If you are thinking about submitting a column to this page in which you present gay marriage as a matter of civil rights and equality, in which you compare the issue of gay marriage to racial discrimination in the past or in which you depict opponents of gay marriage as hateful and homophobic, I would ask you to reconsider.
It’s not that I doubt your sincere concern for this topic or your ability to expound upon it insightfully. It’s just that a rough sketch of that column has been reincarnated on this page no fewer than five times in the past month or so.
I suggest we attempt to stir up this conversation before it fully solidifies into a perpetual, monotonous chant (“Rights! Separate but equal! Homophobia!”). In my attempt to do so, I turn to news anchor Keith Olbermann’s reaction to the passing of Proposition 8 in California. Olbermann exhibited the same assertions and sentiments as the columns on this page, but with an added touch of shameless sentimentality. He went so far as to say that gay marriage is not “a question of politics,” but “a question of love” — as if all it takes to enact and enforce a law is flowers, bunnies and warm, fuzzy feelings.
Not that emotion has no role in politics. But emotion must be grounded in the political virtue of prudence. While gay marriage no doubt involves love, it is also obviously a question of politics, and politics is the art of deliberating and taking action directed towards the good of society. It is just here, when we consider the meaning of “the good of society,” that we find the root of much disagreement in our country.
Olbermann has hopped onto the bandwagon of modernity in equating the good with the individual’s ability to exercise his will without constraint. Formerly, the good was thought to exist in an objective, cosmic order independent of human will. For Plato, the Good was the highest reality — the sun that illuminated everything else — and the good life for man consisted of participating in that Good through virtuous living and rational reflection. Christian thinkers adopted and modified the Greek philosophical tradition, continuing to subordinate human will to a higher order but now locating that order in a personal God.
The advent of modernity saw a sharp break. Thomas Hobbes, the inventor of the modern political order, claimed that nothing is “simply and absolutely” good. He individualized the good, identifying it with “whatsoever is the object of any man’s appetite or desire.” Having lost its belief in a transcendent order to which human will must be subordinate, modern thought conflates the good with radical liberty. As it happens, once the good has been redefined, so too must nearly everything else.
Rationality, for instance, is now considered an instrument for achieving arbitrarily chosen goals rather than as a faculty for realizing the good — whether of the individual or society. In the modern account of rationality (to use Hume’s famous dictum), “’Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.” Truth has been divorced from the good, and “is” from “ought.” We strive for something not because it is naturally or inherently good, but because we have chosen to value it.
Love has also been redefined. It now means something more like apathy than wishing for and working toward another’s good. Olbermann makes this clear when, in his plea for “love,” he appeals to hands-off indifference: “What does this matter to you?” Hate, in turn, has come to mean something akin to what previously might have been called love — namely, deterring someone from acting in a way that would be injurious to himself or to society.
Not everyone in the United States buys into the modern redefinition of the good. Many do not see marriage as a “right,” but as an institution by which the government can help to foster a virtuous and ordered society. They recognize a natural, fundamental difference between men and women, and they believe that a good society is made up of families that are built on the love between a mother and father (rendering null the analogy of racial discrimination). Instead of calling them “irrational,” “prejudiced” or “hateful,” the proponent of gay marriage should recognize that many of his adversaries, given their premises, are loving their neighbors in the best way they know how.
Bryce Taylor is a sophomore in Silliman College.