Friday, January 28, 2011

Darwinian Marriage (2): A Response to Robert George

Here I continue what I began in my previous post on Robert George's article "What is Marriage?"

About a year ago, I wrote a post on George's Kantian rationalism. According to George "reason alone" proves that abortion, embryonic stem cell research, heterosexual sodomy, and homosexual sex are immoral. "Reason alone" teaches us that marriage is self-evidently good only when it becomes a "one-flesh union" through vaginal intercourse. When a married heterosexual couple engage in any sexual activity other than vaginal intercourse, this is sodomy, and "reason alone" tells us that this is immoral.

According to George, the appeal to pure reason as a source of moral guidance does not require any appeal to the facts of human nature and history, because moral truth rests on principles that are grasped by pure logic as self-evidently true with no regard for nature or history.

Against George, I have argued that morality requires a combination of reason and desire. Natural desires provide the motivational direction for moral experience, although reason can elicit or direct desire based on judgments about the circumstances of action. Pure reason alone cannot move us to action. Both our reason and our desires reflect the facts of our human nature and history, and therefore moral experience depends on the natural history of human life.

What I find most interesting about George's new article is how it shows him pulling away from his Kantian rationalism as he recognizes that the biological facts of natural human desires shape the moral reality of human marriage. This shows him moving away from Immanuel Kant and back towards Thomas Aquinas and the Thomistic account of natural law as rooted in the natural inclinations of the human animal.

Aquinas agrees with the Roman jurist Ulpian that "natural right is that which nature has taught all animals," and this is clear in the natural inclinations to sexual mating and parental care.

This biological psychology of natural law was appropriated by Aquinas from the biological treatises of Aristotle and Albert the Great. It allows Aquinas to explain the natural law of marriage as rooted in two natural inclinations of the human animal--parental care and conjugal bonding. If human reproduction were asexual, or if human offspring could survive and flourish from birth without an extended period of care by both the mother and the father, marriage would not have arisen among human beings.

Through this biological psychology, Aquinas can explain why monogamy is universal, polygyny is common, and polyandry is extremely rare. Monogamy is natural because it satisfies both of the natural inclinations of marriage--parental care and conjugal bonding. Polygyny is partly natural, because it satisfies the natural need for procreation and parental care: one man can impregnate multiple wives and provide some care for the offspring. But polygyny is partly unnatural, because the sexual jealousy of the co-wives who tend to fight over the allocation of resources subverts conjugal bonding. Polyandry is totally unnatural, because the sexual jealousy of the husbands would be so intense that they could not live together, and because the men could never be sure of their paternity. Human biological psychology makes it easier for women to share a husband than for men to share a wife.

Notice that in contrast to George's total rejection of polygyny--or what he calls "polyamorous" marriage--Aquinas is open to recognizing the partly natural character of men with multiple wives.

Aquinas' biological psychology allows him to distinguish various levels of natural law. At the "generic" level, human beings share some natural desires with other animals. At the "specific" level, human beings share some uniquely human desires that tend to characterize most human beings. At the "temperamental" level, human beings show individual variation in those natural desires. So, for example, although sexual mating is natural for most human beings, some human individuals will be temperamentally inclined to celibacy, and thus marriage will not be natural for them.

This Thomistic biological psychology of marriage is compatible with modern evolutionary science and the neuroscience of human love. I have elaborated my reasoning for this in Darwinian Natural Right, Darwinian Conservatism, and in my article "Thomistic Natural Law as Darwinian Natural Right," which is found in Social Philosophy and Policy (winter 2001), and in Natural Law and Modern Moral Philosophy, edited by Ellen Paul, Fred Miller, and Jeffrey Paul (Cambridge University Press, 2001).

In the intellectual tradition of natural right or natural law, social order is naturally rooted in the animal instinct for parental care of offspring. Darwin showed how such social instincts could develop by natural selection in evolutionary history. "The feeling of pleasure from society," Darwin suggested, "is probably an extension of the parental or filial affections, since the social instinct seems to be developed by the young remaining for a long time with their parents; and this extension may be attributed in part to habit but chiefly to natural selection."

In the middle of the nineteenth century, Lewis Henry Morgan and other anthropologists believed that marriage and family life were not natural because originally primitive human beings were completely promiscuous in their sexual intercourse, and thus there were no enduring marital or familial ties. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels adopted this idea as supporting the possibility of a communist abolition of the family. But Darwin rejected Morgan's claim. "I cannot believe that absolutely promiscuous intercourse prevailed in times past," he wrote, because the sexual jealousy of males and the instinctive tie between mother and child would naturally favor some kind of sexual pair-boning and parent-child bond.

Later, Edward Westermarck's History of Human Marriage (1891) confirmed Darwin's position by surveying the anthropological evidence for concluding that marriage and the family were universal throughout history because they were rooted in some biological instincts of human nature. Because human offspring cannot survive and flourish without intensive and prolonged parental care, natural selection would favor an instinct for parental care, particularly in mothers. And although men would be more promiscuous than women, male jealousy would incline men to be possessive about their mates. The history of marriage and the family shows a complex evolutionary interaction between natural desires, customary traditions, and prudential judgments.

While Darwinian evolutionary science shows the ultimate causes of marriage, the modern neuroscience of human psychology shows the proximate causes of marriage as rooted in at least four kinds of love--sexual lust, sexual romance, sexual attachment, and parental love.

Sexual lust is an indiscriminate drive for sexual arousal that seems to be connected with testosterone and other neurohormonal mechanisms. Sexual romance is a discriminate drive for sexual interest in some special person, and this seems to be connected with dopamine and perhaps serotonin. Sexual attachment is an enduring bond between husband and wife that ties them together even when the lust and romance has faded, and this seems to be connected to oxytocin and vasopressin. Finally, parental love is the attachment to children that seems to be reinforced by various neurohormonal mechanisms.

If monogamous marriage based on conjugal bonding and parental care is naturally good for heterosexual men and women, would it also be good for homosexual men and women? The proponents of gay marriage think so. But George does not, because he thinks that the biological nature of marriage dictates that conjugal bonding and parental care must be heterosexual and not homosexual. I agree with George insofar as I agree that homosexuals suffer from disabilities in striving for the ideal of marriage. But I disagree with George insofar as I would stress more than he does that fullest satisfaction of homosexual desires requires some approximation to the natural ideal of heterosexual marriage.

In human sexual psychology, there is a tension between the typically male desire for sexual variety and the typically female desire for conjugal intimacy, which is a product of evolution, because in evolutionary history, the desire for variety was more adaptive for men than for women. The institution of marriage helps to tame the unruly desires of men for sexual variety by forcing them to satisfy the typically female desires for conjugal stability. Ultimately, this is good for men as well as women, because men need the intimacy and security of a stable marriage, although it's often hard for men to learn this.

The problem for homosexual males, unlike heterosexual males, is that they do not have to limit their desire for variety to accommodate the female desire for stable intimacy and the parenting of offspring, and consequently homosexual males are tempted among themselves to pursue a life of unlimited promiscuity. In contrast to lesbians, who are just like heterosexual women in their desire for stable companionship and parenting, homosexual males who try to live a life of indiscriminate sexual indulgence seem unfulfilled. Ultimately, monogamous fidelity is more satisfying even for homosexual males. Some homosexuals (such as Simon LeVay and Andrew Sullivan) argue for legalizing homosexual marriages as a way of providing social encouragement for homosexual monogamy, even as they concede that monogamous commitment is usually easier for lesbians than for male homosexuals.

George correctly observes that male homosexuals tend on average to be more promiscuous than male heterosexuals, and therefore that monogamous marriage would be more difficult for male homosexuals than for male heterosexuals. But George ignores the more monogamous propensities of lesbians, and he does not consider the likely possibility that if homosexual marriages are generally legalized, lesbians are far more likely to seek out and preserve such marriages than are gay men. Moreover, George fails to see how these lesbian marriages are likely to emulate heterosexual marriages--as is suggested, for example, in the wedding of Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi, in which Ellen dressed as the groom, and Portia dressed as the bride.

Is it true, as George assumes, that without the legal enforcement of marriage licensing law by the state, marriage would disappear? Does George agree with Andrew Sullivan--a proponent of gay marriage--who insists: "Marriage is a formal, public institution that only the government can grant"? But if marriage really is rooted in some of the deepest natural desires of human beings, as George rightly recognizes, then shouldn't we expect that marriage can stand on its own natural ground independently of the state?

In his article, George says: "marriage is not a legal construct. . . . real marriage . . . has its own value and structure, whether the state recognizes it or not, and is not changed by laws based on a false conception of it. Like the relationship between parents and their children, or between the parties to an ordinary promise, real marriages are moral realities that create moral privileges and obligations between people, independently of legal enforcement." (250). And thus, "the state cannot choose or change the essence of real marriage" (252).

But if that is the case, then why does George agree with the proponents of legalized gay marriage that the reality of marriage depends upon governmental licensing? Various people--such as David Boaz and Stephanie Coontz--have argued for "privatizing marriage." Just as we have privatized religion in modern liberal societies, we could privatize marriage, in that a marriage could be established by private contracts between individuals or between families, with or without sanction by religious authorities. Matters such as marriage and religious belief can arise in a free society through the spontaneous orders of human nature and human culture in civil society, so that government would be required only to enforce the contractual commitments that individuals have undertaken by mutual consent. Such arrangements would not be radically new, because throughout most of human history, marriages have been based on informal agreements between individuals and families without any regulation by governmental law.

In response to the advocacy for legalizing gay marriage, Thomistic Christians like George should argue that marriage is not an arbitrary construction of government, but an independent moral reality rooted in natural law and--for the religious believer--in divine law.

1 comment:

Empedocles said...

I thought you were going to take the route of wondering what marriage evolved for, i.e., what is its function. What problem does it solve? Because heterosexual relationships can produce a child there are problems that need to be resolved through the creation of an institution (marriage). This institution does not need to exist in the case of homosexual relationships because there is no such problem that results.