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Today the Supreme Court of the United States will hear oral arguments in two cases related to same sex marriage. The first case deals with California’s proposition eight, a referendum that defined legal marriage as between a man and a woman. The second case deals with the Federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), federal legislation that defines marriage–for the purpose of ascertaining right to spousal benefits–as between a man and a woman.

Popular reporting around the issue has tended to emphasize the significant increase in approval for same sex marriages in the general population. Given that most recent votes on referenda to redefine marriage have failed, it seems counterintuitive to state that a majority of Americans now support it.

The internal logic of media coverage is questionable. That a majority of Americans support gay marriage is given as a basis for urging the Supreme Court to overturn both the California and the Federal legislation. However, at least in the case of Proposition 8, the legislation was already voted on by the people of the State of California. The “most people” argument cuts both ways and a good justice will be hesitant to overturn something on which the electorate have voted (Bush v. Gore, 531 U.S. 98 (2000) notwithstanding).

While these are important issues to discuss, what’s often overlooked is the deeper cultural shift that is taking place. At the core of the debate is a pernicious intellectual shift that places the autonomous individual as the center of his moral universe. This shift isn’t something that simply arose back in, say, 2008. Rather there has been a steady reorienting of our view of the world that moves the “I” to the center.

This is arguably a result of the rise of the discipline of economics and its emergence from the Enlightenment, especially from the work of Adam Smith (The Wealth of Nations and Theory of Moral Sentiments). In Smith’s work, the individual is the frame of reference for most all economic value judgments–a moral actor who makes decisions on the basis of enlightened self interest.

As capitalism developed into consumer capitalism, it is not difficult to see how our current socio-cultural arrangement makes possible something that has never been plausible before: the redefinition of a natural right on the basis of the experience of a relatively small number of people.

John Milbank has written of theology’s false humility. It seems that the state is currently manifesting something like that itself. Social philosopher Will Smith speaks for many when he defines marriage as not based in gender complimentarity or procreation, but instead as being rooted in “love” and “support” in this
“difficult thing we call life.”

Will-Smith-on-gay-marriage

Russell Hittinger does a great job of unpacking the state’s false humility in his book, The First Grace:

“The postmodern state…is far less sure of its powers. It claims to be axiologically blind and deferent to individual conceptions of the good. It may not approve of the consequences of abortion, euthanasia, reprogenics, and homosexual marriage, but it feels helpless to use political authority to prohibit–and often, even to publicly discuss–the justice or injustice of these acts. Unsure of the scope of their own sovereignty, postmodern states are prepared to relocate sovereignty in the individual; in other words, postmodern states are prepared to be the guarantor of the rights of individual autonomy. We should not be surprised that individuals now claim private authority to say who shall die and who shall live, who should receive justice and who shall not. Hence we see not merely the privatization of industry and what were once deemed public services (a process that may in some cases be quite defensible and desirable from an economic standpoint), but a privatization of judgments that indisputably belong to public authority: judgments about uses of lethal force and who deserves to live or die, judgments about the strong and the weak, and judgments about whether private parties can claim power over something as common as the genetic infrastructure of the humanum.”

Russell Hittinger, The First Grace: Rediscovering the Natural Law in a Post-Christian World (2003): 137. (Emphasis mine).

It seems to me yet another place where the positions of our political parties are inconsistent with their philosophical presuppositions. Based on its tone in the last election cycle, it would seem that the Republican party should be unconditionally supporting the redefinition of marriage since, in every other element of our life together, they seem to be the champions of the rugged individualist who does as he pleases and wins his fortune through hard work.

In reality, our two parties are closer together than we often perceive. Their differences amount to peanuts in the grand scheme of things.