Sunday, June 05, 2011

Joseph O'Leary Responds to Carson Holloway's Arguments Against Gay Marriage

Recently on his blog Catholic commentator Joseph O'Leary (right) offered a thoughtful and insightful critique of Carson Holloway's essay, "Same-Sex Marriage and Human Flourishing," in which Holloway contends that "public recognition of unions contrary to human flourishing will hurt, not help, the happiness of those who participate in them."

Although I'm loathe to reproduce Holloway's uninformed diatribe at The Wild Reed, I nevertheless do so as O'Leary's responses to its key points are well worth sharing. This is because Holloway's article reiterates the common arguments of those hostile and/or dismissive of same-sex marriage and gay people in general. The more we can share and thus educate ourselves about the critiques and challenges to such arguments the better we can advocate for respect, compassion and justice for LGBT individuals, couples and families.


Same-Sex Marriage and Human Fulfillment

By Carson Holloway
June 1, 2011

Public recognition of unions contrary to human flourishing
will hurt, not help, the happiness of those who participate in them.

Joseph O'Leary's response: Gay couples do in fact flourish humanly on the stability, mutual support, and affective realization that their union generates. This phenomenon is never adverted to by the author, who really does not seem to care very much about the human flourishing of real human beings.

Is there anything of substance to be gained for homosexuals from the current quest for same-sex marriage?

At its inception, the “gay rights” movement could reasonably present itself as a struggle against societal oppression. Forty years ago, American law in most states punished homosexual acts as criminal offenses. In many cases the penalties attending such laws were severe. In Bowers v. Hardwick—the 1986 Supreme Court decision upholding Georgia’s anti-sodomy statute—Justice Lewis Powell observed with understandable concern that the law at issue in that case permitted a sentence of up to twenty years in prison for the commission of a single homosexual act. In addition to such a legal landscape, homosexuals confronted a rather censorious culture. Mainstream America not only looked upon homosexual acts with disapproval, but also treated homosexual persons as objects of ridicule (at best) and hostility (at worst).

This is not to concede the claim often deployed by gay rights activists that such traditional laws and mores were based upon nothing but an irrational and malicious hatred of homosexuals. Such a claim unjustly overlooks ancient philosophical and religious beliefs that deeply influenced the Western understanding of the purposes of human sexuality, an understanding that included principled grounds upon which to view homosexual acts as morally disordered. It is, after all, hardly plausible that such beliefs were invented for no other reason than to justify hatred of homosexuals. It is to admit, however, that society’s earlier strictures against homosexuality could reasonably be viewed—even by those who still today disapprove of homosexual conduct—as uncharitable and excessively punitive.

O'Leary: By the same reasoning, one might argue that Jews should not be too uppity; after all it is only 66 years since we used to put them in concentration camps; or Blacks, whom we kindly relieved from being our slaves.

Homosexuals today face a markedly changed legal and cultural environment. Criminal anti-sodomy statutes, seldom enforced in the first place, have now been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in Lawrence v. Texas (2003). Moreover, the Lawrence decision has been greeted by very little protest even from the most conservative defenders of traditional sexual morality, most of whom, despite their disapproval of homosexual acts, have no interest in seeing such acts punished as crimes. Indeed, American culture overall is more tolerant of homosexuality now than it has ever been. The ridicule and anger that homosexuals once faced is no longer mainstream but is now itself the object of mainstream disapproval.

O'Leary: By the same token, it might be argued that ridicule of Jews is now disapproved of and that those who disapprove of the Jewish religion no longer persecute it. So why should there be movements defending Jews against defamation, for example?

Despite these changes, the gay rights movement persists. Having succeeded in changing American law and culture to such a remarkable extent in such a short time, it has moved on to a new quest, the quest for same-sex marriage. This new goal is different in kind from the ones already achieved: it is not so much a demand to be freed from evils imposed by society as it is a demand for positive public benefits, specifically the benefits that attend marriage. It is a mistake, however, to think that the same-sex marriage movement is aimed primarily at acquiring the material benefits and legal prerogatives that accompany publicly recognized marriage. The aim, rather, is equality of public recognition or approval.

O'Leary: This is what Mark Shea calls “gay blackshorts on the march” – but as in the case of inter-racial marriage or Jewish-Christian marriage, it does not seem to be such an unreasonable request. Which is why it is winning the battle of public opinion, and is also being taken up by reputable theologians.

This is most obvious in the ongoing federal lawsuit brought against California’s constitutional provision defining marriage as a union of one man and one woman, a suit that has no other object but equal recognition of—that is, equal public status or honor for—homosexual relationships. California already has a law recognizing the domestic partnerships of committed homosexual couples. That law affords homosexual relationships some measure of public status, and it bestows upon them the same legal benefits as heterosexual marriage. The extent of California’s legal “discrimination” against homosexuals, then, is that the state has sought to reserve a traditional and honorable title for heterosexual unions. This is all that is at issue in the Proposition Eight lawsuit, and it demonstrates that the aim of the same-sex marriage activists behind it is equality of public recognition.

O'Leary: If that is all that is at issue, the Proposition Eight people made a huge tactical error in spreading the message that gay were out to destroy marriage and corrupt our children.

It is not clear, however, that the quest for same-sex marriage offers any substantive good to those on whose behalf it is so insistently demanded. Put another way, it is hard to see why such an absolute equality of public recognition should be essential to the happiness of homosexuals. Let me explain.

The strongest argument against same-sex marriage—in the sense of the argument with the deepest philosophic roots, or the argument that gets to the most fundamental issues at stake—is that homosexual activity is contrary to the natural law. This argument is either true, or it is not.

O'Leary: There is no considered and rational argument on the matter. Those who declare that homosexual acts are against natural law usually have not examined the case against this view. They have to maintain that the homosexual orientation itself is unnatural, which has never been established by rational argument or observation. Also, they generally do not know what Natural Law means, and confuse it with biologistic taboos. Holloway is a fan of Larry Arnhart, who has attempted to reground Natural Law in Darwinism: see here. If I were Arnhart, I would be embarrassed to see my thought put to such use. I reviewed Arnhart's first book (on Aristotle's rhetoric) favorably, and would be surprised to find him backing primitivistic conceptions of natural law. I see that another reader of Arnhart has refuted someone with the same views as Holloway: see here.

If it is true, then publicly sanctioned same-sex marriage will contribute nothing substantial to the happiness of homosexuals. There are various understandings of natural law, but all present the natural law as a reality that exists independent of human opinion, a rule for human flourishing that human beings can ignore only at their own peril. On this view, the real issue in human happiness is the moral quality of our lives and not how they are regarded by society at large. As Socrates explains to his young interlocutors in Plato’s Republic, the actual being of the soul, and not its mere seeming, is decisive for human happiness. That is to say, happiness is the fruit of the proper functioning of the human soul, so that character, and not reputation or opinion, is the source of genuine flourishing. On this understanding, Socrates explains, a just soul, one ruled according to reason, is happier than an unjust one, regardless of whatever praises are heaped upon the successfully unjust man by a corrupted public opinion.

Accordingly, if homosexual conduct really is, as its natural law critics contend, a perversion of human desires and capacities, a wrenching of them away from their natural purposes, then such conduct will be a source of frustration and unhappiness regardless of whether society bestows its “recognition,” and hence its approval, on it. On this view, there is nothing of substance to be gained from same-sex marriage even for homosexuals. Indeed, if traditional natural law theorists are correct in their assessment of homosexual conduct, then same-sex marriage would be not only pointless but positively damaging, to the extent that it could mislead people to their own harm by bestowing a spurious respectability on an objectively disordered way of life.

O'Leary: The false psychology that sees gays as wrenching sex away from its natural heterosexual expression shows the Neanderthal character of this appeal to natural law.

But of course the proponents of same-sex marriage adamantly deny the truth of the traditional natural law critique of homosexual conduct. On the contrary, they hold that this natural law critique is, despite its philosophic pretensions, a mere prejudice with no basis in nature or reason. For them, homosexual relationships are naturally enriching to those who desire them, and for that reason they deserve the same public recognition that heterosexual unions enjoy. Once again, however, Socrates’ point about the priority of nature to opinion, or of being to seeming, of soul to reputation, indicates that, if this view is correct, same-sex marriage would be nothing more than a needless addition to a naturally fulfilling undertaking.

O'Leary: It is absurd to appeal to Socrates on this. The priority of being over seeming could not mean for Socrates the priority of biologistic definitions of sex over the instinct of Eros (which is predominantly homosexual in Socrates and Plato).

In Socrates’ time, the philosophic life was largely held in disrepute, thought to be the province of the unmanly and the politically unserious. According to Socrates, however, this negative reputation posed no serious impediment to his happiness precisely because the pursuit of wisdom is by nature a source, indeed the highest source, of human happiness. To take a less lofty example, contemporary American society loads massive amounts of attention and honor on sports at all levels, and hardly any at all on chess. This huge disparity in recognition, however, makes no difference at all to the true chess lover: precisely because he experiences chess as fulfilling his natural faculties and desires he has no interest in what other people think about his love for the game. Indeed, if the supposed lover of chess were to demand indignantly that his activity deserves recognition on a par with other games, we would rightly suspect that there is, in fact, some deficiency in the intrinsic satisfactions of chess that he seeks to make up through the more superficial satisfactions of recognition or public honor. In sum, if our activities are the genuine seat of happiness, then the quest for “recognition” of same-sex unions is really just the pursuit not of a reality but of a mere appearance.

The preceding argument does not hold that reputation is a matter of complete indifference. We are sociable beings. Hence we crave honor and feel the sting of disgrace. Accordingly, gays would be pursuing something of serious value if they were trying to overcome disgrace. But they do not now live in disgrace. Their lives are now viewed as a legitimate minority alternative. Their being known as homosexuals does not preclude their winning public recognition on other grounds. They are, again, merely seeking equality of public recognition. But this is not a making up of some serious deficiency, and it is in fact the kind of mild lack that is endured by everyone who pursues some love that is tolerated but not wholly understood or endorsed by the public at large. (We might also add that it is strange for a movement that began by presenting itself as a bold repudiation of conventional morality now to be demanding conventional recognition.)

O'Leary: It is true that the gay movement has changed. But surely a moral thinker should be happy with this, rather than wishing that it had remained devoted to repudiating conventional morality? Also, it is very unphilosophical to treat “recognition” as a surface matter – as Fichte and Hegel showed, it is essential to human dignity and happiness.

There is, moreover, a further emptiness in this quest for equal recognition. The progress of same-sex marriage in American politics has been almost entirely the result not of legislation but of litigation. The final, national victory of same-sex marriage, if it comes, will come as the result of a ruling of the Supreme Court of the United States issued not only without the consent of a majority of Americans, but even against the legally expressed will of majorities in a majority of states. Public recognition of same-sex marriage is demanded as a sign of equal public acceptance, but the mode in which it is being sought ensures that the acceptance will be fraudulent. It will be in fact not a public acceptance but the acceptance of a legal and political elite that is able to force its will on the public.

O'Leary: The rights of Blacks and Jews did not have to wait for a numerical majority to be recognized; the rule of law is not dependent on mob sentiment; and in any case polls show increasing popular support for gay marriage or civil unions.

Given the substantial—unprecedented, in fact—toleration and freedom that homosexuals already enjoy, and given the inevitable sense of grievance that a victory through litigation will produce in the defenders of traditional marriage, the proponents of same-sex marriage should ask themselves whether it is really worthwhile to exert themselves so much, and to so roil the politics of their country, in the pursuit of absolute equality of recognition.

O'Leary: The sense of grievance referred to will prevail among the dwindling group of the disgruntled in any case. The entire essay reeks of a distancing and condescending attitude to gays, to say the least, as if the author had never met a gay individual.

Carson Holloway is political scientist and the author most recently of The Way of Life: John Paul II and the Challenge of Liberal Modernity (Baylor University Press).

O'Leary: Once again the papacy gets itself associated with dismal and meretricious anti-gay arguments. (HT/Mark Shea)

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Tips on Speaking as a Catholic in Support of Marriage Equality
Responding to Bishop Tobin's Remarks on Gay Marriage
Marriage Equality: Simple Answers to NOM's Complicated Lies
Nathanial Frank on the Natural Law Argument Against Same-Sex Marriage
Evan Wolfson on the "Basic Biology" Argument Against Same-Sex Marriage
Marianne Duddy-Burke on Religious Liberty vs. Same-Sex Marriage
Joseph Palacios: "The Church is Not the Victim"
A "Fruit" Reflects Upon the Meaning of "Fruitfulness"


Sage said...

I agree with your decision to reprint Holloway's arguments, horrifying as they are. O'Leary's critique's would have less impact and clarity without them. Thanks Michael!

colkoch said...

Truthfully, all of Holloway's arguments could be used against the idea that secular society has any reason to extend any kind of benefits or honors to heterosexual marriage. Benefits for parenting yes, because society has a vested interest in it's children and their future. No so much so with recognizing contractual marriage between adults--either gay or straight.

Nice job Joe. You were nicer than I would have been.

Terence Weldon said...

Ignore the question of public recognition, which is a red herring. Otherwise, it is clearly true that "Unions contrary to human flourishing will hurt, not help, the happiness of those who participate in them" - this is why we need provision for same-sex marriage.

In a predominantly heteronormative world, too many people are being duped into the mistaken belief that only in heterosexual marriage can they live happily ever after. This is simply not true. For some people, myself included, the attempt to live in heterosexual marriage in full accord with Vatican doctrine had disastrous results.

In my case, and also that of countless other gay and lesbian Catholics, true flourishing became possible only with a same-sex partner. Fortunately, most Catholics recognize this(and also many Catholic theologians, as O'Leary observes.

It is only the oligarchs of the Vatican and their loyalists who are being left behind, as the Church as a whole adjusts its thinking to take account of actual evidence.