I haven’t watched the video of Sullivan debating same-sex marriage with Douglas Wilson (no, I never heard of him either). To judge from this First Things write-up, I can expect some familiar, bad arguments from the anti- side: first and foremost, a failure to appreciate the sense in which theological arguments ‘can’t be offered’ in this sort of debate (a failure of appreciation at least semi-shared by the author of the First Things piece, Peter Leithart.)
Sullivan demanded that Wilson defend his position with secular, civil arguments, not theocratic ones, and in this demand Sullivan has the support of liberal polity.
Sullivan’s is a rigid standard for public discourse that leaves biblically-grounded Christians with little to say.
The problem isn’t that they can’t be offered – it’s a free country! say what you like! think what you like! It’s that the person offering the argument can’t reasonably expect it to be accepted. It will be – should be – weighed in the balance as a private expression of preference. But someone else’s preference as to how I should behave doesn’t, automatically, carry much weight.
Suppose your neighbor leans over the fence and says, “Dear neighbor, I notice you tend to sleep in until noon on Saturdays. I wish you would get up by 8 AM. I have a moral view according to which people should get up by 8 AM on Saturday morning.” Your neighbor is free to say this. But he isn’t entitled to you taking him seriously. If you tell him to keep his opinions to himself and he gets indignant – ‘that is a rigid standard for public discourse!’ – the scene has crossed over into comedy. Best of all would be if he developed a mild persecution complex, slinking along your fence of a Saturday morning, a cross between the Underground Man and the Soup Nazi. Imagine a character who is always telling people what to order in restaurants and, when they refuse, rolling his eyes unto heaven: “The early Christians were persecuted, too!” And that’s why I will probably watch that video later, because I enjoy comedy of manners. The light stuff. (Why else would I read First Things?)
The moral of the story is this: there is some confusion about what ‘respect’ for religious liberty properly entails. Legally and morally, people are inclined to treat religious convictions as more than mere ‘private preference’. (If this weren’t the case, there wouldn’t be so many efforts to accommodate religious belief.) But obviously there is something problematic about obligatory ‘respect’ that treats everyone as having a duty to, sort of, half believe everything that anyone wholly believes, on religious grounds. (The Flying Spaghetti Monster is designed to embarrass this way of thinking, and rightly so.) Wilson (and Leithart, too, I think) seem to feel that failure to extend them this quite significant epistemic privilege amounts to exiling religion from the public sphere, from civic discourse. It feels disrespectful to religion to sleight religious conviction by brushing it off as ‘mere private preference’. But the alternative is forcing people to semi-share all serious religious beliefs. That’s not quite like having an established religion, more like semi-establishing all religions. Which some people may think sounds pretty good, actually. But it shouldn’t.
Which brings us to Wilson’s genuinely weird argument. It’s an unusually explicit expression of this usually non-explicit notion that religious respect demands this extra epistemic concession.
Here is Wilson, being quite polite to Andrew Sullivan:
I would also like to thank him for editing this book— Same Sex Marriage: Pro & Con. I thought he did a fantastic job of pulling together capable representatives of both sides of this issue, and I was very pleased at the absence of straw man argumentation, name-calling, and indignant screeching. I thought the position I am representing here tonight—opposition to same-sex marriage—was treated with an appropriate respect throughout, and I am grateful for it.
In fact, I would like to use the mere existence of this book as one of my arguments, and since I am already here, let me begin with that. While the opponents of same-sex marriage are sometimes compared (to their disadvantage) to various conservatives of yesteryear who were trying to conserve things they shouldn’t have, the overall effect of this book is to make the reader think that the leaders of the opposition to same-sex marriage are morally serious people, whether mistaken or not. They are not driven by irrational hatreds, or characterized by blind phobias. In short, we do not show up in this book as haters, with the appearance of a Bull Connor sort of opposition.
Now this means that to the extent Andrew is willing to treat his opponents as morally serious people, who have arguments that should be engaged respectfully, to that same extent he appears to be undercutting the view that the continued unavailability of same-sex marriage is a foundational civil rights issue. If it is a civil rights issue, how could morally serious people be opposed to it? If it is not a civil rights issue, then why is it being pressed upon us in those terms?
The problem with this is that, if it were a good argument, it would prove that the civil rights struggle wasn’t actually a civil rights struggle either. After all, not everyone who opposed civil rights for African-Americans did it with dogs and firehoses. Most whites – certainly many whites – who opposed civil rights did so in a more mild-mannered, let’s-debate-it-in-an-op-ed kind of way. “As moral, religious and law-abiding citizens, we feel that we are unprejudiced and undiscriminating in our wish to keep our community a closed community.” There’s no reason to suppose the people who wrote that sentence weren’t sincere in their self-assessment (sincerity not being the same thing as accuracy). If the fact of such sentiments is sufficient to prove that the subject is one on which there is reasonable moral disagreement, ergo not a civil rights issue, then the civil rights movement was a huge moral mistake.
I don’t think Wilson actually thinks that if only whites had only peacefully protested against all the peaceful civil rights protests, that would have proven the civil rights protesters were enemies of true civil rights (since they would have been violating the true civil right of religious liberty, and wouldn’t have been fighting for anything that was a true civil right, since some religious people thought it wasn’t.)
We see here clear limits of the vague notion that respect for religion entails that everyone must sort of/kind of half believe everything any serious and religious person sincerely says they believe, on ethico-religious grounds.
On the other hand, the argument against polygamy Sullivan quotes on his blog today is conspicuously weak, not the ‘excellent counterpoint’ he claims it to be.
There is a solid reason for restricting marriage to two-partner relationships, and it’s not simply that it flies in the face of monogamy or that it might leave some men without wives. The reason is based in civil law. If a husband were to have more than one wife, how would it be determined which wife would receive the federal benefits associated with marriage? Who gets the Social Security survivor benefits, for example? How are pension benefits distributed?
Even if one were to say these benefits should be distributed equally among the wives, there are still aspects of marriage that cannot be effectively shared. Say for example that the husband in our imaginary polygamous marriage has contracted a rare disease that has incapacitated him and for which there are two or more treatment options, with different associated risks and potential outcomes. Who gets to decide which path to follow if two wives disagree?
There ought to be a term for this tactic. It’s sort of a variation on ‘hard cases make bad law’. Namely, you argue that if something could potentially get legally tangled, we have a solid reason not to legalize it. Since everything to do with love and marriage could, potentially, get legally tangled, you have carte blanche to rule out anything to do with love and marriage that you don’t like, without actually having to justify your dislike. Not a good argument, then.
Here’s another example of this argument in action, from Will Saletan’s unfortunate, recent brush with BDSM. A lot of people have criticized his first piece on the subject (you can follow the links, by clicking the link). But the final paragraph raises particular difficulties.
These are hard questions. They’re hard because sex is private, but violence isn’t. And they’re hard because domination can warp consent. A subculture that mixes these elements is inherently fascinating. For some, it’s exhilarating. But it can never be fully reconciled, even with itself.
Ergo, we can’t, and shouldn’t, fully accept this kinky stuff (that’s the thesis of the first piece Saletan wrote, which he is trying, in the second piece, to defend.) The problem, once again, is that the argument, if it were good, would prove too much. Basically Saletan is saying that no ‘private stuff’ that is, in certain ways, conceptually at odds with – not obviously coherently relatable to – certain other ‘public stuff’ can be fully acceptable. But there are other institutions – marriage and parent-child relations come to mind – that are surely more self-evidently ‘acceptable’, yet are surely even more philosophically/conceptually puzzling, for the ways in which public and private lines get crossed. The private family is not self-evidently a ‘liberal’ political institution. In a lot of ways, it’s a stubborn, semi-feudal hold-out. This makes its relation to a liberal polity thorny to conceptualize, even if (to repeat!) its ‘acceptability’ is not seriously in question. By contrast, the BDSM-type stuff is pretty straightforwardly Millian: consenting adults, contracts, strictly private arrangements. You can get problems, sure. But a lot of them aren’t really conceptual problems, more just practical ones. (How can you tell when someone has consented? Isn’t there a risk that permissible situations will look like impermissible ones, from the outside, making legal calls hard to make?)
In a sense, the BDSM stuff is more ‘medieval’ – you got dungeons and everything! But, politically, it’s highly modern. The family, on the other hand, really isn’t supposed to involve dungeons these days. But a man’s home is still his castle. In a philosophical first principle sense, that’s deeply politically problematic, since the castle may also contain women and children, among other things.
There’s a good reason why “Savage Love” is a lot more philosophically coherent than, say, “Dear Prudence”. All that Dan Savage has to do, most days, is think through the implications of a basic sort of political liberalism: Mill’s Harm Principle. Prudence has to work out all sorts of complicated family problems. Husbands and wives and their weird, often unequal, or at least asymmetrical relations. Parents and kids and what is to be done, by whom, to and on behalf of individuals who are not morally competent to live autonomously just yet. Who has authority and rights and right on their side? Prudence can call upon lots of social norms, to lend authority and plausibility to her judgments, but such philosophical principles as she is relying on can’t ultimately be fully reconciled.
I could totally write for “Slate”, man. This post has all manner of Slatepitch potential.