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August 21, 2004

Ganders Taking Ganders, or On Moral Sex

Whether it indicates that a fundamental principle has gone askew or that rhetoric must tilt to match a false conclusion, arguments on behalf of same-sex marriage seem often to mirror the object of their advocacy. The closer the marriage proposal is pushed toward the ideals of traditional marriage, the more the supporting arguments will manage to be just a bit off, and the points of distinction, in the resulting disputes, can be frustratingly difficult even to isolate, let alone resolve. Such is the case with the procreation -> contraception -> homosexuality line of thought that Jon Rowe pursues in the comments to my post on Governor McGreevey.

In his phrasing, however, Rowe may have left an opening by which to reveal the underlying gaps. Start with the last paragraph of the two contiguous comments to which I am responding:

The point that I am trying to make, "procreation" is a really weak place park a justificatory basis for sex. As Andrew Sullivan says, just because this is what sex CAN be about, doesn't mean that this is what sex MUST be about.

If by "park" Rowe means "rely upon exclusively," I happen to agree; in fact, I'd suggest that sex is at its best when it incorporates various justificatory bases. In terms of Catholic morality, in which I'll consolidate a broader ethics for my purposes with this post, sex becomes nearly sacred when it is both unitive and procreative, with the latter quality modified with "open to."

The former quality relates to Rowe's statement that "sex for the purpose of expressing love, cementing relationships, relieving stress, is legit." It would seem, therefore, with the possible exception of the reductive palliative of stress relief, that some common ground exists; indeed, Sullivan relies heavily on Catholic teachings, in this respect. Where the matter complicates for the traditional side, and where those taking Rowe's position insist on a narrow absolutism, is when a particular sexual act is not open to procreation; Rowe writes:

If the natural teleology of sex is procreation, then nothing could be more "unnatural" than contraception (according to this teleology). If we accept contraception as legit. as I think we should, then we necessarily accept that sex wholly cut off from its procreative teleology, i.e., sex for the purpose of expressing love, cementing relationships, relieving stress, is legit.

"Teleology" is one of those words that seem intended to distract one's opposition with a trip to the dictionary. If we understand, however, that "teleology" indicates a type of study, doctrine, or comprehension, then Rowe's use of it would seem to go further than he intends, and if it doesn't go that far, then it undermines his argument.

Catholics (or others) who pay attention to the various skirmishes as our faith evolves, including the determination of where it can evolve, will know that there's some debate about what constitutes openness to procreation. It is probably fair to say that the irreducible essence of the concept is that the sex must involve the two distinct sexual organs' being used in the manner in which they were designed to act as one, within a context — marriage — that emotionally and practically situates the man and woman to become one in the person of a child and unite all together as a family.

Note, though, that being open to procreation is not the same as succeeding at it, and the intra-Catholic debate centers around the degree to which a husband and wife can, by their own efforts, avoid success. Here, Rowe's notion of "procreative teleology" becomes useful, as the understanding of a purpose that sex must not contradict, even if it doesn't always fulfill it. Approaching the concept in this way, however, it becomes obvious that what Rowe has asserted as something that we must "necessarily accept" is, in fact, a question: Is contraceptive sex "wholly cut off from its procreative teleology"?

To say "yes," as Rowe does, is to conflate not only an outlook and an act, but also various methods of contraception, some of which do cause the act to contradict the outlook, and some of which don't. (See here for my description of the substantive difference between "natural family planning" and condom use.) Simply put, moral sex is that for which it isn't possible to separate the unitive and procreative aspects of the act, which is what makes sex that is purely about the restricted, two-person bond between the partners illegitimate. It would also make sex that is purely reproductive illegitimate. And this brings us to Rowe's supposed proof that procreation is inadequate as the exclusive marker of moral sex:

The strange thing is, polygamy and incest are procreative. So if procreation is our guide, those two forms of sex are fine.

It's true that bestiality, like homosexuality, is inherently non-procreative. So is sex with a pre-pubescent child (but not with a post-pubescent 13 or 14 year old: that passes our "procreation" test). But then again, so too is sex with a post-menopausal woman. So too is heterosexual oral & anal sex. So to is getting a tubal ligation or a vasectomy.

The first thing to note is that Rowe has illustrated precisely why contraception, even if accepted as "legit." in some circumstances, doesn't thereby legitimate pursuit of any particular benefit that non-procreative sex might provide. Whatever it might mean that "nothing could be more 'unnatural' than contraception," it remains true that all of the various activities that he lists are inherently contraceptive. By his reasoning, therefore, they would all be "unnatural," and with room to layer particular detriments on top of that quality.

Now, we could argue about the sex lives of grandmothers and never resolve our fundamental differences, but the point that I'm trying to make is that, other than providing those taking his side with a chuckle at turning the table on the traditionalists, Rowe's rhetoric is utterly irrelevant unless he (1) intends to argue that no justificatory basis is adequate to make distinctions about various sex acts or (2) is on his way to explaining why another basis would be a stronger defense to exclude acts that we presumably agree ought to be considered immoral.

If his intention is number 1, then he will quickly be drowned out by expressions of disgust at the possibilities. If it is number 2, then I'd suggest that he's embarked on an impossible quest. The only adequate justificatory basis is one that encompasses the totality of moral sex as traditionally conceived. To borrow and modify an image from commenter Ben Bateman, those seeking to remove the panel of procreation from the wall around marriage so that they can fit through seem conspicuously uninterested in truly explaining why the wall will remain standing, holey as it would be, or where a new wall can be built to preserve the institution.

Posted by Justin Katz at August 21, 2004 3:25 AM
Marriage & Family
Comments

Jon's main error is in his wild oversimplification of the other side's goal. He reduces our goal for sex to "procreation," which he tacitly defines as the production of as many babies as possible. But that isn't our goal. If we wanted maximum baby production, then we would support public orgies.

What supporters of sexual morality (we proud few) mean by reproduction is much more complex: We want babies produced under good circumstances. Ideally, this means that the baby's parents are married to each other, love each other, intend to stay married to each other for the rest of their lives, have the physical resources to support the child, and plan to devote lots of their time and attention to raising the child. We would also like large numbers of babies, but only if we can maintain the quality of their circumstances. I see the debate over contraception in the Catholic Church as mostly about balancing quantity and quality.

Once we properly understand the goal, then we can see that Jon destroyed it in simplifying it, which is why his conclusions are so silly.

Yes, polygamy and incest can manufacture babies, as can sex outside of marriage. But they don't usually create quality circumstances for the children they produce.

Yes, there are many accepted sexual practices among married couples that don't directly produce babies, including contraception and oral sex. But those practices usually strengthen the couple's emotional bond, which is good for their present or future children.

Yes, infertile OS couples marry, and we would allow them to marry even if it were practical to stop them. In marrying, they are still upholding and participating in a public ideal: Men and women should pair off and commit to each other, because in general that's good for children.

I don't approach this from a religious standpoint; I take a public policy view. The goal is the perpetuation of our society. Our nation is like a living organism in that it must find a delicate balance in many different areas in order to survive. Simplistic moral absolutism doesn't work.

Let's apply Jon's style of thinking to our own bodies: Is it good for you to eat? Then you should eat as much as you can hold. Is it bad to eat too much? Then don't eat--ever. Is it good to have sex? Then have sex five times a day. Is it bad to have too much sex? Then never have sex. Should we sleep all the time, or never? Exercise constantly, or not at all?

Life is too complex for this kind of thinking. Sexual morality and marriage are central to our society's life. Without plenty of children--good children, brought up well--our society will not survive. Like many great nations before us, if we lose interest in our own perpetuation, then we will eventually fall to some other society that takes its future more seriously. No amount of moral absolutism, moral relativism or other sophistry can change that. We cannot long ignore the requirements of life and the possibility of death, no matter what the courts say.

Posted by: Ben Bateman at August 21, 2004 1:19 PM

"Yes, there are many accepted sexual practices among married couples that don't directly produce babies, including contraception and oral sex. But those practices usually strengthen the couple's emotional bond, which is good for their present or future children.

Yes, infertile OS couples marry, and we would allow them to marry even if it were practical to stop them. In marrying, they are still upholding and participating in a public ideal: Men and women should pair off and commit to each other, because in general that's good for children."

Just as I thought. Your view: Marriage isn't about procreation, rather it's about heterosexuality. Period.

BTW: What about the ideal for children, of whom a small but significant % (2-3), will become homosexual? Aren't stable, committed, long-term gay marriages better ideals and "models" for the next generation of gays than the sexual anarchy that dominates part of the gay male subculture?

"Let's apply Jon's style of thinking to our own bodies: Is it good for you to eat? Then you should eat as much as you can hold. Is it bad to eat too much? Then don't eat--ever. Is it good to have sex? Then have sex five times a day. Is it bad to have too much sex? Then never have sex. Should we sleep all the time, or never? Exercise constantly, or not at all?"

It seems to me that the message that folks of your mindset give to homsosexuals is, "don't eat -- ever."


Posted by: Jon Rowe, Esq. at August 21, 2004 5:39 PM

Jon,

Seems to me that you're entirely ignoring who's on the offensive, here.

There's a rhetorical ploy, frequent on your side, declaring that the collection of ideals that necessitate that marriage not be expanded to include same-sex couples isn't about the ideals, really, but about what they necessitate. Put another way, you keep circling around to our conclusion and restating it as if you've uncovered some nefarious hidden opinion. "Aha! You're saying that marriage is about opposite-sex couples! I knew it!" Put yet another way, there isn't an argument — made, imaginable, or unimaginable — that could legitimate our opinions, in your view, because the conclusion is inherently illegitimate.

Well, yes, marriage is "about heterosexuality. Period." — as long as, in "heterosexuality," you include the millennia of accumulated and refined principles behind marriage. It isn't about "heterosexuality" in the sense that marriage ought to be a celebration of our sexual appetites, but in the sense that marriage aligns with the nature of what opposite-sex couples can do and what they represent.

You're being unjustifiably reductive. It makes no more sense to complain that "marriage is about heterosexuality" than that it is "about twopersonism" or "heterofamiality."

Now, it's a reasonable complaint, on your end, that society has no "policy" for homosexuals. In fact, Andrew Sullivan's argumentation was by far at its strongest when that was his focus, with Virtually Normal. The demand was to formulate some way of dealing with a minority of citizens, and "marriage" was his suggestion. To the extent that SSM advocates' argument is about cultural guidance for homosexuals, rather than assertions of rights, over the years, Sullivan's approach transformed (or perhaps what it concealed came to light) into a demand that marriage must be the answer.

Posted by: Justin Katz at August 21, 2004 7:26 PM

I think that the way that many anti-gay marriage folks would not deny marriage to couples who cannot possibly procreate or those that have no plan on doing so, -- or the way in which we do not bat an eye at couples who go through their entire lives, whether accidentally or intentionally, without having children -- simply shows that "procreation" is not the be all & end all of marriage. And that there are some unions, like gay ones, that have absolutely nothing to do with "begetting" (like John Kerry's) that exist perfectly fine along side of those that do.

In other words to say that *in theory* men & women can procreate, therefore any man & woman can marry even if such marriages have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with begetting...this strikes me as a pretty weak -- grasping at straws -- connection between say John Kerry's marriage & procreation. My point was that this argument strikes me more as "marriage = heterosexuality" regardless of any connection to procreation.

Saying that marriage is about heterosexuality because "marriage aligns with the nature of what opposite-sex couples can do" (i.e., procreate) to me, gives the message that non-procreating marriages are, if not unqualified for marriage, then at least in some way deficient as compared to those marriages who do have children. I'd say that many of such childless couples are likely to be insulted by the overemphasis of marriage with procreation. Perhaps they will more likely support gay marriages because of this.

On a different note, I think Rauch's new book (which I've skimmed through and plan on reading) focuses more on cultural guidance for homosexuals as opposed to "rights."

Although I wouldn't be so quick to discount "rights" entirely.

I think that if you view marriage as a collection of rights (many of which have changed over time and differ from country to country), we can make a stronger case that society ought not to deny gay couples those same rights. In that case the answer would be civil unions with the exact same set of rights as "marriage," but without the name. And of course gay couples would remain free to call themselves "married."

Which leads me to my next thought: Are we just fighting about a word? Because if we are, I would support civil unions (as long as they grant every single right) for gays, "marriage" for straights.

Posted by: Jon Rowe at August 21, 2004 8:19 PM

Jon: "Your view: Marriage isn't about procreation, rather it's about heterosexuality. Period."

Is that the result of some wild leap of logic that you didn't bother to explain? Or are you saying that my real beliefs are other than what I've said they are--that I'm lying about what my view really is?

Posted by: Ben Bateman at August 22, 2004 12:42 AM

"Are we just fighting about a word?"

Of course we are - but it's not just a word. It's a word that defines a fundamental societal institution. What we're really fighting over is the meaning of that word. You want to change that meaning for everyone, even when large majorities of your fellow citizens don't want to, and when doing so has a high probability of being detrimental to the institution. Your argument seems to be that the definition of marriage is already such that same-sex couples can be accomodated in it without and significant changes. I urge you to read Jonah Goldberg's piece on NRO that I linked to in a different post.

Earlier, I thought I was in favor of some sort of civil union compromise, but now I'm highly skeptical that such a solution is, as Vokloh put it, "politically stable". I fail to see how a civil union scenario will not lead to either full-fledged gay marriage eventually, to heterosexual couples demanding to be able to enter civil unions (thus weakening marriage), or both. I suppose there are possible scenarios out there, but I don't know whether they will satisfy anyone. But I'm definitely not in favor of essentially legally saying gays can marry, but giving it a different name.

Posted by: Mike S. at August 22, 2004 10:42 PM