It is a very honorific thing to be called a philosopher. You may be a politician, driver, engineer, physician, pilot, teacher, novelist. The moment someone calls you a philosopher, you become lightheaded with euphoria. To be called a philosopher in addition to your everyday job, is a huge acknowledgement of your capacity and willingness to blaze your own trail. To think unusually deeply about things most people take for granted. Indeed, a great curiosity is the hallmark of a philosopher. Pythagoras coined the word philosophy some two and half millennia ago to mean “the love of wisdom”. To be called a philosopher is flattering because it is associated with wisdom even if in a crazy kind of way.
Who are the philosophers? Peter Singer, Martha Nussbaum, Socrates, Anthony Appiah, Jesus of Nazareth, Pythagoras, Helen Frowe, Epicurus, Amartya Sen, Ayn Rand, Aristotle, St Thomas Aquinas, Frederick Nietzsche, Immanuel Kant, Brad Hooker, Arthur Schopenhauer, Henry Thoreau, David Benatar, Ronnie Bwalya, Derek Parfit, Judith Jarvis Thomson, Sarah Fine, Tupac Shakur, Spinoza, Bob Marley, Dave Capella, and Iris Murdoch. The list includes an artist, a mystic, a stand-up comedian, a prophet, women, the dead, and the young. What brings them together on this list is their commitment to using reason to solve diverse deep questions about reality and our existence. A philosopher seeks clarity, the truth, and the logical.
So, what has philosophy got to do with homosexuality? The first philosophical thing is clarity. What does it mean? What do you mean? Children are good at this. Children are born philosophers until parents, religion and the school system mess them up. Children are told to not ask certain questions and not to ask too many questions. Until we are all zombie-like conformists, unable to think for ourselves. Philosophy tries to undo some of the damage, with some limited success.
Until we know what a word or a grammatical string of words means, we are in semantic and logical quagmire. Always try to be clear what your words or sentences mean. That is the true beginning of wisdom. You miss this, you’re barking up the wrong tree, killing innocents and hating or blaming victims. Making bad laws and enforcing good laws wrongly.
Avoiding false beliefs
Aside from looking into the meaning of concepts and statements, philosophy is keenly interested in the veracity of claims. In the digital age of social media, fake news, and alternative facts, the importance of this philosophical preoccupation cannot be overestimated. In a paper published 100 years before I was born, William Kingdon Clifford declared that “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” A belief is a statement that something is true. Clifford’s belief about the moral significance of evidence for our belief is very important.
Beliefs have practical effects. Kapalu believes drinking alcohol causes liver cirrhosis which he wants to avoid. As a result, he quits alcohol binging. Brenda believes the pastor can administer anointing oil with his penis, and now she’s got a baby. Kangwa and his friends believe the herbicides in Hamooba’s car boot are for gassing homes. They murder him. You believe blacks ain’t human enough, so you merchandise them. Elina believes a condom reduces the risk of STI and unwanted pregnancies; she insists Chilufya wears one. Smith believes he will be rewarded with 70 pubescents virgins upon his death, so he blows himself up at a crowded marketplace. Luo, Nyela, and Mutale believe dissing Tongas will win them an election; they go ballistic.
We have a powerful reason to question our beliefs and ensure they meet the highest standards of evidence possible before we embrace them fully. Philosophy produces some standards. Here is a few. We need believe things perceived in a normal state of mind with normal senses or equipment in a clear environment. We need to believe things if they are reported by experts on the subject and if the experts have no vested interests or conflict of interest. We must not believe immediately things if they are not from a reliable person, newspaper, or online source. No matter how tempting. Academic journal articles are a good place to find claims that have been written by experts and crosschecked by other experts. On social media, don’t follow gossip only. Follow experts and expert pages or accounts as well!
Does it follow?
Do you know the most important word in philosophy? It is ‘therefore’. It shows someone is making a conclusion. They are saying because we believe some other things (premises), we must accept some other thing which follows from the things we hold to be true. Logic helps us to decide whether we must accept a conclusion. Logic is the thread that strings some statements to a certain conclusion someone draws from those statements. That string may be weak or broken.
You’re not being logical! This is a serious complaint and must be taken with the utmost seriousness. “I am from the royal family, and therefore, I am more important than you”. You recognize this immediately as rubbish. “You are a woman, and therefore, you must stop helping our daughter with her homework and change our child’s diapers while I watch Watford and Liverpool”. More rubbish. There is no logical link between being a niece of Mwine Lubemba and deserving more respect or rights than a peasant girl. The family, tribe, class, race, gender, or species you are born into does not confer upon you some automatic specialness over others. Elitism, patriotism, patriarchy are specious concepts.
You are reading this sentence. Therefore, you are human. This is a fallacy, a mistake in reasoning. The reasoning is bad because you could be a robot juiced with state-of-the-art artificial intelligence. The science of drawing conclusions properly is the core of the philosophical method. And as the examples above show, wrong inferences or reasoning can lead to practical and moral disasters.
Applying philosophy: Homosexuality
Some people like to dismiss philosophy as unimportant and theoretical. But I can tell you there is nothing more practical than a good theory! Philosophy is inescapable. It is the foundation of all worthy human institutions and pursuits. In philosophy we ask four cardinal questions (among others) and develop useful and sometimes novel ways of responding to them. What does it mean? Is it true? Is it logical? Is it right? Let’s briefly apply our little philosophy to homosexuality.
Homosexuality is when a man has romance with another man. According to our laws, this must be punished, and heavily so, because it is unnatural and gross. These are both reasons that the colonial authors have themselves gone on to debunk and correct. But here the Pentecostals led by Ms Godfridah Sumaili’s Ministry of National Guidance and Religious Affairs have dug in their toes, holding the politicians at ransom.
The first question is that what is meant by unnatural and gross. I’ll be quick. ‘Unnatural’ means not natural. But homosexuality is natural. Homosexuals (not bisexuals) feel no arousal or romantic attraction to members of their opposite sex. It is uncommon, found only in about 1% of the population. About 6% including bisexuals. That leaves nearly 99% of us free to fill the earth. Contrary to what many of you have been misinformed, even animals do it! Yes, they do. They use hands, mouth, and rectum, male to male.
But let us assume homosexuality is unnatural. So what? Here logic tells us that just because something is unnatural, it doesn’t follow that it is morally wrong. Just look at how many unnatural things we do! Ms Sumaili wears wigs (I beg to be corrected) to look nicer, she uses aircon in her plush ministerial office and posh vehicle. Some Pentecostals have bleached their skins to feel nicer. We use vaccines, ride horses, eat with forks. None of these things are natural and none of them are wrong. By analogy, therefore, even if homosexuality were unnatural (and it isn’t!), it does not follow that it is an immoral thing. Mature lovers are free to fall in love with whomever and satisfy each other any way they like. Ms Sumaili and her Ministry may waste some more of our taxpayer’s money commissioning a Pentecostal Kama Sutra if they like. But they must not impose it upon all of us. Everyone has a sacred right to enjoy consensual sex the way they like it using any part of their body! Nails, beads, feet, teeth, earlobes. Anything goes.
According to our laws, men kissing or masturbating each other is grossly indecent and therefore constitutes a grave crime. Just like that! That’s just so arbitrary. A rational society doesn’t make laws like that. I pity sensible magistrates who must preside over such inane cases. Please, find some technical grounds to throw out such frivolous and unjust cases to leave the courts for serious matters. This offence is about what the majority do not like. It is a tyranny of the majority, a blight on democratic society. A failure of logic – argumentum ad populum. How many of us must find gross a twenty-year-old man kissing a seventy-year-old woman before we outlaw and punish such intergenerational romance? Grossness alone is hardly sufficient as a reason to criminalise homosexual fondling.
Let me end with a thank you to those who have reached out to me via email. Your objections (very polite), requests for clarity or detail, and encouragements all make doing this so much more worthwhile! Let’s make philosophy a way of life for a better Zambia.
Dr Julius Kapembwa
Philosophy & Applied Ethics
University of Zambia