Missing Each Other: Pragmatism, Principles, and Dissonance in the Marriage Debate

By Margaret Fox ’13

It’s official, ladies and gentlemen: the marriage debate now transcends party lines. From Senator Rob Portman’s thoughtful migration to the marriage equality camp, to state Senator Mike Ramone’s support for Delaware’s pro-gay-marriage bill, in the past few months a vast number of conservatives have been tripping over one another in efforts to distance themselves from the Republican party line on gay marriage.

It’s true that the Republican National Convention has officially re-affirmed its traditional stance on the issue. And as more right-wingers come out (sorry, I couldn’t help it) in support of gay marriage, advocates of a more traditional, limited definition of marriage are bunkering down for a long, bitter fight for their beliefs. But however fierce the controversy may remain, it is clear at least that the marriage issue is no longer one of conservative versus liberal, Republican versus Democrat. If anything, it has become an in-house debate among conservatives, and one seemingly at an impasse.

One side wants to talk ‘marriage equality,’ the other ‘definition of marriage.’ One side appeals to generally shared values like love and equality, while rarely engaging with or seriously evaluating those terms at any depth. The other, while meticulously framing the debate as one of foundational principles, still falls short in offering understanding, compassion, or any appealing options for those who choose to embrace a lifestyle alternative to their narrower definition of marriage. Thus, to traditionally-minded social conservatives, moderates and marriage equality advocates seem wishy-washy and unprincipled; while to the latter, traditionalists seem overly beholden to abstract principles and out of touch with reality. Whoever is right, both sides are missing each other. So completely, in fact, that the marriage issue is becoming less a debate than a pair of dueling soliloquies.

There are two distinct tones of discourse at play in contemporary arguments about marriage. One—let’s call it the ‘principled’ approach—looks beneath the surface of the issue and attempts to grasp underlying principles, extending and applying those principles to the case at hand. Such is Ryan T. Anderson’s method in defining marriage as follows:

‘Marriage exists to bring a man and a woman together as husband and wife to be father and mother to any children their union produces…Government recognizes marriage because it benefits society in a way that no other relationship does. Marriage is society’s least restrictive means to ensure the well-being of children. State recognition of marriage protects children by encouraging men and women to commit to each other and take responsibility for their children.’[1]

By establishing the fundamental purpose of marriage, Anderson then relates that purpose to the gay marriage debate and finds that same-sex marriage is unfeasible because it’s a different sort of relationship from one-man one-woman marriage, for neither does it produce children nor is it generally the ideal way to raise them.

Appealing to first principles has long history in conservative and, indeed, political thought as a whole. I don’t mean just debates between scholars in dusty university classrooms. Think Thomas Paine’s famous pamphlet, “Common Sense.” Writing for a wide public audience, Paine’s work opened with a lengthy consideration of the nature of society and the purposes of government; it was by applying those principles to the American situation that Paine made his case for independence.

But by the late 1800’s, a more pragmatic approach rose to a seat of prominence among Progressive intellectuals. Disillusioned by rapid social change and skeptical about the enduring relevance of old theories of governance, Progressives put less stock in theory than in observation and improvisation to meet the needs of the moment. In order to better understand those needs, they prioritized the collection of ‘data’ to inform policy debates.  Theirs was an age so enamored with the scientific cognoscenti, so preoccupied with systemization, categorization, and knowledge-as-power, as to conceive control-obsessed experiments like socialism and eugenics. Nonetheless, a practical, straightforward acknowledgment of horrible urban housing conditions and other social ills did spur pointed efforts to improve quality of life throughout the country.

The second tone prevalent in today’s marriage debate echoes that adaptive impulse of these turn-of-the-century Progressives. If the first tone is one that seeks to question assumptions and establish right ends, the second will keep its assumptions, thank you very much, and get down to the nittier, grittier details of dealing with ‘the way things are.’ Those who take this approach—let’s call them pragmatists—are less interested in debating a sweeping, coherent philosophy of life and the universe than in engaging specifically targeted treatments of particular issues, which they tend to approach from a posture of common sense.

Take Bret Stephens’ argument, which points out that gay marriage is far preferable to a social and political climate which pressures people to hide their orientation and enter heterosexual marriages in an effort to be ‘normal’:

‘…gay people generally want to lead lives of conventional respectability. So much so, in fact, that many are prepared to suppress their sexual nature to lead such lives. The desire for respectability is commendable; the deception it involves is not. To avoid deception, you can try to change the person’s nature. Good luck with that. Or you can modify a social institution so that gay people can have what the rest of us take for granted: The chance to find love and respectability in the same person.’ [2]

In short: there are people with same-sex attractions, many of these people with same-sex attractions seek to be respectable, and marriage is respectable. Therefore, same-sex marriage should be legalized and encouraged.

Sure, it may not be philosophically sound. But it’s straightforward, realistic. Dress it up in some sarcasm and a few clever turns of phrase, and it becomes some pretty compelling stuff.

In fact, when combined to advocate for a single policy or platform, principled and pragmatic perspectives really can work powerfully hand-in-hand. A philosophically sound rationale for limited government, for instance, might be buttressed by statistics showing economic prosperity in free markets.

But both lines of argument may also be employed on opposing sides, as can be seen in the marriage debate. In that case, the most convincing arguments are those that engage the issue in the same language as that of their opponents, meeting pragmatism with pragmatism, principle with principle.

The problem now is that, despite some overlap, the marriage debate is becoming increasingly ‘pragmatic’ on one side and ‘principled’ on the other, leaving no room to build a bridge between the two. And while advocates of traditional marriage have failed to offer compelling pragmatic arguments, many on the opposing side refuse even to appreciate traditionalists’ debate at the level of first principles.

I can’t help but think of a CNN broadcast recently, where Heritage Foundation’s Ryan T. Anderson attempted to defend a one man, one woman definition of marriage to a hostile audience. Every one of Anderson’s attempts to redirect the debate toward a discussion of fundamental definitions and purposes was met, not just with resistance, but with a seemingly utter lack of comprehension. When he deviated from buzzwords like ‘equality,’ the assembled guests found themselves far out of their depth, apparently unable to muster any more sophisticated reasoning than, ‘well, if two people love each other…’ No one thought it permissible or, indeed, anything other than outright bigotry, to seek a thoughtful investigation of what marriage is or why the government is even involved in sanctioning it at all. [3]

The real danger is not that pragmatic arguments are becoming popular among conservatives, but growing indications that the American public will listen to no other kind. One wonders whether Thomas Paine’s work, so influential in the 18th century, would have had any impact at all on today’s citizenry, for whom appeals to first principles or fundamentals of logic seem to have about as much relevance as pantaloons and words like ‘heretofore.’

There are numerous arguments by gay marriage proponents that appeal to shared values rather than mere pragmatism. But they still fight their battles on a different field than the traditionalists, assuming not only shared values, but a shared definition of those values. Thus even appeals to principle are not always ‘principled’ in the sense that I have defined it here. Consider Theodore B. Olson’s case for “Why same-sex marriage is an American value.” Olson writes,

‘Legalizing same-sex marriage would also be a recognition of basic American principles, and would represent the culmination of our nation’s commitment to equal rights… In short, the right to marry helps us to define ourselves and our place in a community. Without it, there can be no true equality under the law.’ [4]

Olson’s appeal to an American ideology of equality sounds nice, but all the while the traditionalists in the audience are shaking their heads and asking, but what do you mean by equality?

If either side of the marriage debate truly wants to make this national conversation productive, rather than just divisive, we need people on both sides to stop talking for a moment, take a breath, and listen. We need to develop an ear for the jarring dissonance in our dialogue, investigate its causes, and adjust our arguments to overcome that disconnect between our respective lines of reasoning.

So here’s my request. Those of you defending ‘traditional’ marriage: please wake up and make a concerted effort to root yourselves in reality. Please acknowledge that there are, in fact, a significant number of American citizens with same-sex attractions and offer a vision that takes their interests and quality of life into account.

Those of you advocating ‘marriage equality’: do your opponents the courtesy of seriously considering and responding to their points about the purpose of government and the purpose of marriage. Explain why private, emotional attachments between individuals should be of any concern to the federal government, when such attachments do not produce children in need of protection – arguably, the original reason for the very existence of marriage as a social institution. Acknowledge that sanctioning gay marriage and eventually establishing gay couples’ legal right to have children will create state-constructed family units which have no basis in biological reality, and explain how this can be a net gain for society, rather than a threat.

Americans will never move forward in the marriage debate unless we attempt to understand and address one another’s concerns. It’s too important a subject to conduct ourselves like pawns on a chessboard, attacking only at angles. Rather, each side needs to address the other straight on, in like terms, allowing ourselves to be challenged and improved by the discussion. Keep talking past one another, and we’ll accomplish nothing but fruitless division and bitterness.

And this matters. The debate over marriage equality is about more than marriage; it’s about our vision for the future of our country, and whether or not we can together create one that we all share. Will we find a way to keep marriage from tearing us apart? Or is the United States truly and inevitably becoming one nation in name alone, and at heart two peoples stuck in an increasingly loveless union?

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