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‘Marriage is ONLY between a Man and a Woman’

A series of events have brought the issue of gay marriage to the fore. Nudged by the Vice President, Barak Obama came out in support. North Carolina, by contrast, voted to prohibit it. Closer to home, Mayor Boris Johnson recently put his foot down to prevent a religious group running the slogan ‘Not gay! Ex-gay, post-gay and proud. Get over it!’ on London buses. This was in response to an earlier ad from Stonewall which read ‘Some people are gay. Get over it.’ These events, of course, have triggered rekindling of the debate. What strikes me most about opposition to gay marriage is how bad many of the arguments against it seem to be.

My own view of gay marriage is that it is completely unobjectionable, so perhaps this goes some way towards explaining why I think the contra arguments are so weak. But I don’t think this is everything. There seems to be a serious mismatch between the strength of feeling obviously held by opponents compared with the reasons they articulate to explain why they hold that view. Many arguments are little more than other ways of expressing opposition. One example is that ‘marriage is only between a man and a woman’ as adopted by Mitt Romney . I recently heard British Conservative MP Peter Bone come up with a interesting variant on this when he said that gay marriage was rather like saying an apple is a pear. Those of a religious persuasion might say gay marriage is sinful, or appeal to a holy book, or the almighty. All these ‘arguments’ shed little light on why opponents think the way they do, and they don’t provide much illumination as to why a proponent ought to think otherwise. I should add that this pattern is not just confined to moral views that I disagree with. For example, finding arguments in favour of human rights seem to me to be particularly tricky.

The problem, I think, is treating conscious reasoning as the whole of moral cognition. There seems to be a lot more cognition taking place when someone adopts a moral position than just the reasons they can consciously articulate. Somebody who has done a lot of empirical work on this is the psychologist Jonathan Haidt. In a landmark article, Haidt goes as far as suggesting that conscious reasons are often post hoc justifications of moral intuitions. This gives rise to two illusions: (1) the wag-the-dog illusion is that we believe our moral judgement (the dog) is driven by moral reasoning (the tail); and (2) the wag-the-other-dog’s-tail illusion is that we expect the successful rebuttal of another’s arguments to change that person’s mind.

I think Haidt’s work provides important insights, but goes too far. I think the work of Sperber and his collaborators is more along the right track: they suggest that reasoning is primarily for providing arguments to persuade others and to assess arguments provided by others. I believe that over a purely factual question, one can more reasonably expect consensus between discussants. However, moral arguments are different. Even if two people could perfectly communicate the cognition that caused their moral judgements to each other, there is no reason to expect consensus concerning values: people may want different things more than they want to compromise. Also, moral cognition seems very complicated. It may just be very hard to consciously articulate. So while it might appear that moral reasoning is merely a post hoc justification, it may be instead that it is an imperfect way of seeking to persuade others.

The (even more) difficult question is whether the insights of Haidt, Sperber and others can contribute towards disagreements such as over gay marriage, where lack of arguments seems to make resolving moral disputes very difficult? I think they might. By way of example, proponents of gay marriage sometimes express the concern that opponents of gay marriage are not against gay marriage, but are really homophobic. Opponents often (but not always) deny this. It might be possible to illuminate this question by looking at how opponents actually behave in a wider range of circumstances to infer what leads people to think the way they do, rather than relying merely on what they say (the moral equivalent of putting one’s money where one’s mouth is). The wider circumstances might be moral views concerning marriage and homosexuality generally. This seems to happen anyway – the US this media have been focussing on allegations that a younger Romney bullied another student because he was thought to be gay.

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5 Comment on this post

  1. It is good to see discussion on this subject. If we look back at history and civil rights movements in general, we can all see where this debate is headed. In the end, truth always prevails. What is wrong is a cloak of secrecy and deceit to prop the human rights of one set of group while trampling on the human rights of another. That can never be a good solution in the long term. What we want is to recognize the facts, let history guide us and do what is right to move forward. There should be respect for all opinions.

  2. While I agree in general, I am sightly concerned over the removal of conscious reasoning in playing any part in the formation of moral beliefs/judgements. I totally agree that a completely Rational explanation of moral beliefs simply doesn’t work; none of us work out our moral systems by pure reasoning alone. However, I think the opposite is just as true, I do not think moral beliefs are simply an emotional response (or expression of an emotional response) to particular circumstances or events.

    Firstly, if this were the case, then the explanation above that rational arguments for moral beliefs primary purpose being to convince people would be pointless. If people’s beliefs were purely emotional responses with no rational input, then forming an argument to try to convince someone would be a waste of time.

    Secondly, I have witnessed people changing their moral positions due to rational argument. The changes are rarely radical (animal rights activist to big game hunter for example) but the slight changes can have drastic consequences on peoples actions. Although I would point out that these people were entering into moral discussion with an open mind. (I know I’ve only given you anecdotal evidence there but I’d need a whole paper to show it in full)

    I believe that moral judgements and beliefs are made through a mixture of emotional and rational responses. Possibly rational thought and discussion provides the framework through which our emotions are filtered to generate the response, or possibly the reverse. Either way I believe we have to take into account both factors when trying to open up a rational debate between people. It is also important for both people to have an open mind and to be willing to listen to their opponents arguments. If someone is not willing to question their beliefs (moral or otherwise) then there is no way they will ever change them because they simply wont listen or think about the arguments.

  3. Dear Gaston

    Thanks very much for your insightful comments. I’m not sure whether you’re concerned about Haidt’s views of reasoning, or my own. If it’s Haidt’s views, then I agree with you – I think he underestimates the power of (conscious) reasoning, and he doesn’t really suggest an answer to the big question about what reasoning might be for. As I mentioned above, I am more sympathetic to Sperber et al’s view of reasoning – that it’s for arguing. So, as you rightly say, people do change their views in response to arguments. Simply because they do not do so all the time does not mean that it does not have a function, or that it’s not fulfilling its function.

    As you also point out, conscious reasoning also seems to play a role in moral decision making, even if its role is primarily for persuasion or assessing arguments. It might not do so all the time (as the example of objections to gay marriage suggest), but it seems to do so some of the time. Sperber and Mercier point out that this tends to be where people do not have a strong view on a question. Given Sperber and Mercier’s views of the purpose of reasoning, there is an explanation for this as well. This is that we also pay attention to how our views can be justified to others. If it is very hard to justify, and we do not feel very strongly on a topic, we may go for the more ‘rational’ position. However, if it is hard to justify, yet we feel very strongly, then we may go for the position we feel strongly about despite not being able to ‘rationally’ justify it. I think the process of testing whether one’s views can be presented to others is essentially what Rawl’s method of ‘reflective equilibrium’ may amount to.

  4. I’m always a bit surprised that arguments about gay marriage turn more on the gay bit than the marriage bit. I’d have thought the strongest objections have to do with the state or “nonbelievers” compelling independent institutions to make significant alterations to their practices. What rights do you think, for instance, Jews have to make alterations to Islamic practices (or vice versa)? What rights do you think the Chinese have to alter Buddhist institutions in Tibet? On what basis is there a mandate for outsiders to make changes to religions? Personally it strikes me as reasonable that the Islamic community in the UK get to decide what Islamic marriage looks like in the UK. Likewise Christian churches and Christian marriage. Next question would be “who defines marriage”, or “under what circumstances can the state unilaterally create secular versions of institutions from religions and deploy them as legitimate?” or something like that. The point is that I’d have thought the issue – to the extent there is one – is really about the moral role of the state, rather than the moral status of homosexuality. But then I haven’t followed this issue terribly closely, and I agree with Paul that the debate seems to have an unusually low signal:noise ratio.

    On the stuff about cognition/judgement/reasoning – my guess is that it’s a lot like auxiliary hypotheses in the philosophy of science: any attempt to evaluate real-world examples is likely to end up relying on extra “bits”** that are hard to place bounds around. And in a world of value pluralism, people wll place different rank orderings/lexical priorities on different “bits”/principles. Hence political communities usually talk past each other, morally, and compete on the framing instead (ie which “bits” get included).

    **Word chosen to maximise ambiguity, which may or may not be constructive.

  5. When we are for or against gay marriage, aren’t we making another psichological mistake? I would ask if it makes sense marriage at all. Marriage is probably one of the social institutions that we are unable to put into question. But, what a secular state, beyond property protection and children safety, has to do in order to support marriage institution?

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