Gay Marriage Primer Redux

After reviewing the ridiculously long, two part “Gay Marriage Primer” I have concluded that it sucks. First, the legal analysis and background is way too extensive for the purpose, and readily available elsewhere; second, there is no discussion of what is ultimately more interesting: the moral argument for gay marriage.

The cultural politics of gay marriage is easy to interpret as a debate of secularism and religion. I suspect that this is not far from how most participants in the discussion view it themselves. At the risk of stereotyping, the opponent thinks that religion and morality are intertwined, that the true religion(s?) condemn homosexuality in the same way that it condemns less controversially immoral behavior, that defenders of gay marriage are attacking morality itself in the name of individual license. The proponent thinks that the issue is one of core liberal values: individual freedom, equality under the law, and rejection of the typically oppressive effects of superstition. Since public discussions should not be informed by private religious beliefs, the opponent hasn’t a leg to stand on, which is why opponents make preposterous on their face sociological arguments against gay marriage.

This is the way it looks from a distance, and how it may very well look from the inside to most people. This makes it into an ideal symbolic issue, despite my suspicion that it is probably a far less significant practical issue than people may think. The gay/lesbian population is, after all, comparatively small, many people who hold out against same-sex marriage for religious reasons balk at inconveniencing anyone, and thus will tolerate civil unions, and even in the absence of civil unions, many of the legal advantages of marriage can be tediously duplicated by other means. If it was a pragmatic issue, it wouldn’t be a huge one, though it would also probably be a no-brainer for efficiency reasons (why have two institutions when one will do; why have complicated and burdensome legal devices when the streamlined and efficient device already exists?)

So: symbolism. Now I have long thought that the “no religious arguments” rule for public discourse has been misunderstood and misapplied. We cannot assume that a position has no merit because most who hold it hold it for religious reasons. The people who oppose same-sex marriage for religious reasons oppose rape for religious reasons too, but that isn’t an argument for decriminalizing rape. Furthermore, the use of religious rhetoric to elevate and intensify powerful moral commitments looks very very different when it is your own moral commitments. Few liberals, for example, feel powerful revulsion at Thomas Jefferson’s or Abraham Lincoln’s use of religious rhetoric in support of liberal values.

The more serious liberal objection here is: religious rhetoric is being deployed in defense of a prejudice because obviously nothing speaks in favor of the prejudice. This too is far too quick. Though in “Western” societies we are inclined to view sexual preferences as a matter of individual fulfillment and opposition to any of them as irrational and reactionary, I suspect that it is an ineradicable part of human nature to be deeply anxious about sexual behavior, to intertwine it with morality, and to regulate to obsessively. If you think that we do not do that, ask yourself why our legal system treats workplace sexual harassment and child molestation with the remarkable severity that it does. At least as far as that goes, religious conservatives are probably more in touch with the importance of sexuality for human social life than secular liberals are.

With that mind-opener out of the way, we still haven’t addressed the basic issue.

The first basic error that I see religious conservatives making here, however, is the underlying assumption that they are speaking in behalf of social order as such, and their opponents speak for its destruction. Now this is understandable: when homosexuality was more pervasively stigmatized than it is now, to be gay or lesbian was to be opposed, openly or secretly, to at least one feature of social order, and it would not be surprising if that experience made one take a dim view of social order more generally. The irony here is that the same-sex marriage movement, if successful, will effectively destroy the “outsider culture” that has characterized the gay community in the West for the past two centuries. But more importantly, it begs the question of which social order is the right one.

Every culture does something with homosexual behavior. I recall reading years ago that certain Plains Indian tribes gave men (and only men) inclined to passive/receptive homosexual behavior the option of becoming “women” socially. Once that choice was made, (biologically male) “men” were free to marry (both biologically male and biologically female) “women” and adhere to all the other social norms governing marriage. This, however, is not “gay friendly” as we would understand it: not only are lesbians excluded from the option, but rigorous adherence to the masculine and feminine social roles was expected. My impression is that you got the option once, and that commitment, once made, was irreversible.

Of course the opponent does not really think that what is truly important is adherence to a long-standing social order, no matter what it is. Presumably he would want to see the Plains Indians change their practices. Since what the gods want here is unknowable, the argument must instead shift to the issue of naturalness.

How simple it must seem: we are morally required to do what is natural, the obvious natural function of sex is procreation, the purpose of the marriage institution is to structure procreative sex and child-rearing. Therefore, there shouldn’t be any homosexual behavior, and there surely shouldn’t be any homosexual marriages.

I must confess to some surprise when I see followers of Jesus “if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out” Christ plumping for naturalness, however time-honored the Thomistic take here may be. To be sure, Christianity is not as rigorously ascetic as critics like Nietzsche would have it, and nature is God’s creation too (bonoboes and all, one might add). It is equally odd to my ears to hear gay activists arguing that there are scientific arguments for the naturalness of homosexuality. You would think that a century and a half of being vilified as a walking disease would’ve taught them something too.

Ok, then. Naturalness: first, we must assume that naturalness confers normativity. I will spare you the metaethical digression here, as I suspect it won’t show much of anything one way or another. On my view, basic moral utterances are noncognitive, but I would concede that one might give reasons in light of facts for which utterances to make, an utterance being an act itself. But what is naturalness? It can’t be that which occurs in nature, because everything that is, or at least everything under discussion here, occurs in nature. There must be some notion of some events in nature being unnatural. What might that be?

The best I can some up with here is (following Ruth Millikan): some activity, whether the activity of an organ or the activity that is a behavioral repetoire, is natural if it is that which the thing was selected for. A heartbeat can cause various things (e. g., we could record it and use it in music, which might give us pleasure) but only one of these things is what the genes that code for hearts, their structure and typical activities, were selected for, and that is to pump blood. Why not just say that the function of a thing is its contribution to the continuance of the organism? Because then the reproductive systems would have no function, but hearts would. While it might be right that nothing has a function, surely if hearts do, so do reproductive systems.

Is this enough? No, for several reasons.

First, variation. There is no “human nature” on such an account. For example, if there are genes for, say, theft avoidance behavior, there might very well be (probably are) genes for sociopathy too. Nature is messy and icky. Homosexuality might be “natural” on this account (we don’t really know, and most of the evidence marshaled to support this thesis doesn’t do enough to rule out the possibility that homosexuality is “natural” the way Sickle Cell Anemia is–not everything that is genetic is selected for what it does to you) and at the same time be one of those natural things we don’t want.

Second, if the evidence showed that homosexuality was unnatural, nothing would necessarily follow from that even if we are Thomistic about things, for there is a suppressed premise that is often overlooked here: that one should always suppress the normatively unnatural without regard to costs and benefits.

It is probably “natural” that we have language, and that we use our vocal chords and ears as the primary input and output devices for it. If a doctor is confronted with a curable disease that causes deafness, she will try to cure it, and rightly so. But suppose someone is born incurably deaf. Suppose, say, 3% of the population is born deaf. In that population, a deviant use of the hands to substitute for ears and larynx emerges.

So it should be suppressed, right? Because it’s unnatural? After all, it is always better all the way ’round if unnatural things are suppressed, right? (One can imagine penalizing furtive use of sign language the same way the Victorians penalized masturbation: those damned hands again! The devil’s playground!)

Clearly, here we look at the costs and benefits. Even if we grant that there is natural normativity, more of it is realized for the deaf (natural needs to communicate, be sociable, etc.) if an unnatural use of the hands is developed and encouraged.

So suppose that homosexuality is like this. If so, it would make little sense to discourage it. No one fears that sign language will colonize and destroy speech, and nothing is gained by suppressing it. But what of marriage itself? Well, assuming that independent of sexual preference there is some propensity for people to avoid loneliness, form intimate relationships, set up households, etc. etc. do you want there to be an orderly process for, say, dividing shared property when such relationships break up, or a chaotic one? When one partner neglects or maliciously resists making a will, do you want the survivor’s interests to be protected or not? There are powerful reasons to regulate intimate relationships, all the reasons why we have marriage in the first place. To avoid having it for same-sex partnerships is simply less orderly and less pro-social than we have reason to be. In short, there is a conservative as well as liberal (freedom, equality) case for same-sex marriage.

I have set aside what may be the greatest source of conservative anxiety about gay marriage, and that is gay and lesbian parenting. That will be the topic for next time.

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