Monday, May 09, 2005

READER RESPONSE -- The seen, the unseen and marriage: A response

Posted by Craig Westover | 2:25 PM |  

Doug (Bogus Gold) responds here in the continuing discussion of same-sex marriage. What makes Doug’s response -- and his writing in general -- interesting is that he isn’t afraid to stick to the issue. He addresses the argument as put to him. I can do no less.

So, let’s take Doug’s points of disagreement in order.

First, he disagrees with my notion of same-sex marriage creating two slippery slopes: The one Doug fears will cheapen traditional marriage; the one I fear of extending government authority into an area where it does not rightly belong. Doug writes of my contention --
It's an intriguing point. But it's off the mark. Marriage is not some open question set before us to decide anew. It has been around in its current form for generations extending into time immemorial before us. To take Craig's position, one would have to also take in the notion that every generation in memory, cross culturally as well as historically, made the less wise choice - the one Craig characterizes as "the slope of government control" - and got away with it.
Peg at What If has much the same point of view on this as I have -- the fact that marriage has been around in a traditional form does not place it above questioning. The fact that it is being questioned makes the prima fascia case.

Pardon a little philosophical digression. For readers in the business world, forget the popculturalization of the term “Paradigm Shift” -- it actually has some real validity (see Thomas Kuhn‘s "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions").

Everyone one of us operates within the context of a set of beliefs that determines how we look at the world. That “paradigm” not only determines our outlook, it also predisposes us to ask certain types of questions.

Some examples.

What we somewhat arrogantly assume today was a simple scientific discovery -- that the earth revolves around the sun -- was a major paradigm shift in human thought at the time. The church did not resist it without reason. That discovery affected the very nature of man and his relationship to God and the universe. Man was no longer the center of God’s universe. It raised new questions that no one had ever dealt with before. Resolving that human conflict took many more centuries than accepting the scientific fact (and it could be argued that even today, that resolution is not complete).

Cartoon by John Richardson for Physics World, March 1998Look ahead. As a society, we still have not fully inculcated all the ramifications of 19th century evolutionary theory. Most of society is unaware of the numerous ways Freud’s postulate of a deterministic mind influences their daily lives (see Smartie’s and others' comments on "choice" on my original post), and only real intellectual geeks outside the world of physics have any grasp of the ways Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle affects the world outside the atom.

On a smaller but no less significant scale, same-sex marriage is a shift that requires that we ask different questions. As individuals, we need to incorporate it into resolution with our beliefs. That does not necessarily mean accepting it, sanctifying it, or even tolerating it. It does mean justifying our individual belief to ourselves.

As part of society, we need to look at same-sex marriage as a balance between what we individually believe is right and what is the best way to resolve the societal conflicts that arise. The latter is a reality we must deal with as surely as the fact that the earth revolves around the sun. Same-sex marriage is an issue, simply and rhetorically, because the cognitive dissonance it creates challenges the essense of values we hold most close. We do not ignore it because we cannot.

As to the second part of Doug’s comment --
To take Craig's position, one would have to also take in the notion that every generation in memory, cross culturally as well as historically, made the less wise choice - the one Craig characterizes as "the slope of government control" - and got away with it.
I don’t believe this necessarily follows in the sense that until now the question never rose to a level where it was a concern, no more than the average man walked around questioning whether the earth were the center of the universe. I can’t think of another nation at another time that has raised the issue of same-sex marriage in precisely the way that it is being raised today in the context of the American tradition of ever-expanding freedom and tolerance. I am more inclined to agree with Doug’s statement that traditional marriage has been the accepted norm for centuries; therefore, there never has been a “government control” slope on this issue.

[I could, however, argue that societies that attempted enforced morality (or social obligation or justice or however you might characterize it), inevitably paid a significant price.]

Doug accurately surmises that I am not persuaded by his argument. And his reason is correct as well.
Yet I'm sure this alone would be unpersuasive to Craig for a reason I must intuit. It would seem that when Craig looks at government and/or society he looks at it through the lens of the individual. This perspective has its merits, but it also has weaknesses. The "individual" is sexless; so sex distinctions look like examples of inequity. The "individual" is atomistic; so each institution is judged by the standard of "what's in it for me?" for each specific individual.
Here my Randian influence is showing, I believe the only valid standard for action is “what’s in it for me.” But to put that philosophy in those simplistic terms denigrates the thought. “What’s in in for me” is a statement of “rationale self-interest,” which differs from unbridled self-gratification. The only standard of action is one’s rationale self-interest.

A very simple example -- it might be in my immediate interest to steal your wallet, but it is not in my “rationale self-interest” to live in a society where thievery is an operational principle. Therefore, laws against theft are in my rational self interest even if they prevent the immediate gratification of taking your wallet.

Doug adds --
Before I come off too harshly on this position, let me note I share it in many instances, because I believe it is frequently true and moral to a specific situation. But I hold it in check at times, because I don't believe it presents some kind of "unified theory" of social morality. Human defined principles are as fallible and prone to error as any human.
Indeed Doug is correct -- any system of morality that requires human infallibility is neither a system nor is it moral. I argue that is why it is appropriate to question the current civil definition of “marriage,” and why indeed from time-to-time we must subject our most cherished values to the slings and arrows of “outrageous” ideas.

Here Doug hits upon what I think is a far more interesting point of debate for a couple of conservatives than same-sex marriage. My question back to Doug is “What is the principle you use to determine when to take the individual viewpoint and when to hold it in check.” It is that principle, and not my principle of rationale self-interest, that is the essense of Doug's conservatism, and I honestly do not know what that principle might be.

In my original post, I wrote -- "If same-sex unions are so threatening that they can destroy traditional conservative values merely by their existence, then those values can’t mean very much." Doug writes --
Craig and I may disagree, but I think values which are susceptible to cultural destruction can be worth quite a lot indeed. And that this is a very good reason for the existence of a tremendous amount of social mores across time and culture.

But there is also the phrase "by their mere existence" which stands out, because it isn't so. Same-sex marriages don't currently exist. Only some external act - by a court or legislature presumably - can make them exist. It's disingenuous to treat such unions like they're already a norm others are trying to purge, when in fact they're something new being proposed, and are currently untested by history. Perhaps more than the "mere existence," it is this social/governmental activity around bringing them into existence which will cause the greatest cultural fallout. Craig should acknowledge this.
Doug is right in saying same-sex marriages don’t exist as a recognized civil function. But as Peg notes on What If, they do exist in fact. Further Doug is right that government recognition will have a great cultural fallout. It can’t be avoided. Our disagreement really lies in that I fear a greater (less desirable, less controllable) cultural fallout from non-recognition -- in some form.

Doug objects to my characterization of his position as relegating a group to “second-class” citizenship. Because it was a characterization, I’ll accept his criticism and rephrase what I think is still a valid point -- As the welfare state robs individuals of the understanding the need for and capacity of compassion, a state that legislatively limits moral challenges robs individuals of understanding the need for and the capacity of formulating and living by a consistent moral code.

That characterization is not ad hominem argument. The distinction is like that between “separate but equal” as a coerced standard and “separate but equal” as a choice. The first is a collective prohibition on the action of others; the second is a rational individual action.

In summation, the more I struggle with this issue, the more convinced I become that all arguments against same-sex marriage,unbigoted and rationally argued with no malice whatsoever, stem from a misreading of conservative principles. I do not believe DOMA-like legislation is a principled conservative response to a moral challenge.