[This article was published under the title “A Principled  Discussion of the Taboo Against Homosexuality” in the Conservative Review, March/April 1995, pp. 27-29.]

The Conservative Revolution Makes It an Ideal Time for a Principled Discussion of the Taboo Against Homosexuality

Dwight D. Murphey

            American society has been under enormous pressure in recent years to repudiate its traditional taboo against homosexuality. So long as the supporters of mainstream society fail to articulate their reasons for the taboo in a manner consistent with the principles of a free society, the campaign against the taboo will be seen as occupying the moral high ground. In this article, Professor Murphey expresses the view that the "conservative revolution" that is now under way should cause us to reexamine the reasons for the taboo, leading to its reaffirmation.


            A number of practical issues relating to homosexuality have been forced upon the country by the campaign for "homosexual rights" in recent years. The conservative landslide in the recent elections means that all of them need to be revisited.

            None of them will be discussed openly and satisfactorily, though, if Americans find themselves unwilling to confront head-on the central issues of principle and practicality: Is a taboo that is designed to keep homosexuality out of view consistent with the principles of a free society? And, if so, are there important reasons to maintain the taboo?

            In what follows, I will want to discuss these issues in some depth.

          In my own analysis as a "classical liberal" who favors a society based on individual freedom, I begin with a libertarian presumption. I would place the "burden of persuasion," to borrow a legal term, on those who advocate any taboo. To be defensible, a taboo must be justified by needs that are important to a free society and that outweigh the presumption.

            This beginning premise is by no means agreed to by all thinkers who ponder the principles of a free society. The theories propounded by Ayn Rand and Friedrich Hayek would disagree with the idea that there must be a presumption against a taboo that invokes only social and institutional pressures. The concept in "coercion" is central to their analysis, and their definition of it encompasses only physical force. They argue that no coercion is being used against the subjects of a taboo unless physical force is used or threatened. This suggests that it is the right of every person, as part of his liberty to control his own life, to join in asserting any taboo so long as he doesn't use physical force.

            Years ago in my book Emergent Man I argued against this limited definition of coercion on the ground that immensely powerful coercive effects can result from actions that use no physical force at all. (For example, a boycott among food suppliers could starve an individual without anyone ever lifting a hand.) I believed, and still do, that the theory of a free society demands a broader definition of "coercion" than simply "physical force."

            Thinkers less inclined toward libertarianism would contest the presumption against taboos on a very different ground: that every society must necessarily be, if it is to exist acceptably as a society, a cultural whole, with its own history, dreams, prejudices and intricately woven consensus. To this view, the libertarian or classical liberal elevation of individual liberty to the highest pinnacle is arrant foolishness. There are other considerations, they say, that far outweigh any claim to the autonomy of individuals.

            This latter view is shared in today's world by people of widely differing outlooks. It is a view held by the cultural conservative, particularly in the European sense of the word "conservative"; it is held by a whole variety of points of view based on other cultural or religious perspectives, such as, say, fundamentalist Islam; and it is generally endorsed by social scientists and anthropologists as they look at the world's myriad of cultures, past and present, whose customs vary so greatly. To the latter relativistic understanding, all cultures have their own legitimacy in their uniqueness (except that in the context of recent ideology, with its double standards, this is often denied so far as the mainstream of European and American society is concerned).

            These views have much to tell us. As a classical liberal, I see great advantages in a society founded on the principles of personal autonomy (which are principles, we must not forget, that presuppose a rich cocoon of law, family, institutions, and ethical consensus). But personal autonomy must be seen only as a primary means and a major end, not as the only value to be considered. I have come to believe that a free society is best served if it sees itself not merely as a framework for personal autonomy but also as a form of advanced civilization and of common life. It is arguably defective to the extent that people cannot look at it and declare it good in light of the broad range of values that are important to a high civilization . This calls for its theory to consider not just the principles essential to personal autonomy, but also the many values that people hold dear on grounds that are separate from that autonomy. In the context of our discussion of taboos, these things may either strengthen or weaken the initial presumption that requires a taboo to justify itself.

            The question is how a taboo against homosexuality fares when judged in such a way. But before we get to that question we must decide whether we are going to base our judgment on religious grounds or instead on "prudential" grounds (i.e., on the advantages and disadvantages to human well-being as seen without religious criteria). I will base the analysis here on prudential considerations. These will be important to anyone whose religious beliefs don't already command an answer and who therefore consider themselves free to weigh prudential factors, and to others who want to judge social issues by their effects on human well-being.

            Many people today assume that any assertion about sexual morality must come from a religious perspective. They shrug off sexual morality because they see no religious compulsion relating to it. What they are missing is a profound understanding that civilization itself has certain imperatives. Civilized society, including a "free society" formed around the notion of personal autonomy, has a number of behavioral preconditions essential to its flourishing or even existing. These provide an ample basis for a moral code of civilization, and will be socially enforced within a community that wants to assure its own health. (Many have called them "natural laws" because a violation of them leads to damaging and sometimes disastrous consequences.) 

            From this, we should note that life within civilization, including a free society, is in no sense "existentially free," as the "do your own thing" anarchism advocated during the 1960s argued it should be. Freedom, to be effective and lasting, is the freedom to act as one wishes within what classical liberals used to call "ordered liberty." It is "liberty under law," and moreover, liberty within an ethical consensus. It is not a freedom devoid of responsibility. An intricate web of responsibility forms the atmosphere within which the liberty is to exist.

            The question of whether a taboo against homosexuality is justifiable is really a question of what social imperatives weigh against homosexuality, and further of what weight they are to be given as against the initial libertarian presumption.

            One imperative, of course, is public health and the protection of innocents. Even if homosexuals didn't care about their own health, a protection of innocents such as hemophiliacs, medical workers, the children of an infected parent, not to mention taxpayers and medical insurance payers who bear much of the cost of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, must weigh heavily in the balance. How many innocent lives, and how much expense, does it take to outweigh the presumption in favor of personal autonomy so far as homosexuality is concerned? .

            This by itself would be considered conclusive if it weren't for the blanket of ideological protection that in recent years has been spread over the whole AIDS phenomenon and over the privacy of homosexuals. "Political correctness" has forced us to ignore the obvious and to allow the forfeiture of a good many innocent lives in its name. It is in no sense extreme to say that both promiscuous homosexuals and those who insist on political correctness have been guilty of a willful and wanton disregard of the lives of others.

            Concerns over public health wouldn't weigh so heavily against a monogamous, non-promiscuous expression of homosexuality. That wouldn't nearly so much threaten the spread of disease (even though anal intercourse has that potential in any context). But homosexuality takes such intense forms and is often so promiscuous that it as an open question whether homosexuality could settle generally into a monogamous form. Unless there are good reasons to think that it will, there should be no facile acceptance of the assertion that "of course it can." We live in a time when statements are insisted on as true even when they have no evidentiary basis and are merely ideological assertions.

            Going beyond the issue of health, a second imperative is that there be a sexual ethic that leads to marriage and familial responsibility. The civilizational need, especially in a free society, for a code of conduct that reenforces marriage and responsibility toward family has been almost totally ignored by the liberal ethos in recent American society. The consequences of a massive number of illegitimate births and of single-parent families amount to a social crisis of immense proportions within the black population, and the same problems are growing among whites. The epidemic of crime and of gangs is directly related, as well as many other social ills that tend to be seen as separate problems.

            The sexual morality essential to a free society is built on two fundamentals:

. First, the extent to which civilized values are served by marriage; and,

. Second, that norms directing sexuality into marriage are necessary if marriage is to be a satisfying and stable  institution. Stable family units serve several crucial social functions in a free society: they decentralize child rearing, which is essential if the state is to be kept limited; they provide the love and attention that children need to grow into productive and responsible adults; they provide mutual support among the family members, reducing the need for governmental welfare; they do much to address the criticism that has often been made of a free society that it doesn't provide an adequate cocoon of "community" for the individual; and they are valuable in themselves through the love and fulfillment they make possible.

            A sexual ethic that gives marriage a virtual monopoly over sexual expression creates an impelling reason for people to accept the responsibilities of a permanent relationship with a member of the opposite sex and with a family. George Gilder has made a good point about the need to civilize the male, but it is broader than that. The inducement to marriage and family requires a sexual ethic; and the stability of marriage requires that the permanent relationship between two people and their children not be undercut by less than full faithfulness to it. All of this involves the need for more than a mechanical set of rules: the ideals that it represents need to become indwelling within the civilized man and woman. A sense of sexual and familial honor is essential, with an accompanying sense that less than that is dishonorable.

            Ironically, the society that is best positioned to be tolerant toward homosexuality is one in which homosexuality is kept essentially private and the society as a whole is on sound ground, with a consensus supporting family responsibility and moral sensibility. The irony comes from the fact that it is precisely that sort of society that is also best positioned to understand the reasons for a taboo against what it considers an aberration. There is less tendency to allow aberrations when the main ethic is strong, even though the very strength of the ethic makes the aberration much less potentially harmful; the contemporary period shows that there is a vastly greater tendency toward allowing aberrations when moral sensibility is weak.

            In my book Emergent Man more than thirty years ago, I argued for a tolerant attitude toward homosexuality on libertarian grounds. But during those thirty years the ethical foundation that I was presupposing for our society has undergone an alarming erosion. There is no longer an indwelling sense of honor and of dishonor in sexual matters, no longer a pervasive sense of what is important to civilization. This goes far beyond sexuality and into personal responsibility of all kinds. Because of this, the drive for an acceptance of homosexuality takes its place as just part of the crumbling of standards and of the orchestrated campaign since the 1960s against a "bourgeois" moral order.

            The Left itself has been one of the forces that has made this neither the time nor the place to take homosexuality "out of the closet" and to proclaim it as an acceptable part of our common life. If we had a powerful heterosexual ethic, we could afford to say that; but we don't, and to say that homosexuality is "normal" would not be understood as a permitted exception; it would be seen as part of the overall "do your own thing" moral anarchism. Under our present cultural circumstances, the taboo against homosexuality is not only justifiable in principle, but is imperative.

            A taboo can vary from a mild ostracism to a violent repudiation. There is nothing about the needed taboo against homosexuality that would justify the latter. It is our fellow human beings we are talking about, and we value them as such. So it isn't persecution that a valid protection of civilized life requires. It is enough that homosexuality not flaunt itself or be put forward as an acceptable alternative to heterosexual marriage. The word "propriety" refers to a common observance of the forms of society. What is needed more than anything else from those who are homosexual is that they observe those proprieties, which reflect an ethical framework that addresses issues of a far larger scope.


When this was published in 1995, Dwight D. Murphey, one of Conservative Review's associate editors, was a professor of business law at Wichita State University. He is the author of several books on comparative social and political philosophy.