Thursday, April 4, 2013

A few (incomplete) thoughts on same-sex marriage

Note: No thoughts about Augustine's Confessions today. I read nine more chapters yesterday but have not even begun to digest them yet.

Megan McCardle has written a very good piece on same-sex marriage and adoption. She is responding to some who have argued that one social benefit of making same-sex marriage generally available would be that there would be more parents available to adopt children. Why would this be a good thing? Because there are a lot of children out there waiting to be adopted who need parents goes this new argument. It continues with the claim that, even if you don't think a same-sex couple are the best parents, you should at least acknowledge they would be better parents than no parents.

One problem, as McCardle ably points out, is that these children aren't going without adoptive parents from lack of demand. There are thousands of parents who want to adopt and who go begging. They just don't want to adopt the children that, well, that nobody wants to adopt. The real problem is that there are good reasons for that.
... most are not lingering in the foster care system because of a shortage of infertile people who want to be parents.  They are in the foster care system because caring for those precious babies would be a difficult, heartbreaking job. 
And it should be added that it would be a heartbreaking job with very little likelihood of ending with you watching the child grow up to be an independent person with a job and family of their own.

I don't need to say anything more an the subject because McCardle has said all that needs to be said. But there is something else about it that strikes me and it is the easy assumptions that lie underneath the argument that McCardle dismantles.

And the persistence these easy assumptions is something that has troubled me about the pro-same-sex-marriage argument from the very beginning. It's this easy assumption that because you have loving committed marriages between lots and lots of heterosexual couples then you should be able to have the same thing between lots of same sex couples. And maybe you can but the pro side of this debate insists on taking that as already proven and it's not.

How does this tie to adoption and parenthood? Because one of the things that has tended to define heterosexual marriage is that acceptance of and care for children. (Even for difficult children.) The reason the hey-same-sex-marriage-can-solve-our-adoption-problems argument even gets started is a casual assumption that gay couples (lesbian couples being able, with some manœuvering, to have children of their own) will just be lining up to have children and will cheerfully adopt children no one else wants. But is there any reason at all to believe this?

Is there any reason to believe that gay men seeking to get married want the same things that heterosexuals want? For example, while it is true that sexual infidelity is fairly common in heterosexual marriages, most heterosexual couples start off meaning to be faithful and more than half of them apparently succeed. If, on the other hand, you read what a lot of advocates of gay marriage say, you quickly see that they tend not to see fidelity as a very important thing. That's a huge shift and the potential cultural impact here is significant.

The conservative version of the environmental argument goes as follows: you can't change just one thing. You can't take an institution that has been between a man and a woman and make it open to other combinations and expect nothing else to change. Same-sex marriage will have multiple effects on the institution of marriage. There is no reason to believe that they will all be good or even to believe that some of them won't be very bad indeed. We just don't know.

But it looks like we're going to find out.


  1. I think the most interesting thing is the mix-and-matching of two arguments, which you could call the "public policy" argument and the "morality argument." And this is on both sides. Neither people who feel strongly that gay marriage is wrong on moral-religious grounds, nor people who feel strongly that it is necessary for reasons of justice-rights-morality, are likely to be convinced by arguments that gay marriage is either beneficial or harmful to society. That’s both because such arguments can never be as fully scientific as they claim to be (whose society? What’s ‘harmful’? what’s ‘beneficial’? How can you prove this? Aren’t such arguments inherently ideological? Etc.) and therefore not convincing, but also because (I think) people recognize legal norms as basically the shadow or simulacrum of ‘real’ morality, and to a degree they hold back from recognizing legal-societal norms as fully legitimate. I mean that Christians believe there is a gap between the state and morality (Caesar/God), and likewise most liberal-minded people believe that there is a gap between what state might do for reasons of social control, and what the state ought to do for reasons of morality and rights. (Actually, it is an interesting question whether this public morality/private morality split is more natural to Christian or secular thinking. I have thoughts on this but not particularly well-developed ones so I will refrain from holding forth.) But basically on both sides I think that the civic-minded arguments are often just a mask. And on both sides there's definitely an element of "to hell with what you think is good for social stability—we’re talking about right and wrong here.” A possible weird effect I can imagine happening, is Christians gleefully ransacking the legal institution of marriage in order to highlight its distance from the sacrament of marriage. I have seen some indication of this already, for example Christian writers faux-promoting the cause of legal polygamy. “Oh, okay, so the gender aspect of marriage is irrelevant, but the numerical aspect of marriage is sacred? What a joke…”

    1. I think you really hit the nub of the issue here:

      "... but also because (I think) people recognize legal norms as basically the shadow or simulacrum of ‘real’ morality, and to a degree they hold back from recognizing legal-societal norms as fully legitimate."

      At some level, that is inevitable. There is always going to be a gap between a set of legal moral principles and what we believe for ourselves. What seems to have happened lately in our culture is that we no longer even pretend to think that the morality embedded in the law is real. Somewhere on YouTube there is a video of some of the people now loudly proclaiming that same-sex marriage is a right saying that marriage is necessarily between a man and a woman in an equally self-righteous tone. Liberals are fully engaged in mass morality but they think it is endlessly malleable, which is another way of saying it doesn't really exist.

      It makes me think of a line originally in the Ferris Bueller script but cut from the final version, "It took you twenty years to find out you don't believe in anything?"

      Christians, OTOH, are more and more detached. My wife made a presentation to a group of Anglicans in their 20s and 30s on popular culture a few years ago. These were pretty typical Anglicans, which is to say pretty easy going and willing to accommodate their practices to make living in the modern world easier. The jarring discovery, as my wife put it elsewhere, was that even these easy-going types had created their own world separate from the common culture. She couldn't get them to even begin to engage issues arising from it. For them the only morality that matters is between them and God, except that you wonder how much separate existence they attribute to God as he always seems to tell them they can do the things they really want to do.

  2. Honestly I think that's even true of myself. I wouldn't go so far as to say I have created my own world, but I've always thought of there being a gap, even a wide and yawning gap, between what really matters and the common culture. Partially this is caused by the Hauerwas/MacIntyre ideas that I read at a younger age and which marked my way of thinking deeply, partially this is caused by some inherent pessimism of my own outlook...

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  4. Jules, I enjoy your blog and this discussion, but I want to push back a little:

    First, I don't like this "Gays (gay men or lesbians) could adopt children, so gays should be allowed to marry." That wouldn't be the argument I would make to justify legally allowing same sex marriage. No intelligent activist is making this argument, though there are a lot of people who support same sex marriage for terrible reasons.

    Second, I’m not a fan of the attitude behind the conservative argument.

    We let inner city crack mothers marry and/or have their kids... We should let gays marry and/or have kids.
    Other dynamics, like wealth or parents’ education level, are much more relevant to marriage and child-raising. Not letting gays marry because they're supposedly promiscuous is like not letting inner city blacks marry or have kids "because the fathers leave anyway." (Both are stereotypes with some truth to them.)
    In both cases people would be denied marriage and child-raising based on a category (ethnicity, sexual orientation) that, while perhaps not totally irrelevant, is nowhere near as relevant as factors like wealth, parents’ education level, etc.

    That's why lines like "Studies don't confirm that same sex parents aren't terrible" or “Studies haven’t shown whether same sex marriage is good or bad” don't work for me.
    The studies we have are good enough for our purposes. Imagine you had a study that showed that educated, wealthy blacks could raise children extraordinarily well. That alone strongly suggests that the relevant marriage and child-raising criterion is something else, something other than race. Ditto for the study that showed well-off white lesbians can raise kids well.

    Third: Where does the discussion of State vs. God (for Christians), or Pragmatic Policy vs. Abstracted Justice (for political liberals), come in here? Given what we now allow and have, and given some principles we can agree on to some extent (e.g. fairness before the law), what does lamenting a supposed disengagement between morality and the law accomplish? I’m concerned that this is being used as a smokescreen to prevent or obscure a judgment that can and should be made. If public vs. private morality didn’t stop us from making a decision about miscegenation laws, then why is that distinction supposed to give us pause now?

    1. Thanks for pushing back. Pushing back is always welcome.

      The argument that same-sex marriage might help reduce the number of children waiting for adoption was made by Ezra Klein in the Washington Post. You can find the link in the McCardle post I link above.

      My point in citing it, however, was neither to argue for or against same-sex marriage but rather to discuss the naiveté that I think is at work here. I think there is a lot of simple fairytale thinking going on here.

      What I have not done, or even attempted to do, is to take a solid argument either for or against. I just don't have enough knowledge to do so and I don't think anybody else does either. As it seems like same-sex marriage is coming anyway, we will all be able to look back on this in a few years time and see what comes of it.

      I don't think we can or should treat giving birth to and adopting children as equivalent. The very expression "we allow" such and such women to have kids is bizarre. Most women are capable of having children at some period of their lives. No one gives them permission to do so. Only the most brutally oppressive regimes (modern-day China, for example) would regulate such a thing. What would do, force women to have abortions? To even contemplate such a thing would be vile. Adoption, on the other hand, can and should be regulated.

      As to studies, the problem is that we do not have any good studies that can be used to support the argument either way. They all, both studies that purport to support and those that purport to undermine the case for same-sex parenting are not just poorly done but are very poorly done studies.

      My point about public versus private morality is not a logical one but a factual one. My argument that in our politics, public morality is always a mask for something else. Just four years ago, the entire Democratic leadership made "moral" arguments against same sex marriage. Today, the exact same people make "moral" arguments for same sex marriage. And they do so without even acknowledging their previous stands. The moral arguments against miscegenation were made by people who really believed the moral arguments they were making. You can't say that of today's arguments. Today it's all just pragmatism.

    2. PS: It's worth noting that the people who supported miscegenation in the past also did so for moral reasons. They were bad moral reasons to be sure but the argument was a moral one with two clear sides and the good side won. That argument took place in the sphere of public morality but that was only possible because both sides took and argued distinct positions. In a world where politicians and pundits are simply wind vanes who completely reverse positions when it becomes pragmatically useful to do so is one in which public morality has. for all intents and purposes, ceased to exist.

  5. Jules, thank you for your reply.

    Let’s set aside questions about whether the studies are good or bad, and whether some politicians haven’t been power-hungry and opportunistic since at least the Civil Rights movement.

    I think the idea that “we don’t know enough about the effects of same-sex marriage” is itself a subtle rejection of same-sex marriage. People who want same-sex marriage think that its legalization will help rectify a current injustice - categorical devaluation of gay and lesbian relationships (and discrimination against gays and lesbians more generally). If we approach same-sex marriage’s legality as something to be ‘neutral’ and ‘patient’ about, as something we could take or leave, it looks like we think that same-sex marriage would not rectify the current injustice, or, worse, that there’s no current injustice here to rectify.
    Let me again draw a parallel with miscegenation laws: those laws were an injustice that had to be rectified. If someone had said, back during that debate, “Let’s wait until there are better studies” or “We really don’t know how a repeal would affect our society,” it would look like that person denied or didn’t know about the injustice, the active harm, miscegenation laws inflicted on mixed race couples.

    It is indeed harder to take children away from terrible natural birth parents than it is to prevent adoption of children by terrible people.
    But this doesn’t support categorically banning gay and lesbian couples from adopting. Gay couples that have the traits of successful, or at least well-positioned, parents (e.g. wealth, education) should not be banned from adopting children. How could we ever justify such a ban? Would the adopted children be raised terribly, just because their adoptive parents are the same gender?

    It’s important to remember that anti-gay legislation comes from a cultural history of homophobia (yes, really, the hatred of gays, especially gay men; lesbians seem to escape people’s notice). If in the past we had simply wanted to preserve and protect marriage, we would never have had taboos against gays forming long-term, marriage-like relationships. We would have seen this as much better than promiscuity, etc. This is also where bans on gay adoption come in - we tried to prevent gay adoption because we thought gays were inherently moral monsters (and we certainly didn’t let gays form the long-term, public and community-recognized relationships children flourish within), not because we had some studies or weren’t sure what would happen.

    1. I think, if you step back and analyze your argument a bit you should see that you are attempting to shift the emphasis from facts to motives and, not incidentally, imputing bad motives to others in the process.

      This is an effective rhetorical trick but it doesn't change the basic argument one bit. We are still in the position of making a change primarily because we hope it will produce positive effects even though we don't actually have any evidence that it will produce these effects.

      You say, "People who want same-sex marriage think that its legalization will help rectify a current injustice - categorical devaluation of gay and lesbian relationships (and discrimination against gays and lesbians more generally)." I am sure that is true of at least some people who want same-sex marriage. What we don't know, and they don't either, is whether it will actually have that effect. It might and then we can all celebrate but we don't know.

      Shifting the argument from facts to motives doesn't change this.

      PS: Try coming up with a morally neutral example rather than miscegenation. Otherwise it tends to become a rhetorical trick with an implied suggestion that asking questions or having reservations here is as bad as defending anti-miscegenation laws.

  6. BTW: My bet is that the most likely effect of making same-sex marriage available will be to subject gay men to more rather than less moral scrutiny.