I want to isolate one issue in Dan’s most recent post on whether there’s hope for marriage. The larger issues are important and we’ll get to them in due course. But I think Dan has made a pretty key mistake that needs to be addressed before we carry the broader conversation further.
In social science, the mistake that I have in mind is known as “functionalism.” This is a method for explaining human behavior that was fashionable for a short period but is now generally recognized as a fallacy.
Functionalism assumes that the true meaning of human behavior is unrelated to the subjective experience of the one engaging in the behavior. My thoughts, my feelings, my understanding of what I’m doing, my motivation for doing it – all are treated as irrelevant to the question of what my behavior is really all about. Only the actual impact of my behavior is relevant.
So, for example, when explaining the significance of a social ritual (say, a rain dance) the functionalist disregards what the people carrying out the ritual believe they are doing (summoning the gods to make it rain) and looks only at the practical impact (reinforcement of the tribe’s social solidarity, transfer of wealth to the rainmaker). The reductio ad absurdum of functionalism can be seen in the old joke about the Martian who observes our world and concludes that dogs rule the Earth and humans are their slaves, because we follow them around all day picking up their poop.
Functionalism fails because it cannot account for the behavior it describes. The tribe would not do the rain dance if they didn’t believe it made rain.
Functionalism is particularly destructive to practical application. If all you want to do is describe the tribe, you can get away with a functionalist account, although it will be inferior to an alternative account that includes the subjective. But if you want to influence the behavior of the tribe, you had better know not just what the rain dance does but why they do it.
Speaking of America’s elite cultural institutions, Dan writes:
They do not see the well-being of women, children, the poor, and minorities as ends in themselves. In fact, most often they seem to be little more than sacramental obeisances…
Let’s try out a sample conflict: Radical Islam. Everyone, and I mean everyone, knows that the radical thread of Islam oppresses women in unspeakable ways. That includes these institutions. But instead of chasing this misogynist theology to ground, they have been in full-throated defense ever since 2001. Why? Because finding fault with America rates so much higher on their priority list…
The poor? Compare and contrast the wealth-creating track record of socialism and capitalism, then compare America’s poor to those of the rest of the world. Which system do these institutions champion? The one trapping more people in poverty, of course. Children? We all know that abortion kills them; even those conducting the procedures and their defenders know. But, to these institutions, sexual libertinism is more important than a child’s life. Or even millions of them.
I’ll leave aside the implied libel against the sacraments in the phrase “sacramental obeisances” and stick to the political questions.
I agree that our institutions are promoting policies and priorities destructive to the ends they purport to uphold. Does Dan think they do so intentionally? That seems to be the implication of both his word choices and his substantive position. But is this plausible?
Or is the real problem that our side is so sociologically incompetent that we are unable to effectively demonstrate the failure of the policies and hold our institutions accountable for results?
A final note. There’s a fascinating new group blog out there that Dan should really check out. Here’s a quote from its vision statement:
We have seen some of our fellow conservatives identify the success of conservatism with the success of America, such that progressives are viewed as alien to the polity rather than fellow Americans with whom we disagree; we will not go that way.
Words worth contemplating.