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Mah-widge at Three Roads Blog
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Mah-widge

IT LOOKS LIKE MARRIAGE is back in the spotlight, or hot seat, depending on your point of view. Expect a whole new round of “DOMA” (defense of marriage act) ballot initiatives this fall, and not just in California.

The irony is that those who purport to defend the institution of marriage seek to defend something that doesn’t exist anymore—and hasn’t for over 300 years. Or so says Stephanie Coontz, director of research and public education at the Council on Contemporary Families and author of “Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage.”

In January Coontz wrote a post—essentially a distilled version of her book—for the Cato Unbound, a blog of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think-tank. In her post she outlines the evolution of marriage.

For most of it history, she says, marriage has been a way to put people in their place and distribute (read: concentrate) wealth and power. Coontz: “[For] millennia, marriage was much more about regulating economic, political, and gender hierarchies than nourishing the well-being of adults and their children. Until the late 18th century, parents took for granted their right to arrange their children’s marriages and even, in many regions, to dissolve a marriage made without their permission.”

Love, compatibility, equity and equality—the things we now associate with marriage—weren’t considered as a basis for matrimony until the Enlightenment, a short 300 years ago.

“These [Enlightenment] marital ideals appalled many social conservatives of the day,” she says. “’How will we get the right people to marry each other, if they can refuse on such trivial grounds as lack of love?’” they asked. “Just as important, how will we prevent the wrong ones, such as paupers and servants, from marrying? What would compel people to stay in marriages where love had died? What would prevent wives from challenging their husbands’ authority?”

Not much has changed. The idea that love is the only prerequisite for marriage, the principle that drives advocates for marriage equality, doesn’t sway conservatives today for the same reason it didn’t sway conservatives 300 years ago: Marriage is about proper societal organization and allegiance to Judeo-Christian morality, not merely the love between two people.

Some so-called defenders of marriage aren’t actually trying to save the institution of marriage as it exists today; it’s already too far gone to be saved. They’d have to turn back the clock to pre-Enlightenment times. Instead, they’re trying to save us from what they see is the socially and morally destructive aspects of homosexuality, and if they can no longer have an outright ban on same-sex relationships (not politically feasible or culturally acceptable anymore), they’ll settle for a ban on same-sex marriage (still politically feasible and culturally acceptable—though I suspect not for much monger, what with Millennials showing an exceptionally high level of tolerance for the untraditional).

Anyway, check out the Coontz’s post. Very illuminating.

23 Responses to “Mah-widge”


  1. 1 Jared

    What seems to be at stake is whether or not marriage has a nature. That is, does marriage mean something in itself or does it only have the meaning that we give it. Coontz and Foster take the latter position, which, in the end, really means that marriage has no meaning. Let me try to explain.

    The “defenders of marriage,” as they are ironically called, believe that they are in fact defending some-thing. Marriage, they would argue, means something in itself; in other words, it has a definition. That definition, which has been pretty consistent in almost all times and almost all places, is that marriage is the union of a man and woman, oriented toward the mutual help and support of spouses, and the procreation and education of children. This definition would be recognized by pagan Greeks, Romans, and barbarians as well as Jews, Christians, and Muslims and is the the definition that most people still recognize today. Even the people of California and Oregon, no bastions of conservative thought, largely recognize this definition.

    There has been no real “evolution” of marriage, only different emphases and better or worse understandings of what marriage is. Currently, we have a rather impoverished understanding of marriage, but that does not mean that the meaning of marriage has changed. We might fail to live up to that meaning, we might ignore it, or weaken it in various ways, but marriage is what it has always been: a union of a man and woman oriented toward unity and procreation.

    This is getting a bit long already, but here are two closing thoughts. One, love, though essential to the flourishing of the union, does not trump all other considerations. For example, what if I fell in love with my friend’s wife, and she with me? Does this love make us married? Of course not. Should we pursue this love to the detriment of their marriage? Of course not. We can all recognize that their are limits to love and that love must be governed by some kind of external laws or standards. Love, by which most people mean eros or romantic love, is a fickle beast and does not a marriage make. There are real limits–both natural and conventional–which should be placed on love.

    Second, consider what it would mean to be really committed to the idea of an “evolution” of marriage. It would mean that marriage has no essential meaning, for it would always be changing, which means that, at some time in the future, the love which is so precious to this generation could become a vestigial structure in the next. So, why put any stock in love if it may well be extinct in the future?

    Also, what guides this “evolution” of marriage? Natural selection? The changing mores or passing fads of culture? If so, which culture? America? Africa? Saudi Arabia? Let us not be so arrogant as to think that the rest of the world thinks of marriage the way that some of us Westerners have come to think of it.

    As I said above, I think that behind the idea of an “evolution” of marriage is the idea that marriage has no definite meaning and so we can give it whatever meaning we like. If so, then it is preference–not nature or truth–that defines marriage. If so, then who are you to criticize or legislate against anyone if he prefers his mother or his dachsund or a group of his students and wants to get married?

  2. 2 Jeb

    Jared: Thanks for the comment! It really made me think.

    I don’t have much time at the moment, but here’s a quick thought:

    If marriage has a specific definition, one that would be recognized by pagan Romans and pagan Californians, does that mean it cannot or should not change? For most of history, marriage was defined as something that was done only between two people of the same race. Indeed, “miscegenation” was illegal in many states until quite recently. We have since changed our definition of marriage to include interracial couples. But people fought hard to keep miscegenation laws, claiming that marriage between people of two races was an affront to tradition. They believed interracial marriage would undermine the sanctity of their own unions, echoing current arguments against gay marriage.

  3. 3 Jared

    Jeb,

    Thanks for the quick thought. I look forward to a longer response.

    I return to the point I made in my previous comment: marriage has a nature. That nature is described, more or less, by the definition I suggested above. Essential to the nature, and hence definition, of marriage is a man and a woman–complementary by nature–and the orientation–also by nature–toward unity and procreation. Not essential to that definition is “race,” so the prohibition in many (though by no means all) cultures against “inter-racial” marriages is largely prejudice.

    I say “largely” because I think that there might be legitimate reasons to encourage not marrying outside your “race,” depending on what we mean by race. Back in the day, I don’t think “race” simply meant “brown skin”, as it often does now, but was connected intimately with ‘culture’, that is, religion (cultus) and one’s way of life. So, for example, in the Bible, Rebekah complains about the Hittite women that Esau marries, and Solomon, for all his wisdom, is lead into idolatry–covenant-breaking activity–by his foreign wives.

    But, “race”, understood as brown skin, is by no means essential to the meaning of marriage and, in our country at least, should be no impediment to marrying. Gender, or more accurately, sex, is essential to the meaning of marriage. No matter what we do we cannot change the meaning of marriage–certainly no government or, more likely, court has the power to change what is written into the very nature of things. And nor would we want them to have such power.

    Take a similar case from history: Caligula, the crazy Roman emperor, made his horse a general. Does that make his horse a human? Of course not. Can Caligula, and the Roman Senate in fear of him, re-define a human being to include horses? They might try and they may even pass laws in which everyone is forced to acknowledge as true something they know is false, but a horse is a horse (of course, of course). We can call a horse a general or a human, but it will never be a rational being (essential to the meaning of human) and so it will ever remain a horse no matter what we call it or what the government says we must accept.

    Such is the case of so-called “gay marriage.” Can two dudes love and smooch each other? Sure. Can they rent the wombs of poor Indian women so they can have at least half-biological offspring? Unfortunately, yes. But can they fulfill the definition of marriage as it is written into the nature of things? No. This is not prejudice, but an acknowlegement that things have meaning, irregardless of our feelings and preferences, and that those meaning should be respected.

  4. 4 Jeb

    Jared: I’ll start by saying that I’m thrilled to have to have you commenting on my blog!

    To me, marriage is a product of culture, not nature. (Its nature is cultural, you might say.) Procreation, on the other hand, is indeed all about nature. You’re right that two gay men cannot procreate—that goes against nature. But two men marrying? All that goes against is our passed-down cultural understanding of what marriage should be. I’m comfortable with that understanding changing over time to be more inclusive.

    Sex (as in gender) is essential to marriage only if you consider procreation to be essential, in which case, if you continue with that logic, men and women today should not be allowed to marry unless they pledge to have kids. That or we shouldn’t consider a man and woman to be husband and wife until the wife has a bun in the oven.

    I realize that you brought up the key question in your first comment—What is the nature of marriage? If you believe marriage is a natural thing—akin to, say, photosynthesis—then, yes, one cannot tinker with the formula, get a different result and call it by the same name (just as one cannot give a seed only moonlight and expect it to grow into a plant).

    But if you think marriage is a cultural thing, something that we humans build and give meaning to, then it’s easier to contemplate changing the formula to be more inclusive.

  5. 5 Jeb

    What about Coontz’s claim that marriage offers “more benefits … than ever before”? Do you agree with that notion? Here’s the paragraph:

    Today, when a marriage works, it delivers more benefits to its members — adults and children — than ever before. A good marriage is fairer and more fulfilling for both men and women than couples of the past could ever have imagined. Domestic violence and sexual coercion have fallen sharply. More couples share decision-making and housework than ever before. Parents devote unprecedented time and resources to their children. And men in stable marriages are far less likely to cheat on their wives than in the past.

  6. 6 Jeb

    Jared:

    This article struck me as a pretty good analysis of the marriage issue.

    The ideal libertarian solution would be to have the government get out of the ‘marriage’ business altogether; to have government enforce civil contracts, and to have religions perform their religious ceremonies, if and how they choose to do so.

    But since we don’t live in Libertopia, we’re left with a purely civil legal privilege available to one set of people, but not to another set, simply because that civil legal privilege arose from a religious ceremony. At least, within our cultural heritage; among some other cultures, marriage had little to do with religion. If those who object to gay marriage on religious grounds would be consistent, then let them also reject the civil privileges of marriage not contained in the Bible.

  7. 7 Jared

    Jeb,

    It has been a pleasure to comment on this blog (though way too tempting). Let me offer a few brief responses.

    First, marriage is both natural and conventional. By nature men and women are oriented toward one another for the sake of unity and procreation. This is for the good of spouses, children, and society. This is all by nature. Now, how this looks in any particular culture may vary some, but the core will always (or almost always) be the same. One might say that the naked truth is the same, but the clothes differ.

    I think you would be hard pressed to find any culture of any time that thought that two men could be married. This claim comes at our particular time when words have come to be less meaningful and personal preferences seem to trump all other considerations. The only “gay marriage” I have ever read about was Nero’s third marriage. One can read about it in The Annals, where Tacitus describes in sober detail how Nero donned a veil and consummated his marriage publicly. Tacitus begins the next chapter with, “Then Rome burned.” Suggestive to say the least.

    Which brings me to my second point: marriage is not simply about personal fulfillment (what Coontz seems to suggest), but has societal implications. Marriage is the foundation of society; family is the primary cell of society. This is Aristotle’s Politics 101.

    Third, it is only in a contraceptive culture that one can separate procreation from marriage. The really inseparable bond between marriage, sex, and babies has been weakened by our habitual use of contraception which separates sex and babies (making babies a “choice”) and also “freeing” people to have sex without marriage (denying the responsibility toward the other, and using him or her as means not an end, in the sexual act). This is really a modern phenomenon.

    But, I would argue, that procreation, by nature, belongs in marriage. Consider the following: sex, naturally, leads to babies (unless you do something to stop it). Children do better with two parents, a father and mother. This is shown time and again is sociological studies of children of divorce or unwed mothers who routinely have more problems with school, drugs, and crime. This is not mere convention; this is true because of the nature of who we are and who we are meant to be.

    Similarly, the “language of sex” bespeaks permenance. Sex is a mutual and total self-giving in love. This is the meaning of sex. Now, we can use other people for pleasing ourselves sexually, but this is an abuse of sex. It is a taking and not a giving. You do not seem like the kind of person who would advocate using others for sex or, what is the same thing, casual sex, so I don’t need to convince you here (do I?). The sexual act is an act in which two people–and I will argue, two spouses–give themselves to each other without reserve as a gift. If sex is a total gift of self, then nothing can and should be held back. Here we have the argument against contraception, especially within marriage. But we also here have the reason that sex should not be had outside of marriage: because of the deep meaning and total self-giving that occurs in the sexual act, we need a relationship that can sustain such an act. The only relationship that fits the bill is the indissoluble bond of marriage.

    QED: by nature sex belongs in marriage.

    Fourth, and finally, the Coontz quote demonstrates a shocking display of ignorance and a fair amount of unexamined suppositions. Briefly, domestic abuse has been on the rise, dramatically, in the past forty years. (Interestingly, though perhaps not surprisingly, this rise is in direct proportion to the availability of pornography.) Also, most gay couples have the benefits that married people such as inheritance and visiting rights (these things can easily be arranged legally). They should have these rights and where they don’t laws can be modified to provide such rights. But, generally, what gays want is not rights, but recognition. The first we might be able to give them, the second we are obliged not to.

  8. 8 Jared

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    Jeb,

    I hope I have not argued you into silence. I often say “briefly” and then go on for quite a while. Sorry about that. I do hope that the parry and thrust continues.

    In the meantime, I thought I would send you an article that formed much of my thinking about marriage (though by no means all, as we can discuss in the future). I sent this to Nick before he got married and he too was much edified.

    Read it at your leisure and let me know what you think.

    http://www.firstthings.com/article.php3?id_article=3213

  9. 9 Jeb

    Argued me into silence? Mariah would say that’s impossible.:)

    What about marriage purely as an issue of public policy? I my view, that’s really what’s at stake here. It’s a civil issue—one of human law rather than divine law. (I’m agnostic, but I would say that we humans have no bearing on divine law.) What’s at stake is what the government defines as marriage. Gay-marriage supporters are not lobbying to have anyone’s sacred text reprinted to include their definition of marriage. They’re just looking for equal protection and favor from the law.

  10. 10 Jared

    Jeb,

    Who is this Mariah of whom you speak? Friend? Fiance? Is she following these arguments too?

    When you speak of marriage “purely as an issue of public policy’ and follow by saying that the real issue is “what the government defines as marriage,” I think you are on grounds that would eventually make you unhappy.

    The government cannot, and really does not have any power on earth (or in heaven) to, define marriage. The government can only recognize the meaning of marriage written into nature and regulate it for the good of society.

    As I think you are aware, there are really very deep philosophical commitments behind what is being said here. This is evidenced by the discussion above about nature and convention. The marriage question is not simply a matter of being nice to gay people, but is a matter concerning the nature of reality.

    But if you insist on saying that marriage is mere custom, then please clarify a few things for me:

    Whose customs count? Only ours? Or those of other countries or religions or even parts of America?

    You seem to have some value, a philosophical commitment, governing your idea that “gay marriage” is a acceptable. Maybe it is some governing idea of “inclusion” or “openness.” But why are these the values that should govern public policy? You seem to dogmatically hold that these are good things, but we could argue that these values, while good in some cases, are really misapplied to marriage (why, for example, could we not be open to and include incestuous or bestial “marriages”?).

    Do you really hold that marriage is mere convention? If so, do you mean that permanent unions are convention? That there is nothing in nature to recommend them? What about marriage do you think is conventional? Just its heteronormativity or the institution itself?

    If marriage is just a convention, then why get married at all? Why not stick a finger in Uncle Sam’s eye and say, ‘To hell with your outdated institutions; I shall follow my own way’?

    Lastly, for the record, I would like it to be noted that I was not the first to bring up religion. I am happy to invoke religion–and I think that the most beautiful understanding of marriage is the Christian one–but I do not have to. So far, I have rooted all my arguments in reason and nature.

    We can argue about “gay marriage,” and I am happy to do so, but I think it obfuscates the real issue at stake. It might be better to discuss marriage as such and then turn our attention to the gay question. If we understood marriage better, then we could rightly locate where gay people stood in relation to it.

  11. 11 Jeb

    Yay! Eleven comments! (A new record for this blog.) Thanks again, Jared, for your thoughts. Although I think we both look to our own respective frameworks when discussing this issue, I’ve learned a lot by reading your comments.

    Since I don’t have the mental capacity today to put my thoughts into any sort of logical organization, I sort of combed through your latest comment and added my own ideas and impressions in red. (I know that’s an annoying thing to do—there’s even a name for it but I can’t remember what it is—but I hope you can forgive me.

    Who is this Mariah of whom you speak? Friend? Fiance? Is she following these arguments too? [She is my fiancé!]

    When you speak of marriage “purely as an issue of public policy’ and follow by saying that the real issue is “what the government defines as marriage,” I think you are on grounds that would eventually make you unhappy. [I’m saying that the current debate—in California and elsewhere—is about what public policy should be. The government currently defines marriage; I’m increasingly of the mind that the government shouldn’t (try) to do that. Here's an more eloquent explanation:

    We have conflated two separate modes of law, in the process introducing religious judgments into civil law. Therein lies the fault: as Locke had it, peers enforced the Law of Public Opinion, "politic societies" (i.e., properly enacted government) enforced the Civil Law (which consisted of protecting "life, liberty and estate"), and God enforced his own law. But we've confused them, as if a God somehow requires the assistance of politicians.

    The government cannot, and really does not have any power on earth (or in heaven) to, define marriage. [Absolutely agree.] The government can only recognize the meaning of marriage written into nature and regulate it for the good of society. [I suppose I question this notion of government recognition/regulation – why must the state recognize the/a meaning of marriage? People have clearly have different ideas of the meaning of marriage; whose ideas should the government endorse?]

    As I think you are aware, there are really very deep philosophical commitments behind what is being said here. This is evidenced by the discussion above about nature and convention. The marriage question is not simply a matter of being nice to gay people, but is a matter concerning the nature of reality.

    But if you insist on saying that marriage is mere custom, then please clarify a few things for me:

    Whose customs count? [The customs of consenting adults.] Only ours? Or those of other countries or religions or even parts of America? [I’m not concerned with other countries on this issue. Our country has a tradition of pluralism that I find admirable. We’re not and haven’t been perfect on that score, but we’ve generally progressed toward the ideals that we wrote down in our founding documents. Allowing gay marriage, I think, would mark further progress.]

    You seem to have some value, a philosophical commitment, governing your idea that “gay marriage” is a acceptable. Maybe it is some governing idea of “inclusion” or “openness.” But why are these the values that should govern public policy? You seem to dogmatically hold that these are good things, but we could argue that these values, while good in some cases, are really misapplied to marriage (why, for example, could we not be open to and include incestuous or bestial “marriages”?). [This always comes up in this debate; I think it’s silly to compare homosexuality with bestiality and incest.]

    Do you really hold that marriage is mere convention? If so, do you mean that permanent unions are convention? That there is nothing in nature to recommend them? What about marriage do you think is conventional? Just its heteronormativity or the institution itself?

    If marriage is just a convention, then why get married at all? [I’m not saying marriage has no meaning—it has a lot of meaning to me: that’s why I’m getting married in September. But if public policy is designed around one concept of marriage (currently a specifically defined Judeo-Christian one) then that’s where I see a problem.

    I see the U.S. as placing a value on the inclusion, support and protection of differences—be it skin color, religious preference or sexual orientation. That’s a great thing, I think. I see gay marriage as continuing in this tradition of inclusion.] Why not stick a finger in Uncle Sam’s eye and say, ‘To hell with your outdated institutions; I shall follow my own way’? [Should black people living in the Jim Crow era have said, “Tell hell with your outdated notion of equality; I shall follow my own way?”?]

    Lastly, for the record, I would like it to be noted that I was not the first to bring up religion. I am happy to invoke religion–and I think that the most beautiful understanding of marriage is the Christian one–but I do not have to. [I agree that the Christian notion of marriage is a beautiful one!] So far, I have rooted all my arguments in reason and nature. [That’s true, but in the current national debate, most opponents to gay marriage buttress their arguments with their religious convictions.]

    We can argue about “gay marriage,” and I am happy to do so, but I think it obfuscates the real issue at stake. It might be better to discuss marriage as such and then turn our attention to the gay question. If we understood marriage better, then we could rightly locate where gay people stood in relation to it.

  12. 12 Jared

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    Jeb,

    I am happy to be a part of a personal achievement in the blogosphere. A milestone (or its digital equivalent) has been reached and the spirit of champaigne is all around. Let us rejoice and be glad.

    Do send my warm regards to Mariah. And congratulations on your upcoming nuptials. May God bless you with a long and fruitful marriage and with many and beautiful children.

    I am glad that you are attracted to the Christian notion of marriage. I hope that we can eventually move the discussion in that direction rather than the polemical issue of gay marriage. But alas, we are here for now, and so we keep on truckin’.

    To tell the truth, I did not plan on responding tonight, as it is getting a bit late for me. But I just read an article that made me think of you. It makes the case that your libertarian vision of marriage leads down a path to a totalitarian fulfillment. I don’t like putting forth links instead of arguments, but the article develops the point better than I could. So, here it is: http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/?p=1088

    I will, though, make two brief (brief!) points in regard to what you have written:

    One, I do not so much compare homosexuality to bestiality, as I criticize the philosophical commitment that you use to justify gay marriage, namely, inclusivity and consent. My objection is that we could find someone to consent to almost anything and, guided by the absolute value of inclusivity, we could not deny them their right to consent to whatever they prefer, be it other men, many wives, children, animals, etc. Any pedophile or polygamist could make a civil rights case based on inclusivity (and, if you do not follow these things, they already are).

    Which brings me to my second brief point: as I argued several posts ago, marriage is not something that the government defines because the meaning of marriage is rooted in nature. Sexual complementarity and the begetting of children are not man-made conventions. They are the natural basis of marriage, and gay marriages cannot in any way fulfill them. Nature cannot be erased, no matter how much we try to hide it.

    As I noted above, marriage and family is the primary cell of society. As the family goes, so goes the society. If we try to change the very meaning of marriage, we, in essence, destroy it, and dig up civilization at its roots. It is not entirely clear to me that we could then hold together as a society. I learned this way of thinking from Aristotle, who, as you know, is no Judeo-Christian.

  13. 13 Jared

    Unfortunately, when I say ‘brief’, I mean, ‘I will keep on writing as much as I want until I run out of time or my eyes hurt’.

    I was just rereading your comments and noticed that I missed your Jim Crow comment (it wasn’t in red so my eyes passed over it the first time). It is a telling comment and an important one for by invoking Jim Crow and equality you really make my point and not yours.

    The reason black people could invoke equality was because the equality of all people is not a mere custom, but something in nature. All men, and women, are created equal: this is a self-evident truth of nature and is NOT a convention of man. Black people were absolutely right to demand that they be treated equally because America was not living up to its founding principles; principles which it did NOT create according to its preferences, but which it recognized in nature and articulated beautifully in its founding documents.

    The black call for equality had nothing to do with inclusivity, but with the demand that they be treated in accord with their inherent dignity as human beings, which means being treated with equality, an equality which is a self-evident truth rooted in nature. America failed to live up to the natural law which they had enshrined in their founding documents.

    The call to make gay marriage a civil rights issue seems similar to the blacks’ struggle–on a superficial level–but on examination this comparison falls apart because nature is not on the side of gays. Equality for blacks (and women) is in accord with nature, while homosexual unions are contrary to nature and not in accord with it.

  14. 14 Jeb

    In no time the word count of this comment thread is going to exceed that of every post I’ve written for this blog.

    (I may be belaboring the point, but I relish reading your comments. Keep ‘em coming!)

    Ok, here are my thoughts:

    For me, marriage is not something that is “written into nature.”

    Sex and procreation are—and perhaps monogamy is as well. (That’s what a lot of evolutionary biologists say, anyway.) But marriage is something else, I think.

    Maybe marriage is some kind of social codification of natural impulses. Yes, you’re right that one of those impulses is procreation. Another is the impulse to spend one’s life with one single person.

    You say “homosexual unions are contrary to nature and not in accord with it”—and that is true from a procreation standpoint, but not from a marriage one. Why can’t gay people marry? What objections does “nature” present? If you think of marriage as a mere synonym for procreation, then maybe you’ve got a point.

    ” … marriage is not something that the government defines because the meaning of marriage is rooted in nature. Sexual complementarity and the begetting of children are not man-made conventions.”

    Whether you realize it or not, you’ve equated marriage with “sexual complementarity and the begetting of children.” Is that what you believe, that those things are one and the same?

    Also, you make a leap with your thinking that I don’t. You seem to think that if marriage is something defined by man, it has no meaning or is not worthwhile.

    I agree with the first two sentences of this paragraph:

    As I noted above, marriage and family is the primary cell of society. As the family goes, so goes the society. If we try to change the very meaning of marriage, we, in essence, destroy it, and dig up civilization at its roots. It is not entirely clear to me that we could then hold together as a society. I learned this way of thinking from Aristotle, who, as you know, is no Judeo-Christian.

    But disagree with the rest. In a macro sense, the sexual orientation of family members has nothing to do with the health of the family and/or society. You’ll find proportionate health and dysfunction in all family types. Massachusetts is still standing after it legalized gay marriage. (Indeed, polls show ever greater acceptance of the state high court’s ruling.) Do expect that to change—is Massachusetts heading down the road to societal disintegration?

  15. 15 Nick

    Jeb and Jared,
    I hate to weigh in on your debate, but I think I see a big problem in the way you two are talking to each other which should be addressed. If I am putting words into each of your mouths so please forgive me and tell me when I am overstepping my bounds, I’m just trying to help you two get on common ground.

    It about this business of nature. Jeb, I have a feeling that you never felt you comment about photosynthesis was not adequately address, and that when Jared speaks of nature you do not find it as persuasive and compelling as you might find an argument for photosynthesis. It seems that you equate nature with science, i.e., deducing testable hypothesis from empirical data. Since that is not what Jared is talking about, I think you guys are not meeting on the grounds where you should meet.

    Jared, when you talk about nature you do not mean science in the way Jeb means. Rather, I think you are talking about it in the manner in which we might distinguish nature from culture or custom. Although you would included those sciences in your understanding of nature it is also much more far reaching than Jeb’s. For example you would say that all men are, by nature, equal. This is of course not something which could be tested with a hypothesis and empirical data, but it is undoubtedly true.

    Jeb, am I characterizing your perspective correctly? I think you conversation with Jared would be much more fruitful if you would clarify what you mean by ‘nature’, since you say you disagree with him about this particular point but it is not exactly clear why.

  16. 16 Nick

    I should proofread more carefully. Please excuse the ’so’ in the first sentence and the following sentence should read like this:

    Jeb, I have a feeling that you never felt you comment about photosynthesis was adequately addressed, and that when Jared speaks of nature you do not find it as persuasive and compelling as you might find an argument for photosynthesis.

  17. 17 Jared

    Nick, thank you for the observation. That was going to be the first point in my next response.

    I began to see that what Jeb means by ‘nature’ is what I would call ‘biology’. As I understand it, biology is a part of nature, but not the whole story. Nature, as I have been using it, means “what a thing is” or “the essence of a thing.” For example, squirrels are squirrels and by nature squirrels do squirrelly things. They hop around, gather acorns, attack my wife’s basil plants, and climb trees. This is what squirrels do by nature; in other words, it is the nature of a squirrel to be squirrelly. As humans, we are, by nature, rational animals who have free will (there is a biological component in our nature, but also something more).

    I have also used ‘nature’ in a similar, though broader sense, as Nick points out in the phrase “all men are, by nature, equal.” Here I mean nature as “the way things are” in a broader sense, that is, the truth of things written into reality. We might call this the “natural law” or use some similar term. Within this understanding of nature, though not separated from the first sense, our human actions also have a “nature” or a meaning and purpose. We don’t make this meaning, but we discover it and live it out.

    So, for example, marriage has a meaning and purpose (unity and procreation). We do not make this meaning, but we discover it as a given of reality, of the way things are. Sex, within marriage, is not just a biological reality, but, we could say, also an existential one and, as I have suggested, a social one as well. We are not simply irrational animals passing on our genes, but human beings who make free choices about our spouses and who pass on not just chromosomes to our offspring, but a way of life. This is part of what it means to be human–it is our nature as human beings.

    Second, I want to reiterate the definition of marriage that I gave above: “marriage is the union of a man and woman, oriented toward the mutual help and support of spouses, and the procreation and education of children.” There is indeed a biological component to this–who could deny that?–but the nature of marriage is by no means limited to biology. Sorry if I gave that impression.

    Lastly, I would like to restate the argument I gave above about how marriage is a natural institution. Jeb, even by your strict evolutionary biology standards (sex, procreation, monogamy), you have basically come to the definition of marriage. But here is the argument from above again:

    …it is only in a contraceptive culture that one can separate procreation from marriage. The really inseparable bond between marriage, sex, and babies has been weakened by our habitual use of contraception which separates sex and babies (making babies a “choice”) and also “freeing” people to have sex without marriage (denying the responsibility toward the other, and using him or her as means not an end, in the sexual act). This is really a modern phenomenon.

    But, I would argue, that procreation, by nature, belongs in marriage. Consider the following: sex, naturally, leads to babies. Children do better with two parents, a father and mother. This is shown time and again is sociological studies of children of divorce or unwed mothers who routinely have more problems with school, drugs, and crime. This is not mere convention; this is true because of the nature of who we are and who we are meant to be.

    Similarly, the “language of sex” bespeaks permanence. Sex is a mutual and total self-giving in love. This is the meaning of sex. Now, we can use other people for pleasing ourselves sexually, but this is an abuse of sex. It is a taking and not a giving. You do not seem like the kind of person who would advocate using others for sex or, what is the same thing, casual sex, so I don’t need to convince you here. The sexual act is an act in which a husband and a wife give themselves to each other without reserve as a gift. If sex is a total gift of self, then nothing can and should be held back. Here we have the argument against contraception, especially within marriage. But we also here have the reason that sex should not be had outside of marriage: because of the deep meaning and total self-giving that occurs in the sexual act, we need a relationship that can sustain such an act. The only relationship that fits the bill is the indissoluble bond of marriage.

    QED: by nature sex belongs in marriage.

  18. 18 Jeb

    Nick and Jared:

    I’ve clearly got a lot to chew on here, and I badly want to write, but I’ve got much less interesting things monopolizing my time on this Monday.

    In the meantime, I’ll ask a quick question:

    What should the government’s role in marriage be? Why?

  19. 19 Jeb

    Essentially, we’re talking about competing definitions of “marriage.” The question is which one, if any, should the government recognize?

    Here are the two definitions in question:

    • 1. One group defines marriage as, at minimum, a union between and man and a woman.
    • 2. Another defines marriage as, at minimum, a union between two adults.

    Currently, the government recognizes the first group’s definition. The second wants the government to recognize theirs.

    What to do? If you ask Group 1, they’ll say this: “Protect my definition of marriage. After all, it’s the correct/natural/historically agreed-upon definition.” If you ask Group 2, they’ll say this: “Recognize my definition. After all, it’s the correct/just/forward-thinking definition.”

    Each group also says that the other’s definition is mistaken and will cause/causes harm to the other. And both sides make terrific arguments to support their definition, but the government is left with a quandary—which one to get behind?

    Group 1: “This is silly. Redefining marriage to include ‘gay marriage’ is a contradiction. It’s akin to redefining a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to include ham and cheese. One cannot ignore the true nature of marriage and its biological underpinnings, namely procreation.”

    Group 2: “We understand you think marriage is between a man and woman. We disagree. What’s more, we don’t see why our definition should threaten yours. And let’s not forget that we live in a country that is dedicated to accommodating a plurality of ideas. Take religion, for example. The government recognizes a huge variety of them—and those different religions essentially offer competing ‘definitions’ of god. Should the government change course and endorse one definition of god, one religion?”

    Group 1: “You’re advocating putting your own notion of diversity and inclusiveness above the course human history, the logic of our biology and more importantly, the health of our society. Let us speak to that last item. If we redefine marriage in the manner you suggest, we essentially kill it in the process. Marriage and family are the building blocks of society. As goes marriage, so goes society.”

    Group 2: “On the contrary, the institution of marriage will be strengthened once the government recognizes gay marriage. What’s more, we think society will benefit from it, too, especially when you consider the alternative: families without married parents. Who wins in that situation? Surely not children. Marriage, as I’m sure you agree, is essential for creating unity and familial cohesion. If you’re concerned about the health of society, more marriage is better than less.”

    Group 1: “If you start tinkering with the definition of marriage, where do you stop? What if someone wanted to marry his horse? What if , in his deranged mind, he thought the definition of marriage should include unions between man and animals?”

    Group 2: “As you recall, we define marriage as a union between two adults. We believe this on the basis that rational, consenting adults should be able to get married if that’s what they choose to do. A horse (of course) is neither rational, consenting nor an adult human.

    And since we can anticipate your question about incest, we’ll answer it right now: While you may have two consenting adults, the concerns of societal health trump all. Society has an overwhelming interest in limiting (because it can’t practically prevent) incestuous relationships, whereas there’s no empirical evidence that society is harmed by gay relationships. ”

    Group 1: “Allow me to make another point, a point which struck me when you were talking about families with gay parents. How do such families come into being? One thing is clear: they don’t come into being through natural procreation between gay parents. And to go back to our PB&J analogy, marriage without procreation is like peanut butter and jelly without the jelly. To separate the two is to undermine marriage to the point of non-existence. As we read in a great blog somewhere, “Only in a contraceptive culture one can separate procreation from marriage. The really inseparable bond between marriage, sex, and babies has been weakened by our habitual use of contraception which separates sex and babies (making babies a ‘choice’) and also ‘freeing’ people to have sex without marriage (denying the responsibility toward the other, and using him or her as means not an end, in the sexual act). This is really a modern phenomenon.”

    Group 2: “Again, we must respectfully disagree. It seems you see marriage, sex and offspring as three sides of a triangle. Whereas you see that triangle as reflecting a immutable reality, we see it as simply reflecting your own specific morality. We don’t resent you for believing what you believe, and we’re not asking you to change. We’re asking the government to change—to recognize that there are differences in belief. It shouldn’t be a stretch—they already recognize various religious faiths.”

  20. 20 Jared

    Group 1: “Ah, I see. So what you are saying is that triangles, like marriage, have a nature, but that in the name of plurality we should say that shapes with two sides (or four or rounded sides) are also triangles. According to this vision of reality, triangles can have any number of sides that consenting adults prefer. Hm, right.

    We here in Group 1 respectfully disagree. We recognize triangles for what they are–three-sided figures–and not for what we would like them to be.

    Relatedly, why, according to your view, should the government narrow marriage to your stifling definition of TWO consenting adults? Gimme many consenting adults, and tax breaks to boot! What is wrong with that?

    And, for that matter, why is consent a requisite for marriage anyway?

    Group 2: Well, Group 2 has not yet considered why polygamy is wrong(or is it?), but we will get back to you soon. As to your other points: maybe triangles aren’t a good example. Triangles have an immutable nature, but marriage does not. And, of course consent is a requirement for marriage–you can’t force someone into marriage.

    Group 1: You have still not made an ARGUMENT for why you think marriage does NOT have a nature, nor have you tried to refute our argument. We await either of these eagerly. But, to address your last point:

    Are you saying that there is a freedom in humans that the governmeent must respect no matter what? Are you saying that our natural dignity as human persons demands that consent be a part of marriage?

    Group 2: Yes, the exercise of freedom is part of our human dignity. We have this dignity by nature (as you defined it above).

    Group 1: Okay, so we are agreed that there is a truth of things that is simply a given, and freedom is one of those truths and consent in marriage is another. These are two immutable truths given to us by nature.

    Group 2: Well, we don’t like the word ‘immutable’, but the logic of the argument certainly leads us here. So, yes, these are two immutable truths of nature. We agree (albeit nervously).

    Group 1: Great. Groupd 1 is very proud of you. But here is another question: if consent is all that is required, then why can’t two heterosexual men get married? They’d get great tax breaks and all the other bennies of being married.

    Group 2: Are you making fun of us?

    Group 1: Sort of.

    Group 2: Two roommates can’t get married because they do not love each other in a romantic way and they do not have a sexual relationship together.

    Group 1: But married people who stop loving each other are still married, aren’t they? Doesn’t that show that somehow the bond of marriage is stronger than the feelings of love at any one time? Also, you would not want the government trying to determine the love between two people, for obvious reasons.

    Group 2: Yes, that is true.

    Group 1: But if you really believe that sex is important, then why do you keep disparaging the argument (brilliantly outlined above) that procreation is essential to marriage–babies are the natural end of sex (unless there is a problem or one places a barrier in the way).

    If sex is important (an immutably true part of marriage, you might say?) then we are back to nature, in the more biological sense. Forgive me for being a bit childish here, but I think the following will make the nature point: wee-wee’s go in woo-woo’s; wee-wee’s can’t do anything with other wee-wee’s and they certainly don’t go in rear ends. This is contrary to nature, even, and especially, by your strict evolutionary biology standard. (How would anything evolve were homosexuality the prevailing case? And might not nature, as in ‘natural selection’, weed out ‘homosexual’ animals?)

    Group 2: Your comments are slightly annoying, though they are forgiven because they make Group 2 chuckle. We see your point. Maybe biology isn’t the right measure here; the real issue is human freedom and the government telling people what they can and cannot do.

    Group 1: Biology shouldn’t be dismissed so quickly (you invoked it powerfully above), but you are right: we should not limit ourselves to biology and the issues of freedom and government are important. Let us get back to the broader meaning of nature, which includes biology though is not limited to it, and see what it means for marriage to have or not have a nature.

    If marriage has a nature (as defined above), then the government should look to the truth of reality and make laws accordingly. Their law-making should be guided by nature and should support lasting marriages. So, for example, tax breaks for families with children is a good law; no-fault divorces are a bad law. Recognizing two men who have sex with each other is also a bad law as it weakens the meaning of words and the institution of marriage itself.

    If marriage does not have a nature, then much of what you say follows. If the meaning of marriage is simply the preference of Group 1 vs. the preference of Group 2 (and 3 and 4), then it is not a matter of respecting truth but of getting power and thus getting our way. Us Group 1ers have argued that marriage is not simply a matter of preference, but a matter of the truth of things. That means that the marriage question is not simply a matter of power, but a matter of recognizing what is and acting in accord with it.

    The truth of things is also demonstrated quite persuasively by the available statistics. Contrary to your claim that allowing gay marriage will strengthen the institution of marriage, exactly the opposite has proven true in countries that have legalized it. Fewer people get married, more divorces occur, and fewer children are had in these countries. Also, homosexuals are significantly more at risk for depression, suicide, and other mental disorders, even in places, like northern Europe, where homosexuality is widely accepted. Similarly, although long term statistics are not fully ready yet, all the available info points to the fact that children of gay couples are also at a significantly higher risk for depression, drugs, crime, and–not surprisingly–sexual identity confusion. These sad statistics are true because people are acting against the nature of things, the nature of who they are, and it wreaks havoc on their lives and the lives of others.

    Group 2: But many of these statistics are also true of divorced couples and their children.

    Group 1: Yes, that is true, but that also proves the point. You are taking your bearings from something broken, something not ideal; something which SHOULD be one way and–for whatever reasons–is not.

    Like all living things, humans flourish when they act in accord with their nature and the nature of things.

  21. 21 Jeb

    Jared:

    I’m not sure you understood my point.

    In my dialog, Group 2 doesn’t want to argue with Group 1 about the definition of marriage. Why? Group 2 has realized that there are irreconcilable differences in their views and that rehashing them is not getting them anywhere. Group 2 has heard and understands completely Group 1’s position. Nonetheless, G2 isn’t buying what G1 is selling (and vice-versa). The twain simply have different beliefs:

    • similar to how Christians and Muslims have different beliefs;
    • similar to how Democrats and Republicans have different beliefs; and
    • similar to how secular liberals and Christian conservatives have different beliefs.

    Acknowledging that the argument has stalled (neither is buying what the other is selling), Group 2 has decided to ask another question: What should we do to move beyond the impasse?

    “If marriage has a nature (as defined above), then the government should look to the truth of reality and make laws accordingly,” says G1.

    “That’s just it,” says G2. “We don’t agree on marriage’s nature as you’ve defined it. We realize you think your position reflects an immutable truth, but we feel the same way about ours. This is not an invitation reopen the debate about the nature of marriage. Can we simply agree that we have differences?

    We also want to ask you this: Is it the government’s job to determine ‘the truth of reality’? What if down the road the government decides that the Catholic definition of marriage is wide of the truth mark? What if it then decides to stop recognizing Catholic wedding ceremonies?

    We believe that our definition reflects reality. You believe that our definition undermines the meaning of marriage. Well, we’ll concede that it may undermine your particular meaning, to the extent that a Jew’s concept of god may undermine a Buddhist’s. Do you think the government should make a judgment on the Jew’s faith in order to make the Buddhist more comfortable with his own faith? Or vice versa?

    There will always be contrary ideas out there, Group 1. We’re ok with the existence of your definition of marriage, even if we don’t buy it. Why can’t you be ok with the existence of ours? Telling us once again how wrong we are is not going to further the discussion.”

  22. 22 Jeb

    Jared: I’ll give you the last word here, and then I think we should move on to new subject matter. (I think we’re starting to get repetitive.)

    Ok, let ‘er rip!

    And then I’m going to start posting about less controversial subject matter. (I’m thinking death. Or maybe taxes.)

  23. 23 Jared

    Jeb,

    Let me begin the end of my comments by thanking you for being such a fine interlocutor and for letting the discussion go this long. Many a faint heart would have quit long before this stopping point. I also want to thank you for the level of civility you displayed in discussing this contentious topic. Those who defend marriage are sometimes called bigots or homophobes, but I do not think that defending marriage has anything to do with either prejudice or fear, and I appreciate that you did not degrade the conversation in that way. Your courtesy was received with great gratitude.

    With that said, I will only offer a few brief comments.

    First, it is obvious that Groups 1 and 2 have irreconcilable differences, but that does not mean that both should be equally recognized. The North and the South had irreconcilable differences and, if you recall, Douglass thought that they should be left to their own devices, while Lincoln wanted to stop the spread of evil and slowly choke the rest of it out of the South.

    Second, Group 2 has still not made an argument. Yes, they have strong feelings and unbending opinions, but they have not made a rational argument for their position. If they want to be heard in the public square, then they should make arguments that everyone can engage. Not everyone with strong feelings needs to be recognized.

    Third, although I agree that consent is an essential part of marriage, it cannot be the only criteria. I once again put before you the case of polygamy and (to obviate your incest response above) the case of homosexual incest. What logic could Group 2 offer to resist either of these problematic relationships?

    Fourthly, nature and the natural law are the most solid grounding for arguments, outside of a religious grounding (though religious people are often very amenable to natural law arguments). Our founding fathers invoked the natural law, as did Linconln, the abolitionists, the women’s suffrage movement, and the civil rights movement. They all invoked the natural law to ground their arguments. Group 2 cannot do this, though Group 1 can.

    Lastly, and forgive me for ending on a personal note, although you write with intelligence and thoughtfulness, I find it hard to resist the conclusion that you are a relativist. To be sure, you are an intelligent and thoughtful relativist, but a relativist nonetheless. I suspected this in the beginning, resisted the thought in the middle of our exchange, but you finally convinced me with your last comments. This does make it a bit difficult to argue any particular position because in the end rational arguments, even though they are sound, are unable to persuade.

    Please forgive my ending on this personal note and please refer back to the beginning of this post for how thoroughly I enjoyed commenting here and for how much I respect and, admittedly, even feel warmth toward you, for the way you have conducted this exchange.

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