In our Family Scholars symposium last week, in connection with the 2012 issue of State of Our Unions and its lead essay (of which I’m a co-author), “The President’s Marriage Agenda for the Forgotten Sixty Percent,” Ryan T. Anderson of the Heritage Foundation and the Witherspoon Institute offered a contribution called “Can the President Have a Marriage Agenda Without Talking about What Marriage Is?” Anderson’s piece drew many comments from readers, including a fairly breezy and highly critical one from me. Anderson didn’t like the tone or substance of my comments, as he explained the other day on the First Things blog in a post called “Let’s Reason Together About Marriage, Mr. Blankenhorn.” Then David Mills, the executive editor of First Things, joined the discussion with a blog post on “Blankenhorn’s Boxes.” And the discussion over there continues.
Because I think Anderson is a serious man, and because I think the new book of which he is a co-author (What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense) is a serious book, and because I regret the breezy and patronizing tone of my original comment, and because I’m deeply interested in some of the questions raised by Anderson’s symposium essay and the commentary surrounding it, I want to pull together some of my own current thoughts, and open up a fresh conversation here, for those who may be interested.
In his opening paragraph, Ryan states what seems to me to be his main point, which is that “you can’t advance a marriage agenda without knowing what marriage is and why it matters for public policy.” He then poses for us what he views as the core question we face: “What is the truth about marriage?” And the “truth,” for Ryan, is that marriage has a specific definition and set of purposes, none of which are compatible with the idea of same-sex relations.
He then goes down the list of some of the main policy recommendations in the “The President’s Marriage Agenda for the Forgotten Sixty Percent” and, one by one, points out that, absent a clear societal rejection of gay marriage – absent, that is, agreement with Ryan and his colleagues that marriage must have a clear definition and that “gay” is not a legitimate part of that definition – we as a society can hardly expect to make much progress when it comes to strengthening marriage. As he puts it in the final sentence of his contribution, referring to my and other Institute for American Values leaders’ call for a “new conversation” on marriage: “How successful can a ‘new conversation on marriage’ be when its leaders can’t even say what marriage is?”
To me, the core implication of Anderson’s argument is that meaningful support for marriage in America must, by definition, be premised in opposition to gay marriage.
At First Things, both Anderson himself and David Mills seem to take umbrage with this description of whatAnderson is saying, but I cannot see why. To me it seems quite clear that this is what Anderson is saying. (Maybe it was my dismissive tone that they are objecting to; and for that tone I again apologize.)
So here is my first and in some way main query for us all: Is it true, or not true, that the main implication of Ryan’s argument – using the very terminology adopted by him and his colleagues, let’s call it the argument that “gay marriage is not marriage” – is that in order effectively to be for marriage, Americans by definition must be against gay marriage. If that is not exactly what Anderson and his colleagues are saying, then I’m at a loss.
David Mills in his comments, and several readers in offline emails to me, chastise me for failing to offer a specific, empirical, point-by-point rebuttal to the argument that “gay marriage is not marriage.” And honestly, this challenge is what here interests me most. What is a person of good will to make of the thesis that marriage has a true definition, and that same-sex relations are simply not a part of that true definition? Is an empirical rebuttal to this assertion possible? Is any such rebuttal likely to be persuasive to those who hold that gay marriage is not marriage? Is even the best of such rebuttals likely to be persuasive to anyone?
As I say, this is the question that has grabbed me, and that won’t let go.
My current thinking is that an empirical, inductive, point-by-point disproval of Anderson’s thesis is probably not possible, and almost certainly would be unlikely to be very persuasive, either to Ryan and his colleagues or, for that matter, to anyone else. As someone who disagrees with the thesis, let me try to explain what I mean.
To start with, I like definitions as much as the next guy, and several years ago I wrote an entire book basically trying to answer the question, What is marriage? So anyone who’s interested in how I approach that question can read that book. Right now, I’ll just say that my approach was historical and anthropological, and I was mainly interested in the question of origins — how did marriage come to be in human groups? — and in the role of institutions in social life.
In my view, Anderson’s approach is quite different from my own — to me it’s much more philosophical and much more formal. In Anderson’s epistemology, as I understand it, based on reading his symposium contribution and his book, there are certain questions about the goods and goals of human sexuality. Each of these questions has one correct or true answer. And all of these true answers, in turn, like pieces of a jig-saw puzzle, fit together into one picture, one harmonious whole — one large structure of objective truth.
Now, as a part of putting together and appreciating the beauty of this jig-saw puzzle, Anderson (like many others working out of this particular tradition) has discovered, by way of definitional fact, that gay marriage is not marriage. There is one and only one true answer to the philosophical question, What is marriage?, and the entire issue of same-sex relations violates and degrades the integrity of that true answer.
Now, the main reason that I don’t believe in this thesis is that I don’t believe in this epistemology. I don’t believe that every question about human sexuality has one and only one true answer; I don’t believe that all of these objectively true answers fit together, like a jig-saw puzzle, into one harmonious whole; I don’t believe (to put it slightly differently) that all values can be defined and rank-ordered in a way that makes each value an ally of all the others; and I further believe that people who do think this way tend to be, as I believe Anderson is in this case, far, far too aggressive in their demand that all of the rest of us line up behind their true definitions of things.
This is why I think that the Anderson-and-colleagues thesis that “gay marriage by definition is not marriage” must ultimately be challenged at the level of epistemology, rather than (as Mills and Ryan seem to ask for) at the level of a specific, empirical counter-argument.
Permit me to say a bit more about why I reach this conclusion.
As I’ve tried to make clear, I take Anderson and his book co-authors to be the proponents of a totalistic explanation of human sexuality, or of what Rawls called a comprehensive system – a fully worked out framework for determining what is objectively and permanently true in the area of human sexuality, all built (largely deductively) upon a few core concepts (“truths”) about the definition and destiny of the human person, and characterized by a thick, rich web of interlocking definitions, premises, and conclusions, all of which fit together into one harmonious whole.
I have noticed, in my own experience, two things about attempts critically to probe or challenge this way of thinking. The first is that such systems of thought can rarely be upset or called into question on a piecemeal basis, through the presentation of empirical evidence. There are two reasons for this. Not only is more and new empirical evidence always available, but more importantly, any particular challenge of this nature is simply swallowed up, digested, and rendered harmless by the larger system. You got a problem with my knee bone? Well, what you might not know, is that the knee bone is connected to the shin bone, and the shin bone is connected to the foot bone. All of the bones work together perfectly and each one perfectly reinforces all the others. So, you wanna ask me, why do I think homosexual conduct is intrinsically disordered and sinful? Well, glad you asked, because what you might not fully appreciate, is that it all has to do with the goods and goals of marriage and with the telos of human sexuality. The shin bone is connected to the foot bone. And so it goes.
The second thing I’ve noticed is that a system of thought founded on principles of deductive reasoning – if this true, then this also is true – cannot often be challenged or probed on the basis of inductive reasoning. These two ways of figuring out what is true ultimately do not go together, and the latter way of investigating the world (induction) can only very rarely successfully overturn the former (deduction) in the minds of those who adhere to the formulations and teachings of the deductively arrived at system of thought. It’s like throwing a few grains of sand at a cannon. The sand may be real enough, and meaningful enough, but it hardly bothers the cannon. The cannon hardly even notices.
That is why, in my view, this Anderson-and-colleagues way of knowing about sexuality must ultimately be probed, if it’s going to be probed at all, primarily at the systemic or epistemological level, rather than primarily at the point-by-point, show-me-your-data level. And that’s what I’m trying (in a very rough and tentative way; I’m open to being corrected) to do here.
Meanwhile, I’m still like the guy in Reagan’s old joke, waiting for my two dollars — I’m still waiting for someone to tell me why my explanation of the main implication of Ryan’s argument is not an accurate one.