Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Un-Defining Marriage and Having to Make a Judgment


So I have just gotten done grading a whole batch of papers on the same-sex marriage (SSM) debate.  On the whole, I am completely unimpressed.  There is no serious thinking happening here.  It is clear that students who oppose it are simply terrified to let the professor know it.  Those who support it don’t have any idea what the arguments are, and so their opinions lack focus and end up being little more than expressions of emotion.

I am not so sure that we have re-defined marriage so much as completely un-defined it.  We simply do not know as a culture what marriage is any longer.  We think we do, but we really don’t.  I will show that this is the case in what follows.

This is the proposition that is currently guiding this debate:

L1:  People who love each other ought to be able to marry.

The claim is that anyone who denies this is a hateful bigot.

It is obvious that L1 is hopelessly flawed.  First and most obviously, we wish to exclude children from marrying adults.  This is generally understood, but for clarity, let’s introduce L2:

L2:  Only adults who love each other ought to be able to marry.

Now, let’s think seriously for a second.  Are you ok with the United States government officially recognizing polygamous unions?  This would inevitably happen with some Mormon break-away sects and with Muslims.  Maybe you are fine with polygamy.  Do you have a limit on how many husbands I can have?  Is four too many?  Ten?  Thirty?  Drawing a line beyond one partner has a strong ring of arbitrariness about it, so maybe we ought to abandon polygamy.  Let’s propose:

L3:  Only two adults who love each other ought to be able to marry.

If you like L3, know that you will be accused of religious bigotry, Islamophobia, and imposing your beliefs onto others.  But let’s continue.  You know that it will happen that a brother and sister wish to marry.  Would you allow it?  Perhaps not.  We propose:

L4:  Only two unrelated adults who love each other ought to be able to marry.

But why deny this to the siblings?  Perhaps you worry that they will produce strange offspring.  But they have sterilized themselves to parry precisely this objection.  Are you now imposing your arbitrary prejudices onto them?  You find it repulsive, but does that mean that you would deny them their rights?  What if two brothers wished to marry?  A father and son?  A mother and daughter?  Don’t laugh!  Don’t think that mockery gets us out of this mess.  You know that truth is stranger than fiction and that there are principles that we must clarify.

My point here is this:  Unless you abandon the entire notion of marriage altogether, you are required to formulate a principle of marriage.  And I guarantee you, when you commit to one, you will be accused of closed-mindedness, bigotry, and forcing your values onto somebody else.  But now that you have read this post, you can no longer avoid this issue unless you abandon intellectual integrity itself. 

The general insight that emerges is that we have not replaced the traditional understanding of marriage with something else; rather, we simply eliminated that understanding, and we are currently hoping that nobody notices and that nobody causes any trouble.  But somebody will cause trouble, and we will have to have an answer.

We can no longer dismiss people simply for drawing some kind of a line now that we know that we have to draw one, as well.  So who’s in, and who’s out?

1 comment: