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.