If you are reading this, it’s fair to assume you are familiar with the term “social construct”. You are, after all, alive post-2016 and on the internet (unless this has been compiled into Krampus’ Greatest Hits: A Book of Wonderful Sagacity and published to worldwide acclaim, which I’m sure will happen any day now). Though society has evidently been constructing things for as long as society has existed, the term “social construct” did not come into vogue until the last half of the 20th century. I won’t bother with the history of it; rather, I just want to point out that, as a formal concept, it is rather young. It should therefore be little surprise that the meaning of “social construct” is pretty poorly understood–especially since the concept is intrinsically incoherent.
At the heart of this poor understanding is a radical divide: that is, a divide between nature and culture, or between biology and society, if you prefer. The former pairing–nature (a broader term) and biology (a narrower one)–is recognized as important and, in a certain sense, “infallible”, but also considered stupid and clumsy. That is, biology is what it is and actively seeking to change it carries a taboo (and for good reason–but more on that some other time). Meanwhile, society appears sophisticated, “rational”, but often cruel, oppressive, and evil. Biology is often believed an unconscious influence or even determinant on the structuring of society–sometimes to the point that it is responsible for the evil and cruelty of those social constructs. At other times, society is believed to have “corrected for”–or at least to be capable–the “mistakes” or “clumsiness” of the biological.
Among the oddities surrounding this divide is that it appeared before anyone successfully made sense of it, and, point of fact, no one really has made sense of it yet. Some intellectuals noticed that nature and biology form one kind of thing, and culture and society (or perhaps, even more ambiguously, “psychology”) form another kind of thing, and the two were pushed apart until we could figure out what to do with them. We still haven’t figured much out, however, and I’m afraid we’re actually getting farther away from figuring it out, too: mostly because they should not have been pushed apart in the first place, and now people are carrying on as though this is the normal, proper state of things.
The idea of the “social construct”, as commonly understood today, has followed from the forced separation of nature and culture: that is, social constructs are understood to be concepts or institutions (i.e., patterns of practice and organization) which exist solely on the basis of human mental activity and formed discursively through social interactions. Often, these constructs are imbued with moral normativity. In other words, the construct establishes a standard or acceptable set of behaviors; anything outside of them is considered bad. This seems quite sensible, given the premises–after all, biology and nature present no moral codes, but we have such codes, and if they don’t come from nature, then they must come from society.
Practices such as marriage and its traditionally attendant attributes–monogamous, heterosexual, child-bearing and rearing oriented–are often considered as examples of social constructs, and as ones having morally normative weight. Within that, in particular, we can focus on monogamy, a normative concept currently under some scrutiny and facing opposition from certain quarters, which will be used throughout this essay as a particular example.
First, I’ll be quite honest: I am a man and I am wholeheartedly pro-monogamy. It is a practice I consider a part of the highest ideal of a loving relationship. In recent opposition to monogamy, I do feel threatened–as would anyone, I think, who finds his or her ideal being argued against; it is something in which I believe, and in which I would like others to believe.
Second, the impetus for this article is the work of Carrie Jenkins. In particular, I have in mind her article “Modal Monogamy” (I know she has written a lengthier book, and I intend to address it more fully and thus more fairly at some point). Carrie is a clear, persuasive writer. I follow her on Twitter and from what I’ve seen, I quite like her candor, her thoughts on mental health and academia, and on academia in general. But I think she’s wrong in her work, and I think it a fruitful exercise (if nothing else) for me to explain why. For starters, she tries to bridge the gap between the biological and the social–but as we’ll see, that gap is an abyss, and no bridge is strong enough to span it.
The arbitrary hypothesis
Typically attending the claim that a traditional or conventional position of moral normativity is nothing other than the product of social construction is the implication that this normative construction is oppressive, and therefore bad, and, since it is moreover arbitrary, it is also legitimate to supplant. The first claim, that the norm oppresses, requires a view of human nature that centers around negative freedom as essential: namely, that radical autonomous independence from external constraints forms the core of what makes someone human, and any activity contrary to this–except in service of the preservation of another’s autonomy–constitutes oppression. Good actions are actions that promote the ability of individuals to exercise their autonomy; oppressive actions are, by contrast, evil. Because all but the most basic of norms entail some degree or another of constraint, sooner or later, they all come to be seen as oppressive. I will challenge the validity of the oppressive-claim in the next section.
In the meanwhile, I want to note an inconsistency between the first claim, that normative constructions are oppressive, and the second, that they are arbitrary. That is, if a social construct is entirely arbitrary, it seems absurd to claim that it is oppressive. If whatever is being oppressed has a claim not to be oppressed, then the social construct must be something bad; which is to say that in whatever realm the social construct is operating, it cannot truly be arbitrary because it is itself in conflict with something normative, unless, of course, the claim not to be oppressed is itself equally arbitrary.
In order for something to be arbitrary, or to be performed arbitrarily, it must have no inherent relativity to anything else. That something could exist in an arbitrary fashion is a very dubious proposition–for everything, insofar as it is, seems also to be in relation to other things. For an action to be performed in an arbitrary fashion, the act must be severed from its ordinary context; for actions, too, insofar as they exist, exist in relation. But human beings do have the ability to artificially, within extreme limitations, impose barriers between an act and its relatives: as when a dictator arbitrarily decides to burn down the impoverished parts of his city to expand the beautiful and wealthy–this is not entirely arbitrary, but is arbitrary in the sense that it severs its relations to the proper ordination of ruling.
So let us take the supposed social construct with normative ruling highlighted earlier, monogamy, and consider what it would mean to say that this is arbitrary: that, against the proper ordination of sexual relationships, some group or force–likely the ubiquitous bogeyman, patriarchy–has imposed on the social order this rule or law. One could argue that this imposition stems ultimately from a biological male drive to protect its progeny, or from a kind of “selfish instinct”. Conversely, one could argue–as some have–that females possess a biological drive to polyamory, to increase their chances of reproduction and to always choose the best mate possible. [Point of fact: anisogamic reproduction has typically fostered, in mammal species, male promiscuity and female selectivity.]
That the terms “biological drive” and “instinct” are virtual nonsense–to the point that even when clearly defined, which is rare, they possess no actual significance to real forces in nature–seems not to bother many who employ them. Rather, they serve as “explanatory principles”, said in the pejorative sense, by which I mean unknowns presumed as unquestionable “first principles” invoked to bring an end to a discussion.
At any rate, the supposed arbitrariness of the monogamous norm is based on the premise that the male biological urge is, for no good reason, given formalized preference over the female. Although, if we turned this around the other way, it would be equally arbitrary. If an arbitrary patriarchal imposition is oppressive to the biological impulse of the female, the converse “matriarchal” imposition would be oppressive to the biological impulse of the male.
Of course, those who are arguing against monogamy are not actually arguing for anything matriarchal–polyamorists are not specifically interested, as near as I can tell, in procreating with a multitude of partners (and it would not be great for the gene pool, in the long run, if they did). The real interest is in sex with a multitude of partners, and sex which is severed from any reproductive associations–which desire seems not to be related to this supposed biological impulse, which, in evolutionary terms, serves the continuation of the species.
This is a common sleight of hand for social constructionists: claim that what is socially constructed is arbitrary, oppressive, and point to some biological basis as justification for an alternative social construction–which it turns out is equally arbitrary and oppressive–which biological basis has no actual connection to the newly-proposed paradigm.
Foundations and morality
So what is a social construct? Let’s start with what it isn’t: an arbitrary concept or institution on which a group of old white men sat around a table and developed as a tool for oppressing women and non-whites. Nor is it a habituated thought or idea which human brains have co-incidentally evolved to create for themselves to make sense of otherwise irrational experience–the “survival mechanism” thesis (in fact, I would say very few human concepts are of this sort; it would be extremely inefficient, evolutionarily speaking–nor is efficiency the sole criteria of “good” or “better”, in this case).
Okay: so why is it a social construct? That is, what exactly is being “built” or “constructed”? The immediate implication in the term is that the result is something artificial, which is something that would not come to be in the way that it is on its own; intervention is required, and specifically intervention which reorganizes things other than how they would normally be. Implicit is a notion of violence–not physical damage, necessarily, but forcing things against their nature. A skyscraper does not organically grow, but its materials must be forced, re-shaped, welded, altered again and again, and balanced against one another, in order to stand: this process is construction.
Alright: so why is it a social construct? In order for something to be social, it requires the co-operative interaction of a plurality of individuals. Even war requires some co-operation (slaughter is not a social activity), albeit a very hostile kind. The plurality has to be engaged in something common.
Well then: what is the social construct? An artificial concept or institution co-operatively forced into existence by a plurality of individuals. We can only accept the existence of social constructs if we already accept that society exists as something separate from biology; that is, social constructs appear valid only if we allow as normal the divide between nature and culture. Why should this be the case? Why should the separation of the two be the default position? As aforementioned, there are different results from the two–but, here’s the counter-hypothesis: society is natural.
That is, society may deviate from nature, it may oppose nature, or it may cohere with nature, enhance nature; but its root is nature itself. Human beings are naturally social–it is an inexorable ordination of our biological, physical, corporeal being that we exist in relation to other humans. That things produced socially would all be constructs and therefore artificial presupposes that there are no natural ways of conceptual or institutional social production.
For this reason, I prefer the term “social constitution”, as “constitution” is a broader term than “construction”–it can mean either natural or artificial. Moreover, social constitution, as a process of developing concepts or institutions within society, has a continuity with the individual process of ideation whereby we develop our individual conceptual frameworks, the key difference being the making-public of these concepts by species-specifically human linguistic communication; but I think, there, I am wandering a bit outside of the pre-defined boundaries of this essay.
Following from the separation of biology and society, and the relegation of all norms to social constructs, is that morality falls in the gap–or, as it really appears here, the abyss. If moral norms are entirely the product of human intervention, then they really are arbitrary, whether they are based on biological facts or not–after all, the biological facts instill no preference in us, except, perhaps, to favor the ones that favor us. If, on the other hand, moral norms at the very least can revolve around an understanding of the natural, then we can find a non-arbitrary basis for judging our practices right or wrong. That is, normativity cannot reduce to the strictly biological, but it can develop in coherence with the natural.
Love and monogamy
In her book, What Love Is and What It Could Be, Jenkins defines “romantic love” as “ancient biological machinery embodying a modern social role” (p.82)–and here it is, specifically, that I think she tries to bridge the abysmal gap between the mistakenly-separated nature and culture–suggesting that we have an evolutionarily-instigated impulse to pursue sexual intimacy (as a reward system to promote procreation) which has been transmogrified through societal structures into something else. It is this “something else” which is at issue, being a supposed social construct.
In her article, “Modal Monogamy”, Jenkins argues against the concept that “dyadic exclusivity” (i.e., two and only two people exclusively involved with one another) is essential to a romantic love relationship (“modal monogamy”–that the only possible love relationship is metaphysically constituted by such a dyadic exclusive romantic love). Central to her thesis is the concept of “romantic love” as “(at least in part) a socially constructed kind”.
In short: Jenkins’ argument against normative monogamy depends upon her concept of romantic love, and her concept of romantic love depends upon the divide between society/culture and the biological/natural. Consequently, given my position that there exists no such divide (except by an artificial separation of the kind the scholastics called a distinctio rationis, subsequently and mistakenly presumed to be a distinctio realis), I have to oppose her definition of “romantic love.”
To describe this phenomenon, with which we are all familiar as a feeling, as a social construct fulfilling a primordial biological impulse is, to be frank, silly. It rests upon some notion of the “natural human”, a pre-societal, pre-cultural being of which we have nothing but the scarcest knowledge (since such a being is, by its very definition, pre-historical, and of which therefore we have only forensic and no semantic indications) as well as a notion of culture and society as things which are artificial and wholly separate from whatever is natural.
Rather than try to deconstruct the feeling of romantic love into separate and mechanistic biological and societal causes, let’s examine the phenomenon itself: that is, what is the feeling itself? Succinctly described, all “love” has as its core a desire for union with the beloved. We are pained when that feeling is frustrated and pleased when the feeling is satisfied (unless, of course, the expectation was exaggerated beyond the reality, in which case we are disappointed). This is true of the love we have for a piece of pecan pie (attended by a scoop of vanilla ice cream, of course) as it is for a pet, as it is for a human being.
Obviously, however, the kind of union differs for each object. I do not want to eat my pet, and I do not want to have sex with pecan pie (and anyone who does is not really seeking sex, but masturbation, which is a different thing altogether). Identifying the kind of union that we want in romantic love will go a long way to helping us understand what romantic love really is–and why and how monogamy is a legitimate moral norm.
[Incidentally, there is a weird inversion which occurs in Jenkins’ “Modal Monogamy” article, in which she points out–correctly–that many people base their modal monogamous belief on (or conflate it with) a moral monogamous belief. It seems quite clear to me that whatever one’s moral position on monogamy, it ought to stem from its ontological status, not vice versa. But I’ll spare you all the digression into an Aristotelian/Thomistic investigation of act and potency… sorta…]
Two kinds of union are patently desired in romantic love: sexual and emotional. To some extent, the emotional often seems more important: sexual union tends to result in relatively short-lived pleasure, whereas the emotional pleasure of an intimate relationship tends to last much longer, and to be more pervasive in one’s life. But there is also a third kind of union, which we tend to do a poor job of recognizing, which is union in thought. It is uncomfortable when we discover that our romantic partners–intended or actual–have beliefs which oppose our own, or want things in life which we do not. While we do not want to be of literally one mind, we do want to be headed in the same direction. Our beliefs and our desires orient the trajectory of our lives (to at least some extent), and having different trajectories means that, sooner or later, the union will dissolve. A failure to attain union in thought results quite often in a separation at both the emotional and the physical levels.
None of this, of course, proves that monogamy is a metaphysical necessity to the feelings of romantic love. It is unquestionable that someone can simultaneously desire unity with a plurality of individuals at all three levels. What is questionable, however, is whether someone can successfully accomplish such unity with a plurality of individuals.
I think the answer is “no”. You can certainly have strong emotional attachments, sexual attraction, and even conceptual unity, with a plurality of individuals. But the conceptual unity has to be broad, and therefore is generic; the emotional and the sexual unity, if with a plurality of individuals, is inescapably fragmentary. That is, if I am sexually and emotionally involved with more than one person, none of those people are receiving the fullness of my sexual or emotional self. The unity is only partial, and being incomplete is metaphysically inferior to being complete.
In other words, to take a phrase from Karol Wojtyla, I think that romantic love requires a “total gift of self.” If someone I love is having or acting on desires for someone other than myself, then a part of her is not being given, and the union is incomplete; and vice versa.
So while it is absolutely true that there is no metaphysical necessity behind monogamy, and that the normativity of monogamy is a socially-constituted institution, it deserves to be a norm because it directs us towards a better fulfillment of our natural desire for complete union. And before anyone objects, “Ah, but my desires cannot be fulfilled by sexual/emotional/intellectual union with just any one person”, that is absolutely true–but they also cannot be fulfilled by a thousand sexual, emotional, or intellectual partners. Desire is by its nature indeterminate, general, and open to always more and other. You can always want something more or something other than what you have–especially if your desires are not subordinated to the belief that you can have a more perfect union through monogamy.
I said above that social constructionists commonly claim that what is socially constructed is arbitrary, oppressive, and subsequently point to some biological basis, as justification for an alternative social construction, that has no actual connection to the newly-proposed paradigm. A problem with this is that the social constructionist thereby provides a false but seemingly legitimating claim, which then becomes adopted and part of the conceptual framework for individuals and social groups. Because it is presumed as normal that culture is one thing and biology another, and that there are no real or essential connections between the two–such that we can establish non-arbitrary norms–we start to believe some real bullshit.
And if we’re going to stop believing in the bullshit, that means we need to understand that culture comes from nature, and can either cohere with it or contradict it–and if we want our culture to be coherent with our nature (presuming that being coherent is superior to being incoherent), we need to understand what human nature really is. Which ultimately entails understanding how we understand–not an easy task and something really difficult to communicate. But at any rate, until this monumental undertaking can be accomplished, we can probably help ourselves in the meanwhile by closing the mental gap between the biological and the social, rather than trying, with great but foolhardy earnest intentions, to bridge it; for all our social constructions ultimately crumble into the abyss.