Saturday, November 22, 2003

Brooks on Same-Sex Marriage
The Perils of Agreeing With Someone Because You Like His Conclusion

In todays NYT, David Brooks makes a conservative argument for same-sex marriage based on premisses to the effect that relatively casual sex is inherently bad. He writes:

“Anybody who has several sexual partners in a year is committing spiritual suicide. He or she is ripping the veil from all that is private and delicate in oneself, and pulverizing it in an assembly line of selfish sensations.”

But this is false. And not just a little bit false, but a lot false. Rather like:

Any woman who lets more than one man she is not related to see her face is committing spiritual suicide. She is ripping the veil from all that is private and delicate in herself and pulverizing it in… Well, you get the idea.

Sex is one of those things that tends to seem so important that we often have difficulty understanding how others could possibly view it differently than we do without error. If you’re not careful, for example, you can find yourself automatically thinking that anyone who has more (or more varieties of) sex than you do is a slut and anybody who has less is a prude. But one need not be a fuzzy-headed relativist to conclude that (a) sex and (b) the rest of human life are sufficiently complicated and mysterious so as to leave open several different plausible guesses about the nature and role of (a) in (b).

Liberals and conservatives both have a tendency to fall into confusion on this issue. Conservatives like Brooks spin myths about the inevitable destructiveness of relatively casual sex. Liberals, on the other hand, frequently say things that seem to translate as “if it feels good, do it,” when what they should be saying is “if it feels good and it doesn’t violate any moral obligations, do it.” Liberals who respond to Brooks with a vapid “anything goes!” are simply trading one error for its opposite. What they ought to point out is that conservatives tend to exaggerate the moral risks associated with sex while ignoring its intrinsic goodness.

Sexual conservatives can’t understand how someone can live a good life without limiting their number of sexual partners to approximately one, whereas I must confess that such a life seems decidedly stultifying to me. It seems relatively clear that there are excesses on both ends of the spectrum, with puritanism on one end and wanton hedonism on the other. But those aren’t the only two options. You don’t have to be some air-headed moral relativist to think that sex is a wonderful thing, and there’s a hell of a lot of space between the puritan restrictions of recent European traditions and Global Thermonuclear Sexual Nihilism. In order to reject puritanism, you don’t have to think that pleasure is the most important thing in life (in fact, that’s an extremely silly thing to think). And you don’t have to think that everything that is fun is morally permissible. Sex, like anything else, can be engaged in responsibly or irresponsibly. Sexual actions can be self-destructive or harmful to self or others. Sexual wantonness has destroyed many lives, but probably no more than sexual puritanism. Erring in either direction is erring, after all.

But in order to make Brooks’s thesis a serious one, need to know what the symptoms of having committed spiritual suicide are. This is important, because, on the face of it, a certain amount of sexual freedom and experimentation seems to be good, at least for very many people. For example, very many of the happiest, smartest, most accomplished, most well-adjusted and most humane people I know have had more than “several” sexual partners in a year, myself included. I am in no way seeking to deride the spiritual; in fact, properly construed, I am inclined to take it very seriously. Seriously enough that I would expect some detectable sign that a spiritual suicide has been committed.

The puritans are inclined to pull out the false dichotomies at this point. It’s about now that they start saying things that translate as “it’s traditional morality or nihilism!” “Traditional,” of course, means relatively recent European traditions, and if we give those up…well, of course, its earthquakes…tidal waves…dogs and cats living together—total chaos. But this just isn’t so, and it’s overwhelmingly obvious that this isn’t so. Not to Brooks, however:

“Today, individual choice is held up as the highest value: choice of lifestyles, choice of identities, choice of cellphone rate plans. Freedom is a wonderful thing, but the culture of contingency means that the marriage bond, which is supposed to be a sacred vow till death do us part, is now more likely to be seen as an easily canceled contract.”

Yes, well…cell phones… I suppose I haven’t really thought enough about telecommunications-related monogamy; but so far as the other kind of monogamy goes, I do think that if you promise to stay in a monogamous relationship with another person forever, you have a very strong obligation to fulfill that promise. And a sensible person will not make such a profound promise lightly. But that is an entirely different point. One can reasonably hold that marriage is not the only route to human fulfillment without thinking that it is permissible to break solemn promises. In fact, it seems to me that the best way to increase our respect for marriage is to make it clear that it isn’t for everyone, and that it should be entered into only after careful consideration. The best way to destroy the institution is to misrepresent it as the only morally permissible venue for love and sex. If you want to decrease the divorce rate, be honest with people about the nature of marriage, and be honest with them about the alternatives.

David Brooks is doing the right thing by trying to bring conservatives around on the same-sex marriage issue, but he’s doing it in the wrong way. And by accepting an argument based on fallacious reasons, we thereby mistakenly commit ourselves to the truth of those reasons, and thereby do more harm than good in the long term. Brooks’s argument helps same-sex couples who want to marry by harming those of us—heterosexual and homosexual—who recognize that marriage and monogamy are not the only routes to a good human life.


Blogger Jack. said...

"For example, very many of the happiest, smartest, most accomplished, most well-adjusted and most humane people I know have had more than “several” sexual partners in a year, myself included."

This sentence was unintentionally ambiguous; it could mean that you, as well as most happy people, have multiple partners, or that you are one of the sexual partners of most happy people. In short: I lol'd.

I really like your blog. You are calm and logical about something that a lot of debaters get fired up about, and you're not afraid to switch perspectives now and then to clarify your point.

Have a nice day. :)

1:23 PM  

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