Peder D4

Discussion of politics and other odious things

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Social Institutions

Here is an outstanding post calling for humility on the issue of gay marriage. Megan argues that many previous reforms were attempted for good and compelling reasons and the results were terrible for marriage. She also points out that 'people who don't see the use of a social institution are the last people who should be allowed to reform it':
In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, "I don't see the use of this; let us clear it away." To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: "If you don't see the use of it, I certainly won't let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it."

This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.

I've never heard this argument before (she quotes from G.K. Chesterton) but it certainly makes sense. The idea that marriage is 'just a piece of paper' is fairly widespread in our society. Many of the people that say that also say that same piece of paper won't keep them together with their partner. While that might be true for them it inarguable that the decline of marriage as an institution has been devastating in segments of our society.
I do support gay marriage but the 'tradition argument' gives me pause. I think that our society has come to a point where same sex couples are able to live on a more even par with hetero couples. I also think that a significant portion of same sex couples are hyper-committed to each other. My hope is that including them in the world of marriage will strengthen the overall institution.
But...I'm far from certain.



Blogger Steve said...

I read the whole post. Very long and in need of editing, but very strong argument. Thanks for recommending.

4:07 PM  
Blogger James Colby said...

I've heard this philosophy before and it has it's positives and negatives.

In general, it's a cautious approach that simply asks you to understand a problem before you try to fix it. Very wise indeed.

The problem is perspectives, some people will use it as a justification to never change anything, which I feel is a perversion of the philosophy.

But specifically I feel it is being wrongfully applied to the subject of Gay marriage. The big reason is that proponents of Gay marriage aren't trying to tear down the institution of marriage, like the proverbial fence in the subject post, but rather they are trying to expand it. The understanding is still important, I mean if you take a 3 foot tall fence and add 20 feet to it, it might fall over, so it might be good to make sure you understand the engineering of it. I agree that we should understand it to the best of our ability, and I think for the most part we do.

This arguement has to be looked at from both sides. If a person thinks gay people shouldn't get married because they don't understand marriage than we would of course have to have some sort of way to show anyone that wants to get married truely understands it.

Or just going back to the fence across the road....If a person wants to tear it down, they probably have a reason. Now if they understood why it was there, even better. But if they don't know why it's there, all they have is a reason to not wnat it there. So let's look at the person who will stop that person from tearing it down. Do they understand why it's there? If not, why are they so afraid of change?

I hope all that makes sense, I did go on a bit. I was just trying to express that while there is wisdom there, don't cling to it, and don't let vague standards stand in the way of good people's right to the pursuit of happiness.

3:15 AM  

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