Prager's False Equation

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Dennis Prager, whom I have criticized here on several occasions for dishonestly equating secularism with leftism, has just penned a column against gay marriage in which he claims that it is wrong to equate opposition to gay marriage with opposition to interracial marriage. On top of this -- and much more important -- his whole argument rests on yet another false equation of his own.

Prager, like the vast majority of society and most moral thinkers before him, equates altruism, the belief that man exists to serve others, with morality, the practice of the rules for proper conduct. In fact, altruism is only a type of morality and it is detrimental to man's life at that. Ironically, Prager's own argument, as much surface plausibility as it will have to most people, can help us see that last point, so let's consider it briefly.

There are enormous differences between men and women, but there are no differences between people of different races. Men and women are inherently different, but blacks and whites (and yellows and browns) are inherently the same. Therefore, any imposed separation by race can never be moral or even rational; on the other hand, separation by sex can be both morally desirable and rational. Separate bathrooms for men and women is moral and rational; separate bathrooms for blacks and whites is not. [bold added]
Men and women, unlike, say whites and blacks, differ in fundamental ways that make accommodation of those differences moral and practical. So far so good. But it is important to keep in the back of one's mind the following question: "What has this to do with how two consenting adults choose to lead their own lives?"
[N]o religious or secular moral system ever advocated same-sex marriage. Whereas advocating interracial marriage was advocating something approved of by every religious and secular moral tradition of America and the West, advocating same-sex marriage does the very opposite -- it advocates something that defies every religious and secular moral tradition. Those who advocate redefining marriage are saying that every religious and secular tradition is immoral. They have no problem doing this because they believe they are wiser and finer people than all the greatest Jewish, Christian and humanist thinkers who ever lived. [bold added]
Let's set aside, for the sake of argument, the question, important though it be, of whether a moral code accepted absent (or even contrary to) evidence and logic even can provide meaningful opposition to bigotry, racial or otherwise. The supposed merits of "Judeo-Christian values" are merely a smokescreen for an even greater crime against the truth.

Prager's argument here boils down to something like, "Everybody else opposes same-sex marriage. Who are you to say otherwise." Or: " You are immoral if you hold that two consenting adults who happen to be gay and wish to form an exclusive, life-long legal commitment to one another should be able to do so."

This is despicable. This is dishonest. And this is an example of what one great moral thinker, Ayn Rand, named the argument from intimidation. Rand describes the argument from intimidation as follows.
[It] consists of threatening to impeach an opponent's character by means of his argument, thus impeaching the argument without debate. Example: "Only the immoral can fail to see that Candidate X's argument is false." (The Virtue of Selfishness, 139)
You will note further, from the book title, that Ayn Rand was a rare moral thinker: She opposed the idea that man is a sacrificial animal and upheld the idea that one's life is, properly, an end in itself. Not only that, she proposed a viable, rational alternative to altruism: Egoism. (She often referred to it as "selfishness", a word she frequently noted was almost always misused by altruists.)

Even if we grant most moral thinkers the benefit of the doubt as specialists in their field, the question remains: "What if they were wrong?" The Judeo-Christian values Prager squawks about like a parrot didn't save Galileo from persecution when he dared to defy all the past "experts" on the question of whether the Earth or the Sun was at the center of the Solar System. Not only that, but that historical episode shows the true worth of subordinating one's own judgement to the wisdom of the crowd, as Prager would have us do here. Where would we be without rare, independent individuals like Galileo?

So much for that part of Prager's "argument".

But so far, Prager's altruism has only been implicit in the sense that his moral authorities all profess altruism. That's okay, though, because Prager makes sure to remind us that he feels that we don't own our own lives:
[T]o oppose interracial marriage is indeed to engage in bigotry, but to oppose same-sex marriage is not. It simply shares the wisdom of every moral system that preceded us -- society is predicated on men and women bonding with one another in a unique way called "marriage." [bold added]
Really? I was laboring under the delusion that my life was my own and your life your own, and that we could both benefit by trade so long as we each respected one another's right to live the other's life as he best sees fit -- that we could enhance our lives by participating in a society. But I see that we are really just pieces of a machine! Thanks for clearing that one up, Dennis my boy!

Although Ayn Rand, as far as I know, never explicitly stood up for gay marriage, she was an uncompromising advocate of the individual's right to live his own life by his own lights. From Dennis Prager's argument -- and every other argument I have ever seen against gay marriage -- I see that the fundamental issue is this: Does an individual have the freedom to live his life as he sees fit, so long as he does not violate the rights of other individuals? Prager's answer is, "No!"

This -- individual rights -- is the essential similarity (or "true equation" if you will) between gay marriage, racial equality before the law, and the relevance to the daily lives of this issue to everyone. Jim Crow laws violated the individual rights of nonwhites. Preventing committed gay couples by law from enjoying the same legal benefits enjoyed by straight couples violates the individual rights of gay couples. Both types of law set the very bad precedent that -- contrary to the proper purpose of government -- individual rights can be trumped by other considerations. There is no place in the law for the enforcement of any form of discrimination against the individual.

So, "society" calls for no gay marriage, according to Dennis Prager. I'm not gay, but if I don't stand up for this, who knows what Prager and his ilk will decide "society is predicated on" its members doing next? And when will he start issuing marching orders that do directly apply to me?

I reject the idea that I exist to serve others and to its enforcement by law. I will work for the day that that my inalienable right to live a proper life, as a free man, is protected by law.

-- CAV

6 comments:

Jeff said...

I thought marriage was defined as a union between man and woman. If we include same sex, shouldn't there be a different word for it? Or do as you do in your article to differentiate the two; call it same-sex marriage?

Gus Van Horn said...

You are correct that the most common definition of marriage and the usual sense of the term stipulate a man and a woman:

"the social institution under which a man and woman establish their decision to live as husband and wife by legal commitments, religious ceremonies, etc."

But is this part of the definition essential? This is an interesting question I haven't time to go into at length and a fair question, but I suspect that the answer is "No".

Assuming I am correct, then, we would have to drop that part from the definition of "marriage" in much the same way other definitions have been changed in the past as we have integrated new knowledge or corrected past mistakes. (Here is a scientific example of the latter.)

The real issue here is not whether we should redefine terms based on improved knowledge, but what is subsumed by one concept or another. Religionists ultimately base their definitions on alleged divine revelations. Since they claim that God defines marriage, they will reject the notion that the concept could and should be expanded to include same-sex couples.

it is the same with abortion. What is a man? What constitutes a human life? If religionists define man as a being with an immortal soul, I don't think they do this consistently. Nevertheless, they do include that as part of their concept of what man is, and they use this alleged attribute to equate abortion with murder.

Concepts are only as useful to cognition as their fidelity to the facts of reality. If a definition (or the attributes of an entity subsumed under a concept) are incorrect or arbitrary, its is the definition or concept that needs revision.

So with marriage, I would approach the question by asking whether a committed, legally-binding relationship between a man and a woman and one between two men or two women differs in any fundamental way.

Aside from the potential for procreation, I can't think of one off hand.

madmax said...

Gus,

Prager says this:

"society is predicated on men and women bonding with one another in a unique way called "marriage."

Yes this is pure collectivism but you should know that it is mild compared to other Cultural Conservatives. Here are a collection of quotes from Larry Auster who is the spokesperson for "Traditionalist Conservatism". I warn you his views are far uglier that Prager's"

1) The answer is liberalism. What is liberalism? It is the denial of any higher and larger truth, the reduction of everything to the self and its desires. And once that happens there’s no reason why marriage shouldn’t be redefined to meet people’s desires and needs as they see fit. Instead of marriage having a meaning that precedes us, a meaning that we do not choose, we become the creators of the meaning of marriage, which is, a means for satisfying our desires for convenience, pleasure, companionship, social recognition of our sexual orientation, financial protections, and so on. Further, anything that stands in the way of meeting the desires of individuals, any assertion of a higher or traditional value or institution, is seen as bigoted.

So in this sense, it’s not bizarre, but a logical, ordinary development of liberalism. Once you make the idea of individual freedom and equality the ruling principle of society, all other principles, values, traditions, allegiances, ethical ways of life, must, one by one, be demonized and cast aside to make way for ever greater freedom and equality.

2) A marriage, for example, is not simply constituted of the man and woman who make it up; it is something larger in which the partners participate and which provides the very meaning of their life together, even though the institution of marriage that binds them is invisible to the senses and all that can be seen is the couple and their actions

3) The underlying principle here is that the individual level of morality, the recognition of the individual person and his rights, while important, cannot be the level that rules when it comes to deciding on policies and general concepts that affect the identity, existence, and survival of our society as a whole.


As you can see, there are Conservatives that make Prager look like an individualist by comparison. And for the record, Auster would disagree with Prager and tell him that miscegenation is also bad for society:

And obviously in any racially mixed society there are inevitably going to be interracial marriages. But that doesn't change the fact that as a general principle interracial marriage is not good for society...

In the same way, it's one thing to accept individual nonwhite people as our fellow humans, citizens, and neighbors in a white majority society. It's another thing to say that whiteness as such doesn't matter, that the whiteness of the West doesn't matter, and that we ought to become a nonwhite society.


Note how Auster's main object of criticism is the Classical Liberal elements remaining in today's liberals. Scary.

So my point in bringing this up is to suggest that there is quite a philosophic battle looming with *Conservatives* let alone liberals as, while currently extreme, Auster's collectivist worldview is truly consistent and therefor, in the long run, far more dangerous than Prager's. There are storm clouds on the horizon

Gus Van Horn said...

The incorrect equation of individual rights with subjectivism reminds me of a liberal (who is also gay) who once accused me (directly or not, I no longer recall) of being a "freedom thumper". (HE was accusing me of being an intrincisist.)

It is interesting how the rejection of objectivity inexorably leads to the rejection of freedom.

z said...

"Even if we grant most moral thinkers the benefit of the doubt as specialists in their field, the question remains: "What if they were wrong?" The Judeo-Christian values Prager squawks about like a parrot didn't save Galileo from persecution when he dared to defy all the past "experts" on the question of whether the Earth or the Sun was at the center of the Solar System. Not only that, but that historical episode shows the true worth of subordinating one's own judgement to the wisdom of the crowd"

You're on top of your game today Gus.

Really? I was laboring under the delusion that my life was my own and your life your own, and that we could both benefit by trade so long as we each respected one another's right to live the other's life as he best sees fit -- that we could enhance our lives by participating in a society. But I see that we are really just pieces of a machine! Thanks for clearing that one up, Dennis my boy!


Amen...OOH OOOH OOOH! Go easy on em' Gus!

Gus Van Horn said...

Heh! Glad you enjoyed the show!