Thursday, November 6, 2008

Why allow abortion but not “same-sex marriage”?

In an election otherwise disastrous for conservatism, “same-sex marriage” was banned in three more states, including even fruits-and-nuts California. And yet pro-life measures failed across the country. What gives? Why are so many people who will not scruple the butchering of unborn children (including even their own unborn children) nevertheless unwilling to make a sacrament of sodomy?

At least three possible motives suggest themselves. I put them forward only as speculations.

1. Though every murder is a more grave offense against the natural law than is sodomy, sodomy is arguably more obviously contrary to the natural law than the specific kind of murder that occurs in most abortions. Hence, while centuries of bad moral theory and decades of marinating in a cultural cesspool have largely deadened most people’s intuitive sense that killing children in the womb is wicked, it has not quite entirely eliminated the intuitive sense that sodomy is contrary to nature, or at least that it would be indecent and impious to give to it the label “marriage.” Perhaps it is easier to deceive oneself into thinking that an embryo is “just a ball of cells” rather than a human being, or even that murdering a Down syndrome baby is an “act of mercy,” than it is to deceive oneself into believing that sodomy is an act of marital union, or indeed anything other than at least faintly indecent – titillating to some people, to be sure, but hardly the stuff of romance or tender wedding night fantasies.

In this connection, it is perhaps worth remembering that Aristotle, and even Plato, both condemned homosexual acts as contrary to nature, though they did not condemn infanticide when done for eugenic reasons. (One suspects they would have regarded abortion or infanticide for the purposes of securing “cost-free” sexual indulgence with nothing but contempt.) This would seem to provide at least some support for the thesis in question: Even in the context of ancient Greek aristocracy, thinkers like Plato and Aristotle could see that sodomy was contrary to nature, though they could not see that infanticide for any reason is too. Similarly, even in decadent 21st century America, people who would not even require a teenager to notify her parents before aborting her child are capable of perceiving that “same-sex marriage” is a contradiction in terms.

(BTW, hostile readers ignorant of what classical natural law theory actually says are asked to spare me stupid remarks along the lines of “Isn’t wearing glasses ‘unnatural’ too?” “How come sterile people can marry?” “If it’s ‘natural,’ shouldn’t everybody already agree about it?” etc. etc. I’m not going to get into a long exchange over sexual morality and natural law here, sorry. I’ve written on this topic at length elsewhere, most recently in chapter 4 of The Last Superstition.)

2. An otherwise healthy procedural conservatism is at play, but partly at the expense of substantive conservatism. By “procedural conservatism” I mean the generally salutary pragmatic principle of avoiding the upsetting of existing apple-carts. By “substantive conservatism” I mean the moral principle of ensuring that the apple-carts are really carrying apples, as it were, while the orange-carts are carrying the oranges and the refuse is in the trash cans where it belongs. Every conservative knows that justice should not always be done “though the heavens fall”; some evils ought to be tolerated, at least under certain circumstances, lest greater evils be brought about by the effort to extirpate the minor ones. But it is possible to make an idol of this pragmatic conservatism, and the procedural tail must never be allowed to wag the substantive dog. There are lines that must never be crossed under any circumstances, and existing apple-carts that must be upset so that the refuse they are carrying may be cleaned out and the apples restored. As I have argued elsewhere, the conservative who forgets this soon loses his moorings and becomes little more than the opposite bookend to the proverbial “liberal in a hurry,” namely a “slow-motion liberal” who is willing to accept virtually any social change, however intrinsically evil, so long as there is a consensus behind it and it is implemented gradually.

Procedural conservatism might be trumping substantive conservatism in the minds of at least some of those who have voted against the recent pro-life measures but also against “same-sex marriage.” Such people might realize that abortion is evil, or at least be willing to concede that it is seriously morally questionable in at least some cases. Yet because it has become so embedded in modern American life, they are wary of interfering with it. “Same-sex marriage,” by contrast, is still a novelty, and those who are pushing it are obnoxious and their methods lawless. Hence the misguided procedural conservatism that tolerates a very grave evil like abortion is still willing to resist the relatively milder evil of “same-sex marriage,” in both cases in the name of keeping the apple-cart stable.

3. Some heterosexuals who have at least a grudging respect for traditional sexual morality are more keen to see it respected by others than to practice it themselves. (Think e.g. of the secularized Beltway conservative think-tank or journalist type who heartily endorses pragmatic Burkean arguments for the social utility of stigmas against fornication and the like, but who nevertheless lives with his girlfriend.) Hence, while it costs such people little or nothing personally to vote against “same-sex marriage,” limitations on abortion might put a crimp on their own lifestyle should their less-than-conservative personal sexual behavior “punish them with a baby.”

Again, these are just speculations. And no doubt there are other factors too.


The Social Pathologist said...

It's an interesting post. In my neck of the woods, abortion has recently been legalised to 24 weeks of gestation. In my profession(medicine) the response to this change has been interesting. Many doctors who are pro-abortion in the early stages of pregnancy, are actually anti-abortion after about the first trimester. logically inconsistent? yes.
I think the the phenomena can be explained by the human predilection for "form" over "essence". i.e It's not human unless it looks human. Homosexuality obviously offends the average man's view of marriage since it doesn't confirm to the "form" of marriage, a bunch of cells doesn't qualify as a human being. People are shallow and superficial.

Neil Parille said...

I think same-sex marriage and the homosexual movement in general is more "in your face" than abortion.

Are there any works you could refer me to on Plato and homosexuality. I've started re-reading Plato's dialogues and I get the distinct impression that Socrates was a homosexual.

Edward Feser said...

TSP, I think that's spot on.

Neil, Socrates did have homosexual inclinations, as did Plato. And there is an obvious homosexual element in dialoges like the Symposium. But Socrates' view seems to have been that it would be ignoble to indulge these inclinations, and Plato is even more explicit (in The Laws) that homosexuality is contrary to nature. Michael Ruse's book Homosexuality: A Philosophical Inquiry has a brief but useful discussion of this.

Anonymous said...

There is also some decent stuff on sexuality in Gregory Vlastos' book on Socrates. Interestingly, he understands Socrates' refusal to indulge his inclinations as rooted in the idea that to do so would harm the boys (ancient Greek homosexuality, if you aren't aware, tends to be presented specifically as pederasty and not as a sexual relationship between grown males, though that does seem to show up in the Symposium). Since it would harm the boys, it couldn't be virtuous, and so it would harm Socrates too.

The other obvious place to go for Plato's ideas about homosexuality is the Phaedrus. People sometimes make a big deal about the fact that Plato doesn't seem to think that homosexual inclinations are necessarily bad, but it should be obvious from the Phaedrus if from nothing else that he does think that indulging the inclinations would not be a good thing. Crucially, though, not much about Plato's view rides on rejecting homosexual acts in particular. Plato seems to be more concerned about the potentially negative effects that any sexual acts in which people instrumentalize each other for pleasure can have; it just turns out that homosexual acts can, on his view, only involve instrumentalizing others for pleasure. Plato is arguably even more suspicious of sex than John Paul II, who seems to have thought that marital sex of the right kind could be an extremely great thing; Plato seems to think that sex of any kind can never be an intrinsically good thing (and Augustine expressed a similar view).

As for why people vote against gay marriage but don't ban abortion, I think I have a more accurate suggestion. Lots of people, I think, believe that abortion is usually wrong but that there are a variety of situations in which it is a lesser evil. Since they think those situations are hard to define, they can't bring themselves to support an all-out ban on abortion or anything that seems like it would lead to such a ban. A whole lot of people also think that marriage should be between one woman and one man, even if they don't think that homosexuals should be denied something like civil unions. That is, they either see nothing intrinsically wrong with homosexuality or don't feel justified in legislating against it, but they think that the institution of marriage should be about more than just lifelong partnerships involving sex. I suspect that there are lots of people who hold both of these positions, and thus would vote to ban gay marriage but not to ban abortion. Such people have a fairly permissive attitude towards homosexuality in general and a fairly negative view of abortion in general, but come down in perhaps unexpected ways on the legal questions because of the particular character of their views. I'm not out to defend those views, just to offer them up as explanations for why people vote the way they do.