Sunday, February 16, 2014

Same-Sex Marriage and Categorization in the Study of Culture: An Anthropologist Weighs In

One of the most intellectually worthwhile comments posted during my bitter debate at Daily Kos came from the anthropologist Cociyo. I am now working on a reply to these remarks. --E.M.

Cociyo on Categorization in the Study of Culture

As an anthropologist I won't engage with [the issue of same-sex marriage] on moral grounds, because I don't think that the moral premises of arguments can be objectively true or false, even though conclusions drawn from such premises can be logically valid or invalid. While I'm a strong supporter of marriage equality and make no apologies for the fact that I do want to see more social stigma against people who treat same-sex marriages as invalid, exactly as you fear will happen, I think that truth claims about rights are, in the end, tactics by which people fight for their often incompatible interests. I do take an interest in the issue of how to categorize things, and may be able to offer something there which will change your mind. This'll be long, but civil.

As you know, Catholic teaching is very strongly influenced by the Platonic and Aristotelian philosophical traditions, which, despite their differences, both propose that some categories of things in the world are in some sense metaphysically real. For Platonists, that's because the "forms" of things exist in eternity in the mind of God, so that all actual housecats are instantiations of an ideal Cat. For Aristotelians, there isn't a separate, ideal Cat, but "catness" is nevertheless one of the four causes of individual housecats - the "formal cause." Cats, like everything else, also have a material cause (the matter making up their bodies), an efficient cause (cat sex), and a final cause (whatever cats are conceived to be "for"). An important implication of these positions is that there is a right way and a wrong way to divide up human experiences of the world. If there's such a thing as an ideal Cat, or such a thing as "catness," then a culture that had a word for "small carnivorous mammal" but no words for "housecat" and "weasel" as distinct categories would be objectively wrong about the way the world is. So would a culture that divided up housecats into multiple categories not understood to denote the same kind of thing.

Another important implication of the Aristotelian model is that it is also objectively wrong to use a cat in a way contrary to its purpose, its final cause. As you're aware, that last Aristotelian idea, especially as expressed by Thomas Aquinas, is central to Catholic teaching about human sexuality and marriage: penises are for putting in vaginas, and putting a penis in a vagina is for making new people. Do things otherwise and you're doing them wrong. Since you've said that you don't see gay sex as sinful, I take it you don't agree with that position. Instead, your argument seems closer to another Catholic claim informed by metaphysical realism (broadly conceived): that marriage is an objectively real category, that relationships meeting certain criteria are objectively real marriages, and that relationships that don't meet those criteria are not. By extension, a society that groups real marriages and other relationships together under a single name is categorizing the world incorrectly.

Now, on the subject of categories, I'm pretty much a nominalist. I don't believe categories like "housecat" and "marriage" are objectively real. I agree with another Catholic monk, William of Ockham, that it's a bad idea in philosophical reasoning to "multiply entities without necessity." I won't go into the reasons for that here. For nominalism, Felis domesticus is just a term of convenience, and there is no unbridgeable metaphysical gap between housecats and jaguars (or them and paramecia). But what are the implications of that position for thinking about marriage? To start with, "marriage" isn't a real thing; what's real are people, who relate to each other in various ways. As linguistic signs, the word "marriage" and its translations in other languages don't have one correct object to which to refer. Instead, conceptual categories, including "marriage," evolve over time, for lots of different social, intellectual, and material reasons. Broadly speaking, we categorize the world of human experience the way we do because it helps us get certain things done; if we want to do other things, or if those categories aren't useful under changing circumstances, we develop new ways of dividing up the phenomenal world.

One thing I want to do is to use ceramics from archaeological contexts, like burials or architectural fill, to infer the approximate age of those contexts. I can be sure that a sealed burial containing ceramics dates to after the invention of pottery, but if I want to say more than that, I have to be able to make salient distinctions among different kinds of pottery. It's kind of like if I had to identify in what years a bunch of different photographs of cities were taken based on the models of the cars in the photos. The difference is that with cars, the categories are already given by the manufacturers: I drive a 2008 Honda Fit Sport that's painted a specific shade of blue that has some proper name I don't remember. It's structurally almost identical to some large number of other such cars. With ancient pots, we don't necessarily know the relevant cultural categories, and anyway there's a lot of technical variation in how they were made, so we may need to categorize pots more finely than their makers would have done. In order to do that, archaeologists working where I work construct our own categories, of increasing fineness, in order to be able to compare pottery from different contexts. Those categories may deal with different relevant features depending on the questions we're interested in. For instance, you can group all vessels with a glossy slip together, whether the slip is red or black, and regardless of the makeup of the ceramic paste. Or you can group all the vessels with similarly compounded clays together, regardless of what the surface treatment is like. The most relevant category is called the "type," which encompasses pots having a lot of traits in common, even though there may be finer gradations ("varieties") within a type. I apologize for going on, but this part's important: the best practice in ceramic typology is to start with the actual pots and build up your types based on measurable similarities between the artifacts as you actually find them, not to start with a set of categories and make the ceramics fit.

So imagine that there were no such word as "marriage," or that we were developing a new language from scratch, and we wanted to categorize all human relationships throughout history. Relationship (A) involves one man who has exclusive sexual access (including by force if they're not into it) to several women, who had little choice in entering into the relationship, can't legally leave it, and aren't allowed to work outside the home. Contraception is unknown and infant mortality high. Their society condones and encourages the man's use of domestic violence, up to and including homicide, to preserve what are perceived as the honor and good order of the household. They don't answer to a bureaucratic state, even though the man (and through him the women and their children) stands in some status relationship to other such men. The perceived legitimacy of the arrangement rests in part on belief in its divine origin and in divine penalties for doing things differently. Everyone in the relationship, including the children, works with the herds of animals which are the group's primary means of subsistence and which will be passed on to heirs who must be blood relatives. Relationship (B) involves one man and one woman who entered into sexual and domestic partnership freely, based on romantic love, and sometimes have sex with other people with the other partner's knowledge and consent. They both work in "creative class" jobs outside the home. They live in a big, diverse city and associate with other people based on similar values and interests, as opposed to spatial proximity. Domestic violence would be severely sanctioned by their friends and by a highly organized government. Contraception means they don't have to have children, while fertility treatments and adoption are available options, and all those options are condoned in their social circle. Their partnership is legally recognized, but can be dissolved by either party without too much trouble. Relationship (C) is like relationship (B) in all respects except that the partners are both of the same gender.

I suggest that if we approached the job with the same dispassion that archaeologists take towards the very dry work of categorizing potsherds, we would be highly unlikely to group relationships (A), (B), and (C) together. We would be very likely to place (B) and (C) in the same "type," even though we might further distinguish same-gender and different-gender "varieties." And if we're going to use the word "marriage" to encompass relationships like (A) and (B) - as, in fact, we do when we speak of an Old Testament patriarch (or a modern Saudi prince) being married to multiple wives - then it just doesn't make sense, from a nominalist, bottom-up analytical perspective, to exclude (C) from the category. And since nominalism underlies the scientific and technological discoveries that make our civilization (problematic as it is) possible, especially Darwin's theory of the evolution of species, you might want to consider whether there's something to it. I'd also suggest that you consider to what extent your thinking about what "marriage" is could be unconsciously shaped by Aristotelian ideas that you wouldn't support with respect to what a species is.

[NB: I intend to post my response to these very well-wrought remarks when I et time to finish writing it. For now I'd like to add the following, part of my dialogue with Cociyo after his comments:

You write that you believe more stigma should be attached to religious groups that refuse to recognize or solemnize same-sex marriages. I think this is something that must play out over the long term. To the extent the public support for such marriages continues to increase, which it likely will, most religious groups will begin to formulate theological or other grounds on which to change their practices. In any case, what I never want to see is lawsuits against religious groups forcing them to change their practices. That would be counterproductive. So, stigma in the sense of religious groups slowly feeling more and more at odds with the society at large, this to me is the natural route. But stigma in the sense of lawsuits forcing open church doors, that is something else: it would be plainly unconstitutional and, in my view, counterproductive as well.
He replied:
I should have been clearer about this: I didn't mean that I want government action, including civil lawsuits, to force religious groups to solemnize same-sex marriages. I don't. I was thinking more of quotidian social situations, when people with qualms about the issue have to decide whether to adjust their language to the growing social consensus: e.g., asking "How's your husband?" vs. "How's your partner?"
I told Cociyo that in any case he was right to place me more in the metaphysical realist camp than with the Thomists on this and related issues.]

Related posts at Same-Sex Marriage: Is there any such thing?

No comments: