Monday, August 25, 2003

A secular argument against same-sex marriage

I find it interesting that the vast majority of discussions on same-sex marriages have focused on various ways to say that it is immoral, even when those saying it are not particularly religious, or don't want to use overt religious arguments. What I have found mostly missing are the secular, pragmatic arguments. It seems to me that one such is as follows:

Stable marriages are in the best interests of society

It is not mere poetry to say that "children are the future." A society must have a continuous supply of law-abiding children to make up the next generation. Any society which does not have this is not going to last very long. Now sociology is hardly an exact science, but there seems to be a fair amount of evidence that stable marriages have the best chance of producing this next generation. Children raised by a mother and father who live together are more likely to succeed and less likely to wind up in trouble with the law. Further, it appears that married men - especially married men with children - are themselves more stable members of society than single men.

Even such a strong advocate of same-sex marriage as Andrew Sullivan has taken the desirability of stable male-female marriages as a given, arguing that permitting gays to marry "strengthen [marriage] by making it universal". There does not seem to be any significant dispute on this point.

There are reasons for individuals to forego marriage

As a man, I understand men better than I understand women, so I am not even going to consider why women might choose not to marry. For men, a lot of the reasons seem obvious: it means taking responsibility for somebody else (which means less money to spend on himself), it means limiting himself to a single partner, it means trying to deal with a particular woman on an ongoing basis, and dealing with her in both her ups and downs as well as her reactions to the kinds of "guy" things he might want to do. And as society attitudes towards promiscuity have evolved, it is easier and easier for men to find the kinds of one-night-stands that satisfy short term needs. For a lot of men, marriage looks like a hassle with insufficient rewards. And it is increasingly easy for men to simply leave when the tensions of marriage just get to be too much.

So there is potentially a conflict between what individuals might prefer and what is in the best interests of society at large.

Society is limited in its means of influencing individual behavior.

The most easily recognized of course is via laws, but they are hardly the most effective. People in general seem to take laws a strong suggestions, rather than absolute strictures. The influence of a law is primarily based on a fear of punishment, and people are very good at telling themselves either that a particular law is foolish or that they will not be caught.

More effective is peer pressure: people very commonly engage in or avoid behaviors based on what their peer groups do, even when they know intellectually that they are making bad decisions. Peer pressure influences behavior by acting on self-image. People tend to be driven quite a bit by how they will be viewed by others and by themselves.

But the most effective means that a society has to control behavior is the taboo, which places certain behaviors outside of the realm even of consideration. For all the sexual liberation of American society, one boundary that it very very rarely crossed is brother-sister incest. Most men do not even think of their sisters as sexual beings, or if they do, the prospect of approaching their sisters feels "icky." That doesn't mean that it never happens, only that for most people it is not something even contemplated.

To be effective, a taboo must seem obvious

A taboo must be readily assimilable by children at a young age. It has to be something seen as a rock-solid certainty of the world. That means that there is not a lot of room for a subtlety at the core of a taboo. As children grow, they can certainly be taught shades of gray and that certain things which appear to be part of the taboo are permissible under certain limited circumstances, but it is much harder to teach that something which seemed perfectly OK to the child is in fact not proper. Those kinds of subtleties can seem like nit-picking.

So if society needs to encourage stable marriages, it needs to minimize anything that diminishes from the core message. When the clear societal assumption is that an adult man marries a woman and stays with her and supports her and her children, nearly every child will see it almost as inevitable as breathing. When marriage is seen as one of a number of possible options, many young adults will simply not engage in it.

Now of course, not every marriage will result in children, nor does that fact make infertile marriages problematic. When you are dealing with societal attitudes, an infertile marriage looks almost indistinguishable from a marriage that has simply yet to produce children. That is simply not true of gay marriages or multiple marriages.