Reply to George: XI. Gay Marriages Will Destroy Straight Marriages
March 16th, 2011
[This post is part of a series analyzing Robert George's widely-read article, "What is Marriage", which appeared on pages 245-286 of the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy. You can view all posts in the series here.]
Pages 260-262: In which Robert George explains why legalizing same-sex marriage will lead opposite-sex parents to divorce.
At this point, Robert George has finished redefining marriage laying out his concept of marriage. He changes direction and starts to explains why marriage equality would be bad public policy.
That’s good, in a way. He walks away from the arcane, byzantine logic he’s been advancing so far and strides into the arena of recognizable public debate. These are the issues people discuss at work and with their families, rather than just in the pages of academic journals.
George has a strange view of us.
His first argument is that marriage equality will weaken the institution. As before, he starts badly:
No one deliberates or acts in a vacuum. We all take cues (including cues as to what marriage is and what it requires of us) from cultural norms, which are shaped in part by the law. Indeed, revisionists themselves implicitly concede this point. Why else would they be dissatisfied with civil unions for same-sex couples? Like us, they understand that the state’s favored conception of marriage matters because it affects society’s understanding of that institution.
“Why else” indeed? I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard this conversation:
Why can’t you be happy with civil unions?
Well, Joe, it’s because the law shapes cultural norms, which means the state’s approach to the legality of marriage shall influence society’s understanding of marriage – and by extension, your understanding and mine. Now get me another beer, would ya?
Seriously. I don’t have data, but I bet among regular people – people who don’t live in the pages of academic journals – same -sexers want to marry for the same reasons as opposite-sexers, and those reasons are mostly emotional. I’ve written of that elsewhere, but it’s not relevant here, except to point out George’s odd perspective on “revisionists.”
George offers more of the same.
However, since the whole aim of this project is to critique George’s argument, let’s see where he goes with it.
In redefining marriage, the law would teach that marriage is fundamentally about adults’ emotional unions, not bodily union or children, with which marital norms are tightly intertwined.
We’ve already covered this in past entries, right?
- It’s the emotional union and commitment that makes marriage such a good environment for raising kids. Ideally, the commitment precedes the children, which means the emotional union often is what marriage is fundamentally about.
- George’s personal, idiosyncratic conception of “bodily union” is confused and limited, and certainly no part of our cultural understanding.
- We can explain marital norms without invoking children.
- Same-sex couples can be just as eager to raise children as opposite-sexers.
George is talking about the wrong public policy.
Since emotions can be inconstant, viewing marriage essentially as an emotional union would tend to increase marital instability—and it would blur the distinct value of friendship, which is a union of hearts and minds.
This has nothing to do with same-sex marriage. He’s talking public policy here, and the relevant policy question is about divorce: Is a change in emotion reason enough to end a marriage? That’s a whole different debate. Some conservative argue that innovations like no-fault divorce weaken the meaning of marriage. Go ahead, argue away. But as long as all couples (same-sex and opposite-sex) are subject to the same body of divorce law, then adding same-sexers to the mix will do nothing to alter the message.
Moreover, and more importantly, because there is no reason that primarily emotional unions any more than ordinary friendships in general should be permanent, exclusive, or limited to two, these norms of marriage would make less and less sense.
First (and I should have pointed this out in the section on marital norms), nothing in George’s conjugal view suggests that marriage should be permanent. The most, the very most, he can argue for is a norm that married people should stay together as long as they are raising children. Once those kids are no longer at home, there’s no reason for the parents to stay together in that home either. So the norm could say it’s fine for couples with grown kids (or no kids at all) to split up. Now, George may not like this norm, but his conjugal view can’t support anything stronger.
Second, we’ve seen that George’s conjugal view doesn’t really explain why marriages should be exclusive or limited to two. Meanwhile, the revisionist/common view can argue persuasively for those norms.
Oh, those hapless, helpless heterosexuals
Less able to understand the rationale for these marital norms, people would feel less bound to live by them. And less able to understand the value of marriage itself as a certain kind of union, even apart from the value of its emotional satisfactions, people would increasingly fail to see the intrinsic reasons they have for marrying or staying with a spouse absent consistently strong feeling.
In other words, if marriage is not about fertilizing an egg with sperm – wait, no , George doesn’t insist on actual procreation. Let me rephrase: In other words, if marriage is not about inserting a penis in a vagina, then people won’t understand the importance of creating a permanent, exclusive relationship that provides kids with a stable home.
It’s easy to dismiss this as the Stupid Heterosexuals argument: straight people just aren’t smart enough to deal with two guys getting married, and it will make them divorce.
Okay, that was fun to type but it’s not really fair, especially since I believe many of our most valuable convictions are emotional beliefs instilled in us from childhood. But there are two problems with this:
- We allow elderly and infertile straight people to marry. Isn’t that just as bad? George tries to say no, and we’ve already seen how he fails. But even professional philosophers read George’s justification of infertile straight marriages only to find it convoluted, even nonsensical. The average person, then, who has no need or desire to spend their days reading articles in the Harvard blah blah blah, sure isn’t going to find his reasoning convincing — or even know of it at all. Therefore, his claim that allowing gays to marry will undermine marital stability makes as much sense in the real world as a claim that letting old people marry will make young parents more likely to divorce.
- Some gay couples want kids. More every year, I would bet — for me, growing up in the 60s and 70s, it wasn’t even spoken of, but that’s changed now. It’s true that two men cannot create an embryo, but George’s concern for permanent, stable parental relationships makes more sense when it comes to child rearing than child bearing, anway. As more gay couples adopt or use IVF, those couples will reinforce George’s “marital norms” in exactly the same way straight couples do.
George and his co-authors write a few more paragraphs, but it all depends on the (erroneous and ill-reasoned) content that precedes them, so there’s no point in rehashing it.
Next: George argues marriage equality will harm children, and for the first time I have to wonder whether he’s being deliberately deceptive.