Friday, May 25, 2012

Social Meaning

Ralph Wedgwood has an argument up at The Stone that discusses same-sex marriage. Setting aside the broader issues, and looking only at the particular argument Wedgwood uses, I'm finding myself a bit perplexed at the notion of 'social meaning' he's using. The first mention of it is in the context of a particular argument against same-sex marriage:

This social meaning consists of the web of shared understandings and expectations that have built up over centuries.

And he goes on later to reiterate this:

The “social meaning” of marriage — as I use the term here — consists of the understandings and expectations regarding marriage that almost all members of society share.

One worry about this immediately is the MacIntyrean question: Which society? This is a particularly gnarled question in a nation like the United States where legal issues are broken up into levels. There are federal issues with regard to marriage and state issues, and states differ considerably. There are more complicated issues, however, when we look at how Wedgwood glosses this issue of "shared understandings and expectations almost all members of society share":

So what exactly is this meaning? Since it consists of generally shared understandings and expectations, it can not include any controversial doctrines (such as the traditional Christian belief that marriage symbolizes the union of Christ and His church). It must consist in more mundane and less controversial assumptions about what married life is normally (though not always) like. These assumptions seem to include the following: normally, marriage involves sexual intimacy (which in heterosexual couples often leads to childbirth); it involves the couple’s cooperation in dealing with the domestic and economic necessities of life (including raising children if they have any); and it is entered into with a mutual long-term commitment to sustaining the relationship.

We get into the problem of the 'almost' here. Wedgwood claims it cannot include any "controversial" doctrines; taken flat this would imply that only understandings and expectations admitted by all members of society would be acceptable. But this would effectively make the whole notion of 'social meaning' useless; all it takes to have a controversy is one person who disagrees, and in a population like the United States, with well over 300 million people, for anything you could propose, there's someone somewhere who would disagree. So we really do have to take seriously Wedgwood's previous qualification of 'almost'. But -- and this is relevant to the question Wedgwood is considering, although it is not one of the more crucially important things -- how controversial does it have to be before we can no longer say that it is uncontroversial to "almost all"? Is this determined by poll and by some special threshold? Is it a pragmatic matter of how people actually act? Is it (and this is a question that would complicate Wedgwood's argument) a matter of what institutions and standards people actually make the effort to support?

What really strikes me about Wedgwood's list is that there is nothing distinctively marital about it in this day and age; if this is all there is to the social meaning of marriage, there is no fundamental difference between marriage and any other committed sexual relationship, even those that are explicitly anti-marital. This becomes something of an issue:

I propose that the crucial benefit is roughly this: by marrying, a couple can give a signal to their community that they wish their relationship to be viewed in the light of these generally shared assumptions about what married life is like. The rest of the community is not obligated to interpret the couple’s relationship in the light of these assumptions; but because marriage is such a familiar and generally understood institution, virtually the whole community will be able to understand the signal that the couple is sending.

Far be it from me to say that Wedgwood is old-fashioned and out of date, but this is an old-fashioned and out-of-date suggestion. Nobody marries for this reason because nobody needs to marry for this reason; and because of that, nobody expects marriage particularly to signal this because it's usually already been signaled. In this day and age people do this sort of thing by moving in together, not by marriage. Again, we come against the fact that in Wedgwood's account the social meaning of marriage, while relevant to marriage, has nothing particularly marital about it.

So what's missing? I think we get the answer when we go back and look at a point in Wedgwood's original description of shared meaning, the one he gave when describing the shared meaning argument against same-sex marriage, that fell out completely: "the web of shared understandings and expectations that have built up over centuries". People don't marry to signal that they are in a committed sexual relations involving a pooling of resources. You can do that easily in other ways. Nor does it make up a particularly salient part of the community's recognition of marriage. People marry to participate in the tradition, to join the club, so to speak; to do and be what married people have been through ages. And this is as relatively uncontroversial as everything else on the list. You do occasionally find same-sex partners who want to marry only for legal benefits, but usually people want to get married because they want to be married, to participate in the tradition, the institution, the practice, of marriage.

And it is here I think we hit an insuperable wall. For while it's relatively uncontroversial that marriage goes beyond other committed sexual relationships by being a traditional institution with benefits accumulated through that tradition and history by its contribution to larger society, it is highly controversial what the essential features of marriage as a traditional institution are. Opponents of same-sex marriage insist that once you get rid of the man-and-woman element of it then you what you have left is not really a way of participating in the tradition of marriage at all; it is at most superficially similar. Advocates of same-sex marriage insist that this is not true. And to resolve this dispute neither side can guarantee that anything to which it thinks legitimate to appeal will be shared by the other side. We are back at the question, "Which society?", because you can't talk about tradition without specifying which societies are to be taken into account. General features of marriage can be uncontroversial, part of this monotone general understanding, without providing sufficient specification to determine what specifics are necessary for those general features to be really -- and not merely apparently -- instantiated.

One of the fundamental problems with Wedgwood's talk of "social meaning" is that he appears to assume that there is one, univocal social meaning for everyone. I think this is manifestly false. There are broad similarities among very different conceptions. If you talk vaguely enough you can get something that widely diverse people will agree on, albeit for often very different reasons. And different societies and sub-society groups and communities will often have expectations and understandings that directly overlap with expectations and understandings of other communities. But what we find with social meaning is not one social meaning but a family of them, and when we try to sum them up we mostly get constructed types based on people's assessments of what's essential and incidental, or else such vague and patchwork happenstance-agreements that we can't tell what's actually essential and incidental. And it is, of course, entirely possible for people to make different judgment calls about what is essential and incidental in the things they agree on.

It's pretty clear that Wedgwood's post is not an argument for same-sex marriage. The argument actually depends on the premise that it is an injustice not to allow same-sex marriage, and this premise is not defended, so the argument presupposes that the case for same-sex marriage has been made, and made successfully. Rather, Wedgwood's argument is intended to be an argument against an argument against same-sex marriage; that is, it's intended to show that a particular argument against same-sex marriage, based on social meaning, fails. Wedgwood agrees that marriage does have a social meaning, but holds that this doesn't affect the case for same-sex marriage at all. I think his argument for this as written fails, for the reasons given above: (1) He is clearly missing some kind of key element in shared expectations and understandings of marriage and, I think, precisely the shared expectation and understanding that is causing the whole problem, tradition-participation; and (2) he doesn't do justice to the fact that you and I can have a very vague general-level agreement about some feature of marriage and still have an insoluble disagreement about what that general feature specifically requires in practice, and without dealing with this it's not really clear that he's given an adequate answer to the argument to which he is responding. But it is an interesting line of approach.


  1. E.R. Bourne12:13 AM

    I cannot even see how this amounts to a real argument. Our "shared understanding," for instance, is influenced by argument, social pressure, etc. It is therefore mere question begging to refer to our current supposed "shared understanding" as a sound basis for determining what should or should not be allowed in the future. In fact, because of arguments like Wedgwood's, we will almost certainly have a different "shared understanding" of marriage 25 or 50 years from now.

    Like Rawls, the only reason that Wedgwood can confidently deny the rationality of any non-liberal understanding of the world is by defining things in such a way that only a liberal understanding can count as rational.

  2. branemrys1:24 AM

    This would also problematize the argument to which Wedgwood is responding, since that is also based on shared understanding. But while he doesn't ever give it adequate definition, I don't think 'shared understanding' is supposed to be that changeable; the 'shared' part requires commonality among massive numbers of people, and thus has a sort of inertia in the face of arguments and fashions.

    It's certainly true that Wedgwood's manner of identifying the shared understanding is implicitly helping itself to assumptions from liberalism; or, at least, that this is almost certainly the reason why Wedgwood assumes a univocal shared understanding is possible.

  3. We get into the problem of the 'almost' here. Wedgwood claims it cannot include any "controversial" doctrines; taken flat this would imply that only understandings and expectations admitted by all members of society would be acceptable. But this would effectively make the whole notion of 'social meaning' useless; all it takes to have a controversy is one person who disagrees, and in a population like the United States, with well over 300 million people, for anything you could propose, there's someone somewhere who would disagree.

    So, I think that this is a plain evasion on your part.  I could run precisely this skeptical argument to "show" that there is no shared anti-slavery consensus in the USA.  Yet, there is such a consensus, so the argument cannot be legitimate.  Put another way, it cannot be a reasonable requirement on any discussion of social phenomena that they be defined with mathematical precision: the phenomena in question are constituted so as to defy such precision. All W. needs to do here is to "fall back" on relatively uncontroversial features of marriage: i.e. plainly necessary conditions, and that is what he has done.

    More importantly, as Wedgewood notes, it is the "traditionalist" who has invoked social meaning, not the "progressive"; it is not, as you put it, his "talk".  Any theoretical burdens that accrue to Wedgewood's argument fall even more squarely on the traditionalist's shoulders, because (as is plain to anyone familiar with the literature) the "social meaning" argument is pretty much the only pony in their stables.  If your post were successful in showing that such arguments fall victim to sorites-style objections, then we would have an argument for same-sex marriage by elimination.

  4. branemrys9:30 AM

    These points are all actually dealt with in the post. But to clarify:

    (1) Your example of anti-slavery consensus does not do anything to avoid the issue. As you say, it is not a universal consensus taking the population as a whole. Thus the emphasis is on the 'almost' or, in your rephrasing, which doesn't contributing anything more, 'relatively'. This requires some standard. There are actually several different standards available for talking about anti-slavery consensus: we have institutional establishment, large-scale majority, and universal agreement of restricted populations. Thus there is not 'a' consensus here; there are several different consensuses that will often be relevant, and they do not have exactly the same properties and are not identified in the same way. Any of these can be made explicit; but there will be argumentative contexts in which it will, in fact, be necessary to make them explicit.

    Likewise your 'plainly necessary conditions' is a useless phrase here; we aren't talking about precise meanings but people's expectations, and thus it just ends up reiterating the same thing: the things almost all people consider necessary conditions. All well and good, but if we do anything with it in this kind of context we need to explicitly identifies what level of population we're addressing and how we determine that almost all of them consider these things true. More on this in (3).

    (2) Of course it's the opponent that brings up social meaning. However, Wedgwood explicitly agrees with it and concludes his post insisting upon it. It is his talk; he explicitly affirms it.

    (3) The post doesn't show that such arguments in general fall prey to sorites-style objections; it shows that Wedgewood's argument as written falls prey to incompleteness and to specification problems. Sorites doesn't play any role in the argument. What does play a role in the argument is that Wedgwood needs the 'almost' but doesn't give us a means of identifying it. The traditionalist as Wedgwood presents him actually does have a consensus-identifying method: historical research into actual institutions -- i.e., actually identifying the customs, practices, and traditions built up through the centuries. But Wedgwood doesn't give an alternative, and this means that the argument in his post has no way of handling pluralistic worries and doesn't have a way to address incompleteness charges. That, however, is the problem here: there is reason to think Wedgwood's account of the social meaning of marriage incomplete, and there is reason to think that some parts of the social meaning of marriage in this sense admit of specification in mutually exclusive ways, given different background assumptions.

    This, of course, is the problem with talking about this topic; people jump in to deal with the argument that they think they see rather than the argument that's there.

  5. I had a huge reply to your response, but I think it can be boiled down to a simple question.  Suppose Wedgewood commissioned a large, well-defined study which showed, conclusively, that 95% of Americans think that marriage essentially involves "the couple’s cooperation in dealing with the domestic and economic necessities of life", and also found that only 55% of Americans believe that marriage essentially involves the union of a man and a woman.  Would this allow us to say that part of the "shared social meaning" of the word "marriage" includes only the former connotation and not the latter?

  6. branemrys1:19 PM

    No, because as I said in the post, it's irrational to assume that there is one univocal social meaning until you have proven it or at least defined what kind of social meaning is relevant and how it is measured. What this would tell you is exactly what it says: that there is a population for which the shared social meaning doesn't necessarily include "union of a man and a woman" and a population for which the shared social meaning does, when measured by a particular kind of study.  At a certain level of description we can join the two populations, but pretending that this is "the" shared social meaning would be a stupid misuse of statistics.

    This is a standard kind of problem. Suppose 95% percent of a population thinks people should wear red or blue and 55% of a population thinks people should wear blue only. Does that mean that there is a consensus that it's OK to wear red? Obviously not. It means you have an identifiable population that thinks it's OK to wear red and an identifiable population that doesn't, and while one can speak at a very general level of the overwhelming majority of the population as a red-or-blue population, it would be irrational to gloss this as a consensus of red-permissibility given that the majority of your population thinks red is impermissible.

    This gets directly into the specification point, but, again, there are other issues on the table, and merely taking a poll doesn't give one a way of making sure that you aren't leaving something essential out. Wedgwood's argument is simply that you can have an account of shared social meaning that supports same-sex marriage -- which is obviously true -- and that this provides a response to the traditional shared-social-meaning argument -- which is not true as Wedgwood has presented the argument because Wedgwood's account is doubtful as a complete account of shared social meaning even among the general population of same-sex couples trying to get married, and because even if there is a general level of description at which there is apparent agreement and consensus, this may break down into mutually exclusive alternatives when it comes to practical options. We see this is in the red-or-blue case, which really is a population divided between red-permissible people and red-impermissible people, and the twain do not have a shared social meaning on this point, although they do on others. One can of course construct a shared social meaning by laws, institutions, etc.; the argument Wedgwood opposes is presented as appealing to a shared social meaning constructed from objective means in this way, namely, what precedents and customs the centuries have actually left us. But without a counter-option, Wedgwood's argument is defective: it has no clear way of determining shared social meaning, or when his account is complete. This is what his argument needs to provide an adequate response to the kind of opposing argument he starts with, and he doesn't provide it.

    Of course, if you want to make up patches for the defects in his argument, feel free, because certainly they can be made; any inadequate argument that doesn't involve a contradiction can be fixed by adding to it whatever it was missing. It doesn't change the point, which is that Wedgwood's argument against the traditionalist argument against same-sex marriage, as presented in his post, is lacking precisely that which would be necessary for its adequacy.

  7. Right, though in all argumentation an author must assume that a reader has a good, clear sense of what central terms in the argument refer to without feeling the need to completely specify what they mean.  In this case, "shared social meaning" can clearly and obviously be read as a statistical measure of how many persons accept a given connotation for a term: hence his term "uncontroversial assumption".  Another patently obvious assumption is that the relevant population is the one that would be covered by a relevant law: perhaps the population of a state looking to determine what their marital laws will be.  I think that these assumptions are so obvious that I wonder what our motivations are for accusing him of incompleteness.

    You reject the idea of simply determining, in a straightforward empirical fashion, what actual living persons believe about a concept.  You allege that such studies would be indeterminate: there would, you say, be a "population" that accepts connotation X and a "population" that does not.  This, as I have said, will be true for *any concept*: there is a "population" of insane people who think that squares have five sides, and that does not in any way impugn our ability to say that our shared concept of a square includes the fact that squares have four sides.

    Moreover, your interpretation of my suggestion is wrong: obviously the shared social meaning of "marriage" does *not* include "the union of a man and a woman", and we know this because our hypothetical number is only 55%.  However, because our other number is 95%, we have gone a long way towards showing that the shared social meaning of marriage includes <span>"the couple’s cooperation in dealing with the domestic and economic necessities of life".  Obviously we haven't yet (as you put it) "made sure" that our account of the term's meaning must include this connotation.  We have to do more empirical work, and as you know, we will never attain apodictic certainty, but at least we are getting closer. </span>

    <span>You call this "</span><span>a stupid misuse of statistics", but I am completely unable to see why.  It looks as though you are invalidating, in a strangely a priori fashion, the entire enterprise of field linguistics, and I am left wondering what sense the phrase "social meaning" has for you at all. 

    Finally: I apologize for not making this clear, but the reason I used the somewhat misleading phrase "necessary conditions" was that I was trying to indicate something crucial about Wedewood's argument.  Namely: he does not need to give a complete specification of the meaning of the term "marriage", a full analysis.  We need only accept that, statistically speaking, almost all people asociate marriage with economic and domestic co-operation, and his point is made.  We need *not* think, at this point, that we have provided sufficient conditions, that wherever there is this kind of co-operation, there is a marriage.

  8. branemrys12:59 PM

    In this case, "shared social meaning" can clearly and obviously be read as a statistical measure of how many persons accept a given connotation for a term: hence his term "uncontroversial assumption".

    Well, this is precisely one of the problems; (1)  there is no actual statistical measure given and (2) it's simply unclear how this notion of shared social meaning relates to the notion he began with, both in his argument and in his initial re-affirmation, in which it is a traditional thing -- and tradition is not a statistical concept.

    nother patently obvious assumption is that the relevant population is the one that would be covered by a relevant law: perhaps the population of a state looking to determine what their marital laws will be.  I think that these assumptions are so obvious that I wonder what our motivations are for accusing him of incompleteness.

    This is confused. There is no such thing as "the" population that a law covers or would cover; every population consists of many different  subpopulations,  all laws discount some subpopulations, and people depending on prior conditions can enter or leave the population. This is especially true of marriage laws, which only cover those parts of the population that meet recognized prior conditions (nonconsanguinity, etc.), and in this case one way to frame the issue is over which populations are actually relevant in this way. However, the incompleteness charge is not based on this; and the reason given in the post seems quite clear, so without some reasoning for why you think it inadequate, I don't really have a way to clarify.

    As I've said, I don't think there is any such thing as "the" shared social meaning; the term is Wedgwood's and his opponent's, not mine. There are certainly things you can call shared social meanings, constituted by agreements among a population, but (1) these agreements are very different; (2) they are dependent on which population you have selected as relevant; and (3) even in one population there may be more than one shared social meaning according to different methods of identifying agreements, or according to different kinds of agreement.


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