Humanism, LGBT Equality, and Human Rights

Ronald A. Lindsay

Secular humanism has been identified with support for gay rights for decades. The Council for Secular Humanism was founded in 1980 in part to counter the influence of religion on law and public policy and to promote fundamental human rights. In the context of sexual relations, this agenda resulted in a commitment to work to end legal restrictions on sexual conduct between consenting adults, including same-sex conduct. (At the time, same-sex intimacy remained a criminal offense in many states.)

With the passage of time, the range of issues associated with gay rights (or to be more precise, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender—LGBT—rights) broadened. The focus moved from ending criminal prohibitions to ensuring civil equality. The Council and the Center for Inquiry (CFI) have actively supported the LGBT community in its efforts to end discrimination and achieve equality. For example, in recent years CFI published a position paper arguing for the right of LGBT individuals to marry; CFI and the Council filed an amicus curiae brief with the California Supreme Court arguing that the state’s ban on same-sex marriage was grounded in religious dogma and unconstitutional; CFI reviewed and criticized textbooks that belittled the movement for LGBT equality; and CFI issued a position paper arguing for a repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which has excluded individuals who are openly gay or bisexual from serving in the military.

The activities undertaken by CFI and the Council, and the positions advocated by these organizations, have been controversial within the context of American society as a whole, but they have not been particularly controversial within the humanist movement. It is difficult to find a humanist who does not support civil equality for LGBT individuals. Even those who have taken issue with some CFI and Council positions usually base their objections on alleged practical problems (e.g., the effect of repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” on military morale) versus principled objections to LGBT rights.

Why is that? Why do most humanists support LGBT rights? And how is it that humanists can justify their support?

The last question is an especially important one for humanists, because we fiercely maintain that we base our ethics on reason and evidence. What then is the justification for supporting civil equality for LGBT individuals? It is not enough to say that opposition to LGBT rights is often based on religious beliefs and we adamantly reject the use of religious dogma as a basis for ethics or public policy. That is true, but refuting religious arguments against LGBT equality, while important, is not the same as justifying LGBT equality.

Those who work to promote LGBT equality often refer to “human rights.” The leading organization working on LGBT issues is the Human Rights Campaign, which suggests that some believe that civil equality for LGBT individuals is a human right. Perhaps it is, but for critical thinkers, this just pushes the inquiry one step further back. What is a human right? How do we identify human rights, and what is our justification for claiming that LGBT equality is a human rights issue?

Human Rights

There is no consensus among philosophers about the precise nature of a human right or the means of justifying a claim that something is a human right. For our purposes, we can eliminate fairly quickly two possible candidates for explaining and justifying human rights. One familiar theory is that certain human rights are inherent in human beings because they are God-given. This is a case where familiarity quite properly breeds contempt. The effort to base human rights on God’s will fares no better than all the other misguided efforts to base moral norms on divine commands. Among other problems, we cannot determine what an “authentic” revelation is without some prior understanding of what morality requires. Bringing God into the picture adds nothing. We cannot say what God’s true position is on human rights unless we already have an idea of what constitutes a human right.

Some have maintained that we can identify human rights by looking at the norms that have been recognized as embodying human rights under national or international law. In other words, a human right is what the law says it is. But this argument is plainly unsatisfactory. International or national laws are important for resolving some disputes and for allowing legal redress of alleged human rights violations, but they cannot represent the final word on human rights. Laws that specify human rights reflect the current consensus of a nation or nations, but it is always possible for someone to argue that the law is either under- or over-inclusive from the perspective of morality. Indeed, LGBT advocates argue precisely that. They maintain that the law in many jurisdictions does not give proper recognition to LGBT rights.

If human rights exist independently of legal enactments, and we do not resort to a lazy and incoherent appeal to God, then we need to specify the source of human rights. Here we seem to encounter some difficulties, which may be why rights are so often described as “self-evident.” Claiming that something is self-evident is a great way of avoiding having to admit, “I can’t really explain why I believe that.” What then is the source of human rights?

We are. Ultimately, humans determine what constitutes a human right.

I know that for some, this simple declaration may be very unsettling. Subconsciously, many of us have absorbed religious propaganda (or dime-store philosophy) warning us that basing morality on human reasoning results in moral claims that are capricious, arbitrary, utterly subjective, and hopelessly contradictory. But recognizing that we are the source of morality does not imply that moral norms are “subjective” in any prejudicial sense. On the contrary, moral norms are grounded in objective reality—namely, the conditions under which humans have lived and continue to live and the rules they must adhere to if they are to live together peacefully and productively.

Common Morality

There is a tendency to exaggerate the extent to which people disagree about moral issues and the degree to which moral disputes are intractable. Perceptions about the extent of moral disagreement may be misleading because exceptions to our moral consensus draw our attention, whereas the consensus itself is unremarked upon because it is unremarkable. Our common moral norms provide the foundation for our ordinary day-to-day interactions with others. Foundations, whether for buildings or social interaction, are taken for granted. One notices them only when they are cracked.

There are certain core moral norms that almost everyone accepts. Moreover, these core norms are found in all human societies because adherence to such norms is important if humans are to live together in peace and under conditions that facilitate cooperation. Examples of such norms are: do not steal, do not injure, do not kill, do not break promises, tell the truth, keep your commitments, and assist others. No morally serious person doubts that such norms impose presumptive obligations on members of the moral community. (These norms are presumptive because they can be overridden if there is a competing obligation; my obligation to assist someone in distress takes precedence over my promise to meet you for dinner.) This is not to say that we all abide by core moral norms on all occasions. Of course not. We are sometimes tempted to violate accepted norms when it is to our advantage, and we sometimes yield to this temptation. But these variations in our conduct do not imply that we do not accept these core norms.

These norms are universal because the conditions under which most humans have lived have remained constant in certain key respects. Humans are vulnerable, have limited resources, and require the cooperation of others. Moral norms guide human behavior in the context of these conditions. Morality helps to provide security to members of the community, create stability, ameliorate harmful conditions, foster trust, and facilitate cooperation in achieving shared or complementary goals. In fact, it is morality’s effectiveness in helping achieve these objectives that justifies morality. If we want to live together and—while doing so—improve the conditions under which we live, the constraints imposed on our conduct by core moral norms are indispensable.

The Relationship Between Morality and Human Rights

Some core moral norms have a direct and obvious relationship to widely recognized human rights. If there is a presumptive obligation not to kill, one can readily infer that there is a corresponding right to life. Similarly, a prima facie obligation not to steal implies a right to possess property. But what about rights such as freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of religion, freedom to pursue a profession or career, and freedom to engage in sexual relations? These are also widely recognized human rights (at least nowadays), but they do not appear to have a direct connection to core moral norms.

However, these rights may have an indirect connection to core moral norms. Consider that many moral rules impose limits on what we can do. These limits are justifiable—but greater restraints may not be justifiable because they would infringe on an individual’s autonomy. If what I plan to do does not harm you in any significant way and is important to me, then the presumption should be that I am free to pursue this action. In other words, we presumptively possess certain liberties. Such presumptive liberties include freedom of speech, freedom of association, and so forth. In other words, the core moral norms not only relate to human rights by what they prohibit, but also (indirectly) by what they permit. They directly protect certain rights, but they also impliedly protect other rights, principally liberty rights, by carving out a sphere of personal autonomy where others, including the State, may not intrude.

I will grant that for this argument to work, we must accept the premise that people have significant liberty interests that cannot be overridden except by compelling need. Those who reject the existence of such interests will find my argument unpersuasive. But how many people in the Western world do not think we have a right to free speech or to pursue the career of our choice? Moreover, I must concede that recognition of personal liberty interests was not widespread until modern times. (Perhaps it is no coincidence that the notion of human rights was not widely accepted until modern times either; see the insightful book Inventing Human Rights: A History by Lynn Hunt for a discussion of the history of human rights.) But I do not believe my argument is seriously flawed by acknowledging that views about the value of personal autonomy have changed over time. Some values are timeless; others are not. Recognizing this fact does not require us to forego use of contemporary moral values in our reasoning.

Application of This Argument to LGBT Rights

We now have a reasoned basis for arguing that LGBT individuals should be able to choose a sexual partner or pursue a career—including a career in the military—as a matter of right. These are significant matters. There are not many aspects of one’s life that are as personal as one’s sexual identity. It is an essential part of how we define ourselves. Similarly, albeit to a lesser extent, the choice of a career is a crucial aspect of one’s life. If we deny an individual the right to make choices about matters such as these, we effectively appropriate that person’s life; we deny that person fundamental liberties. As Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote in commenting on the right to decide whether to have a child, at “the heart of liberty” are matters “involving the most intimate and personal choices a person may make in a lifetime, choices central to personal dignity and autonomy” (see Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833, 852 [1992]). Such choices should be protected from interference by the State or by other individuals, absent compelling justification.

Sadly, many humans have been denied fundamental liberties even after the concept of human rights began gaining acceptance. Not unexpectedly, the justification that has usually been given is that certain groups of individuals lack necessary capacities or are not fit to enjoy the rights granted to others. One obvious example is the case of women, who, until the twentieth century, were considered by many to lack the full capacity to reason and were regarded as dependent on their husbands or other males. This view of women was founded on nothing but prejudice—often religiously inspired—and fortunately has largely faded from the Western world.

LGBT individuals have been in a similar situation. They were considered abominable and aberrant; they were criminals, after all, engaged in “unnatural conduct.” Many thought it would be wrong to allow LGBT individuals freedoms given others because countenancing open immorality would harm others in the community.

In the past few decades, these absurd views have begun to melt away under the light of reason. There is simply no evidence to suggest that LGBT individuals are not capable of exercising fundamental liberties in a way that does not harm others. The notion that same-sex conduct is inherently harmful is a contemptible view that has no support apart from religious dogma and bigotry.

The lack of evidential support for limiting the rights of LGBT individuals may help explain why most humanists have supported LGBT rights. No, humanists are no better than other people, but we tend to dismiss religious dogma and we also demand that claims be supported by evidence. For example, we’re not going to blindly accept claims that it’s dangerous to have gays as teachers, that same-sex unions are unstable, or that same-sex couples make bad parents.

Before closing, let me briefly discuss the special case of marriage. The freedom to marry is different from other fundamental liberties. To speak freely, to exercise your religion freely, and to have intimate relations with the partner of your choice, government just needs to stay out of the way. Marriage, however, is a State-run institution. One cannot get married without State support and approval. But these facts do not change our analysis significantly. If the State supports an institution such as marriage, which allows couples to obtain certain benefits by legally solemnizing their union, then all individuals should have the same right to take advantage of this institution. Denying same-sex couples the right to marry makes no more sense than denying women the right to vote or African Americans the right to attend integrated schools.

To sum up: there is a rational, objective basis for some moral norms. These norms imply, among other things, that humans should have the right to engage in activities that are not harmful to others and that are critical to our ability to give shape and meaning to our own lives. These are human rights, and, therefore, are rights that are universal. All humans have an equal claim to such rights, absent a compelling justification for denying such rights. There is no justification for denying LGBT individuals equal status. There is no justification for denying them fundamental rights. There is no justification for treating them as less than fully human.

Ronald A. Lindsay

Ronald A. Lindsay is the former president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry. Currently, he is senior research fellow for CFI and adjunct professor of philosophy at Prince George’s Community College.


Secular humanism has been identified with support for gay rights for decades. The Council for Secular Humanism was founded in 1980 in part to counter the influence of religion on law and public policy and to promote fundamental human rights. In the context of sexual relations, this agenda resulted in a commitment to work to …

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