The secular case against same-sex marriage

HumanumLast week, Latter-day Saint leaders speaking at the faith’s worldwide General Conference reiterated the Mormon stance on marriage and family: the family, understood as a married man and woman and their children, is the divine sociological unit on earth and in heaven. Same-sex marriage, they taught, is not consistent with the heavenly plan.

Most Mormons are supportive of Latter-day Saint teachings on marriage. For some, however, the special emphasis on traditional family values at the faith’s most important worldwide meeting left a feeling of unease. These members are devoted to their religion but suspect their leaders are misguided on the issue of same-sex marriage, held back by conservative cultural attitudes.

I no longer share their uneasiness: over the last few years I’ve become convinced that the Mormon position on same-sex marriage is prescient and ultimately correct. What first changed my mind on marriage was not renewed religious understanding, however, but exposure to sophisticated secular arguments for the classical definition. A few days ago I shared my interpretation of these arguments with some of my Facebook friends and was surprised at the positive response.

So I’m posting my Facebook comment, lightly edited. I don’t consider it a debate-ender, or even a definitive exposition of my beliefs about marriage. I do think, though, that it’s a good representation of something most people haven’t heard before: a straightforward secular case for male-female marriage laws.

If marriage is a real thing, then before we can decide what the rules of eligibility are, we have to know what it is–what marriage is. We want our marriage law to deal with real marriage, in the same way that, say, our criminal law deals with “real” crime, and not just anything the government wants to call crime.

So there are two big ideas about what marriage is and what it’s for. The “traditional” view says the essence of marriage is procreation. That the institution ultimately exists to name a husband as the legitimate father of a woman’s children, to compel him to stay with his children and their mother and to put a structure around human sexuality by means of marital norms. It sees marriage as a public institution ordered toward the creation of family life. It’s what you’d read in an anthropology textbook or court decision any time before the last two decades.

The “postmodern” view says that marriage is a formalization of romantic love and commitment, a private arrangement of consenting adults ordered toward mutual personal fulfillment, and family life if the spouses desire. The traditional view nearly always goes along with opposition to same-sex marriage, while the postmodern view goes along with support for same-sex marriage. The postmodern view and the traditional view don’t tend to coexist, because people who see marriage in the postmodern way nearly always deny that marriage exists for procreation.

So what’s wrong with the postmodern view? At least three things. First, it doesn’t explain why marriage needs to exist as a public institution in the first place. If marriage is about a relationship of love and commitment, then what’s the purpose of a government licence recognizing that love? Governments don’t regulate friendships or other close relationships–why marriage? And indeed, many people are starting to argue that marriage should be “privatized”, reduced to a contract. The traditional view explains exactly why marriage should exist publicly: because the public has an interest in having kids grow up within marriages.

Second, the postmodern view can’t exclude polyamorous couples or sibling couples who love and are committed to each other. Most people who are pressed on this either end up supporting poly and incestuous marriage or else say marriage shouldn’t exist as a public institution any longer. That’s a little worrying either way. This isn’t just an academic question any longer, either (I wrote a blog post on polyamory a while back).

Third, the postmodern view can’t justify the socially enforced norms of marriage: monogamy, sexual exclusivity and permanence. It would say that two is not necessarily better than three, if love is the goal; that extramarital sexuality is permissible with consent and that marriage need not last if love fades. (Poly, open and beta marriages are now things.) The traditional view justifies all three norms quite neatly. Monogamy is a reflection of the biological reality of procreation (one male, one female). Exclusivity is vital because cheating breaks up families, and that’s bad for kids. Permanence means that parents stay together even when things are tough, because breakups aren’t good for kids.

I’ve heard some people admit that the postmodern view is incoherent, but then ask why we can’t expand the marriage institution anyway. There are a lot of problems with this. By publicly formalizing a false view of marriage, we reinforce that false view. The norms that sprung out of the traditional view won’t keep existing without justification. This is bad for kids. People will also be less likely to understand why marriage needs to exist. If marriage is privatized, it will become as messy as divorce (which was more or less privatized throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s). There’s evidence from the Netherlands that opposite-sex marriage rates fell in response to marriage redefinition (I wrote a blog post on this).

One more thing. The big question people have is, “what about infertile and elderly couples? Are you saying they shouldn’t marry/can’t marry?” No, and I think this is made out to be a bigger philosophical conundrum than it is. Not every expression of a concept needs to fulfill the purpose of that concept. A for-profit business is still a for-profit business even if it fails to make a profit. A soccer team is still a soccer team even if they don’t score or win, or even if the team is lazy and doesn’t really try. However, a soccer team isn’t one if they don’t use a ball or nets when they play. The form, or the structure, of the institution does need to match the purpose. So marriage has to be male-female, and soccer teams have to use balls and nets. As long as something takes the form of a marriage, it’s still a marriage, even if it doesn’t appear to fulfill the ultimate purpose for the marriage institution. This is how we make laws; by means of concepts and definitions more than circumstances. Marriage is a male-female union because it is ordered toward procreation.

There are lots of other ways to justify the classical definition. One has to do with religious freedom. One has to do with the problems of fatherlessness and motherlessness. Another one deals with the ethical problems of third party reproduction. There are a few others. But the bottom line, for me, is that marriage *is* something. Before we can make a case for changing its form, we have to understand exactly what we’re doing and why.