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Another Hole in the Fabric of Burkean Conservatism

June 14, 2012

Before I finish picking on Rod Dreher, one more comment on his Burkean opposition to gay marriage. Earlier today, I argued that the Burkean impulse to take things gradually fails to be rational insofar as it fails to provide meaningful criteria for distinguishing between gradual and rapid change. I want to address another aspect of Dreher’s position, which is the view that a society should exercise caution in venturing into the unknown. Now on one level, this view is obviously in keeping with common sense. Best for a couple who just met not to elope or, if they do elope, not to move to a city that neither partner has ever visited.

Along these lines, Dreher issues a word of warning to Noah Millman on redefining marriage:

Anyway, it seems to me that a Burkean could say, as Noah does, that like it or not, SSM reflects an organic, historical change in the polity’s understanding of marriage, and ought to be accepted on those grounds. There is reason in that. I get where he’s coming from. On the other hand, as Noah recognizes, it is certainly true that we don’t really know where this sort of thing may take us, because it has never been tried. For many — certainly for Noah — that is no reason not to do it. Let us not fail to understand, though, that by changing the law to reflect that there is no meaningful difference between same-sex marital pairings (and, in turn, parenting) and the standard, which is rooted in biology, theology, and long historical experience, is a very big deal.

I would add: let us not fail to understand that anybody getting married at all is a very big deal and is, moreover, for that particular person unprecedented. Of course, a Burkean might argue that a young couple nevertheless has good reason to place faith in the institution of marriage, given the experience of people who are older and wiser than they are. But, if long historical experience has taught us anything about the institution of marriage, it is that not all couples end up happy in a house with a white picket fence– especially these days. So, in short, Dreher’s argument against gay marriage turns out also to be a potential argument against straight marriage. What looks like common sense in reality amounts to an exaggerated aversion to risk-taking that cannot possibly provide a rational basis for opposing gay marriage.


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