The Arc of the Moral Universe

Justin Katz of Anchor Rising is a very interesting person to argue with. He’s eloquent and clearly passionate in his support of the issues that are important to him, and his sensitivity and decorum are to be lauded. Even though I disagree with him on every point of substance we’ve raised, I salute and respect his commitment to having these difficult and important conversations.

Plus, the dude used the word “especial” non-ironically. Got to give it up.

The core of Justin’s argument against legalizing same-sex marriage has to do with procreation. He asserts the primacy of procreation in marriage over and over in his posts and comments. In our most recent exchange in the comments section, I think I got as close as I’ve ever come to understanding what Justin means when he links marriage to procreation. Marriage, he says, “is primarily intended to encourage that expectation that procreation happens within its boundaries. Men and women should marry because what men and women do can create children, and children, as often as possible, ought to be raised in the stable marital homes of their biological parents.”

Let’s investigate further the expectation that procreation should happen with the boundaries of marriage. Where does this expectation come from? If it comes from a religious conviction that a marriage is the only legitimate context for having a child, then I have to grant Justin his right to that belief, and still ask for a secular explanation.

I assume that he has one. He might point out that studies have shown that outcomes are better for children that are raised by their married biological parents. This research is extremely interesting, but misleading. This paper from the Center for Law and Social Policy is very instructive:

This research has been cited as justification for recent public policy initiatives to promote and strengthen marriages. However, findings from the research are often oversimplified, leading to exaggeration by proponents of marriage initiatives and to skepticism from critics. While the increased risks faced by children raised without both parents are certainly reason for concern, the majority of children in single-parent families grow up without serious problems. In addition, there continues to be debate about how much of the disadvantages to children are attributable to poverty versus family structure, as well as about whether it is marriage itself that makes a difference or the type of people who get married.

In other words, correlation does not imply causation. Further investigation suggests that many of the negative outcomes (in terms of behavioral problems, education achievement, etc) are also correlated with low family income and social status, which is not surprising. (Here is another report that indicates that the outcomes associated with single-parenthood may well vary by race.)

It’s intuitive that a child living with both of his or her parents would benefit from that situation, but does it matter if the two parents are married or simply cohabitating? My intuition is that it shouldn’t matter, and the admittedly thin data seems to bear this out.

Research suggests the importance of distinguishing between cohabiting families with two biological parents and those with a biological parent and another partner. Some evidence indicates that school achievement and behavioral problems are similar among children living with both biological parents—regardless of marital status—and that children in both formal and informal step-families also fare similarly in these areas.

All this to say that I’m unconvinced that the state has a specific interest in encouraging that marriage be the appropriate context for having and raising children, and that I am convinced that the state has an interest in providing support and assistance for families with children.

But let’s set this aside. Even stipulating that, as a society, we have an interest in promoting procreation within marriage, I’m struggling to understand why allowing same-sex marriage undermines this interest. No rational heterosexual couple would be discouraged from marriage just because homosexual couples can do it too.

A same-sex couple that wants to have children can’t (barring biological innovation) have a biological child together, so there’s no mechanism for them to create the “ideal” family unit — children living with their married biological parents. Same-sex couples that want children will find ways to have them whether they can marry or not; if marriages promote stable family structures, wouldn’t we (if the welfare of children was our primary concern) want to encourage same-sex couples to marry, not prevent it?

By Justin’s logic, allowing same-sex couples to marry undermines the link between marriage and procreation, and this link must be protected. I counter that allowing same-sex couples to marry would have the opposite effect: it would expand the incentive to have children within marriage to all couples that want children, not just straight couples.

In fact, and I’ve said this before, there’s no argument from procreation against same-sex marriage that isn’t, at its core, an argument against homosexuality itself. If the problem with a same-sex couple is that they can’t procreate, this problem exists whether they marry or not. A prohibition on same-sex marriage won’t drive gay people into heterosexual relationships, and allowing same-sex marriage won’t drive straight people into homosexual relationships. Some married couples will have kids, some won’t. Some unmarried people will have kids, others won’t. I’m simply unable to draw a connection between same-sex marriage and the behavior of straight people.

Here’s Justin: “We can balance the principle of procreative marriage with minimizing government involvement in our lives simply by saying that marriage is an opposite-sex relationship. To include homosexuals in the definition would undermine that tacit understanding.” I admit it: I don’t get it. How does expanding the definition of marriage constitute more government involvement in the lives of, for instance, married people? And how does saying that marriage is an opposite-sex relationship minimize government involvement? I’m stumped here.

But all of this social policy argumentation is just a pantomime, isn’t it? I know that no matter how sharp and scintillating my arguments, no matter how precise and persuasive my data, the chances that I will convince Justin (or someone like him) to embrace same-sex marriage are slim. The chances that he will convince me are just as slim. Why? Because at the core, our positions aren’t based on dispassionate analysis of the implications of either policy; they’re based on deeper, more emotional convictions. For Justin, I imagine, his position stems from his religious beliefs. For me, I’m persuaded by my innate sense of morality and fair play, and by my love for my family. So is this a hopeless conversation?

Far from it, I hope. I don’t want to try to convince Justin that same-sex marriage is the best thing since they started making Peeps for holidays other than Easter. I just want to convince him that he’s entitled to his personal convictions on the subject, but that he’s not entitled to enshrine them in law. Justin, and others, have said that marriage is “fundamentally procreative,” but I don’t know how to understand that statement, in light of Justin’s own arguments, unless we are to interpret “fundamentally” as meaning something like “usually” or “traditionally.” That’s a perfectly reasonable opinion, but it’s not a convincing argument.

Finally, I have to acknowledge preemptively that, yes: proponents of same-sex marriage are indeed trying to change the definition of marriage. This is explicitly, unashamedly, my goal. I think that such a change would be a change for the better. The civil rights history of country involves this kind of definitional change. In this century alone we’ve changed the definition of “voter” from “white man” to “man” to “adult.” This was a change that was not accomplished without difficulty and resistance, but it was a change that resulted in a more just society.

Marriage has changed in meaning, too. Marriage started out as a transaction between two men, involving the transfer of property (a woman) from one to the other. In modern times, marriage became a legal instrument between a man and a woman to unite their assets and liabilities. It’s time for marriage to take the next step: the benefits of civil marriage must be opened to any pair of eligible adults.

This is a cause that I’m passionate about. It’s one that I believe in strongly as a matter of conviction. The injustice of our current system of legal marriage is more than just an abstract wrong to me and my family and friends: it’s real, it’s unfair, and it has to end. That said, I’m ultimately optimistic that I’m on the right side of history here. Demographics are moving us inexorably towards a society that favors equal rights for homosexuals, and I’m completely confident that in a generation or two we’ll look back on this period with the same distaste and confusion with which we look back on Jim Crow. In the meantime, it’s up to us to fight the fight now.

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Arc of the Moral Universe

0 thoughts on “The Arc of the Moral Universe

  1. Hi Matt. Marriage doesn’t require procreation, it approves of procreation, and it guarantees a right to attempt procreation. There can’t be a marriage that is forbidden from combining gametes and conceiving a child. We should not give procreation rights to same-sex couples, it is far too unethical to allow.


  2. John,

    Marriage doesn’t require procreation, it approves of procreation, and it guarantees a right to attempt procreation.

    That’s a bit idiosyncratic, but, all the same: so?

    There can’t be a marriage that is forbidden from combining gametes and conceiving a child.

    Forbidden? What in the world do you mean? Also, why not?

    We should not give procreation rights to same-sex couples, it is far too unethical to allow.

    Why not? Unethical in what way?

    I’d be interested to hear arguments, not just assertions.


  3. It’s unethical in numerous ways, the most obvious being the enormous risk of genetic defects that the child will be burdened with. Animal testing shows a less than 1% success rate, and even that one surviving mouse can’t be verified to be “normal”. It is totally unnecessary and sends the wrong message about adopted kids and step children. There is no way of knowing what psychological issues would result from being a commissioned “helf-clone” of two men or two women. Women would only be able to have girls. It diverts resources from medicine for actual health problems. It opens the door to genetic engineering, which would lead to eugenics and a genes-race that would further separate the rich and poor and the first and third worlds. Why do you feel it is necessary to develop same-sex conception, why do you feel that we should put those concerns aside and allow scientists to attempt it anyway? Is a biological connection that important?
    By forbidden, I mean a couple would be told they are not allowed to conceive children together. They could be forcibly contracepted, or refused IVF treatments for whatever reason. Married couples should not be forbidden from conceiving children. All people should have a right to marry, and all marriages should have a right to procreate with their own genes. No one should have a right to conceive with someone of the same sex. Allowing marriages that are prohibited form conceiving together would strip conception rights from marriage and make it legally possible to prohibit any couple, or any person, from conceiving.
    Same-sex couples should have equal protections in the form of Civil Unions that do not grant conception rights, and marriage should be preserved as granting conception rights.


  4. It’s not my own thing, it’s Dr. Richard Scott’s thing. There are lots of researchers working on it. There are lots of LGBT groups that insist that it be legal. And lots of ethicists who know we need to prohibit genetic engineering and cloning.

    And I’ve corrected your mistaken impression regarding marriage requiring procreation. It guarantees a right to attempt to conceive together. You need to revise your position, not just pretend you don’t understand my point.


  5. John,

    You’re trying to have a different conversation than the one I’m interested in having with regards to this post. Reproductive technology isn’t a necessary component of the question of same-sex marriage, and I don’t want to distract from the topic of the post.

    You haven’t “corrected [my] mistaken impression.” You’ve stated your opinion, which is fine, but it’s not part of the conversation I want to have on this page.


  6. No doubt, you want the conversation to leave out the right to conceive children together, which has always been the essence of marriage. It has been the one constant throughout the history of marriage. Your post makes great sense as long as we leave out the issue of same-sex conception. But as soon as you become aware of that issue, and as soon as you remember that marriage is how society approves or denies a couple the right to conceive together, you got to step back a little and think about the permutations, and the implications become clear: Support the Egg and Sperm Civil Union Compromise to Stop Genetic Engineering. Visit my website and have the conversation there with me.


  7. Dude, “grant conception rights?” Seriously, I don’t know what license you applied for, but I’m sure the line must have been short. Most people just go ahead and have sex/insemination/IVF, whether they’re married or not. Marriage is not the gatekeeper to reproduction that you seem to think it is/can/ever will be, and it never has been.

    I have to agree with Matt here — you’re off on your own thing. While I’m not saying the conversation about advanced reproductive technology isn’t worth having, it just isn’t as connected to marriage as you seem to think. People who want to have kids have them, married or not. That’s a given, and public policy isn’t going to change that, so we have to look at how, with that as a constant, public policy can best meet the needs of the full population. (Incidentally, science is going to advance unimpeded by marriage laws, so again, I think these two things aren’t as inextricably linked as you believe.)


  8. Are you kidding me? Marriage has always been the gatekeeper to sex and reproduction, every single marriage in history has had a right to conceive children together, and doing it without marriage has always been not only wrong but usually very illegal. We don’t do it here, lately, but people have been stoned to death since the beginning of recorded history for sex outside of marriage. Massachusetts even has a fornication law on the books. Sex only within marriage is one of the 10 Commandments. Even Lawrence v Texas affirmed that marriage gives a right to have sex. Sure, there has always been sex without marriage and there always will be, but it has never been right, and is not and has never been a right. Sex and conception has always been a right of a marriage though. It was the right that Richard and Mildred Loving fought for (they weren’t called “Anti-Hospital Visitation Laws”, they are laws against mixing the genes and conceiving children together.

    Same-sex couples should not be allowed to conceive children together, it is too risky and unethical.


  9. Wow, John, you’ve totally convinced me! Since it’s always been that way, of course it has to stay that way! Your point about stoning is totally convincing, and not at all ridiculous. Truly, you are a master of non-hysterical, completely rational argumentation.


  10. It is very important that marriage continue to grant conception rights, using the couples own gametes. But it is very tenuous, it seems that lots of people don’t think that marriage grants conception rights these days. Those people are menaces to society, they could really fuck up the future just because they are pretending that there is no such thing as gender and same-sex couples should have the same rights as both sex couples. It’s a flawed assumption that leads to very bad outcomes, monumentally bad. It’s not an exaggeration to say that separating marriage from conception rights would be the biggest change to human civilization since civilization started (not coincidentally, marriage and civilization started simultaneously).

    You have some explaining to do, Matt. Do you think that a marriage can be prohibited from conceiving? Do you think that a same-sex couple can be prohibited from procreating? (I mean can, as in, it would be OK if the law tried to do that) Or do you still just want to ignore the issue that is and always has been at the very heart of the question?


  11. Melissa says:

    This discussion has started early at our house, Matt … today, as we were walking into a grocery store run by conservative Christians, as it were, Charlotte said, “You have to be married to have kids, right?” 🙂

    “It’s time for marriage to take the next step: the benefits of civil marriage must be opened to any pair of eligible adults.” I agree!


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