Friday, October 04, 2013

Marriage for the Protection of Barbarians

It seems in the wake of the recent Supreme Court decision gay marriage is a fait accompli in America.  I have friends who view this decision as unequivocally a triumph of tolerance and love over bigotry and hate.  Although I’ve never really expressed my views on the topic before, I am sure many of them can guess my ultimate stance, and to their credit I think for the most part they view it in my case as a character flaw that is trumped by other positive qualities, and so they tolerantly overlook it.  There is a real cognitive dissonance in tolerating the views of those opposed while at the same time viewing all opposition as bigoted and hateful.  It is hard to imagine, for example, that these same people would be as forgiving of me if I were a known racist, and on that basis opposed to basic civil rights for black Americans.  Hard to get passed that one!  If you view gay marriage as a civil right, those who oppose it are equivalent in some sense to the Bull Conners of the world.

Being against gay marriage, I clearly do not view my own opposition as fueled by hate, and so one purpose of this article is to explain such opposition.  A second purpose is as a plea to those on what appears to be the winning side of this issue to practice the general tolerance they preach in accepting people as they are, specifically to the broader issue of religious liberty.  This requires tolerance of opinions currently held that proponents of gay marriage currently view as motivated by hate, which is a tall order indeed.  For the second purpose to be accomplished, the first must be accomplished and well – you need to buy an explanation for opposition.  But I believe the stakes are high, because I believe religious liberty is currently under great threat in this country, and that the threat will be trebled in the aftermath of gay marriage becoming the law of the land.

The public debate in this case, as is true for many contentious issues, is regrettably reduced to bumper sticker slogans that do not capture the subtlety and complexity of the issue.  On the pro-traditional marriage, people retreat to the “marriage is by definition between a man and a woman,” and on the pro-gay marriage side we hear gay marriage is an issue of equal rights.  Both of these arguments miss the mark.  While traditionally marriage has been defined as between a man and a woman, there is nothing to stop us from changing that definition – some reason beyond tautology is required to convince people in a democracy not to broaden the definition.  And diminishing the argument to one of equal rights is also misleading, because we each have an equal right to marry someone we are capable of having a biological child with, although we may differ in our inclination toward such relationships.  Marriage, historically, has never been viewed as a right to marry the person one loves; instead, it arose as a way for parents (and in particular fathers) to commit to each other and their children.  This commitment is the only broader social benefit stemming from marriage, and therefore it is the only reason for maintaining and supporting it as an institution.  Traditional marriage defined as an institution for a man and a woman in a sexual relationship is not a discrimination against same sex intimate relationships, it merely arose as such due to the unequal nature of such relationships: One yields helpless infants and the other does not. 

Does homosexual marriage undermine, bolster, or have no effect upon the child-protecting societal benefits from traditional marriage?   The societal interest rests upon that question.  Certainly nothing prevents a society redefining marriage to be more expansive.  Broadening the definition to encompass homosexual relationships is one way to broaden the definition.  Allowing polygamy is another.  Allowing minors to marry adults or each other is yet another.  Each of these changes may have different and independent effects on the child protection inherent to traditional marriage, so that it is possible to still support gay marriage, but to oppose polygamy and the marriage of a 13 year old to a 22 year old. 

If allowing homosexual marriage weakens traditional marriage, there is a cost to society that may merit leaving marriage unchanged.  Conversely, if homosexual marriage strengthens traditional marriage or leaves it otherwise unaffected, there is a benefit to society that may merit changing the definition.  While the bigot may, in a knee-jerk fashion, decide that broadening the definition will undermine the child-centered purpose of traditional marriage, the likelihood is such bigots will not go to the trouble.  But surely someone who is not bigoted can come to the same opinion as the bigot based solely on the question of the effects of homosexual marriage on traditional marriage, without any animus toward homosexuals, and on that basis oppose broadening the definition.   

How Did Marriage Arise?

Much of what follows is me speculating an anthropology of the institution of marriage that has most likely already been proved or disproved in whole or in part by people who actually do research rather than simply spouting off about what they think was true in the past, so take it for what it is.  However, whether what I describe is factually accurate or true to your own experience or not, the argument still has merits that I think everyone can understand.

Marriage as an institution exists in all societies, pagan and religious, and predates both the rise of organized religion as well as the modern state.  Every religion has its opinions on marriage as a special relationship that has specific duties beyond the general golden rule (in Christianity, love one another as I (Jesus) have loved you), because such duties arise naturally from the consequence of sex between a man and a woman – children.   Readers familiar with this blog can make the general economic observation that children can be viewed as a negative externality from the private choice to have sex – that is, there is a large cost in the rearing of a kid who arises from that initial gleam in his father’s eye.  The cost of sex has to be borne by someone, and if it is borne by someone other than the parents, we have a situation in which those who experience the purely fun part of sex do not internalize the cost of having it.  What you get as a result is way too much sex.  Someone has to raise the little barbarians, and it seems natural to stick that responsibility on those who had the fun to begin with.  Marriage is about imposing the duty of child-rearing on the parents. 

Now, the prior paragraph makes it seem that both Adam and Eve, if unconstrained by societal pressure to wed, would simply make the beast with two backs (that’s Shakespeare) as much as possible and leave the offspring to fend for themselves.  But of course the reality is that Eve will pay the price via nine months of pregnancy and the very real prospect of death during childbirth; and, even after the birth, she will have a natural strong affinity toward the little barbarian that she has birthed, enough so that she won’t merely walk away from it in pursuit of getting her freak on.  

So marriage really isn’t about getting the woman to buy-in to her duties to children – it’s about getting the guy to buy-in.  The guy doesn’t have the same natural biological commitment – he doesn’t carry the kid through development in the womb – and in general has less of a natural affinity to the kid after the birth.  You don’t see guys rushing to hold other people’s babies.  If society were in general polyamorous, the first reaction of any guy being told that his sexual partner were pregnant would be to ask for a paternity test.  Adam probably did the same even though there were no other candidates in the Garden of Eden other than the snake.  The Ten Commandments admonish coveting another man’s wife, not another woman’s husband; although I think the commandment generally applies in both directions, the bigger threat was the man being less conflicted about abandoning his own familial responsibilities in pursuit of some “strange,” as the kids these days say.  So the Jewish religion put the onus on the guy (in contrast to the Moslem religion, which views rape as the adultery of the woman, punishable by death, but I digress).

We have this general situation, faced equally by primitive tribes and developed civilizations – women are stuck with kids, and men are not.  In many species, this is no big deal, but the rearing of a human child is so all-encompassing that the resources of the mother are in general inadequate for the purpose, and there needs to be some way to lock-in dad to the process.  Historically, marriage has fit that bill.

This view of marriage – as a human institution that arose for the protection of children – is very much out of vogue, and I am not sure it was ever understood as such.  Perhaps no one has ever entered marriage with the primary reason being the abstract social desire for responsible rearing of children.  (There may be a little bit of Tom Sawyer painting the fence with marriage – just as Tom pretends there is nothing more fun than painting the fence so that his friends are suckered into doing it for him, society pretends the marriage relationship is this great thing so that it gets off the hook raising kids, and can go fishing.)  Nevertheless, historically any woman clearly had an interest in some viable form of commitment from any prospective mate, as her own economic prospects would be very dim if no commitment was forthcoming.  So there was a private motive on the part of women for something like marriage.  But the private motive in combination with a simple plea from Eve to Adam for sticking it out, absent some additional societal expectation for Adam to stand by his woman, is often insufficient.  There are many men whose natural affections for Eve and Cain and Abel are enough to assure commitment, making marriage superfluous for the purpose of the protection of women and children.  But there are also many who could care less, and lacking some form of commitment in advance of fatherhood, will prefer to get the milk without buying the proverbial cow.

Even the institution of the dowry – property granted from the family of the bride to the groom – probably arose due to the observation that men are not always willing to commit, and need some positive inducement for doing so.  And the dowry still persists even in America in the form of the bride’s parents often paying for the wedding reception.  In cases where a guy has managed to get the milk without the cow, negative incentives have also been in play - the “shotgun” wedding has always been a very real phenomenon in most cultures, although it is disappearing rapidly in many parts of the West due to the combination of changing sexual mores and government welfare programs.

Is the Purpose of Marriage the Validation of Fine Feelings?

The fact that weddings are usually celebrated in grand fashion is not primarily due to the abstract judgment that such relationships are inherently to be celebrated, although there is certainly reason to celebrate the willingness of two people to commit to the marriage vows, which within the Christian church at least require unconditional love (for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, etc.).  There are many fine non-parental relationships that involve no sexual dimension – siblings, cousins, and even unrelated friends – these can even involve co-habitation, and the same admirable dedication and commitment to each other’s well-being.  But once you take away the sexual aspect of the relationship, and in particular a sexual aspect that can give rise to children, we don’t feel the need to validate such relationships with ceremony and celebration.  Either the private motives and  incentives between two friends are enough to fuel the relationship, or they are not – either way, there is no broader consequence from any falling out between two best buds.  No kid is left with feelings of abandonment if Hall and Oates decide to go their own way musically.  And because no kid is affected, there is no broader cost to society.

Indeed, if we think about a committed non-sexual relationship, in many ways such relationships are more admirable than ones that involve sex, as clearly most people view sex as a benefit.  Taking sex out of the equation removes one aspect of a relationship that may have the propensity for making the relationship more akin to an economic transaction, where each party is concerned primarily with what he or she gets from the relationship, as opposed to what he or she contributes.  Whatever we can say about these relationships, we know for a fact that the altruistic commitment shown is not driven in any way by a selfish desire for sex; in a marriage, the altruism may at its heart be a mask for self-interest. 

There are many fine non-sexual relationships, which by definition cannot give rise to children – and there has never been a society that has felt the need to validate such relationships with some form of commitment and or celebration.  And yet, all such societies have done so with respect to sexual relationships that can give rise to children.  Not one of these societies has ever stopped to ask themselves whether or not this disparity is not unfair to the brother and sister who voluntarily look after each other until death do they part.  That is, not one society has looked at marriage and thought that its exclusivity denied equality to other people who were engaged in other types of admirable relationships.  Why not?  Because such societies were aware from the start that a relationship that could lead to the production of a little barbarian was clearly different from any relationship that could never in a million years yield a little barbarian. 

Having no ceremony for Bert and Ernie was not due to any thought that Bert and Ernie, as individuals, were not equal to Adam and Eve; the difference in treatment was due to the fact that their relationship was unequal to that between Adam and Eve.  The lack of equality between the relationships has nothing to do with any difference in the admirability of the respective commitments to each other, but instead has to do with a simple biological fact: Adam and Eve beget Cain and Abel, while Bert and Ernie do not.  Perhaps Bert and Ernie are more altruistic in their commitments to each other than Adam and Eve – but no one really cares!  Even if Adam and Eve are at each other’s throats, once Cain comes along, we want them to know that we view them as responsible together for bringing him up.  The institution of marriage, rather that originating and being primarily motivated as a big disinterested pat on the back from society to two people who plan to copulate, is rather a very interested placing of a weight on their shoulders to stay together precisely because they plan to copulate.

Divorce Law Recognizes Protection of Women and Children Even with Dissolution of Marriage

With the ease of divorce, is marriage really a pushing together from society?  In the case of heterosexual marriage, the duty element has been reduced over time with the relaxation of divorce law, so that at least from the standpoint of the state, whether you stay together or not is largely a matter of indifference.  But even with divorce, if there are children from the relationship, there is an expectation of financial commitment from both parents to the childrearing, as well as a recognition that in many cases the mother (or, less typically, the father) has sacrificed her own economic prospects in dedicating herself to the well-being of the child, and is therefore due alimony.  Traditionally, raising a child demanded some division of labor – usually one person committed to the domestic, non-paying sphere, and the other committed to providing services in the market.  Upon divorce, the labor requirement for raising a kid doesn’t disappear, and even if or when it did, the economic prospects of a mother who has removed herself in whole or in part from the labor market for a long stretch of time are dimmer than they would otherwise be if not for the marriage.  Alimony recognizes this disparity, and tries to rectify it.  So divorce law is about enforcing the economic duties of parenthood on parents, whether or not they choose to stay together. 

Furthermore, whether or not the state allows an easy out, most of society views divorce as regrettable, and in part as a failure.  The Catholic Church (and others perhaps as well) views divorce very dimly, with remarriage being considered essentially adultery, unless you are granted an annulment (not a problem if you are a rich Boston politician), their more strict version of divorce.  Divorce, while in many cases understandable, is always an occasion for sadness.  How many of us have been to the wedding of a now divorced couple, and not been puzzled by how the relationship could descend from the joy we recall of that day to mutual contempt or indifference?  And what do people always say when they hear of an impending divorce?  Either they lament the situation of the kids, or they console themselves that at least there are no children.  Society’s interest in marriage is an interest in the well-being of children. 

So What, We Can Define Marriage As We See Fit

Marriage arose as an institution to protect women and children, and to put the onus of the cost of raising children on the mother and the father.   Only a sexual relationship between a man and a woman has the potential spillover effect to society of producing children, and therein lies society’s interest in marriage. 

So what if marriage arose for that purpose?  If many in society now view the primary purpose of marriage as a validation of fine feelings within a relationship that involves sexual activity, shouldn’t we recognize that excluding certain types of sexual relationships is discriminatory, and on that basis allow gay marriage?  Even if many now view marriage as a validation rather than as a means for the protection of children, not all have made this switch in perspective, and those who still regard its purpose as child protection are entitled to press that view in public policy.  Admittedly, marriage is already in a sorry state, so, as the popular formulation goes, how can two homosexuals getting married possible hurt two heterosexuals getting married?  Here is how: to the extent that the legal institutions of marriage are biased toward the view that marriage is about the mutual feelings of two persons within a fickle populace, as soon as one of those two people feels a waning of such feelings (and most will feel this at some point in a marriage), under the new logic of marriage, its splitsville.

The liberalization of divorce law, with the introduction of “no fault” divorces, has already gone a long way toward undermining marriage as a child-centered institution in the same way.  “I am not happy, and therefore if I have an affair that leads to divorce, how can I possibly be blamed for pursuing my own happiness?”  The corollary is the lack of social pressure for marriage brought to bear on the unwed parents (and in particular the father) of a newborn.  Here, your primary duty is to your own happiness, which is really the antithesis of duty, and this always trumps the duty to your children.  Marriage is intended as a commitment; no commitment is necessary if we are of the belief that as soon as one or both parties to it find it too constraining, it is best to break it.  Rather, we want the view of marriage to be such that people feel the responsibility to endure turbulent periods.  There is only one social reason we want this to be the case – for the sake of kids.  The two views of marriage – one as duty and commitment, and the other for personal happiness – are incompatible.  Whichever view you choose necessarily subordinates the other perspective as unimportant.  Gay marriage brings us a step closer to the personal happiness camp.  This, in my view, is a bad effect, and bad enough to oppose gay marriage on that basis.  I am sure it is asking too much for a gay person to see this view as not in the least discriminatory, but it is as simple as this – there is one purpose to marriage, and that purpose is undermined by gay marriage. 

Democratic Tolerance

Others may disagree.  Some may be of the opinion that the train has already left the station – i.e. you cannot turn back the clock and make marriage a duty; it is now and will forever be primarily about individual happiness, and opposing gay marriage is tilting at windmills.  Others may believe that the cultural expectations for the duties of married persons can differ according to whether children are in the mix, so that duty trumps personal happiness if and only if Junior comes along, and therefore gay marriage can be legalized without affecting the ability for society to protect children with straight marriage.  Still others may agree that there is something to the belief that gay marriage further undermines marriage as duty, and bolsters marriage as happiness, but believe that this negative effect is small (with most of the damage having been suffered without gay marriage), and sufficiently countered by the positive effects of validating committed homosexual relationships (and I do believe there are positive effects). 

I have no problem with disagreements over these questions.  I would gladly lose this battle in a democratic process rather than give up the democratic process.  But I do take exception to the narrowing of the debate insisted upon by those bent on painting those opposed to gay marriage as bigots.  I do not deny that there is anti-gay bigotry.  I do not deny that such bigotry may lead to opposition to gay marriage, but it does not follow that opposition to gay marriage is fueled always and everywhere by bigotry.  Equating opposition to bigotry is a hateful insult intended to stop debate rather than influence it.

I do not think the proponents of gay marriage are out to hurt children, although I do believe that may be an unintended consequence of their efforts.  Likewise, I would expect those on the opposite side of this debate to recognize that the opposition is not out to hurt gays, even if they believe that may be an unintended consequence.  People on both sides of this debate will differ both with respect to their views of the broader social consequences of legalizing gay marriage, and with respect to their motivations, but respectful debate requires taking people’s concerns and views at face value and ignoring potential motivations, rather than dismissing such views and assuming you know the opposition’s motivation.  I am six pages into this article trying to refute the bumper sticker logic of “opposition equals bigotry,” and I am guessing that a good percentage of the people in favor of gay marriage came to that opinion of me by the second paragraph, and stopped reading then and there, perhaps a little or a lot disappointed in me, but secure at least in thinking that they are my moral superior.  This is a nasty little habit that the current President is particular good at – treating most any issue as pitting the enlightened view versus the troglodytic view – and refusing to acknowledge any legitimate concerns in the opposing position.  It is a disservice to democratic citizenship, and it is the primary reason for the divisive partisan hatred that abides. 

Religious Freedom

The discussion of democratic tolerance leads right into the important topic of religious freedom.  The lack of democratic tolerance can lead immediately to the restriction of religious freedom and with it freedom of speech and conscience.  As a Catholic who has witnessed the current administration of the healthcare law take a form that requires the Church and its related employing entities (hospitals, schools, old folks homes) to provide insurance coverage for things the Church considers a grave moral sin, I think it is fair to say that I am not being paranoid here.  How long is it from the legalization of gay marriage to the banning of speech critical of the gay lifestyle?  (And, by the way, the Church always makes this distinction – the homosexual orientation is not of someone’s choosing, but the lifestyle is – it is the former that it considers a sin, not the latter). 

Those who cannot get beyond the view that all opposition is fueled by anti-gay bigotry, largely because they prefer the easy moral superiority afforded by not reading beyond the second paragraph, very naturally see a trade-off between freedom of speech and religion and tolerance of the gay lifestyle.  To them, there is clearly a downside to such freedoms in that their exercise by some is viewed as hurtful to others.  This concern for the offense that could be taken by the subjects of some criticism has already led to a great deal of restriction of speech abroad, especially with respect to criticisms of Islam (google Mark Steyn and Canadian Civil Right Commission, and you will be shocked to see how close such absurd censorship is to our border).  The American universities have long ago voluntarily squelched free speech, and have encouraged the lack of tolerance for freedom of speech by allowing students, in those rare cases where a conservative speaker is brought on campus, to shout them down without rebuke. 

With respect to the Church, there is a belief system in a benevolent God who calls us to love Him, and to show this love by walking in His way, which, while not always clear, is nevertheless knowledge that is available to us through reason and revelation.  Sin, a turning away from God, jeopardizes our ability to be joined with God in heaven.  The greatest commandment is to love God above all things, but this is quickly followed by loving your neighbor as yourself.  If you love God, you want to be with Him in heaven and no longer be estranged from Him on earth; and if you love your neighbor, you want the same for him, and indeed are called by God to look after your neighbor in this way.  Heaven is not a lifeboat that fits 20 people, where you are scrambling to get in before it fills up – part of how you get in is by pulling others there with you. 

Now, you may be of the belief that this is all hooey or hocus pocus.  Fine and good, that is your right.  But what is the person who subscribes to these beliefs supposed to do?  If you tell him he can never be critical of the gay lifestyle, you are telling him he can never try to help a gay brother onto the lifeboat lest he give offense.  That is a command he simply cannot abide.  I am not suggesting, and never would, that it become the law of the land that gay sex be illegal or otherwise punishable, or that incitements to violence against gays be permitted.  But telling something to someone that they don’t want to hear should never be a problem.  My eight year old, when told he cannot have this or that piece of candy, always responds with the accusation that I am mean.  So be it, he is permitted to have that opinion, but it is my responsibility as his father to see that he is not tripped out all day on a sugar high.  A Christian has that same type of responsibility, even though he knows some will think the lesser of him for making such opinions known. 

The Catholic Church, by the way, does not in any way single out gay sex as particularly sinful – it is considered no more sinful than marital heterosexual sex that is closed to children via contraception.  This places a very high standard on all persons, gay or straight.  Most of the world, and indeed most of the Catholics, fall short of this standard, a fact the Church well knows.  But the Church doesn’t exist as a business to win popularity, and people everywhere are free to take or leave it.  If I am offended by the Church’s stance against contraception, I nevertheless feel no compunction to shut them up about it already – I don’t have to hear about it if I choose not to. 


Anonymous pbryon said...

So the thing that gets me about the issue is the government-issued (and regulated) benefits that are defined by marriage, and therefore only applicable to a certain part of the population. Not just taxes, but things like visitation, medical decision making, transfer of property on death, etc.

That's my biggest issue. Personally, I think of marriage as a religious issue, and would like it to stay with churches. I've said for years that everything should be a civil union, be it hetero or homo.

1:19 PM  

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