Maggie said a lot two weeks ago and I will not begin to respond to it all here. A big problem I have with her argument is that she never gets around to acknowledging how gay marriage might help gay families. I don’t think she hates gay families, I just don’t think she’s thought about them much. I’d be very curious to see what she has to say about my Monday and Tuesday postings. For her, gay marriage is, on one side of the ledger, all potential cost (to marriage, to society, to traditional families) and, on the other side of the ledger . . . nothing.
Another big problem I have with her argument is that she conceives gay marriage as simply an effort to satisfy adult needs, or as just another trophy gays want to carry around in the culture wars to show how inclusive and tolerant we’ve all become. I can understand why she has that impression; many gay-marriage advocates have talked about gay marriage in these rather loose and abstract terms. But I don’t think these views even begin to explain the deep yearning of gay families to be united in marriage. Their struggles are not abstract.
Maggie’s argument against gay marriage comes down to her answers to two important questions: What is marriage for? How will gay marriage undermine it?
1. What is marriage for?
Maggie’s answer to this question, as I understand it from her posts here two weeks ago, comes in this key quote (obviously her argument is much longer than this), followed by my response:
“Procreation . . . is the reason for marriage’s existence as a public (and yes legal) institution.”
I can imagine three different possible views of the role of procreation as the public purpose of marriage: (1) Procreation, and procreation alone, explains why we have marriage (Maggie’s view); (2) Procreation is an important reason why we have marriage, but not the only one (my view); and (3) Procreation is not a reason why we have marriage.
I can’t see how the third view could be correct. As Maggie says, sex makes babies, society needs babies, and when those babies are born out of marriage the children themselves and society suffer in all kinds of ways. Marriage, through many of its legal features and the social expectations that attach to it, is the institution that encourages people to have children and to have children within marriage.
But I also can’t see how Maggie is correct that procreation-within-marriage is the only public purpose of marriage.
Legally, procreation has never been a requirement of marriage, as Maggie well knows. (Legal consummation requirements are not the same thing.) Two states, Wisconsin and Arizona, even require that first-cousins not be able to procreate before they can marry.
Maggie could respond, I suppose, that the one man-one woman legal definition is in fact the procreative purpose written implicitly into law. But that is a rather indirect way of getting at what is supposedly an exclusively procreative purpose since many one man-one woman couples neither have nor want children. If, legally, procreation were the only purpose of marriage, the requirement could be made explicit. Yet the law allows and supports childless marriages.
Culturally, Maggie’s procreation-only view of marriage is even more questionable. Even couples who have children do not view their marriage as being only or even primarily about procreation. Their marriages are about children, yes, but also love, religious faith, commitment, and caretaking. For those couples who can’t or won’t have children, their marriages are obviously also not justified by procreation.
When confronted with this powerful cultural and familial reality that so sharply contests her vision of marriage, Maggie responds that people “don’t view these marriages as mere instruments for making babies. Nor do I.” Here Maggie recognizes, as she must, that marriage functions culturally and socially in ways that contrast sharply with her view of its sole public purpose. It’s worth asking why we should adopt a view of marriage that reduces its public essence to one single purpose if neither the legal nor the cultural/social understanding of marriage supports the view that it’s only about that one purpose.
That leaves my view, and I think the law’s and our culture’s, that procreation is an important public reason for marriage but not the only reason. We know that it’s an important purpose because, legally, many attributes of marriage relate directly to the rights and responsibilities of married couples who have children. Culturally and socially, the expectation of having children is a common reason we celebrate a new marriage. The new couple is going to raise a family, and in that fact they are happy and we are happy.
But both legally and culturally/socially we have public interests in marriage besides procreation. Notice that the legal rights and responsibilities associated with children apply to all legal parents of children, no matter whether they got those children through procreation, adoption, surrogacy, or reproductive technology. These distinctive child-raising-related legal features of marriage can apply, and do apply, even to parents who can’t or won’t procreate. And they apply with a force that’s just as great no matter the provenance of the children.
(So yes, as one commentator notes, child-rearing explains many of the distinctive features of marriage law. But as I have pointed out, many gay couples are raising children, so they will be able to make use of these features. The rest, who are not raising children, will make use of the many other distinctive features of marriage, just as childless straight couples do.)
The law imposes some duties of care and mutual responsibility on spouses, apart from any children they’re raising. Culturally, the expectations that spouses will love one another, care for another, be committed to each other, live together, are even greater.
There is a public interest in recognizing marriages that can be expected to produce, on balance, both individualistic and communitarian benefits. Procreation is an important individualistic and communitarian purpose of marriage — but it is not, and need not be, the only purpose.
2. How will gay marriage undermine marriage?
Maggie’s answer to this question is a bit harder to pin down. But I think it comes down to these two quotes, each followed by my responses:
“[S]omething big has changed when marriage becomes a union of any two persons. Procreation and family structure are out.”
For purposes of procreation, marriage already is the union of any two persons. Non-procreative straight couples already marry. Non-procreative gay couples, in this sense, change nothing in the existing practice of marriage: most married couples can procreate, but a few can’t. That practice will remain the same.
Why does gay marriage mean procreation and family structure are out? It would seem to mean the opposite, at least with respect to family structure. Maggie’s answer comes in the next quote.
“If two men are married, then marriage as a public act is clearly no longer related at all to generativity, and the government declares as well it has no further interest in whether children are connected to their own mom and dad.”
I take this to be a kind of social-meaning argument. Gay marriage, on this view, would change the meaning of marriage for everybody by sending a message that procreation is dispensable and that mom-and-dad-raising-kids is not the best environment for children.
Social meaning arguments of this sort are very hard to dispute, no matter what the issue is. You can just make a frightening assertion about some future instability brought about by mysterious forces and, really, what can anybody say in response? We don’t believe you? I have frankly struggled with her point, not because I think it’s true but because I’m at once horrified by the result she foresees and very unclear how gay marriage would get us there.
Here’s one way to get at the problem with her prediction. Suppose I said this: “If a sterile couple can get married, then marriage as a public act is clearly no longer related at all to generativity, and the government declares as well it has no further interest in whether children are connected to their own mom and dad.”
We’d know I was wrong about this social-meaning prediction because we already live in this world and we can see that it has not come true. So if these existing marriages don’t send the harmful message why would gay marriages?
Maggie comes closest to answering this question when she says: “[B]oth older couples and childless couples are part of the natural life-cycle of marriage. Their presence in the mix doesn’t signal anything in particular at all.”
What does she mean that sterile straight couples are part of “the natural life-cycle of marriage” but sterile gay couples are not? I don’t know for sure, but I can guess. She might be drawing on modern natural-law theorists who argue that sterile straight couples can engage in sexual “acts of a reproductive-kind,” while gay couples cannot. Which comes down to saying, gay couples can’t have straight sex. In other words, gay couples – alone among all sterile couples – must be denied marriage because they are not straight couples. That’s a conclusion, not an argument.
Moreover, given how abstract this idea of “the natural life cycle of marriage” seems it’s hard to see how anybody would take any particular message away from it. Millions of childless married couples are already part of our lives. The presence of gay couples in the mix, to use Maggie’s formulation, “doesn’t signal anything in particular at all.”
One commentator has suggested that perhaps Maggie means that gay marriage would have a “norm-related magnification” effect, adding to an already potent set of harmful cultural signals against procreation and mom-dad-raising-child. But for gay marriage to have a magnification effect we must know what it is magnifying and how. If it sends no signal that the rest of the 97% of marriages will notice, it has no magnification effect. If it sends a positive signal about marriage, it has a (small) subtraction effect from the existing harmful messages.
Similarly, another thoughtful commentator suggests that maybe gays, who he hypothesizes have an unusually large cultural voice, will send signals disproportionate to their small numbers. I doubt gays’ alleged cultural power is really that strong, but even if it were we’d have to ask this question: is it better to have these powerful cultural and intellectual speakers outside the marriage tent throwing rocks at it or simply ignoring it? Or is it better to have them inside the tent absorbing its values?
Let me suggest an alternative message gay marriage might send to the culture: “Marriage is good for you. You should get married. If you’re raising kids, you better get married. Family structure matters.”
Let me suggest a message that’s being sent through the denial of gay marriage: “Marriage is just one alternative among many. Look at us, we’re happy. You don’t need it. You can raise kids successfully without it. Marriage is invidious discrimination.”
Don’t get me wrong, I think gay marriage will send almost no message that heterosexuals will pay much attention to, after the initial furor subsides. They will be 3% of marriages so the numbers will just be too small for people to much notice in their daily lives. The people who don’t like it will dismiss gay marriages with scare quotes, the way they do now: gay “marriages.” They will see these gay “marriages” as counterfeits, their own marriages as the real thing, and go on about their lives.
Others will rejoice that we’ve finally let in a group of people who believe in marriage so much, who need it in their lives so much, whose children will benefit from it so much, that they fought for it as if fighting for their lives.
Tomorrow: Burke, process, and last thoughts.