I suspect most people have a type, some particular sort of person to whom they find themselves automatically drawn. Put them in a giant room full of eligible people, and they will gravitate towards members of this class over and over. We all know a guy with a thing for Asian women. (Oh yeah, that guy. Last I heard, he went off to teach English in Korea.) Other people might have a weakness for women with glasses, or fire fighters, or who knows what. We equally have aversions: types of people we just aren’t turned on by. Put a jock in a room with a goth girl and see if the sparks fly. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that for everyone who is turned on by some type, there is probably someone who is turned off by it.
So what, you might ask? Desire is a mysterious thing. We want who we want. Your friend with the thing for Asians may be limiting his options, and thus missing out on the chance to date lots of fabulous people. But that’s how he is. Can we really say it’s immoral?
I think it is possible to argue that it is. Preference is not destiny. We find ourselves with all kinds of desires and aversions that we question and work to modify every day. If a friend tells us that she doesn’t like foreign food, many of us would automatically try to convince her to give it another try. This is because we know that people often let themselves be trapped into prejudicial ways of thinking that they could break out of if they just made the effort. With food there is no real moral question here, we just think that our friend might get more out of her relationship with food if she diversified her tastes. But when it comes to people, prejudices are generally considered bad things, that we should work to overcome. Racism, whether it’s an aversion to people of a certain race or a preference for them, is the most dramatic example of the sort of personal preference that in most spheres of life we widely condemn, and that we try to get over if we feel ourselves experiencing it. Yet we are remarkably tolerant of it when it comes to sexual choices.
Let me offer two statements, and ask what is the morally relevant difference between them.
1. I don’t socialise with Asians. I just don’t find them that appealing.
2. I don’t date Asians. I just don’t find them that appealing.
(1) is clearly objectionable. It looks like straight-up racism. If someone sitting next to us at a bar made a statement like that, we’d probably quietly slide over a few stools. I think we are more tolerant of (2) — yet it looks exactly the same. And is it any different than:
3. I prefer to date Asians. I really find them specially appealing.
No one can stop you for from feeling more, or less, attracted to a particular type. But we might think you have a moral obligation to try to overcome that preference. You could examine where this particular preference comes from, and you could make a special effort to date other types.
Someone might object here that the harm of prejudice comes not from the attitude itself, but the way the attitude affects society, and our dating choices don’t affect society. People who are racists, for instance, pass qualified people over for jobs, or allow their attitudes to affect their voting behaviour, and that makes us all worse off. There is, on this view, no measurable harm of this kind when it comes to dating.
I think the harm exists, but is more subtle. It is the harm of living in a society that is less tolerant than it might be. Other things being equal, we are better off in a society where people are as free from prejudice as they possibly can be, and where everyone can succeed on their merits in all spheres, including the sexual. In such a society, everyone can feel that they’ll be given a fair chance, and they can be confident that the rest of us will have no patience for anyone who refuses to judge them as individuals. Also, a society where people have strong sexual type-preferences, and these preferences are tolerated, is very likely going to be less efficient at matching up sexual partners, because people miss opportunities. There is therefore less sex being had in aggregate – and I believe that, other things being equal again, a society that contains a greater aggregate quantity of sex is better than one that contains less. For these reasons, our personal preferences decrease the total welfare of the society, and this creates an obligation to work to overcome them.
Image: Enrique Simonet, The Judgement of Paris (1904)