A Moral Benefit
By taking AET, you would benefit those who are marginalized by societal beauty standards. In much of the world, beauty standards that favour whiteness, thinness, and gender-normativity prevail. AET would directly reduce the romantic discrimination felt by those whose bodies do not fit these narrow and oppressive standards of beauty.
AET would reduce non-romantic, appearance-based discrimination as well. People judge those they perceive as less attractive to be less competent (Dion et al. 1972), less intelligent (Talamas et al. 2016), and less trustworthy (Shinners 2009) than their peers. And these biases exact a heavy financial toll; someone judged to be in the bottom one-seventh in attractiveness will, over the course of their lifetime, earn hundreds of thousands of dollars less than someone in the top third (Hamermesh 2011). But if AET use became widespread, then appearance-based discrimination would recede.
Eaton (2016) and Chiang (2014) both emphasize the difficulty of countering ‘lookism’ through education alone, and the importance of expanding people’s perceptions of attractiveness. Drawing on Aristotle, who believed that teaching moral principles should be supplemented with instilling the right moral emotions, Eaton argues that the fight against fat oppression should involve not only correcting stereotypes and misinformation (the health risks of being “overweight” are overstated by the mediaFootnote 12Footnote 13), but also overcoming “our collective repulsion and disgust at fat.” Similarly, Chiang (through the character Joseph Weingartner) writes that, though “[the AET device] by itself can’t eliminate appearance-based discrimination [,] what it does, in a sense, is even up the odds; it takes away the innate predisposition, the tendency for such discrimination to arise in the first place. That way, if you want to teach people to ignore appearances, you won’t be facing an uphill battle.”
Since AET would help counter looks-based discrimination, you would not only have a prudential reason to take it, but a moral reason as well.Footnote 14
If the only effect of AET was to make you less picky about physical attractiveness, then it would not seem to raise any moral concern. Surely it would be morally permissible to make yourself less ‘superficial’ when it comes to who you date.
But a technology that made people less concerned, or not concerned at all, with the physical appearance of their potential partners could have a further effect in a subset of users – those users who are not already pansexualFootnote 15: it might expand their sexual orientation.
When it comes to technologies that might, in the future, alter sexual orientation, the most salient danger is that they could be used as a tool of oppression. Historically, and to this day, queer people have been pressured and, in many cases, coerced, into undergoing “conversion therapies” – which are ineffectiveFootnote 16 and can cause severe harm.Footnote 17 But if effective orientation-changing technology is developed in the future, then it might reduce the size of queer populations – at worst, reversing the global trend (Felter and Renwick 2019) towards increased acceptance of queer rights, and resulting in more isolation and oppression for those who remained queer (Behrmann and Ravitsky 2014).
This is indeed a serious worry for any technology that would eliminate same-genderFootnote 18Footnote 19 desire. But the specific technology that I am considering – AET – would not have that effect. AET, as I have defined it, would expand the set of people that you are attracted to, without eliminating any same-gender attractions that you already have.
It might be worried, though, that AET could be used in a similar way as same-gender-desire-eliminating technology. Some previously-gay people who took AET, and then became attracted to people of all genders, might, as a result of homophobic discrimination or internalized homophobia, choose to forgo same-gender relationships in favour of heteronormative relationships.Footnote 20
Of course, even under the status quo, some gay people pursue heterosexual relationships for these reasons. (For them, the only change that AET would make would be to increase the satisfaction that they would derive from these relationships.) But it might be worried that some gay people, on the margin, would, after taking AET, retreat into heterosexuality, when they otherwise would have come to embrace their queerness.
Still, it does not seem morally wrong for someone to use AET in this way – especially if the discrimination that they would otherwise face would be acute. It is not morally incumbent, on individuals, to expose themselves to severe discrimination on the altar of social progress. In this vein, some queer writers and activists have challenged the mainstream narrative of “coming out,” and affirmed that the decision to remain closeted is a valid one. Vaid-Menon (2018) emphasizes the particular dangers that coming out can pose for queer people of color, and writes that those who “cannot [or] are not interested in ‘coming out’ [should not be] shamed and dismissed.”Footnote 21
So, while some previously-gay users of AET might choose to seek refuge from a violently homophobic world in the safe-haven of heteronormativity, it would not be morally wrong for them to do so.
A different concern has to do with the use of AET by straight people. It might be thought that heterosexuals who took AET, and whose sexual orientation broadened as a consequence, would be wronging the queer community.Footnote 22 This worry is motivated by the objections that are often raised to non-queer people entering queer spaces, like gay bars (e.g. Farber 2017). It can be cast in non-harm-based or harm-based terms.
The Non-Harm-Based Objection
According to the non-harm-based version of the worry, it would be intrinsically morally wrong for straight people to use AET– apart from any harms that might result, and even if no harms resulted at all. This might be because it is inherently wrong to ‘commodify’ queerness or ‘appropriate’ queer identity. (An appropriation-based objection, though, would stand in tension with elements of queer theory, which emphasize the instability and even incoherence of identity categories, and eschew their policing; see e.g. Butler 1990.)
But what is ironic about these non-harm-based objections is that – though they come from a place of concern for the queer communityFootnote 23 – they share a common thread with the queer community’s enemies: an insistence that actions that harm no one can nevertheless be morally wrong.
Opponents of queer rights will sometimes make appeals to alleged harms,Footnote 24 but very often, their opposition to queer rights is grounded in the belief that queer identities and lifestyles are inherently immoral.
But supporters of queer rights can (and often do) offer the following compelling response: Queer people are not harming anyone by being queer, and actions that do not harm anyone cannot be morally wrong.Footnote 25
Though the second part of this response – that harmless actions cannot be morally wrong – is not without controversy in the philosophical literature,Footnote 26 it should be noted that one need not be a consequentialist to endorse it,Footnote 27 and a wide-construal of harmFootnote 28Footnote 29 can increase its appeal.Footnote 30 And detractors of the principle face the lingering worry that their alleged “harmless wrongs” are simply bigotry and intuitive discomfort in philosophical dressFootnote 31; and indeed, philosophers used to cite homosexuality as an example of a harmless wrong (see e.g. Feinberg 1990, p. 21).
This “absence of harm” response will become increasingly crucial to the case for queer equality if the advent of attraction-altering technology renders the popular moral justification – “It’s not a choice” – obsolete.Footnote 32“It’s not a choice” is, in any case, an unnecessarily weak justification; it is wrong to discriminate even on the basis of those characteristics that we can choose, like our religious identification. Moreover, “It’s not a choice” (and its variant, “Born this way”) erase the lived experiences of those queer people who emphasize having agency over their orientation (like “political lesbians”; Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group 1981) or who experience their orientation as changing over time (Diamond 2008).Footnote 33 (The unaffirming tone of this justification has been criticized too; as Cuboniks 2018, powerfully writes, “[T]oo often we are told to seek solace in unfreedom, staking claims on being ‘born’ this way, as if offering an excuse with nature’s blessing…The time has now come to tear down [Nature’s] shrine…not bow down before it in a piteous apology for what little autonomy has been won.”)
To oppose orientation-expanding technology on non-harm-based grounds, therefore, would be to forfeit what may be the strongest moral defence of queer rights: that an act cannot be wrong – and personal liberty should not be infringed – if no one is being harmed.
The Harm-Based Objection
A different objection to the use of AET by heterosexuals would appeal to the ways in which it might harm the queer community. But how might the use of AET by straight people, be harmful to queer people?
If AET had short-lasting effects, then it is not difficult to imagine how it could be used in harmful ways. Non-queer people might expand their sexual orientation for a night, for fun, and then – out of ignorance, insensitivity, or ill-will – do or say things that were hurtful to queer people. Any queer person who has been to a gay bar has likely had troubling encounters with non-queer people – who make homophobic comments, laugh at people who express their gender in non-normative ways, or express amusement or shock if they are flirted with by someone of the same gender in a gay bar (see e.g. Orne 2017). I take it as a given that the use of AET in these highly insensitive or malicious ways would be morally wrong.Footnote 34
(This is not to say that all efforts to temporarily expand one’s attractions would be necessarily harmful, or that the desire for casual intimacy and sexual exploration – even just for a night – is necessarily a frivolous one. To the contrary, casual kissing and hooking-up can have great value for those involved.Footnote 35)
In the remainder of this section, I will focus my attention on the “good faith” use of AET – which assumes not only the absence of any bad intentions (e.g. to mock queer people), but also the presence of good intentions (to be respectful). However, even with this restricted focus on good faith use, a harm-based objection could still be raised.
Since “newly queer” AET users would lack the sort of experiences and struggles that most “naturally queer” people have gone through,Footnote 36 they might be less able to understand, and more likely to be dismissive of, others’ experiences. For example, suppose that, at a queer meetup, someone talks about homophobic remark that was recently made to them, that they felt hurt by. A newly queer person in attendance might be more likely to dismiss, vocally, this person’s experience as minor. After all, a single “microaggression”Footnote 37 can seem trivial, when it is considered in isolation – by someone who does not understand what it is like to endure them day after day.
So AET use could, indirectly, lead to some harms, even when users have no ill intent. But if these kinds of insensitive comments were the only harms that resulted from good-faith AET use, they would not be sufficient to render it morally wrong. This is because these harms are overwhelmed in significance by the benefits that AET would unlock: By reducing lookism in society, AET would improve the lives, in virtually every dimension, of those who are marginalized by society’s beauty standards – while striking a blow at racism, sexism, and transphobia in the process. And for the individual user, AET could be life-changing, helping them have wonderful romantic experiences with people who they would have otherwise overlooked.Footnote 38
Furthermore, a common moral view is that individuals are morally permitted to give special weight to their own interests (Scheffler 1992) – at least for those elements of their life that they value most deeply, like their love life. When it comes to individuals’ personal romantic choices, we normally do not think that negative side effects on others – for instance, the sadness your partner would feel if you break up with them – are sufficient to render those decisions morally wrong.
But a closer analogy will drive home the point. Suppose that a person has previously only had heterosexual romantic experiences, but they recognize that they are also capable of feeling same-gender attraction. Surely it would not be morally wrong for that person to decide to date or experience consensual casual intimacy with someone of the same gender, for the first time. Yet the very same harm-based objection that was raised against AET could be raised in this case; someone who has previously only had heterosexual experiences, and has had no previous involvement in the queer community, would be less sensitive to queer issues, and more likely to inadvertently cause offense.
What this example makes clear is that individuals have a strong moral prerogative over how they choose to live their own romantic lives.Footnote 39 The choice to use AET, like the choice to date someone of the same gender for the first time, is not rendered morally off-limits by the non-zero risk of inadvertently causing offense. Provided that a person is acting in good faith, using attraction-expanding technology is their moral right.