Thursday, May 17, 2012

Why Even the Best Case Against Same-Sex Marriage is Morally Unsustainable

"To die for an idea," Anatole France once wrote, "is to place a pretty high value upon conjecture." Presumably this goes double for having others die and suffer for one.

I was thinking a bit more about the "strong" case against gay marriage. By strong, I mean ones that try to take seriously the moral equality of gay and lesbian individuals, that claim to not be predicated on homophobic degradation, but instead about maintaining the stability of what they take to be an essential social institution: marriage (folks like Robert George spring to mind, though the way he presented his argument here seems somewhat different). The claim, as I understand it, is that allowing gay marriage weakens the social value and meaning of marriage as a whole. To the extent that a strong social consensus around the value of marriage is important for societal welfare, then gay marriage can justly be opposed as a potential threat to the institution as a whole. As for civil unions, the argument as I've seen it is not adverse to some mechanism for allowing gay couples to secure most (if not all) of the rights accorded to heterosexual couples, but they worry that gays and lesbians won't be "satisfied" with civil unions, and sets us down the slippery slope to gay marriage. Because the bottom of the slope is so dangerous (they argue), we cannot risk setting down the top.

As I said, I was thinking about this, and I just don't find it remotely persuasive. I barely think it even has a claim to moral seriousness, if we unpack it. So, to the extent that this is the best that can be done ... no. Not flying.

The first concern I have when I hear this argument is that the ship may have already sailed. It is not clear to me that we have a unified definition of marriage in this country any more (if we ever did), and what's more, the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage is doing at least as much to "degrade" the perception of marriage as an institution amongst liberal-minded persons as their inclusion "degrades" marriage amongst traditionalists. Indeed, if anything it seems like the former effect swamps the latter: I do know of progressive-minded folk whom are deeply ambivalent, at best, about marriage, precisely because they see it as a heterosexist and bigoted institution, one that they may not be able to ethically buy into.

By contrast, I've never actually heard a marriage-traditionalist put their money where their mouth is and actually say they feel like their marriage is directly diminished in any way by the inclusion of gay couples, or that they are at all more ambivalent about getting married or participating in the institution of marriage as same-sex marriage spreads. Rather, they posit a considerably more indirect mechanism: They worry that other people -- the unwashed middle -- will progressively lose touch with value and sanctity of marriage, and that this in turn will make all marriages less meaningful.

This raises the second issue I have -- whether the conservative belief is actually falsifiable. If conservatives were making a personal claim -- "If gays are allowed to marry, then marriage isn't worth it for me" -- this wouldn't be an issue; it would simply be a matter of subjective personal preferences. Likewise for various deontological arguments one could make (that celebration of gay commitment is simply wrong, or, for pro-SSM advocates, that access to marriage is an essential component of human dignity). But the claim they seem to be making (about gay marriage's effect on other people's perception of marriage is an empirical one, and, for the reasons stated above, one I'm exceptionally dubious about. I'm exceedingly skeptical that gay marriage actually has any significant detrimental effect on marriage as an institution (if anything, I predict having a positive effect). So suppose 20 years from now we have a mountain of data in front of us, and it tells us that gay marriage exhibits no noticeable effect on the public's reverence and respect for marriage as an institution. Does their opposition melt away? I'm not convinced it does, because I think the tail is wagging the dog here -- the core belief is that gay marriage is bad, and any empirical scaffolding is just an apologia to try and attach the belief to something that at least gestures at respecting gay human dignity. If it falls away, they'll find something else.

But what of the risk I'm wrong? And here's where we return to Mr. France. Is there a non-zero risk that allowing same-sex marriage will have catastrophic social consequences? Sure, in the sense that there's a non-zero chance of essentially anything causing anything (there's also a non-zero risk that not allowing it will have catastrophic social consequences).

But it is conjecture, and thin conjecture at that -- dependent as it is on presumptions of what everyone else (but not me, of course!) will undoubtedly do as gays get married. It's a prediction that gets harder and harder to sustain each year. And in the meantime, that conjecture is weighed against the concrete material deprivations marriage inequality foists upon gay couples right now. We know that gay couples are sharply restricted in the rights and privileges that they can access vis-a-vis heterosexual couples. We know that even half-steps like civil unions are bitterly opposed by anti-gay marriage advocates because of the risk they'll lead to gay marriage -- putting yet further tangible barriers between gay couples and full equal rights. All of this is justified by ... conjecture, and seemingly a rather weak conjecture at that.

In this light, opposition to gay marriage ends up looking kind of like putting up a minefield in one's front yard to guard against a Canadian invasion. Is there a non-zero chance Canada is out to get us? Yes. If the Mounties do come streaming across our northern border, will the mines come in handy? Yep. But for the time being, that conjecture about Canadian intentions is having the tangible effect of blowing up a bunch of neighborhood kids, and in the face of that rather concrete harm one really can't ethically rely upon such thin conjectures.


PG said...

I think your discussion of the "strong" case misses a couple of points.

(1) The empirical claim that societies with high levels of acceptance of same-sex relationships (I think the Netherlands and Scandinavian countries are usually cited) tend to have lower levels of marriage.

(2) The gender essentialism of SSM opponents, particularly with regard to parenting. How many times have you heard "Children deserve to have a mother and a father?" Even purportedly progressive shows like "Glee," that get blamed for presidential policy preferences, will still put forward the idea that the daughter of two dads must feel some gap or lack in her upbringing due to the absence of a female parent. That this matters for SSM is premised on the assumption that marriage is centrally an institution that exists to facilitate parenting.
I think it's almost certainly true that marriage as a social institution developed as a way of getting women reliable assistance in obtaining resources for childrearing, and getting men some assurance that the children they were feeding are genetically theirs. That people might continue this mutual commitment beyond the woman's fertile years is a relatively-recent peculiarity of our now regularly living past our fertile years.

Obviously, (1) confuses correlation with causation, and (2) ignores the changes in family law of the last 200+ years, including those in reaction to increasingly reliable paternity testing. But they're definitely very common claims that do not rely on the "gay marriage will crowd out straight marriage" thesis.

Unknown said...

Actually, the best case against SSMs is that marriage was ordained by God to be between a man and a woman. How it affects society on a social/economical level is secondary to the real the offense of SSMs.

It's impossible to refute marriage is a religious institution, and given what it stands for, SSM by definition is in complete violation, it is an egregious affront to God's sovereignty.

David Schraub said...

Actually, that's a terrible case against SSM, for several reasons.

1) I don't believe that God ordained marriage as between a man and a women (Cf.).

2) Even I did believe that, I'd "stand yet before the Lord" (Gen. 18:22) and demand that the judge of all act justly (cf., the entire book of Job).

3) Even if I thought this was a valid religious proscription, I'd be disinclined to enact it into civil law. An affront to God? As the Romans put it: "Let the Gods avenge themselves." They'll get whatever just deserts are headed their way.