Reply to George: II. Don’t Get Ahead of Yourself
February 8th, 2011
[This post is part of a series analyzing Robert George's widely-read article, "What is Marriage", which appeared on pages 245-286 of the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy. You can view all posts in the series here.]
Page 246 (the article’s first page): In which Robert George asks his basic question, and we consider two different ways of addressing it.
What is “What is marriage?”
Should the government recognize same-sex marriage?
Professor Robert George believes the only way to settle this is to address a broader question, What is marriage? He thinks proponents of marriage equality shy away from giving a clear answer: We appeal to equality, fairness, and non-discrimination without defining the thing we want society to be fair about. This vagueness, he claims, gives our flawed arguments an “appealing simplicity” (something you’ll find his own reasoning lacks).
George, on the other hand, thinks he begins at the beginning by asking, “What is marriage?” I don’t think he’s right. We actually have to step back further and ask, “How should we approach this question, What is marriage?” The step back is essential. Otherwise we’re letting him set the terms of engagement and dealing with him on his own turf, even if it might not be the appropriate turf at all.
To explore this we’ll visit ancient Greece and spend some time with Plato and Aristotle.
Plato went back to the basics.
Plato was the one of first great western philosophers to investigate how we know what we know. In his time, Greek civil and moral life was a mess. Earlier philosophers had gotten mired in paradox. Basic questions baffled them, like the nature of change: how can a thing change (an acorn into a tree, or a baby into a woman) and yet still be the same thing? Philosophers like Parmenides and Zeno seemed to prove change was impossible, while others, like Heraclitus, showed reality was nothing but change.
These contradictions pointed out the difficulty (perhaps the impossibility) of knowing anything about the world. Reason failed, and objective knowledge was a myth. That ruled out moral truth, too: The universe is unknowable, morality is arbitrary, and you may as well devote your life to pleasure and power.
Plato wanted to create moral individuals and a just society, so he had to develop a theory of knowledge. He had to prove concepts like truth, goodness, and honor weren’t just empty words, but real things, things we can know and talk about in a meaningful way.
Plato did this by arguing that there are two realms: the realm we live in, and a realm of higher, unseen-but-real things.
You’ve never seen a triangle.
Think about a triangle. Easy enough. But that’s surprising, because you’ve never seen a triangle — just pictures of them. The sides of a real triangle are perfectly straight line segments. Every “triangle” you’ve seen has sides that aren’t perfectly straight, that vary in thickness, that are a bit jagged if you look closely enough.
Yet you recognize a picture of triangle when you see it. That’s because in your head you have an idea of a triangle — you understand the form of a triangle. And when it comes to Plato, form doesn’t just mean shape; it goes way beyond that to mean the ultimate and perfect version of something.
So now think about a horse. Plato would say humans understand the form of a horse, too. That’s how even a child can see that two very different animals are both horses. And just as some triangles are drawn better than others, some horses are stronger or faster than others; they better fit the form of a horse.
Go up another level of abstraction and there are forms for goodness, truth, honor, justice. We may have trouble defining them, we may never encounter a perfect example, but we know them when we see them, because the forms are in our heads. But not just in our heads. Plato thought forms were real — more real, in fact, than the world we live in, because they exist in a higher realm: the Realm of Forms.
Are you kidding me?
Is that so crazy? Plato would say if you claim to know geometric truths about triangles (not just the haphazard, individual drawings of triangles) then you’ve admitted that something can be intangible, untouchable, unempirical, and yet still be real. If they’re real, they must exist, and if not here on earth, then in a realm of their own.
And that realm is superior to ours. Just as the “triangles” we encounter in our world are mere representations of the form triangle (some better than others), so the horses we see are mere shadows of the form horse. The same goes for the form human and the form truth. No particular object in our realm is truly real; it’s only real insofar as it matches up with its form in the higher realm.
Okay, so even if you agree the forms are real, how did they get into our heads? Plato’s answer is that our souls originate in that other, higher realm. Our souls contain, at some level, memories of that realm, memories of the forms. Plato is famous for the notion that all knowledge is recollection, and a person’s intellectual evolution consists of regaining knowledge of those forms.
That may seem pretty out there, but it does answer the surprisingly difficult question of how a four-year-old can recognize a horse when she can’t even adequately describe what one is. It also explains change: the same horse can grow, age, go lame, and still be a horse because it reminds us of the perfect and eternal form of a horse.
I don’t know if anyone accepts Plato literally, but his influence has been enormous. You can view the whole history of western philosophy as a series of attempts to improve or refute Plato. Even if he didn’t provide ultimate answers, he clarified basic issues in ways that stick with us to this day.
You might be wondering what on earth this has to do with same-sex marriage. Or maybe not. Maybe this idea of two different realms — one we live in, and one that is higher and the source of all truth — is familiar. We encounter it every time someone says that God created marriage and mankind has no power to alter it.
As for the notion that knowledge is recollection, it’s similar to the way some people interpret Jeremiah 31:33, “I will put my law in their minds and write it in their hearts.” In other words, we’re born with knowledge; we just have to claim it.
Aristotle brings us back down to earth.
Aristotle was Plato’s student and his first great reviser. Where Plato searched for truth through dialog and conversation, soul-searching and analysis, Aristotle was inclined to rely on real-world observation. You want to know what makes for good law? Start by looking at the constitutions and laws of the city-states around you. See what works. See what doesn’t. Then figure out why.
Aristotle revised Plato’s theory by saying there is only one world, the one we live in. Forms are real, but they are abstractions, ideas, based on the real things around us. To figure out the form horse, look at real horses. They each have some individual traits, but they also have traits in common. These common traits, their essential traits, make a horse a horse — they define the form of a horse.
This explains how a child recognizes a horse. She simply spots what it has in common with other horses. It also explains why young children often get things wrong; a toddler might call every small four-legged creature a cat until she learns to spot what cats and dogs don’t have in common.
Form follows function
But what about change? How can an acorn grow into a tree, changing a bit every day and remaining from day to day the same thing? Aristotle taught us not to limit an object’s identity to what it is in that moment. To understand a thing, we have to understand its development, where it came from and where it’s going. A successful acorn becomes an oak tree. This end — or purpose, or function, or whatever you want to call it — is embedded in the acorn and thus we can understand how it can appear to change and yet be the same thing.
It’s odd to think about an acorn having a purpose all its own. And even odder to think that way about a lifeless object like stone or a hillside. But it makes perfect sense to think about humans and human concepts this way. For instance, what’s courage? Well, why do we care — why is the question important to us? Where does courage come from and what end does it serve? What are its essential traits, common to the displays of courage we see?
Answering those questions will show us what is courage. And we can take the same approach to asking, “What is marriage?” This is very different in spirit from Plato’s approach, which views courage (or marriage) as a real thing that exists in a perfect way in a higher realm.
George, Plato, and Aristotle
Robert George is a “natural law” philosopher, and natural law traces its origins through medieval St. Thomas Aquinas to Aristotle. But George, like Aquinas, identifies himself as a devoutly Catholic natural law philosopher. He thinks we can use reason to discover morality (and in fact, his article’s argument is intended to be purely secular, with no appeal to religion), but the conclusions derived from reason have to match truth as revealed in the Gospels and interpreted by the Church, or they are flawed. That shapes his approach to “What is marriage?” because he knows the answer before he begins; his job is to develop a rational basis for defining something that has already been eternally defined in a higher realm.
This is not an Aristotelian strategy, which would say: To define marriage — especially civil, not religious marriage — let’s look at what people in this world call marriage, what led them to marry, and what they hope to achieve by marrying. Let’s find the essential, common features, and use them to define what marriage is. Aristotle also shows us that marriages, and marriage itself, can change over time, can evolve, and still be marriage.
I don’t want to outrage George by calling him a Platonist. And you can probably tell I’ve grossly simplified Plato and Aristotle. I bring them up mainly to compare two ways of approaching the issuing of knowing. It’s been said that the world is divided into Platonists and Aristotelians. That’s simplistic but it points out a common difference in people’s temperaments.
Rationalism and Empiricism
Philosophers have named these two approaches to gaining knowledge:
Rationalism: the view that one can start with a few fundamental, self-evident axioms and use them to deduce philosophical knowledge through reason alone, and
Empiricism: the view that all knowledge begins with sensory experience. In extreme form: “Nothing is in the intellect that was not first in the senses.” (Aquinas’ characterization of Aristotle.)
Almost no one is purely a rationalist or an empiricist, and I don’t know what camp — if either — Robert George would claim as his own. But his intellectual strategy is to identify a very few basic ideas about marriage, and then to build a great (and rickety) logical structure on them, with as little further reference to the real world as possible.
This leads to my first key point: Robert George’s entire approach to the question may be misguided. It’s a convenient approach, to be sure. It allows him to create a narrow, tidy reply to “What is marriage?” It gives him a clear final answer, almost a Platonic form of marriage, which real-life marriages can only hope to live up to.
More than that, it evades the quandary of looking at real, messy, changeable human beings with contradictory motives and imperfect lives — the quandary faced by empiricists, who have a harder time providing perfect clarity and certainty, but who are often better at developing ideas that match up with the way reality actually works.
So I’m wary of Robert George’s rationalist strategy, and I’ll call that out in the pages to come. He’s got another problem, though. His reasoning is consistently flawed. It’s full of vague terms, definitions that keep shifting, and simple logic errors, like confusion between necessary and sufficient conditions. And so I hope to show that even by the standards of rationalism, Robert George’s argument fails.
Next: Robert George tries to set up two enemy camps in the marriage debate.
[Note: This description of Plato and Aristotle is indebted to W.T. Jones' The Classical Mind, which covers the topic in richer detail and sophistication.]