Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Is Taking Life Endangering Risks Immoral? (Homosexuality & Driving Analogy Below)

Who knows? But according to convention AND (as far as I understand it) traditional morality, no. I have never heard of X-Games gold medalist Jeremy Lusk, who tragically died at 24 doing what he did best -- freestyle motocross racing. My prediction is that not one moralizing pundit will condemn his behavior as immoral, just like no one condemned Steve Irwin when he died young because of his risk taking, no one condemned Jim O'Brien when he died young because of his risk taking, and no one condemned Dale Earnhardt or the many NASCAR racers when they died young because of their risk taking.

I think this dynamic relates to a hot button contemporary issue: Acceptance of homosexuality. Some religious conservatives who have moral problems with homosexuality based SOLELY on their religious convictions attempt to contrive "secular" reasons for opposing homosexuality. Obviously, we know that AIDS has tragically taken the lives of many gay men who died too young. AND, some, perhaps many, though certainly not all, caught the disease while taking unnecessary risks (like not using a condom when you know you should have). However, folks who trot around "statics" proving the "harm" of homosexuality as reasons for "opposing" homosexuality obviously use them as a pretext for advancing their sectarian religious claims. (I put "statistics" in quotation marks because religious conservative organizations have posited "lies" in the form of statistics when trying to argue this "secular" case against homosexuality. See the notoriously debunked fraud, Paul Cameron.)

I assert this because if you look at the way we -- and I include more secular minded folks with traditional moralists -- react to risky behavior that potentially shortens lives, we almost never conclude such signifies the behavior to be immoral or should be otherwise socially stigmatized. When are we going to illegalize NASCAR for this very reason? Rather, as free people, we speak of adults knowingly, understandingly and voluntarily assuming risks (to borrow some terminology from the common law of torts).

And my reaction to young AIDS deaths is exactly as I react to the deaths of folks like Jeremy Lusk, Jim O'Brien, Steve Irwin, and Dale Earnhardt. It's tragic. Folks do well to know of the risks they take or otherwise to minimize those risks. In a perfect world, people would always dot their i's, cross their t's, eat healthy, go for regular check ups to the doctor, exercise, wear seatbelts, don't drive when you haven't had enough sleep, never talk on your cell phone when driving, don't smoke, always drink in no more than moderation, etc., etc. And, at the very least we need to educate ourselves and understand how to live such risk minimized lives. Until utopia or the millennium, we will never be able to avoid risks completely.

But taking those risks in no way indicates someone is a "bad person," or even that we need to oppose, in a social sense, those risk taking behaviors. For instance, how many folks DON'T do EVERYTHING that I just listed above? Probably everyone.

To use another example, if we want to totally eliminate the risk of dying in a car accident (and driving risks more than a statistically nominal chance of death), we simply wouldn't drive. We'd all voluntarily quit or the government would ban it. Because we understand that driving generally involves issues of prudence, not of morals or character, we do a better job at putting its risk into perspective. If you want the best chance at not getting your person or property harmed in an accident, minimize your risks. It's not that hard to figure out how to do so. But understand, even following all of the proper precautionary rules of driving involves a risk. Not driving is not a meaningful option for most of us. But for some folks it is (by meaningful choice, i.e., you live in a big city where you don't need to drive, or necessity, i.e., your disability prevents you from driving).

I think we can make a meaningful analogy to sexual issues. Some folks really are called to "chastity," for whatever reason. More power to them. If one chooses to follow a religious tradition that adheres to a strict sexual morality -- again, more power to you if you can do it. However, there are NO valid secular reasons, for instance, to oppose "homosexuality" in general. Like driving, there are only valid secular reasons to encourage folks to know how to minimize their risks and actually take precautions to in fact minimize those risks.

If someone who has some homosexual proclivities wants to resist them and remain chaste, that's fine (I see these folks as not unlike I see those who voluntarily choose never to drive). However, I think we realize that that's certainly not "for everybody," or even most people.

I use driving as an analogy to homosexuality, because IF ANYTHING, the need to love, be loved, and consummate that love sexually is far more deeply ingrained in human nature than the need to drive. Indeed for most of civilization, we got along without driving. But the government that takes away our cars and right/privilege to drive and consequently our modern way of life, we'd no doubt, term an unacceptable tyranny. Likewise, the person who argues taking away the right, privilege, or even social legitimacy of a particular group of folks to drive would be properly regarded as tyrannically unfair. I could care less if, for instance, folks like the Amish oppose both homosexuality AND driving within their ranks and believe that would be the first best way of life for all. But I would fight to the death to prevent them from making the "Amish" way of life the rule of law for everyone.

Thus, the fact that homosexuality may entail greater risks for homosexuals who wish to consummate their love is no good reason in and of itself on normative grounds to condemn such people.


Jordan said...

I'm not sure I would say taking life-endangering risks is immoral full stop. Surely there are instances in which it is permitted, even if supererogatory, or perhaps even morally required. But arbitrarily taking these risks as a matter of course or recreation is another question that I have done some wondering about. Where do we draw the line between legitimate albeit dangerous calling (e.g. firefighting) and voluntary recreation (e.g. rockclimbing)?

I am sure that there are at least some life-endangering risks that are not morally permissible, at least according to traditional Reformed ethics. See, for instance, the Heidelberg Catechism's exposition of the commandment prohibiting murder: "I am not to harm or recklessly endanger myself either" (LD 40, Q&A 105).

Jonathan Rowe said...


Many thanks for the reference. I'd be interested to see some Christian conservatives grapple with the ethics of Nascar and perhaps even football on the basis that these men are taking needless risks of harm to themselves.

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