Thursday, April 9, 2009

Mark Steyn on polygamy

From her perch, Michelle Goldberg recently tittered that Mark Steyn is "deeply stupid" before basically endorsing one of his most important ideas.

I don't think Steyn is stupid. He's a witty, talented writer. But his recent column in Maclean's perplexes me. I think its central argument can be charitably rendered this way:

1. The legalization of polygamy is undesirable.
2. The legal recognition of same-sex marriage makes the legalization of polygamy more likely, at least in Canada.
Conclusion: Therefore, the legalization of same-sex marriage is undesirable.

It's a valid argument; at least, valid enough for our purposes. It's premise 2 that does most of the work, and that's the premise Steyn argues for most vociferously in his column. The argument for (2) is something like this:

1. There are people in Canada who would very much like for their polygamous relationships to receive legal recognition.
2. The rest of Canada lacks the motivation and moral fortitude to stand up to them. The fact that they were unable or unwilling gay marriage is evidence of this (and it is also a further cause of the decline in motivation.)

Conclusion: The legalization of same-sex marriage shows and at least partially makes it the case that polygamy will receive legal recognition, sooner rather than later.

I think this is the case Steyn is trying to make. A relevant quotation:

Since this magazine and I were ensnared in the “human rights” machinery, I’ve come to regard Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms as—what’s the legal term?—oh, yeah, a worthless piece of crap. The quiet lifers will doubtless coo that, after this one minor retreat, we’ll be able to hold the line. But, to return to the elusive pursuit of “da Canadian value,” if there is a core Canadian value, it’s that there is no line, and nothing to hold. You can hold a gay wedding, you can hold a polygamous marriage, you can hold your child bride’s clitoridectomy party, but you can’t hold the line.
Not bad, as far as it goes. Canadians won't hold the line against polygamy because they're unwilling to hold the moral line against anything.

As someone who has criticized the creepy moral relativism sometimes found in those on the left, I can see his point. If every set of values is just as good as any other, then why bother standing up for any values at all? Traditional Canadian values -- whatever those are -- are no better than the values of an Islamic fundamentalist who believes in polygamy and female genital mutilation. Or, at least, this is the position Steyn thinks Canadians have found themselves in.

But Steyn overstates his case. Traditional Canadian values (tm) can't be better than other values just because tradition favors them. They've got to be better for a reason. To deny this is to fall in the same trap as the leftist who thinks no set of values is better than any other. Both the "traditionalist" and the moral relativist deny reason a role; the traditionalist can't explain why traditional values are superior and the leftist can't explain why any set of values is better than any other.

That's a problem. Because, as a matter of fact, I think the traditionalist and the leftist have a piece of the puzzle. The traditionalist emphasizes values like freedom, rule-of-law, property, etc. The leftist emphasizes the value of critical thought. Indeed, it is the latter that leads the leftist to denigrate the values of the former.

What's needed is a synthesis. We do need to expose traditional values to critical scrutiny. Some traditional values will undoubtedly fall away, or be modified. That is to be expected. But the values that remain will be stronger because we'll be able to rationally defend them.

That's how you "hold the line" in an intelligent way. And it may be -- may be -- that we find the parts of tradition that reflexively condemn polygamy are parts that have to be set aside. If that's so, at least we'll be abandoning that part of tradition for a reason.


KipEsquire said...

"Gay marriage versus polygamy" has NOTHING to do with "moral relativism." It is a simple question of metaphysics and arithmetic.

For the sake of brevity (rather than mawkishness), marriage is a declaration -- to the spouse, to the government and to the world -- that the spouse is elevated above all others, both in terms of access to and duty from the other spouse.

A man can so elevate another man. He cannot so elevate two women. One cannot simultaneously elevate two people above each other. It has nothing whatsoever to do with "love" -- it's mere arithmetic.

So yes, Steyn is indeed "deeply stupid."


Terrence C. Watson said...


Hm. Can't A declare that B and C are elevated above everyone who is not A, B, or C?

I can't see anything incoherent about such a declaration. You'd need some way to resolve conflicts between B and C, I suppose, but that's a practical issue.

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