September 29, 2011

The Wheel Goes Round

One aspect of the sexuality debates is the extent to which those opposed to same-sex marriage ground their arguments in circular reasoning. Most of them are aware enough to see how empty it sounds to say, “Same-sex couples cannot marry because marriage is only for men and women.” So their thesis usually takes a more nuanced, but no less circular, form. “Only a man and a woman can marry because only a man and a woman are capable of procreation.” When it is noted that men and women who cannot procreate are still permitted to marry, and that marriages do not end with the end of the ability to procreate, the language shifts to, “Only men and women can marry because only a man and woman are capable of performing a procreative act.” By “procreative act” they mean an act that could be procreative if the couple were procreative.

It is very easy to become caught in the linguistic and logical thicket such thinking is based on, but in the long run it is of the form, “A procreative act is an act which, if the couple were capable of procreation, would be capable of procreation.” This strange thesis entirely begs the question, in part because “acts” aren’t procreative — people are. Procreation is not a matter of form, but of substance and capacity. If the couple aren’t capable of procreation, no act they perform can be “procreative.” In the long run this is just another way of framing the assertion that only men and women can marry.

To get a bit technical, this is the assertion of a counterfactual conditional as if it were an indicative conditional. (The difference is between “X would be if Y were though it isn’t” and “X is if Y is and it is.”) Saying something “is” when it “isn’t” — though “it would be if it were” — is at the heart of this logical fallacy.

One of the exponents of this view declared that it is analogous to angling: even when a fisher fails to catch fish he is still fishing. This is a misleading analogy. The proper analogy, from the traditionalist perspective, is “sex is to procreation as angling is to catching fish” (i.e., sex and angling being the activity and procreation and catching fish the particular and assumed desired result of that activity). Sex without the possibility of procreation is sex, but it is not procreative. It is nonprocreative sex — whether whatever makes it incapable of leading to procreation is artificial (birth control) or natural (temporary or permanent infertility, or the sex of the members of the couple).

The traditionalists simply want to restrict sex to those who formally embody the capacity for procreation, whether they are actually capable of procreation or not. And that is just another way of limiting sex, and marriage, to a man and a woman: the very premise that needs to be proven. And so the wheel spins another round.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


Robert Brenchley said...

I'd argue that marriage isn't about procreation anyway. It's about community. Adam needs a partner because it's not good for him to be alone. He recognises Eve because she's 'Bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh', and I see nothing in that to preclude a same-sex partner. Procreation only comes into the story later.

For goodness' sake let's read these stories for ourselves, rather than allowing the bigots to dictate their reading to us!

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thank you, Robert. I made much the same point in my book. Genesis 2 is about overcoming solitude, and Adam gets to choose the one most like him as his partner, after God proposes the animals. God "works through" the issue rather than "planning" in advance with a clear "purpose."

Br Richard Edward Helmer BSG said...

Thanks, Dear Brother, for touching on the problems with teleological thinking. The notion that sex is a means to an end (which is part of the procreation logic) traps us into a very diminished understanding of intimacy of all kinds. How easily we do it about all kinds of relationships!

In a clergy group today, we were discussing small group ministry and found ourselves talking about having small groups as a means to some kind of end for the parish, when the deeper discovery was that the small groups themselves were blessed by grace, whether or not they fulfilled some kind of "purpose" held by leadership for the wider church.

To not lose the theme of your post, maybe this is a problem with circular thinking in general. Everything becomes a means of some kind to whatever end is in the thinker's mind...begging the question.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, RE. You've linked two things I didn't see as such before. I'm keenly aware of the teleological problem -- that is, the weakness of a teleological ethic, particularly in this case, as it reduces the couple to what comes out of them, which in practice has had greater impact on the woman! -- but I'd not seen how this ends-based approach might also incline more to circular reasoning. "We need to make widgets because that's what International Wigets, Inc., makes!"

As to your small groups: Heaven is portrayed as a banquet even though no one needs to eat...

Fr. J said...

Always interesting, Tobias. And as often is the case, I'm left with many questions.

One aspect of the sexuality debates is the extent to which those opposed to same-sex marriage ground their arguments in circular reasoning. Most of them are aware enough to see how empty it sounds to say, “Same-sex couples cannot marry because marriage is only for men and women.”

Why is this circular? Substitute in another example: Porcupines cannot marry because marriage is only for human beings. Is that circular? Why or why not?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Fr. J., it is important to distinguish between fallacy and falseness. Circular reasoning is fallacious -- though it may produce statements that are true. The formal error in circular reasoning is called "petitio principii" or "assuming the conclusion" or "begging the question." It is fallacious because it offers as a reason or argument the very thing that is being questioned.

Thus, as the question is, "Can same sex couples marry?" it is not an argument to say, "No, because only a man and a woman can marry." It presumes the question is already settled by an antecedent reason, which is the very topic under discussion, and is not agreed to as a premise. In logical argument, you have to start with premises that are agreed to or otherwise evident, and move step by step to a conclusion. When one of the premises is merely a different form of the conclusion, you have circular reasoning.

Put the assumption in its proper place and you might see the problem:

1) Only a man and a woman can marry.
2) This couple does not consist of a man and a woman.
3) They cannot marry.

This is actually a good example of correct logic -- assuming (1) is true. But (1) is, in our controversies, the point not agreed with or accepted as true -- it is what needs to be proved, so it cannot be admitted as a term in an argument proving itself. That is begging the question.

Your porcupine argument is accepted precisely because people would accept the premise "Only humans can marry."

Deacon Charlie, as I say, it isn't always that obvious, but that is the pattern of the assumed premise! But I would leave the pigs to one side with the porcupines! I respect my interlocutors too much to relish that analogy, though the annoyance and frustration may be real.

Fr. J said...

I won't go too many rounds with you on this one. I'm not nearly as well read in philosophy as you are, and for me the matter is purely theological. I find secular arguments about marriage, one way or the other, almost always fallacious.

But yes, my point in bringing up the "porcupine" question is that your post seems to assume exactly what you're saying traditionalists assume, that we all have some common understanding of what marriage is already, in the same way that we understand what a table is or a spoon, or even something as abstract as a parent and a child. Except that the liberal assumption is not just about what marriage is but also about what sex is, what a man is, what a woman is, etc.

What traditionalists observe is the plain fact that, whatever else it has been, marriage has throughout history and across cultures been a union of a man and a woman that creates family (not just in terms of pro-creation, although that is obviously a part of it, but through the joining of the partners themselves). That distinction, in fact, is much more fundamental than the contemporary western notion of marriage as companionship based on romantic love. Whatever else we have meant by marriage, we have always meant the creation of family through the joining of the sexes.

The pro "same sex marriage" position, however, starts from the notion that marriage has nothing at all to do with gender. The questions thus multiply. What is the historical basis for such a claim? Does this mean that there is no discernible difference between a joining of a man and a woman and a joining of two men or two women? What is a man? What is a woman? Are these purely arbitrary distinctions or is there something concrete and true about the reality of manhood and womanhood? We cannot even begin to discuss ethics and teleology until we first address the radical ontology that is being snuck in without so much as a pause for debate.

Whatever folly there is in beginning the conversation at pro-creation purely as an act and a function, there is equal if not greater folly in beginning by assuming that nothing significant is changed by re-defining marriage in a way that completely cuts it off from its historical and ontological root.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Fr. J., first of all, there is a difference between "fallacious" and "false" as I tried to note. I also cannot help that you are not well read in philosophy and logic.

But if you don't understand the concept of "begging the question" -- which you continue to do here -- read the Wikipedia article. I took a look at it after my last response, and it is much clearer than my own poor effort.

Let me also clarify that I am not assuming that there is a common understanding of what marriage is. To do so would be to ignore the problem we face in the same question-begging way. I am in fact saying that we do not have an agreement as to the nature of marriage, and I am attempting to show that the traditional definition is inadequate, as it does not in fact cover all of the evidence.

There are a number of definitions that do: the classical Jewish definition required fertility -- it saw marriage as primarily if not solely geared to procreation, based on God's first commandment to humans. This meant requiring divorce for women found sterile, enouraged polygamy, opposed celibacy, and provided for Levirate marriage. Christianity upset this neat system by reversing most of those logical safeguards. "Companionship marriage" is not a result of the 19th century, but the first.

You make a number of assertions here. Some are false. (You are mistaken in your history. There have been many human cultures in which same-sex marriage was recognized. There are also many different forms of marriage involving heterosexuals, all of them forming different models of "family." This is a matter of historical fact, and well documented in the social science literature.) Beyond that, even if it were true that marriage always had one specific form, that is not in itself a reason it cannot take another form. (You might be interested to know that this is also a fallacy in argument, the "appeal to tradition." Again, see Wikipedia for more...)

Much of the rest of your comment is more question-begging. For you the foundational premise is unassailable, and you cannot admit that it is not as self-evident as you seem to think it to be.

You raise interesting questions, but provide no real answers when you say, "What is a man? a woman? And is there a concrete reality to manhood and womanhood?"

So I ask, if there is, what is it? What does this radical ontology -- different in men and women -- consists of. What explanation for your position do you have to offer. It is not enough simply to say, "Isn't it obvious." If you wish to lay out a case for that difference in ontology -- please do; but beware of the difficulties inherent in such an assertion, some of which I have addressed in Reasonable and Holy. If you are going to assert an "ontology" for men and women, it must be something that applies to all men and to all women without exception. Otherwise you are dealing with accident, not essence.

Finally, the reason the discussion so often starts with procreation is due to the fact that that is where the "defense of marriage" normally starts -- rather than with a purported difference in the ontology of men and women.

Br. Chris said...

Although I do not have the intellect or the aptitude for scholarly detail that Tobias has, I was fortunate enough to go to Boston College, which required that all undergraduates take courses in logic and philosophy. Philosophical systems can provoke heated arguments, but the principals of logic cannot. "Begging the Question" is a matter of holding unsupported assumptions, usually unconsciously, which prevent one from seeing a logical fallacy. To take a ridiculous example: "I have a dog. My dog is red." "No he isn't. Your dog is clearly black." "No that's impossible. All dogs are red; therefore my dog must be red." The fallacy here is obviously the belief that "All dogs are red" and the rest of the argument, though logical in itself, is absurd because it is based on this fallacy. This is akin to stating that marriage can only be between one man and one woman because that is the definition of marriage. Therefore all arguments to the contrary must be dismissed, but the assumption is never tested. The fact that there have been many different models of marriage throughout history, even within the Judeo-Christian tradition, or the fact that our current model of marriage is basically taken from the civil marriage practices of the pagan Roman Empire, are ignored because they do not conform to the stated assumption. If opponents of same-sex marriage want to make any sort of credible case for their position, they must address this logical fallacy.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, Br. Chris. That is exactly the problem.

IT said...

It has been argued that the biggest challenge to marriage is not gay people like us getting married, but the movement in gender roles to equality (e.g., by Stephanie Coontz). In this regard, same sex marriage is really the next step in empowering of women.

"Traditional" marriage really was about property exchange between men, with the woman being a currency between them. Think of how radical the change when society evolved to recognize that we should choose our own partners,not have them chosen for us!

And then think of the radical change in the role of those partners. Within the last century, Women could not vote. Women could not hold property independent of their husband. Women could not use contraception without their husband's permission. Women could be beaten, even raped, by their husbands, perfectly legally. Thus, women were essentially owned by men.

Those shackles of subservience have been slowly removed. A husband no longer owns his wife, her body, or her property. Now, we see marriage as a partnership of equals. We don't mandate different rules or behavior for men and women in marriage. We treat them equally under law.

Same sex marriage equality is therefore a completely logical extension in this ongoing social revolution in marriage.

And it's no surprise the the primary conservative argument against same sex marriage comes from those who regret the equality between the sexes.

More on Stephanie Coontz' work discussed here at GMC, the blog no one reads.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, IT. It should be obvious that the major opponents of SSM are also those who insist on a "signigicant" difference between the sexes -- usually including the relegation of women to a more limited set of "appropriate" roles in society. Thanks for the reminder!

In the meantime, I'm working on a response to the allegations of "difference" with a focus on what really is different; and the issue of where procreation fits in relation to sex, and the allegation that "companionate" marriage is some kind of modern invention. All of this takes a back seat to preparation for my trip to Africa for a major international conference on sexuality and dialogue, hosted by Chicago Consulatation and the Ujamaa Center.

Fr. J said...

I wrote a long reply several days ago. Did it fall into comment purgatory?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Sorrry to hear that... there is a 4,096 character limit on Blogger, and unfortunately not much of a warning to alertbefore the comment goes to limbo, if not purgatory. Try posting in pieces.. I look forward to seeing it, though I will be traveling the next 2 weeks.

Fr. J said...

Ah, fooey. Well, never mind then. I'm sure we'll have plenty of opportunity to pick the conversation up again in the future. Have a good trip!

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thank you, Fr. J. I'm now at the airport in CapeTown, where the internet access is ever so much better; I'm also dealing with a tablet computer that is not the best at email...:-(

I do hope to post the fruit of some fabulou bible studies with S Arican, Zimbabwean, Ugandan and Nigerian attendees at the Conference!