that adultery is okay, at least in the case of one who comes by it naturally? Most people, I believe, would say that even if it turns out to be natural for a man to have multiple partners, once that man makes a commitment to be faithful to one partner only, it is wrong for him to break his commitment. “I was born this way” is not an adequate excuse for behavior which is otherwise morally wrong.

Our Genes Do Not Tell Us What is Right or Wrong

This points to a second problem with Lady Gaga’s ethical point of view. Genetic predisposition does not tell us whether it is right or wrong to act according to our genes. We need something besides “born this way” to tell us what is right and what is wrong. For example, though I am not a behavior scientist, I have observed that certain people seem to be born with a tendency for more extreme expressions of anger. I have watched very young children who tend to lose their tempers more often than other children. When they do, their actions are generally more extreme (louder crying, yelling, hitting, etc.). In many of these cases, there seems to be no environmental cause of a child’s proclivity for getting angry more often and more vehemently. As these children grow up, the tendency toward extreme anger seems to remain. Some learn to control their feelings and/or expressions. Others do not and end up reaping sad consequences when they strike out at others in their anger.

I could be wrong in my novice belief that there is some genetic basis for certain experiences and expressions of anger. But, for the sake of argument, suppose that I am not. Suppose that some people are born with a tendency to be angrier than others. Does this mean it’s okay if they yell at people, curse at them, or even strike them when they’re mad? After engaging in such behavior, would be be persuasive for someone to say, “Hey, you can’t expect better from me. I was born this way”? Or would we respond: “You may be born that way, but it’s not okay to act that way”?

I think most people would say that the “born this way” explanation is not a sufficient guide to determining the moral status of behavior. If someone has an inborn tendency towards alcoholism, for example, it is not right for that person to drink excessively. If there turns out to be a genetic basis for selfishness, which seems quite likely to me, that does not excuse selfish behavior. The point is that we determine the ethical status of actions not on the basis of whether they come naturally to a person, but rather on the basis of something else. That something else might be divine law, social contract, or personal feeling. But it is something else, nevertheless.

This is true even when it comes to sexuality. Consider an extreme case that makes the point with particular clarity. If a person were to sexually abuse a child and then that person were to claim that his or her sexual attraction to children was natural, an “I was born this way” explanation, we would not consider molestation to be acceptable in this case. We would reject the “born this way” position, I believe, even if scientists were to discover some sort of genetic basis for this behavior. I am not suggesting that there is such a basis, mind you. Nor am I suggesting that Lady Gaga and people who think as she does would ever believe that the sexual abuse of children is right. But I am using this as an example that makes it clear that “born this way” simply isn’t enough, even in the case of sexual behavior. Whether one is born with heterosexual or homosexual attraction, or some combination of the two, the morality of one’s sexual activity must be determined by moral, not genetic standards.

If it turns out that sexual attraction is, at least to an extent and at least in certain people, a matter of genetic predisposition (as seems likely to me), this does not tell us whether acting according to that disposition is right or wrong. We need something else to provide moral guidance when it comes to sexual behavior. But, the “born this way” perspective does matter when it comes to our responses to people’s moral choices. If it’s true that certain people are genetically inclined to behavior that we hold to be morally wrong, we should certainly treat these people with an extra measure of grace. Consider the example of a person who has “anger issues” because of an inborn tendency. We should not be expected to tolerate inappropriate expressions of anger, but we should regard people who are unusually angry because they are “born this way” with compassion and kindness, even as we make clear to them that their behavior is wrong.

“Born This Way” morality doesn’t work. It doesn’t tell us what is right and wrong, only what comes naturally. The problem is that sometimes nature is not our friend. I’ll have more to say about this in my next post in this series.



  • LutheranChik

    Mark, I’m not an Evangelical, but I do enjoy reading your blog from time to time. I’ve even recommended some of your posts to folks in my church, as our parish blogmeister/social media coordinator. So it disappoints me, a Christian and a lay leader in my church who happens to be a partnered lesbian, to see you engaging in the slanderous and meanspirited homosexuality-paedophilia-slippery-slope argument that is so often used by conservative Christians to condemn gay folks.
    Ironically, it’s the same kind of faulty logic and hateful rhetoric that some of my anti-religious family members and acquaintances engage in when they discuss Christianity: Christians=fundamentalist wingnuts=theocratic, freedom-and-creativity-hating “Christian Taliban.”
    Doesn’t feel good, does it?
    (Some days my partner and I feel like we can’t win, either with some of our fellow Christians or with our supposedly open-minded and liberal post-Christian friends and family.)
    Whenever — WHENEVER — I have tried to be open-minded about American Evangelical Christianity — whenever I’ve thought, “Well, as a mainline Christian I’m not really on these folks’ religious wavelength, but I’m willing to listen to what they have to say, and perhaps learn something I can take back to my own tradition, and try to focus on our commonalities — I get burned. EVERY time.
    But — I have a Savior who loves me, has saved/is saving/will save me; and I have the love and support of my own congregation and wider circle of Christian friends, straight and gay alike. So that’s enough — no matter what you or your coreligionists may think.
    Again — very disappointing. And I probably won’t be back here.

  • Cunnudda

    “Slanderous and mean-spirited”? Spare me, LutheranChik. This is a classic liberal tactic: demonize those who disagree with you. Mark is correct in his analysis. Once you admit any inborn tendencies as legitimizing behavior, you end up eliminating original sin. Oops. And if man is not inherently sinful, then Christianity itself goes by the boards.

  • Mark D. Roberts

    LutheranChik: Sorry to have disappointed you. And I’m sorry you didn’t read more closely. I did not make the slippery slope argument you attributed to me. It isn’t there. I wish you had seen that. Peace.

  • Donald

    Here’s the connection/correlation as I see it in Mark’s argument: A person pre-disposed to excessive anger should make the moral recognition that his excessive expressions of anger are morally wrong and curb his anger, or find morally acceptable ways to express it. This may, in some cases, be done by expressing no anger at all.
    Likewise, a person pre-disposed toward homosexuality should make the moral recognition that homosexuality is morally wrong and curb his (I’m limiting this to male expressions for brevity) homosexuality, or find morally acceptable ways to express it. This may, in some cases, be done by expressing no homosexuality at all.
    Am I understanding correctly ?

  • Ray

    Mark, “You’re on the right track, baby” with your analysis.
    I sympathize with LutheranChick because she is doing what all of us are – trying to become the people God created us to be. I lovingly disagree with her, though. My natural-born nature doesn’t matter. If I am trying to reconcile my life and behavior with the way I was born I’m on the wrong track baby. Only Adam was born with the type of humanity God created for us. Because of his disobedience I am born into original sin which Cunnudda mentioned above. Therefore, if I look to my inborn nature for moral guidance I will always be following an unreliable guide. I would be better to seek to follow Adam’s created nature which I can only know through a source external to me. Through the scriptures I can gain understanding of both Adam’s (pre-fall) nature and my own. Adam’s created nature is best revealed in what Paul called the second Adam, Jesus, through whom both my and LutheranChik’s salvation comes.
    I am sincerely troubled by the continuing conflict over sexuality because it detracts so much from our mission as the Church. I used to believe that peace would come when one side or the other was able to convincingly argue that truth was on its side. But after 30+ years of outright conflict, preceded by a long period of silent tension, I don’t think there is anything new left to be said. Now, the question regarding the peace, unity and purity of the church is how we can maintain “unity” and peace as Christians by agreeing to part ways so that we can all uphold whatever standard of “purity” we find acceptable. Protestants and Roman Catholics coexist nicely today after parting ways not so peacefully many generations ago. My hope today is for a second peaceful reformation that will enable us to restructure the church into a body that more effectively works for God’s mission in the world.
    Better to let LutheranChick and me freely follow our own consciences than to have us continually pitted against each other in an argument neither of us will ever win. Maybe Lady Gaga is unwittingly the Martin Luther for a new generation. God help us all…

  • http://catholicdadsonline.org Jason Ward

    I know of a case that proves secularists largely reject “born this way” excuses: procreation.
    Some people are desiring large families. Secularist Western culture now actively discourages large families – generally in the name of environmental protection.
    Some couples are extremely fertile to the point that contraceptive measures don’t work very well, if at all. The resulting procreation would clearly fall into the “born this way” category. Yet Secularists tend to expect these people to take steps stop having additional children that nature provides. They are expected to change behavior in spite of the overwhelming evidence that they are born to procreate.

  • Bill Goff

    Thanks to you and your responders for a provocative discussion. It raises many issues including the question of the meaning and impact of “original sin”. This doctrine has a wide spectrum of interpretation from those who deny (or ignore) it to extreme Calvinists who take it to mean that human beings are incapable of doing the will of God apart from divine intervention. My reading of Genesis 3 leads me to believe that the original sin (meaning the first sin) was asserting that God was stricter and more restrictive than he is. That exaggeration led to outright disobedience and the relationship between humanity and God was changed for the worse.
    Speaking personally, I know that prior to becoming a Christian at age eighteen I had a strong tendency to regard people who were different from me in a negative way. (Whether this was due to original sin or unoriginal sin, I’m not sure). I looked down on black people, women, Jews, and homosexuals as being morally inferior to me in different ways. Part of the transformation that Christ has brought to my life is to see that my judgmental attitude was a sin. I cringe now when I recall some of the cruel things I said about people who were different than me and how hurtfully I treated them.
    The last group of people I changed my mind about was homosexuals. This happened both because I met many respectable homosexuals (some of whom were devout Christians) and I re-examined the Scriptures. Now I believe that sin is not how we are born but what we do. Of course it is wrong to say I can behave any way I want because God made me a certain way. Just because I was born a heterosexual does not excuse me if I behave in a promiscuous way toward women. Morality has to do with behavior not birth. And Christian morality is revealed in God’s word. So if a homosexual person is living in a monogamous (married) relationship of faithfulness and love, I don’t regard his homosexual activity as a sin.
    I know that my viewpoint puts me in the minority of Christian believers at least in the United States. But I would have been in the minority believing that slavery was wrong and should be abolished. I would have been in the minority believing that women should be given the vote and full participation in the life of the church. Denominations may split over this issue as they did over the issue of slavery and that is regrettable. But the unity of the church cannot be maintained by simply acquiescing to majority opinion. Church history tends to teach us that too often the majority was wrong. I agree with Mark Twain’s statement: “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”

  • StanS

    Mark,
    Thanks for legitimizing biblical viewpoints. In today’s world, when Christian’s are attacked for stating their system of beliefs we tend to withdraw and hide when we are attacked so we can “love others as ourselves”. I stated last week unacceptable behavior is inexcusable no matter what the circumstances. I grew up, and no longer throw tantrums as I did at two years old. As we evolve we must not make excuses for wrongful acts so other must live with them. Geneticists are looking for a genetic link for abnormal sexual behavior. If one is found, according to Lady, we must embrace the way they were born. Not me. Jesus saved people, he also did not let people do whatever they felt like. In John 8:11 Jesus held the woman to living a life of acceptable behavior.
    LutheranChik, your blasting of Mark’s blog leads me to believe that there are deep, deep, issues that are troubling you. As you state that you are a believer, I hope that you can resolve them in a Godly fashion.

  • Evan

    Mark,
    Mankind has grappled with the question, “What is Right and what is Wrong?” for a long time. In almost every case, Mankind is grappling because Mankind does not like what the Creator of all of Mankind has stated on the issue.
    “Don’t eat this particular fruit” grew into a teleological and ontological examination of the expression of self and the celebration of the oneness of being. In other words, “Forget that, I want to eat the fruit, and I am jolly well eating that fruit.” What part of “Don’t eat this particular fruit” was subject to interpretation? Alas for Adam and Eve, Lady Gaga was not there to point out that they were born fruit-eaters.
    The words of Jesus on marriage and adultery are plain and non-ambiguous. If you do not adhere to them, you are sinning, and the wages of sin are death. All sin. Unfortunately, it has been the tendency of organized Christians to to wink at and downplay the seriousness of whatever sexual sins they feel more comfortable with, and act as though the “littler” ones are no big deal, and outrage should be reserved for the other ones. The particular sins in question will depend on who you ask.
    I am always struck at how Paul steadfastly asserted that he had kept all of the external law of Moses and was “blameless,” and “as to zeal, a Pharisee” but then asserted that covetousness was the sin that wiped him out, and that Sin had slain him as surely as it had Adam. Isaiah lamented upon seeing the Living God that he was “a man of unclean lips” and as a sinner, certain to perish. If covetousness and cussing lead to Death, where do we get off thinking we can wink at other sins? Being a born coveter or cusser does not appear to give one a pass.
    The only way “I was born” was with a desire to sin. And I have done a bunch of it. If any variation of the argument, “Well, at least I have never murdered anyone” was the measure, I would be in great shape, but it is not, and until Christ Jesus took death in my stead, I was condemned. I was born that way, but in my heart, I know that is no excuse: I ignored the way God wanted me to live because I wanted to. We are all righteous in our own eyes until the Living God appears, and then we must flee and hide. Thank God my advocate is Christ Jesus and not Lady Gaga.

  • http://www.godspotting.net Sheila Lagrand

    Mark,
    You and previous commenters have covered the theological and doctrinal aspects of the topic far better than this poor scholar of the Bible could.
    But, I do know a bit about anthropology, having earned a PhD in that field in 1995. What fascinates me about this discussion is this:
    Historically, this debate (usually called the “nature/nurture” debate in academic literature)has burned on for some time, with each side waving new evidence:
    “Look at this study of twins who were separated at birth but are so similar!”(Yet they did share an environment for nine months or so prenatally, no?)
    And so on.
    In the social/political realm, though, the “born this way” assertion has been used not to demand acceptance, but to justify eugenics–think of Hitler and his notions of “inferior races.” More recently it surfaced to justify social engineering: “If there’s a gene that causes rape, then let’s test for it and lock up all the rapists!”
    It’s interesting to contemplate that the same imputed cause, “born this way,” which has so often been wielded against those posited to be “born that way” (whatever the “way du jour” may have been), is now offered as grounds for acceptance of differences in behavior.

  • http://Don Don

    Mark Thanks for the clear thinking. Have you read Neil and Briar Whitehead’s Book “My Genes made me do it”(2010 edition)? It is very helpful in gathering together all the latest science on this issus. I particularly find the identical twin study data to be very revealing. They have a website where you can look at their ongoing research. I still find Robert A.J Gagnon’s “the Bible and Homosexual Practice:Texts and Hermeneutics(Abingdon,2001)to be very helpful. If you don’t agree with the “liberal” view of the sexual liberation ideology you will be called an unloving,bigoted fool. Their inclusivity only includes “liberals”. Karl Barth said he was a liberal because he had and open mind and sought truth. I wish these folks would do the same.

  • David

    “Every inclination is a weapon or a tool…”

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Chuck Germanotta

    unfortunately this entire article is flawed. you must understand that gaga NEVER meant the words BORN THIS WAY to be taken in its literal sense at all, therefore your whole perspective on human genetics and sexual variance is out of place. Gaga’s definition of BORN THIS WAY is about the ability to born and reborn anytime in your life, so that you can realize and achieve your fullest potential. it might be confusing, but get her words, go search for some interviews. this article lacks credibility .

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