Marriage and Civil Union

As some of you may know, in celebration of the one year anniversary of Philosophy Sucks! I have been reposting some posts that I liked but that never got the attention they deserved. Well, this post was originally posted July 13th 2007, so it is not quite this day, but it is close and there seems to have been some confusion around here lately as to where this post was. So here it is.


If one looks at the history of marriage one sees two distinct traditions. On the one hand we have a pre-Christian secular contract based tradition that is concerned most with legalities and on the other we have the religious spiritual union based tradition. Now in the debate about same-sex marriage that is currently taking place in our society we see some who are pushing for these two traditions to be separated. So, surprisingly, the majority of Americans seem to feel that same-sex marriage should be banned (a sad fact: Every ballot that same-sex marriage has appeared on results in a defeat at the polls). Yet, at the same time most seems also to feel that same-sex ‘civil unions’ are permissible. A civil union is a state recognized union that grants legal rights comparable to those obtained by marriage. It seems from this that the opposition is religiously generated, presumably by what the Old Testament says about homosexual relationships (never mind that these same people ignore all of the other stuff the Old Testament says, e.g. like stoning to death women on their period who don’t leave town). These people argue that marriage is a religious sacrament and so should be controlled by the Church.

Now of course people like me, who think that all persons should have equal rights regardless of race, intellegence, religion, sexual-orientation, height, eye color, political party, socio-economic class, or shoe size tend to think that the suggestion that straight people get to be married and homosexual people have to have civil unions denies a basic human right to people who happen to be homosexuals.

But there is another inequality in the proposed split between marriage and civil unions. That is that I, as a heterosexual, can only get married: Me and my girlfriend cannot get a civil union. I am not a religious person (I am agnostic) nor is my girlfriend. If I were to get married it would not be by a priest, nor would it take place at a church. In short mine would be a completely secular affair. Nor do I think that what I just described is so out of the ordinary.

 So I say we should formally distinguish these two aspects. Let marriage be a religious institution and let civil unions be a secular institution. Let the church govern marriage and define it as between one man and one woman. And let the state govern civil unions and define it as they want; a loving commitment to partnership and family betweem two persons. That way religious people would get marriages and secular people would get civil unions.

Now I suspect that there will be those who are unsatisfied with this answer. They might insist that same-sex marriages should be allowed, that the Church ought to be forced to recognize same-sex marriage as legitimate. While I sympathize with this sentiment I think that it must be recognized that, for better or for worse, marriage has become partly a religious ceremony. It is in fact a sacrament of faith. So in so far as it is a religious instituion, and in so far as the Church has the right to run its instituions, the Church has a right to define marriage as it wants. Though there is an interesting question here. Could the Church define marriage as only between two people of the same race? Or of the same faith? If they could not then it seems arbitrary that they do get to stipulate ‘same sex’ and it does seems as though they couldn’t do the former. So maybe the Church can’t define marriage in any way that it wants.

Maybe if we press the above kinds of arguments and reason prevails then we will eventually see people with perfect equality in this respect and then every couple, regardless of orientation, will have the choice between the religious instituion of marriage and the secular instituion of civil union. But until then (don’t hold your breath!) by clearly seperating the two instituions and making civil unions available to all secular persons we can better focus on what the real issue is (i.e. one of the Church’s right to govern its instituions) and at the same time by raising the status of civil unions we address the worry that civil unions discriminate against homsosexuals; that it is somehow ‘marriage-lite’.  It is not as though civil unions are ‘less than a marriage’ it is just that they are a secular rather than religious instituion. The fight with religion to recognize gay persons as deserving equality is another fight.

The (New) Agnostic’s Manifesto: Part 1 –Preamble

There is no denying that we live in an age of religious extremism; hell even the atheists are extreme nowadays. But just what ought one to believe about this? As some of you may know, I advocate agnosticism which is the view that the most rational thing to do when one is in our position is withhold judgment. I claim that we do not know that God exists, but nor do we know if He doesn’t exist. Furthermore I claim that we have good evidence on both sides of the dispute. Some of the traditional arguments for God’s existence are rationally compelling, some of the arguments against the existence of God are also rationally compelling. Given this the only rational choice, I argue, is agnosticism. To believe in God is to believe something with insufficient evidence; so too, though, is the belief that there is no God. Neither belief is supported by the evidence.  But before I try to give an argument for what I say above I want to say a few introductory things.

1. Religion vs. Theism

But this does not mean that I am, or have to be, agnostic about organized religion. The verdict is in on that one and I am in agreement with the Richard Dawkins of the world. Religion is at best silly and at worst pernicious.  Sadly a brief look at history reveals that it is mostly pernicious. It is people with religious beliefs that fly planes into buildings, blow themselves up at public places, shoot doctors who perform abortions, go on crusades, believe in talking snakes, etc, etc, etc.

This is to be distinguished from theism which is the belief that there is an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving being who created the Heavens and the Earth. Belief in theism in not associated with any one religion. It is, in fact, the thing that unites (most of) the major religions.  Belief in theism automatically rules out (most if not all) religious beliefs. A supremely loving God would not command you to blow up innocent civilians or to go on crusades or to hate gays, etc, etc, etc.

Thus ‘should I believe in theism or atheism’ is a question that can be rationally addressed (the answer is believe neither: be agnostic), but ‘should I be a Christian or a Muslim’ is not (the answer is be neither: they are both silly). Each of the beliefs specific to these religions, aside from theism, is, in its own way, patently absurd and ridiculous and is obviously the creation of man.

2. Universal Agnosticism?

Some agnostics, like Bertrand Russell, argue that we have to be what I call universal agnostics. That is, they argue that if we are agnostic with respect to the Christian God then we must agnostic with respect to the Greek gods, the Hindu gods, etc. I do not think that this is true. I think that the evidence we have FOR the existence of God is sufficient for us to conclude that IF there is a God then it will be the all-powerful, all-loving, all-knowing one that the theist posits.

3. Reason vs. Faith

The question I am interested in this ‘what should a rational person conclude vis a vis theism?’ I am not interested in questions of faith (by which I mean believing in something without evidence or in spite of the evidence). Faith, in my opinion, can be a good thing in small doses but when it gets to the point where it is totally immune from reason then we have crossed into the danger zone. This way lies religious beliefs and fanaticism. So, in this sense, it is possible for an agnostic to have faith. It could happen that someone convinced themselves that they should withhold belief in theism but nonetheless wanted the social benefits of a religion. They might conclude ‘I know that rationally I shouldn’t believe but I can’t help it, I just have faith that there is a God’. This kind of ‘Humean’ faithful agnostic is strange, but according to me, possible and consistent (not the view I have or recommend, though).

The Most Ignorant thing I have Ever Heard (so Far)

Wow; I thought that “I’ll stop eating meat when animals have civilization” was the most ignorant thing I have ever heard, but I have a new challenger…

“First, please skip the “equal rights” bit. [Gays] have the same rights as anyone else. Marry someone of the opposite sex and you get those rights.  –Anonymous Religious Zealot/Bigot

Wow! I mean, just…wow! What else is there to say? Ignorance is mighty powerful!

HOT Byrne

In Alex Burne’s paper Some like it HOT he says the following,

So I judge the higher-order thought hypothesis to be a heroic failure. That is particularly unfortunate for me, since it is one of the few reductive accounts of phenomenal consciousness that I can understand.

 Byrne is right that he understands the higher-order thought theory. In fact he is one of the very few philosophers I have read on the subject that has a decent grasp on what the theory actually says and how it works.

So, why then does he judge it a failure?

The present problem is that if the higher-order thought hypothesis is true, higher-order thoughts that one is in a sensory state, and which occur in the right way, must be alone sufficient for phenomenal consciousness. And the question is why this should be thought to represent any kind of advance. Has any of the initial puzzlement surrounding phenomenal consciousness been dispelled?

 This is a particularly dangerous line of attack as he is trying to hit the higher-order theory where it hurts most, that is, in its ability to explain consciousness. Byrne’s basic worry is that being told that there is a higher-order thought around doesn’t help to understand phenomenal consciousness any more than when we began.

He goes on to spell the problem out in more detail. He says,

Rosenthal’s official line is that having a higher-order thought that one is in a mental state is not, strictly speaking, sufficient for that state to be conscious. Visual scientists may tell me that I am having a visual experience, and I may believe them – that is, I may have a higher-order thought that I am having a visual experience. But this would not make the visual experience conscious. So Rosenthal adds in the requirement that the higher order thought arises without the benefit of inference or observation of which the thinker is transitively conscious. But surely it is completely mysterious why a state’s having (or lacking) a certain aetiology should be the extra ingredient that turns it into a state that there is something it’s like to be in. And in any case, once we are allowed to appeal to aetiology, why not do it at the level of sensory states, leaving higher-order thoughts by the wayside? It is the way that a sensory state is brought about, let us propose, that makes it phenomenally conscious. That, I take it, does not help to explain phenomenal consciousness, but it does just as well as the higher-order thought hypothesis. (emphasis added)

It is indeed mysterious why being caused in one way as opposed to another, all by itself, could result in phenomenal consciousness in one case and not the other. But this, I think, is not quite the right way of thinkig about what is going on. Accoring to the transitivity principle a mental state is conscious if I am onscious of myself as being in that state. This gives us a ready answer tothe question ‘why is there something that it is like for you to have a conscious mental state?’ The answer is that I am conscious of myself as being in that state in a subjectively unmediated way. It is not the causal history that is important. It is the way that I am conscious of myself that is doing the work.

Invoking God doesn’t Save Descartes from Skepticism

Descartes argues that God could not be a deciever and so his clear and distinct ideas, which presented themselves to him as self-evidently true, really were necessary truths. If it was the case that Descartes had this strong belief that there are physical objects when there weren’t any really then God would be the Evil Demon; but that isn’t possible. God wouldn’t allow Descartes to be decieved in this way. I often joke that Descartes must not have read the Book of Job because God does allow Job to be decieved (though, it is true that God is not the one doing the decieving) into thinking that it is God who is the one responsible for Job’s misfortunes. But actually, after having thought about it for a bit I now think there is a serious problem for Cartesian epistemology here.   

How are we supposed to rule out that we are not in some Job-like situation in which God allows the Evil Demon to decieve us into thinking that there is a physical world (in order to test us or whatever). So even if you grant all of Descartes’ premises you still don’t really have any justification to believe in the existence of the physical world because you can’t rule out this final Evil Demon scenerio (i.e. the one where God allows him to decieve you).

The Variability of Reasons?

I was reading the entry on moral particularism over at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (my adviser is a particularist which is bad ’cause I’m generally a Kantian and he has been making me read Toulmin’s ‘the Place of Reason in Ethics’). So anyway, here is an argument that is presented as an argument for moral particularism,

Particularists suppose that this doctrine [about the variability of reasons] is true for reasons in general, so that its application to moral reasons is just part and parcel of a larger story. For an example that comes from a non-moral context, suppose that it currently seems to me that something before me is red. Normally, one might say, that is a reason (some reason, that is, not necessarily sufficient reason) for me to believe that there is something red before me. But in a case where I also believe that I have recently taken a drug that makes blue things look red and red things look blue, the appearance of a red-looking thing before me is reason for me to believe that there is a blue, not a red, thing before me. It is not as if it is some reason for me to believe that there is something red before me, but that as such a reason it is overwhelmed by contrary reasons. It is no longer any reason at all to believe that there is something red before me; indeed it is a reason for believing the opposite.

This strikes me as a very implausible claim.  First it isn’t clear what the ‘seems’ there is supposed to mean. Does it mean that I have a red phenomenal experience? Or is it that I have a phenomenal belief? If the former it then becomes odd to think of a red experience as a reason of any kind (especially if one is influenced by Sellers’ work)…but let us waive that. Is it really true that the appearence of a red-looking-thing is reason to believe that there is something blue out there? Well, only in light of my belief about the influence of the drug I am on. Buit then it sounds like we are doing exactly what is being denied here. The appearence of a red-looking thing before me is a reason to believe that there is something red out there UNLESS this reason is trumped by some other reason (like the belief in the example).

Given this very plausible interpretation of what is going on here the particularist cannot base his case on examples like this without further argument.