Monday, July 21, 2008

Marriage and Engineering Revisited

Back on May 31, I argued here that allowing same-sex marriage in the U. S. could conceivably damage our prospects for raising the next generation of engineers. It elicited several responses, including a remarkably thoughtful and articulate set of counterarguments by Michael Faris, an instructor in business and technical writing at Oregon State University. In the time since, I have read David Blankenhorn's The Future of Marriage (I admitted I had only read the reviews of it earlier). In the May 31 blog, I cited that book to support my arguments that children raised in circumstances other than a two-biological-parent family do not do as well, in a variety of measures, as children who grow up under the care of their own mother and father.

Reading the book has given me a deeper understanding of the complex issues involved, and I would like to explore a few of them briefly here as I respond to some of Mr. Faris's arguments. For those of you who are wondering what this has to do with engineering ethics, the point is that anything which encourages the development of stable, intellectually agile, and dedicated young adults will augur well for the future of engineering education, and without such people, there won't be as many future engineers. Also, there's some interesting ethical reasoning in this issue to be explored on its own.

First, I will concede a couple of points to Mr. Faris.

He claimed that maybe white, male, middle-class students do better in engineering, not because they are "inherently 'superior,'" but because such students receive "unearned privileges" such as living in better school districts than students of poorer single parents, having more relatives and friends who are college graduates, and so on. I will admit that I did not consider these kinds of factors in my original arguments, although they are difficult to disentangle from intrinsic abilities and character.

Second, he said my likening same-sex marriage to flooding the engineering-degree market with bogus degrees from fake institutions was a bad analogy. I admit that the comparison was poorly chosen and rather obscure. But as my reading of Blankenhorn revealed, that analogy turned out to be my intuitive way of groping toward a point that Blankenhorn makes abundantly clear in his book. That point is the "deinstitutionalization" of marriage. What does he mean by that?

Social institutions of any kind—marriage, universities, the legal system, you name it—both grant rights and require responsibilities of those who participate in them. If people claim the rights without following the rules that specify the responsibilities, the institution collapses, and whatever good it was doing disappears along with it. To remove the responsibilities from marriage, or any other institution, is to deinstitutionalize it, which radically reduces its beneficial effects for society.

To oversimplify Blankenhorn's main point, the promotion of same-sex marriage is an attempt to use marriage for a purpose it was not designed to fulfill: the promotion of human dignity for gay people. Blankenhorn is in favor of giving gay people equal recognition as full members of society. But he sees this good thing to be in conflict with another good thing: the right of every child to be cared for by their natural mother and father. He sees the latter good as the primary institutional purpose of marriage, which is why sexual intercourse and the care of children are responsibilities involved in the institution as it has historically stood.

He shows, in more detail than I can outline here, how the legalization of same-sex marriage must change the meaning of marriage for every single person in the country—married, single, with or without children, and for the children themselves. It already has in Canada. Largely because of that nation's implementation of same-sex marriage, the term "natural parent" has been eliminated in Canadian law, and replaced by the term "legal parent." And that isn't just for children of same-sex couples—it's for everybody. In law, there is no longer any such thing as a natural parent in Canada. Parents are now what the law says they are, period. My badly chosen analogy to the debauching of engineering degrees was simply my attempt to show how you can wreck an institution by lowering its standards. Changing marriage from what the U. N. Declaration of Human Rights says it is when it guarantees "the right to marry and to found a family," which is "the natural and fundamental group unit of society. . . entitled to protection by society and the State," to what one judge called "a celebration of a life of commitment to the relationship" lowers the standards of marriage.

Mr. Faris discounted my citation of "objective" social-science research that shows children raised in a two-biological-parent family do better, saying that social science is an "ideology." He implied that if a thing is ideological, then it can't be objective. By "objective," I simply mean that which is the same for me, for you, and for everybody else—that which is public knowledge, as opposed to a subjective feeling or sensation. If Mr. Faris wants to call social science an ideology, that is his privilege. But that does not change the fact that if you look at two different groups of children, one group being raised by their two natural parents and the other some other way, and the natural-parent group drops out of school less, commits suicide less, does drugs less, engages in early sex and has babies in their teenage years less, then those numerical facts are the same facts for everybody, whether you call them ideological or not.

The last point I will address is the one Mr. Faris makes here: "Our current Western model of family didn't arise because it was best for children; it arose because it was best for the continuity of property under a capitalist system." I beg to differ. He says there are societies in which children are raised "communally" or by "large extended families." First, I am unaware of any society, present or past (with two exceptions that Blankenhorn cites) in which the biological mother and father, if available, do not play a lead role in the raising of children, however much the extended family or community or the village raises the child as well. Blankenhorn uses the example of the Trobriand Islanders in the South Pacific as a society in which conventional inheritance of property as we know it in the West is largely unknown (uncles, for example, take on the primary responsibility for providing food), but in which the mother and father play primary roles in the raising of children. This is not to say that property rights are not related to family structure at all. But Mr. Faris is simply wrong when he claims that property rights are the main reason for the near-universal practice of mothers and fathers bearing the main responsibility for raising their children.

I understand from his blog that Mr. Faris will be pursuing a Ph. D. in English rhetoric and composition at Penn State in the fall. I wish him the best in his pursuits, and thank him for his thoughtful and stimulating comments. All the same, it looks like we will have to agree to disagree on this topic, which I will now give a well-deserved rest.

Sources: My original blog on this topic was "California Supreme Court Damages Future of Engineering" on May 31. Mr. Faris's comments can be found below that entry, and his website "A Collage of Citations" is currently at The quotations from the U. N. Declaration of Human Rights is from p. 182, and the judge's definition of marriage is from p. 147, of David Blankenhorn's The Future of Marriage (Encounter Books, 2007).

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for responding to my comments, and thanks for the well wishes.

    Rather than address each of your comments, I simply ask how your argument is an ethical one. If ethics is how we treat each other, treating them as we would like to be treated (the golden rule), then how is it ethical to not allow two people who want to form a family to do so?

    Of all the critiques of your argument in the previous post I gave, I think the most fundamental was that one point, the one you didn't address here: doesn't your viewpoint conflict with the golden rule?