Monday, October 31, 2005

The Purpose of Marriage

A year ago I despaired of finding an intelligent, plausible argument against gay marriage that wasn't merely a transparent rationalization of prejudice. I've finally found that argument, over in the archives of Gideon's blog. I think it ultimately fails, for reasons to be explained, but it's a coherent and well-articulated argument that warrants careful consideration. To provide the background context for his argument:
My own thinking on this topic has gotten, if anything, more conservative over time, and this disturbs me. I have a number of close gay friends; I know gay parents whose kids are wonderful, extremely well-adjusted people. I have no reason to believe that gay couples would be unable to form stable families. I'm convinced that for an irreducible core of individuals, homosexuality is not a choice but a destiny, and I think it is cruel to say to such people that they must hide who they are from shame. Believing all this, I should be an advocate of gay marriage. And I was, until fairly recently.

What changed my thinking had nothing to do with the nature of gay people or my sense of what was fair and just. What changed my view was thinking hard about the meaning of marriage, how that meaning has been debased, and how the case for gay marriage as currently articulated makes it extraordinarily difficult to restore what is essential about marriage; how it will, in fact, close the door on the possibility of restoration of what has been lost.

What has been lost, he suggests, is the expectation of marriage, i.e. the institution's status as a social norm. You'll need to read the original post to see why this is important, as I doubt my selected excerpts will do it justice. But here's the core idea:
Because marriage is a difficult good, we cannot count on young people to choose it on the merits. The principal way that a culture increases the short-term value of a difficult good, making it much more attractive to pursue, is by according it status... the way the culture sends the message that to be married is to achieve status is by saying that marriage is normal and that people who fail to marry are, in some sense less than whole people. Marriage is articulated not as an achievement, but as a stage in life that everyone, more or less, is expected to achieve; like learning to walk, learning to read, getting a driver's license, graduating high school, getting a job. Sure, some people will never learn to drive and some people will never marry. But they will be understood by all to be exceptions, in some sense, to a general rule.

He worries that marriage will never be the norm for gay people, and that "those who marry will do so because they chose to, not because they understood it was expected of them." He continues:
[A]ssuming that gay marriage really is taken seriously (and I give gays sufficient credit that this will be the case), gay male couples are likely to consider marriage in roughly the way that people consider entering the clergy. Marriage will be recognized as a meritorious lifestyle, one to be admired - one superior, perhaps, to the footloose ways more gays will follow. But there will, of course, be no censure for not marrying, any more than there is censure for not becoming a priest or minister. Even if the conservative case for gay marriage is fulfilled, and gay marriages are as stable as straight ones, and the existence of gay marriage as an institution makes such marriages more common and exerts a stabilizing influence on gay life generally, it seems very unlikely to me that marriage will ever become a norm among gay men.

He concludes: "Straights will learn from gays that while marriage may be rewarding for some, it requires extraordinary sacrifice and discipline, and really isn't for everyone."

The first thing to be said about all this is nicely articulated by Bob McGrew:
It's the alternatives to gay marriage that pose the most threat to heterosexual marriage... Living together is increasingly being defined not as a trial period before marriage but as an alternative to marriage itself. Most large companies offer benefits to unmarried couples just as they do to married couples, and almost all do so for opposite-sex partners as well as same-sex partners... Yet there is one way to get rid of domestic partnerships with a single stroke, saving marriage from its single greatest competitor. That way is making gay marriage legal.... By restricting benefits to marriage, [corporations] will still be able to attract gay employees without losing straight employees. Domestic partner legislation would wither on the vine after losing its most important constituency.

In other words, it is the current exclusion of gays from marriage that teaches the rest of us that marriage is not necessary -- even for couples in a committed monogamous relationship.

A big part of Gideon's complaint concerns the conception of marriage commonly found amongst advocates of SSM. He writes:
Gay marriage is discussed as a right, part of the right to freedom of sexual expression and equality of treatment. And if those are the terms of its acceptance, then I don't see how we can ever go back to talking about marriage as a norm.

This ties in with his insistence that "marriage is not all about love":
[M]any people I know did not marry for "love" in the sense that you see in the movies. They married because they were ready to get married. If they were in a "relationship" of one sort or another, they proposed to their girlfriend - or, in one case, ditched her and quickly found someone more marriageable. If they were not, they actively sought out the right sort of man or woman - the sort they could imagine living with even after they grew wrinkled or fat - and, if the other party was willing, married them... This is the unromantic perspective that marriage is made of, far more than of love, sex or romance - far more, even, than of friendship, which is a different thing; also precious, and one's wife or husband really ought to be one's friend, but not the same at all. But this is not how the advocates of gay marriage talk about marriage...

As with everything before, the assumption that marriage is fundamentally about love (with the corollary that if love fades, presumably so should the marriage - after all, there might still be time to actualize oneself through another, yet more thrilling love!) does not originate with the campaign for gay marriage; far from it. But again, acceptance of gay marriage entails explicitly understanding marriage in this way, and therefore bars the way back to a more realistic appraisal.

Jason Kuznicki is a clear counterexample to the posited "entailment". Jason compellingly argues that a deep sense of 'nurturing' is the true purpose of marriage:
It cheapens the covenant to say that marriage is just about sex, or just about rights, or just about children. Marriage is about all of this — and more. Marriage is a complete, all-encompassing, nurturing relationship. It’s about care for the whole person, so much so that no one else in all the world is quite as important.

In response to the crucial question of why government has an interest in marriage (if not for the babies), Jason explains:
Protecting the right to nurture requires more than merely looking the other way because the nurtured are vulnerable and because nurturers do things for them that non-nurturers must never be trusted to do. Our natural right to designate (or act as) a nurturer therefore leads directly to a contractual right wherein the government distinguishes between nurturers (who may make decisions for us) and non-nurturers (who must not be allowed to pose as something that they are not)...

To respect the desire of two individuals who wish to nurture one another, a government must make certain that its laws do not interfere with the types of behavior that a reasonable person might want a nurturing caregiver to perform:

–The government has an obligation to respect our determinations about who should make medical, legal, and financial choices for us when we are incapacitated; about how we wish to dispose of our property on death; and about our decision to share childrearing responsibilities.

–The government ought not to compel the separation of nurturing partners merely because one is a foreign national; the citizen in the relationship must be expected to help the alien adapt to our culture.

–The government ought not to expect testimony from one nurturing partner against another; having developed (or at least promised) the lifelong habit of looking out for one’s partner, impartial testimony cannot be expected.

–The government ought to institute a formal process for initiating a nurturing relationship, if only so that the above rights may be unambiguously secured. This should ideally be an act distinct from the various religious rites of marriage.

–The government ought to institute a formal process for ending a nurturing relationship; while marriage for life is generally recognized as the ideal, some mechanism should exist for those who have determined that they will never reach the ideal owing to insuperable obstacles...

This, to me, describes the heart of marriage, its reason for being, and its connections to sex, family, spirituality, and the state.

So far I've been highlighting some potential internal criticisms, responding to Gideon's post on its own terms. But from a liberal perspective, I'm also concerned about some of his assumptions. In particular, his claim that "we cannot count on young people to choose [marriage] on the merits" strikes me as disturbingly paternalistic. Once the benefits are clearly articulated, we should trust individuals to judge how best to live their own lives. No need to "censure" those who don't conform. Ick.


  1. From a utilitarian perspective the law is either good or it is not - there need not be a particularly clear reason why it is good or not good (reminds me of your true knowledge post) - although it might help us to be more certain.

    Personally I am unsure. I am also unsure whether that should make me support the status quo or the equality principle. But I am concerned about redefining a word I see that as an insideous thing for a government to do so I quite like the civil union middle ground.

  2. This is a little off the topic, but...

    "In particular, his claim that "we cannot count on young people to choose [marriage] on the merits" strikes me as disturbingly paternalistic. Once the benefits are clearly articulated, we should trust individuals to judge how best to live their own lives."

    I think you put a little too much trust in the clear-headedness of young people. If I've not misundertood you, you believe yourself that people in general are not particularly good at exercising their rational faculty, and the addlements of love don't usually help things. People should be told of the benefits of marriage, of course, but I think this is one of those situations in which one needs to add a little art to urge the matter on. If everyone was seduced by Jane Austen before the age of 12, for example, there shouldn't be too much trouble persuading people of the importance of a steady life partner, and of solid nuptual arrangements. (Not so good for gay people, of course, but you get the picture.)

    PS. Have you read Rousseau's "Emile"?

  3. No, I'd like to though, I find Rousseau to be a fascinating thinker.

    Genius - I've always thought the "definition" argument to be patently absurd. Compare: "Voting is not made for women. They lack the capacity to participate in the institution. Voting is defined as being between a male citizen and his polity. For females to 'vote' would be a contradiction in terms - 'incoherent'." Clearly, if an old 'definition' is unjust, then we ought to revise it. But this is all somewhat tangential to the present arguments anyway...

  4. Mike, if anything, aren't starstruck young lovers more likely to rush into marriage before they're ready, rather than putting it off 'till it's too late? (I'm not really convinced it's a good idea for people to get married too young anyway. Late twenties seems fine, still leaves plenty of time to start a family, etc.)

  5. > Clearly, if an old 'definition' is unjust, then we ought to revise it.

    Yor point is unfair because it implies that I am considering continuing the inequality itself - I am not.

    If you have a compelling reason to take that action and only that action, of course you should change the definition (or torture the prisoner or whatever action it might be). The dispute is in whether there is a better alternative - I suggest generally there is and from a rule utilitarian perspective - playing with the language is too great a temptation - a free for all of that sort on language would quickly give you new-speak.

  6. Richard: Yeah, but I'm not sure if "rushing in" is conducive to stable long-term marriages.
    I'm probably a little biased on the art-love-marriage union, I think, as anyone who has read Allan Bloom's "Love and Friendship" is likely to be, rightly or not.

  7. Recommended reading:

  8. The high cultural value placed on the meaning of marriage is precisely why the MA struck down civil unions.

    It leaves straight people with the "better" institution while gay people are given an ad hoc and exclusionary concept that is created solely to stroke the insecurities of straight people.

    "Separate but equal" is a phrase that we Americans have a long and ugly history with. It is equally unjust to apply it gay marriage as it once was to apply it to segregation.

  9. If people want to restore the status of marriage as a social norm they should abolish welfare benefits for single parents, end the ideological opposition to adoption and bring back fault-based divorce.

    Those changes would do far more to restore the status of marriage than denying marriage to couples who love each other.

  10. Are you kidding me? This guy you quote talks about being friends with gay people, but he lumps them into the same category, saying, "gay male couples are likely to consider marriage in roughly the way that people consider entering the clergy."

    How freaking insulting is that? That's basically just saying, "All gay people are loose whores and expecting them to want a family is unrealistic." How can he claim to be 'pro-gay rights' with an attitude like that?

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  12. Oh, jeez, I didn't realize how ancient this was. *is embarrassed now*

  13. *shrug*, there's nothing wrong with revisiting old topics...

    Elisandra - how is the quote insulting? You appear to have grossly misinterpreted it. Some people do enter the clergy, and some gay males will want to marry. The suggestion is merely that most wont, so it won't be considered the 'norm'.

    Wizard - "wouldn't a simpler and more fair approach be to start treating stable pair-bonding as a norm for straight people and gay people alike?"

    I imagine Gideon would respond that you can't just wish a social norm into existence, and even if you could it wouldn't persist (in a group) if it were contrary to most people (in that group)'s desires / life plans.

    I largely agree with your other sentiments, except I'm not sure you're really being fair to Gideon. I'm not sure where your talk of "mandatory, outmoded gender roles" comes from, for example. (He explicitly supports women's economic and political participation.) He does suggest that appropriate gender roles tend to be good for people, given the biological and psychological differences between the sexes. But that's a very different claim (and one which presumably admits of exceptions) -- if you really think he's just expressing some kind of gender "insecurity" here then I must say you haven't read him very carefully.

  14. Regarding mandatory, outmoded gender roles, I was thinking of section 2, particularly this: "Well, deep in the structure of marriage is the assumption of the complementarity of man and woman." Doesn't that mean that gender roles should be built into marriage, as a kind of mandatory add-on? My negative response to this idea is probably heavily colored by personal experience. I married my opposite-sex partner three years ago, and got some unexpected, subtly gender-policing behavior of my family. I don't really want to go into details here; maybe I'll tell you about it over a beer or a stroll in the park should we ever meet in person. Gideon isn't very specific about what it would be to build gender complementarity into marriage, but insofar as I understand the idea, I don't like it.

    As for insecurity, I was thinking of this: "How do you explain to an ordinary straight 14 year-old - not explain; how do you build it into his deep assumptions about the world, such that it is second-nature - that he will fully become a man not when he beds his first woman but when he weds her, if we can no longer talk about weddings in terms of men and women, but only in terms of people in love?"

    That quote only makes sense if you think not building gender complementarity into marriages is the same thing as requiring married people to be genderless. It seems like a non-trivial number of straight people think that if not everybody is required to conform to their personal gender preferences, then they personally will be forced to become androgynous. I usually read this as insecurity, which might well be unfair; I don't really understand where it comes from.


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