Thursday, October 16, 2008

On Gay Marriage

The Connecticut Supreme Court has just legalized gay marriage (the decision is here). Obviously this subject is very controversial; not only does it address political issues, but ethical and religious issues as well. Before getting into this, though, let me just point out that Christians are not called upon to change the world through social legislation; we are called upon to change the world by reflecting Christ. If you're concerned as a Christian about the state of marriage in society, the best thing you can do is reflect Christ in your marriage. This doesn't mean you should ignore social issues, much less that you should refrain from voting on them; it's just an appeal to get our priorities in order.

Those in favor of gay marriage see it as just allowing homosexuals to have the same rights as heterosexuals. To oppose it, then, is to oppose equal rights for all people, parallel to opposition to mixed marriages between people of different ethnicities.

This argument makes three assumptions that are, to my mind, dubious: first, that homosexuality is the same sort of thing as race or gender (perhaps because it's genetic). Second, that heterosexuals have a right that is being withheld from homosexuals. And third, that the traditional understanding of marriage as between men and women is arbitrary and can thus be changed. I've addressed the first assumption before, arguing that while race and gender are brute physical characteristics, homosexuality involves behavior, and behavior involves freedom. Of course, genes can certainly predispose us towards certain types of behavior, but they cannot predetermine us. If they could, it would lead to self-refutation. So to put homosexuality in the same class as race or gender is simply to make a category mistake.

The second assumption is also problematic. If I ask what right a heterosexual has with regards to marriage that a homosexual doesn't, the response is that the former can marry whoever he/she is in love with. But this is obviously false: there are limits to who someone can marry. You cannot legally marry a close relative or a minor, for example. So if someone were to fall in love with a close relative or a minor (there are many cases of both), then they would not have the right to marry that person in Western society, regardless of the gender(s) involved. The point being that we all have restrictions on who we can marry, and one of the restrictions for everyone is that the person you marry must be of the opposite gender.

This leads directly to the third assumption that defining marriage heterosexually is arbitrary. Of course, it is insufficient to say that the traditional understanding of marriage should be maintained merely because it is the traditional understanding. After all, traditions can be wrong. Traditions can be morally bankrupt. To simply say "that's how we've always done it" is not a good enough reason to keep doing it that way.

But there's a little more depth to it than this: it's not just a matter of our cultural tradition. Marriage is a trans-cultural phenomenon. Virtually all societies in human history have had marriage, and they've always defined it as between one man and one woman. There have been plenty of differences of course: some cultures allowed people to marry close relatives. Many only allowed marriage between members of the same ethnic group. In some, marriage was "arranged" so that people didn't have the right to choose the individual they married. Some have not viewed marriage as exclusive, and have allowed polygamy. (On this subject, I once told a friend of mine that the practice of polygamy proved that marriage hasn't always been defined as between one man and one woman. He corrected me: if a man marries a woman, that's one marriage; if he marries another, that's another marriage. His two spouses are not considered married to each other. So marriage would still be between one man and one woman, but people would be allowed to be in more than one marriage at a time.)

So while there have been differences in how societies and cultures have understood marriage to some extent, they have universally understood that, in principle, it is between one man and one woman. But these societies also had homosexuals in them, and this never led to gay marriage.

This should give us pause, for two reasons. First, if a concept has one universal aspect to it, to remove that aspect is essentially to empty the concept of meaning. If the one universal aspect of marriage throughout human history has been that it is between one man and one woman, then to remove that aspect is to simply void the concept of marriage altogether.

This is a big deal. If this analysis is correct, then allowing gay marriage would effectively nullify marriage. Bearing in mind that marriage has been one of the central pillars of society throughout human history, this could be disastrous. Moreover, if I may slip into libertarian mode, it would not merely be a case of the government changing social institutions at its whim, but of abolishing social institutions at its whim. I don't want government to have that kind of power.

The second reason this should give us pause is simple humility. If we can't understand why the entire history of humanity would define marriage heterosexually, we should stop to consider the possibility that we may not be seeing something that they did. Of course it's possible that they were all wrong and we're right, but that would be a pretty radical, frivolous, and self-righteous statement to make. I've never heard anyone make such a comment without doing it dismissively (which demonstrates that they're simply unwilling to think about the subject, and so aren't justified in having an opinion on it). At the very least, one who makes such a statement has to shoulder the burden of proof. Insofar as gay marriage contradicts the universal concept of marriage, it goes against the collective wisdom of the human race.

Now I think it's significant to point this out, but we must go on to ask why marriage should be defined as between one man and one woman. Sure, perhaps our social and cultural setting has blinded us to something that all other cultures saw; or perhaps it has given us a better perspective. The former is a much stronger possibility, since all cultures have thought that they had the perspective from which they could judge all others. We can't all be right. But it doesn't follow from this that we're all wrong either. So is there any logic as to why marriage has been universally defined as between one man and one woman?

Well, I think so. Marriage has always been about the perpetuation of the human race by means of the family. In principle, marriage is to take place between those elements which allow for the reproduction and nurturing of new people. In other words, marriage is about 1) creating new people 2) in a small close-knit community (the family). The purpose of part 1 is to bring new people into existence. The purpose of part 2 is to give them continued existence via a community of mutual love. This is partially so that they can start their own families and go through parts 1 and 2 themselves.

These two parts go together. Parents identify strongly with the children they produce, and so are usually going to be the ones most concerned for their welfare. (Note that this is not a statement of how things should be, but a statement of how things are.) Thus to separate these two aspects -- the reproduction of new people and their nurturing -- is simply unwise. This is how the human race has propagated itself for as long as its been around, and the only alternative I've ever heard of is Brave New World.

The problem this poses for gay marriage is that the first part -- the reproduction -- can only be done with one man and one woman. But gay marriage excludes the reproductive aspect of marriage in principle. Thus it separates the two aspects of marriage into different compartments.

The first objection to this that comes to my mind is that there are plenty of married couples who do not reproduce, either by choice or because one or both of them is sterile. But this objection is misguided: men and women (and only men and women) are capable of producing offspring. Marriage, in principle, involves the two elements by which the human race reproduces itself, namely, men and women. But it does not require that particular couples reproduce. For each married couple to be required to reproduce would essentially require people to prove themselves capable of producing offspring before allowing them to marry. This is absurdly unrealistic. Many couples have difficulty getting pregnant at first, but are able to after a while. So they would fail such a test, even though they would be capable of producing offspring. And as for people who choose not to have children, well, they may change their mind later. Again, the perpetuation of the human race requires men and women to reproduce, and the family is the best setting for this reproduction to take place in, but it does not depend upon particular couples reproducing.

An analogy to this is voting. Democracy does not require that a particular citizen vote, but that citizens in general vote. If I don't vote, either because I choose not to or because something prevents me from doing so (a butterfly ballot say), it doesn't invalidate the entire electoral process. Nor -- and this is an important point -- does it make me a second-class citizen because of it. But a democracy in which there is no possibility of voting, where voting is ruled out in principle, is simply not a democracy. It's a contradiction in terms.

The second objection that comes to my mind is that I'm focusing on the reproduction of the human race to the exclusion of the nurturing of the human race. But of course I'm not excluding nurturing at all: marriage involves both reproduction and the nurturing of those produced. By contrast, gay marriage does exclude one aspect of marriage, and it excludes it in principle.

There are plenty of organizations and ministries in favor of gay marriage which argue that the bonds which draw people into a loving community are hugely significant, that a family without love is a family in name only. I do not dispute this. But I don't think the concept of the family should be divorced from the concept of reproduction. No one loves a child more than a parent, and so no one is more disposed to pursue the child's best interests. (Again, this is not a statement of how things should be, but of how things are.) Not to mention the more basic fact that in order for people to be drawn into a loving community, they have to first exist; and in order for them to exist, you need a man and a woman to produce them.

Think of the analogy of a democracy again. Just as marriage is about 1) reproduction and 2) nurturing, a democracy is about 1) voting and 2) good citizenship. There will always be exceptions: some people won't vote, some won't be good citizens. But to redefine democracy so that voting has nothing to do with it and good citizenship is the only necessary aspect, isn't to change democracy; it is to abolish democracy.

But aren't there exceptions to this? Some parents abuse or abandon their children. Others give their children up for adoption, while still others adopt children they didn't produce themselves and include them in their family. Of course. If circumstances prevent a child from being nurtured, then he or she should be accepted into a family they were not born into. But we don't prefer that children be raised by people that had nothing to do with their production unless extreme circumstances demand it. It's only under such circumstances that nurturing is delegated to others. Again, parents identify strongly with their biological offspring, and so are strongly predisposed to look out for their offspring's best interests. At the very least we can say that they are more likely to be so disposed than anyone else. And so, biological parents will generally be those most likely to succeed in caring for and nurturing the children they produce. This is a general description of how things are, and the presence of occasional exceptions does not invalidate it.

Moreover, once the reproductive aspect and the nurturing aspect of marriage are separated, there is no reason why people should have any particular right to raise their own children. Gay marriage, by excluding one of these aspects in principle, puts them into separate categories that don't have anything to do with the other. It erects a barrier between them. Why should the man and woman who sired and birthed a child be the ones to nurture it as well? If there is no link between reproduction and nurturing, what right would they have to raise their child? What right would the child have to be raised by those most disposed towards its own welfare?

I realize that for many people these arguments will sound alarmist. They view gay marriage as simply an issue of allowing homosexuals to have the same rights as heterosexuals. Claiming that it strikes at the very heart of civilization, that it undercuts the only plausible way for the human race to propagate itself, and that it would remove any grounds for parental rights seems implausible, to put it mildly. To respond, I would simply return to a point raised above: our social and cultural setting can easily blind us to issues of great import. This is true for all of us, on both sides of this issue. We need to step back, take a deep breath, and look at it again with fresh eyes.


Doctor Logic said...


Your argument is based on several premises that really don't hold up.

Many marriages in the past were not one man / one woman. There was polygamy. That means it wasn't universal.

Also, you are attempting to infer the purpose of marriage from history. However, I think you come up with the wrong inference.

The inference should be that marriage is a socio-political contrivance that is used to dictate how partners protect what they value in the context of their relationship.

In the past, marriage wasn't about love. It was about property, influence, and inherited wealth. In the past, offspring translated into wealth and influence. Arranged marriages were considered quite acceptable. Marriages had political and economic purposes that were not about the well-being of the wife, but about the financial well-being of the husband.

For the most part, people don't care about survival of the human race as a whole. They care about survival of themselves or of their clan. The average Joe who reproduces doesn't do so for the sake of humanity. He does it because it's fun, and because it has social implications within his family and culture.

The function of marriage is political, and it always has been. Cultures invent marriage to control how resources move from one generation to the next, and to provide a formal way to claim partners as exclusive mates (a sort of property claim).

Of course, I don't think anyone wants to return to the day when women were chattel and marriage was an essentially economic transaction. However, marriage remains a formal way of claiming value associated with a pairing. The difference is that today, value is seen in other terms. Today, few people see marriage as the door to influence, power or land ownership. Today, value is in loving relationships and basic rights.

Today, a man marries because he wants to have confidence that his spouse will have access him, their offspring, and his resources should he die or become incapacitated. This sharing is what is of value to the participants. If there are no offspring, it really makes no difference.

The argument about reproduction is a convenient rationalization, as far as I can see. Just as in the voting example, if other people register to vote without the intent or ability to vote, how does that affect your vote? It doesn't.

Anonymous said...

Greetings, my old friend doctor logic (and Jim, too).

Your historical inference here completely misses the point of family and of societal structure. It makes it all a power game ("dictate how partners protect what they value").

This is myopic and terribly culture-bound, even as you try to lecture us on what cultures through history have done with marriage:

The average Joe who reproduces doesn't do so for the sake of humanity. He does it because it's fun, and because it has social implications within his family and culture.

That sounds a lot like the 21st century western world to me. To say marriage is "political, and it always has been," is terribly primitive and reductionistic.

And this is too is a sadly one-dimensional view:

Today, a man marries because he wants to have confidence that his spouse will have access him, their offspring, and his resources should he die or become incapacitated. This sharing is what is of value to the participants. If there are no offspring, it really makes no difference.

I married because of those reasons, and also because I knew there was a sacred dimension to marriage. (Funny how that never occurred to you as you wrote this.)

Doctor Logic said...

Hi Tom,

This is myopic and terribly culture-bound, even as you try to lecture us on what cultures through history have done with marriage.

It almost seems like you're saying that there's some ideal form of marriage to which all cultural examples have been crude approximations. :)

What's common to all marriage is that it protects property and access in a social system. For example, I would not agree to a social contract in which my spouse could be "accessed" by other people against her will, or in which I was not permitted to leave most of my property to my offspring. Hence, civil recognition of marriage.

Note that civil marriage does not restrict the rights of the married parties. They are not prevented from divorcing. They aren't even prohibited from engaging in consensual sex with third parties. Women are not legally forced to obey or submit to sex with their husbands.

Suppose that I were Catholic. Then for me, I would have my ceremony in a Catholic church, and I would signify to other Catholics and to God that I was agreeing to a more extensive covenant than specified in the civil contract (e.g., divorce is not allowed in the stronger Catholic covenant). How do these elective additions to the civil marriage contract affect others in greater society? Does my social contract with Catholics and God break down because Jews can divorce? Should protestants be forced to abide by the Catholic covenants, or Catholics by the Jewish covenants? Should atheists be forced to abide by Catholic covenants or vice versa?

Western society has decided (I'm pleased to say) that the function and personal meaning of marriage is determined by individuals according to their personal beliefs. I think we all accept that civil marriage exists to provide the married couple with certain rights and protections. It does not exist to impose the covenants or ideals of any group (e.g., protestants) on married couples who have other beliefs.

Besides, the protections derived from civil law would not really affect my covenant with God. Nor would they force my spouse to divorce. They would, however, prevent me from legally enforcing the marriage should my spouse desire a civil divorce. But if the relationship comes to that, it doesn't seem very Christian to force her to stay. Of course, the church can prevent the spouse from remarrying under Catholic terms, but it would seem like the spouse would be accepting that anyway.

Another example: I happen to think that the Catholic prohibition on divorce is a bad thing. But would it be appropriate for me to launch a campaign to disqualify Catholic marriages on the grounds that they don't agree with my own personal views of what a marriage covenant should consist of? I don't think that would be acceptable in a free society. I don't force my civil ideals onto others. I might petition others to change their minds, but denying them civil rights is like denying them full citizenship. Out of bounds.

Just to engage further in the exercise of trading roles... I think there are people on the progressive end of the spectrum who regard marriage negatively because they see it as some sort of exercise in the repression of women. They get this impression by a (literal) reading the vows of certain Christian marriage ceremonies which order wives to be subservient to husbands. I think it would be silly for couples who feel that Christian marriage is repressive to forgo the protections of civil marriage because they think the institution is tainted by the old Christian approach. The civil law (thanks to progress) doesn't give men more rights in a marriage than women. This is one reason why I don't buy the argument that Christian marriage is broken if gays can create their own marriages. If that were so, then I could not get a secular marriage because Christians can get marriages that differ from my ideals.

Jim S. said...

Gentlemen, thanks for the comments, and sorry for taking so long to respond.

Dr. Logic, I'm not convinced that "property, influence, and inherited wealth" is the essence of marriage. I think that's one of many reasons that people have historically entered into marriage covenants, but does not constitute a universal element (universal in the sense of being an aspect in every culture). Conversely, propagating the human race by having children of your own is universal. Of course people aren't usually thinking of propagating the human race when they marry -- much less when they're having sex. But having children is the common thread that unites all the various concepts of marriage that have existed throughout human history. That's why I say it is the essence of marriage, even though it may not be actualized in every instance of marriage.

Also, I did address polygamy in the post by pointing out that marriage is not always seen as exclusive; some cultures have allowed people to be in more than one marriage at a time. But if a man had two wives, it didn't mean (at least as far as I know) that his wives were considered married to each other. So marriage still was conceived as being between one man and one woman, it's just that you could be in more than one marriage at a time.

MCPlanck said...

But our society has banned polygamy. And apparently you are OK with that radical social experiment.

This throws your objection to the radical social experiment of allowing gays to marry into stark relief. Polygamy arguably has a much longer track record and certainly affects a larger percentage of the population. You let that one slide... why are you throwing on the brakes now?

That said, I find the argument that polygamy is a number of one-man one-woman marriages to be so disingenuous as to be insulting. Why don't you ask your wife what she thinks about the argument that you're not violating your marriage vows by acquiring a second spouse?