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Noah Millman’s Actual Self

July 16, 2010

Noah Millman has a long post over at the American Scene explaining why he has come to accept same-sex marriage. The gist of it is that Millman now recognizes that his former position had little to do with “real practical concerns about ‘the state of marriage in America,’” but was instead the product of “very real anxieties” about his own marriage — anxieties that led him to embrace what he calls the “ideology of marriage.”

What, exactly, is this ideology of marriage? Millman tells us that marriage was traditionally understood as a contract “imposing obligations on both parties” — especially obligations pertaining to “property and rights.” Beginning in the Renaissance the definition of marriage shifts, so that it is no longer thought of in those terms, but rather as an expression of romantic love. Yet romantic love is notoriously fleeting, with the result that marriage ideology arises as an attempt to restore stability and certainty to the marital bond. As Millman explains:

In the marriage ideology, marrying isn’t primarily about love, or any other aspect of the relationship between two people; it’s about the creation of a third thing, different from either spouse, greater than either spouse, into which they pour themselves and are dissolved. This union finds its material expression in children, the product of a fertile marriage that cannot be torn asunder even in divorce, and who thereby give sign to the world that you and you are now parts of a larger whole, and if you break that whole it will not restore you to yourself, but merely leave the world broken.

The remedy, it turns out, is worse than the cure — or, at least, that is Millman’s view:

But the self cannot be escaped so easily. The marriage ideology is not really that different from other romantic ideologies that have sought to assuage a sense of loss of self by subsuming the self in a larger, purportedly organic whole, and substituting this whole for the actual self. Nationalism does this with the nation, various religious ideologies do this with a religious group, etc. Not marriage itself, but the marriage ideology, is pernicious for the same reasons these other ideologies are.

Millman’s use of the term “actual self” is, I think, highly significant. For Millman, the actual self is what remains after the marriage and other “romantic” ideologies have been stripped away. It does not need to be described or defined because it is always already there — defining the good for itself, independently of culture and tradition; discovering objective truths about science, metaphysics, and morality through the exercise of its reason; and pursuing its interest in the marketplace by forming and dissolving contracts with other autonomous selves. That such a self might be no less of an ideological construct than the “purportedly organic whole” to which it is opposed never seems to occur to Millman.

Yet what is Millman’s “actual” self, if not an ideological child of the Enlightenment?

A key tenet of Enlightenment ideology is choice — not choice as such (which is nonexistent), but choice as understood in a particular way: we must be, to use Millman’s phrase, “sovereign arbiters of our fate.” Hence, it will simply not do to place prohibitions or limitations on divorce (to take the example obliquely alluded to by Millman.) Never mind that fact that marriage vow has always been understood to be binding and lifelong in nature; according to this line of thought “if you choose wrongly,” you should be able to “undo it, choose again without moral opprobrium.” It is as if Millman were to argue that the very nature of gambling impinges on individual liberty insofar as I cannot withdraw money once it has become clear that I’ve lost a bet.

What all this amounts to is — I am sorry to say — a bland restatement of individualism that has little discernable relation to same-sex marriage. (Millman does broach that topic later in the post, countering his previous bad arguments with new bad arguments.) One can, as I do, disagree with most of what Millman is saying here, but still favor same-sex marriage.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. July 16, 2010 9:01 pm

    “we must be, to use Millman’s phrase, ‘sovereign arbiters of our fate.'”

    Careful now, your starting to sound like those crazy freedom loving individualists!

    This is one of those areas I think you and I are in full agreement. I’m just wondering how you square this with your previous comment, “But I would contend that the opposite is also true — that without the collective, any notion of the individual is meaningless.”
    If the collective says gay marriage is bad, then how do you justify gay marriage as a right in your collective context?

    Collectively it’s not a right and according to the State it’s not a right either. It’s only a right if you use the individualistic “natural rights” position, which is my position, which you were arguing against on the Tolkien post. I’m not really trying to pick a fight, I just want to know how you square the circle in your own head.

  2. innocentsmithjournal permalink*
    July 17, 2010 12:46 pm

    A couple of points:

    1) I wasn’t actually condoning the view that we “must be sovereign arbiters of our own fate.” If you read carefully, what I’m saying is that Millman’s comment aligns with the Enlightenment ideology of choice — which I oppose insofar as it would sever all bonds between the individual and culture.

    2) I want to be clear that I am not making the case for simply dissolving the individual into the collective. That would, in my view, be as simplistic as the classical liberal position. A tradition, if it is to remain vibrant, must constantly be placing itself under scrutiny, reconsidering well-established beliefs in the light of new arguments and evidence.

    3) I’m not sure I would frame same-sex marriage as an issue of rights. Instead, I would have the state distinguish between two types of marriage: civil marriage, which would be a contract between two individuals to be defined according to the values and goals of those individuals; and traditional marriage, a life-long commitment between individuals intending to raise children together. The latter would receive tax breaks and other forms of state favoritism due to its well-documented societal benefits, while the former would receive neutral treatment.

    I see no reason to exclude gays from either type of union. (Obviously, two people of the same sex cannot procreate, but they can and do adopt, and should therefore qualify for traditional marriage.) I’m not making the case that gay couples have some kind of inherent “right” to marry, so much as I am making the case that there is no clear reason for excluding them from civil or traditional marriage.

    • July 17, 2010 7:43 pm

      Point 1) Fair enough. Your post wasn’t entirely clear and I haven’t read that many of your previous posts to discern the difference.
      Point 2) Nope, definitely don’t agree with the notion that the classical liberal position is “simplistic.” It’s much more complicated that simple talking point give it. Read Hayek or even better Matt Ridley’s new book “The Rational Optimist,” he give a remarkable classical liberal position that shows just how complex everything is, society included.
      I guess it comes down to the idea of where culture comes from.

      Point 3) Nope don’t buy it. That same argument was used before and during the Civil War over slavery. The whole notion of slavery as paternalism stems from that kind of logic and science has shown how false that was. I can see what your saying under the procreation idea, but that has no baring on modern society with abortion and the pill.
      To me, saying that there is no clear reason to exclude them, means that their might be a good reason too. Again, I just don’t see how you can square the circle, with that logic.

      This is one area, where we agree on the surface but disagree on merits. Remarkable this is a perfect example of market process and Smith’s Invincible Hand.

      • July 17, 2010 7:49 pm

        Scratch the slavery thing. I was thinking about something else that didn’t pertain to your post, the NAACP thing. I apologize for that, that’s what I get for trying to read 3 articles at once.
        I should clarify, I’m taking the assumption that we should segregate marriage between two groups. That idea is predicated on the notion that one of those groups are inferior to the other. By giving hetero couples more perks, your position discriminates against same sex couples.

  3. innocentsmithjournal permalink*
    July 17, 2010 11:20 pm

    I think perhaps you are trying to read too much at once. What I said was that I see no reason to exclude gay couples from civil or traditional marriage.

    • July 17, 2010 11:25 pm

      Yeah I am, right now I’m reading 3 articles on the Stagliano trial at once…I just love reading!

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