Friday, August 6, 2010

What makes marriage, marriage?

By Donald Sensing

With the ruling this week by federal Judge Vaughn Walker that overturned California's Proposition 8, that defined marriage solely as the union between a man and a woman, I think it would be useful to examine the question, "What makes a thing a thing?"

More to the point, what makes marriage, marriage? That is a basic dispute in the issue. I take the position in this post that "homosexual marriage" is a self-contradictory expression that cannot be sustained as an intellectually coherent concept.

The Problem of Universals and defining what is marriage

On the one hand, traditionalists insist that marriage is the legal and sexual union of a man and a woman for the purpose of bringing forth the next generation. That some husbands and wives do not conceive children for whatever reason is accidental to this definition and therefore does not obviate it. Along the way there are certain socially recognized, and usually legally enforceable, rights and obligations that go along with spousal status, such as property rights. Marriage is therefore definitionally impossible for between members of the same sex. Usually, but not always, this argument is buttressed from religious grounds.

On the other hand, proponents of same-sex marriage insist that it is the fulfillment of love and affection they have for one another to which childbearing is incidental. They claim that homosexual relations are just as valid an expression of love as heterosexual; therefore, homosexual relationships should receive the same legal recognition as traditional marriage. Sometimes, but not often, this argument is also buttressed from religious grounds.

Now, the particulars of these arguments I'll address below. First, I want to discuss this question: "what makes a thing a particular thing?" This problem is one of the oldest if philosophical inquiry. It is called, "The Problem of Universals."

Individuals have two kinds of knowledge of things: experiential and intellectual. Experiential knowledge arises from our senses - sight, sound, smell, etc. Intellectual knowledge of things is ideas or concepts formed from seeing experiencing many things and categorizing them into abstracted concepts.

Experiential knowledge gives us knowledge about a particular thing - the keyboard I am typing on, for example, but in intellectual knowledge we primarily use a concept. A true concept of, say, books, tells us nothing about the particular characteristics of the next book we pick up, but it tells us how we will know it is a book at all.

The ancient Greek philosopher Plato took the view that there was a realm of unchanging Ideas to which the physical world conformed so as to give each physical thing its identity. A particular object is endowed with a lesser, impermanent reality of its Ideal as it comes into momentary being, and loses it as it passes away.

(Plato's work heavily influenced medieval thinkers, who called the realm of Ideas Universals.)

Aristotle, not long after Plato, disagreed with the notion of Ideas and thought that the forms (as he called them) exist only in the particular things and have no existence apart from or separate from them.

So the problem of universals was this: Since the nature of a universal concept was different in detail from any particular occasion of it, do universals actually give us any knowledge about the world?

In the 11th and 12th centuries, three positions got staked out:


Nominalism (Roscellinus): only the particular or individual is real. Universal terms are merely a word or a name, a flatus vocis , or "breathing of the voice," entirely subjective and mental, which serves as a sign for common objects.


Universalism (William of Champeux): Individuality is only an accidental variation or modification of universal essence.


Conceptualism (Abelard): a kind of moderated realism. Universal concepts are more than mere names and are actually abstractions of general characteristics objects possess in common. These natures do actually exist, but only in the objects which possess them. "Tree" as a universal category is an isolation of the mind of common features present in all trees. But "tree" does not exist as a universal being on its own. Universals are indispensable forms of knowledge we need to know the world.

What the two sides of the same-sex marriage are doing is arguing from two different understandings of what make a thing a thing, or what makes marriage marriage. The "pro" side seems to me to be arguing from the nominalist side, that marriage has no reality in the abstract apart from married couples themselves. Hence, objections from traditionalists that calling the same-sex couples in San Francisco married does not make them so is met with derision from the pro side. In their view, calling them married is exactly what does make them married.

OTOH, most traditionalist arguments I've seen seem to cleave to the Universalist line, that marriage has a definition - that is, a reality - independent of persons who are married. Marriage, truly to be marriage, must conform to this Universal. If not, it is not even a decent imitation and does not share in the Universal reality of marriage.

I tend toward a Conceptualist position. "Marriage" is not simply the name given to any relationship between adults, but only to certain kinds of them. As ordained by God or evolved through millennia (take your pick) there are certain characteristics and behaviors that marriage partners have always exhibited in common.

The Conceptualist advantage is that it does not require every example to conform to the abstraction in every detail, as the Universalist position does (its real weakness as an argument), and as the Nominalist position holds as irrelevant.

A Conceptualist argument of marriage could examine the history and results of marriage for literally back to the stone age and identify certain essentials of marriage that have not changed throughout history:
  • Marriage has always, in all times, cultures and place, been the union of a man and a woman. There is no reason to doubt that homosexuals have also lived in all those cultures, but there is no evidence that their relationships have ever determined the nature of marriage.

  • The affirmation of love and affection of the spouses for one another has only rarely been a cause for marriage in human history. Until recently even in in the West (including America), the emotional feelings that spouses had for one another was not considered very important; what was important was their social or economic similarity, and their compatibility in a myriad of other ways. Marrying because of love is a latecomer to the scene and is not really the norm in most of the world's people now. There are billions of people living in cultures today in which brides and grooms hardly have met before their wedding day.

  • The very fundamental purpose of marriage has been and remains the propagation of the next generation. Look at it this way: just as "a hen is an egg's way of making another egg," marriage is the means by which parents become grandparents. While it is biologically possible for children to be born outside the marital bond (obviously), it is empirically provable that what biologists call "survival advantages" of those children is so relatively low that non-marital childbearing is literally a dead end.

  • Hence, marriage is self-perpetuating, self-referent upon itself and self-defining. Marriage throughout human history has never needed to be defined by relying on something else. However, same-sex "marriage" has no existence or meaning apart from male-female marriage. Male-female marriage is self-perpetuating within itself; same-sex marriages cannot self-perpetuate within themselves at all. In fact, if not for male-female marriage, same-sex marriage cannot even occur at all. Self-perpetuation is the critical element of marriage without which a same-sex relationship, no matter how affectionate, fails to be marriage.

  • Elements of marriage such as property rights and the like do not centrally define what marriage is. Indeed, the historical and present record shows that such matters have varied widely across human cultures and experience. The wife as an equal partner is a modern development, but its lack in other times and places does not obviate the essential character of marriage, the procreation of the next generation. The various legal and social rights and recognitions that pertain to married couples are the result, not the cause, of marriage, intended to buttress its central purpose. Therefore, they are added or discarded inasmuch as they do so, though not without other influences as well. Thus, the legal rights and social claims of married partners are incidental, not essential, to defining what marriage is.

  • Marriage is therefore a social institution, not a merely personal one. All society has a vested interest in the propagation of the next generation and the health thereof. As the saying goes, we are always only one generation from extinction. As a social institution, marriage is defined in aggregate, not in particular. This fact argues against a Nominalist position that if two same-sex persons obtain a marriage license, that they are in fact married. It also shows why the pro side's snark that many male-female married couples never have children is irrelevant: out of any random 100 heterosexual marriages, the overwhelming majority will conceive children of their own, within the marriage bond, but out of any 100 same-sex unions, exactly zero will do so. Hence, the lack of children in a small minority of male-female marriages is accidental to marriage as a social institution and the purpose it serves, but the inability of same-sex unions to have children within the bond is inescapably central to their relationship.

All of which is to say that the accidental characteristics of marriage - love, affection, property and other rights - spring from what marriage is rather than define what marriage is. Therefore, whatever relationship homosexuals may have with one another, and whatever legal rights civil authority may confer upon them, marriage is inherently - indeed, metaphysically - the province only of men and women united in matrimony.

Because the state of marriage is a matter of of social concern and justifiable public interest, society has the right to regulate it as it would regulate other matters of equal (or even lesser) concern. Consider that marriage today is less regulated than getting a driver's license, yet no judge finds it unConstitutional that blind or 12-year-old persons can't get licenses.

But this is simply to recognize that the advocates of gay marriage have no philosophical or rationalistic basis. Theirs is a political claim and nothing more. But, having failed to advance their cause through legislative or executive support, they have turned to the last refuge of political scoundrels: activist courts and judges.

Endnote: Dana Mack, writing in the WSJ, "Now What for Marriage?":
[T]here is a great deal of social-science evidence connecting marriage and the active engagement of two biological parents with child well-being. And there is simply no other way to view the age-old, universal institution of marriage than as rooted in the biological family.

Marriage, like all cultural institutions, evolves; and it may look very different in different cultures. But the institution's common denominator across time and cultures has been its dedication to the offices of reproduction. The great 20th century cultural anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowsky stated that while marriage is as old as human life, it has never been primarily a romantic, or even an economic, bond. It has been principally an arrangement for bearing children.