Contentious Pretentious Musings: Is marriage a social construct?


My online pen pal Oscar at Pretentious Musings has decided to take me to task about this argument against same-sex marriage I’ve been boasting about for quite some time. Good, I need a challenge from a worthy interlocutor because it’s been getting pretty lonely and pathetic just rambling into the great cyber wilderness of the Internet all by myself.

So. Here. We. Go.

Given that Pownens originally presented this argument as “non-Biblical”, I am going to approach this from a completely secular standpoint. Insofar as we accept this, the argument is problematic in that it attributes a normative standard to a social construct. Basically, Pownens is claiming that marriage ‘ought’ to be this way, when there is no ought to begin with.

Frankly, Oscar’s paragraph confuses me. I’ve never made a prescriptive claim to what marriage “ought” to be in any way. From whence I have scoured in my posts, I haven’t found any argument like “most of the world believes that marriage is between one man and woman” or “marriage has always been practiced as between one man and woman”; therefore marriage ought to be only between one man and woman. Neither has Alan Keyes. Nor am I applying my ethical preferences as a standard by which to yea or nay same-sex marriage. Instead, we have attempted to give an account, which is descriptive and not prescriptive, of what marriage is in reference to a moral debate, not what the institution ought to be. To do so is not an error in logical inference but the basis of rational moral discourse. After all, to claim “murder is wrong” requires an understanding of what murder is. Similarly, to imply there is marriage inequality, as same-sex marriage advocates do, requires an understanding of what marriage is. If anything, I’m making claims about what law ought to be based on what I purport marriage is. It’s no different than a feminist advocating for how law ought to recognize sexual consent predicated on what she thinks rape is. Ought is already assumed and used in such contexts. So, the indictment that I’m trying to fallaciously stem the is-ought gap in the manner Oscar surmises is off-kilter.

In fact, I reject the Humean skepticism that seems to influence Oscar’s objection, as I don’t hold that “matters of fact” are only derived of “impressions” from the senses. In other words, I don’t think the only facts are empirical ones as Hume did. Anyway, the rabbit hole here becomes too deep too quickly for this post, but as I hope the above paragraph successfully suggests, this alleged sacred distinction is not so nearly stark and rigid as both Hume and Oscar maintain.

Given Oscar’s background in philosophy, I’m a little befuddled about how he inferred claims about how marriage ought to be from phrases like “ontological impossibility” and comparisons to non-existent objects such as married bachelors, all of which are at least it part of the vernacular of metaphysics, which, to put it broadly, studies what is said to exist or what is and what is not.

I also find it interesting that Oscar evens opens this dialogue with this move. If he is correct that marriage is a merely social and cultural fabrication, then if any group is “attribut(ing) a normative standard to a social construct,” it’s the people who are pushing rather aggressively to redefine it on the basis it’s unfair to gay couples. Are they not arguing that marriage “‘ought’ to be this way” — namely that same-sex couples ought to be allowed to marry because of equal protection under the law — “when there is no ought to begin with”? So, if my argument dies by Oscar’s hand, then their case too must suffer the same fate. From his “completely secular standpoint,” this reasoning taken to its logical peak pushes all political debate on the issue off the ledge to the rocks below, as no reasoning on either side is justifiable. Pragmatically speaking, this will not do.

Therefore, I must challenge Oscar on his bare assertion that marriage is a social construct, as this claim is really where our conflict lies. His contention hardly seems evidently true, and he offers no reason as to why anyone should accept it. Plus, here’s a reason to doubt it: If marriage is a product of culture, a social construct, it’s likely we should have observed a greater variety of “marriages,” as Oscar understands them, across time and civilization than what we have. Obvious artifacts of culture like language, cuisine, art, religion have differed and changed from time and place. Even morality, although which is an objective feature of the world, has at least had a somewhat misleading facade of fluidity, as people’s ethical convictions have evolved throughout history, giving a false appearance of relativity. Yet, marriage has seemingly stayed remarkably static and universal in cultures for millennia. Sure, there have been various forms of polygamy, polyandry and arranged unions, but they all are rooted in human sexual complementarity. If marriage is purely created by culture, why haven’t we seen a host of diverse arrangements, wholly truncated from procreation, considered as marriage before now? Perhaps, it’s because marriage is actually founded in something more objective and is not actualized ex nihilo by society, as Oscar so opines.

Moreover, there’s also an ontological bugaboo Oscar has overlooked. And, it’s fairly straightforward to show what it is by going backwards. Let me explain: According to him, marriage, as a social construct, is determined by cultural whim; culture is a product of societies; societies can’t exist without people; people come from families; families spring forth from fertile loins, i.e. the union of a man and a woman, which, ipso facto, is what we social conservatives call a marriage. Summarily, men and women have long entered into what are clearly marital relationships way before there was culture to acknowledge such unions as marriage. And I’m not talking about fornicatin’. I mean forming households. The fact is domesticity predates civilization, society and civil law and is a necessary precursor to it all. Society doesn’t decide what is marriage; it just recognizes what has been here the whole time: the comprehensive union of a man and woman and its implicit reproductive potential.

Of course, Oscar and those in favor and actively invested in marital redefinition will not be convinced that the aforementioned first relationships are marriages (ah, the bigotry). They will extol Oscar’s reasoning and will cheer him as their champion. They are probably smitten over his swift dismissal of my argument. Some have probably even come to same conclusion that Oscar has and have drank the Kool-Aid without realizing the poison contained within it.

I had a philosophy professor who once said something along the lines, “Every solution to a problem in philosophy has a cost.” Oscar was able to diffuse my argument seemingly with ease because he didn’t directly address it. By denying that marriage has an essence derived from objective features of the world, Oscar did not question the validity or attack a premise. Instead, intentional or not, he assaulted the presupposition that there is any rational discourse to be had on this issue, a radical tactic which undermines any topic for debate. It’s probably the best compliment he could give me with his sudden overturning of the game board and all its pieces. I actually take it as evidence for the veracity of my position. Platitudes aside, however, if he’s correct that marriage is a social construct forged from subjectivity, same-sex marriage proponents have as much logical ground to stand on as me, which is none. Oscar has scorched it all. Their morally-charged appeals to the 14th Amendment are as “problematic” as my analytic analysis of marriage. It’s not a victory; it’s mutually assured destruction.

At the very best, the implications are more favorable to my side of the battlefield. If marriage “is merely a reflection of what society wants,” there should be a reliable means to divine what people desire in this regard. Surely, the oligarchical fiats of federal judges overriding democratically ratified state amendments voted in by public referendum isn’t such a measure. Truly, the most accurate method to ascertain what society wants marriage to be is to have its people, “bigots” and all, to decide for themselves and put those recent pro-same-sex marriage polls to the test. Wouldn’t you agree, Oscar?

Fun like always,

Modus Pownens

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