‘Love sex and marriage in liberal societies’ was the subject. The speaker was one of Britain’s leading philosophers, Professor John Haldane of St Andrew’s University in Scotland.
In a lecture, delivered to the Iona Institute in Dublin last Friday night, Professor Haldane argued that about the only non-conflicted terms in his title were the two words “and” and “in”. Everything else had more or less gone by the board and utter confusion seemed to reign around them in public and private discourse. The consequences of this were nothing short of disastrous.
Take the term “marriage”, he said. It is no longer accepted by some as even a “good thing”. And for those who might accept it as a “good thing” – if we can keep to our 1066 and All That categories – there is dispute as to whether or not marriage should be used to formalize relationships between men and women, same sex couples, sibling couples or indeed polyamorous relationships.
In a Standpoint article in May of this year, Haldane said that with regard to marriage the primary focus to date has been on two-person, same-sex unions but the claims of polyamourous groups and incestuous partners are also beginning to be pressed.
Why has all this happened? Why have conceptual issues – the facts and values on which they are based, their description and the prescriptions surrounding them, got as muddled as they are? The roots of the problem lie partly in history and in the twin developments which unfolded in the late 18th and 19th centuries – industrialization and urbanization. With these developments social structures and most importantly the family, came under pressure and to a degree wilted under that pressure. With that wilting came far-reaching consequences.
The end result of all this, Haldane suggested, is that people are utterly confused and no longer know know what to think.
How can we resolve this? He suggested two approaches with which we might start but left us in no doubt but that the way back to any kind of healthy normality would be long and arduous.
His first suggestion was by way of what he termed “external consideration” of the concepts and the realities involved – whether it be Love, Sex, Marriage, Liberality or even Society itself. For example, consoder whether marriage is or is not a useful concept and a useful practical institution for society, for the family? How is it useful and what description of it is the most useful? On the basis of this kind of an examination some clarity can be achieved and hopefully some agreement might be reached. The implication of what he was saying was that in terms of the current debate we are a long way from even the possibility of agreement. It is nothing short of a tower Babel situation out there.
The second approach was by way of “immanent critique” of the concept and the realities – do they hold within themselves inherent contradictions, are they consistent? Will traditional marriage stand up to this? This critique can be used to clarify all the positions in the debate and by rational examination we might reach a consensus.
In terms of the wider issues, the nature of society today and the politics seeking to organize it, he went back again to the developments in the 19th century and the utter degradation of the new urban populations and the efforts to deal with this. What began as Utilitarianism – the effort to achieve the greatest happiness for the greatest possible number – ended up as the political philosophy which we have today when politicians shy away from values and seek solutions in the material order. The effect of this was ultimately to drain politics of real human values and any sense of the dignity of man and what man is in his essence. That has ultimately led to the neutral state.
In his Standpoint article Haldane dealt with this problem in a critique of an address in Westminster last December by Nick Clegg, Britain’s Deputy Prime Minister.
“Clegg”, Haldane said, “takes liberal values to be incompatible with certain kinds of social arrangements, or at odds with the state endorsing and supporting them, and these include a traditional understanding of marriage and the family. This reading, however, points to the paradox of progressive liberalism: on the one hand advancing a liberal social programme; on the other rejecting the right of the state to promote or protect particular social forms, such as the traditional family.
But such neutrality, Haldane clearly believes, is really a mirage and what we have ended up with is not neutral at all – it has put secularism in the place of religion and all those values which connect with religion. It would seem that because these values do connect with religion then the “neutral” state cannot acknowledge them – with disastrous results for our understanding of human beings and their needs. Immanent critique, the thought, reveals this paradox.
Returning to the topic of “external consideration” he gave an example of how rapidly the political consensus about these terms – again, Love, Sex, Marriage and Society – has changed over the past decade or so. About eight years ago Kofi Anan, then the General Secretary of the United Nations, gave an address which reflected a view on these matters – and the family in particular – with which no one had much difficulty. The same understanding is no longer accepted and that speech would probably cause a major controversy if delivered in that particular forum today.
In his Standpoint article Haldane pointed out that in the 1980s and 1990s the policy issues that seemed most pressing upon family life were ones concerning divorce and children’s rights (also certain economic measures to do with welfare benefits). More recently the strongest challenge is that posed by “alternative sexual lifestyles”. Along with abortion, sexuality has become one of the main issues of contention between traditional morality and politics, and the moral and social philosophy of liberal pluralism. Although a range of matters is in contention, the most prominent is the issue of homosexual practice and its recognition by the state.
In Standpoint again, he drew attention to the strong connections between marriage and family life. Common experience and an increasing body of empirical research tells us that it matters that children are raised in a family context, and that it is best for a child if this consists of a mother and father, ideally supplemented by male and female of older generations and by siblings. Evidently these considerations bear on the issue of same-sex and polyamorous households and so connect with current debates about the legal recognition of sexual partnerships.
In his Iona lecture he predicted a demographic time bomb in our presence which connects with these considerations. By 2050, 60% of the population in the West – if current trends continue – will have no brothers, no sisters, no cousins, no aunts or uncles.
This is the road we are on. Is there any way off this road? No, unless we return to thinking about the Common Good, the needs of society, families and children, and stop thinking about our atomized selves.
Haldane concluded his Standpoint article by asking,
How then to proceed? On the one hand, discrimination in law on the basis of private, consensual sexual practice is hard to justify and impossible to implement. On the other hand, society has a right to expect its commonly shared interests to be protected, and these include the norm of two-person, non-incestuous, heterosexual marriage, particularly as that bears upon the needs and formation of children. Reasoning about what policies it is rational for an individual or a government to pursue has to be related to the question of what burdens and harms arise from the effort to encourage or to enforce any given option. Here it may be useful to make the distinction between value-promoting and value-protecting policies.
The aim of politics is the promotion and protection of certain social goods, and an emphasis on the rights and liberties of citizens risks overlooking the welfare and interests of the community, including those of its fledgling members, children. Notice that even in caricaturing the 1950s model of marriage and the family, Nick Clegg speaks of the “bread-winning dad” and the “homemaking mother”. Perhaps this is an unintended compliment to the virtues involved in co-operatively orienting one’s life to the interests of others. Certainly it stands in contrast to a contemporary image of adults asserting their right to have marriage redefined to accommodate themselves without regard to the natural facts of life and the natural needs of children. Which then seems the more caring and generous picture and which the more conducive to the good of society?
(About Professor Haldane: In addition to lecturing in philosophy at St Andrew’s, Professor Haldane is also Director of the Centre for Ethics, Philosophy and Public Affairs at the university.
He is author of a number of books, including Reasonable Faith, Faithful Reason: Essays Catholic and Philosophical, and An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Religion.
He has published some 200 academic papers covering areas such as the history of philosophy, philosophy of the mind, metaphysics, and moral and social philosophy.
He is a regular newspaper columnist and broadcaster and was elected Chairman of the Royal Institute of Philosophy in 2010.
He has held a number of prestigious lectureships and fellowships at institutions including Georgetown University, Cambridge University and the Gregorian University in Rome.
He is a member of the Pontifical Council for Culture.)