Sunday, March 27, 2011

An institute you can't disparage

Thanks to Matt Pianalto's post over at The HEP Spot, I've been thinking about what is natural and what 'natural' means. This article by Scott P. Richert says that:
Marriage is a practice common to all cultures in all ages. It is, therefore, a natural institution, something common to all mankind.
I suppose the idea is not only that marriage happens but that it happens universally. This is meant to be important.

But surely Christian marriage is not universal. According to Anscombe:
Christianity was at odds with the heathen world, not only about fornication, infanticide and idolatry; but also about marriage. Christians were taught that husband and wife had equal rights in one another's bodies; a wife is wronged by her husband's adultery as well as a husband by his wife's. And Christianity involved non-acceptance of the contemptible role of the female partner in fornication, calling the prostitute to repentance and repudiating respectable concubinage. And finally for Christians divorce was excluded. These differences were the measure, great enough, of the separation between Christianity and the pagan world in these matters. By now, Christian teaching is, of course, known all over the world; and it goes without saying for those in the West that what they call "accepting traditional morals" means counting fornication as wrong - it's just not a respectable thing. But we ought to be conscious that, like the objection to infanticide, this is a Jewish Christian inheritance. And we should realize that heathen humanity tends to have a different attitude towards both.      
According to Wikipedia:

Anthropologists have proposed several competing definitions of marriage so as to encompass the wide variety of marital practices observed across cultures.[4] In his bookThe History of Human Marriage (1921), Edvard Westermarck defined marriage as "a more or less durable connection between male and female lasting beyond the mere act of propagation till after the birth of the offspring."[5] In The Future of Marriage in Western Civilization (1936), he rejected his earlier definition, instead provisionally defining marriage as "a relation of one or more men to one or more women that is recognised by custom or law".[6]
The anthropological handbook Notes and Queries (1951) defined marriage as "a union between a man and a woman such that children born to the woman are the recognized legitimate offspring of both partners."[7] In recognition of a practice by the Nuer of Sudan allowing women to act as a husband in certain circumstances, Kathleen Gough suggested modifying this to "a woman and one or more other persons."[8]
Edmund Leach criticized Gough's definition for being too restrictive in terms of recognized legitimate offspring and suggested that marriage be viewed in terms of the different types of rights it serves to establish. Leach expanded the definition and proposed that "Marriage is a relationship established between a woman and one or more other persons, which provides that a child born to the woman under circumstances not prohibited by the rules of the relationship, is accorded full birth-status rights common to normal members of his society or social stratum"[9] Leach argued that no one definition of marriage applied to all cultures. He offered a list of ten rights associated with marriage, including sexual monopoly and rights with respect to children, with specific rights differing across cultures.[10]

Duran Bell also criticized the legitimacy-based definition on the basis that some societies do not require marriage for legitimacy, arguing that in societies where illegitimacy means only that the mother is unmarried and has no other legal implications, a legitimacy-based definition of marriage is circular. He proposed defining marriage in terms of sexual access rights.[4]
Although the institution of marriage pre-dates reliable recorded history, many cultures have legends concerning the origins of marriage. The way in which a marriage is conducted and its rules and ramifications has changed over time, as has the institution itself, depending on the culture or demographic of the time.[12] Various cultures have had their own theories on the origin of marriage. One example may lie in a man's need for assurance as to paternity of his children. He might therefore be willing to pay a bride price or provide for a woman in exchange for exclusive sexual access.[13] Legitimacy is the consequence of this transaction rather than its motivation. InComanche society, married women work harder, lose sexual freedom, and do not seem to obtain any benefit from marriage.[14] But nubile women are a source of jealousy and strife in the tribe, so they are given little choice other than to get married. "In almost all societies, access to women is institutionalized in some way so as to moderate the intensity of this competition."[15] 
I don't see that there is any reasonable conclusion to draw from common sense plus all the above (both from Wikipedia and from Anscombe) other than that people care about sex and babies, and so develop institutions or customs to help ensure that their preferences are maximized, or something like that. There is nothing here to suggest that Christian marriage is more natural in Richert's sense than any other kind.

But his sense of 'natural' might not be the most relevant. Anscombe writes:
In fact there's no greater connexion of "natural law" with the prohibition on contraception than with any other part of morality. Any type of wrong action is "against the natural law": stealing is, framing someone is, oppressing people is. "Natural law" is simply a way of speaking about the whole of morality, used by Catholic thinkers because they believe the general precepts of morality are laws promulgated by God our Creator in the enlightened human understanding when it is thinking in general terms about what are good and what are bad actions. That is to say, the discoveries of reflection and reasoning when we think straight about these things are God's legislation to us (whether we realize this or not).
In thinking about conduct we have to advert to laws of nature in another sense. That is, to very general and very well-known facts of nature, and also to ascertained scientific laws. For example, the resources of the earth have to be worked on to supply our needs and enhance our lives: this is a general and well-known fact of nature. Hence there needs to be control over resources by definite owners, be they tribes or states or cities or corporations or clubs or individual people: and this is the institution of property. 
So in thinking about whether marriage is natural we should ask whether it is moral and, perhaps, whether there is a need for something like the institution of property to deal with the facts of nature regarding sex and babies. Few people deny that marriage is morally permissible. The most important question, it seems to me, if we want to work out the ethics of marriage, and in particular whether gay marriage is all right, is whether the connection between marriage and babies makes gay marriage unacceptable.

Anscombe writes that:

the ground of objection to fornication and adultery was that sexual intercourse is only right in the sort of set-up that typically provides children with a father and mother to care for them. If you can turn intercourse into something other than the reproductive type of act (I don’t mean of course that every act is reproductive any more than every acorn leads to an oak tree but it’s the reproductive type of act) then why, if you can change it, should it be restricted to the married? Restricted, that is, to partners bound in a formal, legal union whose fundamental purpose is the bringing up of children? For if that is not its fundamental purpose there is no reason why for example ‘marriage’ should have to be between people of opposite sexes. But then, of course, it becomes unclear why you should have a ceremony, why you should have a formality at all.

It might help if we proceed backwards through this argument (and here I'm going to start quoting myself, with some bits omitted):
  1. Marriage is (properly) an occasion for formality and ceremony, 
  2. This is (right) because its fundamental purpose is the generation and bringing up of children, 
  3. Children need to be brought up by a father and mother who are legally bound to one another, 
  4. Intercourse is what generates children, 
  5. Therefore, intercourse should only take place between married, heterosexual partners.

At least, the argument seems to be along these lines. But the more one spells it out the more questionable it appears to be. Premise 1 is not formidably strong. True, weddings are formal and ceremonial, but some are much less formal than others. Are they less truly weddings? Are they worse than more formal weddings? These questions hardly seem worth trying to answer. People do sometimes wonder why gay people (I include lesbians in this category) would want to get married rather than simply living together, but it is hard to see how their motives could be anyone else’s business. The same would go for two friends who want to have a civil partnership so that if one dies the other will inherit their shared house. This might not seem to be an occasion for formality or ceremony, but if they choose to treat it as such, who or what is harmed? The institution of marriage? Perhaps that is the thought, that civil partnerships insult marriage by grotesquely aping it. But partnerships for the convenience of friends do not do this, surely, and gay marriages only do so if gay love is a grotesque parody of true love. The view that this is the case is surely on the same level as the racist view that the apparent emotions of some ethnic groups are not real, so that we need not be concerned about their tears, their happiness, or the rights necessary for the securing of this happiness. I do not mean that opposition to gay marriage is morally as bad as racism, although I am not saying that it is any better either, but only that it seems to rest on the kind of arbitrary stance on what counts as real or true about which rational debate is impossible.

Anscombe refers to the thought that marriage might be “a pact of mutual complicity in no matter what sexual activity upon one another’s bodies.” If this were what marriage was about, she asks, what could be the relevance of a wedding or anything of the sort? The making of a pact of sexual exclusivity, though, would be an important event to many people. Forsaking all others has long been part of the idea of marriage. So has been declaring a couple’s love publicly, and their commitment to care for each other. Having children need not be part of a marriage conceived as mutually loving, caring, and sexually exclusive. It is not only matters of life and death that are worthy of ceremony, although there are surely limits to how far one can debate the ceremony-worthiness of any event.

Anscombe also tells us that, “It is, I believe, universal to regard marriage as having a sort of honourableness and dignity about it. This is obviously connected with its role in reproducing and rearing children.” This might be true, but it is surely debatable. Is marriage itself, as Anscombe understands it, universal? Has every culture practiced it? Is it universally honored? If so, must this be because of its connection with children? Anscombe might be right, but she is not obviously right. If marriage is an honorable estate, because of its connection with the production and rearing of children, it does not follow that inevitably childless couples may not share in that honor and dignity. A marriage of two infertile people need not be forbidden or undignified. Anscombe would agree as long as the couple was accidentally, not intentionally, infertile. Intentional infertility, she would say, changes the nature of the marriage, making it, in fact, not a real marriage at all. But her claim is based on the idea that what is good about marriage is obviously its connection with having and raising children. And this is not obvious. There is honor and dignity in any mutual commitment by two people to love and care for each other.

Back to the rest of Anscombe’s argument. Premise 2 is weak. What is it about raising children that makes a plan to engage in it suitable for formality and ceremony? The generation and raising of children is one of the most important things in human life, one of the things we most care about, one of the things that takes up our time, and, of course, one of the things without which the human race would die out. So ceremony is not out of place at a wedding if the couple intend to have children together. But is it necessary? And is only such a wedding a suitable occasion for ceremony and formality? A commitment to live together in love is surely worth something.

Premise 3 is controversial. Single parents struggle, but must they always fail? Must children be raised by two and only two parents, and must they be of different sexes? It must generally be easier to raise children when the ratio of children to parents is not too high, but otherwise it is hard to see anything except the weight of tradition and custom on the side of the idea that only the traditional nuclear family can meet children’s needs. As Charlotte J. Patterson has found: “the results of existing research comparing lesbian and gay parents to heterosexual parents and children of lesbian and gay parents to children of heterosexual parents are quite clear: Common stereotypes are not supported by the data.” [This quotation is from a different paper, which I couldn't find online, but the thesis is the same.]

Premise 4 (“intercourse is what generates children”) is easily misunderstood, especially as I have presented it. Anscombe means that intercourse is intrinsically generative in a way that nothing else (natural) is. This is true, but we do have what she considers to be illicit artificial means of generating children. We also have many other kinds of sex than the intrinsically generative. Her argument that these are all illicit is not a powerful or very convincing one.

All four premises are so weak that the conclusion is not proved. In short, I don't see that there is any good natural-law-type argument against same-sex marriage. Of course people other than Anscombe have offered arguments along these lines, and I haven't considered them, but I doubt these are any better than Anscombe's. I'm willing to look at evidence to the contrary though.

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