Thanks to everyone for the suggestions concerning anti-same-sex marriage readings for my contemporary moral issues course. I was quite nervous about the topic, because I anticipated very strong feelings among the students, especially because we discussed it in the wake of the entirely unsurprising to me but shocking to many of them success of the anti-same-sex-and-civil-unions amendment in November. I emphasized at the beginning of the segment that I wanted the full space of reasons to be explored, and encouraged them to look for both anti- and pro- arguments, and reminded them that when someone argues for a claim in class they should be taken just to be exploring a reason, so there should be no presumption that they are committed to an undesirable conclusion. All to no avail. Not one student was willing to speak up against same-sex marriage, despite the fact that an anonymous survey revealed that 15% of them are strongly opposed. Interestingly, and in my view rather optimistically, conversations that I had with a number of pro-same-sex-marriage students coming from the Wisconsin heartland revealed that their views were completely at odds with those of their parents (well, their fathers) but not those of their fellow high school students, including those who remained in the towns from which these students came. Is there good survey data about the distribution of opposition to same-sex-marriage across age groups?
I used Margaret Somerville’s The Case Against Same-Sex Marriage, Lee Harris’s The Future of a Tradition, and Stanley Kurtz’s The End of Marriage in Scandinavia. And the truth is that the case against same-sex marriage seems pretty weak, unless someone can come up with some much better papers. Fortunately, I had some disagreements with Ralph Wedgewood’s excellent pro-same-sex-marriage paper which we also used. But the anti-papers are not very strong at all. I’ll focus mainly on the Somerville paper, then make a couple of comments about the others.
Somerville regards marriage as having a single justifying purpose: “Institutionalising the procreative relationship in order to govern the transmission of human life and to protect and promote the well-being of the family that results. It is not a recognition of the relationship for its own sake or for the sake of the partners to the marriage”. It can succeed in institutionalizing that relationship, she thinks, only because it symbolizes the reproductive potential between the partners. Furthermore she thinks we should establish a presumption that children have a valid claim to be raised by their own biological parents (because this is so vital for the serving of children’s basic interests – see David Velleman on Family History for an elaboration of this). While society should not invade personal freedom of parents, “it must not facilitate the creation of situations that are not in the best interests of the child”. This is the argument against allowing the use of reproductive technologies which result in children being raised by non-genetic forebears. (Adoption is fine, for Somerville and Velleman, because the children involved already lack the opportunity to be raised by their genetic forebears, but allowing anonymous donation of gametes is not).
So what does all this have to do with same-sex-marriage? Allowing same-sex marriage would undermine the ability of marriage to perform its institutionalizing role (because same sex marriage is inherently not procreative) and it would create pressure to allow same-sex couples to procreate, which would facilitate the birth of children who would not be raised by their biological parents. Against the obvious objection that this account counts against marriage among the elderly and infertile, Somerville responds that it would be unacceptably invasive to inspect people’s level of fertility. (Because she eschews appeal to religious premises she can’t appeal to the possibility of miracles, which is my favourite move on this one).
So what’s wrong? First, Somerville provides no argument at all that her preferred purpose is the defining, justificatory, purpose of marriage. I’m strongly sympathetic to the idea that we should promote marriage among people with children, because it is, on the whole, good for most children to have married parents. And I’d go further than Somerville seems to concerning the freedom of adults; once you have kids your freedom is quite properly curtailed for their sakes, and additional impediments to divorce, wisely designed, would not in my view infringe any fundamental liberty of adults. But the child-centered goal can be achieved while allowing other people who manifestly have no intention of having or ability to have children to marry. And most institutions serve several purposes. I’m also sympathetic to an adult-centered purpose of marriage—that, for example, it might facilitate the longevity of intimate sexual relationships in a way that helps people’s lives have some sort of unity, and fosters meaning. My sense, completely anecdotally, is that this support is precisely what many gay men who want to be married, want. I want a reason to pick out her purported purpose as the, single, justifying one.
She might respond that her purpose, though not the only legitimate purpose, is the primary and most important purpose of marriage, and that allowing people who manifestly eschew that purpose to marry will prevent it from fulfilling that purpose. She doesn’t directly make this, causal, claim, which could only be a conjecture at best. Knowing what we know about institutions there’s no reason to make that conjecture. There’s no real reason to suppose that the behavior of ultra-left opponents of marriage who participate in it to subvert it – think of Britney Spears – has any real impact on the institution itself. If the purpose of church-going is to worship God, that purpose survives in the face of the fact that within any congregation some number of people are know perfectly well by the rest to be attending for social rather than religious purposes, as long as those people do not overwhelm the congregation. More on this when we discuss Kurtz.
Finally, I think that she places too much weight on a single interest that children have – an interest in knowing their own genetic forebears. I agree that this is one interest, but in any upbringing some interests are going to be served well and others less well, and this is not the most important interest children have. So, for example, the interest in having a loving and attached relationship with one’s rearing parent is much more important, in my view, and should be a much more central focus of public policy than assuring that children have knowledge of or acquaintance with their forebears. Somerville clearly thinks that allowing same-sex marriage will increase the size of the lobby for allowing anonymous gamete donation, thus making something that she thinks is bad more likely to happen. If so, she may well be right. But there are other effects to consider. Normalization of same-sex marriage, especially if combined with measures to bring into closer alignment the barriers to adoption and to childbearing by assisted reproduction may increase the demand for adoptive children, which would be a good effect. Anyway, as someone pointed out on the original thread, if anonymous gamete donation is the problem, argue for its prohibition directly.
Onto Harris, whose piece is really worth reading for everything he says except what he says about same-sex marriage, at which point he enters a bizarre rant. He’s right that there’s a lot to be said for tradition that can’t be said if you think of tradition in the way that I think of moral principles; as claims that have to be justified from first principles and where the burden of proof is as much on the defender as on the opponent. Regarding traditions as recipes for living enables us to scrutinize them, not rationally, but reasonably. But then, suddenly, we get the claim that “The high solemnity of marriage has been trans-generationally wired into our visceral system” and then this:
The intelligentsia have no idea of the consequences that would ensue if middle America lost its simple faith in God and its equally simple trust in its fellow men. Their plain virtues and homespun beliefs are the bedrock of decency and integrity in our nation and in the world. These are the people who give their sons and daughters to defend the good and to defeat the evil. If in their eyes this clear and simple distinction is blurred through the dissemination of moral relativism and an aesthetic of ethical frivolity, where else will human decency find such willing and able defenders?
Even the most sophisticated of us have something to learn from the fundamentalism of middle America. For stripped of its quaint and antiquated ideological superstructure, there is a hard and solid kernel of wisdom embodied in the visceral code by which fundamentalists raise their children, and many of us, including many gay men like myself, are thankful to have been raised by parents who were so unshakably committed to the values of decency, and honesty, and integrity, and all those other homespun and corny principles. Reject the theology if you wish, but respect the ethical fundamentalism by which these people live: It is not a weakness of intellect, but a strength of character.
Middle Americans have increasingly tolerated the experiments in living of people like myself not out of stupidity, but out of the trustful magnanimity that is one of the great gifts of the Protestant ethos to our country and to the world. It is time for us all to begin tolerating back. The first step would be a rapid retreat from even the slightest whisper that marriage ever was or ever could be anything other than the shining example that most Americans still hold so sacred within their hearts, as they have every right to do. They have let us imagine the world as we wish; it is time we begin to let them imagine it as they wish.
Decency, honesty, and integrity are all jolly good things, and we need more of them, But middle-American fundamentalists do not have a monopoly on them, nor are they so incredibly intellectually defective that they are incapable of reflecting carefully on such questions as whether the marriage should be slightly adjusted to allow people of the same sex to marry one another. They’ve already made a much bigger adjustment (not necessarily for the better) in their attitude to marriage, which is that they have come to regard it as a conditional and temporary rather than an unconditional and permanent state. Sure, a change like same-sex marriage should not come from the intellectuals and the courts all at once. It should come as a result of democratically made decisions, after the political work of winning the hearts and minds of a substantial portion of the population as been done. Again, winning the hearts and minds of much of middle America cannot be done (probably) by in-your-face bumper sticker politics. Advocates of same-sex marriage should use careful argument, presentation of real examples, and would do well to follow Harris’s subsequent advice:
gay men and women want to create their own shining examples, they must do this themselves, by their own actions and by their own imagination. They must construct for themselves, out of their own unique perspective on the world, an ethos that can be admired both by future gay men and women and perhaps, eventually, by the rest of society.
And of course that is precisely what many are doing. But as they do so, they can explain why they want, and should have the right, to exactly the same benefits that heterosexual couples, however deviant and reprehensible their behaviour, enjoy; if middle Americans find that insulting and disruptive, well then they should take a quick refresher course in the great virtues of decency, honesty and integrity that characterize them.
Ok, on to Kurtz. Now, I should say that whatever the case for same-sex marriage it is only going to be a prima-facie case. Suppose that there were a good adult-centered justification for same-sex marriage (along the lines made in Macedo’s classic article, “Homosexuality and the Conservative Mind”) but it turned out that same-sex couples were, to put it bluntly, spectacularly bad at raising children, so bad that no child could be raised by them decently. That, I think, would put a big damper on the case for same-sex marriage, because a marriage without permission to raise children is not what people are fighting for, but people who can be shown to be really really bad at raising children shouldn’t be allowed to do it. I hasten to add that there is no evidence at all to this effect. Whereas child-centered interests in my view override adults’ interests in these cases, when the interests of different adults conflict things are less clear. But if, like me, you think marriage is a very valuable social institution which it is legitimate for the government to restrict people’s freedom of action somewhat in order to maintain then the claim of some right wingers that legalizing same-sex marriage will undermine marriage (in the senses of triggering a significantly higher rate of divorce or a lower rate of marriage or both) is worrying. Of course, it is not necessarily decisive. The gain to same-sex couples of being able to marry might outweigh the loss of, say, a minor drop in the successful marriage rate among heterosexuals. But if it had cataclysmic effects, that would count strongly against it. Kurtz claims to find such cataclysmic effects in Scandinavia. When I was told about the claims of this piece, and that they were empirically sound, I was unnerved (and surprised). But, it turns out that the claims are not empirically sound. Sure, there has been a decline in marriage in Sweden and in some other Scandinavian countries since the recognition of same-sex civil partnerships, but Kurtz offers not shred of evidence that same-sex civil partnerships are causally implicated, and even reveals that he knows that social scientists tend to attribute the decline to features of the welfare state which are unimaginable in the US. I don’t like to attribute bad motives, but this makes me suspect him of a certain amount of intellectual dishonesty, or at least of seeing the evidence through an ideological prism.
All in all, then, this is a request to philosophers who oppose same-sex marriage. Please write a really good paper opposing it so that I can teach the subject again in my contemporary moral issues course. Something as good as Don Marquis’s “Why Abortion is Immoral” would be ideal, but I’m not setting the bar that high. I don’t need to wait till it’s published – post it on the web, so I can use it, and drop me a line…..