Douthat rightly rejects the more common right-wing arguments, e.g.:
Marriage is defined as a union between a man and a woman.
Let's stop here for a second and mull over the argument he rejects before looking at the one he apparently accepts.
First, the above is not precisely an argument, it's a premise in an argument--an argument with an unstated conclusion. (Though 'argument' is sometimes used to mean premise(es) + conclusion, and it is sometimes used to mean premise(es)...so it might seem a little odd to harp on this. But here, as is frequently the case, explicitly writing down the conclusion helps a lot.) In its full form:
(1) Marriage is defined as a union between a man and a woman
(2) The concept same-sex marriage is incoherent/contradictory
But (2) obviously false. As I've noted before, if (2) were true, then when we heard the suggestion that we allow same-sex marriages, the suggestion would sound rather like:
Let's have some round squares, then
How's about we have the draft and not have the draft at the same time, in the same respect?
If marriage were, by definition, between people of different sexes, then 'Adam and Steve are married' would sound like 'Adam and Eve are married and not-married.' But it doesn't. Because marriage is simply not by definition between people of different sexes. If it were, we wouldn't understand the proposal; but we understand if full well. It is not nonsense, even if it turns out to be bad. Trying to win in a disagreement of this kind with the definition ploy has all the advantages of theft over honest toil...except for one: it cannot succeed.
So what about the argument Douthat does accept?:
So what are gay marriage’s opponents really defending, if not some universal, biologically inevitable institution? It’s a particular vision of marriage, rooted in a particular tradition, that establishes a particular sexual ideal.
This ideal holds up the commitment to lifelong fidelity and support by two sexually different human beings — a commitment that involves the mutual surrender, arguably, of their reproductive self-interest — as a uniquely admirable kind of relationship. It holds up the domestic life that can be created only by such unions, in which children grow up in intimate contact with both of their biological parents, as a uniquely admirable approach to child-rearing. And recognizing the difficulty of achieving these goals, it surrounds wedlock with a distinctive set of rituals, sanctions and taboos.
Thing is, arguments this strong are a dime a dozen. One can almost always find something that sounds vaguely plausible to say about the superiority of anything over some other thing. Are John Deere tractors better than New Holland tractors? Well, green is the color of the earth, and there is something harmonious about...etc....
If there's something uniquely admirable about a male and a female engaging in the "mutual surrender...of their reproductive self-interest" (ah, Douthat, you smooth-talkin' romantic fool...), I can't detect it. I mean, I don't think it's unique, since two males or two females could do the same thing (that is, abjure reproducing with anyone else). And I don't see that it's particularly admirable, frankly. I mean, so long as there's no deception involved, so long as everyone's on board with it, what would be the harm in, say, the male from marriage 1 helping the female from marriage 2 produce a child? None of this is to my taste...marriage, cross-fertilization, etc...but I can't detect anything intrinsically wrong with any of it...
Anyway, advocates of same-sex marriage should be able to come up with roughly isomorphic arguments, or at least arguments of similar strength. Here's a go at it that I'm making up as I type: a child can benefit from growing up in an environment with two mothers because there is something uniquely nurturing about such a home; exposure to males can happen all over the place, but only wall-to-wall females can be uber-nurturing. Loony? Yep. Worse than Douthat's? Nope. As for two males...I dunno...ever seen a gladiator movie? I keed...I keed...
Douthat is too intellectually honest to fall for his argument for long, I'll bet.
Before I bring this fascinatin' discourse to a close, let me say that I think my distinction between formal and substantial conservatism can shed some light on all this.
I have a fair bit of respect for formal conservatism, though I have only known one or two formal conservatives in my life. The formal conservative is, basically, a Burkean, who thinks something like:
Our current social arrangements are the conclusion/output of a long, informal experiment, and, as such, should be given a significant degree of moral/political/epistemic weight.The substantial conservative, on the other hand, simply thinks that conservative positions on issues are true or rationally preferable--abortion is wrong, American might should only be used to advance American national interest, the welfare state is bad, sex is dirty, there should be prayer in school, etc. The substantial conservative has no dialectical advantage over the liberal--he has to defend each of his positions. The formal conservative, however, can say: I don't know why (e.g.) different-sex marriage is better, but the great experiment has put its stamp of approval on it; not so for same-sex marriage.
Formal conservatism, however, inches toward cultural moral relativism as it becomes more and more conservative. Tradition gets weighed more and more heavily...and eventually it becomes unclear whether or not we're talking differences in degree or differences in kind. At the point conservatives start believing (usually tacitly or unclearly) that the fact that x is traditional makes it right--i.e. constitutes its rightness--they become cultural moral relativists. At that point, the confused right is unified with the confused left. Almost no one ever actually gets to that point...that point is, rather, like a limit or a center of gravity; it's a theoretical object, posited to make sense of observations--that is, of actual positions held by actual people. Douthat approaches it when he writes:
[the Western/different-sex idea of marriage is] a particular vision of marriage, rooted in a particular tradition, that establishes a particular sexual ideal.Cultural moral relativism always fails; it's always false, always unsupported by sufficient reason. But at least Douthat is clear and honest enough to put his reasons lucidly out front, thus allowing us to identify them, understand them, and respond to them. And the obvious responses are:
1. It's not clear that that's our idea of marriage; yours, maybe--conservatives' idea. But the idea common to us, common the West, is vague enough to allow it to be worked out in various different ways.
2. Even if that is the Western idea, that doesn't make it the right one, nor the best one, nor even the only one.
Three damn cheers for Mr. Douthat for being so clear and honest.
Unless I'm missing something here, he'll be a supporter of same-sex marriage in a few years. He's just too clear and intellectually honest not to be.