Because of the highly sensitive nature of this issue, the highest levels of respectful communication between all parties who choose to comment is expected. No trolls will be allowed. This is a post for thoughtful, contemplative interaction, not shoot-from-the-hip polemics. Your comments are welcome - please allow extra time for my travel schedule this weekend.
One of my great fears is that we are reaching a place in American discourse where people who disagree with each other cannot even understand one another, much less truly reason with each other. My modest goal in this post is to offer an argument that same-sex marriage is not a good idea for public policy reasons. I will not be making this case on religious grounds. That isn’t because religion is unimportant to me. I am a Christian, and the central confession of my faith is that “Jesus is Lord.” That is a confession I cheerfully make, and very imperfectly follow. But the argument I will be laying out is not specific to Christianity, or to any religion. Indeed, this issue does not always follow cookie-cutter stereotypes. I have gay friends who oppose SSM because “marriage” is too conventional, and I have extremely conservative Christian friends who support SSM on libertarian political grounds. In my case, the argument I am going to make comes from millennia of philosophical reflection on the meaning of marriage itself.
In a matter of days the Supreme Court will hand down a ruling that may overturn the laws of 37 states that have defined marriage as between a man and a woman. While no one can know for certain how the Court will rule, it is clear that the tide of public opinion is shifting strongly in favor of legal recognition of same-sex marriage (hereafter SSM). And I think there are many reasons why. The notions of freedom and equality are central to the American experience. "Equality under the law" is a bedrock principle of justice. Further, there is a powerful emotional component to this groundswell of support. Many homosexuals have been subjected to vile forms of bullying and hatred (often in the guise of "Christianity"). And besides, we can all sympathize with the longing to be loved. As Will Smith said in his support of SSM, "If anybody can find someone to love them and to help them through this difficult thing that we call life, I support that in any shape or form." It's hard to argue with the Fresh Prince!
Except, as a matter of public policy, NOBODY believes that "marriage" should be legal between "anybody" in "any shape or form." At least, I have never met anyone who believes that there should be absolutely no legal restrictions regarding marriage. Most people I know believe that it is in the public interest to have laws that say things like, "You are too young to get married." Or, "You are too closely related to get married" (even in Kentucky!). Or, "You can only marry one person at a time."
And what I would like to argue in this post is that the same sort of public policy concerns provide strong reasons to oppose legal acceptance of SSM, and that there is no intellectually coherent way to argue for the legal acceptance of SSM without undermining all public policy interests in marriage law generally.
The key to this debate, as in all debates, is the definition of terms. And in this regard, the proponents of SSM have framed the argument very strategically in terms of "marriage equality." But while this phraseology is excellent from a rhetorical viewpoint, it simply begs the question. The entire debate hinges on just exactly what "marriage" is. No one opposes "marriage equality." Everyone believes that all marriages should be treated equally under the law. The real issue is, what is "marriage"? What is at issue here is not "marriage equality" but marriage redefinition.
I have on my desk the dictionary I have used since I was in junior high school (the 1981 Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary). Here is how it defines "marriage” – “the institution whereby men and women are joined in a special kind of social and legal dependence for the purpose of founding and maintaining a family.” Was "marriage" defined this way because the editors of the Webster's Dictionary were virulent homophobes? Bible-thumping bigots? Of course not. This is how marriage was defined in most parts of the world until 2001, when The Netherlands became the first nation in the modern era to grant legal recognition to SSM. Taking a look at the current, online version of the dictionary, the definition has been revised to include this: “(2) the state of being united to a person of the same sex in a relationship like that of a traditional marriage.”
So the issue is, how do we define “marriage”? Why was marriage traditionally understood to be between a man and woman? And on what basis has this definition been modified?
We can quickly dispel the notion that the traditional definition of marriage is simply the product of centuries of coercive power wielded by the Church. That simplistic understanding fails to account for the broad classical understanding of marriage as between a man and woman that can be found in such thinkers as Aristotle and the Stoics, centuries before Christianity began. Nor can this traditional definition be accounted for simply on the basis of cultural prejudice, since many of the ancient pagan thinkers who clearly defined marriage as between a man and woman wrote in periods that were otherwise very tolerant of same-sex relationships.
So where did this notion come from? Here is a very simplified presentation of how centuries of philosophical reflection have come to define marriage.
1. Men and women are different.
2. By virtue of this difference, men and women can reproduce. In the jargon of Aristotle, just as the eyes are ordered toward seeing, and the ears are ordered toward hearing, the reproductive organs are ordered toward reproduction.
3. And the reproductive system, unlike other natural bodily systems (respiratory, digestive, nervous), inherently requires two people to be a working unity. And not just any two people, but a man and a woman. It is naturally ordered by male/female sexual complementarity.
4. For human beings, though, reproduction is far more than simple procreation. Since humans are rational beings, having offspring involves providing for their rational as well as their physical well-being. It includes teaching and nurturing, and over a fairly long period of time.
5. Because men and women are different, they have unique gifts to contribute in the rearing of their children.
6. And because the civil government has a vested interest in the common good in the care of children by their parents, it is important for the state to regulate these relationships.
7. The same act that unites a man and woman to create the unity of reproduction does far more than that. It is intensely pleasurable, and stirs deep feelings of intimacy and closeness. It creates a profound unity of persons, joining the man and woman emotionally as well as physically. It is therefore also ordered toward creating a comprehensive union. So in addition to the reproductive aspect to male/female sexual complementarity, there is also a unitive aspect.
8. To be a comprehensive union - joining a man and woman in all facets of personality as well as physically - it must be mutual, exclusive, and permanent. It must be mutual because a comprehensive union is one in which both parties consent. It must be exclusive, or else the union is not truly comprehensive – a part of you belongs to someone other than the spouse. And it must be permanent, or else it is not a genuine union.
9. Taken together, these key points - male/female sexual complementarity; the naturally ordered direction of reproduction/child rearing; the long-term commitment required to raise children; the mutual, permanent, and exclusive nature of the comprehensive union – all of these factors point to the traditional concept of marriage.
What I have just done is summarize in a few key bullet points the work of many hundreds of years of reflection on these issues. Each contention rests on deeper metaphysical premises (such as the ideas of formal and final causes, act and potency, and moderate realism). But this trajectory of thought is at the heart of the concept of traditional marriage.
How could a proponent of SSM try to counter this argument? One approach might be to challenge the consistency of this rationale for marriage. If marriage is built on the premise of male/female sexual complementarity that is naturally ordered toward producing children, then wouldn’t that mean that couples who could not have children because of infertility or advanced age should not be allowed to marry? And the answer is no – for two reasons. First, the argument regarding what sexual complementarity is naturally ordered toward has to do with nature’s general purposes, not specific individual performance. The eye is generally ordered toward sight regardless of whether my particular eye is diseased with glaucoma and can no longer see. An infertile heterosexual couple is still naturally ordered toward reproduction by virtue of general male/female sexual complementarity, even if in their specific case they will not be able to have children. Second, while such a couple may not be able to have children, they can still enjoy the other naturally ordered purpose of male/female sexual complementarity – the comprehensive union.
But what about a heterosexual couple that is so old they can no longer even engage in sexual intercourse. By the traditional reasoning I outlined above, wouldn’t that mean that they should not be permitted to marry? Not at all. For centuries of common law, marriage has been understood to be consummated by intercourse. But because of personal privacy, the state has not intruded to ask whether the marriage was in fact consummated. Only in the case where one party no longer consented to the marriage could the issue be raised and the state then “annul” the marriage. So from a practical matter, such an aged couple’s marriage could not be subject to state interference. And from a traditional point of view, it would fall in line with the trajectory of male/female complementarity and the spirit of the comprehensive union, even if not the “letter of the [natural] law.”
But this hypothetical scenario raises a crucial point at the heart of what I believe is the incoherence of the legal recognition of SSM. Suppose John and Jeff are two gay elderly men, but are no longer sexually active, and would like to be married. Should they be able to?
I would imagine that advocates of SSM would say they of course should. But think this through – without the male/female sexual complementarity of the traditional view and its reproductive/unitive aspects, what is the basis of this version of marriage? Other than their consent, what is the basis of John and Jeff’s marriage? Maybe we could say they should be able to marry because they consent to marry and because they feel affection for each other. But how can the state possibly regulate something on the basis of “affection”? Since their marriage cannot be defined on traditional grounds, and since it is unfeasible to define it on the grounds of simply what they feel for each other, the only thing that is left as a legal basis for its recognition is consent. And if gay John and Jeff can be recognized as “married” on no other basis than mere consent, then why can’t straight John and Jeff, two old bachelor brothers who simply want the economic benefits of “marriage”?
Further, if marriage is no longer to be defined in terms of the natural ordering implied by male/female sexual complementarity, then on what principled basis should it be limited to couples of the same sex? Why not throuples? Why not any number of consenting adults?
So here is my question for those who support legal acceptance of SSM: on what principled basis can you define “marriage”? It is difficult to see how the logic of SSM leads to any conclusion other than that marriage is nothing more than contract law. And if it is contract law, then – just as in the case of any other contract – any number of people for any number of reasons can enter into a “marriage.” And if “marriage” can mean anything, it means nothing.
Don’t misunderstand. I am not accusing all of those in favor of SSM of intending to dissolve the very concept of marriage itself (though some revisionists intend exactly that). But what I am suggesting is that the logic undergirding SSM does threaten the concept of “marriage.” And what I am asking my friends who support legalization of SSM to demonstrate is how they can coherently define marriage without allowing for throuples, "monagamish" unions, and non-sexual domestic partnerships.
If “marriage” cannot be coherently defined apart from its traditional moorings in male/female sexual complementarity, then it is not discriminatory to say that a man cannot legally marry a man, or that a woman cannot marry a woman. Nor does it redound against their dignity or humanity. A mother and son cannot attend a father/daughter dance because that event is – by definition – not one for which they are eligible. That is not discrimination, and it doesn’t mean they are inferior to the father and daughter. It just means that the very definition of the event precludes their participation. And by the same token, if a man or woman chooses not to enter into the event defined as “marriage” in the way I have argued, then it is not discrimination. It is their choice.
This doesn’t mean I am unsympathetic to the real concerns many people in same-sex relationships have regarding issues like tax and inheritance laws, hospital visitation, and end-of-life care. The same sort of “natural law” reasoning I employed to argue against the redefinition of marriage also strongly points toward the right to personal property. And I believe laws should be made such that individuals can handle these matters in a way consistent with this fundamental right. But that would be true for all people, whether straight or gay. This is a matter of human rights. But those concerns do not justify the redefinition of marriage itself.
Several years ago, Wendy’s had a commercial touting their chicken sandwiches by contrasting them with the weird looking “chicken” sandwiches of their competitors. Wendy’s made theirs from real chicken breasts, but everyone else just used mashed up chicken parts wedged into a form. And in the ads, Wendy’s portrayed their competition as justifying these weird looking sandwiches like this: “Parts is parts!”
The current debate over SSM is really a reflection of a much deeper philosophical issue. Does nature have order that we can rationally observe, or is nature simply the random collection of parts? If “parts is parts,” then there is no natural ordering, and people can be seen to be as interchangeable as the parts of a machine, and “marriage” can be any combination of parts we want it to be.
But this "parts is parts!" outlook doesn’t reflect what I think most of us find to be common sense. Consider this statement by an American politician: “We’re going to support efforts to build healthy relationships between parents as well -- because we know that children benefit not just from loving mothers and loving fathers, but from strong and loving marriages as well.”
Who do you think said this? Ben Carson? Ted Cruz? The answer is President Obama, on Father’s Day five years ago. Since then the President has made clear his change of heart in support of SSM, but in this Father's Day address he summarized as ably as anyone the case for traditional marriage, the union of a man and woman ordered toward raising children.
And that brings me to my last point. I have written this article on Father’s Day weekend. By definition, a “father” is a male parent, and a “mother” is the “female” parent. The traditional understanding of marriage places great value on both mothers and fathers. This is especially important in our society when so many social pathologies can be traced to the problem of fatherlessness (and I say this as someone born to an unwed mother). All things being equal, I agree with President Obama that children benefit “from loving mothers and fathers.” But the legal acceptance of SSM means that if there is no “husband and wife” there is also no “mother and father.” There are simply spousal units and parental units. “Parts is parts!” But I strongly disagree with this concept. I believe fathers and mothers are very important as fathers and mothers, that each has unique gifts to bring to children, and that as the President said just five years ago, strong marriages are the best environment in which children should be raised. This was President Obama's unintended argument against SSM.
If you have actually managed to stay awake through this entire essay, I am amazed! And if you disagree with me and yet gave me the courtesy of such extended time and attention as to read my thoughts all the way through, I really appreciate it. And whether you are straight or gay, or whether you agree with me or think I am a hopelessly misguided, the same fundamental premises that lead me to oppose SSM also lead me to love and respect all human beings.
(Many of my thoughts in this article were inspired by What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense)
(Many of my thoughts in this article were inspired by What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense)