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Criminalising ‘Conversion Therapy’ in a Liberal Democracy by Sebastian Morello

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Criminalising ‘Conversion Therapy’ in a Liberal Democracy

"The Houses of Parliament, Sunset" (1903), an oil on canvas by Claude Monet (1840-1926), located in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

For the first time, Charles, Prince of Wales, opened Parliament. He was standing in for the Queen, who has been suffering from poor health. He delivered the customary speech, conveying what Her Majesty expected of her government. Of course, the speech was written by the parliamentary ministers and simply listed what they had already decided upon. Thus, the entire event was—as it always is—theatre. It is important theatre, however, as it ceremonially reminds Parliament that it is not a self-serving oligarchy (or at least shouldn’t be) but a servant of the Crown and, by extension, of Her Majesty’s subjects.

One of the Queen’s orders was that legislation be “introduced to ban conversion therapy.” I knew that this legislation was underway, but nonetheless when I heard my future King say these words, it came as a small shock.

Years ago, I listened to a lecture during which the philosopher John Haldane proposed the following thought experiment: imagine that a pharmaceutical company created a medically safe drug that, when taken, caused those with same-sex attraction to experience sexual attraction only towards members of the other sex. In short, imagine that a company invented a drug that would turn homosexuals into heterosexuals. Then Haldane asked: “Would Western governments outlaw such a drug?”

The question that Haldane was really asking—in his own brilliant, Socratic way—was: are ‘liberal democracies’ what they claim to be? We are told that we live in a liberal democracy. Indeed, early on, the Queen’s speech had explicitly stated that the UK government must “play a leading role in defending freedom and democracy across the world.” Clearly, Westminster sees itself as an exemplar in the cause for liberal democracy. 

‘Liberal democracy’ does not so much denote a governmental form, but a moral stance presupposed by modern democratic government (which can itself take different constitutional forms in different countries). What is this moral stance? In short, it is the view that politics should protect the liberties and dispense the rights necessary for the individual to pursue his self-realisation according to his own lights (insofar as such a pursuit does not excessively interfere with others’ pursuits of self-realisation according to their own lights). Liberal democracy, then, claims to have no moral dogmas of its own beyond that of the sovereignty of the individual. The job of liberal democracy, its advocates claim, is merely to expand and protect conditions needed for the self-determining, sovereign individual to undertake his journey of self-realisation.

With this new legislation to outlaw ‘conversion therapy,’ I think we now know the answer to the question raised by Haldane’s thought experiment.

Imagine the following case. A man in his late twenties is sexually attracted only to other men. This, however, is a problem for what he deems his own journey of self-realisation. Why? Because he equates marrying a woman, and having children with her, with his own personal flourishing. He is unhappy that his sexual impulses appear incompatible with the life he wants to live. Given that those of the LGBTQ+ community, of which he is unwillingly a member, can legally undergo major invasive surgery in pursuit of self-realisation, why cannot he, he asks himself, have recourse to therapeutic assistance to pursue his own personal self-realisation? So, he goes to a psychotherapist and presents his conundrum. To this, the therapist replies: “Well, we can certainly spend time discussing your life-history, giving attention to key moments that might help you understand your same-sex attraction. Given the general complexity of human sexuality, it is possible that our sessions could bring about a change in sexual attraction, perhaps away from men and towards women. If you like, as we talk, I can keep in mind that this change is what you want.”

Soon, such a response in the context of professional therapeutic care will be a criminal offence. Note, the therapist’s response does not indicate any kind of moral judgement on homosexuality. In fact, the therapist would be consistent in responding this way due in part to a commitment to liberal democracy. In turn, the question arises: do we live in a liberal democracy?

What perhaps we really inhabit is a political and social system which presupposes that materialism is true. Modern societies certainly seem to largely operate on the assumption that all human desires can be satisfied by the satiating of appetite and the accumulation of commodities. Modern man is seen first and foremost to be a consumer

How is it, we may ask ourselves, sexuality is widely deemed something fluid, unless its fluidity runs towards heterosexuality, and then all of a sudden sexuality becomes a binary phenomenon that cannot undergo any change (“born that way,” as the oft-repeated phrase goes)? Perhaps, it is because there is something about the homosexual that is preferable to the heterosexual once man is framed as homo consumericus

In many ways, the man whose income is his own, who can live and work anywhere, whose sexual pursuits need not change that, and whose desire for fatherhood can be satisfied by the surrogacy trade, is the perfect citizen for our modern settlement. Correspondingly, there is something about the married, settled, child-begetting man that affirms values that transcend appetitive pleasure and what the market can deliver. If this is correct, in the political and social framework based on the primacy of pleasure and commodity-accumulation, legislation and culture will naturally privilege homosexuality.

In turn, ‘liberal democracy’ seems to be a euphemism for reductionist materialism transposed into political life. And reductionist materialism definitely does have moral dogmas. The 51% of people in England and Wales who identify as Christian enjoy almost no public celebration—and frequent denigration—of their religion in their constitutionally Christian country. And yet, months of public celebration, with rainbow flags everywhere, and massive, publicly funded parades to boot, is patiently endured by everyone for the sake of a whopping 2.7% of the population.

At the level of our political class, there seems to be a moral preference for one of those groups over the other. Those who claim to advance liberal democracy—that worldview that has no moral dogmas beyond the sovereignty of the individual—are not honest. In fact, they have a strongly held code of moral dogmas based on reductionist materialism, and are pleased to deploy directive and coercive means to promote them.

As it happens, I don’t think the solution to the problem I have presented above is that of realising a true liberal democracy. I don’t mind the State being committed to moral dogmas, and even curtailing the self-determination of citizens in the light of those dogmas. I don’t even mind if the State’s moral dogmas are erroneous, if not gravely so, as I hardly expect politics to always get things right. What I despise, however, is the State coercing its citizens on ideological grounds whilst claiming not to do so. What we have, at present, is dishonesty by establishment. If the State is going to coerce its citizens on the grounds of exceedingly dubious moral dogmas, it could at least be honest about it.

Sebastian Morello is a lecturer, public speaker, and columnist. Trained by Sir Roger Scruton, he has published books on philosophy, history, and education. He lives in Bedfordshire, England, with his wife and children.