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Tweaking a Losing Argument

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Aug 24, 2010

Since we’re losing the arguments on same-sex marriage, perhaps we can at least tweak our strategy as we go along. When The Week summarized representative mainstream commentary on Judge Vaughn Walker’s ruling striking down Proposition 8 in California (issue of August 20, 2010, p.6), the best it could find in favor of true marriage was Ross Douthat’s op-ed piece in the New York Times (see The Marriage Ideal).

Unfortunately, Douthat gave more away than he preserved. He began by conceding that monogamous marriage between one man and one woman cannot be called the only natural and normal arrangement, pointing out that many societies have resorted to polygamy and communal rearing of children. Therefore, claimed Douthat, the only real argument we can make is that lifelong heterosexual monogamy is “one of the great ideas of Western civilization,” providing children with extended “intimate contact with both of their biological parents” and “an organic connection between human generations.”

There’s a lot of strategy to tweak here. For example, Douthat mingles the “natural” and the “normal” far too easily. The term “natural” has multiple meanings, and only one of them is “normal”. When defenders of true marriage argue that it is natural, while other relationships seeking to be called marriage are not, they generally mean that it satisfies the requirements of the natural law. It is far better to separate this from endless discussions about what has been normal in any given time and place. A strong historical case can be made that heterosexual monogamous marriage has been by far the most common arrangement, and it will probably remain so in our own culture no matter what happens to gay marriage. But the argument from commonality is weak, whereas the argument from nature (when it can be articulated effectively) is strong. The two should not be surrendered as one.

Yet this premature surrender in fact weakens the only argument Douthat believes can be made. Apparently not wishing to discuss nature intelligibly, Douthat reduces heterosexual monogamous marriage to a noble ideal particular to a certain tradition, without offering much of a rationale. If he were looking for a brief sound bite of an argument, he would have been wiser to come at things from the bottom up, noting that the State has an interest in encouraging and privileging heterosexual marriage because it plays such an important role in providing the next generation of citizens and forming them into well-balanced, stable and productive members of society. The State has no such interest in privileging other kinds of relationships which ape marriage without providing significant social benefits.

Sadly, Douthat’s argument starts at the top and never comes down. He does mention that true marriage provides an organic connection between human generations through intimate contact of children with both biological parents. That’s actually valuable, if he would bother to articulate why. Unfortunately, most moderns, who tend to believe in the infinite malleability of human nature, will find it hard to grasp the significance of that benefit either for children or for culture as a whole. Meanwhile, Douthat ignores the key point that any ideal derives its value precisely from the degree to which it represents something vital in the larger order of reality, something that applies to all human persons.

In other words, heterosexual monogamous marriage is “one of the great ideas of Western civilization” (ignoring for brevity that it is hardly exclusively Western) because it correctly embodies the truth about man, and by correctly embodying that truth, it tends to create an environment which fosters security, support, peace, self-worth, emotional stability, integral development, high achievement, moral formation, responsibility and many other human goods. Precisely for these reasons, a family structure rooted in traditional marriage typically “works” far better than any other sort of structure: It accurately reflects the right order of things—the natural order of things—within which the human person flourishes.

Now I admit it is hard to make this case persuasively, because even what we call traditional marriage has become much vitiated in our own day, creating two enormous problems. First, at the sociological level, it is easy to point out the ways in which traditional marriage as we know it simply doesn’t work, thereby pretending to invalidate its superiority to other arrangements. Second, contemporary men and women often find it difficult to articulate, and even more difficult to admit, the superiority of heterosexual monogamous marriage because our culture’s version of it is built on a foundation of sand—on the distortion and truncation of marital self-giving through widespread contraception. People who are clinging to their own habits of sterility are instinctively reluctant to start a trend by condemning the sterile habits of others.

In an important sense, then, nearly everybody has a dirty secret to protect, and this makes every discussion more difficult. Still, people often grasp what they cannot articulate, and they sometimes come to believe what they initially fear to admit. In the end it is the argument about the nature of things that we must win—the argument about the mind’s conformity to reality. Working patiently from the top down or the bottom up, at the level of the common good, this intersects decisively with the interests of the State.

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