Sentiment Trumps Reason as Judges Impose Gay “Marriage”

At this hour, we all bear witness to the spectacle of laws accurately defining marriage being dismantled in order to establish a rhetorical equivalence between genuine marital unions and those rare associations formed out of same-sex desires.  One substantial club in this act of moral viciousness is an appeal to sentiment that tries to persuade us that rational law stands in the way of our fellow citizens’ pursuit of happiness. Journalists have been its most obvious abettors, with their incessant coverage of how “happy” homosexual couples are, by which they mean that they are smiling. As the recent decision in Oregon indicates, however, judges have been quick to follow suit.

In the pages of the Philadelphia Inquirer, for instance, we see that journalists, whose only possible virtue as writers is their factitious reserve, suddenly wax purple, when it comes to this matter. A rhetorical revolution in the definition of marriage requires a forced rhetoric in order to find some kind of justification somewhere.  Thus, from yesterday morning’s paper:

In the dreary corridors of City Hall, the smiles of couples were incandescent. Even a guard at the ground-floor security check-in was prompted to cheer,  “Congratulations guys!” as happy pairs made their way to the fourth-floor office.

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Followed by this a few lines down:

After consulting with city clerks, Roots was told that the ruling now recognizes her marriage license from New Jersey and she could apply to change her name at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

“I’m going straight to DMV,” said an ecstatic Roots.

The pairs are “happy.” Miss Deidra Roots is “ecstatic.”  The smiles burst with sufficient “incandescence” to dispel a “drear” for which Philadelphia’s incompetent and corrupt government is responsible. Well, I suppose that’s what “gay” is supposed to mean, but that’s not my point.  The article by reporter Jennifer Lin is not primarily about an action, and it is not properly speaking a news article.  It is, as most such pieces are, a bit of propaganda in order to establish a logical causation that regarding nearly any other matter would not be treated as credible in our unhappily liberal society.

Same-sex couplings ought to be dignified with the name “marriage,” it is suggested, precisely because those couples are already so happy and will be happier still if they are allowed to have their amours recognized by the state as outright goods—so good, in fact, that no unprejudiced person could possibly detect the slightest difference between two men who crown their companionship with sodomy and a husband and wife. We are to be blinded to all distinction by the incandescence of their joy.

Happiness is Not Founded on Sentiment
There is much to be said in response to this, but I want only to offer a reflection on how this article gets one thing right and another deeply wrong. Lin insinuates a moral argument that proposes that any and all knowledge regarding the human good is rooted in sentiment, and that sentiments therefore ought to guide positive law.

Lin’s article suggests the following: because certain persons want something and have demonstrated that desire by expressing their feelings, and because, so far as we can tell, they will continue to hold those feelings even after they have gotten what they want, we should rest easy.  We should give them what they want, because it is good.  You can see the goodness breaking forth in their smiles—in, as it were, the ecstasy of Roots.

I agree that every argument about how human beings should live is an argument about happiness.  Our end is happiness.  The only question is what properly constitutes happiness and the means we have of discovering it.  Because those means are as contested as the nature of happiness itself, arguments about them are just the kinds of arguments Americans tend to avoid in public. Such arguments are specifically those liberal society, from Thomas Hobbes onward, was intended to avoid.  The state’s job, we typically say, is not to concern itself with happiness, but to leave questions of happiness to the private realm; the state’s task is merely to concern itself with a stable and secure public realm that makes possible the existence of a private realm in the first place.

When debating questions of law and public policy, therefore, we scramble to establish some kind of objective, measurable criterion, whose quantitative nature and utilitarian purpose spares us having to ask qualitative questions about happiness. We do not ask whether the poor or unemployed are happy, but whether they have enough to eat.  We do not ask whether the opening of a casino will make our fellow citizens happier, but only whether it will contribute dollars to the local economy or increase crime. In these and other matters, we are publically agonistic regarding, and substantially indifferent to, happiness.

So it has been that, in most arguments regarding whether persons with homosexual desires can “marry,” the question has been whether such allowances will increase or decrease the lifespan, increase or decrease the likelihood that children raised by persons involved in such unions will graduate high school or win their high school bowling championship. These metrics, not happiness, were at issue, and though homosexual unions fair poorly in these metrics, the data are ambiguous enough, and dubiously sourced enough, that they do not settle the question. We sense at the limits of metrics how poor a substitute they are for a rational knowledge of real happiness.

As Allan Carlson observed years ago, the judges involved in these early cases specifically excluded arguments that referred to qualitative knowledge. We are told, in keeping with the distinction foundational to liberalism, that happiness is not a public concern. Man’s end, his final cause or purpose, is not a public concern. The state, the public realm, exists only to make it possible for him to pursue his happiness in the private realm, and this can be established by determinant measurements.

And yet, Lin’s article exemplifies a new argument that stands athwart this liberal principle: if we will just let these people “marry,” they will be happy.  You can see it.

What this suggests, of course, is that happiness is a feeling, a sensation one has, rather than a condition to which one attains.  And so, the reporter’s job becomes to project adjectives and adverbs of sensation, of feeling—of sentiment—onto the persons discussed in her article. These words in turn become the sole substantial claim of the article.  Recognizing homosexual relationships as “marriage” will make some people feel better, by which we mean, it will make them happy.

This represents an unfortunate dualism in our public discourse, but not a new one. It dates back to Hobbes, who defined “good” as simply “whatever one wants,” the incidental object of an appetite. He asserted that reason cannot tell us what we ought to find good, but can only help us find means to attaining it.  There is no “rational appetite.”  Reason is but a tool of our unconstrained, unpredictable, and largely unintelligible desires.

Because that did not feel quite accurate to such later writers as David Hume and Adam Smith, these and other worthies of the eighteenth century came to associate morality with appetite, with feeling, with, in their words, sentiment. Reason, they admitted, could only know facts, that is to say, things pertaining to what can be counted: material beings and their movements. And so, while reason does not instruct our desires, and while morality is per se arational, we can still feel the difference between good and vicious desires and judge them on that basis. Morality becomes a question of learning how to feel rightly, about which feeling alone can teach us.

Lin’s article, and others of its kind, therefore attempts to give her readers a feeling that they would not naturally have. She would impose by rhetoric a claim that neither falls within the typical purview of facts a reporter can observe nor one that a reader of the article would be likely to feel in response to a straight reporting of those facts. In her own crude way, she is persuading us of how we ought to feel, simply because those persons mentioned in her article themselves feel this way. On the basis of such arational persuasion, on the basis of such feeling, we ought to rewrite positive law to conform to them. The law becomes nothing other than an expression of how we feel.

The Cost of Abandoning Reason
The modern division between reason and appetite, knowledge and sentiment, is an inheritance that Americans have accepted to their great cost. We think it beneficial, because it constrains the rational arguments conducted in the public sphere to matters knowable to anyone who can count, and it leaves us a maximal latitude to pursue feelings of happiness without having to demonstrate them as being genuinely good.

This division is not one we ought to accept. Lin’s article inadvertently suggests as much. Human beings want to be happy; because politics and ethics alike are concerned with human beings, all political and ethical questions, including those concerned with positive law, are intrinsically concerned with our happiness.

Where Lin errs is in violating the liberal separation of public reason and private sentiment only part way. She wants some persons’ sentiments about happiness to be admitted as public argument—while implicitly doing what several judges have explicitly done in cases involving homosexual “marriage,” to wit, denying the legitimacy of opposing feelings. The “ecstasy” of a homosexual is deemed a public fact that should be admitted, while the conviction of most persons that marriage is a union between a man and a woman is to be denounced as an attempt to “disparage,” and the deep, gut feeling that sodomy is not only incommensurable to the marital act but repellently different from it is deemed inadmissible as merely bigoted and “rooted in animus.” When you deny that happiness is rooted in reason, then all arguments about it boil down to who “feels” the strongest about a question, or which judge in a position of power is willing to impose his feelings on the law. A morality of sentiments leads to a public discourse conducted by mere enthusiasm and a rule of law grounded in pure force.

We see this in the decision itself that occasions Lin’s article. At the close of U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III’s opinion, we are instructed with the following august sentiments:

We are a better people than what these laws represent, and it is time to discard them into the ash heap of history.

Jones appeals to our understanding of the finality or purpose, the goodness, of the American people and their laws. What Pennsylvania law “represents,” or did until he ruined it, was a rational definition of marriage. He replaced a definition that could account for itself with rational argument with one rooted entirely in sentiment: because two people of the same sex feel strongly for one another, they must be granted access to the name of marriage, even if in giving them access the word “marriage” loses all meaning except as a union of sentiments.

The judge, like Lin’s article gets something right: all arguments, moral or political, “public” or “private,” are about human happiness, and so happiness must be admitted as the criterion for judging what is good in moral and political life. Depending on how rightly we understand and pursue what is good will determine whether we are a better or a worse people. What the judge and Lin, along with so many others, get wrong is persisting in the absolute and indefensible distinction between reason and appetite. For, this leads us to define happiness as a feeling rather than as a condition, as something that can be experienced but not something that can be known, defined, and judged. It denies that any appetite could be governed by reason, and therefore subjects reason as a mere tool to secure whatever someone or other already feels he wants.

Happiness is not a Feeling but a Condition
In actuality, happiness is not a feeling, though it is consistently accompanied, even crowned by one—that of rest and pleasure. It is, rather, to appropriate Plato’s words, to possess permanently what is wholly good for one’s nature. This is a condition, one which can be defined in the same way anything else is defined, by a reason open to knowledge not only of quantity but quality—a reason capable of distinguishing between the purpose—the goodness—of things and perversions of that purpose.

I would presume that persons who have deep-seated homosexual desires would experience a feeling of pleasure on learning that the strong arm of the law has just forced the rest of society to accept their relationships as normal, as equal. But this is just to say that I would presume people who feel a certain way will feel that way. That feeling tells me little about whether those relationships actually are normal, equal, or good. To discover that, I have to go beyond a theory of sentiments and a quantitative rationalism to ask, what is the genuine purpose for which human beings by nature live and ought consciously to know they live for? Of what do our lives consist when they are good lives?

No one, having admitted reason’s capacity to answer such questions, could rationally conclude that homosexual acts, much less the denomination of those who engage in them on an ongoing basis as “married,” could be included in that definition. Unless, that is, we commit ourselves to the following premises: 1) We do not think that the differences between men and women have any positive value and they should be concealed or eliminated. 2) We do not think that the differences between men’s and women’s bodies should in any way determine or limit the acts in which they may properly engage. 3) We do not think the conceiving and rearing of children a normal constituent of human happiness. 4) We do not, finally, think that anything other than whatever present feelings we happen to have ought to guide our actions.

We cannot rationally so commit ourselves. The differences between men and women are vital, rather than incidental, to the life of the family; the specific instances of complementarity between husband and wife begin with how they respond to an infant’s cry and how they play with that same infant, and go on from there pretty much ad infinitum. Those differences are visible in their bodies and in fact their bodily difference is the condition of possibility for their having children; their bodily differences are essential to their constitution as a family. The good of a family—its purpose, whose attainment constitutes its happiness—is just that union of opposites whose goodness is intrinsically self-diffusive, self-giving and, therefore, accidental impediments notwithstanding, leads to the having and rearing of children.

Finally, we know a happy person not merely because he has a smile on his face. We do not call a smiling drunk on the subway happy; in fact, if we care about him, we help him to get sober. We recognize a happy person because he possesses those goods, internal and external, we think necessary to living not necessarily a long but a full or complete life. All the enthusiasm of the guards at City Hall and the glee of the couples who convene there to attain “marriage” licenses for their partnerships will not make them happy. To the contrary, it seals with the gravity of positive law their having given up on happiness. They have sacrificed a lasting condition, a permanent good, for the mere extension of a feeling.

Lin, Jones and others like them abet these persons’ self-deception with a specious argumentation from sentiments. Just as Lin’s projection of adjectives onto the facts of her story does not finally change those facts, the inscription in law of homosexual couplings as “marriages” does not make them so and cannot not change in any fundamental way how most persons will pursue the happiness to which they are by nature ordered. Jones’ judgment may however help such persons, and our society as a whole, discover sooner rather than later that one cannot substitute sentiments for reason or redefine reality to conform to our wills’ desires. But, in the short term, both these things constitute obstacles; they obscure reality. They try to make many of us feel what we do not feel, and they attempt to inhibit the capacity of reason to instruct our feelings. We have good reason to feel bad about that.


  • James Matthew Wilson

    James Matthew Wilson is Associate Professor of Religion and Literature in the Department of Humanities and Augustinian Traditions at Villanova University. He is the author of a chapbook of poems, Four Verse Letters (Steubenville, 2010) and of Timothy Steele: A Critical Introduction (Story Line, 2012), and a collection of poems entitled The Violent and the Fallen (Finishing Line Press). His latest book is titled The Fortunes of Poetry in An Age of Unmaking (Wiseblood Books, 2015). Readers can learn more about his writing at

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