Ain’t No Functionalism Here

We’ve spent a fair amount of time around these parts on whether marriage is dead, and if so, what is to be done about it.  That discussion has been both instructive and revealing.  One of the things it has revealed is a need to address an unexplored assumption, to wit, how we determine where the state may legitimately intervene in our lives.  I operate on the historical understanding that government has a limited role that is best expressed as the responsibility to protect our rights.  Greg apparently has something more extensive in mind.

Greg says “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.”  I agree.  Well, not that I’ve made that mistake, but that we need to discuss this before the conversation can broaden.

I find myself frequently saying that I agree with Greg.  That shouldn’t be surprising – Greg is frighteningly intelligent, and before he says anything, he puts a huge amount of thought into it.  So when he takes me to task for engaging in functionalism, I know that, lurking beneath the surface of that short post, there is a wealth of research and rumination.  And while I agree with everything he says about that model, I plead “not guilty” to the charge of using it.  Here’s why.

Greg accurately describes functionalism’s (functional?) limitation as its inability to describe why people do what they do.  He says “[f]unctionalism assumes that the true meaning of human behavior is unrelated to the subjective experience of the one engaging in the behavior.”  He explains, by way of example, that functionalism cannot adequately describe a rain dance because observing participants’ physical behavior says nothing about the subjective reasons for engaging in that activity.  And he concludes that “[f]unctionalism 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.”

All that is true, and would be relevant if I had said you could reverse engineer the true and complete meaning of marriage by looking only at the third facet of marriage.  But I didn’t.  In fact, I distinctly remember saying there are three facets – the interpersonal, the relationship between the couple and God, and the relationship between the couple and the state.  The first two facets cover the “why” and the metaphysics.  And while I’ve described the third in functional terms, I’ve never suggested that it accounts for the totality of the institution of marriage.

What I have done is propose that when we banished the third facet, we killed the institution of marriage in its traditional form and replaced it with something no longer tethered to legally cognizable rights and responsibilities.  That, however, does not imply the third facet is a sufficient basis for understanding traditional marriage, only that it is a necessary one.  This is no more functionalistic than noting that without lungs you’re, well, dead.  We are not completely defined by our lungs, yet we’re nowhere without them.

So the reason I have not been using a functionalistic model is because I have not been trying to define the whole of marriage through the government’s role in it.  Instead, I have had a much smaller goal in mind, viz., identifying the properly limited, but essential, role of the state in traditional marriage.  That role does not define the whole of marriage; you still need to account for the other two facets, which I have.  And so, by Greg’s own definition, I am not engaging in functionalism.

Hang on, it looks like the jury is returning . . . .  Ahh, not guilty.

4 Thoughts.

  1. I think I may have failed to make my point clear. Let me take another shot at it.

    I’m not saying your whole argument is functionalistic, just the part of it that I quoted in my post. For the moment I just want to deal with the question of whether our elite institutions can be forced to drop their opposition to liberalized divorce because it threatens the values they claim are fundamental. Your argument that they cannot merely points to the fact that currently they pursue policies harmful to those values. This fails to take into account their subjective understanding and motives.

    It seems to me we have two options available:

    1) They aren’t aware that the policies they favor are undermining the values they profess (they don’t realize the welfare state is hurting the poor, they don’t realize a fetus is a person, etc.) This implies they can be forced to change positions if we get smarter about sociology, adopt more effective methods, and demonstrate effectively the real impact of the policies.

    2) They are aware and pursue the policies anyway. This would attribute to them both a breathtaking dishonesty and a conscious desire to undermine the country. This option preserves your position, but only by adopting the view that progressives are enemies of America.

    • I’ll take a variation on option 2. They unquestionably know what their favored policies do. How could they not?

      But the question of whether they are enemies of America needs some refinement before we can answer it. We and many of the culturally elite institutions have very different views of what America is. They believe the policies they pursue will either protect their view of America or lead to its betterment.

      But their views and ours are terribly different. So are they enemies of America? Well, they are certainly enemies of what we believe America is and ought to be. But they would say they are working towards a brighter and shinier future, making them America’s best friends.

      I think I’ll expand on this in an actual post; we need to be clear about what the contest is before we can expect moral consensus.

      • The assertion that they know the effects of their policies is not unquestionable. I hereby question it!

        (That’ll be my new tagline. “Greg Forster: Questioning the Unquestionable Since 1973.”)

        We will both have to write full length posts on this, I think. Due to chaos and insanity at work right now plus a birthday party for my daughter this weekend, I’m unlikely to have the time to devote to it immediately. But Wednesday looms!

  2. In response to Greg Forster’s post above, my personal belief is that our elite institutions are aware of the deleterious effects of their policies, pursue them intentionally, and are in fact guilty of breathtaking dishonesty and a conscious desire to undermine the country. The fact that the programs in question have a deleterious effect has been documented extensively, and beyond the ability of an open and honest mind to deny.

    Why then do the elite institutions continue to deny the deleterious effects of their policies? In a word, power. Power for the people running the institutions, power for the institutions themselves, and power for those who are willing to get their hands dirty enforcing those policies while the dreamers continue to live in the utopia that exists only in their mind.

    Those who believe in the efficacy of government and wish to reap the spoils of wielding its power, have a distinct positive incentive to institute policies that make more and more people dependent on government and its programs. Doing so creates a built-in constituency in whose best interest it is to vote for those who will keep the pig trough full. They create a vicious and self-perpetuating cycle that creates a permanent underclass, and trumpet the fiction that those who are rich are responsible for making and keeping those who are poor continually so.

    Because there are more poor people than rich people, creating class conflict and convincing the poor that it is the rich who have made them so, progressives create a permanent numerical advantage at the polls. It is against the tide of the tyranny of the majority that we fight.

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