Is it immoral to have a type?

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)

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  1. [...] so people are into themselves. So what? I have tried to make the case elsewhere that our desires can be morally significant. They reveal attitudes that we may have reason to reflect on, and possibly correct. Whenever I try [...]


  1. Arthur

    I don’t feel attracted to women who are clinically obese or to people
    who have lots of spots on their face. Do I have a moral obligation to work
    on myself in an effort to change these preferences? [For at least some of
    the obese and some of the spotty it seems reasonable to suppose that the
    condition results, in part or in whole, from their DNA or from other factors
    beyond their control?

    Does my obligation, if any, become stronger/weaker depending upon how
    difficult/costly it will be for me to change myself? Does it become
    stronger/weaker depending upon how much these people suffer because my
    preferences/dispreferences are/are not widely held? E.g., would my obligation to change my sexual preferences be slight if my preferences are
    eccentric (= not likely to be shared by many others) as contrasted with the
    opposite situation?

    Posted January 12, 2012 at 11:06 am | Permalink | Reply
  2. Peter

    So wait, if we are doing this with race, why not gender?

    I don’t date Men. I just don’t find them that appealing.

    I prefer to date Women, I find them extra appealing.

    Do I have a moral obligation to try a some M&M action?

    What is odd about me equating race and gender when talking about sexuality?

    Posted January 12, 2012 at 1:49 pm | Permalink | Reply
  3. joe

    I would see it more as prejudice. Some people prefer blondes in whatever wrapper they come in: Asian, Latin, African, or Martian. It’s the idea that a person with a similar set of features will be identical to another, and therefore missing other delights.

    I’m note sure how gender would factor in, but I agree it’s an interesting proposition.

    Posted January 12, 2012 at 6:09 pm | Permalink | Reply
  4. Leaf

    As long as you have a realistic view of how limiting your preferences are, who cares? It really bothers me when people of some certain category act like the rest of us are obligated to find them attractive.

    I tried this myself, telling myself to be more altruistic and dating someone who I didn’t find attractive for several years. While we did get better at pleasing each other, it wore on me until it was a huge effort to get turned on. In the end it caused more depression in my life than anything else.

    I agree that there needs to be a little give in preferences, but this argument could easily be taken to the point of saying everyone needs to be bisexual to maximize sexual options, and I don’t think that would go over well.

    I know some who seems determined to date a girl with the plastic style body of a porn star and the mind of a rocket scientist, and they will very likely end up alone because of that. As long as they have enough perspective to realize that, it doesn’t bother me. Some people prefer to spend their lives alone, after all.

    Posted January 13, 2012 at 6:23 pm | Permalink | Reply
  5. I’ve thought about this question a bit, and to be perfectly honest, I don’t think the conclusion of the post is utterly insane…just…well, very unlikely to be true, and a little bit creepy. (That’s not to suggest creepiness on the part of the author…just the conclusion. The error in question seems reasonable and honest.)

    But the conclusion seems clearly to entail not only that it’s morally sub-optimal to have sexual preferences with respect to sex (or “gender” in the currently-fashionable misuse of the term) but also that it is morally sub-optimal to have preferences with respect to individuals. And we can add: hair color, eye color, attractiveness, fitness, etc.. And since I don’t think that sex is *sui generis*, I think we’d get stuck with similar conclusions about friendship, and about who we prefer to hang out with and talk to.

    The error seems to originate in the premise that there is something wrong with not finding some race or other more physically attractive than some other race. But if Smith is inclined to find, say, whites less attractive than, say, blacks, and not on the basis of any reprehensible beliefs about moral or intellectual inferiority or superiority, then it’s very difficult for me to see anything wrong with that. I do agree that our sexual preferences are malleable to some extent…but only to some extent. But the question is: given its partial malleability, is e.g. a Hispanic female obligated to attempt to ramp down her aesthetic/sexual preference for e.g. Asian males? If we are entitled to the premise that lesbians are not obligated to try to weaken their preference for women, then we probably have all we need to give a negative answer to the question.

    The ultimate source of the error probably lies in a misconception about what it is that’s morally wrong with racism, but that’s a long story. But not every racial preference is morally impermissible.

    The consequentialist stuff doesn’t seem to work, either…but that’s because–or so I’d say–consequentialism doesn’t ever work. It seems like a genuinely terrible idea…a particularly strange version of perfectionist fanaticism…to try to get people to modify their preferences in order to e.g. maximize the amount of sex in the world.

    Again I want to say, though, that the author gets credit for taking some plausible ideas and pushing them to the vicinity of their (as they say) logical conclusions. I’m not certain he’s wrong…but I *am* certain that it’s an argument that fits in fairly comfortably with some pretty alarming moral and political views…though it’s obvious that that is unintentional.

    Posted January 14, 2012 at 10:33 am | Permalink | Reply
  6. emmacecile

    Would you want to date someone who was trying to become attracted to individuals of your particular race as a way of getting over some perceived moral failing?

    I know I wouldn’t! Leave me out of your social experiments thank you very much!

    I would much rather be sexually objectified for my physical characteristics by someone capable of respecting me as a human being, then date someone who feels they needed to overcome their own lack of attraction to my physical characteristics.

    So yeah, if you are working really hard at becoming attracted to people of my ethnicity, I’ll take a pass and date someone who is genuinely attracted to women of my ethnicity.

    Posted January 14, 2012 at 4:17 pm | Permalink | Reply
  7. neil

    The objections to this post seem to be of a piece: that “requiring” people to date against their preferences is a form of fanaticism, perfectionism, or social engineering. The suggestion was made that, by my logic, gender preference is a type that should be overcome. I don’t think that is a persuasive reductio of my argument, but I think that it is a useful one to examine. I don’t know whether sexual orientation is actually innate, although there is evidence to suggest that it is – that it is perhaps even genetic. But however the science on that shakes out, most gays and lesbians are unlikely to find that they can by sheer force of will start lusting after straight people. (Even Ted Haggard seems to have given up.) This is to say, our orientation towards a certain gender that is the kind of sexual preference that is likely to hold up against critical scrutiny. It was not shaped either by mistaken beliefs or lack of knowledge about either the preferred or the non-preferred groups.

    That’s fine. I think the moral requirement at issue here is not that we should force ourselves to do anything we’d really and truly hate, like dating people we’re honestly not attracted to, and it’s certainly not to force other people into such a thing. The requirement is to be willing to subject our preferences to critical scrutiny, to ensure that they aren’t based on, and aren’t perpetuating, prejudices – and that we aren’t thus short-changing people based on irrelevant criteria. We’re never going to be attracted to everybody – and, it’s a cruel world, there are some people who, because of how they look or how they behave, not many people are going to be attracted to at all. But I would submit that at least SOME of our preferences are based on false beliefs or lack of knowledge, and that these would collapse under critical scrutiny. I do not think it’s ridiculous or implausible to suggest that we’d live in a better world if we subjected all of our preferences to such scrutiny, to figure out which are the dispensable ones – and especially, which are the ones that depend on false beliefs or lack of knowledge. I would never fault someone for saying: “I would never sleep with men, I’ve thought about it and I just don’t find them attractive.” But what if someone said: “I don’t even want to consider sleeping with men because gay men are just so weird and icky”? I would not tell them they are obligated to go off and sleep with a guy to see how it goes. But I don’t think I would be out of line if I suggested they might want to at least reflect a bit on that gay-men-are-icky view, just to see where that process of reflexion might lead.

    I always try to teach my students something I call the Socratic principle: that philosophy entails being willing to subject all of our beliefs to critical examination, even if at the end of the day we end up still holding them. Once upon a time religious beliefs were considered off-limits to such scrutiny. Thankfully we’re past that now. But I think we need to be on the look-out for other realms where critical thinking is being shut off. Insisting that people do that, doesn’t strike me as a form of fanaticism or social engineering.

    Posted January 14, 2012 at 6:20 pm | Permalink | Reply

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