Thursday, May 10, 2012

In which I try to be thoughtful about opposition to gay marriage

So quite a few of my conservative friends are not thrilled by Obama's support of gay marriage, just as my liberal friends are not thrilled by the recent vote in North Carolina. A good conservative friend of mine feels that references to marriage equality are too glib and do not pay sufficient attention to the claims of gay marriage opponents. It's a fair point, and I try to engage these arguments seriously here. (LATER EDIT: To be clear, I take my friend's critique to mean there is a liberal echo chamber that does not take seriously opposition to their views, and that certain individuals in these echo chambers act glibly.  I do not by any means intend to imply that advocates of gay marriage are glib, or that vast amounts of literature and conversations have not shown the seriousness with which advocates of gay marriage study their opponents' positions.  It's just to say that some folks, sometimes, can glibly assume anyone who opposes gay marriage is just stupid.  And that's what I'm trying to engage here. By the way, thanks Michael.  Now, to the the arguments:)

Claim 1: "By your fruits you will know them": e.g. there is little empirical evidence that committed gay couples raise children poorly or lead to illicit behavior (absent homosexual relations, which is a bit of a tautological critique, e.g. being gay is wrong because it will result in people being gay). There is something to the critique of gay marriage as tending towards less monogamy than straight marriage, though the empirical reality of heterosexual monogamy rarely lives up to its much-vaunted normative commitments. Indeed, many married folks, including men, do not even share these normative commitments, believing it entirely permissible to cheat as long as they don't get caught, provide for their wives, etc. Women cheat too of course, but for various reasons, men tend to cheat more and tend to more often believe their cheating is okay. However, if wer'e talking about raising children rather than strict monogamy, the situation changes dramatically: Vast evidence indicates that the foster system and other places where children need adoption are not raising those children well (including, by the way, heterosexuals whose marriages either do not exist or are falling apart and, sometimes as a result, are unable to provide for their children). All of this is to say that (a) there is (at least as of yet) no obvious, empirical reason homosexual couples make worse partners or parents absent the tautology that they are homosexual partners or parents (e.g. that they will be homosexual or teach children homosexuality is permissible) and (b) there is a sufficient case to show gay couples would be better parents than many of the heterosexual parents now allowed to raise children, often in situations such that the state has to intervene (or legally is required to but has not intervened)

Claim 2: Advocates of gay marriage tend to simply reject an argument from authority, which can come in two ways: the first, from most conservatives, is a relatively unsophisticated use of the Bible or Christianity without a real concern that this authority is irrelevant to their interlocutors. By the way, for me, talking to Christians or Jews or Muslims, it remains the best argument and one that's much more difficult for believers to dismiss than they often do. That's not to say there aren't compelling religious arguments, but they're often quite strained. However, the authority of a sacred text doesn't do a lot of good talking to agnostics or people for whom the scripture is not a truth source. The second, much more sophisticated argument from authority, from Robert George et al, is to claim that there is an Aristotelian telos to marriage grounded in natural law. It's an impressive claim, but it is not one I find sufficiently grounded in empirical reality. Normative heterosexual monogamy is simply a rare empirical phenomenon. Heterosexual marriage is certainly much more common (though by no means a human universal, witness vast anthropological evidence otherwise), yet, again, cultural expectations of true monogamy are incredibly rare and only recently and in certain cultures have men (and women too, in certain contexts, though their sexual lives tend to be much more policed) been expected to be faithful to one partner their entire lives. Most cultures in the world that do hold to heterosexual marriage still expect men to cheat, and the men do cheat, often with little repercussions. Other cultures expect women to cheat as well, or expect marriages to last a shorter period of time, or tolerate some or much homosexual behavior during the life course, with varying degrees of expected discretion. So the "natural law" claim is buttressed upon a claim of a natural order of things that might well make sense within a certain social community of humans (e.g. the modern Anglo-American nations), but certainly not as a means of understanding human ontology on a universal scale. Ergo, the term natural becomes complicated. Much the same thing happened to Scottish "Common Sense" philosophy in the late 1800's for Protestants, leading to an increased emphasis on the importance of presuppositions rather than natural law.

Claim 3: So what's left after natural law? I would argue it's precisely our presuppositions, grounded and made real through our traditions. I think the best argument that opponents of gay marriage have is from Burke and neo-Aristotelians like MacIntyre (whom I haven't heard take a position on gay marriage, but one could imagine he has one). This is about the importance of traditions, which liberals too often ignore. Tradition gives our lives meaning, and it empowers us to shape and understand what we take to be real and how we define existence. I would argue empirically against a concept of "natural law" but I find a tremendous power in the idea of tradition, and I think it winds up doing a lot of the things that George claims for natural law. The best things about tradition is that it maintains certain virtues and ways of imagining the good from one generation to the next, things we don't want to lose. Here, of course, is where there is room for legitimate debate. Importantly, there are virtues and there are conditions for virtues, such as, for example, the virtue of charity and the condition of spending time with people whom one finds challenging in some way so as to maintain that virtue. People like Andrew Sullivan would argue that the virtues that really matter in the marriage context--e.g. loyalty, fidelity, commitment to a future generation--can all be maintained in a different condition, e.g. homosexual marriage. However, some people might say the virtues are only possible given certain conditions (this remains an empirical question--see above). Others might say the conditions themselves are goods in themselves regardless of whether they can maintain certain virtues. This is not a silly claim. One could say the same thing about an attraction to a region: a community from France might well be able to maintain its virtues in another country, but there is something important about being in France that might be irretrievably lost if it shifts its tradition elsewhere. However, this becomes almost a matter of taste and very difficult to have a reasond argument about, particularly if members of the tradition agree that virtues can be maintained and only conditions cannot.

On one level, I guess I just don't mind separate communities deciding what marriage means to them and keeping the government out of their business, provided that gov. gives equal rights to all individuals and allows any individual the ability to declare any other a dependent, heir, end-of-life decision maker, and all the other legal ramifications of marriage. Besides that, believe what you want about marriage. Of course, one could argue that's already happening, and certainly the Catholic Church leadership (for example) does not need to (and clearly does not) accept the government's definition of the term. Yet this begs the question of why the fight matters at all: why make it a government issue?  Why not just agree to disagree?   This brackets the question of civil unions which the Church does not welcome either (in terms of insurance to partners, etc, etc) but this is somewhat more surmountable in that we can imagine a world in which I ask for help with my platonic life-partner and then move fairly quickly for that into my no-so-platonic life partner.  So let's bracket civil unions and focus on marriage.  Why fight about it? The first answer is obvious: it is already a government issue inasmuch as the government (with some exceptions on the state level) has an explicitly heterosexual definition of marriage that excludes the possibility of gay marriage.  Even if civil unions are allowed and the sort of legal equality I describe above is allowed (and that's an if), the fact that straight marriage is the norm makes these civil unions necessarily second best in a way that would not be the case if the government did no marriages at all.  So gay marriage advocates have much to gain and opponents have much to lose.

And this gets into the question of why the state does marriages, which, I believe, has something to do with a sense on all sides that marriages matter.In fact, both opponents (the Catholic Bishops) and advocates (various Catholic gay groups, for example) have pushed to change the state definition of marriage precisely because the institution of marriage is understood as a critical column for or point of entry into mainstream stability and acceptability.  Making marriage a private matter--whether private qua individual or private qua community--would certainly weaken if not the institution of marriage then at least the common sense of the institution among various participants in the civil sphere.  That's why people are so passionate and upset about it.  It's why the issue has stakes.