No one today is carrying on the same-sex “marriage” (SSM) debate more thoughtfully than Sherif Girgis, Robert George, and Ryan Anderson, on the one side, and Kenji Yoshino on the other. The latest in their exchange of articles is here at Public Discourse.
And here is one brief take on it. Girgis, George, and Anderson (GG&A) say that it’s possible to put forth a principle-based answer to the question, “what is marriage?” Yoshino attacks their proposed principles, but in the process does much more than that. In the end he undermines all principles undergirding any concept of marriage whatsoever.
In his articles he has been poking around the edges of GG&A’s position, pointing out apparent difficulties in it, and, because it’s not syllogistically perfect in practice, proclaiming the whole attempt a failure. (GG&A answer his challenges, satisfactorily to my way of thinking, but that’s not my main interest in writing this blog post.)
Meanwhile Yoshino proposes definitional principles of his own, but as GG&A demonstrate, in practice they’re much weaker than the ones he attacks. If perfection in social practice is necessary, then Yoshino has nothing to offer. He has no principled position on marriage.
GG&A point out his own public waffling:
All of this is clear from Yoshino’s only positive statement of what he thinks marriage does require: though he expects future demands for the recognition of multiple-partner unions, Yoshino would “currently . . . distinguish polygamous marriage primarily on the intuitive ground that one can give one’s full self to only one other person.” So Yoshino thinks that marriage requires a comprehensive union, and that this requires monogamy. We agree, as our article says explicitly. But history (in which monogamy is both observed and flouted) could not have yielded that conclusion. Only reasoning about what the human good requires of our natural and public institutions—moral and political philosophy—could. We have offered our reasons, according to which truly comprehensive union involves bodily union—and thus coitus, and thus sexual complementarity. Yoshino, who disagrees, refuses to make a counterproposal.
If all of this undermines even the one criterion for legal recognition (monogamy) that Yoshino embraces here, perhaps that is because he already rejected it elsewhere. In a 2006 statement entitled “Beyond Same-Sex Marriage,” some 300 self-described “lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender… and allied activists, scholars, educators, writers, artists, lawyers” and others declared their support for “legal recognition for a wide range of relationships, households and families,” including (among others) “committed, loving households in which there is more than one conjugal partner.” Kenji Yoshino was one of the signers.
At least three conclusions flow from this. First, if SSM advocates hold that there is no principled basis upon which marriage is defined, then even from within their own position they have no basis to support the way they have treated SSM opponents: condemning us as hateful, homophobic, and so on. On their view, there is no principle-based correct answer to “what is marriage?” Based on that, even their own view cannot be the right one, so all we really have is a difference of opinion. Since when is a difference of opinion equivalent to hate?
Second, if there is no principled way by which to reach a right answer to “what is marriage?” then we must reach agreement some other way. Social consensus might be a reasonable alternative (if one is necessary), but we had that for centuries, and gay-rights advocates have obviously cast that to the winds. The other way is through the use of power, and SSM advocates have certainly followed that route: principally the power of rhetoric, including propaganda, crass manipulation of images, irrational appeals to emotion (especially playing the hate card), and outright deceit. It’s all spelled out right here.
Third, if there is no principled basis for a definition of marriage, then the slippery slope argument applies with perfect validity. People like Yoshino will sign documents urging that we go beyond same-sex “marriage.” How far? What form of “marriage” could possibly be too far beyond? Who could say? Who would have the right to say? An unprincipled open door into SSM is an open door into unbridled perversions of marriage, family, and society.
I criticize SSM advocates for their manipulative use of rhetoric, and I want to be careful not to be guilty of the same. “Unprincipled” has strong negative connotations: “immoral, unethical, unscrupulous.” I think a case can be made that SSM advocacy exhibits all of these, especially in their use of rhetorical power, but rather than going that direction, I want to draw particular attention to the parts of the word: un–principled, or lacking in guiding principles. It is that very lack which makes unprincipled virtually equivalent to unethical; for experience shows that there are no ethics in practice without principles behind them. I want to make it clear, too, that I am not referring to persons but to positions in this debate.
With those clarifications in mind, it seems clear to me that there is no defensible principle underlying SSM advocates’ position on marriage, so in that sense it is an unprincipled position. Whether you think there is a direct line from unprincipled (in the sense I have specified) to unethical is up to you, but if you think not, then you are ignoring the greater part of human experience.
Footnote, and a preview of future blog posting: It is likely that a principled position is impossible to attain based on secular materialistic presuppositions, which provide little foundation for any social entity at all having a secure, stable, principle-based definition. I’m reading Benjamin Wiker’s Moral Darwinism: How We Became Hedonists, an extended philosophical discussion of the ancient roots and contemporary fruits of philosophical materialism. The divide separating theists and materialists is even wider than I had thought, and this dispute over the essence of marriage—whether there could even be such a thing as an essence of marriage—is just one aspect of it.