Monday, January 24, 2011

Darwinian Marriage: A Response to Robert George

What difference would it make for our lives--morally, legally, and politically--if we reproduced asexually?

If you believe in a strict separation between natural facts and moral values, then you might argue that this wouldn't make any difference at all for our moral lives, because the logic of moral reasoning belongs to an autonomous realm of rational imperatives--the moral "ought"--separated from natural human needs and desires.

But to me, such a dualistic separation of human moral judgment from human bodily nature is deeply mistaken. This mistake should be clear when we reflect on how the moral experience of marriage and family life arises from our evolved human nature as sexual animals. In Darwinian Natural Right (DNR) and Darwinian Conservatism (DC), I offer a Darwinian account of marriage as shaped by our evolved natural desires for sexual identity, sexual mating, parental care, familial bonding, friendship, social status, and property (DNR, 31-32, 89-160, 261-66; DC, 28-29, 46-58).

The current debate over marriage law--and particularly, the question of whether we should legalize gay marriage--should lead us to think about the biological nature of marriage and family life. One of the most thoughtful statements to come out of this debate is the article What is Marriage? by Sherif Girgis, Robert George, and Ryan Anderson. George is one of the world's leading Catholic political philosophers, and he has offered some of the most philosophically impressive statements of the case against legalizing gay marriage. As one might expect, this latest statement has provoked responses from those defending gay marriage, such as Kenji Yoshino, a law professor at New York University. Yoshino's response to George's article has elicited a rebuttal from George, followed by another response from Yoshino, and then another rebuttal from George.

My response here to this debate will be divided into six parts. (1) I will summarize George's argument about "real marriage." (2) I will compare George's argument and Thomas Aquinas's reasoning about the biology of marriage. (3) I will comment on the Darwinian evolution of marriage. (4) I will suggest that as a result of this evolutionary history, there are potentially six different kinds of love that arise in marriage and family life. (5) I will offer a Darwinian assessment of gay marriage. (6) Finally, I will propose a Darwinian argument for resolving the debate over marriage law by privatizing marriage.

George argues that any serious debate about marriage law and the possibility of legalizing gay marriage requires an answer to the question "What is Marriage?" George answers this question with a "conjugal view" of "real marriage" as opposed to a "revisionist view." He writes:

"Conjugal View: Marriage is the union of a man and a woman who make a permanent and exclusive commitment to each other of the type that is naturally (inherently) fulfilled by bearing and rearing of children together. The spouses seal (consummate) and renew their union by conjugal acts--acts that constitute the behavioral part of the process of reproduction, thus uniting them as a reproductive unit. Marriage is valuable in itself, but its inherent orientation to the bearing and rearing of children contributes to its distinctive structure, including norms of monogamy and fidelity. This link to the welfare of children also helps explain why marriage is important to the common good and why the state should recognize and regulate it.

"Revisionist View: Marriage is the union of two people (whether of the same sex or of opposite sexes) who commit to romantically loving and caring for each other and to sharing the burdens and benefits of domestic life. It is essentially a union of hearts and minds, enhanced by whatever forms of sexual intimacy both partners find agreeable. The state should recognize and regulate marriage because it has an interest in stable romantic partnerships and in the concrete needs of spouses and any children they may choose to rear." ("What is Marriage?," pp. 246-47)

In his second rebuttal to Yoshino, George summarizes his reasoning for the conjugal view of marriage in the following five paragraphs:

"Yoshino imputes to us what he labels 'the common procreation argument' about marriage, which he thinks cannot account for the validity or value of marriages that do not produce children. But we denied that actual procreation was necessary for marriage, and defended as philosophically sound the historic law of marriage that has long regarded infertility as no impediment to matrimony. For marriage is no mere means to procreation, but valuable in itself. That is perfectly consistent with holding, as we do, that the distinctive contours of marriage are what they are in significant part because it is the kind of union that would be naturally fulfilled by having and rearing children together.

"After all, any serious account must explain how marriage differs from other types of community--and make sense of the evident fact that the idea of marriage would never have been conceived if human beings did not reproduce sexually. The view that we defend and that our legal tradition long enshrined does both: Marriage, valuable in itself, is the kind of commitment inherently oriented to the bearing and rearing of children; it is naturally fulfilled by procreation. This orientation is related to the fact that marriage is uniquely embodied in the kind of act that is fulfilled by procreation: coitus. By coitus alone, a man and a woman can be related much as the organs of a single individual are related--as parts coordinating together toward a biological good of the whole. So marriage is consummated in an act that creates in this sense a bodily union--an extension of two people's union of hearts and minds along their bodily dimension, thus making marriage a uniquely comprehensive interpersonal union. (By contrast, friendships in general are unions of hearts and minds alone, and so are characteristically embodied in conversations and joint pursuits.) Finally, in view of its comprehensiveness and its orientation to children's needs, only marriage inherently requires of its would-be participants pledges of permanence, exclusivity, and monogamy. (By contrast, friendships do not require a promise of permanence and are often enhanced, not betrayed, by openness to new members.)

"Every single sentence about marriage in the previous paragraph applies equally to any man and woman who have made and consummated their marital commitment, regardless of fertility. After all, each such sentence is just as true of a couple on their wedding night as it is after the birth of a third child. By contrast, not one of these same sentences applies to two men, two women, partnerships of three or more, or by-design temporary or open unions. If Yoshino thinks that we offer no 'principled ground' for the distinctions we make, perhaps that is because his inapt label for our view ('common procreation') has clipped and obscured it.

"Nor do we salvage the validity of childless marriages at the price of denigrating their value, as Yoshino also charges. That an orientation to procreation distinguishes marriage from other unions does not mean that procreation must be the most important aspect of a marriage, much less its sole point. Comprehensive union itself--of mind, heart and body; permanent and exclusive--is of great inherent value, and distinct from the value of general friendships (unions of hearts and minds), however deep and fulfilling in their own right. Hence infertile spouses realize an important value distinguishable in significant ways from that of other relationships.

"Moreover, in agreeing that marriage is a comprehensive union of persons but denying that it includes true bodily union, Yoshino must be reducing the person to a center of consciousness and emotion, which just uses a body as an extrinsic (and thus subpersonal) instrument for achieving satisfactions or other goals. For reasons we and others have articulated in various writings, we believe that this is a serious philosophical error, one at the heart of much contemporary confusion about the meaning of sex and marriage. In truth, our bodies are integral aspects of us as human persons, so that no interpersonal union is comprehensive if it leaves out bodily union."

I generally agree with this as an eloquent and insightful statement of the biological reality of marriage as satisfying the natural human desires for sexual identity, sexual mating, conjugal love, parental care, familial bonding, and friendship. I also agree with George's suggestions, elsewhere in his writing, that marriage is a broadly social and economic institution that helps to satisfy our natural desires for social status and property.

I am also pleased to see that George recognizes that this conjugal view of marriage as rooted in human biological nature does not depend upon religious belief or appeal to any religious authority. Marriage was not invented by religion, George insists. "Instead, the demands of our common human nature have shaped (however imperfectly) all of our religious traditions to recognize this natural institution. As such, marriage is the type of social practice whose basic contours can be discerned by our common human reason, whatever our religious background" ("What is Marriage?," 247). Thus, George seems to agree with me that while religious belief can reinforce the natural biological law of marriage, that natural law can stand on its own natural ground even without religious belief (DNR, 258-66).

I am also pleased to see that George affirms the human body as an inherent part of the human person. In some of his writing, George has inclined towards a Kantian dualism that separates pure reason from the human body, which he seems to deny here.

Although George rightly cites Thomas Aquinas as stating the conjugal view of marriage, George does not see that his denigration of "polyamorous" love as contrary to real marriage contradicts what Aquinas says about polygyny (multiple wives) as "partly natural." I agree with Aquinas that although monogamy is the most natural form of marriage, polygyny can serve some of the natural ends of marriage.

Aquinas relies on Aristotle's biology to explain the biological psychology of marriage. A Darwinian evolutionary biology can explain how this psychological nature arose as a product of evolutionary history.

Moreover, modern evolutionary science and neuroscience is beginning to explain how the various kinds of human love are rooted in the neuroendocrine systems of the brain and body.

Although I generally agree with George that gay marriage can never be "real marriage," I don't think George sees how the desire of some homosexuals for something like marriage manifests their natural desire for some approximation to heterosexual marriage.

And, finally, I don't agree with George's assumption that without the legal enforcement of marriage licensing law by the state, marriage would collapse. To me, this assumption contradicts George's claim that marriage is so deeply natural for human beings that it stands on its own natural ground independently of the state. If marriage really is an expression of human natural desires, I suggest, then it should endure even if we eliminated marriage licensing laws and privatized marriage just as we have privatized religion. In a free society, matters such as marriage and religion can be shaped by human nature and human custom in civil society, with the role of government being to enforce the social commitments that individuals have undertaken by mutual consent.

I will say more about each of these points in my next post.

1 comment:

Empedocles said...

I think that this is a way of saying that marriage has what is called these days a "teleofunction" or "proper function" (Millikan). The proper function of marriage is to solve a certain problem that arises from heterosexuality, namely, the production of children. We do not consider it unjust discrimination to exclude someone from that which they are incapable of performing the function. For example, it is not unjust to exclude someone from performing the function of computer programmer if they can not program computers. And so it is not unjust to exclude homosexual relationships from marriage. I am now going to perform the ultimate breach of blog-commenter etiquette by linking to my blog on the issue.