Contentious Pretentious Musings II: Deconstruction of social construction and other nuptial clarifications

*For those following at home, here is my original post, Oscar’s first response, my rejoinder and Oscar’s second response.

Sorry, that it’s taken forever, but I need another say in this dialogue. So, I was “disappointing.” Hmmm…I can see why you think I grouped you into pro-marriage equality clan, so yes, I suppose I owe you an explanation and an apology, Oscar, for the manner in which I responded. Honestly, I did not mean to misrepresent your position or put words in your mouth on the issue, so to speak. I’m sorry if it appeared that way, as it wasn’t my intention.

In my mind, I was being charitable. To me, your act of responding implied you did have somewhat of a firm stance on the issue, despite your assurances you didn’t. It came off as logically inconsistent like writing, “I don’t know a word of English.” I refrained from mentioning this evidently false inference, as psychological speculation about your motives and framing you as self-contradictory would be getting close to a tu quoque and was irrelevant to what was in contention, namely the ontology of marriage.

Secondly, my response was written for more than one audience; it was as much a reply to you as a strategic commentary for those who on either side of this matter. This was never explicitly stated when it probably should have been to prevent the very misinterpretation we’ve had here. Like any good debater, I had to reveal the implications of your deft use of the “social construct” foil. Your “critique” was an attempt to demolish any rational or moral debate on the subject, an overturning of the entire game board and a fact you don’t seemingly dispute. Within its efforts and actions, the same-sex marriage movement assumes there is a game board with moral and rational pieces to move. I was endeavoring to show your denial of objectivity on the matter was a road to a nihilistic destination, a place where they should not be comfortable.

Do I think I was convincing or even comprehensible to anyone who is on the other side of the issue? Nah, it’s not what they want to read, and there’s a massive shortage of intellectual honesty in this country. But hey, I had to try.

Niceties aside, I must warn you, Oscar, that I’m going to probably disappoint you more if not totally irritate you. Please remember, I’m not being pedantic in an attempt to spitefully humiliate you. Rather, I’m endeavoring to refute a line of argument of same-sex marriage apologists, so anyone who feels like or he or she has skin in the marriage debate, as I do, and is convicted enough to read our correspondence can see how claiming marriage has no essential properties is untenable. There is no ill intent against you in this post, just resolve to do by best in a fight against a great injustice I perceive. No disrespect but an opportunity that can’t be squandered because of my moral principles that have next to nothing to do with Exodus, Leviticus or anything in the Bible. If you do not respond to this post for any reason, I will not view that silence as defeat nor construe it as such. Granted, my wanton tardiness does not warrant a reply. I’m just compelled to show the facts about our point of conflict here, and let whomever reads our dialogue to privately decide for themselves who is right, and who is wrong. So take a deep breath. It’s now down to business.

Firstly, I feel your claim to knowledge about that the public currently believes marriage to be merely “a declaration of love,” although tentative, is completely unsubstantiated. As much as you opine about how people view marriage now, I feel compelled to point out vestiges of this notion that children and procreation are still associated with marriage, at least in the conservative circles I keep. There is an expectation they come after the marriage ceremony. It’s not uncommon to hear, “I want to get married and then start a family.” Even with the emergence of cohabiting couples, who are in love and resemble a married couple without children in many cases, their unions aren’t culturally considered marriages by default, though in nearly every respect they look married, according to how you think society has already defined the institution. And I fail to understand why your experience of how the country views marriage is more authoritative than mine, if we are to assume — quite falsely, I might add — that our individual perceptions here can be epistemically justified.

Secondly, “the slew of legalizations” you mention is hardly representative of what people have democratically declared in regard to marriage. They are judicial rulings overturning constitutional amendments ratified relatively recently by public referendum. Moreover, mainstream news outlets did not cover of it, but traditional marriage advocates marched in Paris earlier this year with some estimates putting their ranks in the hundreds of thousands. Sure, there are the polls in the last few years that show the growing support for same-sex marriage. However, polls and the press who push them are both notorious for being misleading, and the polls that really matter are done at the ballot box. So, no, I don’t think it’s accurate to conclude that society solely views marriage as just a committed, amorous relationship between individuals.

Segueing into the theoretical underpinnings of traditional marriage, your response here misrepresents my position, though the fault probably lies with me because I have not been precise and rigorous in its articulation. You write, “The OI argument stands only if we believe that marriage is defined, in principle, for the purpose of procreation, but who really defines marriage like this anymore?” I’m under the impression you think under my view, procreation is necessary for marriage and the reason why people marry. That marriage is a means to an end, namely procreation.

Let me be lucid: Whether or not procreation occurs or that children “obtain” is not what makes a marriage. In my account, marriage is defined in the terms of the type of relationship, which must be procreative in nature, not in result. This distinction still entails the sexual complementarity of man and woman. Only sperm from a male can fertilize an ovum from a female for a pregnancy to occur, or in an Aristotelian framework, only a man and a woman can physically coordinate together in the coital act for the biological whole and purpose of reproduction. This union is implicitly oriented toward procreation, while you and many others mistake marriage as defined as instrumentally or incidentally related to procreation, an accidental means to an end. As Patrick Lee, Robert P. George and Gerard V. Bradley writing for The Public Discourse note:

“…the institution of marriage is not primarily about procreation as an end or goal distinct from marriage. The institution is directly about the marital communion itself, which in its fullest fruition is family; and so it is about children, but principally as members of families. True marriage can exist even where children do not come of the union, but it always remains the type of union that would naturally be fulfilled by children, were they to come.

Sure, it’s a “baby-making institution,” but the “purpose” and the emphasis here is intrinsic, not extrinsic in kind.

Similarly, there is no dilemma between whether marriage is either “a declaration of love” or “a baby-making institution.” For me, the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Love between members in a couple seems to facilitate the “baby-making” and vice versa. As Sherif Girgis argues also at The Public Discourse, “marital love also makes new life, so marriage itself is uniquely enriched and extended by the bearing and rearing of children, and the wide sharing of family life.” Marriage is both a physical and emotional, and thereby comprehensive, union between a man and a woman in which their subsequent children are a cultivation of. For advocates of the conjugal view of marriage like myself, marriage is a human good in it of itself.

These are not poison pills for me to swallow, Oscar, nor is this some ad hoc, “disingenuous” sallying of an absurd definition to defend traditional marriage. Just because many of the people who are opposed to same-sex marriage do not or cannot argue or perhaps don’t even know the underlying philosophy of their position is not a black mark against it either. They still express the tautological conclusion of marriage as being between man and woman, which is not only consistent with everything I’ve argued but is entailed by it. There are scores of atheists who justify their unbelief in God due to the existence of evil. Yet, I bet most of them don’t understand the Epicurean roots of their reasoning or that it is an attempt to show that the notion of God is inherently contradictory and therefore logically impossible. Does this mean that these claims are bankrupt because most lay people don’t know and can’t articulate the presuppositions that led to them? Of course not. To also borrow a phrase, I also suspect the only people who would espouse your critique of the OI argument are those who already are for same-sex marriage — even though such a position is foolishly self-contradictory. But so what? I find these veiled appeals to consensus and speculation about whom subscribes to what position as vacuous and irrelevant to determining the worth of our respective arguments.

Returning to the task at hand, one does not have to be a Aristotelian to subscribe to the OI argument; one just has to be realist about essential properties. The fact of the matter is that I hold a realist position in this debate, which reminds me that you do not: “Yes, I still maintain that there is no ought, Pownens. Which means that anyone arguing that marriage ought to be this way is unjustified.”

Dismissing what appears to be equivocation with the use of “ought” (correct me if I’m wrong, but above you seemingly conflate two different meanings and uses of the word), I feel like I need to ask how Nietszchean are you, Oscar? Do you maintain his perspectivism and therefore his rejection and value of truth? I’m really inclined to think that you do from reading your recent posts and your non-realism about social constructs’ possessing essential properties. It’s hard to be certain what exactly is your view, so I will rephrase and elucidate the issue slightly and then proceed accordingly.

I subscribe to an essentialism, which in brief is the view that things have essences — properties that a thing must have to be what it is, i.e., essence or thisness — when it comes to marriage. I don’t deny marriage has social customs that have varied and changed depending on the time and culture. These traditions or conventions, however, are incidental to marriage, as they were erected around the relationship. As the following analogy illustrates, the clothes and styles have changed, but there still remains the same body to wear them that was there from the start and serves as the explanation as to why and how there are clothes to don at all. Likewise, the relationship, which you admit predates the institution, serves as the basis for said institution. This relationship is a social construct insofar that persons individually construct a social arrangement between each other, and we call that type of association, marriage. However, even after these concessions and clarifications, I still maintain that marriage has essential features, and its subsequent cultural and legal institution has rational roots.

On the contrary, Oscar, you appear to maintain an non-essentialism (no “oughts”) for social constructs, which are defined as “created by people for people.” As such, your use of social construct in regard to marriage seemingly refers to a wholesale, institutional product totally derived from cultural whim and devoid of essential characteristics. It’s important to note your notion of the marital social construct is different than the one described in the above paragraph. The former deals with the interaction between individuals and has essential, objective characteristics, which cultures have enshrined into and recognized as an institution; the latter applies to a complete cultural fabrication of the masses that has no objective essence and in which every individual instantiation is arbitrary. It was the latter usage of the term and the positing of no essential features I challenged both as a “bare assertion” and historically and ontologically inaccurate, not the strawman that there aren’t any social aspects to marriage whatsoever, as you seem to imply in your second response.

Now that that’s cleared up, again, I see no given reason to accept that marriage is the social construct you describe it as — a relationship bereft of essential properties. There seems to be many social constructs, “created by people for people,” that have essential features to be what they are. For instance, law must be coercive and authoritative in nature, otherwise, it ceases being law and becomes “more like guidelines than actual rules.” Moreover, here’s another shot from The Public Discourse about a little social creation known as friendship:

For all its cultural variety, it has an objective core, fixed by our social nature: mutually acknowledged good will and cooperation. Without that, two people’s connection simply lacks the value (and special duties) of friendship. To overlook this is to err about a human good, not just the label for a construct.

So too, we argue, for marriage. For all the variety of its cultural supports, shaped by shifting historical demands, marriage as a human good has an objective core, fixed by the demands of our nature as sexual-reproductive beings; to deviate from it is to miss a crucial part of a basic human good.

Social constructs like law or friendship appear to have objective, essential features that make them what they are even if the content of particular laws and friendship vary, and for Girgis and company, marriage is akin to law, friendship and even human rights in this regard.

Then, there’s that little dilemma about another social construct intimately related to marriage that is the subject of a frequent example in rudimentary philosophy courses: bachelorhood. Let’s introduce it in the form of an indirect proof:

  1. Social constructs, as “created by people for people,” categorically have no essential properties.
  2. Therefore, constituent social constructs of institutional social constructs have no essential properties (From 1).
  3. A bachelor is a constituent social construct of the institutional social construct of marriage.
  4. Therefore, a bachelor has no essential properties (From 1, 2, 3).
  5. A bachelor has the essential property of being unmarried.
  6. A bachelor both has no essential properties and the essential property of being unmarried (From 4, 5).
  7. Therefore, 1 is false; there is a social construct with an essential property (from 6, which is a contradiction).

I’m putting  — I’m assuming — your Nietzschean inclinations to the test, as you non-essentialism commits you into denying 5, which means the claim, a bachelor is married, is not contradictory. Maintaining that there is no essence to bachelorhood and a bachelor can be married does seem to be rather inconsistent with the commonsense notion that by definition, bachelors are unmarried. You might be fine with such an implication of your non-essentialism, but I’d know there are philosophers who too would find this claim controversial, those of which would include but are not limited to: Plato, Aristotle, Immanuel Kant, and more recently, Saul Kripke, Hilary Putnam and Alvin Plantinga. You clearly aren’t a fan of their essentialist theories, but given those who have and do disagree with you and the above indirect proof, it at least casts serious doubt that your preliminary assertion is as self-evident as you state if not discredits the whole inference from marriage as a social construct to marital non-essentialism as invalid. Option one is hence clinging to you convictions and going down with the ship to attempt to survive the crushing metaphysical depths below. Then again, you can face the other end of the dilemma’s vise, concede a bachelor must be unmarried, and by extension, there is at least one social construct — though, it seems plausible there’s many more — that has essential and objective features, blunting the entire thrust of your original objection against the OI argument.

I hope you feel a tad awkward here, Oscar, because it would show you haven’t completely embraced the Dark Side of the Philosophy. My feelings, however, tell me that all that I’ve just argued is wasted on you, the good Nietzschean that you intimate that you are. At this point, I suspect we are talking past each other. You sympathize with Continental philosophy, where I align with the Analytic tradition of Western thought. I do have some choice words for Nietzsche and Continental philosophy as a whole, but that is possibly an even uglier and more irreconcilable disagreement than the one we’re having here. I have no qualms about hitting pause for now, as I think I’ve made a fairly compelling case that your philosophical presuppositions have little application to the marriage debate, as public policy-making doesn’t deny the efficacy of truth. Even the non-philosophically inclined should feel uneasy at the counterintuitive notion that a bachelor can exist as married, as your view entails. Plus, judging from the brevity of your posts directed toward me, you seem content with not doing any heavy metaphysical lifting, although I’m not opposed to a second rejoinder that would exercise such pursuits.

In summary, your confession of Nietzsche’s influence on your thinking, as pervasive as it might be, seems entirely irrelevant to the discussion at hand. When it comes to marriage, as it stands, “Nietzsche is dead.” It’s your choice whether or not to try to persuade me otherwise.

Ball’s in your court,

Modus Pownens


2 thoughts on “Contentious Pretentious Musings II: Deconstruction of social construction and other nuptial clarifications

  1. Hey MP,

    I appreciate your thoughtful response. I think I agree with you that our differences are perhaps much more fundamental than the issue of same-sex marriage, as I believe it to be more of our epistemological foundation where our divergence begins (as you identified, you’re more Analytic and I’m more Continental). I do, however, want to take some time just to make sure we at least understand each other’s positions properly, which may useful for future conversations:

    If I understand you correctly, you maintain that social constructs, at least may, have an intrinsic ontology, whereas I do not. Hence your essentialism, and yes, I’m more inclined to agree with Nietzsche’s perspectivism (I believe my latest post puts it a bit more succinctly). This clarification is helpful, MP, but I think we have different conceptions of what a social construct is. For example, your indirect proof cites bachelorhood as a social construct, but I would disagree with this. Bachelorhood does indeed have an ontology as the term ‘bachelor’ is merely a symbol used to designate a state of existence, which is to say this person, an unmarried man, is designated as a bachelor. The ‘unmarried man’ precedes the designation of bachelor; as such, the term ‘bachelor’ is used as a symbol to refer to an ‘unmarried man’. There is a distinction to be made, I think, between symbols and constructs.

  2. Also, as a kind of side note, I just wanted to say how much I appreciate our conversations. You’re probably the most intelligent person with whom I disagree with the most, which always tends to challenge my thinking. So, thanks, MP.

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