Monday, June 11, 2012

Corvino on the Definitional Objection to Same-sex Marriage (Part One)



Obama’s recent public declaration in support of same-sex marriage was significant. And although I’m not sure that it will carry much weight during the election campaign (I suspect economic issues will dominate), I still think it’s worth knowing about the kinds of arguments that are slung back-and-forth between the opposing sides of this debate. In this light, I welcome John Corvino and Maggie Gallagher’s recently-published book Debating Same-Sex Marriage.

Corvino is an excellent and, may I say, witty, ethical philosopher (I actually chuckled at several points whilst reading his contribution to this book). I have covered his work before on this blog. Gallagher is far less cuddly figure, being the co-founder of the National Organization for Marriage, an organisation that campaigns vigorously against same-sex marriage. Their book is part of the point-counterpoint series published by Oxford University Press. Other entries in this series (such as Abortion: Three Perspectives) have been good, if a little patchy. And although I’ve only read Corvino’s contribution to this particular one, I think it’s probably worth reading. (Note: the book gets vicious reviews on Amazon on the basis of Gallagher's contributions)

Anyway, having been reading it all afternoon, I’ve decided to exert myself and write up a little series of posts based on one portion of Corvino’s main chapter. This is the portion dealing with the so-called Definitional Objection to same-sex marriage. In its naivest form, this objection holds that the label “marriage” is only properly applied to a union between one man and one woman. A union between two men, or two women (or indeed unions of three or more persons) cannot, obviously, be of this form. Consequently, it is wrong to even think about debating the propriety of same-sex “marriage”.

As I say, this is the simplest version of the Definitional Objection. The objection itself comes in several forms, only one of which has much of anything to do with how we define our terms. In fact, it might be best to call it the Ontological Objection, since it really has to do with what marriage essentially is.

In his discussion, Corvino looks at three versions of the objection. The first is based on the Argument from Tradition, the second is actually based on definitions (the Definitional Argument), and the third is based on concepts from new natural law (the New Natural Law Argument). He then closes with his own reflections on the definitional debate. In this series, I will cover the four parts of Corvino’s discussion, dedicating one blog post to each. I start by looking at the Argument from Tradition (AFT).


1. The Basic Version of the AFT
The AFT is not particularly persuasive, nor is it (to my knowledge) widely employed by those academics and public figures inclined to oppose same-sex marriage. Still, for all I know, it might be widely employed in “water cooler” or “down-the-local-pub” debates about this issue and thus worth addressing for this reason. I’m not sure if this is the reason why Corvino covers it, but he does so and I’m not going to question his reasons for it any further here.

The simplest way to put the AFT is as follows:

  • (1) Marriage has always only been a union between one man and one woman.
  • (3) Therefore, marriage should continue to only be a union between one man and one woman.

Obviously, this argument is a nonsense: the conclusion does not follow from the premises. I haven’t even tried to hide the fact: readers will no doubt have noticed the discrepancy in the number of the premises, jumping as they do straight from a premise (1) to the conclusion (3). Why was that? Well, because the argument obviously lacks a crucial normative bridging premise. That is, a principle that allows you to actually infer the conclusion from the premises.

What might that principle look like? Here’s a suggestion:

  • (2) If a particular social institution has always been structured in a particular way, it ought to continue being structured in that way.

This would certainly get us to the conclusion (3). But it would do so at some cost since it looks to be obviously false. There are many institutions — slavery and female suppression to name but two — that had rich cultural traditions but which were not therefore ethically desirable. It is difficult to deny the claim that heritage and tradition are not always ethically sound. So we’ll have to look elsewhere for some principled support for the AFT.

We’ll do that in a moment. For the time being let us bend over backwards in deference to the AFT and assume that (2) is correct. Even then the AFT has problems. Why so? Because premise (1) — the empirical premise — is demonstrably false. It is simply not the case that marriage has always been a union between one man and one woman. Ethnographic evidence controverts this claim. Corvino runs through numerous examples in the text, highlighting in particular how polygamy (or, more correctly, polygyny) has been the preferred practice in many societies at one time or another, and how same sex unions have been accepted in a handful of cultures (the Nuer tribe are specifically cited as they recognised (recognise?) a form of female-female union).

Corvino suggests that some same-sex marriage opponents might try to object to this ethnographic evidence of same-sex unions. They might do so on the grounds that, even in the examples cited in the text, the partners to the alleged same-sex unions assume traditional gender roles. Such a response would be problematic on two grounds. First, most contemporary Western cultures have moved away from endorsing those traditional gender roles. And second, even if they hadn’t, it’s not like opponents of gay marriage would suddenly be happy if gay couples adopted traditional gender roles in their unions. They don’t support the gender roles themselves; they support the particular sexual make-up of a monogamous heterosexual marriage. Thus, this kind of response, if anyone was minded to give it, would be inadequate.


2. The Hayekian AFT
It looks then, to all intents and purposes, like the AFT is a resounding failure. Can nothing at all be said in its favour? Well, ignoring the factual problems that were just cited, Corvino does identify one slightly more sophisticated version of the AFT, one that actually attempts to motivate the principle underlying premise (2). This is the Hayekian argument in favour of traditional institutions (which might also be called a Burkean argument, though there might be some differences in the formulation if this were the case). And although this argument would still run afoul of the arguments just offered against premise (1), it is worth briefly considering here.

Hayek was most famous for his work in economics, particularly his work defending the merits free markets over centrally-planned ones. The essence of his critique of centrally-planned economies lay in his observation about the information-gathering powering of the market. As Hayek saw it, the kinds of information that one needs in order to make sensible decisions about what kinds of goods to produce and what kinds of goods to buy is bewilderingly complex. No central planner could effectively collate all that information, analyse i,t and then use it to make informed decisions about what kinds of goods and services ought to be produced in an economy, and the price at which they should be sold. It is much better to leave that kind of information-gathering to dispersed private individuals, who can assess locally-available fragments of the relevant information and use this to make their own rational decisions about production and consumption. Thanks to some feedback and self-organisation, this information can then be collated into the prices that are charged on the market. This can be done without the direct knowledge or awareness of the particular individuals making up the market.

The upshot of this is that, for Hayek, prices on the free market are informationally-rich signals that we would be well-advised to follow when making our economic decisions. What’s more, this advice sticks even when we are not aware of all the information that underlies those signals. The claim of the proponent of the Hayekian AFT against same-sex marriage is going to be that something similar is true of traditional social institutions like marriage. In other words, like price signals, traditional social institutions embody lots of underlying information gathering and analysis. This means that these institutions could have strong underlying normative rationales that are simply not transparent to us right now. Consequently, we would be well-advised to respect them, even if we’re not quite sure why.

The analogy is troubling, to say the least. While Hayek had a decent enough argument to make about price signals, whether that carries over to cover all social institutions is another matter. Most mainstream economists recognise that there are situations in which the information-gathering power of the market fails (e.g. because important costs are excluded from individual economic decisions, as in a Tragedy of the Commons type of scenario). In those cases of market failure, we would not be well-advised to respect the market signals. The problems for the Hayekian AFT is that something like a market failure (call it a moral failure) could easily happen in the context of cultural transmission. Indeed, there are obvious examples of this: slavery was once a widespread social institution, transmitted down through the ages in a long unbroken chain, yet it is now recognised as being morally corrupt.

So we can’t simply accept, on faith, that traditions will get us closer to the moral truth. Proponents of the Hayekian argument will need to show why the case of marriage is special, and less likely to embody a moral failure like slavery. I suspect that they are unlikely to be able to do so. Indeed, I think there are probably good reasons to think that the mechanisms through which social institutions are formed do not “track the truth” of morality. Furthermore, even if this was the case, the Hayekian argument would not go far enough. As Corvino points out, to be successfully employed against same sex marriage, the argument would need to show not only that there are good reasons for respecting a particular institution (in this case heterosexual monogamous marriage), but that there are also reasons for not extending that institution (to cover homosexual marriages). This, to Corvino, would require an unwarranted faith in the wisdom of tradition.

In conclusion, the AFT does not seem to work. In its simplest form, it is factually inaccurate and lacks a sound normative principle. In its more sophisticated Hayekian form it still fails because it does not give reasons for thinking that Hayekian-style loyalty is warranted in the case of social institutions like marriage.

We’ll look at the Definitional Argument in the next post.

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