Macklemore and Philosophy

by Benjamin Studebaker

I’ve been hearing the song “Same Love” by Macklemore for a while now. I agree with the song’s central message–that gay people should be afforded equal treatment by the state and in society. I also quite like the song, in no small part because unlike most songs, it’s very direct with the point it intends to make. The lyrics make clear arguments without hiding their messages in metaphors and other methods of obscurantism. There are entire websites devoted to helping music fans come to understand the veiled messages in their favorite artists’ songs, and it’s nice to not have to have inside knowledge to get the point being made. That said, it also illustrates one of this blog’s running themes–lay people lack expertise. While Macklemore makes a point I firmly agree with, the argument he uses to reach our shared conclusion is not very good.

Here are the lyrics to “Same Love”, which I will periodically reference. The song opens with a fairly harmless anecdote in which Mackelmore tells a story about how when he was growing up he came under the impression that he was gay because of his art skills and tendency to keep his room neat. The implication is that even small children are taught by society to embrace a series of stereotypes about gay people that do not themselves have anything to do with being attracted to people of the same sex. The point is a good point–people are often boxed into sexual stereotypes from a very early age. That said, the appeal to an anecdote from Mackelmore’s own life, while emotionally compelling, doesn’t really prove this to be true. It’s a small point really–it’s fairly self-evident that this particular claim is true, and the anecdote drives it home for some people. It’s this next bit in which Macklemore makes his first serious error:

The right wing conservatives think it’s a decision
And you can be cured with some treatment and religion
Man-made rewiring of a predisposition
Playing God, aw nah here we go

It is certainly biologically factual that homosexuality is not a choice–we are either genetically disposed to it or we are not. That said, it does not follow from there that attempting to use socialization to overcome genetic predispositions to various kinds of behavior are wrong because they entail “playing god”. We frequently attempt to influence people to behave in ways that go against their natural predispositions.

Take, for instance, dyslexia. Dyslexic people have a predisposition to have trouble reading. We nonetheless attempt to use socialization to get them to read, using education, a kind of intellectual treatment, to overcome their natural tendencies. Or, alternatively, consider criminals with natural predispositions toward violence or toward an absence of empathy. We typically attempt to rehabilitate such individuals, even in cases in which the predisposition is strong. We would likely believe us to have done both the prisoners and ourselves a disservice if the effort wasn’t there.

Of course, gay people aren’t like dyslexic people or violent people. Homosexuality doesn’t cause people to behave in ways that are harmful to themselves or to others. Dyslexia damages the dyslexic’s quality of life severely, potentially denying them the opportunity to read amazing things like this blog. Violent people cause themselves to be removed from society and often inflict serious harm on others. Gay people improve one another’s quality of life through sexual activity and have no averse effect on non-gay people outside of gross-out factor. The reason we shouldn’t attempt to rewire homosexuals is not that rewiring itself is wrong, but that homosexuality is not a bad thing–it’s not something that we should try to get rid of in the first place. If we were to oppose rewiring or “playing god” in the abstract, we would also have to oppose rehabilitation, education, all sorts of policies whereby we try to influence the default behavioral patterns of children. Parenting in and of itself contributes to our essential wiring, and yet it is a human activity. Is parenting wrong insofar as it intervenes in some “natural” state of things? There is no line between human beings influencing each other through in the usual way and “playing god”. “Playing god” is just what we call the various instances of human beings influencing other human beings that make us personally uncomfortable, typically because we are not used to them or find them repulsive for other reasons that we’ve failed to articulate. In this case, Macklemore fails to articulate that the problem he has with attempts to rewire gay people is that there’s nothing wrong with gay people. He certainly isn’t opposed to rewiring in the abstract, even though he claims to be in the song.

This is not the only instance in which Macklemore fails to articulate the reason that homosexuality is okay–that it simply doesn’t harm anybody and benefits its practitioners. Here he makes a different philosophical error:

It’s the same hate that’s caused wars from religion
Gender to skin color, the complexion of your pigment
The same fight that led people to walk outs and sit ins
It’s human rights for everybody, there is no difference!

The first trouble with this is that homosexuality isn’t quite the same thing as skin color insofar as homosexuality is a behavior rather than a physical feature. It’s true that both homosexuality and skin color have biologically determined origins, but as I said above, many people have biologically determined predispositions to all kinds of negative behaviors or disabilities that we routinely attempt to correct. There is absolutely no reason to attempt to change a person’s skin color because it’s merely a factor of appearance, but there may be reasons to attempt to change a person’s behavior, even if that behavior is biologically predetermined. Behaviors can harm others, mere appearances typically cannot. The reason to support equal treatment of gays is that homosexual behavior is harmless to non-gays and beneficial for the gays themselves, who are wired to derive diminished pleasure (or no pleasure at all) from heterosexual sex relative to homosexual sex.

The second, more critical problem is Macklemore’s appeal to human rights. “Human rights” are often referred to reflexively in an unthinking way, and this is one such case. What specific right is Macklemore referring to? Is it a right to get married? To have consensual sex with whoever you want? An answer of this variety seems most likely. The trouble is that Macklemore is himself arguing that we ought to have such a right. Asserting that the right exists presupposes Macklemore’s own conclusion. In order for gay people to have a right to get married or to have sex with whoever they want, we must first agree that people in general ought to have this right. This is a point on which many people do not agree. I myself am not a rights theorist–I don’t think that human beings have rights or necessarily ought to have rights independent of what is beneficial or harmful to individuals or groups thereof. In general, there’s nothing wrong with people having consensual sex with whomever they choose or for people to marry who they like. As a general rule, these activities should be permitted. If we are afraid of the consequences of accidentally wrongfully barring people from partaking in these behaviors, we might invent a legal right to them as a protection, as we do with freedom of speech, but if we create such rights, we do so because creating those rights is beneficial or avoids harm, not because these rights exist independent of their consequences.

In sum, too often Macklemore attempts to argue for equal treatment of gays without making the obvious claim–that homosexuality doesn’t harm anyone and benefits some people.  Gay people should not be allowed to get married because they have some inherent right to do so that we’ve been ignoring or because to prevent them from doing so is “playing god”, they should be allowed to get married because allowing them to do so benefits them without harming anyone. This idea isn’t particularly complicated or hard to grasp, so it pains me to see Macklemore not quite manage to articulate it. Nonetheless, my compliments to him on his end message and on the song itself, which is rather catchy. Also, I’m quite fond of the hook:

And I can’t change
Even if I tried
Even if I wanted to

As a determinist, I can get fully behind that–to the extent to which people are capable of change, the change is inevitable and the result of their own nature and socialization rather than the result of any independent will or agency. Was Macklemore fully cognizant of the philosophical implications of  those lines? Perhaps he imagined the point was restricted only to immediately biologically determined traits, but nonetheless, I quite enjoy it.