Archives: David Blankenhorn

New adventures in the culture wars

David Blankenhorn 04.15.2013 10:48 AM

The Alabama State Senate seems poised to pass a bill that would drastically restrict the ability of local sheriffs to deny anyone in the state who is not an already-convicted felon the right to carry a concealed weapon.  Every sheriff in the state opposes the bill, for reasons that, for most of us, are quite obvious.  But the bill is likely to pass anyway. 

 Next door in my home state of Mississippi, a similar thing just happened.  Outraged by New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s attempt to limit the serving sizes of sugary drinks, the state legislature recently passed a law saying that nowhere, anywhere, under any circumstances in the sovereign state of Mississippi can anyone for any reason restrict the serving size of a sugary drink. 

 What shall we call this phenomenon?  No one has ever imagined, until now, that the right to own a gun was somehow under threat in Alabama.  And no one has ever imagined, until now, that the right to consume huge containers of sugary drinks was somehow under threat in Mississippi.  But in each state, lawmakers apparently feel the need to act preemptively, as it were – in one case, it seems, to strike a blow against something being done by a northern mayor who probably has never set foot in Mississippi and never will, and in the other case to strike a blow against the very idea that anyone, anywhere, for any reason would ever limit the right of anyone to carry around a concealed weapon. 

 The culture wars are a funny thing.  They seem to fill people up with aggression that needs an outlet, and if there is nothing practically that can be done at the local level – if there is no locally available evil to take action against – then the thing to do, apparently, is to strike symbolic blows against evils that appear to be or might be occurring in far-distant climes, or evils that, in theory, might one day – who knows? – actually show up here at home. The culture wars are a funny thing.

Does gay marriage undermine the mother-father norm? An attempt to clarify the question

David Blankenhorn 04.07.2013 7:53 PM

By far the most common secular objection to gay marriage is that it violates the needs of children for mothers and fathers.  According to this argument, the human child has a deep need – many would say (I would say), a right – to love and be loved by the two specific individuals, the man and the woman, whose sexual union brings the child into the world.  The French feminist philosopher Sylviane Agacinski refers in her writing to the “dual origin” of each human child; she points out that this fact of our origin is of profound importance, both personally and socially; and she insists that society, insofar as possible, should respect it and should do nothing to deny or efface it. Gay marriage, in this view, is (among other things) such a denial and therefore should not be permitted. 

 I have made this argument, in a book and in many public venues.  The lawyers opposing gay marriage this month before the U.S. Supreme Court, in the DOMA and Prop 8 cases, are resting their case largely on this argument.  And though I have changed my position on gay marriage, I still believe that the argument contains an important core of truth that deserves our attention and respect. 

 Most supporters of gay marriage profess to see nothing – not even the tiniest shard of evidence or theory – to support this argument.    

 We are left, then, with two ships passing in the night. The argument that means the most to one side appears to be literally unrecognizable by the other side. In my view, this fact goes a long way to explaining the regular assumption by nearly all participants in the debate of the bad faith of their opponents. (“If they are saying something that self-evidently false, they must be willing to lie and/or motivated by ill will.”)  Thus also the endless angry repetition of the same talking points, as if saying something (“Children need mothers and fathers!” “We allow adoption and we allow infertile couples to marry!”) for the 1001st time is going to achieve something that saying it for the 1000th time did not.

 I do not aim, in this post, to rehearse these talking points yet again.  But I do aim to try to frame basic question about gay marriage and children’s rights somewhat differently – perhaps more precisely – in the hope of producing, not agreement and not the vanquishing of one of these arguments by the other, but simply a bit more clarity regarding the key points disagreement.

 Here is my attempt at a more focused question: 

At what precise point does state recognition of gay sexuality and family formation deny the needs of children to the degree that requires the denial of state recognition?  

 OK, if you’ll accept at least provisionally that this may be a better way of asking the question, let’s now try to answer it. 

 It seems to me that there are six possible answers, and that as a logical matter anyone who asserts a conflict between gay marriage and children’s needs has to be able to choose, and defend, one of these six as his or her Rubicon, or point of decision.  Here they are.  

 1.         An individual engaging in homosexual conduct.  

 The classic Christian teaching – which is still the teaching of the Catholic Church, and which informs much of modern western history on this question – is that homosexual conduct is intrinsically evil because it is sterile; that is, it is not aimed at, or open to, conceiving a child.  Because homosexual behavior normatively insults, and functions as a potential alternative to, procreative sexual and conjugal behavior, homosexual acts in and of themselves should be treated by society as illicit, unworthy of legal protection or state recognition.  Until fairly recently in Anglo-American societies, homosexual conduct was a crime, and this line of reasoning is a main reason why it was criminalized.  So, it’s perfectly pedigreed, and a deep part of Christian and western thought, to view homosexual conduct in and of itself as an affront to the needs of children.        

2.         A gay or lesbian couple living together. 

The homosexual pair-bond takes this alleged insult and alternative one step further.  In this case, the sterile alternative to male-female procreation actually assumes a distinct social form that explicitly mimics, as it were, the male-female pair-bond, which of course is the basis of the mother-father married-couple home.  So here the insult to the mother-father norm presumably becomes sharper and deeper.  In this view, then, two homosexuals living together as a sexually pair-bonded couple clearly undermines the needs of children for mothers and fathers.   

3.         A gay or lesbian couple getting married.

In this case the conflict with the needs of children becomes even more pronounced, since in this case the state bestows a formal recognition on the homosexual pair-bond, a kind of societal endorsement and legal protection that heretofore had only been available to opposite sex (and therefore typically procreative) couples.  Now, sterile sexual conduct that is inconsistent with mother-father procreative norms is not only allowed to exist as non-criminal behavior; and not only allowed to mimic the male-female family household; but is also granted a kind of state seal of approval. 

4.         A gay or lesbian married couple raising a child who was born from a previous heterosexual relationship of one of the partners.

Now, into this same non-mother-father family form, we introduce a child – a child who, by definition, is being raised by at least one person to whom he or she is a biological stranger.  Now, the non-fertile, non-male/female alternative family form is complete: we have two parents (some would say, “parents”) and a child, with a marriage license. 

 5.         A gay or lesbian married couple adopting a child.

 The same as number 4, except that in this case the child is adopted, and therefore a biological stranger to both parents. 

 6.         A gay or lesbian married couple raising a child who was born via egg or sperm donation and/or surrogacy (“third party procreation”). 

 The same as numbers 4 and 5, with one major exception – in this case, there is a proactive decision, taking by a couple in a state-sanctioned pair-bond, intentionally to bring into the world a child who by definition will not be raised by the male and female whose bodies biologically made the child.       

 OK, as I said, I think these are logically the only six choices available to us.  So it’s time to choose.  If we believe that gay sexuality and gay family formation at some point undermines children’s needs for mothers and fathers, at what precise point does the undermining, the insult to the mother-father norm, reach the degree that requires a good society to withhold legal tolerance and recognition? 

 Let me personally cut to the chase. For me, the answer is 6. 

I believe that homosexual conduct is benign.   I believe that gay and lesbian couples living together are benign.  I believe that gay and lesbian couples should be permitted to marry.  I believe in the permissibility (especially given the alternatives) of gay adoption.  I don’t like our high rates of divorce and family fragmentation one bit, and have spent much of my life (and expect to continue to do so in the future) pushing for ways to reduce unnecessary divorce and slash our unconscionably high rates of family fragmentation and non-formation, but since we don’t outlaw divorce, and since we don’t outlaw unmarried couples having children or breaking up with their lovers and co-parents, I don’t see the grounds on which we would allow reconstituted families for all couples except same-sex couples.  

I believe these things about numbers 1-5 for two larger or connecting reasons.  The first is that I view orientation as fairly hard-wired.  The evidence cross-culturally and biologically suggests to me that the heterosexual project, if I can call it that, is fairly stable, secure, and deeply rooted in the human record experience.  Letting a small fraction of our fellow citizens conduct themselves homosexually, form same-sex pair bonds, marry, adopt children, and form stepfamilies does not, in my view, threaten the fundamental heterosexuality of the universe; there isn’t likely to be seepage or leakage from straight to gay; and therefore these sexual and familial acts do not threaten the needs of children (in particular the needs of the children of the 95 or 96 percent of us who are not gay) to the degree that requires the criminalization or stigmatization of homosexual conduct or the denial of legal recognition of same-sex couples and their children.  The second reason for this conclusion is my sense of what constitutes basic fairness: We have to find ways to live together and treat each other with a modicum of fairness and decency. 

As for number 6, I pick that as my point of conflict, my line to draw, my Rubicon, because I think there is something distinctively harmful (not that everything about it is harmful, but I believe it always contains a portion of harm) about intentionally, as a proactive deed of family formation, bringing into the world a child who by definition, as a result of premeditation, will be radically estranged from either her biological mother or her biological father.  Such an act clearly does, in my view, conflict with children’s rights. 

What is the best, the most effective, way for me, David Blankenhorn, to speak and act on this issue?  Does my conviction on this issue require me, as an ethical matter, to oppose gay marriage?

I don’t think so, and here’s why.  All persons today – gay or straight, coupled or single, married or unmarried – are already perfectly free to found families relying on third party procreation.  The practice is entirely licit and mainstream. Nothing and no one is preventing it from taking place.  More straight people than gay people currently use it.  By almost any reasonable measure, permitting gay marriage will do nothing to enhance the right of anyone to engage in this activity, and prohibiting gay marriage will do nothing to restrict that right, since the right is already all but absolute.  Gay marriage has no more causal connection to this issue than numbers 1 or 2 above (engaging in homosexual conduct or being in a same-sex couple), which is to say that, apart from sexual iconography, it has almost no relationship at all. 

In my mind, the best way to address this difficult issue is to address it directly, first by pushing for laws banning donor anonymity, and second by bringing together a broad coalition of concerned people (including gay people and gay married couples) for serious ethical and legal reflection, perhaps leading to shifts in public opinion and/or legal changes.  Anchoring my concern about this issue in opposition to gay marriage seems to me to be not only largely beside the point, but also possibly counter-productive, since so long as this issue is connected in the public mind to gay rights, so long will the issue be all but untouchable by policy makers and others.  The task before us, in my view, is to engage in serious ethical reflection on the activity itself, irrespective of whether the people who do it in any one case are gay or straight, married or single.  In other words, to address this issue effectively, we have to disenthrall ourselves.  This issue should not be about gay rights any more than straight rights; it should be about the meaning (to the degree that we can agree on the meaning) of the dual origin of the human child. 

I am not insisting that this analysis is correct.  I’m sure it has all kinds of weaknesses.  But I am suggesting that anyone who finds a conflict between gay sexuality and family formation on the one hand, and the needs of children on the other, needs to state clearly those precise sexual circumstances and living conditions in which the conflict emerges to such a degree that state recognition is unwise.  That is, I am suggesting that people who believe that a conflict exists need to spell out the coflict specifically, as I’ve tried here to do for myself, in the context of the range of logically possible answers, instead of simply repeating at the level of broad generalization that gay marriage is wrong because children need mothers and fathers.

Will liberals help to save marriage?

David Blankenhorn 03.31.2013 1:52 PM

Our call for a new conversation on marriage envisons a new pro-marriage coalition:  social and religious conservatives who are pro-family enough to break bread with gays and lesbians who are also pro-family;  liberals who passionately support marriage even when the word “gay” is not in front of it; and gays and lesbians who are not only fighting for the right to marry but who also want to help to strengthen the institution.

So far, out of 315 million Americans, not everyone has signed on.  But we’re working on it!

In New York and around the country, I’m hosting a series of conversations on this topic.  This Wednesday, April 3, I’m taking to Peter Steinfels and our own Amy Ziettlow on “Will Liberals Help to Save Marriage?”

Along those lines, Jonathan Rauch and I have an article in today’s New York Daily News that asks the same question:

Can liberal values today help to renew American marriage for everyone who  seeks it? Can liberal leaders and voters turn their gay marriage campaign into a  campaign for marriage itself? We hope so. In fact, we believe so.

We see the makings of a new pro-family coalition: one that builds from the  center out, instead of from the right in; one that liberals can wholeheartedly  help to lead as part and parcel of their commitment to equality and inclusion;  one that changes “family values” from a wedge issue into a common cause.

What do you think?

Rusty Reno on gay marriage

David Blankenhorn 03.29.2013 11:12 AM

I enjoyed my recent conversation with Rusty Reno, the editor of First Things.  We have some disagreements, but he’s a smart, engaging guy.  A good deal of our conversation focused on gay marriage, which Rusty opposes.   At the same time, yesterday on the First Things blog Rusty writes:

It’s possible, I think, to affirm same-sex marriage in terms of what marriage is: domestic partnership, the context for disciplining our sexual desires to serve the higher end of a permanent bond, monogamy as an intrinsic good. That’s a truncated version of the traditional view, but it’s a view.

I don’t want to make too much of this statement, since the post from which I’ve taken this excerpt  is a forthright criticism of Ted Olson’s argument in favor of gay marriage before the U.S. Supreme Court this week.  And I don’t want to use my own words to describe or repeat the thesis that Rusty is here presenting.  I only want, as one who favors gay marriage, to agree with him.  I, too, think it’s possible to affirm same-sex marriage in the way that he describes.

U.S. opinion on gay marriage and homosexuality

David Blankenhorn 03.19.2013 10:12 AM

I can’t recall any issue on which U.S. opinion has changed this quickly

Most amazing number: 81 percent of U.S. 20-somethings now favor gay marriage. 

About one-third of conservatives favor gay marriage, up from 13 percent nine years ago.

Among evangelicals, 31 percent.  Among Catholics, 59 percent.  Among non-evangelical white Protestants, 70 percent. 

And for those who argue that this issue is about marriage, not homosexual conduct, here’s a piece of what seems to me to be disconfirming evidence.  These changed numbers on support for gay marriage track very closely with changes over the same time period in views of homosexuality.  The proportion of Americans who believe that homosexuality is “just the way they are” has risen dramatically, and is now at 62 percent, while the proportion who believe that homosexuality is “something that people choose” has declined sharply,  and now stands at just 24 percent. 

 I know that correlation does not prove causation.  And I know that just because people believe something does not make it so.  Still, in my view, these numbers do support the proposition that what’s mainly on people’s minds as they think about gay marriage is the gay, not the marriage; and that, as our societal views on homosexual conduct go, so go our societal views on gay marriage.

Two public men with special children

David Blankenhorn 03.16.2013 11:37 AM

In my recent conversation with Jonathan Haidt on the culture wars, he made the (to me, striking) point that people change their minds on moral and political issues primarily through interactions with other people.  That is, we humans do not typically change our minds on such issues due to conscious reasoning (“thinking it thr0ugh,” weighing the pros and cons, etc.) but instead due to the effects of personal relationships. 

I think we see the truth of this point clearly on display this week, in Senator Portman’s announcement that he now supports gay marriage, mainly because of  … his relationship with his gay son.  Portman has taken some criticism for putting it this way — after all, some of his pro-gay critics say, not every man in public life is going to have a gay son, and so if the movement for gay equality is to succeed the grounds for being pro-equality have to be broader and more general — but I think his critics are to some degree missing the point. In my own case, it certainly seems true to me that I changed my mind on gay marriage primarily due to personal relationships, not through debating the issues and not through abstract conscious reasoning.

In this regard, I was also struck by Rick Santorum’s comments yesterday at the CPAC convention. Asked to respond to Portman’s announcement, Santorum delivered a short talk on the issue of homosexuality.  The gist of his commentary concerned what he called “setting the bar.”   We all “fall short of the bar” in various ways, he said; and when we do, society faces a choice.   Do we as a nation “lower the bar,” saying in effect that anything goes?  Or do “we keep the bar where it should be?”  On the issue of homosexual conduct, Santorum favors ”keeping the bar where it should be.”

Now, Santorum is a smart man and a man of integrity (I’ve met him a few times), and what he told the reporter at the CPAC gathering is believed by many good people and is also the clear teaching of his church.  So, while I disagree with him,  I have no desire to attack him on this point.   I just want, for now, to highlight the abstract, almost formal nature of his argument.  In his remarks on “setting the bar,”  I don’t think he even used the word “homosexual” or “gay” or “lesbian.” It was just a piece of philosophizing — and one that is of course utterly removed from how almost all openly gay and lesbian people concieve of their lives and would speak to others about who they are. 

But there’s more.  If you follow politics, you probably know that Santorum speaks movingly and personally and with deep conviction about children with special needs.  The issue at times brings tears to his eyes. When he was in the Senate he fought for legislation to help such children, and today he works tirelessly on their behalf, as a public advocate.  I admire him for it, and so do many Americans.  Why does he do it?   I can’t say for sure, but I do know for sure that Santorum is the father of a child with special needs.  So maybe there is a connection.

Here is a thought experiment.  What is Portman were the father of a child with special needs, and Santorum were the father of a gay son?  Which one them would likely be speaking out with conviction and in concrete detail about children with special needs?  And which one would likely be delivering lectures about keeping the bar where it ought to be?

Cartoon of the day

David Blankenhorn 03.15.2013 9:54 AM

Fun with amicus briefs (cont.)

David Blankenhorn 03.12.2013 10:49 AM

Props to Anna Cook for walking us through some of the amicus briefs favoring gay marriage.   Here is an overview of some of the briefs on the other side.

Against the “new conversation on marriage”

David Blankenhorn 03.11.2013 3:43 PM

At HuffPo, Heather Laine Talley of the Feminist Wire does not much like our “Call for a New Conversation on Marriage.”  Her thesis is that privileging marriage in the U.S. is a bad thing, whether married gays and lesbians are a part of the privileged circle or not.  She says:

It’s not surprising that as marriage equality looms, the Institute of American Values is generating a vision that redefines the boundary of who should be demonized and systematically marginalized. In fact, if and when the Supreme Court makes a ruling that falls somewhere on the equality side, we will likely see more and more efforts that replace the language of heterosexual privilege with marital privilege.

But the incorporation of gays and lesbians into these efforts makes this work especially troublesome, precisely because it gives this “new conversation” a veneer of progress. The ugly truth is that the gays and lesbians who have signed onto the Institute for American Values’ new vision are complicit in an approach that both delegitimizes vibrant queer kinship patterns and fails to address the very problems it purports to tackle.

Her argument seems similar to the argument advanced in the 2006 public appeal, Beyond Marriage.

As a card-carrying marrigae nut, when I was an opponent of gay marriage I viewed arguments such as Talley’s — insisting that our real goal is not to make marriage more equal, but to ”de-privilege” it entirely — as strong reasons to oppose gay marriage, since almost everyone who wants to knock marriage off its privileged institutional perch also firmly endorses gay marriage, often on the grounds that gay marriage will aid the larger project of de-privileging.  Now, I … hope I was wrong.

Conservatives questioning mass incarceration

David Blankenhorn 03.11.2013 11:00 AM

Take a look the “Right on Crime” project’s “Statement of Principles.”  And here’s an article from The American Conservative arguing against our current policy of mass incarcertion and in favor of “thinking outside the cell.”   I agree with this perspective, and note that this issue is directly relevant to family and family policy issues.

What causes teen pregnancy? (cont.)

David Blankenhorn 03.10.2013 11:36 AM

We don’t seem to have a concensus for the NYC ad campaign on teen pregnancy, or for the idea that becoming a teen parent is causally linked to the probability of being poor, but here is another idea (maybe the third is the charm!):  Regressive taxation appears to be causally linked to higher rates of teen pregnancy.  Says a study reported in today’s NYTs:

We looked at the relationship between the total tax burden on a poor family of three and state-level figures for mortality, morbidity, teenage childbearing, dropping out of high school, property crime and violent crime … It turns out that after factoring out all other explanations — like racial composition, poverty rates, the amount spent on education or health care, the size of the state’s economy, existing inequality levels, and differences in the cost of living — the relationship between taxing the poor and negative outcomes like premature death persisted.

One good thing about this kind of finding is that, if it holds up, something can be done about:  change the tax code. 

My own experiences, for me, reinforce this finding. I’m from the South, where teen pregnancy is high and regressive taxation is standard operating procedure, and so I’ve seen up close for a long time the results of basing state finances on the sales tax and on other taxes that have the effect of singling out the poor and near-poor for special burdens, and I can say with confidence that these policies are ugly and anti-social.

Overall, I’m not sure the degree to which tax policy affects marriage and family formation outcomes, but surely (and this study adds to the evidence) there must be some effect, at least at the margins.

Relatedly, in his SOTU, President Obama called for ending the marriage penalties for low-income Americans.   It’s a good idea.

Teen pregnancy, sacred values, and magical thinking

David Blankenhorn 03.08.2013 1:51 PM

OK, more on the NYC teen pregnancy ads.  This criticism of the campaign caught my eye:

Haydee Morales, vice president for education and training at Planned Parenthood of New York City, said the organization was “shocked and taken aback” by the tone of the new campaign.  “Hurting and shaming communities is not what’s going to bring teen pregnancy rates down,” she added. She said that the campaign’s message — that teenage pregnancy leads to poverty — was backward. “It’s not teen pregnancies that cause poverty, but poverty that causes teen pregnancy,” she said.

The other night at our Center for Public Conversation I interviewed the psychologist Jonathan Haidt, the author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.   In the book, Haidt argues that every group (liberals, conservatives, environmentalists, evangelicals, you name ’em) has “sacred values,” by which he means ultimate or primary values.  Values that matter the most.  Values so important that, if you repudiate or fail to protect them, you are no longer an acccepted member of the group.

Haidt lays out a body of social science evidence showing that, when it comes to my group’s sacred values, my capacity to see or think clearly is radically compromised.  As he puts it, if truth gets in the way of one of my group’s sacred values, then I will almost always find a way, in  good conscience, to throw truth under the bus, in order to protect the value.  He presents much scholarly evidence to justify this claim, and I for one am largely convinced.

In my view, what we see above in Ms. Haydee’s comment is a perfect example of this phenomenon.  Clearly her group’s sacred values include non-judgementalism and inclusion.  And to protect them, she (intelligently and no doubt perfectly sincerely) engages in what can only be called magical thinking:  “It’s not teen pregnancies that cause poverty, but poverty that causes teen pregnancy.”   What is she alleging here?

She is stating her belief the the experience of being poor can can have an independent causal effect when it comes to the likelihood of teen pregnancy.  Being poor can help to “cause” this particular outcome.  But — and here we get the magical thinking — causality flows one way only!  Being poor can have something causal to do with getting pregnant or getting your girlfriend pregnant, but getting pregnant or getting your girlfriend pregnant can have nothing causal to do with being poor!  Being poor can help to explain an outcome.  Becoming a teen parent cannot!  Becoming a teen parent has zero meaning as an independent causal factor; that is, it does not explain or cause anything that is not already explained by the fact of being poor.

One doesn’t want to be rude, but to make this claim is to invoke magic.  As an empirical assertion, it’s obvious gibberish.  It requires, as Haidt says, throwing our rational capacity under the bus in order to protect a sacred value.

I not trying, here, to pick on one person or one group, or to score a partisan point.  Conservatives do this all the time.  Liberals do it all the time.  We all do it, all the time, says Haidt.  I strongly agree.  Except for me, of course. I never do it.

Teen pregnancy and stigma (cont.)

David Blankenhorn 03.07.2013 7:20 PM

Earlier today I wrote about the NYC teen pregnancy ads.  Now I’m learing more.  Here is the ad campaign website.

Responding to my earlier post, several commenters said that the campaign’s messaging seems to single out girls.  But I’ve learned that some of the posters are clearly aimed at boys.  One features a cute baby who says:  “Dad, you’ll be paying to support me for the next 20 years.”  Another says:  “Think being a teen parent won’t cost you? NY state law requires a  parent to pay child support until a child is 21.”  So the overall message is clearly to both boys and girls.

Here’s another one of the ads (and this one blew me away):

NYC Teen Pregnancy Poster

First, it’s factually true.  Surely that ought to count for something!

Second, other than church-sponsored communications, this may be the first time I have EVER seen a public service message to young people about sexuality and childbearing that specifically suggests, “don’t have children before you are married.”  I can’t recall a single other instance in which the “m” word has been used in this way.

Almost all messaging on this issue has always said, “don’t have a baby while you are a teenager!”  To me, this new message is much stronger, much better.  Bravo, Mayor Bloomberg!  I mean, what are we as a society actually trying to say?  Don’t have a baby when you are 17 or 19, but when you are 20 or 22, no problem? How lame is that?  Meanwhile, most of the unwed child bearing in the U.S. today that is causing so much human suffering is not to teens at all, but to persons in their 20s.  So the whole idea of society being up in arms solely against “teen pregnancy” has always been something of a mystery to me, given the actual demographics in the country, and the actual living conditions of America’s poor and at-risk children.

On teen pregnancy, does stigma work?

David Blankenhorn 03.07.2013 10:12 AM

New York City’s new posters on teen pregnancy are generating heated push-back from people who say that such “shaming” tactics are cruel and won’t work. 

I haven’t seen all the posters, but for me, the core message of the one above (“chances are he won’t stay with you”)  is a) clearly factually true, based on an overwhelming body of scholarly evidence; and b) clearly worth knowing, if you are a teenager, or if you care about teenagers. 

I understand that some communications tactics can backfire, and I certainly agree that, as Tennessee Williams put it, deliberate cruelty is unforgiveable.  But anthropologists will tell you that stigma is often pro-social and is an essential component of any good society, including ours.  Today in most of the U.S. we certainly don’t mind stigmatizing cigarette smoking and racist, sexist, and (increasingly) homophobic speech.  So I begin with with sympathy for the rational use of stigma, when the goal is clearly pro-social. 


In the several decades that I’ve been involved in this issue, I’ve come to think that there are three basic things you can say to teenagers, if you are trying to get them to think twice about having a baby or getting someone pregnant.  The three are:

1.     Don’t do it, it’s morally wrong.

2.     Don’t do it, it will likely mess up your child’s life.

3.     Don’t do it, it will likely mess up your life. 

It seems like these posters are going for the last two.  What do you all think?   Good idea, or bad? 

“Can we get beyond the marriage culture wars?”

David Blankenhorn 03.03.2013 6:14 PM

Cartoon by Frank Cotham; hat-tip to Jonathan Haidt and his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Religion and Politics.   He’s as obsessed as I am about epistemology! 

I’ll be interviewing  Jonathan this Tuesday at 6 p.m. EST — the conversation will be streamed live at   Should be very interesting; hope you can join the conversation. 


“I wish I had a father who was around and involved.”

David Blankenhorn 02.26.2013 11:18 AM

At the Weekly Standard, Heather Mac Donald quotes President Obama, in Chicago recently, speaking on the topic of gun violence as saying:

 “There’s no more important ingredient for success, nothing that would be more important for us reducing violence than strong, stable families, which means we should do more to promote marriage and encourage fatherhood,” he [Pres. Obama] said. Reiterating a line from his State of the Union speech, he observed: “What makes you a man is not the ability to make a child; it’s the courage to raise one.” And though he paid the obligatory tribute to single mothers, he added with remarkable candor: “I wish I had had a father who was around and involved.” 


Four concepts of truth (cont.)

David Blankenhorn 02.25.2013 3:05 PM

We’ve hit the 50 comments limit, but the conversation is hopping, so I want to re-open the comments thread for “Four Concepts of Truth.”  Thanks to all who are participating!

Four Concepts of Truth

David Blankenhorn 02.24.2013 1:28 PM

What is driving today’s culture wars?   Religion?  Political manipulations?  Sincere disagreements over important issues?

Yes, all of these factors are important.  But there is another one as well, and it’s the underlying differences in our concepts of truth. 

What are truth’s qualities?  Can we know what is true?  If so, how?  In this post, hoping for your feedback, I want at least to begin to adumbrate four at least partially competing concepts of truth. 

1.         Truth is one and is known.

In this conception, all of life’s important questions can be asked, and for each question, there is one (and only one) true answer. More fundamentally, truth in this conception is a coherent unity existing on one plane.  That is, all of the particular “pieces” of truth fit together perfectly, like pieces of an intricate jig-saw puzzle, ultimately comprising one clear and well-ordered image of the good – one unified portrait of truth that pertains to all people in all situations at all times. In this conception, therefore, truth is both intrinsic and objective. What isn’t truth, is error. 

The methodological procedure most suited for this conception of truth is deductive reasoning. That is, from certain true statements, I can proceed logically to certain necessarily true implications; and given a true premise, I can logically reach certain necessarily true conclusions.  Therefore, starting from certain fundamental or revealed truths, I as the truth-seeker can proceed logically outward and downward (“truth flows downhill”), eventually building a complex and seamless system of interlocking definitions, premises, and conclusions about all of life’s main questions.

2.         Truth is one and can be known.

In this conception of truth, just as in our first, truth in principle is one, universal, and accessible to all; truth is intrinsic and objective, such that the only categories are truth and error; and each bit of truth fits smoothly into a larger coherent pattern, again like pieces of a jig-saw puzzle, ultimately producing one unified and universally applicable portrait of truth.   

But in this conception, we don’t already know the truth.  Instead, we are diligently looking for it, like explorers looking for gold, or scientists in a lab. We don’t yet have the problem all worked out – there is still considerable confusion, disagreement, and clouded perception – but we know, we have faith, that if we try hard enough and long enough, we will win the prize and finally know what is true. We’ll find the gold.   

The methodological procedure most suited for this conception of truth is inductive reasoning. That is, we start from small observable facts, and proceed incrementally outward and upward, piling up fact upon fact, until the weight of evidence leads us to certain empirically valid generalizations.  Eventually in this way, the truth-seeker builds up a body of truth, similar to the way that a brick-layer constructs a wall – that is, layer by layer, with each layer resting securely on top of the layers that came before. 

 3.         Truth is romantic.

In our first two conceptions, truth comes mainly from reason. But in the conception of truth as romantic, truth is larger and more powerful than reason alone and is not constrained by it.  In this conception, we find the truth from our whole selves – our desires and intuitions, our thoughts, our dreams, our bonds with others, our needs, our history and our entire personality. We come to know that some things are simply too beautiful to be untrue.  We come to know that some things are too important or too needful or too primitively potent to be untrue.

This conception of truth breaks decisively with the claims of universality and objectivity.  It does not claim that there is one objectively true answer to each question, and it does not claim that all true answers fit together into one harmonious pattern of truth. Quite the contrary! In this way of knowing, what was once objective becomes subjective, and what was once whole and universal becomes partial and particular. 

For these reasons, truth in this conception is no longer like a jig-saw puzzle, in which all answers fit together into one, but instead more like a brilliant painting on a canvas or a beautiful poem on a page, bursting particular declarations of human passion and power.   

4.         Truth is plural.    

The fundamental premise of the conception of truth as plural is a kind of philosophical negation, or what might be called epistemological realism or modesty.  The conception of truth as plural rejects the (in its view, pretentious) idea that the philosopher, like the person completing a jig-saw puzzle, can fit every important true thing about the universe into one harmonious whole.  Instead, in this conception the truth-seeker accepts both the reality and legitimacy of values pluralism – the notion that, within certain (and debatable) ranges, there are, among persons of rational capacity and good will, inescapably diverse and at times conflicting understandings of what is good and what is true; and that, absent the resort by society to violence and coercion, these divergent views do not and likely will never fit together into a harmonious pattern in which every aspect of truth  reinforces and is reinforced by all the other aspects.  

Accordingly, in this way of knowing, a good question is usually better than a final answer; and in this epistemology we find a consistent emphasis on argument (that always leads to more argument) and on engagement (that always leads to more engagement). For these reasons, truth in this conception is neither like a jig-saw puzzle that is painstakingly assembled, or like a painting or poem that potently declares itself for itself, but instead more like of those Alexander Calder mobiles, with their multiple parts that can variously turn and spin and tilt and shimmer in relationship to one another, such that in principle no two views of the mobile are exactly the same.      

 Therefore What?

Of course, these four proposed concepts are only ideal types. Real life is obviously more messy and heterodox than these stiff categorizations would imply.  Many individuals, for example, mix and mingle these conceptions in their own journeys, seeming  to partake of more than one of them.   

My current obsession with this issue stems largely from my wrestling with the issue of gay marriage.   From day one, my philosophical approach to the issue – both earlier, when I opposed gay marriage, and now, when I favor it – is what I (drawing on others) call “goods in conflict,” which fundamentally partakes of the view that truth is plural. 

That is, I saw and still see the truth that marriage, more than any other arrangement, vitalizes the bonds between children and their biological parents and reflects institutionally the dual (male-female) origin of the human child.  At the same time, I saw and still see the truth that homosexual conduct is benign and that homosexual love is equal in dignity to heterosexual love.  I believed and continue to believe that, especially in the context of our current U.S.debate, these two truths – these two legitimate and to me compelling claims of what is good and what is true – cannot be fully reconciled.  At least to some degree, they conflict. Thus the term “goods in conflict.”   

But for me, working in this epistemological vineyard got confusing and at times depressing.  When I opposed gay marriage, I could find hardly a soul on my side who agreed with my view that truth is plural.  I’d ask those who are now my former comrades:  Do you have any doubt at all on this issue?  Do you see even one good argument on the other side?  The answers were No and No.  Hell, no. Absolutely not.     

Now that I favor gay marriage, it’s the same thing.  I ask my current comrades:  Do you believe that your argument has any weaknesses?  Is there even one valid reason to oppose gay marriage? The answers come back the same:  No.  Hell, no. Absolutely not. What category, then, are my new comrades in?  Do they believe, with philosophical liberals like me, that truth is plural?  Or do they, pretty much exactly like their opponents in the marriage debate, believe that truth is one and that what’s not truth, is error?  The apparent answer to this question worries me.     

For these and other reasons, I give it over to you, kind readers.  What do you make of my descriptions of these four concepts?  Are they accurate?  Fair-minded?  What’s missing?  What needs to be added?  Corrected?  Once we get the descriptions right, we can proceed to evaluating the significance of these concepts in today’s culture wars and arguing over which one is the most … true.

Remember when marriage was an institution?

David Blankenhorn 02.24.2013 10:31 AM

At The American Conservative, discussing John Huntsman’s endorsement of gay marriage, Dreher posts a coment from a young reader:

I’ll give you my perspective as a young person (24) who supports gay marriage. I think there’s a fundamental disconnect between the older generation and this one, and perhaps this might help you to understand it (although I think you already do, to some extent).

Your conception of marriage, the traditional one, is that a man and a woman get married for the purpose of procreation. Marriage isn’t really about romantic love in this conception, but rather a framework for the rearing of children. If we take for granted that this is what marriage is, then I don’t think it’s bigoted at all to not have gay marriage, so long as the coupling is respected.

The problem for people my age is this: your definition of marriage was displaced prior to our lifetime. I have no memory of when that definition was true. Virtually everyone under the age of 30 has lived their entire lives under a culture that believes marriage is an expression of romantic love between two people.

So for a young person with a conservative disposition, the battle against gay marriage isn’t the same as it is for you. You’re trying to conserve something that existed in your lifetime and has since been destroyed. For a young person, there’s nothing to conserve. If the only world they know is one where marriage is an expression of romantic love, any effort to bar a group of people from that doesn’t feel like the conservation of anything, just discrimination.

I have heard this from many younger people.  If, 50 years from now, marriage is basically down the tubes, except as a status symbol for the upscale, and curious historians look back and ask “why?” and “when was the turning point?”,  I don’t think very many people will answer, “because in the 2010s they adopted gay marriage.”  But I do think many people are likely to answer, “because starting in the 1970s they stopped believing that marriage was a social institution.”

Want an example of what “marriage as a social institution” means?   In the 1960s, if you asked Americans, “Do you think a troubled marriage should stay together for the sake of the children?”, most Americans said “yes.”  Today, most say “no.”   

Want another?  In the 1940s, while in a German prison awaiting his excecution by the Nazis, the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote to an engaged couple on their wedding day: “From this day on, it won’t be your love that keeps your marriage alive, it will be your marriage that keeps your love alive.”  In a society in which marriage is a social institution, young couples hear those words and say, “I think I understand.”  In society in which marriage is not social institution, young couples hear those words and say,”I have no idea what he’s talking about.”

Doubt sweet doubt (cont.)

David Blankenhorn 02.23.2013 11:04 AM

In The American Conservative, my friend Jeremy Beer writes about the Catholic philosopher David Schindler.   Schindler is an interesting man (I’ve met him a few times) — a wide-ranging and serious thinker.  He’s also difficult to read, and so part of what Beer does in this essay is try to “translate” Schindler for those of us (and I include myself) who experience trying to read him straight-on as pretty heavy sledding.  So here is Beer on Schindler on epistemology:

Specifically, liberalism fails to apprehend that “love is the basic act and order of things.” Love brings all there is into existence, it is through love that all there is continues in existence, and it is for love that all things exist. Reality is in this sense triadic: all things are in, through, and for love. Being might therefore be said to be an order or “logic” of love.

… In Schindler’s account of reason—one shared by Popes Benedict and John Paul II—faith does not narrow reason, nor does faith exist alongside reason as something “added” to it from without. Rather, faith enlarges reason from within, helping it to function better precisely as reason.

… Perhaps no theme emerges more consistently in Schindler’s metaphysical reflections as a target of criticism than that of “extrinsicism.” The neo-Thomists, in the Communio view, held to an “extrinsic” model of the nature-grace relationship. In such a model, nature is self-subsistent and in principle knowable in its totality without the aid of the supernatural—without, that is, grace. Grace adds to nature but is fundamentally “outside” of it; Christian revelation therefore adds nothing to our knowledge of nature as nature. To Communio thinkers like Schindler, this model is an unnecessary and indeed catastrophic capitulation to Enlightenment ideas about nature that are not just secular, but secularist.

… As a metaphysical alternative to extrinsicism, Schindler argues analogically from the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. Here the idea of “distinction-in-unity” becomes a key concept. The secular and the sacred, faith and reason, nature and grace, are indeed distinguishable, but they simultaneously and at their core relate to one another in the terms of an inseparable unity—“circumincession” is Schindler’s term for this relationship. We see such a relationship, again analogically, in the bond between husband and wife, who are distinct persons yet “one flesh,” or in the relationship between the Father and the Son, distinct persons yet one God. Distinction-in-unity is enabled by and is the form of love …

Now, Schindler is a serious man whose thought deserves attentiveness.  And Schindler has much to say about how a “philosophy of love” pertains to close-to-the-ground contemporary issues, such as the current U.S. culture wars.  All of this merits attention.  But here I only want to make two quick observations about Schindler’s epistemology, in part because they touch upon my current interest (obsession?) with the issues of doubt and the concept of goods in conflict. 

The first observation is that Schindler’s view appears to be strictly monistic.  There is one truth, one idea, one reality, one Word, from which all else in the universe is derived and around which all other aspects of human meaning and experience are (can be, should be) harmoniously ordered.   There are no “goods in conflict” here (e.g., gay equality is good; customary marriage is good; the two are not entirely compatible or the same); instead, everthing is of one piece.  Or so his thought appears to me.   

The second is that Schindler’s world view appears to depend decisively on the belief that one thing can be two or more things at once.  Faith is faith, and reason is reason, but faith and reason are also one inseparable unity (i.e., one thing).  The natural is the natural and the supernatural is the supernatural, but neither, properly understood, is “extrinsic” to the other.  The married couple is two but also and to the same degree one; the godhead is three but also and to the same degree one.  And so on.  G. K. Chesterton wrote hundreds of essays (many of them quite lovely), and in nearly every one of them, as I can recall, we find this idea (or at least this rhetorical strategy) stressing that one thing is also one or more other things.  Now, when Isaiah Berlin insisted over and over again in his lectures and writings that “the thing is only the thing,” this contrary assertion about reality – the idea that one thing is also two or more things at once — is exactly what he meant to be disagreeing with. 

I can’t and won’t even try to solve these controversies here (though patient readers know that, as it were, “Ich bin ein Berliner”).  I only want to adumbrate two of the conceptual issues that jumped out at me as I read Beer’s interesting essay.