Conservatives and Gay Marriage

by Harry on February 3, 2004

I just came across the following interesting quote from Harvey Mansfield:

bq. Procreation is considered to be part of a perfect or complete human life

He is quoted in the course of Stephen Macedo’s absolute blinder of an essay, “Homosexuality and the Conservative Mind” (Georgetown Law Journal, 1995, no internet access, I’m afraid). Although Mansfield distances himself from the view (‘is considered to be’), its fair to assume that he is committing himself to it, given that he is using it to oppose homosexuality in general and gay marriage in particular. Macedo deals well — no, brilliantly — with Mansfield and his ilk, but part of the brilliance of his essay is that he concedes so much to the conservatives, yet still comes up with homosexuality defended as morally innocent, and homosexual marriage defended as a positive good. So part of his strategy is to concede the vital importance of procreation to human flourishing.

An alternative strategy, common among liberals, would be to deny the relevance of the claim to formulating policy.

What business is it of the state to make assumptions about what makes for a complete and perfect human life? The state should, according to this view, remain neutral about what constitutes the good life; so should not comment on the value or otherwise of procreation (with the qualification that it may provide incentives for procreation insofar as children constitute a public good that would otherwise be undersupplied).

Neither strategy appeals to me. Rather to my surprise, reflecting on issues about the family has made me think that the state should make some, limited, assumptions about what constitutes a flourishing human life, and that conservatives are right to assert the value of one aspect of procreation, even if they do so in entirely the wrong way. Neither Macedo nor Mansfield distinguish between child bearing and child-rearing. I assume that procreation is supposed to include both. Think first about childbearing. This is just obviously not necessary for a perfect or complete human life: no (biological) men can do it, so if it is possible for a man to live a perfect life, childbearing is not necessary for it. If no man can live a perfect human life anyway, then the impossibility of childrearing is irrelevant to the case against (male) homosexuality and homosexual marriage.

But, child-rearing is different: I think it is a necessary part of a fully flourishing life for many, if not most, human beings. But child-rearing can be done by homosexual couples, if society allows it. So, there’s no problem with homosexuality on this front. Mansfield might dispute this, by saying that it is vital for the parent to have a biological connection to the child reared. But, this just seems wrong: the lives of adoptive parents are no less perfect than those of natural parents by virtue of their children being adopted. So even if gay parents could not have genetically connected children (which they can) their lives would be no less perfect as long as society would allow them to adopt. (An aside: Jennifer Roback Morse’s intemperate rant against gay marriage got a lot of play in the blogosphere in December; but her sensitive, if odd and uncomfortably self-revealing, follow-up essay about adoptive parenting got less play than it should have.)

Finally, note Mansfield’s neglect of the fact of human diversity. Sure, many, probably most, and possibly almost all human beings need to raise children to flourish fully. But not all. Some people will live fuller and better lives without rearing children than with. If I dare say it, rearing children is like sex, in one respect. Some people really, really, have no inclination to do it, and will flourish as well or better without it than with it. Their lives, at least, will not be made more perfect by rearing children. Even if we thought, as seems utterly implausible to me, that there was some particular way of life that could be designated the most perfect, why should that fact have any bearing on how we treat people who are constitutionally incapable of achieving that perfection? (Just to emphasize I am not conceding the premis, and even if I did concede the premis, I’ve denied that homosexuality has any bearing on that putative constitutional imperfection). Conservatives are right to emphasize the importance of childrearing for the flourishing of the parent. They are wrong to assume that anything follows from this about the moral quality of homosexuality or the morality of gay marriage; and they are also myopic in their failure to see that the diversity of human constitutions means that what contributes to the flourishing of many or most people does not thereby contribute to the flourishing of all.



Scott Martens 02.03.04 at 4:13 pm

I might take an alternative approach: if child-bearing is so important to those opposed to gay marriage, would they support expanded parental leave laws and “natalist” policies like those of many European countries that offer cash directly to parents? If the answer is no, then how do they feel the state should encourage child-bearing?

Or another track: If gay marriage is wrong because it does not lead to biological child-bearing without external intervention, then should the state forbid infertile people from marrying? Should infertility be legal grounds for divorce?

I can see grounds for saying that the state should support procreation as a public and necessary good. I agree that there can certainly be a liberal position consistent with such a statementHowever, unless the state is to refuse any sort of marriage that does not lead to unassisted child-bearing, I fail to see the connection to gay rights.


zizka 02.03.04 at 4:23 pm

Catholics and Buddhists, of course think that procreation excludes you from “a perfect or complete human life”. It’s better to marry than to burn; not everyone’s karma lets them be a monk.

I don’t know what the name for the logical fallacy is, but “What if everyone does it?” is not a valid objection when most people aren’t doing something because they don’t want to. No harm is done if 2% — %5 of the population fails to procreate. Probably good, though the cornucopians don’t see it that way.

It seems that the “what if everyone did that” argument is valid and useful in limited circumstances: if a.) all will be better off if they themselves do something, b.) there’s no obvious injury if one person does it once, but c.) everyone is worse off if everyone routinely does that thing. (E.G. walking on the grass in heavily-travelled public parks.) In other words, it covers cheating and free-riding when everyone is playing the same game.

And then of course, when gay men or women DO have children it’s regarded as even worse, whereas celibate childless men and women are often sneered at but not blamed.

A friend of mine in sociology says that if something’s an institution, it means that you don’t have to give reasons for it. If something’s an institution, it’s also true that the reasons given when it’s challenged tend to be a mass of mutually-contradictory and senseless ad hocs. (The institution in play here is not marriage, but homophobia).


zizka 02.03.04 at 4:29 pm

I remember reading Foucault or someone asserting that the strongly-natalist policies of the Catholic Church can be explained by the French and German nations’ need to breed cannon fodder during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I don’t remember seeing documentation of the connection, though the French and German governments’ natalist policies (and their motivation) are, as I understand, a known fact.


Jeremy Osner 02.03.04 at 4:29 pm

Should infertility be legal grounds for divorce?

I believe it either is or was until recently — and indeed my understanding of divorce in the Anglo-American tradition is that divorce was inaugurated when King Henry (?) split away from the Roman Catholic church, because he was not allowed an anullment on the grounds of his wife’s infertility.

Looking at this paragraph I expect it contains at least 3 partial or complete inaccuracies. I am not a lawyer or a historian…


Scott Martens 02.03.04 at 5:01 pm

Jeremy, I’m not a historian either, as I have demonstrated a few times lately, but IIRC, Henry 8 got rid of wives not because they were infertile, but because they kept bringing him little girls, so he assumed it was their fault.


Nate 02.03.04 at 5:18 pm

Mansfield would probably disagree with you that the state does not have an interest in the promotion of the complete and perfect human life. My guess is that that’s exactly what he thinks the state should do. And my guess is that he’s not concerned with “human diversity,” less from intended malice and more from the idea that diversity is not one of the things needed for that full and complete life. (These are just my suppositions about what Harvery would say.)

Henry VIII didn’t actually split because of the divorce question. That’s the proximate but not really the structural answer. I wrote about this recently: “Just as Henry VIII and the clergymen of the 16th century resisted the pope, less because of the king’s desired divorce and more because they did not want to conform the Eucharist to Roman edict and they wanted the freedom to choose their own bishops (bet you thought it was just about the divorce, right? I used to… It’s a common myth), modern Anglicans often try to resist the desire for hierarchical control, even as they sometimes seek to observe it….”
Here’s the full entry.


harry 02.03.04 at 5:50 pm


I ddin’t say that the state has no interest in promoting a complete and human life — I said that was a comon liberal response, one that I am surprised to find myself rejecting. And rearing children (but not bearing them) turns out to be something that most humans do need in order to have a flourishing (my take on ‘complete and perfect’) life. This is one of the several good justifications for the kind of family policy scott martens points to in his response; and the liberal who takes up the (rejected) strategy I mentioned does not have this justification avaiable for those policies.

The point about diversity is this: not that people need it (I don’t know what that would mean) but that they exhibit it; viz, different people are differently consituted such that what is good for some is not necessarily good for others. Conservatives commonly neglect the fact of diversity, or at best fail to notice its extent.

These aren’t things that can simply be asserted — they need arguments, which is one of the things I find so frustrating about many conservative commentators on this issue — they don’t feel any obligation to engage in actual justification of their manifestly controversial premisses. (I know, lots of liberals do the same, but I can develop my own arguments on the liberal side, whereas I want conservatives to make their case so I can engage with it rather than having to make it up for myself. Lazy).


Jeremy Osner 02.03.04 at 6:08 pm

D’oh! Step up to the plate again, get knocked down again. As penance for my impertinance, I hereby sentence myself to repeated listenings to Herman’s Hermits. 3rd verse, same as the first…


Dave 02.03.04 at 7:54 pm

The more I read arguments for gay marriage, the stranger they become. Gay marriage is not a matter of sexual equality. When a casual relationship is formalized by marriage, the state has an interest in its outcome. It therefore regulates who may, and who may not marry. As we all know, you may not marry your mother, your father, your sisters, your brothers, your grandparents, your grandchildren, nor your cousins. Marriage between males & females produces outcomes (eg, children) which means responsibilities, not only for the parents but for the state as well. Marriage is not about who you like nor why you like them (that’s a private matter between the individuals & families involved). Marriage exists to regulate the outcome of cohabiting males & females, eg, the production of children. If there can be no outcome because both partners are of the same sex, then it cannot be called marriage & the state has no proper interest in the matter. So far as I can tell, gay marriage brings with it the absurd prospect that two male cousins may legally wed, while two cousins of opposite gender may not. (If there are specific proposals as to who gays can and cannot properly wed, I’d like to hear them, and the reasons for them.) Religion holds a more restrictive view & for reasons (largely unstated & not well-known) that no one really wants to mess with. It’s an entirely separate matter.
But there’s more than mere biology at stake here. A married male & female may or may not produce children. That’s something not even they will know before a number of years have passed. But, knowing or not, they put their lives & their bodies on the line by their ongoing relationship, “married” or not. Women still risk death in childbirth, even in America. The commitment to see the little brats raised does, in fact, “trap” many fathers in marriages they would rather abandon – to say nothing of trapping mothers. (Divorce, alimony & visitation rights are rarely much of a “solution”.) These conditions do not apply to gay marriages, unless one or other party bring children from previous relationships. Do gays imagine “marriage” is about orgasms or mere commmitment? If it’s a playtime, minor league relationship that gays want, they’re certainly entitled to it. If they have chosen not to take a place in the major leagues of child production, it was their choice, after all. Nothing can be more insulting to a husband, wife & children than gay couples claiming “equality” in marriage where they, by definition, risk nothing by so doing.
But the gay desire for some sort of socially recognized union should not be ignored, even if those unions will largely be confined to major cities, and that for long-standing demographic reasons. When I look at the statutes, I can find no reason for changes in the marriage laws. If gays want a state-sponsored partnership, they may incorporate. Changes in corporate law to permit any two interested persons to form a living partnership will do far less damage, both legally and socially, than changes to the marriage code, or so I believe. (If gay couples also want a fancy ceremony in front of a willing minister, that’s entirely up to them.) If they subsequently want to adopt children, they, as a corporate entity, may start an orphanage. Now, does this make me out to be a raving homophobe? Yes? Well, shucks. It’s just my stab at raising the intellectual level of the debate. Not that I imagine I will.


harry 02.03.04 at 8:19 pm

OK, Dave, I appreciate the work you’ve put in. I’ve seen similar arguments, and they puzzle me in several ways. First (and I don’t expect you to agree, but here goes) they make me wonder why *marriage* anyway? What real interest does the state have in marriage in the first place. All the things you mention seem to me to be completely achievable through contract law — no need for marriage. I know, I know, we have marriage to do it, so a moderate conservatism says: ‘since you’ve got it, use it’. But that’s not a principled defence. (I don’t want to give too much away, as I intend to blog on this in a few days, and I’ll be upfront that I think I can come up with a defence of marriage).

Second, as Macedo insists (you should read his piece) you criterion does not deal with a wide range of marriages. Post-menopausal women, and people who know they are infertile, and people who have no intention of having children, all have marriage available to them. Do married couples who intend or expect to have children resent them for claiming marriage in the name of ‘equality’? If not, what is their resentment of gays claiming marriage in the name of equality is motivated by?

You say that *If there can be no outcome because both partners are of the same sex, then it cannot be called marriage*. If so, that decides it by definition. But of course, it can be called marriage. IS it just the word ‘marriage’ you object to? If so, lets call gay marriage “marriage1”, and make the contract in every other way identical to marriage. I’m sure gays would go for that.

The issue about cousins etc seems weak to me — I don’t see why gays and lesbians shouldn’t be subject to the same restrictions as heterosexuals, even though this would limit their range of prospective partners simply in the name of equality, and not because there was any thrid party-related reason for the restriction (as there is in the case of heterosexuals).

Finally, if children are the key, would you be happy to allow gays who either already have children or intend to have them (through adoption, or, in the case of women, through artifical insemination or whatever) to get married? If not, why not?


Sigivald 02.03.04 at 8:42 pm

Dave said: “So far as I can tell, gay marriage brings with it the absurd prospect that two male cousins may legally wed, while two cousins of opposite gender may not”

Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t see what’s absurd about that.

If the point of the prohibition is to prevent inbreeding, then obviously it doesn’t apply to unions wher inbreeding is impossible, and there’s no absurdity.

If there’s some other point to the prohibition, I can’t imagine what it is, and that would tend to make the entire prohibition absurd, not its exclusion from gay marriages.

When you say “Marriage exists to regulate the outcome of cohabiting males & females, eg, the production of children.”, I’m not sure I agree, exactly. Certainly marriage has that function, but is that really the sole reason it exists? (Children, that is. What other “outcomes” are there to regulate?) Certainly marriages exist where having children is not only not going to happen, but is known from before the marriage to be off the table, as it were; it thus seems obvious that marriage cannot stricly be solely about children, or its formulation would preclude pairings of the very old or the known infertile. (Plus neither the state paperwork nor the common religious ceremonies bring up children, to my knowledge.)

My position is increasingly that the State should stay out of marriage entirely, and if gay people want to get married, more power to them; they can find any religious or secular “marriage provider” they want to provide a marriage for them, just like non-gays. Solves a lot of problems and shrinks government, all at once.

(Most if not all the legal benefits of marriage could be provided by contract, if that worries anyone.)


Redshift 02.03.04 at 9:23 pm

I hate to break it to you, Dave, but it’s not marriage that produces children, it’s sex. :-) If only marriage produced children, we wouldn’t have all this discussion of unwed mothers.

The reason why legal marriage is concerned with children (which I agree is a significant part of the purpose of marriage) is originally because of inheritance, and more recently because of the state interest in the rearing and treatment of children. Neither of these concerns requires that the children be the biological children of the married couple, as shown by the fact that the law makes no distinction between adopted children and those born to the couple (except that it is possible to have prior children that have not been adopted by the new spouse.)

Marriage law also concerns inheritance between spouses, joint ownership of property, and legal decision-making for an impaired spouse. I would say that it exists because it is in the interest of the state to have standard rules for these common situations, rather than having contracts litigated for them. These concerns apply equally to gay couples.

Yes, all of these areas could be covered by contract law, since marriage is fundamentally derived from contract law, but many of these concerns are administered by people (such as hospital personnel) who are not accustomed to dealing with contract law. Is there any good reason not to apply existing law to gay couples in highly similar situations solely because of a distinction (unable to have biological children) that is well within the range of behavior for married heterosexual couples?


Thomas 02.03.04 at 11:36 pm

Why is it obvious that the perfect life is the same for a man as for a woman? (That is, why would the fact that a man can’t bear a child automatically lead to the conclusion that child bearing isn’t part of a perfect life for a woman?)

Can’t someone recognize the worth and meaningfulness of adoptive relationships while still holding biological relationships as part of a perfect life? (Perhaps by arguing that it’d be best for everyone to biologically reproduce, and for those biologically related children to be reared by the biological parents, while also recognizing that for a variety of reasons (death, economic pressures, abuse), this isn’t that world.)

And can’t one recognize that not everyone is meant for the perfection of parenthood, without conceding that any alternative is equally worthy, from the moral point of view?


Brett 02.04.04 at 2:40 am

Dave: In most states today, cousins can marry. More interestingly still for your gay cousins argument, in two states (Arizona and Wisconsin), cousins can marry only if one or both of them is old enough (the exact details vary in the two states) or if one of them is infertile. Thus, in those states cousins are indeed allowed to marry precisely because they cannot procreate. These laws are utterly senseless if your theory of marriage is correct.


harry 02.04.04 at 3:34 am

Thanks Thomas, that gives me more food for thought. Here’s my off-the-cuff response:

1) Right, what is perfect for a woman may be different from what is perfect for a man. But once we take that tack we have to ask why what is perfect for anyone has to be perfect for everyone else of that sex. What is perfect needs to be argued for. I suspect that some women’s lives are not perfected by child-rearing; and some men’s lives are. I find it incredible that anyone’s life is perfected by child-bearing, but I do understand that my proxy experience of it has been unusual.

2) Sure you could ‘recognize the worth and meaningfulness of adoptive relationships while still holding biological relationships as part of a perfect life’. But *why* would you hold the latter view? Some people flourish enormously in biological relationships, others do very badly in them; some adoptive relationships are excellent, some lousy. Why think that something external to the relationship, that has nothing to do with its quality, or the quality of will and character of the people involved in it has a bearing on its perfection?

3) Again, you could ‘can’t one recognize that not everyone is meant for the perfection of parenthood, without conceding that any alternative is equally worthy, from the moral point of view’. And I would never say that *any* alternative is equally worthy. What I might say is that *some* alternatives are. And that’s enough, no? But the deeper question is this: suppose that *only* a life of biological parenthood is perfect; why should we reserve marriage for only those lives that contain perfection? Why not extend it to those lives which cannot contain perfection but are just as likely as those lives which can contain perfection to contain other things of great (but imperfect) value? Like adoptive parenthood, deep long-term commitments, fidelity, etc.


Dave 02.04.04 at 4:25 am

Hello Harry,
You say, “What real interest does the state have in marriage in the first place. All the things you mention seem to me to be completely achievable through contract law — no need for marriage.”

The state has to deal with the outcome of marriage, just as it has to deal with the outcome of everything else people do. I am talking about marriage as essentially contract law. The origins of contractual marriage & the concept of the state itself are both lost in the mists of time, I doubt they will ever be separate. Marriage as a sacrament – in the Catholic sense – is an entirely different affair, one in which gays do not fare very well at all, sorry to say.

You write, “Second, as Macedo insists (you should read his piece) you criterion does not deal with a wide range of marriages.”

This is true, but neither does the modern state. Marriage between spinsters, without possibility of issue (eg, children), while sanctioned, is largely ignored. We see this in divorce courts. Where there are no children, divorce is merely about dividing property.

You write, “people who have no intention of having children, all have marriage available to them.” I myself turn 52 next week. I have a 3 year old daughter. I never thought that would happen. (I am happy it finally did.) The best birth control can & does fail. Die-hard celebates fall by the wayside. Do married couples with children look at married couples without them differently? I think you’d have to ask them, but my guess would be, yes they do.

Can we call any committed relationship between two (or more?) people, “marriage”. Strictly speaking, no. Marriage is a magical act. Children are the magical outcome (this is where religion comes in & one of the reasons it exists). Here is a piece of zinc. Here is a piece of lead. Put lead (male) with zinc (female) and you get electricity. The production of this electric current is marriage, eg, children, not the mere fact that lead & zinc are touching each other. The term for a lead/zinc combination that produces no electricity is a dead battery. Which, when it happens to humans who desire otherwise, is unfortunate. Of course, one may casually describe any longstanding intimate relationship as a marriage of one sort or another, even if it be lead to lead, or zinc to zinc.

As for cousins, why should gays, who are trying to redefine marriage to include them, accept heterosexual restrictions? Why shouldn’t a gay male be permitted to marry his gay male cousin? What possible damage could be done thereby? Or a brother marry a brother? In searching for an answer I hit on the idea of simply letting people incorporate as life partners. Incorporation would remove the marriage restrictions altogether. Father with son, mother with daughter, my wife to her husband, whatever. Terms of the relationship are part of the incorporation papers, no big deal. Dissolution merely a matter of filing papers. Of course, if my wife is going to incorporate with her husband, I’d be darn sure they both had adequate sexual outlets aside from each other!

And it’s not that children are the key, but the ability to create new ones that makes heterosexual relationships powerfully & fundamentally different from homosexual ones. If the state wishes to grant adoption to two people in some sort of formalized relationship, that’s the state’s right. A corporate relationship between two people could be the necessary formality, the equal of a marriage, but when a corporation adopts, its end result, it seems to me, is the same as an orphanage. That a two person corporate orphanage may not have an interest in placing their children would seem to be their private internal affair, eg, this “orphanage” might function, essentially, as a parental unit.

To Sigivald: “When you say ‘Marriage exists to regulate the outcome of cohabiting males & females, eg, the production of children.’, I’m not sure I agree, exactly. Certainly marriage has that function, but is that really the sole reason it exists?”

So far as the state is concerned, the answer is yes. Gays are seeking a state sanction. My point is that relationships between people who cannot, at any age & under any conditions, produce new births, fails to arouse genuine interest of the state. Other outcomes, such as property transfer, can be handled by deed or contract & often are. As far as a prenup between husband & wife prohibiting children, it’s a brave thought, but cannot be guaranteed in the hurly-burly that is married life. The state hedges its bets: Males & females of suitable age produce babies, which are of interest to the state, etc.

As for the state staying out of marriage, no chance. There are legitimate births, there are bastard births, the relationship of the parents to the state determines which. There are a great many places, including here in the US, where these distinctions are still important, and not only to probate courts. (Hello Redshift.)

And as for legal benefits, one of the social arguments against gay marriage, which I mentioned in my first post, is that the energies gays can put into a marriage are dwarfed by the energies that straights can put into it, which tends to produce unequal results. Putting these two very different forms of marriage on an equal footing may seem bizarre, especially to those males & females with children.

To Redshift: I agree there are problems with hospital staff & a dying partner. I don’t think the answer is a contentious marriage which brings up unrelated lifestyle issues, thereby distracting good medical care. What the relationship may be between the two people, the one on his deathbed, the other his survivor, is none of the hospital’s business. The presentation of a straightforward contract (such as a living will) is a much better solution. This, by the way, is not a problem unique to gay partnerships. There are many unhappy stories of relatives fighting among themselves as to who should control the patient. Should gays be automatically admitted to have rights at the deathbed anyway? Regrettably no. There may be unknown people who have rights (a long forgotten spouse or child, for example) whose existence, like it or not, may superceed the gay union, and may do so, even if the gay union is sanctioned by the state. This is, again, because male/female unions tend to produce results (children) and consequences in time that gay marriages cannot.

And for Thomas, bringing me back to the original thread of this discussion, the mythic perfect life:

To me, perfect is what is appropriate to the individual in his or her unique life. There are few other rules. Men may feel that women are the devil’s own temptresses, but women may just as rightly feel that it’s they who must do the lion’s share of continuing the species. Without which there would be no one to contemplate his – or her – navel in this regard. The essence, to me, is to do what we do with conviction & the belief that it is right that we do it & that we accept the consequences gladly. Adoption, generally speaking, is salvage work. Those who do it, and do it well, are noble & blessed.


Thomas 02.04.04 at 5:53 am

Harry, in response:

1. I agree that there may be multiple paths to a perfect life. I am married to a woman who has loved bearing children as much as we love rearing them, so my (limited and happy) experience of the bearing of children makes me find it entirely credible that it could be necessary to (one kind of) a perfect life.
2. I don’t think that the biological relationship of the individuals is external to the description of their relationship. Certainly that’s open to debate. But biological facts are, in this context, at least often thought to have moral significance. We do think, don’t we, that biological parents owe duties to their children, simply by fact of biological relationship?
3. Agreed that those are the right questions. I don’t think that resolves the issue in this case–the question is always also, are people more likely to live lives of perfection is x is the policy, or if y is, and that weighs in the balance. (How similar is a world which doesn’t recognize gay marriage to a world which doesn’t recognize adoption?)


Richard 02.04.04 at 7:03 am

We do think, don’t we, that biological parents owe duties to their children, simply by fact of biological relationship?

No, there’s more to it than that. If a mad scientist stole my gametes (can’t you just imagine it? “Hoy! you! come back here with my gametes!” heh) and those of some woman, merged the two into a zygote, then raised it in an artificial womb… I would be the biological father of the resultant child.

Surely nobody thinks I have any “duty” to said child in such a scenario though?

Furthermore, I believe adoptive parents have an equal responsibility (to their adopted children) as normal parents.


Dave 02.04.04 at 6:35 pm

Did anyone on this thread notice the Mass Supreme Court today declared that gay marriages must be the equal of standard marriages? (link: ) This was in response to a Mass Senate query asking for clarification on its famous November ruling.

If we consider the question of gay marriage to be based on equality of sexual expression among committed partners, then gay marriage, as the Mass Supreme Court has ruled, is right. The problem the legislators face – and the reason for their query – is that marriage statutes are written in terms of marriage outcomes, eg, children. These two views will not be easy to reconcile. Frankly, I don’t think they can be.

I am no fool. We are going to have gay marriage, and it will be based on slogans & platitudes, rather than real analysis. It will be divisive, which might be what the promoters want. The Republicans will hang it around John Kerry’s neck (he’s one of the two US senators from Mass, it’s going to be awfully hard for him to wiggle out of it), it may well be his Willie Horton. Presuming he becomes the Democratic nominee, it could cost him the election. Does any sane person want that to happen?

Nationally, gay marriage is doomed. Remember, this is the country that refused to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. Gay rights haven’t a prayer. All an argument based on freedom of sexual association can do is further polarize the country, to no one’s benefit. Now is the time for conceptual clarification & modification, presuming it’s not already too late.


J.R. Wilheim 02.19.04 at 3:59 pm

I would object to Harry’s comment that the state has no interest in defining the “perfect and complete life”. The entire purpose for which governments are instituted among men is to create, protect, and promote some version of the “perfect and complete” life held by the community. Even when, in the liberal state, that version of the perfect and complete life goes by the name of tolerance, diversity, the freedoms enshrined in the Constitution, etc., the government is still promoting an idea of the perfect and complete life.

The question Americans should be asking themselves in this debate is whether gay marriage, and gay parenting, are consistent with their vision of the perfect and complete life. The state takes an interest in childbearing and childrearing because children are what economists would call “human capital”. This is all the more true in our postindustrial economy, in which wealth is increasingly generated by the creativity and ingenuity of individuals rather than by giant manufacturing enterprises or family farms.

The issues at stake should be the psychological health of children, and the state’s ability to set norms in private life. It may be that not all children are born in wedlock, but when marriage exists as a civil, and not just a religious institution, that sets up the norm that children SHOULD be raised by a mother and a father who love them. Whether any particular married couple produces children is not essential to this point.

What normative function would gay marriage serve in our society? As near as I can tell, none. Single gay men and lesbians are unlikely to become single parents. They do not need to be discouraged from giving birth out of wedlock (like heterosexual women) or from abandoning children they have fathered (heterosexual men). Marriage exists in society to create taboos and stigmas that can protect childbearing and childrearing.

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