Friday, February 01, 2013

Can Darwinian Conservatism Support a Pro-Marriage Coalition with Gays and Lesbians?

As indicated by his book The Future of Marriage (2009), David Blankenhorn and I are in fundamental agreement about the Darwinian evolutionary roots of marriage as explained by Edward Westermarck.  For that reason, I have been fascinated by the development of his thinking about gay marriage.

Although Blankenhorn has been one of the leading opponents of gay marriage, he has now changed his mind, and his new view is similar to what I have suggested-- that the evolutionary nature of marriage as based on spousal bonding and parental care can support gay marriage.

As the head of the Institute of American Values, and as a marriage advocate testifying in the 2010 California court case on Proposition 8, Blankenhorn has argued that only heterosexual marriage can combine the biological, social, and legal aspects of parenthood into one bond in a way that secures social order by producing and caring for children.  But now he thinks that the opposition to gay marriage is a mistake, because it distracts attention from the real problem that we face today, which is the decline in marriage, particularly for those in the middle class.  Consequently, he has proposed a new pro-marriage coalition that would combine all of those people who want to strengthen marriage--including gays as well as straight people.

Blankenhorn first announced his change of position in an article published last summer in the New York Times.  As recently reported in the Times, Robert George and other vehement opponents of gay marriage have resigned from the board of Blankenhorn's organization, and they have taken their funding with them.  In the meantime, Blankenhorn has formed a new board that includes some advocates of gay marriage under the directorship of Bill Galston (known to some of us as the Straussian liberal who was an adviser to President Clinton, and now with the Brookings Institution).  This group has just issued a statement in support of their new coalition.  The current debate is over the question, Should gays marry?  They argue that that debate has been fruitless.  A better debate would be over the question, Who among us, gay or straight, wants to strengthen marriage? 

The signers of this statement include liberals as well as conservatives, and including Jonathan Haidt, the proponent of Darwinian moral psychology who has been the subject of some of my posts.

The statement from the Institute for American Values declares:
"Why marriage?"
"Because families are the seedbeds of civil society, and marriage is the basis of the family.  Marriage creates kin.  Marriage is a wealth-producing institution.  And because marriage is the main institution governing the link between spousal association and the parent-child association, marriage is society's most pro-child institution."

"Marriage is fracturing in America.  While the nation's attention is riveted by a debate about whether a small proportion of our fellow citizens (gays and lesbians) should be allowed to marry, marriage is rapidly dividing along class lines, splitting the country that it used to unite.  While marriage is stable or strengthening among our college-educated elites, much larger numbers of Americans, particularly in middle and working-class America, are abandoning the institution entirely, with harmful social and personal consequences."
They are referring here to a new pattern in the decline of marriage that has been well surveyed by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead.  Beginning in the 1960s, declining marriage seemed to be a serious social problem in the United States mostly for poor and uneducated people in the inner cities.  But in recent decades, it has become a problem for those in the middle class who are better educated, and this decline in marriage is pushing people out of the middle class into precarious social and economic conditions where children are less likely to be nurtured in ways that will make them successful as adults.  Increasingly, the children of moderately educated mothers--high school graduates who might have some post-secondary training but no four-year college degree--have been born outside of marriage.  Many of these children will fall out of the middle class because of the consequences that flow from the mistake of their mothers in having children without first getting married.  By contrast, those mothers who finished their four-year college degrees and who married before having children are more likely to provide a secure base for the success of their children as nurtured by two parents.

I agree with Blankenhorn and his associates that this decline in marriage has little to do with same-sex couples or the move towards legalizing gay marriage.  Marriage will endure for as long as human beings have natural desires for spousal bonding and parental care that are most fully satisfied in monogamous marriages.  But the problem for us is how to best support those social practices that encourage people to see their need for monogamous marriages to satisfy their desires and to see how mistaken it is to produce children outside of marriage.  More precisely, the problem is how to use marriage to secure the attachment of men to the children they produce.

Although it is not stated as clearly as it should be, the implied assumption of this new pro-marriage coalition formed around Blankenhorn is that gay marriage could secure the two natural ends of marriage--spousal bonding and parental care.  As I have suggested in some of my posts in response to Robert George's arguments, evolved human biology supports heterosexual monogamy as the natural norm for satisfying our natural desires for spousal bonding and parental care; but still, gay men and lesbians might well approximate that norm through homosexual monogamy and same-sex adoptive parenting.

Robert George would say, yes, the decline in marriage is the root problem.  But gay marriage is part of that problem, because gay marriage is not real marriage, and for that reason, legalizing gay marriage adds to the decline in real marriage.  His claim is that it's biologically impossible for gay couples to have a real marriage, because the biological nature of real marriage is necessarily heterosexual.  While heterosexual marriage is naturally oriented to producing and caring for children, gay marriage is not.

The key point in George's argument has been stated by Sean Fieler in explaining why he withdrew his support from Blankenhorn's organization.  "The problem with gay marriage and the position David has taken is it promotes a very harmful myth about the gay lifestyle.  It suggests that gay relationships lend themselves to monogamy, stability, health, and parenting in the same way heterosexual relationships do.  That's not true." 

My response is that while this might be true of many gays, it is not true of all, particularly of those who seek a monogamous marriage with children as the fulfillment of their deepest desires.

My claim--and the implied claim of the Blankenhorn coalition--is that gay marriages with adopted children could approximate heterosexual marriages in serving the two natural functions of marriage--conjugal bonding and parental care of children.

It is significant that one of the people joining Blankenhorn's coalition is Jonathan Rauch, a gay man who wrote Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America (2004).  Rauch argues that gay marriage would be good because it would strengthen marriage, and thus it should be supported by social conservatives.  Remarkably, he admits: "If I could have designed myself in the womb, I would have chosen to be heterosexual."

In a recent post, I have commented on Robert George's book What Is Marriage?  This post includes links to my other posts on this debate.


Empedocles said...

The real problem is that marriage, as it is currently conceived, is viewed as having as its function the love of the couple involved. The only duty we attribute to marriage is the duty to oneself to maximize one happiness and marriage may, nay, must, be terminated once happiness fades as a duty to oneself. On the other hand, if marriage has as its function the prevention of the problems that result from the production of children, very different duties follow--and very different consequences for who may justifiably enter the institution. Love and happiness are the Aristotelian virtues of marriage, not its function--a catastrophic category mistake.

bjdubbs said...

I have to take issue with the idea that monogamous marriage is natural. Polygamy is prevalent across much of the world, especially in Africa.

Here is JQ Wilson on the naturalness of polygamy, via Steve Sailer:

"In Europe, where animal-drawn plows were used to farm rich land, intensive agriculture made monogamy important… In these places, men did much of the agricultural work …

In much of Africa, by contrast, farming was done by handheld hoes used to work small plots of land that were often rather infertile. Women were widely used to do the hoeing and carry in the produce.

Many husbands found that they could use extra wives to wield even more hoes, and so marrying several women made sense economically… the conditions they describe may have had important consequences for the kinds of families that had to endure the travails of slavery in the Western Hemisphere."

The point being, I don't think there should too much reliance on the naturalness of monogamy. It has many advantages, but natural might not be one of them.

Larry Arnhart said...

In some other posts, I have argued that polygyny is partly natural, partly unnatural.

It is partly natural, because one wealthy husband can impregnate multiple wives and help care for the children.

It is partly unnatural,because the sexual jealousy of the wives and their competition for the husband's resources create conflict within the household.

By comparison, polyandry is extremely rare, because by nature it's even harder for men to share a wife than for wives to share a husband.

Empedocles said...

Blackenhorn wants to save marriage but fails to consider that it is the misconception of marriage that justifies gay marriage that is what's destroying marriage.

The problem with polygyny isn't the sexual jealousy of the wives, it is the social problems that result in a society where the majority of men have no access or hope of access to women. Monogamy is the solution to these problems.

Tony Bartl said...

Dr. Arnhart,
You once seemed more attracted to the more libertarian position of getting the state out of marriage altogether. Do you now think that the benefits of marriage need the state to be involved?

Anonymous said...

Empedocles, your last comment set up a false dichotomy: by only comparing monogamy (an exclusive long-term partnership between two partners) and polygamy (an exclusive long-term partnership between more than two partners), it's necessarily very limited in its ability to suggest "solution[s]", even one assumes your factual premises are accurate.