Friday, October 24, 2008

A Defense of Traditional Marriage

This was written by Daniel Frost. It's a little lengthy, but has wonderful information. I encourage all to read it, especially those who are undecided.

Recently the Connecticut supreme court legalized same-sex marriage. Connecticut joins California and Massachusetts as the only states which have same-sex marriage, and in every case the change was made by a one-vote margin in the state supreme court. News coverage was predictably positive; even articles which set out to address both sides of the issue (such as this recent article by the NYTimes), if read closely, often endorse the pro-same-sex marriage side of the debate. Because the case for traditional marriage is not often made clear in the news media, I would like to give a defense of it in what follows.

One of my concerns with same-sex marriage can be illustrated by beginning with a story. Imagine that at some point in the future same-sex marriage is legalized by the US Supreme Court. Shortly thereafter a grandmother, 60, and her granddaughter, 21, apply for a marriage license. The granddaughter is pregnant and they want to get married in order to gain the benefits of marriage to better care for the child. The state, in response to their petition, says, "We were willing to say that people of the same sex can marry, but we're not quite ready for incestuous relationships to be called marriage." The grandmother/granddaughter couple can reply in one of two ways. First, they could say "What we do as consenting adults in the privacy of our own bedroom is not the state's business." Given the prevailing social norms about sex (i.e., that sex is just a pleasant experience between consenting adults), I frankly don't think our public culture has much to say in response to this argument, but we can leave that discussion for another occasion. I think the grandmother/granddaughter couple could give another response that is even more interesting. They could instead respond, "Oh, you don't need to worry about that. We haven't the slightest sexual interest in each other, and we'd be willing to sign a legal document ensuring that we'll never have sexual relations of any kind. We realize that throughout our history marriage has been seen as a sexual relationship of some kind, but we don't see why sexual relationships should be considered more important than other kinds of relationships that involve love and commitment. We believe that marriage is fundamentally about love and commitment, and we definitely love each other and are committed to each other. Therefore, we should be able to marry."

How does the same-sex marriage state respond to that? The state could say, "OK, fine, you can be married," but this concession empties the concept of marriage of almost any meaning. Parents could marry children, brothers could marry sisters, and all this because marriage would not carry with it any presumption of sexual involvement. This seems to redefine marriage out of existence.

But then we are left with the question: why does the government have an interest in recognizing sexual relationships simply because they are sexual? Why should the state give legal and economic benefits to sexual partners which it does not give to, say, committed chess partners? Why are sexual relationships considered "special" before the law? One answer could be that sexual relationships matter a lot to people, and this is undoubtedly true. But business relationships matter a lot to people as well. There are many things that people consider important, significant, or fulfilling in their lives, and it's not immediately clear why the law should privilege some kinds of activities and relationships over others. The point I'm getting at is that the rationale for same-sex marriage can't be, "People of the same sex should be able to marry because these relationships are really important and fulfilling to them," because that justifies a lot more than same-sex marriage. It justifies marriage for anything that is really important to you, and actually makes sex just one reason consideration among many for getting married (and not a necessary one at that).

How do proponents of traditional heterosexual marriage avoid these problems? On the traditional account, marriage is considered (among other things) a permanent, exclusive sexual union, and the reason it gets special legal and economic benefits is not because sexual relationships as such are somehow more significant or important than other relationships, but because (hetero)sexual relationships are the kind of relationship which produces children. Society has an interest in ensuring that children are reared in an environment which is conducive to moral, physical, and social development. The nuclear family in which children are reared by their biological parents has proven to be (other things being equal) the best place for that development to take place. Marriage (conceptualized as a permanent, exclusive sexual relationship) makes it easy for children to know on whom they have claim for support (their biological parents), and makes it easy for society to know to whom parents owe special duties of care and concern (their biological children). Parents have a special responsibility for their children which they do not have for others, and marriage is the institution which ensures that children get their rights and parents fulfill their responsibilities.

Of course, children are not always raised by their biological parents, and the state has an interest in their growth and development too. This brings us to a discussion of who should get the various benefits that come with being married. As far as I can tell, being married typically brings about three different kinds of benefits: 1) the title of being "married", 2) legal benefits (such as being able to visit one's spouse in the hospital, joint ownership of property), and 3) and economic benefits (tax credits/deductions for children). I'll address these in reverse order.

I think that the economic benefits that go along with marriage should be centered on the children that a marriage has produced or will produce. Bearing and rearing children is a public service - any society interested in lasting beyond the current generation needs to have a plan of replenishment. Having children is also a costly enterprise, affecting the revenue producing capacity of parents throughout their lives. It is therefore just and right for society to make fewer financial demands of those who bear and rear children. Also, prior to having children, I think it makes sense for the government to give married couples some economic benefits in preparation for their children, at least for a period of time (say, up to 10 years). Benefits should be in some way proportional to the number of children borne and cared for. However, if the couple never has children, I don't think they should keep getting the kinds of economic benefits that couples with children do get. On this framework, people who care for children in situations other than the traditional family should also get economic benefits. This could be an older sibling taking care of a younger sibling, two grandparents taking care of a grandchild, a gay couple taking care of the children of one of the partners, etc. These benefits would kick in when an individual or individuals begin caring for a child.

Though the issue of legal benefits is more complicated, I think many of the legal benefits that go along with marriage should be available to people in other arrangements. For example, if two people want to jointly own property similar to the way that a marriage partnership owns property, I don't think this should be particularly legally difficult. Similarly, if I want my best friend from college to be able to come see me in the hospital, I should just be able to enter into some kind of legal arrangement which would make that possible. These kinds of benefits could be available "a la carte," or in some kind of bundle, depending on the interests of the parties.

Lastly, I think only heterosexual couples should have the title of being "married" because heterosexual couples are the only kind of relationship which produces children which are the biological offspring of both parents. Almost all biological functions can be carried out "in house," by one organism: respiration, circulation, digestion, etc. However, reproduction is a biological function which requires both male and female involvement. Only heterosexual relationships produce children which are the biological offspring of both parents. Children who are the product of such a relationship have a special set of rights and obligations which are specifically attached to their biological parents; likewise, parents have special obligations for care and concern which are specifically focused on their biological children (and not on other children). Of course, the world being what it is, many parents and children do not give or get their due; however, I do think it makes sense for society to have an institution (i.e., marriage) centered on that one relationship which by its very nature is oriented toward the begetting and raising of children. Children can be raised in other circumstances, and the state should be sympathetic to their needs; and people can choose to fashion their lives around concerns which are not directly related to procreation, and the state should honor some of their desires; but the bearing and rearing of children by their biological parents is a societal interest which deserves its own institution. That institution is and should be traditional marriage.

Endnote on infertility: It is frequently argued against accounts like mine that infertile heterosexual couples should not be able to marry because they, like homosexual couples, cannot produce children. But this comes from a confusion about "kinds." On my account, heterosexual couples, even if they are not fertile, are in every case the kind of relationship which produces children which are the biological offspring of both parents. Take another example from biology. Even if a kidney is not functioning to cleanse blood, as it is designed to do, it is still correct to say that it is the kind of organ that cleanses blood. It simply would not work to say that a brain is the kind of organ which cleanses blood, because it doesn't. That is not its function. Likewise, human reproduction requires both a male and a female, and (here I borrow language from Robert George) even if every heterosexual act is not procreative in fact, it is procreative in type - it is the kind of relationship which produces children who are the offspring of both parents. This should be the relevant characteristic for what counts as a "marriage," even if, as I noted, many of the economic and legal benefits of marriage are given to people in other arrangements.


Anonymous said...

Heather,thank you for posting this essay. The author makes a very clear point without getting too emotional. Society as a whole must think of coming generations when we make the type of decisions we must make with Prop 8. This particular essay gives validity to the long hours and effort we are all putting in for the sanctity of marriage and the legacy we will leave our children and grandchildren. Please continue to keep us "posted" with the type of clear thinking evidenced in this essay.

beetlebabee said...

Heather, Did you know that France already went through this fight? I was shocked to learn that. France! of all countries. Who would figure they would be our allies in this?

I have been looking into their studies. They actually REJECTED gay marriage because they found it hurt kids. I guess it shouldn’t surprise us that genders matter in child rearing, but it seems like in all the hullabaloo about so called “gay rights” we’ve forgotten about the kids’ rights. Kids have rights too.

To hear the opposition tell it, you’d think we were the only backward country in the world that hadn’t already accepted the inevitable. Only five countries have legalized same sex marriage. France is one of the ones who studied it out first. They went to those five countries and saw what their choice had done to the stability of their countries. There are marked declines in health and family. It’s worth looking into, rather than just running full steam ahead into oblivion. I am always leery of people who want to guilt me into voting a certain way. It makes me want to say, so….what’s the other side? here it is.

also, I don't know if you can fix it or not, but when I come to your blog the videos break out of the sidebar and cover your awesome text!

emily said...


where did you find this article? who is david frost? i want to re-post it on my blog (if that's okay) but i'd like to introduce it first.

Heather said...

Emily -- This article was emailed to me. David Frost, the author of the article, is a supporter of prop 8, just like you and me, and these are his thoughts on the subject. I'm pretty sure it is okay for you to re-post his article. Just make sure to give him proper credit. Something I like to do, if you look at some of my other posts, is to note some of the highlights in my post with a link to the entire article for those who want to read more. Just a thought.

Anonymous said...

I think his name was Daniel Frost.

Heather said...

Oop... it is Daniel. I am SO sorry. See what happens when I do things too fast! Daniel, if you are reading this, I apologize. I gave you proper credit on the original post. Comments don't count, right? hehehe. Just vote yes on prop 8. ;)

Danny said...

Hey, this is Daniel Frost. No offense taken, I'm just glad the post is up. I'm happy for the post to be up elsewhere, just so long as you let me know where it will be. Thanks!