Reasons without virtue

In its June 21-22 edition the venerable Wall Street Journal published an op-ed, “Gay Marriage Is Good for America”, in which Jonathan Rauch argued in support of the California supreme court’s recent decision to allow homosexual marriage. There have been many such favorable articles, but this one is the best illustration I have seen of the inexorable logic of rationalization that drives those who choose a moral disorder upon which to base their lives. It achieved an air of complete unreality.

There is a Jonathan Swift aspect to Jonathan Rauch’s argument that would serve it well if it were intended as satire. In his Modest Proposal Swift suggested eating babies to alleviate the famine in Ireland: “I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled.” This was brought to mind by Rauch’s suggestion that homosexual marriage required only “modest changes to existing family laws.” Homosexual marriage, he claimed, would serve to stabilize American society “on the conservative -- in fact, traditional -- grounds that gay souls and straight society are healthiest when sex, love and marriage all walk in step.” However, Rauch is not a satirist. He is serious, which would make it funnier, if it wasn’t so sad.

Rauch wrote, quite correctly, that marriage is not only a contract between two people; it is a contract with the community which recognizes it. The couple is bound “to society with a host of legal and social ties”. However, can you spot the missing word in this formulation? It is the word “moral”, which does not appear once in Rauch’s disquisition. There is a reason for this.

Rationalizations for moral misbehavior work like this. Anyone who chooses an evil act must present it to himself as good; otherwise, as Aristotle taught, he would be incapable of choosing it. In our minds we replace the reality of the moral order with something more compatible with the activity we are excusing -- in this case, sodomy. In short, we assert that bad is good. For any individual, moral failure is hard to live with because of the nagging of conscience. Usually, conscience wins, and the person repents -- first of all by admitting to the evil nature of the act committed. The temporary rationalization crumbles and moral reality is restored.

Habitual moral failure, however, can be lived with only by obliterating conscience through a more permanent rationalization. As I wrote in National Review several years ago, “If you are going to center your public life on the private act of sodomy, you had better transform sodomy into a highly moral act. If sodomy is a moral disorder, it cannot be legitimately advanced on the legal or civil level.” On the other hand, if it is a highly moral act, it should -- in fact, must -- serve as the basis for marriage, family, and community. This requires the assent of the community to the normative nature of the act of sodomy. In other words, we all must say that the bad is good.

This is why advocates of the homosexual cause like Mr. Rauch insist that everyone participates in the rationalization -- in this case, by making homosexual marriage legal. If the community gives the assent he seeks, then the rationalization is safe; the unreality has been securely established legally as the new reality. (Speak against the new reality and you may be committing a hate crime.) However, the community is not safe -- despite Rauch’s claims that homosexual marriage “is good for America.” Why not?

By endorsing the unreality of the rationalization, the community undermines its own real foundations. (Even if the communities are unwilling to do this, the courts will do it for them.) Read the opening to Aristotle’s Politics. It begins with a man and a woman in marriage as the foundation of the polis – not with Jim and Ed, or Phyllis and Jane. Try to imagine a polis founded on such relationships. You cannot. As it could not perpetuate itself, it could not survive. Then ask yourself: why did Aristotle understand this and the homosexual proponents of marriage do not?

Perhaps the answer is in the prerequisite that Aristotle required of anyone before they could truly philosophize: moral virtue, without which one simply rationalizes one’s moral misbehavior. Our founding fathers also knew that the key to democratic constitutional rule is virtue. Only a virtuous person is capable of rational consent because only a virtuous person’s reason is unclouded by the habitual rationalizations of vice. Vice inevitably infects the faculty of judgment. When that happens broadly to the public, you can kiss your democracy goodbye. The California supreme court just said goodbye.

Robert R. Reilly writes from Washington DC. He is a contributing editor to Crisis magazine.


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