Gay Marriage: Yay or Nay?

In their book, What Is Marriage?, three Princeton philosophers make an argument in defense of the traditional conception of marriage, between one man and one woman. They argue their position on secular grounds, drawing on empirical evidence, and without expressing any hate, bigotry, or general ignorance. They actually come across as quite reasonable, and for this reason, defenders of gay marriage (who also believe that it’s important to have reasons for their beliefs) ought to examine the argument being made in this book and ask themselves: “Are my reasons for supporting gay marriage actually better than their reasons for opposing it?”

My automatic gut-reaction to people voicing anti-gay-marriage sentiment has always been the impression that the probable motivation of their beliefs is narrow-minded homophobia. The authors question such reactions and ask skeptical readers to think twice before making those kinds of damning judgments:

“We agree, of course, that it is within the state’s due powers to restrict invidious discrimination—racist, sexist, or otherwise—and that society may marginalize noxious views by marginalizing their champions. But it had better be right that these views are false and harmful. If they are not noxious but suppressed anyway, then it is society that hurts the common good, by curbing freedoms of speech, religion, and conscience for nothing more than ideological uniformity.”

Of course, there are no laws barring people from making arguments against gay marriage, merely social taboos, and then only in more left-leaning environments. But if liberals are correct to believe that preventing homosexuals from getting married is bigoted and tyrannical, then perhaps a little social alienation is not uncalled for.

Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George argue that preventing the state from legally recognizing gay couples as “married” is important for reasons that have nothing at all to do with gay people. Their concern is much larger than the private lives of homosexuals. Rather, they worry about the unintended consequences that such policies could have on the state of society as a whole.

They articulate two rival conceptions of marriage: (1) The conjugal view. This is the traditional view that marriage is “a union of will (by consent) and body (by sexual union); inherently ordered to procreation and thus the broad sharing of family life; and calling for permanent and exclusive commitment, whatever the spouses’ preferences.” (2) The “revisionist” view. This is the view endorsed by most defenders of same-sex marriage that marriage is “in essence, a loving emotional bond, one distinguished by its intensity—a bond that needn’t point beyond the partners, in which fidelity is ultimately subject to one’s own desires.”

The “revisionist” view may strike one as particularly loaded in its description (same-sex marriage supporters believe that fidelity isn’t important?), and the “conjugal” view might strike one as unnecessarily exclusive (why does procreation matter so much, and if it does, shouldn’t infertile couples be barred from marriage also?). The authors anticipate, and try to answer these objections (which are too extensive for this blog post).

In my opinion, their strongest argument is a cultural one, and they appeal to empirical studies to try to bolster their case. The argument essentially goes as follows: Pretty much every human society that has ever existed has come up with marriage as a basic social institution. Marriage has evolved naturally in all societies because it fulfills a basic social function. It provides society with citizens, children with parents and a stable environment to grow up in, and parents with sex, babies, and a special kind of relationship. This institution is the foundation for society, and any weakening of this institution will likewise harm society as a whole. “But if marriage is everywhere necessary, it is also everywhere costly and fragile. People therefore tend to require social pressures to get and stay married: a strong marriage culture.” Culture forms the beliefs and actions of ordinary people in society, so anything that affects that culture will in turn affect the way that ordinary people lead their lives. Because romantic love is transient, the authors worry that without a strong social institution pressuring people to stay together, the love will pass, the people will part, and the family will collapse—to the detriment of both the children and society. The authors claim that the state’s regulation of marriage helps form and keep families together by clearly and publicly defining what marriage is and thereby incentivizing people to lead their lives in a specific way. The state has an interest in encouraging marriage, and in specifying what that means:

“This in turn affects people’s beliefs, and therefore their expectations and choices, about their own prospective or actual marriages. The mutual influence of law and culture is confirmed by empirical evidence on the effects of no-fault divorce laws. But if easing the obstacles to divorce has had an effect, surely removing even the hassle and stigma of a legal divorce would. The state’s influence on marriage is extensive.”

So, because (1) laws shape beliefs, (2) beliefs shape behavior, and (3) beliefs and behavior affect human interests and human well-being, the state ought to tailor marriage laws in a very specific manner in order to foster the most socially productive beliefs and behaviors in its citizens. The authors argue that the traditional view is the most socially productive view because (and here they present their empirical studies) traditional marriages are (among other things) more likely to lead to children being raised in intact homes, and children raised in intact homes are more highly educated, emotionally healthy, more likely to themselves raise children in intact homes, and less likely to exhibit aggressive or criminal characteristics.

Furthermore, they argue that if the traditional concept of marriage were to be legally revised, this would ultimately change the culture for everyone, and they cite the claims of many same-sex marriage advocates to prove their point. This weakening of the concept of marriage would make traditional marriages (which serve more concrete state interests) more difficult to realize because people would become confused about what marriage really means—essentially, anything anyone wants it to mean, rather than what it ought to mean. As a consequence, people will think of marriage more and more as being fundamentally about emotions, and so the strength of marriage will gradually disappear to the societal detriment of couples and children:

“It might seem far-fetched to predict that two values as cherished as permanence and exclusivity would wane. But we all value them so strongly in part because our culture has embraced an ethic that supports them. As this ethic and related sentiments fade, so will support for these norms as objective standards rather than optional preferences.”

I don’t want to go too far into their other arguments, since this is after all, just a blog post. If you want more, I recommend you read the book. But the question should still be asked, “Could they be right?” I think that they could be, but I’m not persuaded that they are. One thing that concerns me about the authors’ argument is the moral certainty with which they make it. I am not a person who thinks that all moral beliefs are relative, but I do think that many moral beliefs are wrong, and allowing the state to use the law in order to shape people’s morality seems like it is only justified to the extent that it prevents people from acting violently to one another. The authors make a case that among other things, regulating the concept of marriage does prevent children in the long-run from becoming violent offenders, and would so be justified according to my last statement. But that’s not really what I mean. Insofar as their studies are true, that children raised in nontraditional families have more problems, I would tend to think that that is more a historical phenomenon that occurs in large part because non-traditional ways of life are still stigmatized in many areas (just as integrated schools initially gave students a worse education in the Brown-era). If and when new family structures become more integrated into the culture, I would hypothesize that the sexual-orientation of parents would have little to no impact on the children.  The idea of a government that claims it knows the best way of life for its citizens makes me nervous. Because if they’re wrong, then instead of statecraft as soulcraft, we get statecraft as straitjacket. But perhaps the fact that this “soulcraft” is in keeping with venerable institutions ought to make one more comfortable, not less, since those traditions have survived the test of time (until now, maybe).

However, I can see a counter-argument to my nervous sentiment that morality laws are oftentimes more tyrannical than benevolent. People’s beliefs and actions will be shaped by a culture no matter who makes the laws. And not all cultures are equal in terms of the quality of life they promote. For this reason, if one is justified in believing that one’s culture promotes a greater degree of flourishing than other alternatives, perhaps one might also be justified in trying to craft legislation to promote one kind of culture over another. Perhaps this is unavoidable.

Lastly, I didn’t find their argument about “organic bodily union” to be particularly persuasive (seems like gay people can achieve something markedly similar). But that may just be because I don’t totally understand how acts ordered to procreation are analogous to eating being ordered to digestion/bodily nourishment, or why that’s ethically important. Seems like a possible instance of the naturalistic fallacy. But I have a feeling that supporters of traditional marriage would feel like I’ve been fair to their argument up until right before this paragraph. Of course, it is the heterosexual conjugal-act that makes the relationship between husband and wife in traditional marriage distinctive compared to other relationships. And if one believes in the social consequences of the concept, then that element would have to be sanctified to a certain degree. But it seems false to imply that the act itself is somehow more meaningful than similar acts between same-sex couples.

At this point, I see the expansion of the concept of marriage to include same-sex couples as an inevitable, interesting, and just continuation of our democratic experiment. If the argument of the authors is not disingenuous, it sounds like they are most worried about the disintegration of norms that are promoted by traditional marriage such as “permanence and exclusivity” that lead to stable families. Despite their studies suggesting otherwise, I do not believe that long-lasting and exclusive relationships are impossible for homosexual couples to achieve (the authors would probably claim they’re just less likely)—so rather than refusing to leave a sinking ship, it seems that people who care about the norms that emerge from the traditional institution should try to promote those norms in the emerging institutions rather than fight a losing battle. The authors’ counterargument is that if they do so, then they will have no principled reasons to reject polyamorists from getting married in groups, and the conjugal view will eventually become dangerously diluted. Take away one brick, and the whole structure falls. The authors present a dichotomy between orthodox traditionalism and amoral hedonism. But isn’t there a middle ground?


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