Another Pro Same-Sex Marriage Argument

by John Holbo on March 28, 2013

Not that we need another one. The old ones still work fine. But it seems to me there is one that hasn’t been offered, and isn’t half bad.

Defenders of ‘traditional marriage’ insist 1) that their position is, well … traditional; wisdom of the Judeo-Christian tradition, the history of Western Civilization, etc. etc.; 2) they are not bigots. They are tolerant of homosexuality, and the rights of homosexuals, etc. etc. Maybe they watch the occasional episode of “Will and Grace”, in syndication (even if they didn’t watch it back when it started.) They are careful to distance themselves from those Westboro Baptist Church lunatics, for example.

It’s gotten to the point where one of the main, mainstream arguments against same-sex marriage is that legalizing it would amount to implying that those opposing it are bigots. Since they are not just bigots (see above), anything that would make them seem like bigots must be wrong. Ergo, approving same-sex marriage would be a mistake. Certainly striking down opposition to it as ‘lacking a rational basis’ would be a gross moral insult to non-bigoted opponents of same-same marriage.

This ‘anything that implies we are bigots must be wrong’ argument has problems. But that’s old news. Here’s the new argument. Grant, for argument’s sake, that contemporary arguments against same-sex marriage have been scrubbed free of bigotry. Doesn’t it follow that these arguments must not be traditional but, somehow, quite new?

All the old arguments were steeped in bigotry, after all. We can hardly maintain that anti-homosexual attitudes 50 years ago, 100 years ago, 1000 years ago, were always already scrubbed free of bigotry to the high standards of “Will and Grace”. It’s hard to see how any argument against same-sex marriage that is genuinely traditional will not be a bigoted one, since it’s hard to believe it could be utterly disconnected from our traditions.

Defenders of traditional marriage make the point that it is absurd that adults are standing around arguing about whether there can be any rational basis whatsoever for attitudes that hardly any rational person doubted were rational even a quarter century ago. Surely we have to give tradition a bit more credit than that. But, for what it’s worth, the ‘traditional marriage’ position fares no better by this standard. Why bother denouncing this thing to do with homosexuality as a legally intolerable perversion while bending over backwards not to denounce homosexuality itself in the same terms? Where’s the sense in that? It wouldn’t have seemed sensible to many even 50 years ago.

This isn’t a legal argument but it bears on the ‘rational basis’ test. Any actually traditional argument must be judged today to be facially motivated by animus to a legally impermissible degree. So the question is: what non-traditional argument for traditional marriage do the traditional marriage folks have? What new way of thinking about marriage and homosexuality, which obviously never crossed the minds of any of our ancestors, makes sense of this untraditional mix of tolerance and intolerance that is the hallmark of the ‘traditional marriage’ position today?

I quite appreciate that this is overkill. But I think the argument shows something interesting about arguments from ‘tradition’ generally.

{ 97 comments }

1

Jacques Distler 03.28.13 at 7:20 am

I think that you and the “defenders” are using the word “traditional” in somewhat different senses. You seem to mean something along the lines of “an attitude widely-held in the past”, whereas they mean something more along the lines of “in accord with the teaching of (some particular branch of) Christianity.”

Thus, in your formulation, racism (or, if one were willing to go back far enough, affirmative support for the institution of slavery) is a “traditional value”, whereas they would assert that it is incompatible with a true understanding of Christian teachings — and hence not “traditional” at all.

Now, if it were only true that there were Christian teachings directed against same-sex marriage, independent of any animus against homosexuality per se, then (in this instance) the “defenders” would have a case.

Alas, there’s not much evidence of that, in Christian, Jewish, or Muslim tradition.

2

Left Coast Bernard 03.28.13 at 7:50 am

Prof. Holbo,

You form a good argument because our understanding of morality has advanced over many centuries. What once seemed unquestioned is now thought mistaken. The Bible offers regulations for slavery, but no condemnations. In fact, moral views change even within the Bible. The Old Testament regulates divorce, but Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount says it is wrong for a man to divorce his wife (according to the Catholic view).

Another argument, for your consideration, is that to cite the Bible in this case or similar cases involves citing foreign law. The Bible was neither written in this country, nor enacted in the country by our Congress. If they were once the “Law of the Land” that “Land” was far from here and now. Most of the people who argue in favor of supposed “traditional” “Biblical” marriage would also argue against the use of foreign law in our courts or anywhere in our society.

3

Mao Cheng Ji 03.28.13 at 8:06 am

The modern concept of marriage is based, predominantly, on relatively recent notions of romantic love and spousal companionship. The traditional one, mostly on fertility and childbearing.

4

bad Jim 03.28.13 at 9:00 am

I strongly suspect that it’s impossible to state an objection to gay marriage without opposing homosexuality. Even my facetious examples, like 14 year old children of gay parents becoming transiently homophobic as an expression of teenage rebellion, concern parentage rather than marriage. Sure, businesses would no longer be able to get away with paying women less because it’s only their family’s second income or because she’s more likely to leave to take care of kids, but single women are already with us. I can’t even claim that it would make gay couples more boring; what could?

There is a coherent case to be made that gay marriage undermines the institution, but it’s almost as hard to conceptualize as it is to visualize four-dimensional surfaces. To a certain mindset, the proper order is so fragile that anything which is not part of its support is not just a potential weakness but an actual threat. Gay marriage is just the newest and most egregious addition to a list which includes divorce, contraception, abortion, the HPV vaccine, and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Maybe, to make marriage valuable, we have to deny it to somebody, and for various reasons we’d prefer to deny it to a small group whose membership is more or less involuntary.

5

John Holbo 03.28.13 at 9:00 am

“The traditional one, mostly on fertility and childbearing.”

But this is a bit like saying a Swiss Army knife is ‘mostly’ a knife. The modern concept of marriage, like the traditional one, is a multi-functional social tool.

6

Mao Cheng Ji 03.28.13 at 9:29 am

“The modern concept of marriage, like the traditional one, is a multi-functional social tool.”

Yes, but that was – used to be, but not anymore – a major one. These days it’s all about ‘when two people love each other very much’, but traditionally that hardly even enters the equation. So, if you’re looking for an non-homophobic explanation, this could be it. Fertility, making new soldiers, making the tribe stronger, victorious. Same as the abortion controversy, only not as directly.

Just trying to help, I don’t really care ether way.

7

chris y 03.28.13 at 10:17 am

The “traditional” concept of marriage, if we’re going back as far as this, depended on class. For the ruling class, it was about controlling the succession of property, and about political alliance; for the peasantry and artisan class, it was about creating and ensuring a labour force to work your smallholding and/or looms; for the mass working class in the very early days of industrialisation, it was profoundly broken; the aspiration to single income households with a fundamental division between domestic and wage earning labour was closely bound up with the rise of the trades union movement.

Pick whichever one you want, but show your working.

In other news, Holbo is right on this one.

8

bad Jim 03.28.13 at 10:22 am

Okay. There may be some way in which society profits by discouraging long-term homosexual pair-bonding, somehow. Perhaps we get more inventive cuisine, more provocative art, snappier come-backs … better furniture left at the curb? We may be underestimating the importance of rootless cosmopolitans to human progress, and sabotaging the future in the pursuit of happiness.

9

marcel 03.28.13 at 10:52 am

We may be underestimating the importance of rootless cosmopolitans to human progress, and sabotaging the future in the pursuit of happiness.

As a highly assimilated member of the group to which, I believe, “rootless cosmopolitans” was applied, I would rather we not go there. I enjoy having equal rights right here in the U.S.

10

marcel 03.28.13 at 10:53 am

“was applied” s/b “was first applied”

11

Rich Puchalsky 03.28.13 at 11:25 am

“We can hardly maintain that anti-homosexual attitudes 50 years ago, 100 years ago, 1000 years ago, were always already scrubbed free of bigotry to the high standards of “Will and Grace”. “

If I take this argument seriously, you’ll only say that you’re being whimsical and etc etc. But it’s really got problems. There were not “anti-homosexual” attitudes going back that far. People didn’t even have a concept of homosexuality, as an orientation; they had a concept of sodomy, as an act. Homosexuality appeared as a concept probably in the 1880s. What people are talking about if they’re talking about Christian opposition to something that goes back before that is opposition to sodomy. And yes, there they do have a sort of argument of this kind, because ideally for them it was viewed as a sin, not as a characteristic of the sinner. (If you were male, that is; women were pretty much invisible.)

Condemnation “without bigotry” is really pretty much just as bad. But your argument that if it’s not bigoted it has to be new is dropping all the actual history involved.

12

John Holbo 03.28.13 at 11:52 am

“If I take this argument seriously, you’ll only say that you’re being whimsical and etc etc.”

Your intermittent whimsy-impairment is not acting up in this instance, Rich.

“There were not “anti-homosexual” attitudes going back that far. People didn’t even have a concept of homosexuality, as an orientation; they had a concept of sodomy, as an act. Homosexuality appeared as a concept probably in the 1880s.”

It’s 2013. Minus 50 years takes us back to 1963. 100 years is only 1913. Both of those dates are after 1880, last time I checked the calendar. As to 1000 – the fact that they didn’t have the concept of homosexuality as an orientation, as opposed to a class of (vile) acts only underscores my point. No?

Obviously I’m aware that our conception of homosexuality is fairly recent.

13

Rich Puchalsky 03.28.13 at 12:09 pm

Maybe you shouldn’t go with “50, 100, or 1000” if you’re aware that the 1000 part is anachronistic. But yes, I think that your basic argument fails because you aren’t accounting for this distinction. You write about the would-like-to-think-of-themselves-as-not-bigoted opponents of gay marriage that they would like to think of themselves as “They are tolerant of homosexuality, and the rights of homosexuals, etc. etc.” But you’re not really looking at what they say. Here’s Catholic Answers, for instance, which gives the utterly typical (for “non-bigoted” Christianity) answer that homosexual behavior, i.e. sodomy, is a sin, but homosexual desires, i.e. orientation, aren’t. They are supposedly perfectly willing to tolerate homosexuals as long as they aren’t having sex. Gay marriage, though, pretty much implies that they’re having sex.

You might well say that “the rights of homosexuals” includes the right to have sex, and of course I agree with that. But bigotry is directed at persons, not at acts. They have an argument that you’re not really representing in its own terms.

14

Ben Alpers 03.28.13 at 12:20 pm

The argument of the OP is also an effective refutation of the “Heritage, not Hate” defense of the display of the Confederate battleflag, which is, after all, a symbol of a heritage of hatred. In U.S. public conversation, words like “heritage” and “tradition” are too often emploes as if they are Get Out of Jail Free cards.

15

John Holbo 03.28.13 at 12:36 pm

But I think arguing today on the basis of a circa AD 1000 conception of those who engage in homosexual acts would, in addition to being plain strange, would be tantamount to confessing a degree of animus that contemporary opponents of same sex marriage are at pains to distance themselves from, and that are, as the law-talking dudes say, facially disqualifying in rational basis -type argument. Although admittedly there are really two standards of rational basis and one is trivially low. But, like I said, mine is not really a legal argument.

16

MPAVictoria 03.28.13 at 12:53 pm

“Just trying to help, I don’t really care ether way.”

Lucky for you that you have that option.

17

Rich Puchalsky 03.28.13 at 1:04 pm

“But I think arguing today on the basis of a circa AD 1000 conception of those who engage in homosexual acts”

Huh? It’s official present-day doctrine — that Catholic Answers site is not a history book. And you know, if you’re talking about formative events in Christianity, you still have to go a bit further back than that, so clearly people making traditional arguments from Christianity are not afraid to go back that far.

You write: “Grant, for argument’s sake, that contemporary arguments against same-sex marriage have been scrubbed free of bigotry. Doesn’t it follow that these arguments must not be traditional but, somehow, quite new?” No, they aren’t. The distinction between act and desire has been around since the start, and is decidedly not new. Christians should, by this argument, be accepting of a version of weird version of gay marriage that is chaste, and that sounds very strange but actually, it’s official doctrine as far as I know that it’s OK for a Catholic priest to be a homosexual if they’re chaste.

18

Jonathan H. Adler 03.28.13 at 1:17 pm

This is really a goofy argument — and I say this as a supporter of SSM. Yes there was far less tolerance of homosexuality 50, 100, 500, 1000 years ago. But that’s not particularly relevant. For your argument to work, you’d have to show that anti-gay bigotry was the basis for the traditional definition of marriage and the exclusion of homosexual unions. But I don’t think you can show this. Marriage was a particular institution with a particular purpose: procreation and children and, through most of human history, only heterosexual unions could produce children. The acceptability of homosexuality had nothing to do with it and — if modern perceptions of marriage continued to track their historical antecedents (and I’m not sure they do) — the acceptability of homosexuality need not have anything to do with the advocacy of maintaining a traditional definition of marriage.

19

Mao Cheng Ji 03.28.13 at 2:05 pm

“Lucky for you that you have that option.”

Someone doesn’t have the option of not caring about fine details of the genesis of anti-gay-marriage attitudes? Unlucky indeed.

20

Rich Puchalsky 03.28.13 at 2:08 pm

“Christians should, by this argument, be accepting of a version of weird version of gay marriage that is chaste”

Typed too quickly, that should be “accepting of a weird version of gay marriage that is chaste.” Which brings us back to _Will and Grace_, actually.

The Christian position is hateful, sure, just as it was hateful for them to put unmarried mothers in special laundries and so on and punish sexuality by all kinds of oppressive means. But they can say that it isn’t bigoted in principle, that they aren’t against a class of persons. Whether you believe this or not doesn’t make it any less of an argumentative position.

21

Uncle Kvetch 03.28.13 at 2:26 pm

Huh? It’s official present-day doctrine — that Catholic Answers site is not a history book.

Indeed. Or, for that matter, you could take a look at Scalia’s dissent in Lawrence v. Texas.

John, you seem to be making far too much out of the fact that lots and lots of homophobes out there are papering over their bigotry with “I’ve got nothing against gay people,” who 20 years ago wouldn’t have bothered with that qualification. Just as over recent decades we’ve witnessed lots and lots of racists gradually shift from “I hate black people” to “I’ve got nothing against black people, but…”

The mystery is why you would want to take either group at their word.

22

MPAVictoria 03.28.13 at 2:34 pm

“Someone doesn’t have the option of not caring about fine details of the genesis of anti-gay-marriage attitudes? Unlucky indeed.”

Sorry Mao. I misunderstood how you meant that. Damn text based communication.

23

William Timberman 03.28.13 at 2:48 pm

Yesterday, a Democracy Now! broadcast about the Supreme Court and gay marriage included this snippet of Justice Scalia being his usual smug self:

JUSTICE ANTONIN SCALIA: You’ve led me right into a question I was going to ask. The California Supreme Court decides what the law is. That’s what we decide, right? We don’t prescribe law for the future. We decide what the law is. I’m curious: When did—when did it become unconstitutional to exclude homosexual couples from marriage? 1791? 1868, when the 14th Amendment was adopted? Sometimes—sometime after Baker, where we said it didn’t even raise a substantial federal question? When—

THEODORE OLSON: When—

JUSTICE ANTONIN SCALIA:</b? When did the law become this?

THEODORE OLSON: May I answer this in the form of a rhetorical question? When did it become unconstitutional to prohibit interracial marriages? When did it become unconstitutional to assign children to separate schools?

Whenever some widely-held opinion, custom, or practice is on the cusp of losing its hegemony over us, honest people are likely to be unsure of where they are headed. If someone with power decides to be an obscurantist asshole and take advantage of their uncertainty, as Justice Scalia does here, there are any number of tools available for the purpose. Some are more transparent than others, at least at the outset, but all are vulnerable to a closer scrutiny than our media usually give them.

In short, I’m an optimist. Scalia didn’t get away with his usual jovial sophistry here, and in the long run, well before we’re all dead, his underlying argument will be swept away. There’s no need here to argue about which way the moral arc of the universe is bending; gay marriage is at this point pretty clearly an idea whose time has come.

24

Brenda Johnson 03.28.13 at 2:56 pm

Man, I love Theodore Olson. To be so agile in oral argument is a rare ability, especially faced with what we in the biz call a “hot panel.”

25

MattF 03.28.13 at 3:00 pm

For a nice display of bigotry, you only have to go back to the passage of DOMA in the 90’s. After all, the name of the Act is ‘Defense of Marriage’. From what, exactly? Or, more precisely, from who?

26

John Holbo 03.28.13 at 3:10 pm

“The mystery is why you would want to take either group at their word.”

Well, obviously I don’t, so that’s one mystery down. The present argument posits – strictly for argument purposes, as I say in the post – that contemporary anti-same-sex-marriage folks are not bigots. The argument is that, if that were really true, then they wouldn’t actually be traditionalists, because the traditional position is bigoted.

“Huh? It’s official present-day doctrine — that Catholic Answers site is not a history book.”

Yes, but you misrepresent it’s political implications. Obviously the Church is now highly tolerant of gays in a political sense: it doesn’t advocate that they be killed or jailed or civilly punished in any way, even if they act on their sinful urges. Matters stood otherwise in 1000 AD.

Jonathan writes:

“For your argument to work, you’d have to show that anti-gay bigotry was the basis for the traditional definition of marriage and the exclusion of homosexual unions.”

No, I see your point, but it seems to me less is required than that.

The traditionalists say: In refusing to extend the right to marry to gays we are following the wisdom of tradition, where marriage is concerned.

So we say: alright, why didn’t they let gays get married in the year 1000 AD?

Now obviously this question is seven different kinds of silly, and in the post I was really only highlighting one: extreme animus towards those who engaged in homosexual acts would have been a serious dealbreaker, had gay marriage been proposed in 1000 AD. And yet contemporary traditionalists disavow this motive. Rich points out that, of course, another dealbreaker would have been the lack of a concept of homosexuality, per se.

What I am getting at in the post, which is really a point that is overdetermined and has been made in other ways before, is that these traditionists aren’t really traditionalists. No one who had truly traditional attitudes about this issue would say ‘I’m not bigoted against gays, but I don’t want them to marry.’ That is as untraditional a mix of attitudes, historically speaking, as is ‘I like gay people and I think they should get married if they want.’

27

John Holbo 03.28.13 at 3:14 pm

It just occurred to me that Uncle Kvetch might be arguing that, since they obviously actually are bigots, even though they say they are not, they might be traditionalists after all, even though their argument requires them to say something that implies otherwise. (Oh what a tangled web we weave and all that …)

Well, then amend my point like so: “No one who had truly traditional attitudes about this issue would say [hypocritically and/or semi-insincerely] ‘I’m not bigoted against gays, but I don’t want them to marry.’ That is as untraditional a mix of attitudes, historically speaking, as is ‘I like gay people and I think they should get married if they want.’”

28

Rich Puchalsky 03.28.13 at 3:23 pm

“What I am getting at in the post, which is really a point that is overdetermined and has been made in other ways before, is that these traditionists aren’t really traditionalists. No one who had truly traditional attitudes about this issue would say ‘I’m not bigoted against gays, but I don’t want them to marry.'”

Christians have an official, doctrinal justification for saying “I’m not bigoted against gays, but I don’t want them to marry”, using forms of belief that go back to the beginning of Christianity. If that’s not traditional, I don’t know what is.

People in 1000 AD punished sinners in all sorts of way that they don’t now, sure. In fact, Christianity as a whole is now much less accepting of all sorts of civil punishment for all kinds of sins. But they’re still considered to be sins. You’re attacking an argument that seems to be your own misreading of theirs, and as such, doesn’t have much force.

29

Marius 03.28.13 at 3:30 pm

Asking whether the traditional, heteronormative ideal of marriage has a rational basis seems to me to concede the bases upon which *current* heteronormative laws deserve heightened scrutiny.

When someone says, “throughout history procreation required a man and a woman, therefore we’re promoting heterosexual marriage,” it seems to me that they’re saying that there’s a compelling interest in classifying people along gender lines. The idea here is not that procreation is so obviously compelling that we should ignore the fact that they’re making a gender classification. Instead, we should acknowledge the gender classification, evaluate the interest in procreation, then analyze whether the proponents of the heteronormative marriage ideal are really out for procreation or just some idea of fidelity that mindlessly abhors intracervical insemination.

Incidentally, I never thought the gender-classification view would get much pub outside a few legal academics, but when Kennedy raised it at oral argument on Tuesday, it seemed to me a modest victory for conceptual clarity.

30

John Holbo 03.28.13 at 3:42 pm

“But they’re still considered to be sins.”

But that’s not why gays aren’t allowed to marry – not now and not then. It’s not considered unacceptable to let sinners marry. Everyone is a sinner, doctrinally speaking.

Your point is that that Christianity has stayed consistent on the gay issue but in fact it has not. As you admit, politically speaking and civilly speaking it has moved – retreated – a great deal. Why draw the line at marriage, then? Why punish this sin by politically and civilly withholding rights, when other sins are not punished? Obviously there is no traditionalist answer to this question because this isn’t a traditional position.

31

Uncle Kvetch 03.28.13 at 3:43 pm

It just occurred to me that Uncle Kvetch might be arguing that, since they obviously actually are bigots, even though they say they are not, they might be traditionalists after all, even though their argument requires them to say something that implies otherwise.

I don’t think it’s their argument that requires them to say that…I think that it’s just a question of the increasing social unacceptability of overt, non-coded expressions of homophobia (as with racism before that). Otherwise, yeah, that’s pretty much what I was getting at.

32

Uncle Kvetch 03.28.13 at 3:47 pm

Why draw the line at marriage, then? Why punish this sin by politically and civilly withholding rights, when other sins are not punished? Obviously there is no traditionalist answer to this question because this isn’t a traditional position.

OK, that makes sense. Interesting that Justice Sotomayor made essentially the same point with respect to law itself, leaving aside the religious part — and she couldn’t get an answer to the question, either.

33

Gene O'Grady 03.28.13 at 3:51 pm

Isn’t it fairly clear that in the traditional Protestant America of 1850-1940 same sex marriage, at least among women, was part of the culture? And that women in these relationships played a leading role in cultural and public life while women in heterosexual marriages lacked the time to do so because of commitments to husbands and in some cases children?

Not hard to multiply examples from New England high culture, but it also corresponds with what my mother told me about growing up in Viola Illinois, a town so small that the last time I was there it still didn’t have sidewalks, in the 1920’s.

Whether this was true in the South I have no idea; I suspect it was quite true in the Old West.

34

phosphorious 03.28.13 at 3:53 pm

Professor Holbo, is your argument analogous (in some respect) to some aspects of the evolution “debate?”. The creationist side often points to the (perfectly rational) people who have throughout history believed in the literal interpretation of Genesis or who accepted the argument from design. . . and indeed, at some point intelligent design may have been a viable explanation for various phenomena. But, modern evolutionists and new atheists say, to persist in that belief given the accumulation of data is unreasonable.

Belief in creation as act of faith was once reasonable. Modern ID claims to put that same belief on a rational foundation. . . but that only makes it a different belief.

35

Hector_St_Clare 03.28.13 at 4:13 pm

Re: Yes, but that was – used to be, but not anymore – a major one.

Speak for yourself. Some of us actually do hold to traditional ideals of marriage, and think fertility, childrearing and economic status are the core of what marriage is supposed to be about.

36

Bruce Wilder 03.28.13 at 4:33 pm

The “traditional” view — going back 70 years or so, I won’t make unsupported statements spanning a thousand years or more — was that sexuality should be subject to general social repression and, consequently, sexual intercourse required a license from Church and State. Marriage was a granting of a license for sexual intercourse, and part of that regime of general sexual repression, which also entailed criminal sanction for adultery, fornication and sodomy; “morals” clauses in professional and business licensing and contracting, including rental housing; systematic censorship of magazines, books and movies; strict sexual segregation, particularly for the unmarried, in many institutions (including some clubs and schools as well a college dormitories and some hotels, and, of course, the military); prohibition of abortion and restrictions on birth control devices and information; and, of course, numerous taboos, enforced culturally, by periodic moral panics, political campaigns for cleaning up cities (and they didn’t mean litter and street sweeping), and sensational scandals, which could ruin lives.

Marriage was not the voluntary contract we tend to envision today. Divorce entailed a detailed inquiry by the state into the justifications offered, and might be prohibited by the Church altogether.

The traditional view is not a vintage form of bigotry against homosexuals — a sexual category of identity, which did not exist 150 years ago — fermented from ancient prejudice analogous to racist categories. The traditional view is authoritarian, and the arguments offered today for “tradition” are arguments not for its substance, but for its fading shadow.

37

Harold 03.28.13 at 4:42 pm

Bruce Wilder writes so well!

38

Rich Puchalsky 03.28.13 at 4:46 pm

“But that’s not why gays aren’t allowed to marry – not now and not then. It’s not considered unacceptable to let sinners marry. Everyone is a sinner, doctrinally speaking.”

Marriage is assumed to involve sex. Christians may tolerate a sinner who gives in to the temptation to steal something, but that doesn’t mean that they would approve of thievery organizations. Non-gay marriage involves sinners, sure, but their sin isn’t an integral part of their marriage.

Which is one of the reasons that I think your whole argument is off. Bruce Wilder at #35 is basically right that it’s an authoritarian attitude, not bigotry against a class of persons as such, but it’s specifically authoritarian about sexuality. By not seeing the form of the argument, you’re not seeing how it gets generalized. Thus the Poly Panic that we had in the last thread here about this was pretty inexplicable unless you recognize that it’s part of the same thing.

39

David 03.28.13 at 4:59 pm

This isn’t quite the traditional argument presented in the blog post, but I think it’s a nearby argument.

1 The traditional view of marriage forbids SSM.
2 We do better, in thinking about X, to respect the traditional view about X, except when there are compelling reasons not to respect the traditional view about X.
3 There is no compelling reason not to respect the traditional view of marriage.
C1 We should not endorse SSM.

(Something like) John Holbo’s new pro-SSM argument challenges that version of the traditional argument by denying (3) in this way:

4 The traditional view of marriage either is or is not based on animus.
5 If a view about X is based on animus, there is a compelling reason not to respect it.
6 If a view about X does not have any basis, there is a compelling reason not to respect it.
7 If the traditional view of marriage is based on animus, there is a compelling reason not to respect it.
8 If the traditional view of marriage is not based on animus, it is not based on anything.
9 If the traditional view of marriage is not based on anything, there is a compelling reason not to respect it.
C2 There is a compelling reason not to respect the traditional view of marriage.
C3 (3) is false.

But I wonder whether the traditional argument can be refashioned to avoid this sort of objection. The different thought, roughly, is that you can’t defend bits of the tradition in isolation from the rest of it. Either you take the whole thing as a package deal, or you reject it all. Asking about the basis of individual doctrines in the tradition misunderstands the sort of thing a tradition is. Forbidding SSM doesn’t have any independent basis: what supports it is its coherence with the rest of the tradition.

So this reply would amend the traditional argument like this:

1 The traditional view of marriage forbids SSM.
2′ We do better, in thinking about X, to respect the traditional view about X, except when there are compelling reasons not to respect the tradition as a whole.
3′ There is no compelling reason not to respect the tradition as a whole.
C1 We should not endorse SSM.

Maybe 2′ is an even less promising way for people to advance the traditional argument, but I guess I’m curious if it seems so to others.

40

John Holbo 03.28.13 at 5:05 pm

“By not seeing the form of the argument, you’re not seeing how it gets generalized.”

Sorry, we’ve probably gone round enough times by now, but I’m inclined to flip that one around, Rich: by not seeing the form of my argument, you failed to see how it was meant to generalize. (Perhaps that was my fault.) My point wasn’t that traditional marriage has always been primary a vehicle of homophobia. That would be silly, obviously. Bruce is quite right and what I said – or meant any way – is consistent with the tenor of what he says. I emphasized homophobia not because marriage has always been about just keeping the gays down but because opponents of same sex marriage are very concerned to insist that they have up-to-date attitudes about homophobia being bad. My point is that being inclined to protest against being called a homophobe is a very untraditional attitude. If someone then asks you why your ‘traditionalism’ makes sense you can’t say it’s because the old attitudes were the right ones. Because you don’t share the old attitudes. Your ‘traditionalism’, such as it is, is a new thing – just like the thing it is opposed to.

41

Rich Puchalsky 03.28.13 at 5:14 pm

“My point is that being inclined to protest against being called a homophobe is a very untraditional attitude.”

Christians who oppose SSM still have their traditional attitudes about sexual acts. If you accused them of being red-head-phobes they’d indignantly deny that too. That doesn’t mean that if red-head-phobia suddenly became a thing that they’d prove they were thinking in some new way by denying it.

42

MPAVictoria 03.28.13 at 5:15 pm

“Speak for yourself. Some of us actually do hold to traditional ideals of marriage, and think fertility, childrearing and economic status are the core of what marriage is supposed to be about.”

Ha! Please pull the other one Harold.

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Mao Cheng Ji 03.28.13 at 5:40 pm

@38 “Maybe 2′ is an even less promising way for people to advance the traditional argument, but I guess I’m curious if it seems so to others.”

Yes. Traditions are based on real concerns, but as the environment changes they outlive their usefulness. Procreation used to be an important social function, but it worked too well, and now, in the overpopulated (arguably? nah) world, these (procreation-related) traditions have become harmful. They need to go away.

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Patrick 03.28.13 at 5:45 pm

Surely the fact that homosexuality is a modern concept and the closest historical reference to it is “vile pervert and sodomite” makes the past more bigoted rather than less? If I lack a modern conception of Jews and instead think only in terms of “there are evil devil worshippers out there who abduct and sacrifice babies who must be slain when discovered,” does this really make me less of a bigot if in practice the people I am killing are consistently Jewish?

I don’t think bigotry is like a globe, where if you go so far into the ocean of stereotyping that you deny your victim’s very existence as a group in favor of defining them entirely based on a trait that you then somehow emerge on the shores of tolerance.

Unless this is just a linguistic spat in which case I’m sorry for accidentally caring.

45

Gene O'Grady 03.28.13 at 6:41 pm

Hector may be interested in the fact that Paul VI, very much the villain of the piece, made the argument in defense of Humanae Vitae that married couples were free to refrain from sexual activity (a long standing tradition in the Catholic church) if they didn’t want to have children. So much for fertility and child bearing; I guess economic status can stay.

The only person I’ve ever heard of outside of hagiography and legend who is supposed to have had that kind of a marriage is Cole Porter, but on further examination of the evidence that turns out not to be true.

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clew 03.28.13 at 6:44 pm

With Gene O’Grady, I don’t think history was as blind to homosexuality as all that. In what I think of as pre-Freudian literature, high or low, passionate friendships aren’t common and aren’t reviled. There isn’t any sex described, just kissing and occasionally sharing a bed and swearing lifetime mutual support and fidelity.

Counter to that, in the modern world, I know a lot of homosexual couples raising children, and all their lives would be easier if they were legally married. Seems to me that in my childhood people explained that homosexuality was immature because it didn’t involve marriage and mortgages and children; well, what do you know.

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clew 03.28.13 at 6:46 pm

Ack! Passionate friendships aren’t *uncommon*! There’s a Trollope novel that’s quite affectionate towards a Boston marriage, for instance (unlike James’ novel which is fairly sneering, but I think he’d worked out that they might actually be having sex).

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john c. halasz 03.28.13 at 7:00 pm

OP:

“But I think the argument shows something interesting about arguments from ‘tradition’ generally.”

How so?

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Antti Nannimus 03.28.13 at 7:01 pm

Hi,

Why should government be in the business of sanctioning and regulating interpersonal relationships of ANY kind, and then discriminating in favor of those who have them, and against those who don’t? Marriage was originally a religious “sacrament”, and that is where it should both start and end. Governments and laws should be entirely OUT of it in every way.

Yes, government has a legitimate interest in, and concern for the well-being of children and other dependent people, and the responsibilities of their parents, guardians, and care-takers. But the existence or absence of any marriage should not be a factor in those government interests and concerns. The marital status of people who share those responsibilities should be irrelevant to the state.

Have a nice day,
Antti

50

Harold 03.28.13 at 7:06 pm

Um, homosexuality was not considered “sinful” by Greeks and Romans. It is defended eloquently and at length in Plato’s Symposium. Even among Christians it was not always considered that bad. In the Purgatory, because he recognizes it as based on love, which is a good thing, Dante classes it as the least bad of the seven deadly vices. (They are in order of severity, Pride, Avarice, Envy, Wrath, Sloth, Covetousness, Gluttony, and Lust. ) There is no difference in Dante’s scheme between homo- and hetero- lust; though the sinners depicted work out their penances separately, both are found on the highest terrace of Mount Purgatory — that closest to heaven. Dante meets his old teacher Brunetto Latinini, among the Sodomites. (However there is not evidence that Latini was actually a sodomite in real life). In sixteenth- century Italy it was a standing joke that teachers of humanities were likely to be sodomites. Ariosto has a satiric poem about this, saying if you happen to share a bed with a humanist, be sure not to turn your back on him during the night. (This is cited as the first use in print of the word umanista –“humanist”. About Dante one commenter notes:

This surprising, even shockingly “liberal” view of homosexual love as being the counterpart of the heterosexual kind should cause more notice than it generally does; perhaps even greater surprise should attend the extraordinarily generous gestures made toward the three Florentine homosexual politicians, Iacopo Rusticucci, Guido Guerra, and Tegghiaio Aldobrandi, whom we encounter in Inf. 16. They are presented as being among the most admirable figures in Hell…http://www.princeton.edu/~dante/ebdsa/rh.html

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Hector_St_Clare 03.29.13 at 1:53 am

Re: People in 1000 AD punished sinners in all sorts of way that they don’t now, sure. In fact, Christianity as a whole is now much less accepting of all sorts of civil punishment for all kinds of sins. But they’re still considered to be sins.

I think I have to argue with that. I’m sure there was plenty of extrajudicial killing, mob violence, and other sorts of violence against gay people in the Middle Ages, but I certainly don’t think it was always punished as a crime by the state. Or even regarded as a particularly serious sin. St. Anselm, one of the most influential churchmen of his era, famously argued against a proposal to impose ecclesiastical punishment for h*mos*x (sorry to be using that term, but ‘sodomy’ sounds offensive and ‘gay’ sounds anachronistic). His argument was something to the effect of ‘it’s a sin, but it’s also super common, no use trying to prevent it’. There were particular eras where h*mos*x was punished as a crime, like Victorian England, but the reason we note those eras as particularly puritanical is precisely because they stood out, and because it wasn’t *always* punished that way. Savonarola’s Florence is somewhat famous for imposing the death penalty for h*mos*x, but it’s worth nothing that, I think, about half a dozen executions were actually carried out under his tenure, and his regime was noted as fanatically puritanical even in his own time.

And, as Harold notes, then there’s Dante.

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Jay C 03.29.13 at 1:54 am

Harold @ #50:

Dante classes it as the least bad of the seven deadly vices. (They are in order of severity, Pride, Avarice, Envy, Wrath, Sloth, Covetousness, Gluttony, and Lust. )

Lust may still be bringing up the rear (pun intended), but there are actually eight sins on your list…

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Hector_St_Clare 03.29.13 at 1:58 am

Re: may be interested in the fact that Paul VI, very much the villain of the piece, made the argument in defense of Humanae Vitae that married couples were free to refrain from sexual activity (a long standing tradition in the Catholic church) if they didn’t want to have children.

They’re also free to use natural family planning, of course. But that aside. The Catholic Church requires, as a condition of marriage, that you be open to procreation. It’s a foundational purpose of marriage, in their view, and if you refuse to have any children, that’s considered an abuse of marriage, and will disqualify you from a Christian marriage. The Orthodox (as well as *some* conservative Anglicans, like Bishop Nazir-Ali, famously) also stress that procreation is supposed to be a basic purpose of marriage, not an optional extra, and if you choose not to have any children you’re not really living out a Christian marriage.

It’s perfectly correct that our *laws*, at this late date, don’t give a d*mn about procreation. But it is not true that all of us have bought into the modern, ‘procreation is an optional extra’ model of marriage. I don’t, personally, see why anyone would get married who doesn’t want to have children, and I reserve the right to disapprove of those marriages.

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Harold 03.29.13 at 2:19 am

J., you’re right, “avarice” doesn’t belong.

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John Holbo 03.29.13 at 2:42 am

“Um, homosexuality was not considered “sinful” by Greeks and Romans. It is defended eloquently and at length in Plato’s Symposium.”

But opponents of same sex marriage are unlikely to be citing Plato’s “Symposium” as a source of their ‘traditional’ ideas. The sources that will at least seem to support them will be sources that argue that there is something wrong with homosexuality. But, predictably, those will all look bigoted by today’s standard. (Obviously the larger problem here is just that the idea that there is some monolithic traditional view of marriage and homosexuality that stayed basically constant until a couple years ago, when a few annoying gays started shaking the pillars of this noble institution. I’m pointing out that the traditionalist argument fails in one particular way when it was already pretty well documented that, as history, it fails in nearly every way. That’s why I said my argument is overkill. I’m pointing out one problematic detail of a large field that consists of almost nothing but problematic details.)

““But I think the argument shows something interesting about arguments from ‘tradition’ generally.”

How so?”

In a sense, the problem with arguments from tradition is obvious. These are arguments from authority. But there’s a bit more to it, potentially. Arguments from tradition are comforts to cognitive dissonance (which other arguments from authority may or may not be). You get to have and not have the original attitudes/ideas/arguments that went with the ‘traditional’ position. The answer to the ‘why?’ question is now ‘it’s tradition’. But originally the answer something different. What happens to that different something when it’s replaced by ‘it’s traditional’. It sort of goes away and it sort of doesn’t. It’s a weird procedure.

A metaphor:

You took out all the pillars in the old building and replaced them with modern, steel supports, because the man from the government said the building code said such-and-such. And then you added plaster pillars in honor of the original pillars. And then someone starts poking the walls and asking whether there actually are any modern, steel supports here, per the building code. (You said you added them, but where are they?) And you say ‘don’t worry about it,’ and point at the plaster facade pillars. And someone says ‘those will never do, they aren’t load-bearing’ and you start raging about how the government shouldn’t disrespect this ancient, honorable way of holding up the roof. And FOX news does a segment making fun of a gender studies prof. somewhere who argues that pillars are phallocentric. And someone else writes an earnest, conservative thumbsucker, ‘Are Men Still Men?’ using your building as a case in point, and strongly hinting that it’s the government’s fault that the roof looks ready to collapse.

It’s a kind of bait and switch tactic, I guess I’m saying.

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Gene O'Grady 03.29.13 at 4:35 am

Thank you, Hector, for telling me what the Catholic church teaches about marriage (a view with which I am in some respects in sympathy). I guess all the priests I’ve known and worked with over the years just forgot to let me know.

Since we’re talking about the permanence or otherwise of tradition, I might mention that my wife and I were married in 1974 by a reasonably conservative priest who was ordained in the 30’s. In response to the fact that my wife wasn’t and never has been Catholic he simply said that each of us should attend services in the other’s church as a token of respect; he said nothing about having to bring our children up as anything in particular. (At one point the kids were attending shabbat services on Friday evening, Mass on Saturday evening, and Baptist services on Sunday morning.) The change from what we would have been faced with, probably by the same priest, in 1954, only twenty years before, is about as great as the addition of same sex marriage.

And since the emphasis on procreation has gone on and on, I might note that my wife has never had any problem with devotion to the saints, the priesthood (most priests are really pretty good), the Virgin Mary, bells and incense, or any of the old Protestant buggaboos. What has genuinely, and quite rightly, shocked her is the lack of concern for children on the part of the institutional church, which seemed to be even worse in Italy than in California. (I’m talking about indifference and lack of resources here, by the way, not the far worse problem of child molesting.)

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Harold 03.29.13 at 4:48 am

Hector, if procreation were the main justification of marriage, then older people, especially women past the age of menopause would have to be debarred from marrying. Or men who had had the mumps, and so on. Why on earth should anyone be prevented from pledging life-long love and loyalty to someone they love? For those capable of doing it, it is a beautiful thing.

I wonder, though, at the fetishization of marriage. I myself find the whole idea of weddings off-putting and see no point at all in religious marriage. But then I am not inclined to be religious.

But I can see why people want to resort to ‘tradition’ as a justification — because it is such a complex topic, too complex to defend easily. And besides, people love ritual and ceremonies — which, as soon as performed become ‘tradition’.

I can also see that children can be used to justify marriage — not because marriage should be for procreation, but because, from a child’s point of view, when it goes well, all things being equal, monogamy tends to be better for them in the long run, if only in having less potential pitfalls than the alternative. Children, including adult children, would wish their parents to be together and treat each other well. though real life being what it is, there are no guarantees that things will go well.

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Mao Cheng Ji 03.29.13 at 7:27 am

“In a sense, the problem with arguments from tradition is obvious. These are arguments from authority.”

I don’t think this is quite correct. They are a collective wisdom of previous generations, a product of endless trials and errors. Of course the conditions change, some old taboos and mores become meaningless or harmful, but like David 39 said, you’ll probably do better respecting them, unless there are compelling reasons not to.

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bad Jim 03.29.13 at 9:12 am

I’ll make another lame attempt to concoct a modern, non-bigoted rationale for opposition to gay marriage. We’re now far more accommodating of people with disabilities than we were in the past, and we can certainly claim quite sincerely that we aren’t prejudiced against cripples, but would any of us want our children to be crippled?

The idea that homosexuality is a choice, that the allure of the gay lifestyle is irresistible, is not at all uncommon. Under that assumption, anything which does not discourage that choice is a threat to the status quo. Take down the warning signs, and kids are going to play on the railroad tracks.

Although this strikes us as ridiculous, given our current understanding of sexuality, it may not be so simple. Obligate homosexuality is like 2-3% of the population, but bisexuality might be 10% or so depending on the study (somebody with real numbers might weigh in here), so changing the pattern of social disapprobation might possibly shift behavior … actually we tried that back in the 60’s and 70’s (and probably later but by then I wasn’t paying attention) when gender and sexual ambiguity were fitfully cool, without perceptible result.

Do infants enjoy infancy as much as adults enjoy adultery? Same-sex marriage affords hitherto unexplored pathways to sin. One might covet both one’s neighbor and his husband, or both her and her wife. Some would think this expansion of options a bad thing.

60

Barry 03.29.13 at 12:36 pm

“I don’t think this is quite correct. They are a collective wisdom of previous generations, a product of endless trials and errors. Of course the conditions change, some old taboos and mores become meaningless or harmful, but like David 39 said, you’ll probably do better respecting them, unless there are compelling reasons not to.”

As a general rule of thumb, when an argument could be used against the Civil Rights movement, it’s not one I respect. (and please don’t try to pretend that that exact same argument was not 100% applicable).

61

Consumatopia 03.29.13 at 2:09 pm

They are a collective wisdom of previous generations, a product of endless trials and errors. Of course the conditions change, some old taboos and mores become meaningless or harmful, but like David 39 said, you’ll probably do better respecting them, unless there are compelling reasons not to.

If conditions change, then new trial and error is required to determine which traditions are worthwhile and which are harmful. That, in itself, is a compelling reason not merely to disregard tradition but to actively push against it–because learning is more useful than faith. Considering the state of the world and the direction we’re moving in, if everyone just keeps doing what they’re doing, we’re all doomed. Tradition will not save us, but it might destroy us.

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John Holbo 03.29.13 at 2:14 pm

Mao Cheng Ji’s problem is even simpler. I was saying what the problem with arguments from tradition are. Namely, they are arguments from authority. He is addressing a separate question. What are the good features of arguments from tradition?

And, by the way, all the good features he points to have analogs in the argument from authority case. A lot of time people get to be authorities for good reasons, after all. So the things he points out as good features, to break the link with arguments from authority, only reinforce the link.

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Rich Puchalsky 03.29.13 at 2:20 pm

Cue Corey Robin on Burke… I think that it’s adequately demonstrated that anti-SSM can be “arguing from tradition” within Christianity, and I think that John’s argument that since SSM didn’t exist until recently then anti-SSM must not draw on traditional beliefs is basically kind of silly. The separation, especially, between unthinking bigotry and “principled” authoritarianism within Christianity is long-standing, and an argument that one implies the other seems to me to fail. But if we are talking about actual bigotry, then most people have no real idea what their tradition is, beyond how things were when they grew up. It isn’t the “collective wisdom of generations”, it’s generally just a response to whatever cultural and technological conditions obtained 50 years ago. And that changes much more rapidly than people seem to think.

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Mao Cheng Ji 03.29.13 at 2:55 pm

I’d say, if it’s an argument at all, it’s more like an “argument from evolution”.

Or, perhaps, it’s more like a version of “don’t fix what’s not broken”. But in this case it’s kind of self-fulfilling: as long as there is no significant opposition, the tradition is unlikely to change, and once a strong resistance has emerged, it is very likely to change, one way or another. So, I guess I don’t really have anything to say, in the prescriptive sense.

“most people have no real idea what their tradition is, beyond how things were when they grew up”

Yes, but a big part of “how things were” is what their parents (and other adults) told them.

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Hector_St_Clare 03.29.13 at 4:41 pm

Re: Thank you, Hector, for telling me what the Catholic church teaches about marriage (a view with which I am in some respects in sympathy). I guess all the priests I’ve known and worked with over the years just forgot to let me know.

I’m not sure if you’re being sarcastic or what, but it’s common knowledge that individual clergy, in all denominations, sometimes say things that aren’t actually the official teaching of that denomination. The Catholic Church holds that a marriage in which the possibility of procreation is intentionally excluded, is not a valid marriage. You can pretty easily look up what their normative, authoritative teaching on the matter is. (The Orthodox agree, for what it’s worth).

Re: The change from what we would have been faced with, probably by the same priest, in 1954, only twenty years before, is about as great as the addition of same sex marriage.

Do you really think the Catholic Church is ever going to conduct same-sex marriages?

The Episcopal Church might try, but if they do, they’re going to be faced with a mass exodus of parishioners to neo-Anglican churches that don’t recognize same-sex marriages.

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Harold 03.29.13 at 4:50 pm

Hector, I would be really curious to see some evidence (not that I doubt you) about the Catholic church’s official position on marriage. Were there no changes at the time of the Council of Trent?

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Substance McGravitas 03.29.13 at 4:53 pm

Do you really think the Catholic Church is ever going to conduct same-sex marriages?

Fortunately it matters less and less, as with birth control. There are other churches or no churches. In my area the church relies on immigrants from Catholic nations for attendance and support: gradually their children will abandon it for other institutions that speak to their needs.

68

Bruce Wilder 03.29.13 at 5:00 pm

The thing is, if an apology for traditionalism is to be an “argument from evolution”, then to be fit for its own defense, tradition must be adaptive and adaptable; it can not be rigid; it must be open to revision, as circumstances alter.

Evolutionary arguments are necessarily arguments that turn on fit to function, but I think tradition, and the very real hold tradition has on human beings, has more to do with symbolic ritual than substantive function. A ritual tradition derives its value from rigid repetition of trivial behaviors within ceremonial occasions.

The points made about the attitude of religious bodies, like the Catholic Church, merely highlights the importance of ritual symbolism, but also confuses the question, by confounding it with doctrines regarding procreation and sexual intercourse. The Catholic Church, a hierarchical and deeply authoritarian institution, objects to the transformation of marriage and sexuality from an authoritarian and repressive regime to a liberal regime, but the conservative Catholic laity object to the challenge to ritual tradition.

Civil marriage does not have much of a ritual tradition associated with it, though simple ceremonies are performed by judges and other officials. Civil marriage is all about the legal rights and conveniences, which are functional considerations. Extending marriage as an institutionalized option for homosexual expression in bonded relationships, is a profoundly conservative adaptation, an instance of evolution-in-action. Far from subverting marriage, gay marriage normalizes and regularizes what had previously been deviancy, making conventional what had previously been rebellion. It’s the basic conservatism of the change, which turns arguments from tradition on their head.

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leederick 03.29.13 at 5:19 pm

I don’t think it confuses anything. Traditional marriage was a heterosexual institution created at a time when homosexuality didn’t exist. Heterosexual sex is embedded in the legal structure of the institution. Much of that’s either being finessed (like ideas around consummation) or repurposed (such as the presumption of legitimacy shifting from being a rough and ready way of IDing biological ties, to being used to create explicitly social ties) or binned (like marital rape). But that’s not to say that stuff wasn’t there.

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Bruce Wilder 03.29.13 at 5:48 pm

. . . created at a time when homosexuality didn’t exist . . .

??

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Suzanne 03.29.13 at 6:06 pm

“Far from subverting marriage, gay marriage normalizes and regularizes what had previously been deviancy, making conventional what had previously been rebellion. It’s the basic conservatism of the change, which turns arguments from tradition on their head.”

@68: No kidding. I’ve been impressed by the encomiums to the superiority of the married state for the sake of the children and a wholesome monagamous life with the kiddies and a labrador in a house with a white picket fence, coming from some rather unexpected quarters. I think some conservatives with a sense of humor should try to enlist these new allies in a renewed fight against “easy” divorce …..

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Mao Cheng Ji 03.29.13 at 6:27 pm

I completely agree that civil marriage, being essentially a legal contract, shouldn’t be an issue at all. But it is, so I guess it’s perceived (by both SSM proponents and opponents) as a form of the traditional concept. If it wasn’t, the issue wouldn’t have existed: civil unions, end of story. So, I feel that your last paragraph is neither here nor there.

As for tradition vs ritual, I don’t know, I’m not convinced. To me, a ritual is like wearing something new/something blue; not important enough to create a controversy.

As for “tradition must be adaptive”, I completely agree. They are adaptive, but also inertial. And it is, I think, natural, for an evolutionary process. It takes a while, but it does work. I imagine 20,000 years ago it probably was a long-established tradition to barbecue and eat your grandpa once he failed to throw his harpoon for the third time. And look: these days it’s positively a taboo, and a very strong one. But had it happened too quickly, we could’ve been wiped out by one unusually cold year. Or something.

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Bruce Wilder 03.29.13 at 9:19 pm

mcj: . . . ritual . . . not important enough to create a controversy

Boy, have you live a sheltered life! ;-)

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John Holbo 03.30.13 at 2:29 am

You’re comprehensively missing the point about the problems with arguments from tradition, mao. Saying that ‘tradition must be adaptive’ doesn’t imply that it will be, only that it ought to be. (If it implies that it will be, then your claim is simply and obviously false.) But, similarly, ‘authorities must be wise and just’ is equally true. They ought to be wise and just. It doesn’t mean they will be. Now, suppose someone says: this tradition is bad. Or: this authority figure is mistaken. It’s no good to fire back ‘the tradition must be adaptive’. Or: ‘authorities must be wise and just.’

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Mao Cheng Ji 03.30.13 at 10:13 am

You’re right. Traditions turn bad. They may, and do, fail to adapt fast enough. And then the society may collapse, or come close to it. Some authoritarian remedies, like ‘the one-child policy’, complete with forced abortions, are introduced, to counter them, to avoid an imminent collapse. But what I’m suggesting, really, is that perhaps they shouldn’t be just dismissed as simple bigotry and stupidity; they had developed for a reason. In other words, when someone asks “we’ve lived this way for centuries, why should we change now?”, it’s better to have an answer that doesn’t sound like “you’re a nasty bastard and idiot”.

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Patrick 03.30.13 at 12:40 pm

I fail to see why “they had developed for a reason” should lead to even the slightest presumption that the reason was a good one. Sometimes, the reason a tradition develops really is simple bigotry and stupidity.

That’s a big part of the failure of the argument from tradition. It presumes that anything we’ve inherited from our past represents the collective wisdom of the ages. But people in the past were horrible! We’re like, what, one generation out in my country from men being allowed to slap their wives around a little to get sex, as long as they don’t leave a mark? Two generations out from tacitly endorsed domestic terrorism to enforce white supremacy? The whole world collectively is, what, 10 generations from the widespread acceptance of genocide as the end of war, and mass rape as the proper right of a victorious army? All of those practices developed for reasons. But there’s no call for presuming that those reasons were good ones.

And if someone can come up with the actual reasons to demonstrate that they really were good reasons, then we can evaluate them without looking to “tradition” as a guide.

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James Wimberley 03.30.13 at 1:58 pm

JH in #5: “a Swiss Army knife is ‘mostly’ a knife.”
Actually the original model of “extended knife” has been overtaken by the more robust “multitool”- the Leatherman is the paradigm, but Victorinox make a nice Swiss one. The core structure of these is a pair of pliers. This is a useful analogy to the evolution of marriage. It’s always been a customisable multitool, but the backbone has changed.

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Rich Puchalsky 03.30.13 at 2:10 pm

Again, the problem is that Christianity has spent more than a thousand years working on an intellectual tradition as opposed to a folk tradition. When they try to control sexuality in an authoritarian way, they have well-worked-out reasons for doing so — they aren’t just bigots who hate gays. (Although they often are that too.) Their well-worked-out reasons are horrible and unfounded, but they are openly asserted in enough official documents — along with the official doctrine of distinguishing the sinner from the sin — so that they can successfully IMO say that they can oppose SSM without simple homophobia.

I harp on this because people who don’t get are taking the wrong lesson from the whole thing. Why do they keep saying “if this, then legalized polygamy”? It’s not because they are polyphobes. It’s because they see a cascading effect of their loss of control over sexuality. They aren’t simple bigots; they’re in some ways something worse.

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Hector_St_Clare 03.30.13 at 3:00 pm

Re: Now, suppose someone says: this tradition is bad. Or: this authority figure is mistaken. It’s no good to fire back ‘the tradition must be adaptive’. Or: ‘authorities must be wise and just.’

The question is really, whether you think authority figures are more likely to be wise and just than *you* are. Or, similarly, whether medieval Christian tradition is more likely to be correct about questions of morality than modern late-capitalist American moral reasoning.

Those of us who place a high value on Christian tradition, do so at least in part because we think that tradition was founded by men of a higher moral and intellectual caliber than most American political/social thinkers today.

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Substance McGravitas 03.30.13 at 3:21 pm

do so at least in part because we think that tradition was founded by men

Quite.

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Harold 03.30.13 at 3:49 pm

“If the Enchanter [i.e., Sir Walter Scott] has represented the twelfth century too brightly for one, and too darkly for the other of you, I should say, as an impartial man, he has represented it fairly.” — Peacock

Marriage = (like Christianity itself) in many ways a relative advance for women when first invented

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ben w 03.30.13 at 4:45 pm

“Doesn’t it follow that these arguments must not be traditional but, somehow, quite new? “

The arguments are new. The position argued for is traditional. What’s the problem?

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Bruce Wilder 03.30.13 at 5:05 pm

. . . when first invented . . .

When was that? And, what about the second, third, fourth, . . . inventions? Were they an advance in each case?

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Bruce Wilder 03.30.13 at 5:09 pm

What Wimberley said, of course.

One should suspect “tradition” as an argument for unspecified functional virtues is only a cover story for some reprehensible, authoritarian scheme to protect or advance privileges derived from domination.

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Harold 03.30.13 at 5:33 pm

OK., for first invented, read “adopted”. Christianity arguably an improvement for slaves and women over Roman paganism, for example. Ironically, the reason it was an improvement was because it provided roles and identity for *unmarried* women. For slaves, it permitted them to marry, and so on.

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Andrew F. 03.30.13 at 6:40 pm

Let me preface this by saying that I am in favor of SSM, and also believe that the limitation of marriage to heterosexual couples violates the Constitution.

John, clearly the question you raise is in part a historical one. We cannot logically deduce from the fact that a legal arrangement is limited to only types A-B that the impetus for the law must be animus towards arrangements not of type A-B, such as A-A, B-B, B-A-A, etc. We may be able to conclude that the EFFECT on arrangements not of type A-B is harmful, or exclusionary, but I don’t think intent can be deduced from the given fact alone.

On the historical question, my ignorance is broad and deep.

Obviously bigotry towards non heterosexual conduct, and, to the extent it was even recognized, non heterosexual orientations, has long existed. But I might start by asking: Was same sex marriage a “live possibility” at the time laws of marriage were passed? That is, 200 years ago (or 500, or whatever), was the possibility seriously considered that marriage could be between a woman and a woman, or a man and a man? Is there any evidence that consideration of this possibility drove the codification of a “man and a woman” description found in so many laws, rather than the use of some alternative, e.g. “two persons each able legally to consent etc.”?

Moving away from the question of the intent of a law, and to the separate issue of whether a law protects a given tradition, it seems to me that tradition is subject to interpretation, and any society can contain competing traditions. In my eyes for instance, the more important and stronger traditions of my society, and of the religion in which some opponents of same sex marriage believe, weigh in favor of allowing same sex marriage, and implicitly condemn the prohibition of it.

So, yes, as a historical matter, relevant bigotry has long existed; but that history is intertwined with a more complex weave of narratives and values, which offer the “traditionalist” a rich assortment of loose threads to choose and pluck and continue. That doesn’t mean that all continuations are equal, but it does mean that the interpretation of tradition is not necessarily determined by historical facts.

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chris 03.30.13 at 6:56 pm

Do you really think the Catholic Church is ever going to conduct same-sex marriages?

The Episcopal Church might try, but if they do, they’re going to be faced with a mass exodus of parishioners to neo-Anglican churches that don’t recognize same-sex marriages.

This seems almost exactly backwards. It won’t be long before *opposing* SSM is going to make it difficult to keep people in pews, if it isn’t having that effect already. The Church could be faced with a schism over this.

Or maybe people will just ignore official doctrine in their private lives, like they already do on birth control, but the desire of some same-sex couples to have their own priest perform their marriage without leaving the Church is likely to force the issue into the foreground. Repeatedly, and with many a parish priest awkwardly caught between doctrine and sincere feeling toward his parishioners.

Some of the parade-of-horribles type arguments about how SSM will break down traditional marriage or undermine society will be disproved by secular societies that do not in fact break down; arguably this has already started, although not in places where the Church has heavy influence over the local state.

This will get worse (from a certain point of view) if individual parish priests start following their own consciences and are not struck down by the wrath of God. Excommunicating them for following their own consciences is not likely to go over well, especially if they then show up in another, more liberal, church still obviously being good people who care about their community. I bet there are already denominations who wouldn’t hesitate to accept and reordain such an ex-priest, and if there aren’t now, there will be in a generation.

Marriage = (like Christianity itself) in many ways a relative advance for women when first invented

I would say “as opposed to outright slavery”, except when it was first invented it pretty much WAS outright slavery, wasn’t it? Although I suppose you could argue we don’t really know much about when it was *first* invented, because it’s so deep into prehistory. But then we can’t know with any certainty whether it was monogamous or heterosexual-only, can we? Clearly there are historical societies that haven’t enforced monogamy as part of their marriage traditions; I don’t know if there’s also proof that some haven’t enforced heterosexuality, but it wouldn’t really surprise me.

The first part of an argument from tradition is choosing your tradition carefully so that it actually supports your argument. Otherwise, like the old joke about standards, there are too many to choose from.

Slavery, BTW, is another good example of a tradition that was effective enough at maintaining the stability of society to be preserved for centuries. That doesn’t necessarily have much bearing on whether it should be respected and maintained in the present day.

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chris 03.30.13 at 6:58 pm

Oops – formatting fail. The first two paragraphs should both be italicized. Also, I forgot the attribution, they are from Hector at 65. The second quote is from Harold at 81.

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chris 03.30.13 at 7:07 pm

Andrew #86: But I might start by asking: Was same sex marriage a “live possibility” at the time laws of marriage were passed? That is, 200 years ago (or 500, or whatever), was the possibility seriously considered that marriage could be between a woman and a woman, or a man and a man?

ISTM that as late as 500 years ago, people would have to have been well aware that some people weren’t happy with heterosexuality and preferred to do something different, and society had to make a choice between “an it harm none, do what thou wilt” (a tradition that is rarely invoked by the anti-SSM side, for obvious reasons) and something a little more authoritarian, or if you prefer, Procrustean.

But, as Bujold wrote in a different context, “The most interesting question of history is always, What were these people thinking? But I’m afraid it’s often also the most elusive.” I’m not sure we even can know, unless there are contemporary records of legislative deliberations or something (and even then, it could only be conclusive in one direction; absence of evidence that such a thing was contemplated wouldn’t be evidence that it wasn’t).

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Barry 03.30.13 at 9:12 pm

Hector_St_Clare 03.30.13 at 3:00 pm

” The question is really, whether you think authority figures are more likely to be wise and just than *you* are. Or, similarly, whether medieval Christian tradition is more likely to be correct about questions of morality than modern late-capitalist American moral reasoning. “

Does somebody really have to go to the trouble of digging up what the medieval Christian tradition taught about the nature and role of women (just as a start?).

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john c. halasz 03.30.13 at 10:43 pm

Re: arguments from tradition.

There this treatise:

http://www.amazon.com/EPZ-Truth-Method-Continuum-Impacts/dp/082647697X

Before you dismiss “tradition” as a mere fallacy of appeal to authority, you might ask yourself: what is the basis of authority? And then if you appeal to “reason” against authority and tradition, aren’t then you appealing to some quite specific tradition (and conception) of “reason”?

Bottom line: there is no meaningful or intelligible phenomenon that is not circumscribed within a tradition, that is not a cultural inheritance or transmission, that is not bound up with a prior nexus of precedents. The mistake in identifying “tradition” automatically with bads or bad faith is to conceive of tradition as singular, “solid”, and static. (The other mistake is to forget or repress that quite traditional distinction between theoretical and practical reason, to think that the former can completely substitute for the sorts of reasons and competencies involved in the latter).

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Mao Cheng Ji 03.30.13 at 10:47 pm

“One should suspect “tradition” as an argument for unspecified functional virtues is only a cover story for some reprehensible, authoritarian scheme to protect or advance privileges derived from domination.”

Privileges derived from domination are a part of evolution. And if you’re a “du passé faisons table rase” kind of guy, then surely you should realize that the whole marriage thing, SSM or otherwise, is a form of domination, and it must go, rather than being expanded. Along with most of the other institutions currently present.

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bianca steele 03.30.13 at 11:11 pm

It won’t be long before *opposing* SSM is going to make it difficult to keep people in pews, if it isn’t having that effect already.

Surely it’s too late for couples who lost patience years ago, when their rector described patiently to them why s/he couldn’t officiate at their wedding.

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Fu Ko 03.31.13 at 12:14 am

The idea that, 200 years ago, “we” lacked a “concept” of homosexuality is — completely ridiculous.

Were there homosexuals 200 years ago?

Did homosexuals 200 years ago have a concept of homosexuality?

Who is “we”?

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Fu Ko 03.31.13 at 12:15 am

Also, c.f. Plato’s Symposium.

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Harold 03.31.13 at 12:45 am

Plato’s defenders of homo-sex maintain that they are a superior sort of people who do not get involved in vulgar and mundane activities such as marrying and having children. Rather they are society’s leaders, have ideas, and benefit humanity at large.

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Consumatopia 03.31.13 at 2:29 am

And then if you appeal to “reason” against authority and tradition, aren’t then you appealing to some quite specific tradition (and conception) of “reason”?

Our reason may be a tradition, but that doesn’t mean that one uses it because it’s traditional. In any event, if reason is itself a tradition, that leaves us with even less cause to ignore reason in favor of some other tradition–if we must adopt a tradition, why not the tradition of reason?

(The other mistake is to forget or repress that quite traditional distinction between theoretical and practical reason, to think that the former can completely substitute for the sorts of reasons and competencies involved in the latter).

Tradition is opposed to practical knowledge. (Especially if that tradition is Catholic theology, which tends towards theory and abstraction). Both practical and theoretical knowledge are gained by experimentation. Tradition opposes experimentation.

More concretely, a gay couple deciding to get married is likely to have a better understanding–both theoretical and practical–of the implications of this marriage than a religious thinker writing almost two millennia ago.

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