fidesquaerens (marta_bee) wrote,

yet more on gay marriage

My last exam is graded (well, except for the one student who has to make up the exam next week), and while I still have some research due for my advisor, I can breathe a bit at last. So I want to go back to a point I just mentioned at the end of my last post. Namely: if you vote against gay marriage, does that mean you're just a homophobe? The story-line is pretty standard: Gay marriage won't destroy straight marriage since straight men aren't going to suddenly leave their wives or anything; the only impact it has is letting homosexuals marry; so if you're against gay marriage you must be homophobic. Is it really that simple?

I don't think so. Now, I'm actually in favor of the state having one status (civil unions, marriage, whatever – I'm not picky about the label) open to both homosexuals and heterosexuals. As a Christian, I actually think Christian churches should open up the marriage sacrament to gay couples as well, but that's a totally different topic. But I also get why some people think of marriage is for straight couples only. And it has next to nothing to do with homosexuality, let alone homophobia.

Let's start with the first claim, that gay marriage affects only homosexuals. It's true, straight men aren't going to leave their wives because gay marriage suddenly becomes legal. But there's a deeper concern. When we say that homosexual marriages are just as valid as straight ones, does that redefine what the concept of marriage is all about? I don't think so. But I can see how some people would

This point reminds me of the Casey Martin case. (Michael Sandel has a really interesting discussion of this case at his Justice Harvard site, starting at 18:00.) Mr. Martin was a professional-quality golfer who wanted to play in the PGA tour. He'd won the required tournaments at lower levels and was all set to enter the tour, but he also had a disease that affected his body's circulatory system. That meant he couldn't walk long distances easily, or safely; it would be painful and risk damage to his extremities. So he wanted to use a golf-cart to ride between the various holes. If you play golf or know golfers you can probably see the problem: real golfers, and in particularly the PGA golfers, don't use carts. They see the game as a sport, and they point to how the walking followed by precise movements of hitting the ball well required endurance. If Mr. Martin couldn't walk the course (the argument went – it went all the way to the Supreme Court because the PGA's position arguably violated the Americans with Disabilities Act), then he wouldn't really be playing golf. That's unfortunate for Mr. Martin, but it doesn't really seem discriminatory to me.

What about marriage? In the video linked above (beginning at around 4:00), Dr. Sandel introduces the idea of telos or purpose. The basic idea is that certain roles and institutions have certain essential player that good _____ do well. For example, if someone called herself a doctor we'd expect her to get her patients healthy again. If she did that badly we'd say she's a bad doctor, and if she did a truly horrendous job, so bad it was clear she didn't know what she was talking about, we might even say "you're no doctor" or something of that sort. That's the point of the Casey Martin case. Walking the course (it's claimed) is essential to golf; so if Mr. Martin can't walk the course, whatever he's doing isn't really golf. Now, if we could sort out what the purpose of marriage is, we could maybe sort out why folks are so reluctant to get on board with same-sex marriage.

Purpose #1: Sex, Consequences, and Gender Issues

Sex – heterosexual sex – doesn't affect men and women equally, absent marriage. A man has sex with a woman and if she gets pregnant he can walk away from the child; barring abortion, the woman has to go through nine months of pregnancy, then either care for the child, abandon him, or hand him over for adoption. That's a much harder choice. Historically, marriage served to legitimize sexual relations between men and women so that men had to take more responsibility for any offspring. It also guaranteed (more than without marriage) that the offspring is really the husband's. Homosexuals don't have this need at all.

But that's much less of an issue than it once was for heterosexuals. There's widely-available contraception, the general availability of abortion, adoption and foster care services, and of course the legal requirement of child support even if the mother isn't married to the father. All of these work imperfectly; sometimes they work pretty badly. But marriage is no longer the only way to protect women from this imbalance. So I'd say this is a pretty weak idea behind the purpose of marriage.

Ironically, in light of the popular idea (which I think is wrong, but it's probably held by anti-gay marriage crowds if anyone believes it) that AIDS afflicts gay men more than anyone else, there's probably a case to be made that homosexuals need marriage more than heterosexuals based on this point...

Purpose #2: Procreation

A more plausible telos is that marriage helps structure the lives of people that want to have children, to help them accomplish that goal. Historically (I'm thinking Aquinas's natural law theory here) sex is connected with procreation, and procreation with raising the next generation. That requires twenty-odd years of discipline and education, to say nothing of the basic necessities of life (food, shelter, etc.) Now, I know this may seem like an old-fashioned line of thought to many people today, but I think there's something to it. Certainly most of the people I knew might date, even live together, but they only got married when they were ready to start raising kids.

The natural objection, of course, is there are all kinds of straight couples who can't reproduce or flat-out don't want to but still want to get married. If the purpose of marriage is procreation, then we need to be consistent and tell that cute octogenarian woman or the man who's infertile after cancer treatment that marriage isn't open to them, either. It seems like we should even go so far as to say, if you get married and later discover fertility problems your marriage should be dissolved. No one really wants to do that. Some natural law philosophers would point to the fact that these couples are of the right type of relationship (and so are candidates for marriage); I'm more convinced by the idea that it's simply more humane to tell a couple that's already built a married life together that you're not going to take that away. (So I'd say even if procreation is the purpose of marriage then it shouldn't be open to all straight folks either.

This is just my point, though. This is an idea a lot of people have: marriage is for family-building, and gays can't have families the same way straight people can, so homosexuals can no more get married than Casey Martin can play PGA-level golf, or than a ham sandwich could ever be kosher. If you say they can get married, it's no longer the same concept; so goes the argument. This doesn't come from hating gay people but having a certain idea of what marriage is all about. The philosopher teacher in me longs to tease out the contradictions between this definition and the belief that all heterosexuals should be allowed to marry. Or (just maybe?) have the people who believe marriage is all about procreation show me why I'm misunderstanding that belief, so it can include same-sex couples but not homosexual ones. Whatever the case may be, it's a conversation you can't have until you move past the idea that people are opposed to same-sex marriage because they're homophobic. This is a reasonable (if not IMO correct) reason to restrict marriage rights that has nothing to do with animus toward homosexuals.

From the other side of the fence, what about homosexuals who adopt? Again, it all comes down to how you think of procreation. Is there some value in being a child's biological parent that adoptive parents can't provide? Of course adoption is better than neglect and abuse, even better than foster care, but I know lots of people who think adoption is still less than ideal. (I'm not one of them; I'm good friends with an adoptive mum, and I can't imagine any biological mum loving her parents more.) With adoption, the relationship is more complicated, particularly if birth parents are still alive. There's also the fact that a biologically-related child may fit more snugly into his birth family. He has his dad's eyes or his mum's smile or his grandfather's musical talent or whatever; so I think in some families it's easier to see a child with that biological connection as "theirs."

Again, this is a point that has nothing to do with homosexuality per se; but it's one that needs wrestling with. Just how do we feel about adoption? Why is it not as good as biological procreation, if it's not?

Purpose #3: Love

This is probably one of the most common reasons people would give for getting married. "And the two shall become one," to use the Bible's phrasing. More specifically, I'd say the purpose of marriage is to recognize love and provide a relationship where it can grow. And I personally find it hard to imagine anyone saying gay people don't love their partners as much as a newly-married husband and wife do. I'm thinking of George Takei, who I follow on FB, and his occasional comments about his husband Brad Altman. They seemed as warm and caring toward each other as any other couple who's been together for 20+ years. (They're married now, but of course that was only recently a legal possibility for them.

But there's a wrinkle, and ironically it comes from feminist philosopher. Carol Gilligan describes a psychological experiment involving two children, Jake and Amy, who are asked how to solve a certain ethical problem. (A man's wife has cancer and she needs medication which the man can't afford; should the man steal it?) Jake uses rules to evaluate the situation; Amy relies on the man's relationships. The bottom line is that men really are from Mars and women from Venus, so to speak; Amy, as a woman, uses a very different methodology and it's thought to be sexist to expect her to reason like a man.

If she's right, then men and women have distinct ways of looking at things. Other philosophers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau said that women and men not only approach things differently, but actually have different virtues. So if men have some types of character strengths and women have others, then can men really love other men the same way they would love a woman? Forget the sexual angle; people often say that opposite attracts, so if men and women are really so distinct, it's not completely out in left-field to say that a woman complements a man in a way other men couldn't.

This might make some sense in principle, until you meet actual homosexual couples. And it doesn't require us to reject Gilligan. There's lots of diversity within the genders – introverts vs. extroverts, geeks vs. jocks, musicians vs. scientists, whatever. And even if marriage is typically built on marriage, it doesn't require it. A couple can fall out of love but go on living together for fifteen years while the kids are younger, and we still call them married. But regardless of whether I think the story about love and complementing each other and the nature of gender is true, we need to get other people to discuss it if they're ever to move on to a better conception of love. (And again, if I'm wrong to criticize it, I want to know that, too.)

In any case: it's not homophobia. It's a completely different issue.

Btw, for a good critique of some of these ideas, check out John Rauch's "Who Needs Marriage?" He says that the purpose of marriage isn't about love or procreation, but rather two things: settling men down and providing a kind of safety-net in bad times. I'd say from the government's end this is as good a reason as any I've seen, though various private groups and individuals will probably want to add deeper meaning (like family-building and love, for starters) to that framework.

Purpose #4: A Social Safety-Net

There's one last question worth asking: why should the government care so much about who gets married? This is a huge question, one I'm not able to answer because it comes down to what role you think government should play. Should laws be based on what's right, should they try to develop people morally – or should they respect citizens' freedoms and not try to prod them toward becoming better people? Even if marriage helps people if it's defined a certain way, does the government have any right to base the law on that fact?

I won't try to delve into that just now, but there is something worth considering. Marriage brings with it certain benefits – and there's no such thing as a free lunch. Sometimes the cost is through taxes (vet survivorship benefits, etc.); other times, it's imposed on corporations and other private groups, through benefits offered to employee spouses, right to inherit a rent-controlled lease, etc. But someone has to pick up the tab, and so whatever makes marriage worth the sacrifice involved behind those benefits, it makes sense that the government should have a role in saying whether a certain relationship should qualify.

One reason John Rauch suggests above is that marriage provides a social safety net. It's cheaper and more efficient to have two people looking out for each other, than have a single person relying on government-provided emergency services when necessary. And from this POV homosexuals can serve as well as heterosexuals. The trick, though, is to figure out whether all relationships meet this need in the same way. I have a female roommate, and our relationship is very different (obviously!) than the one lovers might share, or even close friends. Do we look out for each other in the same required way? And if so, what makes marriage different?

Anyway... my main point here isn't to say one or the other of these purposes is right. I really wanted to point out the many ways I think it's perfectly consistent to restrict marriage to heterosexuals without descending into homophobia. As I hinted I don't think homosexuals should be excluded on most (if any) of these grounds. But then I already think gay marriage should be legally recognized, so I'm not the one you need to convince.

If people want to move past the for and against camps yelling at each other, my guess is the first step should be listening. Really listening. And that means understanding the objections people have to gay marriage,, aside from hatred and fear of a minority.

Tags: philosophy, politics, religion, sexuality
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