Michael Craven on Homosexuality and Same-Sex Marriage

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A commenter here directed me toward a series by Michael Craven on the moral issues regarding homosexuality and same-sex marriage, asking what I thought of it. This post gives a pretty detailed answer to that request. I think Craven is better than most conservatives on this issue. He doesn't seem to have the screed that I often find in many of those who bother to spend much time on this issue. I don't think all his arguments are as effective as they could be, though, and a few seem to me to be real mistakes. Overall, I don't think he's actually achieved his goal, which is to provide an argument based on secular premises that establishes the traditional view of marriage in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Craven's first part starts in the right place, by noticing the difference between what the Bible calls marriage and what most Americans call marriage. That's the most fundamental observation you need to make if you're going to have an intelligent conversation about this issue. I'm a bit disappointed in how he handles comments. Instead of pointing out that his commenters are tackling issues he hasn't gotten to, he asserts conclusions he hasn't argued for yet, and it makes it sound as if he's just making assertions that he can't back up.


Craven's design argument in the second part seems to me to rely on a mistake. He seems to think that evolutionary theory allows for a purpose in nature that affects morality. It's as if there's a purpose to procreate, and homosexuality prevents that. It's not as if homosexuality does prevent the continuance of one's genes. For one thing, gay people could become sperm or egg donors. For another, they could have a hand in raising their nephews and nieces, who may then go on to pass on genes that overlap with their own in a full enough way. So homosexuality isn't contrary to this supposed purpose of evolution anymore than singleness is. Even worse, it's a mistake to think evolution has purposes to begin with, at least if you restrict yourself to arguments that are secularly available without relying on theism.

I think it's kind of ironic that naturalistic evolutionary theorists can't resist talking in design terms, as if subconsciously they can't avoid attributing a designer behind the scenes, but they can't mean it literally and remain consistent. When Gould talks about selfish genes, he doesn't literally mean that genes have interests and that they consciously seek to promote them. So why should we think evolution has the purpose of procreation simply because it leads to a higher chance of procreation among those who survive to be able to pass on their genes? That could only be true if there's a designer (and it doesn't follow even if there is).

So he's trying to offer an argument that doesn't rely on controversial theistic premises, but I think this particular point fails in that regard, at least given that he doesn't spend the time motivating the thesis in a different way, such as arguing for a designer first on secular premises and then arguing that a designer who designed the world via evolution as contemporary biology holds must have intended procreation as a moral goal that requires some commitment to heterosexuality. That's at least not an easy task, and Craven hasn't really tried to fill out his argument in that way anyway. I happen to think the first step (a design argument) can be done. I don't think a natural law argument can succeed without that. But I'm also not sure a convincing natural law argument will work on this issue even given theism. The only versions I've seen lead to too much being immoral (e.g. voluntary celibacy or choosing to remain married to an infertile spouse) or involve a step to avoid such a result that seems hard to motivate independently (e.g. choosing to avoid a human purpose is wrong if you use the body parts associated with that purpose for non-natural goals but ok if you don't).

There's another gap in his argument in part 2 as well. If homosexuality is an unnatural perversion of something that has a designed purpose, it doesn't follow that it's morally wrong unless you again assume theism and our moral obligation to follow the intent of the designer as our purpose. The idea that we have natural purposes that we should follow goes back to Aristotle, so the argument finds good company in many who do not rely on theological premises. But I'm not sure they have a right to such attribution of purposes and to conclude moral properties as a result, not without divine intent as the basis of such a connection.

Craven then needs to motivate the move from the moral claim to the legal claim that gay couples don't have the right to redefine marriage, on the grounds that doing so would go against "an institution essential to the social welfare and common good" to the point of nullifying those good effects. I don't see an argument for that claim, so there's another gap in his argument. Even if he's established that it's not just a perversion of nature but an immoral one, how does he get from that to the claim that it would undermine some unestablished purpose of marriage in terms of social welfare and common good to such a degree that there would be no good effects from marriage anymore? That's a pretty radical claim, and he does nothing to support it. So this is yet another gap in his argument, this time one that's probably too big to fill even with further arguments. It's possible that he doesn't even need such a radical claim, and it's possible that he could offer an argument to fill the gap toward the weaker claim, but I don't think the claim he actually makes is even close to true. All of the benefits of having an institution of marriage disappear if gay couples can call their relationships by the term 'marriage'?

His argument about defining 'water' and defining 'marriage' relies on the immutability of water, which he then extends to marriage. Water is a natural kind. We have access to what the word 'water' means by its use, even if it turns out that the thing it refers to is a natural kind that is unchangeable. OK so far. But that doesn't mean the word couldn't change what it refers to. If people started using it in slang to refer to juice as well, and eventually it caught on in the general population and became standard usage after 200 years, then the word 'water' would at that point refer to a wider selection of liquids than just what we call water now. Words can change their meaning, even if they refer to natural kinds.

So the unchangeable nature of water (as we use the term) is doesn't mean the word can't later come to apply to some other thing. Why should it be different from marriage, even if marriage itself is a concept that is as unchangeable as water (and I'd be happy to agree with him that the biblical concept of marriage is indeed like that)? The word 'marriage' could begin to apply to a larger set of social relations than what it has historically included, and I think that's very clearly happened already.

Craven recognizes the need to distinguish between being biologically disadvantaged and biologically incapable, but even when you make that distinction I think he's concluding more than it shows. So what if gay couples are biologically incapable of producing children whom they are both biological parents of? Even if it's true that there's a natural purpose for sex (something I think is true but that requires more premises than Craven admits to assuming), and that purpose of sex includes procreation, and that marriage has a purpose of procreation, you have to put these two together with one further premise to get his conclusion. You have to assume that the procreative purposes of marriage have to follow the natural means of procreation to achieve the social benefits of marriage. That's patently not true. A heterosexual couple could adopt children while remaining celibate and still be excellent parents. The Shakers used to do this, and I'm sure many of them were good parents.

He's moving back and forth between two different senses in which procreation can be a purpose. One is the sense of a natural purpose because of divine intent, an intent that the natural law argument has to smuggle in to make sense. The other is the desired outcome in terms of public policy given our human goals and what would be a good society. I see no argument tying them together, and the Shaker case shows that they aren't the same thing.


Part 3 contains a controversial consequentialist argument based on a premise that I think Craven asserts without argument. He cites the controversial claim that loosening standards with regard to sexual behavior causes a breakdown in social order. I'm not sure this is established. It may be that we can find correlations between the two, but there's always the question of causal order (which thing causes which) or the possibility that the two are caused by a common cause.

The consequentialist argument also assumes a comprehensive understanding of these things, and I'm not sure we have that. Do we have enough examples for a long enough time of what happens when gay couples (a modern social construction) call their unions marriage? I doubt it. So I don't place much stock in arguing based on consequences. It's not clear to me that we're entitled to any conclusions about consequences at this point.

In particular, Craven points to Unwin's observation that every culture that loosens sexual standards and maintains that looseness for three generations undergoes cultural decline. I'm not sure what this means. Every culture eventually undergoes political instability. I think it's true that cultures that reject God's standards will tend to face bad consequences. But we can't rely on such an argument when we discuss with those with different starting points about God or God's standards. But even assuming the theistic background, I can't think that God works in such an absolute manner that these consequences always work out the same way every time, so I'd be surprised if Unwin is right if he means that military/political instability always follows the loosening of moral standards within three generations. That kind of inevitability doesn't fit with reality. History isn't so clean. Even the biblical proverbs that state such generalities don't mean them as absolutes, and it's hard to argue for policies based on consequences that are hard to pinpoint as clear causes.

It's possible that there's a general tendency to observe. I'm just not sure we have the data to observe it, and we'd need to show that loosening the standards on this one issue will lead to the same effect as loosening it on other issues. This particular way of loosening standards has never been done before. There have been cultures that have tolerated or even embraced same-sex sexual relations. There haven't been cultures before the 20th century that had a concept of sexual orientation the way we currently understand it. There certainly hasn't been any attempt to put people who fall under the concept of being gay (as understood in terms of sexual orientation) into monogamous relationships that then become incorporated into most of the standards that are applied to married couples. Where this has happened, it hasn't gone on for three generations yet. It hasn't even gone on for one yet. You don't have to be an Ent to think his argument seems hasty.

I think you can raise worries about how you might expect things to go, given some similarities with the past. I think you can worry about undermining stability by changing society too much. But when you press on the details, at least some of those worries have responses. There are some ways in which monogamizing homosexuality would lead to more stability. This is assuming monogamous male-male marriage would succeed, and it may not given that we're talking two males and that it's usually the stabilizing presence of a woman that makes monogamy more successful than it otherwise would be. But some of the radical promiscuity
among gay men might be due to prejudice and a desire to hide one's activity. Still, a plausible case can be made that a good deal of it is simply due to the fact that you're dealing with two men, and men have less of an innate desire for monogamy than women, for whatever reasons (being the bearer of children probably has at least something to do with it for women). So something can be said to bolster Craven's argument here, but it's still a big gap that he leaves in his argument, and it's not wqithout controversial assumptions.

Craven says same-sex marriage is based on narcissism, since it places individual desires over more important things, but the narcissism argument can actually cut the other way. If marriage domesticates an individual's narcissism, why can't same-sex marriage do so? The only reason it can't is if promiscuous behavior is tied to same-sex sex. I just offered one reason to suspect some tie in the male-male case, but that doesn't mean same-sex marriage won't have some domesticating role on gay men (and it ignores lesbians). Now if you assume the immorality of the whole venture, which he hasn't really secularly argued at this point, then I think it follows that same-sex marriage serves to legitimate immoral activity based on an unhealthy desire to have that activity be seen as normal. But I don't think Craven has established that at this point.


Part 4 looks at benefits of marriage. Some of these might not be benefits at all but simply traits of the kind of people who tend to get married. Others might be actual results of being married, but Craven needs to show that these benefits result from features of marriage that aren't present in same-sex marriage. He hasn't done that. He simply assumes that, because traditional marriage has essential properties that same-sex marriage doesn't have, any benefits of marriage come from those essential properties not common with the more extended sense of 'marriage' that includes same-sex marriages, rather than from the properties the two do have in common. I don't see any other argument here. The few places where he does point to something about gay couples involves (1) male-male couples, which doesn't say anything about female-female couples or (2) gay couples as opposed to gay marriages, which might make all the difference.

Part 5 mostly continues the problematic empirical inferences. One new consequentialist argument in this part says that allowing legal recognition of same-sex marriage will reinforce the separation of marriage, procreation, and parenthood. I think it will do this with marriage and natural procreation between the two members of the couple. Whether that's bad depends on whether the gaps in the earlier arguments can be filled. I think they can but maybe not independently of special revelation or prior arguments about divine creation and intent to ground natural law theory (and I'm hesitant about the second part of the second route).

Same-sex marriage will not reinforce the diminishment of the connection between marriage and parenthood. Same-sex marriages with children will reinforce the diminishment of the connection between traditional marriage and parenthood, but it won't undermine the connection between marriage and parenthood, because it will simply expand which couples count as married, with some of them having children and others not, just as we have without such an expansion.

I see no reason to worry about affirming adoption and thus diminishing the connection between procreation and parenthood. Adoption does have that effect, and it's clearly a good thing nonetheless that's worth pursuing. So if same-sex marriage undermines that connection, it's not sufficient to worry about it too much, given that we never worry about it with adoption.

He says same-sex marriage hasn't been common in Scandinavia, even though it's been available, and therefore it isn't going to have as much of a benefit for the people involved as it was intended to have. But why is that a problem? If it is worth doing, it doesn't matter if it's a small effect. If it's causing problems, that only makes those problems less bad. So I don't see how this point is a major aid to his argument. I don't tend to be impressed by these kinds of consequentialist arguments anyway, but this particularly doesn't do much as far as I can tell.

Part 6 is mostly good. I think he's right that the gay rights side has largely been pursuing this through illegitimate means and sometimes even immoral methods. I think he's also right that this will tend to decrease freedom of religion and freedom of conscience both for individuals and religious groups. I don't think that's necessarily the case, but I think the actual personalities and views of those leading the charge on the gay rights side will likely lead to the results that Craven fears (and his supporting evidence that this has begun is, as far as I know, accurately presented and appropriately used). But that's not a strong argument fot not doing it at all.

The conclusion ends in complete agreement with me on the issue. Christians shouldn't let culture dictate morality for us. At the same time, there's a danger with putting moral issues above the real mission of the church, which is about salvation rather than mere behavior. I think the religious right has taken their ire over this issue way too far, opting to push for legislation and constitutional amendments when they have no possibility of succeeding and making this issue as important as abortion, which it's a far cry from. Proponents of gay rights and of same-sex marriage are often too quick to confuse a view about the morality of same-sex sexual behavior with intolerance of people or, worse, even of hatred or fear of gays. Having a moral view is not the same thing as intolerance, fear, or hatred. But there are those who defend that moral thesis in a way that comes across as too intolerant of the person, and rhetoric that I see often seems to me to indicate misplaced priorities that are hard to explain without some anger that seems to me to go way beyond what the issue justifies and probably misdirects it anyway. It makes me want to stay away from the issue most of the time, and I'm only tackling it now because I think incomplete arguments ought to be abandoned or filled in properly, and I'm sick of seeing faulty arguments for views that I (a) have sympathy with or (b) hold similar enough views to that my views will be mistaken for these.

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