Over at Andrew Sullivan’s place, Patrick Appel makes this observation about Maggie Gallagher’s immovability on the same-sex marriage question:
Gallagher’s declaration that her mind cannot be changed is the statement of a fundamentalist. There is no greater sin against open debate than to preemptively seal oneself off from evidence.
I wonder what evidence would convince Patrick, or his boss, to change their minds about same-sex marriage. I’m confident that there is none, that they are as committed to their position in favor of it as Gallagher is against it. This is not to say that the positions are equally rational, but only that at bottom, each side reasons from first principles about the way the world works — principles that are not ultimately derived from reason, but that reflect a religious, or quasi-religious, interpretation of the world. Karl Popper said that in matters of empirical observation — which is to say, in science — a claim has to be in principle falsifiable. That is, it has to be able to be proven wrong, in theory. If there is no way to demonstrate empirically that the hypothesis is wrong, then the claim becomes something other than science.
Similarly with the matter of gay marriage. I’ve never met Maggie Gallagher or spoken to her, but from her writing, and knowing something about her Catholic background, I’m fairly certain that even if all arguments she makes against same-sex marriage were proven to be incontrovertibly wrong, she would hold her ground because of her religious convictions. Patrick calls that “fundamentalist,” but I contend that nearly all of us are “fundamentalists” in this way, about the things we most care about. If it were possible to prove, in logic and through empirical observation, that Maggie’s views on same-sex marriage were correct and sensible, and the other side was simply wrong, I am certain that most same-sex marriage supporters would not give an inch on this. And you know, this makes sense to me: theirs is a deeply felt moral position, based on an ideal, same as Maggie Gallagher’s. Same as mine.
It tells you something about the dominance of the cultural left in our media that whenever these issues are discussed, those on the cultural right tend to be characterized as the irrational, uncompromising “fundamentalists” — hardcore believers who are utterly immune to rational persuasion, whose belief in their position is unfalsifiable. Yet I have never met any pro-choicer for whom the abortion issue mattered a lot (this as distinct from those who are pro-choice but not emotionally engaged by the issue) who hasn’t been every it as “fundamentalist” on the matter as their counterpart in the pro-life movement. In 1995, the feminist writer Naomi Wolf caused a stir with an essay in The New Republic arguing that pro-lifers are correct in calling the fetus a human life, and that her fellow pro-choicers ought to admit this, and develop a defense of abortion rights based on this fact. It’s really an interesting piece, even today, and I encourage you to read it. For Wolf, then, the right to abortion is unfalsifiable: it must be defended even if it is the taking of a human life. Abortion is absolute. Her mind cannot be changed by facts — indeed, she concedes the justice of pro-life arguments on biological facts:
While pro-lifers have not been beyond dishonesty, distortion and the doctoring of images (preferring, for example, to highlight the results of very late, very rare abortions), many of those photographs are in fact photographs of actual D & Cs; those footprints are in fact the footprints of a 10-week-old fetus, the pro-life slogan, “Abortion stops a beating heart,” is incontrovertibly true. While images of violent fetal death work magnificently for pro-lifers as political polemic, the pictures are not polemical in themselves: they are biological facts. We know this.
Is Wolf a fundamentalist? Yes, plainly, if by “fundamentalist” one means someone whose belief is so fixed that no argument or evidence can change it.
The abolitionists, who found slavery so appalling — and such an affront to their religious convictions — that they were willing to take the country to war to end it — were they fundamentalists? Of course they were. They were immune to any arguments from morality or prudence. “Slavery is evil” was an unfalsifiable proposition to them. That is not to say it was an irrational position — only that it was unfalsifiable.
In his new book, Charles Murray writes:
Data can bear on policy issues, but many of our opinions about policy are grounded on premises about the nature of human life and human society that are beyond the reach of data. Try to think of any new data that would change your position on abortion, the death penalty, legalization of marijuana, same-sex marriage or the inheritance tax. If you cannot, you are not necessarily being unreasonable.
David Frum, whose general critique of Murray’s book makes some strong points (more on which later; I’m reading the Murray book now), observes:
As a matter of fact, if you announce that there can exist no possible information that might change your mind about abortion, the death penalty, marijuana, same-sex marriage, and the inheritance tax, then yes you are an unreasonable person—or anyway, an unreasoning one. I’ve changed my mind about same-sex marriage as experience has dispelled my fears of the harms from same-sex marriage. If somebody could prove to me that marijuana was harmless or that legalization would not lead to an increase in marijuana use, I’d change my mind about marijuana legalization. And so on through the list.
I think David is wrong about this, or at least not entirely right. To be sure, Murray’s list strikes me personally as overly broad. Like David, I am open to persuasion, to varying degrees, on most of these issues, and for different reasons on each one. For example, I am impossible to persuade that abortion is morally licit, but I am open to persuasion that as a matter of prudence, outlawing abortion in this time and in this place is unwise policy. David was open to changing his mind about same-sex marriage because his reason for opposing it was that he worried about its social effects. If someone believes that same-sex marriage is intrinsically wrong — and not just wrong because of its presumed effects — then that person will be unpersuadable. Similarly, if someone believes that same-sex marriage is intrinsically moral, indeed a moral right, then no evidence will change their mind. If it were possible to demonstrate with social science data that desegregation has been a disaster for the United States, you would find very few people supporting resegregation, the prospect of which would be morally intolerable. Are they being unreasonable? Why or why not? This is the core of Murray’s point.
So often we flatter ourselves that our own position is obviously the correct one, and if the other side weren’t so irrational and “fundamentalist,” they would see things the way we do. The left does it. The right does it. Everybody does it. But it’s untrue. The best person to read on this is, and has been for a long time, the UVA social scientist James Davison Hunter, whose landmark 1991 book “Culture Wars” painted a compelling portrait of the irreconcilability of competing moral visions in contemporary American life. As Hunter points out, our most heated conflicts are not disputes over facts, but over meaning, and identity. As Hunter writes in his introduction, the people he profiles in the book derive their understanding about the meaning of life and their own responsibilities within the community from their identities: as an Orthodox Jew, as a progressive Episcopal clergywoman, as a traditional Catholic, as a secular liberal, and so on. “Remove these commitments and you take away that which engages them as neighbors and citizens,” Hunter writes. “Separate them from these understandings, and you take away their hearts and souls.”
What does “reason” have to do with heart and soul? Very little. But reason does tell us that we live in a pluralistic society, and that we have to find some way to negotiate a peaceable accommodation with our neighbors who may have very different commitments than we. That isn’t possible if we see ourselves and our allies as the only ones with reasonable moral commitments, and our opponents as driven solely by “fundamentalism.” On the other hand, we shouldn’t deceive ourselves into thinking that all issues are ultimately resolvable through a reasoned compromise. Everybody is a fundamentalist about the things that are most important to them. This is why we have the culture war.