Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Marriage

I was traveling for a couple of days and did not get a chance to respond to the comments on my article on marriage when they first appeared. The great blog machine has moved on but since there were a number of comments I thought I would respond. In addition, the California State Supreme Court is considering today the legality of San Francisco marrying same sex couples.

The comments fell into two categories: the usual polemical stuff, often criticizing something the article did not say, and lists of human behavior supposed to contradict my argument. The latter comments deserve a comment in return, I think.

Contraception and sexual activities other than what is strictly necessary to reproduce are examples of the sort of thing that some took as sufficient in themselves to undermine my argument. Such things supposedly show that my account is too narrow and rigid. But a bit of reflection suffices to show that, on the basis of the argument I made, neither contraception nor the activities alluded to are either right or wrong in all cases. They need to be judged on the basis of the purposes of sex and marriage articulated in the article.

John Moser’s comments on the article were, I thought, particularly revealing because they were so dismissive. He does not object on the basis that the argument is too narrow, that it categorizes as unacceptable some things that are good. John rejects the whole effort to judge human behavior by any standard other than what people actually do. On this basis, I wonder why he objects, as he so frequently does in the blog, to the shoddy practice of history or, as he did today, to sexually exploiting teenage girls.

John’s approach to these questions is of interest more generally. John takes his bearings apparently by what men are capable of doing, by their power. Our power is increasing steadily. As we enter an age when human biology itself will come under our power, John’s approach will open extraordinary possibilities. The argument about homosexual “marriage” is part of a larger argument about whether there is any limit to those possibilities.

Discussions - 1 Comment

I thank David for his thoughtful response, and I apologize if my remarks seemed dismissive. I am not a political theorist, and have thus not spent a great deal of time pondering the sorts of meta-questions that David raises. However, I’ll take a stab at it:


John rejects the whole effort to judge human behavior by any standard other than what people actually do. On this basis, I wonder why he objects, as he so frequently does in the blog, to the shoddy practice of history or, as he did today, to sexually exploiting teenage girls.

I certainly never intended to claim that there is no means of judging human behavior; ultimately I judge such behavior the way that most classical liberals would--on the extent to which it promotes human happiness. But what makes us happy is subject to change, and human institutions can and do evolve to accommodate themselves to this. The question is at what point the State ought to recognize de jure what has already taken place de facto at the social level.

I do not claim to have a mathematical formula for determining just how or when this should happen, and I think reasonable people can disagree when it comes to particular issues. But I do find problematic the claim that concepts like "marriage" and "family" are unitary and unchanging entities throughout history. Feudalism was an effective form of social and political relations given the realities of the Middle Ages--otherwise it would not have lasted as long as it did. However, none of us would dream of defining it as the "natural" form of government.

I object to sexual exploitation because that which involves the involuntary participation of one of the parties cannot by definition be conducive to happiness. At most, it can bring happiness to only the aggressor, at the expense of misery to the victim.

Good history is that which is useful, and in our modern, rationalistic age useful history is that which can empirically be shown to be true and reasonably impartial. But I am willing to acknowledge a shifting standard here as well--for example, I am not about to dismiss Herodotus as a bad historian because he includes the activities of the gods in his work.

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