From the dawn of human history people have married. Until very recently, they have always married members of the opposite sex.
In truth, the issue of same-sex marriage has never arisen. It’s not that the wish has been repressed. It’s that no one ever thought of it.
If many people now believe that it is perfectly natural and normal for gays to marry, how come no one ever thought of it before. Isn’t there something slightly suspicious about that?
Throughout human history gays have often been subjected to vicious persecution. The situation has been better in some places at some times; worse in other places at other times.
Contemporary thinking has it that gay relationships were reviled because they were not called marriages. Many people believe correctly that we should put an end to such persecution. That same-sex marriage will do it remains to be seen.
Moreover, marriage has always been a universal institution. If you are married here you are considered to be married everywhere you go. Everyone everywhere recognizes you as married. You do not cease to be recognized as married when you cross a border.
The same does not apply to same-sex marriage. Most of the world does not recognize the validity of such unions. The notion that the rest of the world will eventually come around to the enlightened American opinion on the matter seems a bit like wishful thinking.
(It seems roughly equivalent to having a proper name. No matter where you go your name stays the same. It does not even get translated into different languages. One might ask what would happen to your sense of your identity if your name changed in different parts of the world.)
Institutions that are universally recognized are very likely based in something that belongs to nature. They are not merely cultural excrescences, to be changed at will.
In the case of marriage, one assumes that the institution is as it is because the act of heterosexual copulation is necessary to the production of new members of the community.
If the survival of one’s genes and one’s community and one’s bloodline matters, then heterosexual copulation has a special privilege and is granted a higher value than other forms of sexual activity.
It is the only sex act that has the potential for being about more than individual enjoyment.
Some people have taken serious offense at the notion that one form of sexual pleasure has been considered of greater social value than others, but obviously they have never read Darwin.
Let us point out that the interest of genes and community has also trumped the notion that marriage is an expression of romantic love. In reality, the link between marriage and love is of recent coinage. It is only practiced in relatively few human communities. And even then, love, in and of itself is not enough to sustain the social institution called marriage.
Today, all of these questions are being ground up in the judicial system. They have formed the basis for legal opinions that, I think it fair to say, offer a special perspective.
Nearly all American courts, but certainly not all people, have decided that limiting marriage to couples of the opposite sex is prejudicial against people of the same sex who wish to marry.
The arguments for traditional marriage seem to have been routed, at least in the courts. I was struck yesterday to read the views of Richard Posner, the chief judge of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. Posner is a serious jurist, a man of many books and writings, a deep thinker if ever there was one. We are not dealing with a hack columnist or even a blogger. Richard Posner is an influential public intellectual.
In questioning lawyers for states that had voted to ban same-sex marriage Posner explained that, to his mind, marriage could not be based in reproductive biology. Writing in Slate Mark Joseph Stern pronounced Posner’s views a devastating critique of the arguments in favor of same-sex marriage.
For the record, calling arguments devastating and saying that they completely decimated the opposition is a rhetorical ploy. Jon Stewart uses it well and effectively. People who do not know any better find comfort, not merely in thinking that they are right, but in thinking that there is only one rational point of view.
In a marketplace of ideas you respect your opponent’s point of view. Dismissing his position as ridiculous merely serves to shut down debate.
This is what has happened in the gay marriage debate. Today, only one point of view is deemed worthy of respect.
But, if you arguments are self-evidently true why do you need to suppress the opposition?
Also, if the proponents of gay marriage are so obviously right, they do need to explain how it happened that the near-entirety of the human species, from the dawn of human history has never even entertained the idea.
For reasons that need to be explained, but never are, contemporary views about gay marriage never crossed the minds of anyone else throughout the course of human history. If that makes you confident that you are right or that you are smarter than everyone else, so be it.
For my part I will ignore the legal issues and address the larger philosophical issues. After all, Posner addresses them too. Unfortunately, his efforts do not inspire confidence.
Addressing a lawyer representing the state of Indiana Posner pointed out that Indiana allows sterile people to marry. And it allows old infertile people to marry. Ergo, reproduction cannot be the meaning of marriage.
The state of Indiana notwithstanding, there is in nearly all cases only one way to know whether people are sterile. That would be, their attempting and failing to conceive. In itself that does not tell us which person is sterile, but surely, at the dawn of and throughout human history, no one ever imagined giving couples a fertility test prior to marriage.
Of course, gay couples are not, strictly speaking, sterile. Since they do not, by preference, engage in heterosexual copulation, the question does not arise. The analogy is dubious.
Note well, when the first patriarch Abraham and his wife were too old to have children, they did not seek to divorce.
In truth, custom has had it that marriages are not real until they are consummated. And there is only one way to consummate a marriage. Sad to say the act of heterosexual copulation is not prescribed as an expression of love. It is required because it makes reproduction possible. Failure to consummate a marriage is grounds, not for divorce, but for annulment. That means that an unconsummated marriage was never a real marriage.
So, the institution of marriage has always required an act whereby conception would be possible. It has not required conception as a necessary consequence.
Ah yes, and then there is the devastating argument, to the effect that if we allow elderly couples to marry, then obviously the institution cannot really be about reproduction.
Of course, elderly opposite sex couples are not really the same as young same-sex couples. The reason is fairly obvious. The first can consummate their marriage. The second cannot. And the first might have conceived. The second never could have.
Beyond the fact that for most of human history most people did not live long enough to face circumstances where they could no longer conceive, menopause has never been considered grounds for divorce.
And, the institution of marriage is not merely about producing offspring. It is also about raising offspring in a stable family environment. We humans care for our children for a very long period of time. We have always preferred to have children brought up by the people who have the most important genetic investment in their well-being.
The fact that a couple, to take the example, can no longer have children does not relieve them of a responsibility to continue to care for their children.
And, if we believe that it is desirable for children to have grandparents, then surely we are not going to dissolve their marriage because they are no longer fertile.
Human cultures, with their great wisdom have discouraged older infertile couples from getting divorced. But, in order to make sense of the precept it has also grandfathered in older couples that met each other late in life.
Nevertheless, one suspects that the notion of 65 year olds marrying is a very recent occurrence in human history. The nature of an institution that has endured through many millennia cannot be overthrown because we now, routinely, live beyond our reproductive years.
Finally, an institution that has existed throughout human history probably has a rationale. Those who think that they have escaped history and tradition should have enough humility to consider that they might be wrong.