Friday, May 25, 2012

Marriage and natural kinds

On a New York Times blog, Wedgwood has offered an interesting argument for same-sex marriage. The argument is focused on what he calls "the 'social meaning' of marriage", which "consists of the understandings and expectations regarding marriage that almost all members of society share." He notes that this meaning "cannot include any controversial doctrines", but rather must include only uncontroversial assumptions about the nature of marriage. He then argues that same-sex couples have the same interest in having access to an institution that yields the same understandings and expectations as heterosexual couples do. Therefore, the social meaning needs to be shifted in such a way as to give access to marriage to same-sex couples. (This quick summary doesn't do full justice to Wedgwood's rich piece.)

But now compare the social meaning of "marriage" to the social meaning of "water", defined by the understandings and expectations regarding water that almost all members of society share.

There is indeed such a social meaning of water. And this social meaning of water may well help fix the meaning of the word "water". But it does not fix the meaning on its own, as we see from Twin Earth cases. On Twin Earth, suppose, there are beings like us, with a language like ours, and they have a substance that behaves just as water does, and hence obeys the same ordinary understandings and expectations that water does, but its chemical structure is instead XYZ.[note 1] The Twin Earthers' word "water" does not refer to H2O, but to XYZ, even though their word "water" has the same social meaning as our word "water" does. Thus, the meaning of the word "water" is not exhausted by the social meaning of water.

If we focus on social meaning as central to meaning, we're going to say something like: "The word 'water' refers to that natural kind in the vicinity of the word's users that best fits with the users' 'understandings and expectations.'" In other words, the meaning of "water" isn't fixed by the social meaning alone: it is fixed by social meaning plus facts about what natural kinds are really exemplified in the vicinity of the speakers. Moreover, water will have non-obvious essential properties, such as that its molecules are a union of two atoms with atomic number 1 with one atom with atomic number 8. We aren't going to find these properties by examining the social meaning of water.

Now go back to marriage. If "marriage" is analogous to "water", the social meaning of marriage does not by itself fix the meaning of the word "marriage". Rather, "marriage" refers to that natural kind of relationships in the vicinity of the speakers that in fact best fits with the language-users' understandings and expectations. But then we would expect marriage to have all sorts of essential properties that go beyond the social meaning. And it could turn out that the only natural kind of relationships in the vicinity that fits with our understandings and expectations also has the essential property of being a union of a man and a woman.

I take it that Wedgwood is assuming that marriage is unlike water, that the meaning of marriage is exhausted by its social meaning rather than there being a mind-independent natural kind for the word "marriage" to refer to. But whether this is so is the most fundamental question in the debate, and he gives no case his view on it.

A less deep problem with Wedgwood's line of thought is that, as he himself acknowledges, a part of the shared understanding of marriage is that sexual activity is a normal aspect of marriage. But if same-sex sexual activity is not permissible, then same-sex couples do not have the same interest in an institution that comes along with an assumption of normative sexuality, since it is generally not in one's interest that people assume one is doing something impermissible (whether or not one is actually doing it). Thus, Wedgwood's argument requires that same-sex sexual activity is permissible. But his typical philosophical or theological opponent will deny this permissibility.


Kenny Pearce said...

I took it that Wedgwood's point about social meaning was rather that getting married makes a certain kind of social statement, that it conveys something to others about the nature of the couple's relationship and how they want it to be regarded by others. Nothing like that goes on in the 'social meaning' of 'water'. (Admittedly, if this is what he meant, then 'social significance' might have been a better phrase.) This does, at a minimum, do something to explain how there might be more than just tax and insurance benefits at stake for (even non-religious) same-sex couples.

Alexander R Pruss said...

It's not the getting married that the makes most of the statement, surely, but presenting oneself as married afterwards. One might, after all, marry secretly.

But, yes, there is more than tax and insurance benefits at stake. (For instance, one of the thinks at stake is the permissibility of sex for the couple, since sex outside of marriage is wrong.)

Alexander R Pruss said...

If we look at this in terms of social statement, I think the assumption that same-sex sexual activity (SSSA) is morally permissible becomes crucial. Fairness does not require that the state should help one publicize a relationship which has as one of its central socially understood components something that is morally wrong.

In other words, at most what Wedgwood accomplishes is showing that if SSSA is permissible, then same sex marriage should be allowed. It seems to me that the main controversy is with the antecedent of the conditional rather than with the conditional itself (though I could see how one might try to dispute the conditional even if one accepted the antecedent).

Kenny Pearce said...

Well, what I had in mind was the question of what, beyond tax and insurance benefits, these couples TAKE to be at stake. (Why, for instance, is it so important to them that it should be called 'marriage,' rather than calling it a 'civil union' and conferring all the same legal benefits?) I'm sure there must be someone somewhere who agrees that all sex outside of marriage is wrong and also believes in same sex marriage, but I don't know any people like that.

For me, the significance of marriage is so tied up in my (relatively conservative) moral and religious views that I often have trouble figuring out what people who don't share these views want out of marriage that they don't think they can get out of cohabitation. For a lot of people I know (I mean non-religious people who have relatively liberal views on sexual ethics) it seems that what they want is a big party celebrating their relationship. In other words, it's the WEDDING, not the marriage, that's a big deal, and that fits in well with this 'making a statement' line.

Incidentally, in the recent past I have had discussions with several Christian friends who are either recently married or soon to be married who are irritated by people around them (often including non-Christian family members) making a bigger deal out of the wedding than the marriage.

Kenny Pearce said...

On your second comment, I don't especially see why the state should help publicize anything, regardless of whether the thing in question is morally right or wrong. Of course, it's not clear what the state does that helps publicize anything in connection with marriage now. As far as I know, it is not illegal to use terms like 'wedding' or 'marriage' in ways not sanctioned by the state. It certainly isn't illegal to wear rings in the absence of a state-sanctioned marriage.

Alexander R Pruss said...

"As far as I know, it is not illegal to use terms like 'wedding' or 'marriage' in ways not sanctioned by the state."

Except in contexts where this would be fraud or perjury.

By the way, here in Texas, if x and y present themselves as married to third parties, they thereby become married.

"I often have trouble figuring out what people who don't share these views want out of marriage that they don't think they can get out of cohabitation."

Well, the natural kind view can explain that when one adds that a drive to make one's relationships fall under this kind is a characteristic feature of romantic love.

Jay Quigley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jay Quigley said...

"I often have trouble figuring out what people who don't share these views want out of marriage that they don't think they can get out of cohabitation"

For starters, here are a few things:
//social-psychological issues//
- a lack of public scorn and distaste for their commited love relationship
- relatedly: less need to keep their identity secret, to use eumphemisms, etc.
- equal recognition before society and the law

//public rights//
- the right to make medical decisions for an incapacitated partner
- the right to be notified in a life threatening emergency
- the right to visit a partner in a health-care facility
- the right to participate in the education of a partner's children

"here in Texas, if x and y present themselves as married to third parties, they thereby become married."

Only if they are one man and one woman!

"we [should] expect marriage to have all sorts of essential properties that go beyond the social meaning."

Well, here's something that is more certainly a natural kind: adult attachment. Most human beings, as a member of our social mammalian species, long for emotional-sexual bonds of intimacy, passion, commitment, and companionship. Approximately this is just a fact of human biology and psychology. To treat homosexuals--or sterile heterosexual couples--who form such bonds as if these bonds do not exist, or are illegitimate because (say) they cannot produce offspring, is at least to ignore, and perhaps to deny rights deserved on the basis of, the sorts of those bonds that the relationships do exemplify.

Alexander R Pruss said...


Adult attachment is a natural kind, yes, but qua attachment it is not innately sexual in nature.

Kenny Pearce said...


Perhaps talking about tax and insurance benefits was too dismissive. Those are, indeed, not the most important legal consequences of marriage. All of the 'public rights' which you mention are things which, in my view, consenting adults ought to be able to distribute however they please quite independently of marriage, and I regard it as a serious injustice that in our current system they can't. (The only way, as far as I know, to make some biologically unrelated person your 'next of kin' for hospital, etc., purposes is to either marry or adopt that person.) However, it's worth noting that most states that have domestic partnerships do confer all of these benefits, so there still is some further thing these couples want beyond these legal benefits.

As far as the social-psychological issues, these seem to me to be tied up with the 'making a social statement' account given by Wedgwood, which I said was helpful to my understanding. However, in most parts of the country (or, at least, in the parts of the country where most people live) I don't think there's generally a lot of social scorn (if any) associated with cohabitation. If you are talking particularly about same-sex couples, then if people are 'scorning' cohabiting couple only if they are same-sex, then won't those people scorn married same-sex couples too?

But what I was saying to begin with was that this kind of desire to make a social statement and have it be recognized by others (as Wedgwood discusses in the article) is probably a good account of what these couples take to be at stake for them. So I don't think I'm really disagreeing with you.

Jay Quigley said...

"Adult attachment is a natural kind, yes, but qua attachment it is not innately sexual in nature."

I can't agree.

What I meant: *adult romantic attachment* is inherently sexual in nature.

Trying not to belabor the point:

First, choose your own adjective to describe how your statement would sound to someone with unambiguous homosexual tendencies--even, say, a Christian one. Or for that matter, anyone who has loved someone. 'I'm sorry, Mr. Hoover, the attachment you two feel is not inherently sexual in nature. You two can get everything you need out of just being friends without touching each other *that* way!'

Second, the best place to look to see that adult romantic attachment plausibly is inherently sexual nature is scientific literature on the matter itself. The quick-and-wikipedia-dirty regarding one scholar:

Anthropologist Helen Fisher, in her book _Why We Love_ [2004], uses brain scans to show that love is the product of a chemical reaction in the brain. Norepinephrine and dopamine, among other chemicals, are responsible for excitement and bliss in humans as well as non-human animals. Fisher concludes that these reactions have a genetic basis, and therefore love is a natural drive as powerful as hunger.

On a lighter note, bonobos, our closest extant relative, are extremely sexual and may also be evidence that the psychological patterns of adult mating-related attachment are inherently sexual. Furthermore, they do not only use their sexual bonds for mating purposes, but also for conflict appeasement, affection, social status, excitement, and stress reduction (much like humans, ha!).

Jay Quigley said...

Again, I don't want to belabor my or Wedgewood's points, but a fuller list can be found here:

You may want to make a similar point regarding every right listed there. In that case, you would say that the only issue is whether it is publicly called 'marriage'.

I think the last thing I will point out is how many homosexuals think and feel about the very term 'marriage' and related terms. Refusal to use the very terms 'married', 'husband', etc. is *itself* a way of exhibiting discrimination (and often scorn, disdain or similar attitudes) toward a homosexual couple, especially when they have gone through an official wedding ceremony has taken place--and especially when the couple has 'civil union' status. Even for the state to afford the favored terminology to (e.g.) infertile heterosexual couples but not to (e.g.) homosexual couples raising children seems discriminatory when you look at it this way.

Alexander R Pruss said...


Ah, you didn't say "romantic" the first time around. Yes, romantic attachment is inherently sexual in nature.

Note, though, that marriage is not a species of adult romantic attachment. Marriage is a role or relationships or normative status conferring a complex constellation of duties, permissions and rights. One can legitimately marry someone without having any attachment to them, though one of the obligations of marriage is to strive to develop an attachment to one's spouse.

Minor point: I suspect that these biochemical causes are not directly causes of love but of "being in love", an emotional state that can occur with or without love.


There certainly are communities where one will be looked at as acting immorally if one is "romantically" living with someone one isn't married to. But people in these communities aren't going to be any more pleased with a same-sex couple that had a legal marriage ceremony, since they presumably will not recognize that as a marriage.

All this said, I think the big question isn't so much about the right to call a relationship a marriage, but about whether a relationship between people of the same sex really is a marriage. Everyone agrees that if a relationship is a marriage, it can be legitimately called a marriage. And if it's not a marriage, we shouldn't call it a marriage.

Jay Quigley said...

Great! Adult romantic attachment is a natural kind.

Again, what I mean by adult romantic attachment is "emotional-sexual bonds of intimacy, passion, commitment, and companionship". (Not merely the longing for this; no, human beings actually do successfully form such pair bonds, and that is a natural kind of pairing of creatures.)

I've also been implying that such bonds/relationships are such a serious part of people's lives, that public recognition--both in the community and on the state level--is something that such relationships should enjoy.

What I've been saying is not that marriage is a *species* of adult romantic attachment. Rather, that adult romantic attachment--which is a natural kind--is the *basis* for public recognition of that bond/relationship/role in terms of spousehood, with all the duties, permissions, and rights pertaining thereunto.

If I may humbly critique you. So far I see you gesturing i) at the possibility that marriage is a natural kind, as well as at the view ii) that this natural kind in particular is what is important for the public granting of social and civil rights. I don't see you defending either (i) or (ii). Granted, that might make for a long post. Even so, I'm not seeing why (i) or (ii) are plausible, or where precisely the argument will emerge from. Akin to Robert P. George, you seem to be gesturing at an esoteric metaphysical entity best called REAL MARRIAGE; but I just don't see why I should believe in that. Furthermore, I have offered [A] an alternative which psychology suggests is a natural kind, and which I suggest [B] is what is really important for the public granting of social and civil rights, due to how important it is to the trajectory of people's lives on the whole.

(I highly recommend the recent film J. Edgar, which I regard as one of Leonardo DiCaprio's best performances ever as J. Edgar Hoover!)

All the best wishes. JQ

Alexander R Pruss said...

Well, I was making a very modest point in the post: that Wedgwood's argument presupposed that the social meaning of marriage was exhaustive of the meaning of marriage, even though this is something his typical opponents deny.

My main interest in marriage is moral and not political issues, so the tough political philosophy questions in (ii) go beyond what I am most interested in.

I will say that, bracketing the question of the permissibility of same-sex sexual activity, I see no good reason to make available the kinds of public rights you list to people who have adult romantic attachments that isn't a reason to make them available to people who have equally deep adult non-romantic attachments, say to siblings, parents or close friends.

Now, I do have a number of arguments for (i), but I would prefer to reserve them for publication rather than put them up in half-thought-out form at this point.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I will give you one argument schema for (ii), but it's dialectically unhelpful, since typical opponents do not grant the claim that sex outside of marriage is wrong.

1. Marriage is the normative status that makes sex permissible and to-be-expected.
2. There is reason for the state to attach such-and-such legal rights and duties to the normative status that makes sex permissible and to-be-expected.
3. So, there is reason for the state to attach such-and-such legal rights and duties to marriage.

Alexander R Pruss said...

By the way, I am only granting that adult romantic attachment is a natural kind for the sake of the argument. I don't actually know if it is.

Kenny Pearce said...

Incidentally, Kant argues in the Metaphysics of Morals (at least as I read it - you know how Kant interpretation is), that certain external arrangements are actually necessary to render sex morally permissible. A private promise (or religious covenant) of lifelong fidelity is, according to Kant, insufficient. You actually need things like joint property, inheritance rights, equality of social status, and so forth. (Hence he argues that morganatic marriage is illegitimate.)

As an aside: Kant says that whenever these external arrangements obtain, sex is consistent with RIGHT, but more is required for it to be consistent with VIRTUE. Kant has arguments which purport to show that SSSA is never consistent with virtue, but I know of no arguments in Kant for the claim that it is inconsistent with right, and the state isn't supposed to be enforcing virtue, so I think Kant needs to say (although, living as he does in the 18th century it's unsurprising that he didn't actually say) that the government has to recognize some kind of legal arrangement analogous to marriage for same-sex couples.

Alexander R Pruss said...


"Kant says that whenever these external arrangements obtain, sex is consistent with RIGHT, but more is required for it to be consistent with VIRTUE."

One would need to look at Kant carefully to see what exactly he includes under "sex" here. It would not surprise me if it encompassed only intercourse, and if so then this is going to be irrelevant to same-sex couples who are incapable of that act.

Kenny Pearce said...

Kant typically uses phrases like "the use of the other's sexual attribute" which suggests a very broad interpretation.

Alexander R Pruss said...

He may be euphemistic there.

Notice also that strictly speaking not all sexual acts use the other's "sexual attributes". Thus a sexual act could involve a sexual part of one party and a non-sexual part of the other.

Jay Quigley said...

Alex, FWIW, I think that non-sexualized attachment bonds also should confer certain civil rights. These include being someone's parent, sibling, or child (biological or familial). Similarly friendships do and ought also carry with them certain rights of inheritance, hospital visitation, etc., at least in the absence of familial or marital ties.

However, my observation suggests--and I think governments should and to certain extent do recognize this--that our committed sexual partner tends to become one of the most important people in our lives, if not the most important person. This is a mere consequence of human psychology. The sexualized nature of the attachment makes it 'deeper' in a way that I will let more experienced lovers explain.

(1) Ties of sexual attachment are valuable to people for their own sakes, and as such ought to be protected fairly and equally for all citizens--regardless of the genders of the people involved.

(2) It also happens that many sexual unions, between humans with the requisite gametes, can produce offspring. (3) Furthermore it happens that committed sexual partners can be good parents (providing resources, emotional support, etc. for children).

All of these arrangements (1)-(3) deserve governmental protection. But we mustn't pretend that all three of these arrangements must always come together.

Alexander R Pruss said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alexander R Pruss said...

"X is valuable to Y for its own sake" can mean:
(a) Y values X for its own sake, or
(b) X is a constitutive part of Y's wellbeing.

I grant that the sexual aspect of a relationship is typically valued for its own sake by at least one of the participants, and often by both. But I do not grant that it is a constitutive part of Y's wellbeing in cases where the sexual aspect is seriously morally disordered (though I am open to the suggestion that in that case it is partly constitutive of Y's wellbeing as well as being partly constitutive of Y's illbeing).

Jay Quigley said...

'seriously morally disordered'

I assume you intend this to mean something like 'contrary to the natural order of things'. But I don't believe in such a natural order of things. With great seriousness I request a good source, preferably not the whole Summa Theologica, that gives me the best argument (or better yet, overview of arguments) for believing in it.

Here are my suspicions about what people are unwittingly expressing when saying something like
'the sexual aspect of Sam's sexual relationship is seriously morally disordered'. This merely expresses the speaker's emotional disposition to find Sam's sexual activities to be perverted or disgusting.

Now, in some cases, real, straightforward moral disorder can be present in sexual activity in that it risks *harm* to somebody. That I understand. Cases like pedophilia and pederasty, and many forms of incest, risk considerable harm, especially of a psychological nature.

But when it comes to harmless sex which is not heterosexual, I am at a loss in finding any moral disorder involved. I am proud that I can say this *even though* I find sex of a bestial, and even homosexual nature fairly disgusting. But of course, I feel the same about sex between old people!

Alexander R Pruss said...

I am not a natural law guy, though for some purposes I think natural law is close to truth.

My own thinking about homosexual activity is to a large degree based on thinking about why contraception (by methods other than periodic or total abstinence) is wrong. But the reasons why contraception is wrong have nothing to do with disgust--some forms of contraception are disgusting, and some are not. I guess deliberately contracepted sexual acts are perverted, but my reason for thinking this is simply based on the judgment that the acts are wrong.

Here's one argument schema:

1. [Insert favorite apologetic argument for Catholicism.]
2. So, Catholicism is correct.
3. Catholicism says contraception and homosexual activity are wrong.
4. So, contraception and homosexual activity are wrong.

Of course, all the hard work is done in (1). But I definitely think there are apologetic arguments that do work.

A different argument schema is:

1. The best theory explaining why sex is of such deep intrinsic significance, why it consummates romantic love, why rape is always so gravely wrong even if the victim never finds, why sex is with animals is wrong, etc. is my theory (the one that will appear in my forthcoming book One Body: An Essay in Christian Sexual Ethics).
2. So, my theory is probably correct.
3. My theory implies contraception and homosexual activity are wrong.
4. So, probably, they are wrong.

To get a flavor for how I think about these things--and admittedly in a theologically suffused setting (nothing wrong with that, given that there are good arguments from reason for the theological presuppositions)--see this paper.

Jay Quigley said...

A superb--if shameless--way to increase book sale revenue! But after all, if you have the very best view, why not advertise it right? :)

Alexander R Pruss said...

The linked paper does give a pretty good idea of how I think about things. If you email me, I have another one.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I should add that I don't need my theory to be right for the argument. What I need is that something relevantly close to my theory is right, and that one can be fairly confident of. :-)