Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Conservative arguments for Gay Marriage: Marriage is too important to be left to the prudes

It’s widely believed that conservatives are and should be opposed to gay marriage. I’d like to argue the opposite. While it is rarely either fashionable or politically correct, conservatism is a respectable political standpoint that emphasizes the importance of tradition, institution, virtue, stability, family, local ways of life, and a community’s moral fabric (see my earlier blogpost: http://hughbreakey.blogspot.com.au/2012/08/the-meanings-of-conservatism.html). But like every political theory, it can be used as a rhetorical device for people pursuing other goals entirely. I argue that gay marriage is a site where the conservative should take a principled stand against the prude. I survey what I take to be the three main arguments as to why the conservative might wish to prohibit gay marriage, and I aim to show that – far from supporting such a stance – the conservative has powerful reason to pursue the reverse course. Conservatives need to start taking marriage seriously.

What follows is a conservative argument; it takes as its basis the sorts of considerations that conservatism as a political theory takes seriously. It is not, however, a religious argument – religion will be relevant to what follows inasmuch as religion shapes the traditions and moral fabric of a society, but no further. I won’t pretend to answer questions purely of religious doctrine. (Though, since I speak to a predominantly Christian society, it is perhaps worth at least noting that I am unaware of Jesus saying anything whatsoever about homosexuality, and that no-one – at least, no-one who has a daughter – could possibly be convinced to take on board the morality relayed in the tale of Sodom.)

At the outset, the ‘liberal’ or justice-based reasons for allowing gay marriage are straightforward enough. That is, the law should treat all people equally, and a liberal society should not dictate what forms of life its citizens choose to pursue. When it comes to questions of the good life, the liberal state should be ‘neutral’ amongst all of the different lifestyle conceptions.

A conservative, it goes without saying, will hardly be impressed by such claims. Particularly in the context of marriage. In such a case we are not talking in terms of criminalization and toleration. No-one is demanding that homosexuality be outlawed, which many conservatives would acknowledge to be an unacceptable violation of individual liberty. Instead, the debate is only in terms of what should be recognized, encouraged or valued in a community. That is where the dispute lies in this question. And surely, the conservative will say, here, at least, there can be no question of liberal ‘neutrality’. If the liberal wishes to outlaw all marriage, and allow only civil union (if that?) to have legal recognition, then they may with consistency lobby for such a policy. But what the liberal cannot do is to accept the prerogative of society to uphold and value certain relationships (like those anointed with marriage) and then complain of its non-neutrality in making that valuation. Of course such a valuation is non-neutral – that is just what it means to evaluate.

Argument 1: Prizing what is going right. Gay marriage does not pay due respect to traditions (in this case marriage) that are functioning and important to the society
One of the basic conservative insights is that ‘critique’ has no privileged place in political discourse. In other words, criticism of society is not any more important than singing its praises. Thinking that the society that guides you or the authority that constrains you is doing something wrong is no remarkable intellectual feat (every two-year-old instinctually does this countless times every day when they don’t get their own way). To the contrary, understanding and respecting what a society does right is at least as important as reflecting on what it does wrong. With this in mind, the conservative may worry that gay marriage pays insufficient attention to what is going right in our society – namely, the (mostly-)functioning institution of marriage. In particular, it might be a concern that the reform wants to remake an institution – marriage – that is, for all its problems, still a profound source of meaning and security in our modern world.

I mention this point only to reject it. The proposed reform does prize what society is doing right. The argument for the reform is that marriage remains, for many, a valuable and fulfilling institution, and that the stamp of social approval on a commitment between two loving people is a desirable thing. That seems to me the best press marriage has had since divorce rates were first publicized. Indeed, one could imagine that the conservative could feel quietly vindicated about the desires of gays to be married. That gay people wish to be married is an endorsement of many deeply held conservative beliefs. Radicals for many years now have been predicting and advocating the demise of the ‘bourgeois’ institution of marriage and the family. That a group of people systematically excluded from the institution feel a desire not to spurn it, but rather to be included within it, is – it seems to me – an emphatic rejection of the radical and anti-conservative stance. It underscores that committed, stable, long-term loving relations between partners is indeed a deep need and value in many human lives, and, all the more, that the social sanction, recognition and approval of such relationships by the community is more relevant than ever. Both these points are exactly what conservatives believe and are straightforward rebuttals of radical predictions.

Argument 2: Gay Marriage is not socially valuable as it does not contribute to childbirth and child-rearing.
Marriage can be viewed as a socially valued institution because it is a necessary condition for propagating children and effective child-rearing. Both of these are legitimate concerns of the conservative, since they both carry plain implications for the survival of the society. On such a basis it might be argued that, as gay marriage does not contribute to this valuable social outcome, it is not therefore worthy of the same social and legal recognition.

Ethicist Professor Stephen Cohen (UNSW) recently responded to such arguments with a ‘shame on you’ accusation, suggesting that proponents of this view are advancing it only to cover up their real concern, which is with what they perceive as the immorality of homosexuality (which will be covered in the following section). He may well be right, but I will here take it as an argument on its face worth consideration by the conservative.

It is often responded to this argument that marriage is not centrally organized around propagation and child-rearing. Married couples are not required or even necessarily encouraged to have children. Marriage vows usually contain no declaration of intentions to raise children; often children are not mentioned at all. Persons who have no physical capacity to have children can be married. Persons who have no intention of having children – who are explicit in rejecting any such intention – can be married. Contraceptive methods of all types are available to married persons. Persons who have deliberately removed their capacity to have children (such as through a vasectomy) can be married. Indeed, the point here is not only that they can be married, but that there is no sense in which they are not socially perceived as being genuinely married. No one is attempting to deny them this status. It is not held, for instance, that if Amy and Bob really took their marriage seriously, they would have children, and that until they do, they are really just enacting a sort of ersatz version of marriage.

There is a conservative response to all this. The point might be made that social approval and recognition of stable, long-term, loving relationships between men and women in general is worthwhile, so that those that do go on to have children are more likely to have such relationships. In other words, it is easier to support and value the broad type of relationship in question than just to target the instances where that relationship is really socially valuable (viz. when it includes child-rearing).

Now this response is plausible enough, so far as it goes. The problem is only in thinking that this is any sort of reason not to allow gay marriage. The entire response is founded on the idea that it may be worth socially encouraging a type of relationship in general so that it can be assured in the subset of cases where it really matters for the community (when children are involved). If that is right, however, then it is obvious that gay marriage is worth approval for just the same reason that heterosexual-marriage-without-children is. Namely, in order to emphasize to everyone in society the value of the committed, long-term loving relationship between two partners.

Two further points are worth noting, in this regard. First, if marriage really is a bulwark to child-rearing, then gay marriage matters because gay couples can – of course – have children. They can adopt or foster children, and lesbian couples with access to sperm donors can also have children. A bisexual person may have had a child in a previous relationship, but now be in a gay relationship. And so on. Prohibiting gay marriage in all such instances would amount to a society deliberately prohibiting a child from being reared under the aegis of the institution which (the conservative response believes) is fundamentally designed for that purpose. A secure and stable home life suitable for rearing children does not depend upon a heterosexual couple being in residence; the crucial thing is the security and stability itself.

The second point is that it is highly doubtful that the only reason the conservative values marriage is because of its consequences for children. Marriage is often held by conservatives to be the central glue that holds a society together, and this is because it forms a strong, stabilizing part of a larger web of social relations. Similar to but more potent than friendship, marriage cements, so far as possible, parts of the social fabric together. Furthermore, it encourages socially useful traits like prudence, investment, temperance, sacrifice, loyalty, trustworthiness and productivity. So too the institution plays a role in the understanding of other social relations: aunts, uncles, sons, daughters, brothers- and sisters-in-law, and so on. Married people are for the conservative not valuable simply as breeders. And if this is right, then the conservative reasons for valuing and promoting marriage apply with equal force to gays as much as heterosexuals.

Argument 3:  Including gays into the institution of marriage will weaken the sanctity of that institution.
Granting that the desire of gays to be married is good news for the institution of marriage (as concluded in Argument 1), it may yet be argued that allowing their inclusion could weaken the power and significance of that institution. The thought here is based on the view that many people view homosexuality as immoral, disquieting and/or disgusting. Now it may be in some sense unfortunate or even bigoted that many people think this way, but that judgement does not prevent it from being a fact that they do. And if many people do indeed hold those views, then their perception of the sanctity and specialness of marriage can only be undermined when it henceforth includes gays within its compass. Some of the meaning of marriage will have been eroded, and that is a concern for the conservative.

But which of marriage’s meanings are we upholding? Doubtless there is a tradition, or part of a tradition, that celebrates a man and a women specifically committing to each other; that is, it matters that it is a man and a woman.

But there is another tradition, or another part of the marriage tradition, that holds that what is special is the love itself, the commitment itself. It holds that these elements are what are being picked out as worthy parts of a life well-lived, and an important part of the social glue that holds us all together. Now if that is right, then the question of gay marriage asks us to choose which parts of the marriage tradition are important. Because if it is the lifelong love or commitment (or at least the noble and determined attempt at pursuing these) that is worthwhile and valuable, then we cannot pretend that they are not worthwhile and valuable wherever we may find them.

Here’s an analogy: It would be like a person at a football match needing to check the skin-colour of the player who took a specky to determine whether it really was a great mark, or not. Put aside the racism of such a person; that’s not the issue here. The issue is that the person doesn’t get footy. They don’t understand – they are blind to – the values internal to the sport. They are unable to apprehend the act according to the standards of the marking contest as set down by the sport’s tradition and practice: bravery, altitude, strength, skill, quality-of-opposition, stakes and so on. And if a sporting body did believe that race mattered when it came to such questions, it would be defying the internal values of the sporting tradition. In other words, a conservative about the sport – a ‘custodian of the game’ as Don Bradman aptly expressed it in the context of cricket – would have every reason to be horrified by such a distortion of the standards of excellence of the sport, by the infection of the tradition with standards imported from outside its practice.

So too, I submit, for marriage. For all those who value the institution’s eulogizing of steadfast love and commitment, through thick and thin, as the guiding star of its tradition, the demand that gays be excluded from marriage can only diminish their respect for the institution, and cut against the perceived grain of its tradition. For now they are being told they got it wrong, and despite everything in all their vows about love and sacrifice through thick and thin, marriage wasn’t really about such things after all. The exclusion from gays from marriage was consonant with the internal values of marriage only when society held a variety of views on homosexuality – in particular that it was a form of insanity, and rightly illegalized – that implied that gays couldn’t really love and commit in the ways sanctified by marriage. Without the support of these now widely debunked myths, the internal values of marriage apply to gay partnerships as much as they apply to heterosexual ones.

The fundamental point here is that traditions are always contested and often conflicting, and the conservative needs to be aware (as Roger Scruton himself makes clear) that for this reason it is impossible to uphold every tradition at once. The conservative stands here at a crossroads, needing to decide which tradition of marriage will be upheld. The one that is responsive to a long-standing felt immorality of, or distaste for, homosexuality? Or the one that unreservedly makes central lifelong love and steadfast commitment? I submit that, when conceived on these grounds, no conservative can opt for the former. The latter picks out exactly the values and virtues of marriage that are prized by the conservative; it foregrounds the qualities that make it contribute to the moral fabric and ongoing resilience of the community. To believe that a dislike of gays is sufficient to warrant their exclusion from the institution of marriage is not to take seriously the worth of marriage.

The same point, too, can be made with respect to religion. (Now I’m not religious myself, so I’m drawing here on Rev. Noel Preston’s illuminating thoughts on the issue here: http://www.journeyonline.com.au/showArticle.php?articleId=3368) There is an important part of the marriage tradition that values and celebrates a couple coming together with God, deciding to intertwine their lives together and with their Maker. Now if that decision and commitment is what is valuable (either in terms of a life-well-lived, or for the life of the community), then that is a reason to respect it wherever it is found. This is not to say that every religion needs to marry homosexuals; that is of course a question of religious doctrine. But the question here is the one confronting the conservative, weighing up what traditions to sustain in cases where they must choose.  As before, it is the noble and uplifting elements of marriage – love, commitment, holiness – that are on the side of the institution as it might be enlarged to include gays. And it is a quite different set of elements and traditions being invoked by those who would prohibit it. The traditions clash, and the conservative must choose which will triumph at the expense of the other.

But for the genuine conservative, there is no choice whatsoever here. A marriage tradition that downplays the values and virtues of lifelong love, companionship, stability and steadfast commitment as they rank in comparison to the gender of the participants is no marriage tradition at all. It splices from the tradition exactly the values and virtues that make it precious from a conservative standpoint.

                                                         *                      *                      *
The foregoing arguments combine to make a simple point. Conservatism – or, at least, conservatism as a political theory, with its focus on tradition, virtue, moral fabric and the survival of the society – is not the same thing as prudishness. The prude believes that what everyone else does sexually is the prude’s business. The prude wants to know what is being done by others, and wants to control what is being done by others. But there is no political theory of prudishness. No-one pretends that one person’s salacious desire for prying and intruding into other people’s sexuality constitutes any reason that society should cave in to that desire. So the prude presents their desires as if they were grounded conservative arguments. They are like the drunk who searches for his lost keys under the streetlamp, not because there is a good chance they are there, but because it is the only place he is likely to find them. The prude cannot pretend they have justice or liberty on their side; traditions of human rights don’t accept the law intruding into such private matters and lifestyles. Conservatism, however, does allow that such private acts can fall within the appropriate scope of law, and certainly of rightful public opinion and sanction. So the attempt is made by the prude to colonize the conservative stance. But to say that the conservative agrees that sexual and other ‘private’ matters are fair game for social concern is not the same as saying those matters must be constrained in whatever way the prude desires. For there are many traditions at work in any functioning society, not only prudish ones. And some of those traditions, such as the values internal to the institution of marriage – steadfast love and lifelong commitment – are not ones with which the conservative should wish to trifle.

Ultimately, the conservative throughout history has known that it is the internal enemies that are the most dangerous. If what I have argued here is right, conservatives must remember that their concerns and goals are not the same as those of the prude, and they must be ready, when necessary, to battle the enemy that seeks to infiltrate their ranks and speak in their name. This, I think, is the serious point behind the popular tweet by Morgan Freeman: ‘I hate the word homophobia. It’s not a phobia. You are not scared. You are an asshole.’ In other words, the charge here, another version of Cohen’s shame-on-you, is: ‘You’re not a conservative and you should stop pretending you are. You are not animated by genuine fears for social values and traditions. You are a prude (or maybe you just have a taste for institutionalized meanness). You are just one more person who thinks society should be structured to conform to your every prejudice, with no serious thought whatsoever of what that might do or mean for our society and its institutions.’

One final point in closing. Sometimes the ‘argument’ given for gay marriage is just given as: ‘C’mon, its 2012! Why are we still arguing about this?’ On its face, this can seem mere assertion, and can present social change as being inevitable progress against the embarrassing bigotries of history. Such a position may seem to be something the conservative will rightly want to guard against. But it is worth remembering that traditions and practices are not museum pieces. Some cultural practices are journeys; they have their own internal momentum (consider the archetype of conservative social practice: the common law).  The blithe assertion that it is 2012 is, in its way, an appeal to our society’s traditions – some of them centuries old. It says that we are still continuing on the journey our ancestors set us upon; that they bequeathed to us unfinished business that we have been lax in attending to.

It’s 2012, and it’s high time we started taking the tradition of marriage seriously. It is too important to be left to the prudes.


William Ferguson said...

Hey Hugh, timely article and nicely put.

Xanthe is putting together a presentation on marriage equality and this article https://theconversation.edu.au/marriage-is-best-for-raising-children-thats-why-we-need-marriage-equality-9137 was in the Conversation this morning. Yours is too long (and probably a little too thinky) for most of the Conversation's audience, but it have been a more meaty read than today's post.

Hugh Breakey said...

Hi Bill. Thanks for that. And thanks for the link - interesting how closely the arguments dovetail on that question!
Best of luck to Xanthe!

Michael Cowley said...

Hi Hugh, thanks for a great article, it was well worth the trip across from The Conversation. I have a couple of questions if you don't mind:

In your response to argument 2, I don't think you quite make a positive case that outcomes for children of same-sex couples should be improved by the acceptance of gay marriage (or at least the thereby implied societal acceptance of the legitimacy of a gay couple), although you come close in your comments about security and stability being crucial. I'm curious as to whether you think that's a valid argument for gay marriage, and for that matter if it's a conservative argument.

And in your response to argument 3, do you think it's worthwhile observing that there is at least one more part of the marriage tradition - marriage as property transaction and support to political and social cohesion between and within larger groupings than just the couple concerned - that was arguably the dominant part of the tradition for much of human history? And that the de-emphasising of this role for marriage, presumably as a result of the increasing emphasis on individualism, is a good example of how conservative thinking has evolved and could evolve again on this subject?

I hope that made sense, seems a bit of a word salad but it's a bit too Friday for me to express it any more clearly....

Hugh Breakey said...

Hi Mike,

Thanks for making the trip! Yes, I think there's something to be said for both those points.

In respect of your first thought, yes, I do think there is a decent argument to be made here:

Premise One: Relations are more likely to be stable and long-lived when, (a) there is ceremony and public commitment by the participants, witnessed and supported by family and friends, and (b) there is social respect given to the union by the larger community, and the union forms a place in a social tradition.

Premise Two: Allowing gay marriage would (perhaps over time, as the society became increasingly familiar with the practice) allow gay partners with children to harness the goods of (a) and (b).

Premise Three: Children function better and have improved emotional outcomes when they are brought up in stable, long-lived relations.

Conclusion: Children of gay partners will do better if we allow gay marriage.

You’re right that this is fundamentally a child-welfare argument, rather than a distinctly conservative one. To make it conservative would require including the conservative’s concern with ensuring that children are socialized adequately into the moral fabric of the community. Thus:

Premise Four: Children will be better socialized into the moral traditions of their community if they are brought up in stable and long-lived relationships, especially when these relationships are supported and respected by family, local community and the wider society. In such a case the child perceives that the family that loves and supports them is one part of a wider and mainstream web of social relations and support networks.

I think there’s something to be said for that premise, which would be a further conservative argument for gay marriage, and an important one, if it was right.

As to your second point, yes, I think that is a worthwhile observation. Marriage and its links to class and to wealth historically made it a key mode for replicating the status quo (and, derivatively, the functioning and traditions of the community). And I think the marriage tradition has evolved to displace that function, and mean that the conservative concern for marriage now focuses on quite different aspects of the tradition. Which does underscore the point I was trying to make; traditions change and even conflict as they navigate changes in shared beliefs and economic practices, and a conservative needs some sophistication in taking care to nurture the important ones.

Michael Cowley said...

Thanks Hugh, you've captured what I was thinking, but far better than I could have put it.

Something that concerns me a little is that all these arguments rely on widespread acceptance of homosexuality as a valid lifestyle (I hate to use that word as it is used to imply quite negative connotations by some, but anyway).

Do you think there might need to be a project to build that case for some before we try to build the case for marriage?

Dania Ng said...

Hello Hugh and Mike
Just calling in to let you know that I will be back, probably in a day or two - just can't write anything at the moment as I am really tired. Been up most of the night posting on a certain website. I promise not to abscond, and will be back later.

Hugh Breakey said...

Hi Dania,
Fair enough! Look forward to hearing from you.

Hugh Breakey said...

Hi Mike,
Good question, and I’m not entirely sure of the answer. I agree with the conservative view that one should not impose a law – at least, any law affecting fundamental social institutions like marriage – when a community at large does not see and to some extent accept the reasoning and reality behind it.

I don’t think that requires, though, a widespread belief that homosexuality as a general matter is a valid lifestyle – something that a virtuous and decent person would choose (though this would be ideal, of course). I think what’s key is a perception that homosexuals are indeed capable of the type of lifelong love and commitment (or at least the determined attempt at these) characteristic of marriage and crucial for family, child-rearing and the stabilizing role such relationships play in the larger moral fabric.

In a way, though, this is only an evaluation that can be made when you’ve given people the opportunity and support to do it. That’s why I think that gay marriage, if legalized, would ultimately be accepted and become part of the ordinary mainstream culture. Because over time it would become (I think) clear enough to the wider community that love, trust and commitment are as possible and important in homosexual as in heterosexual relationships.

Dania Ng said...

Hello Hugh and Mike

I would like to respond to Mike's last posting on The Conversation. I will try to be brief, but probably won't succeed.

Regarding the use of the label "anti" - I think I should have been more precise. The first thing I would say on this is that, in my view, it is a mistake to conflate the part with the whole. That I am in disagreement with someone's sexual preferences and lifestyle does not mean that I am 'against them' in every other way. By the way, in my view that is a particularly effective strategy employed by the gay activists in the arena of public debate: say something about their lifestyle or such, and you're 'anti-gay'. Of course this is part of an agenda (Note that on The Conversation, Sashi Nair, who is a lesbian, had to immediately latch on this, as if denying it would simply puff it out of existence. However, there is plainly a gay agenda, just as there is a Christian agenda to oppose it, and business agenda to cash in on a new market, and so on - but I am digressing here, would be happy to enlarge on the point elsewhere). It is a particular effective strategy, especially in political marketing - remember the slogan, "If you're not with us then you're against us?". No, I am pretty sure that I am not anti-gay, though I still disagree with a number of things what the gays (as a political movement) want to achieve and impose on the rest of society, especially as these impinge on the liberties and rights of others.

On the point about gay marriage not changing social institutions by the very nature of the request to allow gay marriage is rather naive, sorry to say. I should begin here with a preface, to admit that I have studied this issue for more than one year now. I started with a strong intent to support the push for gay marriage, thinking at the time that they are highly disorganised, and subjected to enormous fundamentalist forces within society; in other words, I was all for gay marriage and I set out to help. However, what I found within my research forced me to abandon this position and adopt an apposite one. So now to gay marriage equating change in other social institutions. For me, there is a simple truth that underpins my opposition to it: there is no such thing as gay marriage which is comparable to heterosexual marriage, and could never truly be, regardless of the law labeling it as such, or of anything else. Marriage has been, historically, the concept meaning only a particular form of social institution, based on one man and one woman. Before you begin protesting that this is a religious definition, or that there were other kinds of marriages, let me quickly say that yes, of course there have been/are experiments to recast it into something else to suit other forms of sex-based relationships and choices (Utah comes to mind here), but these have never succeeded to fulfill the social and normative functions marriage is meant to denote. The current construction of marriage is intrinsically tied to other institutions in society, such as education, political system, the economy, and so on. What do you think Mitt Romney had in mind when he declared a focus on the values of the family as a central platform for his election policy, just yesterday? How do you think we will understand Obama when he declares (as he undoubtedly will) a similar platform? So I hope you see here why I am a bit skeptical regarding the reason why a very minute proportion of society want to control the discourse of "marriage" so badly.

Dania Ng said...

In respect to the question "And demanding that institutions in society change to suit you is a bad thing now?", of course it isn't bad to try to get your own way. But when you demand a change and right that others will see as impinging on their existing rights and leading to harm (whether they actually do or not), then isn't it up to you to convince others that this will not be the case? And wouldn't it be the case that if you are caught out laying, misleading, harming and discriminating, and when you are being rude, disrespectful and crass that you will find it hard to get your demand will be resisted? Lastly on this point, I think it is how you ask the question that is often important, because others might see it as manipulative, I am sure you haven't intended this, but I rather suspect that if you asked Ghandi, Jesus, Mandela, etc., "And demanding that institutions in society change to suit your sexual choices is a bad thing now?" instead you would get a different answer from what you expected. In fact, you only have to look at what M.L.King's daughter had to say on the matter.

Final point here. In respect to discrimination, I am also trying hard to be charitable, so please forgive me for not relating the expletives I uttered when I read your posting - here I will simply say, 'please give me a break'. In my research I have not seen how gays are discriminated more so than other minorities, regarding to any type of measurement. In fact, what I see is that this is a more privileged minority than others on many of the indices used to measure disadvantage/discrimination. Income, wealth, employment, education - on all these counts they do much better than the rest of the population. Of course they don't do as well in well-being (health, mental health, life expectancy), but we all know this is not for lack of access to resources or being discriminated against. As for high profile issues, like young people being bullied because of their sexuality in schools, actually, this is way below other causes of bullying (like being overweight, height, shyness, disability, and other such factors) - in fact, in most school communities and peer groups it is quite fashionable now to be 'gay'. Of course, gay people have been oppressed and persecuted at times and in particular societies throughout human history, but not in our society today (that is, if we share the same meaning of what 'oppression' means) . This does not mean that gay people are still not being discriminated against on an individual basis, but they are no more so than other minorities - in fact I would say to you that they are less discriminated against than other minorities. And of course it does not mean that they are still not being bashed or such, of course this happens, and it is a disgusting thing that it does! But to say that they are still being discriminated against as a group in society is just not true. If you think that not being allowed to get 'married' constitutes discrimination, then why not let gay people donate blood?

Dania Ng said...

Hello Hugh

Firstly, thank you for letting me post on your blog (I know that I didn't need special permission, but it's still nice of you to do so).

I won't yet engage directly here with the argument developed in your article above, though what I am saying, together with my latest response to Mike has some relevance in this respect. I also need to point out that you have me at a disadvantage, as I am certainly no philosopher, so my argument (as you have no doubt noted already) tends to be a little haphazard, and not a little disorganised in my setting up a thesis and then defending it - so advance apologies for continuing to do that.

The overlying problem as I see it is definitional, and conceptual. What is it that we understand by 'marriage'? What is the understood definition, what does it mean, what is expected that a married couple is and represents? I suggest that it is only after we have established a common understanding of what marriage is, that we can look at the meaning and effect of derivative or connected concepts, like parenthood. Otherwise we are uncertain of the underlying premises.

So let me explain my thinking on what marriage is (as right now). It is a commitment between a woman and a man that they will share their lives together in a monogamous relationship, that they will remain faithful to each other for as long as they are thus together, and that they will face life's adversities and windfalls in support of each other, that they will respect each other as equals, don't harm but protect each other, for as long as they agree to stay together. That's my understanding of marriage as it stands currently. Being normatively thus constituted, marriage then is, generally speaking, the expected social arrangement through which humans procreate - not only physically, but also as a society. This is because the norms I listed above (as well as others which shape the institution of marriage as it stand currently) are the norms which define what, morally and ethically, we (as a collective community) aspire our society to be. Now, I could be totally wrong, and so I am willing to be persuaded that marriage is (in part or whole) be something else - so that's why it needs discussion first. It is also the reason why I tend to be angry with simplistic (more like propagandastic)explanations offered by Gerber in her article on The Conversation - especially as, surely, she has the capacity to know better!

Dania Ng said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dania Ng said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dania Ng said...

Lol, it doesn't like me posting any more on your blog, Hugh. It looks like I need to creat emy own blog. You never know it may lead to something greater on the net hehe

Dania Ng said...

And my comment can be read in full here: http://truth2be.blog.com/

Hugh Breakey said...

Hi Dania,
I'll give you a substantive reply later on - but first: sorry about the comments not coming through. I'm investigating the reason. I think the spam filter is hypersensitive, but I'm not sure that's the entire problem, so I'm still trying to sort it out. :-/

Hugh Breakey said...

Hi Dania,

Thanks for all those points.

Suppose for a moment that gay couples (or, at least, those gay couples that are motivated to wed) are willing to and capable of exemplifying all of the values and virtues you list in your account of the social understanding of marriage (an account with which I pretty much agree). Surely what is valuable, from a conservative standpoint, are those values and virtues and their role in contributing to the larger moral fabric. And it seems to me that if we look at the actual vows exchanged by marrying couples in the overwhelming amount of cases, it is these values, virtues and commitments that they are prizing; that form the centrepiece of their understanding of marriage. It is true that, as you say, marriage has hitherto been constrained to man-woman couplings in particular. But it seems to me that it devalues the virtues and values of the tradition to insist that they only will be noticed and affirmed subject to the participants being the right sex. For I think that requires that commitment, sacrifice, trust, love and so on must be recognized as not really valuable per se. If something really is a virtue, and it is crucial for the society that it be recognized as a virtue, then we need a really powerful reason for explicitly withholding the approbation of that virtue wherever we find it. I think we want to keep the moral development as simple and direct as possible.

That brings us, of course, to the question of whether we should accept the starting supposition in that argument, namely, that marrying gays are able and willing to uphold all those virtues to about the same extent heterosexuals are. Let’s accept that gays are more promiscuous. Let’s suppose, too, that one of the motivations for the gay marriage agenda is combined with derision for marriage in its present form (as you suggest). I wonder, though, what effect that would really have in the event that marriage is legalised. Perhaps there would be a spate of frivolous marriages, not really taken seriously by the participants? But even so, I am sure there would be serious marriages – even religious marriages in cases where they were possible – as well. And heterosexual marriages would continue in the same vein, with the same vows and commitments and ceremonies, and that would carry a strong institutional memory of what marriage is and will remain. I just don't see the scope for disruption of those core and ever-present parts of the marriage institution.

One last point; I think there is a potentially very powerful social shift that occurs to a practice when it is moved into the mainstream – when the people involved no longer have to feel that in pursuing it and living it they are necessarily stepping outside the bounds of accepted morality and decency. You are right, Dania, to think we need to really consider what effects there would be on the institution of marriage by the inclusion of gays with it. But the prospects for change go both ways, surely. We also have to factor in what changes there would be in the (as you put it) traditions and normative structures that have been built and sustained around gay sexuality and relationships. I think that seeing oneself as a part of the larger moral fabric of a community is one of the most powerful motivations to be moral generally, and to be supportive of your society specifically; the potential to bring a subculture closer inside the moral fold is important in its own terms.

Michael Cowley said...

Hi Dania

Wow, glad I asked :-) Thanks for a substantial (and I don't just mean long) response. (Sorry if I'm taking liberties at your place Hugh with a longish reply).

Although I still think there is a sense in which it's fair to describe opposition to gay marriage with a component of judgement against homosexuality itself (even if not a total condemnation) as "anti-gay", I'm also happy to concede that such labeling is extensively used as a rhetorical device and is not that helpful in understanding. So I'm not going to use it again, and I'm in no way saying that you are motivated by malice or some connotation like that.

When you talk about what the gay movements wants to achieve by getting the right to marry, I think you are doing what you asked others not to do - "it is a mistake to conflate the part with the whole" (sorry, couldn't resist).There is an identifiable "movement" that sees a divide between gay and straight sexual practice and in a sense promotes it. But these people are really not the ones driving the marriage debate, at least in an intellectual sense. And I'd say they are often not that helpful when they do get involved.

But largely speaking the ones driving the movement for marriage are coming from the same place as the people who want to "defend" marriage - out of respect for the institution and a genuine desire to take part in it in exactly the same way as the ideal for heterosexuals - as a genuine commitment between two people made out of love and a desire to form a stable family unit.

Which gets me on to another of your points - that changing who can get married according to the state somehow changes the experience or meaning of marriage for heterosexuals. As a heterosexual who was able to marry the woman I loved, I have no sense that the commmitment I made, the feeling that led me to make it, or the lived experience and meaning of the resulting marriage will be at all altered by allowing another category of people to take part as well.

I don't think you can say that because gay people are promiscuous and anti-straights they are going to actually change the institution of marriage by taking part. There are plenty of straight philanderers with all sorts of bigotries and hatreds happily getting married every day, while sober, moral and conservative gay people get lumped in with the bath house crowd. You either get to generalise about everything or you don't.

Finally (sorry Hugh!), I was brought up in a small town in the 70's and 80's, and while my parents were quite tolerant for their generation there was strong pressure at school and in society more generally to alienate and stigmatise kids suspected of being gay. There was such pressure that I never met an openly gay person till I moved to Brisbane in the 90's, and they were still getting bashed quite regularly in those days (less common now fortunately, but it still ooccurs). Even if the acceptance of gay people and practise was as widespread as you describe (and it certainly isn't in Queensland), the existance of discrimination (even if you don't like the connotations, the term is apt) in regards to marriage is still one more reason for gay people to feel like the "other". And it's exactly the ability to cast gays as the "other" that leads to so many of the problems they face both inside their own heads and in the heads and hands of others.

And are you really saying that because others get discriminated against as well, gay people should just harden up?

How about, lets try to reduce all forms of unwanted discrimination instead, including this one?

Michael Cowley said...

Gaaah, I wish I could have written as clearly as that Hugh.

But I do want to add one more thing, based on what I said above a few days ago - it's not like marriage is a static institution anyway. Marriage has changed rather dramatically over the years, and for much of human history has been a social and political transaction (and in many societies a property transaction) that paid little regard to the feelings of the participants about each other. There has already been a quite large shift, particularly in western societies, over the last two centuries as to what marriage even is, so it can't really be held up as some sort of unchanging ideal.

Dania Ng said...

Thanks Hugh for addressing my previous comments.

If gays affirm the institution of marriage as it stands, then I have little problem with it being provided to them - except that it is already! We all have the right to marry! (Just not to the opposite sex). So then what they are asking for is not for the same right, but a different right! This means that we all have to abandon our current right, which is to marry only a person of opposite sex, since it is not, thus, going to be the same right. It is also undeniable that the right is transformed into a new kind of right:
1. Sexual relationship is no more ONLY heterosexual, but also homosexual. That is, it isn't one only, but can be both. This is an undeniable transformation of the current right from how it currently stands.
2. Gays understand that the right will change substantially, indeed it will be a new right. Hence it undeniably follows that they seek a new right, not the existing right, and by seeking this new right it follows that they seek to destroy the current right. Otherwise why not have a parallel system that endows exactly the same civil and legal rights to gays (and call it 'gay marriage') and retain the traditional marriage in recognition of the singularly different kind of marriage between opposite sex couples?
3. Gays understand that currently they enjoy all rights as anyone else in this country, and some special rights - except for the right to use a ceremony RESERVED and normatively constructed for heterosexual couples. They enjoy de facto rights, and can adopt children. They can even get 'married' in ceremonies of their own. So then why do they want something which they can't have anyway, because the mere act of having it actually destroys it's current meaning?
4. If the gays want to be recognised as unique and are proud of being different, and want to be recognised as such, then why can't heterosexual people be allowed to have a ceremony that recognises their relationships as unique?

There's of course more, but these are some pretty basic questions which seem to be circumvented in these kinds of discussions.

Dania Ng said...

Thanks Mike for your thoughtful comment, I do understand where you're coming from, and I certainly think we are in agreement on quite a few things. For instance, discrimination is unacceptable when it applies to anyone, and I certainly don't think that the gays should simply put up with it, no one should! And coming from a migrant background I probably can understand a fair bit about discrimination.

Unfortunately, I have had first hand experience with gay people, and I was surprised by the ferocity of their hateful towards others and discriminatory practices. I found most of them arrogant, biased, liars, and just plain awful individuals. That may be my bad luck to have met such terrible individuals, and no doubt my personal assessment may be wrong. But I do find the whole political debate around the 'right' to marry quite strange, since they are not (and I am repeating myself here) suffering from being disadvantaged in any special way from other minorities). There's just too much other stuff that needs to change and will be affected besides the simplistic idea that it will only be marriage that will be changed. Personally, I do firmly believe that the idea is to change the central place which heterosexual sex has in our culture.

But I think we're reading different stuff, because what I am seeing in the gay political literature is an expressed desire not simply to 'marry', but to change marriage, as I explained elsewhere. I agree about marriage not being a static institution, but I couldn't find evidence anywhere that, historically, it has been anything else but based on a heterosexual understanding of what it is. That's obviously not because there have been no homosexual couples living together, but because the relationship has always been recognised as being different. And that's not only a Christian doctrine, as gays are so fond of highlighting, but most other substantial religions and societal systems - heck, you only need to look at Greek and Roman customs and laws to see how this is so!

Michael Cowley said...

Hey Dania, without denying your experience with individuals who may indeed be awful people, I'd like to suggest that if you don't have a lot of gay people in your circle, you may be equating "emphatically out, politically active" gay people with all the other kinds of gay people?

I do know some people who are both gay and could be described as "arrogant, biased, liars", but I know and work with plenty of gay people who are humble, pleasant and uninterested in activism.

Hugh Breakey said...

Hi Dania,

Thanks for your response.

Can we agree it is possible, in principle at least, for there to be the ‘same’ right applied to a wider scope of people, without that making it a different right? For example, the suffragettes of the 19th Century wanted the right to vote to be expanded to include women. I guess someone at the time could have argued that this really required expunging the old rights entirely, and replacing them with a new right, because by definition only men could vote. (And, all the more, extending the franchise does in fact diminish the power of each individual vote.) But we would say in that case, wouldn’t we, that this really is the same right, just more widely applied, and that the change in scope did not change the essence of the right?

The point is that we can’t simply rely on definition to tell us whether there is a change in the right when there is a change in its scope. We can’t just stipulate that the scope of the right is logically internal to the substance of the right. Rather, we have to consider what is the essence of the right – what changes would stop it being the thing it is, and make it a new thing entirely? So for suffrage we would argue, I take it, that the tradition and social function of voting is about people making decent and judicious decisions about who should rule over them, and that if women can do that as well as men, then there is no change in the essence of the right, just a widening of its scope.
In the context of marriage then, it seems to me fair to say it is at least a matter of argument, and not definition, whether enlarging the scope of the right changes the right. Which brings us back to the question (that I discussed above) of what the traditions are, and whether it is the virtues, values and commitments that are the essence of the right, or the male-female particularity. I think there is good reason for the former.

Dania Ng said...

Hello Hugh
You make a very good point there. Indeed, we might perhaps look at how a new right might be created to enable more to have the same right. Voting for women is a good example of this, of course.
What I need to think through though is whether the political emancipation of women is a comparable example. It may also need further cogitation on the basis of whether women's and male's votes are the same? Of course, they are weighted equally in political processes, but I am curious why political pitching is different for the two genders? (and now for the LGTB group)Can we be equal, politically, legally, and in terms of other social citizenship rights, but at the same be unique and different from others? To carry the analogy with the women votes further, wouldn't be oppressive to them to insist that, now that they have the vote, they should not be different from men - at least in a political sense? Are they not different interest groups, etc..? Did we really extinguish men's voting rights, or did we not added women to have the same rights, but as women? Just musing on this as I write ... I still need to think quite a bit more on this.

But if we are talking about recognising and affirming a relationship between a couple, do we need marriage at all? Isn't that right existing already? And if we allow gays to marry, why should it be so that we lose the identity of heterosexual marriage? Did the male voters lose their identity as male voters? In looking at the various political surveys, I think not!

I am a bit brain-dead from work at the moment, so I hope all this makes sense.

Hugh Breakey said...

Hi Dania,

Yes, it makes sense just fine.

On rights and differences in rights: I think the point of rights is to ensure certain types of equality and equal treatment; but this still allows – indeed it is the very reason for having many rights – a substantial amount of uniqueness and difference to flourish. That difference in action and output does not mean the right is different, from one person to another. If it did, then there would be no rights of any sort. I use my property rights quite differently from others, but legally I have the same rights as them. Trespassers do not need to know my identity or my predilections to know what they owe me by dint of my property rights; I have exactly the same entitlements as the last people who owned my house and my car, despite our profound differences in personality and action. So too with respect to free speech, religion, association etc.

I agree with you though, that marriage is a more complex case. Here we are dealing not only with abstract rights, but also with tradition, institution and social sanction. I think the question is therefore better phrased in those terms; the issue isn't about whether there is a change in the rights, but rather about the meaning and tradition of marriage.

Turning then to this question, you say, “if we allow gays to marry, why should it be so that we lose the identity of heterosexual marriage?” Ultimately, I guess we just have opposing views on this question of identity. I see there as being multiple traditions of marriage, or at least multiple elements of traditions. I think the values and virtues of long-term, stable love, trust and commitment between two partners are a vital part of the marriage institution, and that is the identity I want to recognize, conserve and nurture. A change to that is in my mind a change to the identity (essence) of marriage. I take it you think this is a mistake, and that the fundamental identity of marriage is not shaped around these, but rather about the male-female joining in particular. Hence your view that extending marriage beyond heterosexual partners constitutes a change in the identity of marriage and marriage rights.

Dania Ng said...

Hello Hugh

I think the issue for me is not that people ought not to live together and have their relationships recognised; for me the problem is that marriage is a concept that means a relationship between a woman and a man. Here I see not a matter of rights as such (I said elsewhere that in as far as I see, gays have exactly the same rights as everyone else in society). In addition,in a legal sense, marriage is not about a contract based on 'love', but a different thing altogether (please search the Family Law Act 1975 (Cth), to see if the word 'love' appears anywhere in it). Indeed, rationally speaking, since love is between two (or more?) people, isn't it only 'real' between those people? Why should legal marriage be used to 'recognise' such love, when it doesn't do so for anyone in the first place?

But whats more, marriage (woman+man) is an institution which is at the very foundation of western liberal democracy. This is not fanatic Christian doctrine speaking here. In my reading of Locke, the social contract would not be imaginable without it. In a sense, this is where he differs most critically from Hobbes, in that Locke argues that the moral basis of society, which is the family (identified by him as woman+man+children) precedes the social contract! For me, especially in view of the almost unbelievable clever political savvy of what is now global gay activism, I believe that the drive to change the meaning of marriage directly targets the social contract (this is an existential matter, because the very basic assumptions and principles which underpin our social institutions are, thus, challenged).

Dania Ng said...


One strategy (and this is a strategy of power, in a Foucauldian sense) is to build new forms of rationality (rationalisations)about what is discrimination. For example, the gays equate themselves to oppressed people, like the Aboriginals, or the African Americans, or women, and so on. What they are doing, is creating a new discourse about who we, as a society are in modernity. This discourse is the new panopticism, in which to protest that homosexuality is not the same as heterosexuality in terms of the meaning of marriage is almost a sacrilege.

So, I am sorry but I cannot bring myself to see marriage as a 'right' that can be simply 'shared' with gays; to my mind it is illogical to claim a right to something you can't have. You can even have it legally mandated to call homosexual couples 'married', that will not make them married in the sense in which the term has been used since the beginning of western history. Marriage is a term which denotes woman+man, just like femininity and masculinity denote two different things. It has tremendous discursive power. So I don't want it changed, especially as I certainly don't see it as discriminatory to say to same sex couples, "I wish for my relationship to be recognised as being different from yours because homosexual sex is not the same as heterosexual sex". My right to be married in the singular sense that marriage means a heterosexual union does not take away the right of gay couples to enter into civil unions (a right which I have always supported), love each other, have their unions recognised by the rest of the community, and so on. But marriage ain't a right in the same sense as voting - or in the sense that is a right 'denied' to homosexual people.

Dania Ng said...

Just to add to that - I meant, you can search the Marriage Act 1961 (Cth) for the word 'love'. Though of course the FLA is also relevant here, especially since the gays do seem not to actually want monogamous marriage, as Dennis Altman has been quoted and heard as stating. He said that (I am paraphrasing here) one cannot find too many longer term homosexual relationships which are monogamous. This comes back to the argument that, in any event, the gays do not simply want access to the institution of marriage, they want to change it.

I think I may write these up properly on my shiny new blog, when I get some time.

Hugh Breakey said...

Hi Dania,
‘Gay marriage’ is illogical only if we follow your stipulation of what marriage means, of what constitutes its definitional essence. The charge of illogic rests completely on a prior premise about essence that has to be substantiated. My first worry is that I don’t think marriage has been as stable as you imply – traditions have included arranged marriages, marriage as an institution to contain economic, social and political power (as Mike pointed out), marriage as properly admixed with homosexuality (presuming that Western history includes the Greeks), marriage as essentially religious, marriage as between only people of the same race, and so on. And even if it had been stable, there is still the second question of what other elements it includes, and whether these other elements constitute a fundamental part of its tradition. Every conservative theorist I have ever read emphasizes that, in order to conserve traditions and ensure the survival of the society, there have to be some traditions conserved at the expense of others, and there needs to be the capacity for the alteration of institutions in the face of other shifts outside and inside the society. To rely on definitional arguments from stipulated essences at such a juncture seems to me to preclude exactly the organic development of institutions by the society that is rightly prized by the conservative. You go on to talk about the ‘principles’ of our society and the social contract, but your argument here relies on putting aside all talk of values, virtues, trust and commitment and making ‘marriage’ a definitional matter, rather than a normative and principled institution. You can’t have it both ways. It seems to me that if we care about principles and values, and the social continuance of these, then they must be present in how we understand and why we prize marriage.

With that in mind, though, I do take your point about sexual monogamy, and think it is well-made. Here is an issue where we move away from definitional matters, and enter much more closely into the values and virtues of marriage. There is definitely a case to be made, as you suggest, that sexually ‘open’ marriage is antithetical to our social understanding and traditions of marriage – and, all the more, that sexual monogamy is a fundamental part of the values and virtues of that institution that should be prized and preserved.

Michael Cowley said...

Hey Dania

I think your last comment highlights something I've mentioned before - I think you are confusing/conflating "gay activist" with "gay marriage activist".

Dennis Altman has said "I think it’s [gay marriage] a great deal of self-indulgent crap" (link below), and from this and other comments is clearly *not* a supporter or promoter of marriage, gay or otherwise.

It's fair to say that plenty of gay people do not support marriage as an institution and do not want (or at least care about) gay access to it. Just as plenty of straight people do not support marriage as an institution and do not want or at least care about access to it.

However you also have conservative gay people like Andrew Sullivan (who really started the whole gay marriage movement) who respect the institution as it is and explicitly don't want to change it, just expand access to it. Partly as a rejection of or antidote to what is stereotyped as the "gay lifestyle", which is largely the same free-love and pro-drug culture that plenty of straight people have indulged in from time to time.

You can't say that gay people speak with one voice on marriage (or anything else), just as you can't say that straight people speak with one voice on anything. And you certainly can't use the anti-marriage views of one section of the gay community as evidence of what "the gays" think or want.


Dania Ng said...

Hello Hugh
I said in an earlier post that you have me at a disadvantage here, as I am not trained as a philosopher, and so I have no skill in forming and defending a philosophical argument. On that score, you're likely to trump my arguments. But I do see that you're taking a phronetic perspective, rather than an epistemic or technical one (techne). Which then allows me to perhaps provide a more cogent response. I will do that more fully on my new blog, as I do need to sit down and get my head around it a bit more. I thank you for the thoughtful responses, which are certainly helping me focus my thinking around the presuppositions behind the argument behind retaining the meaning of marriage.

For now, I distilled some of the thinking I derived from this conversation into a couple of personal insights on the topic. Firstly, I am not so sure now of the label 'traditional marriage', I am no longer comfortable with it, as I see now that it very much directs and helps to sustain arguments such as the one you have sustained here, and positions those that resist such arguments into a defensive position. No. I am now aware of it - so my first question is, why use the term in the first place? Marriage is not 'traditional' - and that is the point which, to my mind, immediately weakens your argument. Marriage just is, just as heterosexuality just is. Certainly, there are different traditions that have emerged around it, but that doesn't make either marriage or heterosexuality (or homosexuality, for that matter)'traditional'. Having just had this brought to the forefront of my thinking (once again, thanks for helping me arrive here), I need to tease this out a bit more.

And secondly, I need to get my historical knowledge a bit more up to date. What you're saying about ancient Hellenic tradition regarding marriage as 'properly' admixed with homosexuality just doesn't seem right, if I remember the historical knowledge we have on this correctly - but I will look at it again, it's been a while since I have done so. Certainly, I seem to remember that the Greeks never ever mixed the two - indeed, they differentiated them precisely because they could only mean two different things, in a functional (practical) sense, as well as a logical one! But also, I think that the context of your argument requires closer scrutiny, there are some assumptions implicit there that I need to think about, such as when you say that every conservative theorist regards social institutions as inherently flexible to "ensure the survival of the society". But what is the basic building block of society (remembering that society is constituted of social institutions)? You can't have a society unless the heterosexual nature of biological human procreation is protected. Whatever format marriage takes within the cultural norms of a society, it has always referred to heterosexuality, not homosexuality. That is why John Locke could not conceive of marriage (man+woman+children) as anything else but the foundation of society which precedes the social contract, and thus is foundational to any moral construct upon which the practical functioning existence of any society must rest.

Just saying ...

Dania Ng said...

Hi Mike

Yes, you're right, I have not differentiated between gay activists and gay marriage activists. Thanks for pointing this out, I totally agree with you that they're different. It is probably because the gay marriage activism I see and experience seems to be so monolithic now in how it represents the gay community, gays and their demands.

I don't agree with the proposition that because both heterosexual and gay people engage in "the same free-love and pro-drug culture" then this should mean that marriage should somehow be seen as different. I see no connection between this and the meaning of marriage, even if it is extinguished somehow by new laws and dicta. And even if it becomes necessary to fill in the appropriate forms as "partner A [male name] and partner B [female name]", and the label 'marriage' is forever banned from utterance in public as a relic of homophobic heteronormativism, it will still mean what it refers to a unique relationship. A dodo bird will always be a dodo bird, no matter that it has become extinct!

Hugh Breakey said...

Hi Dania,

Well, I’m not sure I have you at an advantage. To be honest I’m not very clear about what you mean by a phronetic perspective (unless you mean that I am deliberately being ambiguous in my terminology, which is not so much a philosophical perspective as a philosophical flaw) , or how that is distinguished from an epistemic or technical one.

It seems a bit odd to me that you would want to avoid the notion of ‘traditional marriage’. I had formed the view that you were in fact concerned about social traditions and the importance of defending them and the values they bring to a society. I guess I was mistaken in that regard.

Just on the Greeks – I wasn’t meaning to imply that homosexuality was part of their marriage tradition (in the sense of having homosexual marriages), but only that they had an understanding of marriage that did not render it at all incompatible with (a) having sex with others outside the marriage partner, including (b) with other members of the same sex. So I was using that as an example of a different sort of social understanding of marriage, as compared to what we have today.

Dania Ng said...

Hello Hugh
Phronesis is the third virtue of human inquiry - Aristotle spoke about episteme, techne and phronesis. Modernity does not focus much on the latter, but there is now some important scholarship that has revived the principle. See Bent Flyvbjerg and his 'Making social science matter', and an earlier book on a case study in Aalborg ('Rationality & Power' - my favourite case study).

This conversation has been very useful for me as I have, indeed, realised that I was mixing 'tradition' with 'marriage'. I felt into the very trap that is set to direct the political discourse in a specific direction, the strategic use of particular discourse to construct rationalisations that pass as rational. Thus associating 'tradition' with 'marriage' is a very powerful means to portray the understanding we have of the latter as anachronistic, as being capable to be something else, and so on. I realise now that we need to turn to this association and interrogate it more closely (why does it exist?), why does it thus rationalise marriage into something that it is not. Whereas there are traditions associated with things that can't be otherwise, traditions are not the things themselves. I think Hume talked about transforming logical things into moral ones. To do so is an exercise of power - as Flyvbjerg notes in his Rationality and Power, "The rationality of power is stronger than the power of rationality".

Anyway, I am still to develop this into something more concrete on my blog. Just lots of work on at the moment, but will get to it eventually...

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