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

Not All Discrimination Is Equal

Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s… The Ostensible Champion of Liberty and Tolerance! Or at least that’s what fellow Rhode Islander Justin Katz has dubbed me in his gracious response to some comments I left over at Anchor Rising. Before I have myself fitted for the cape and tights, it seems right and proper to address the challenges Justin has laid down in his post.

I’m struck, first of all, by Justin’s framing of the subject of our conversation as the “inevitable collision of the gay rights movement with certain fundamental freedoms, such as that of religion.” It’s hard for me to see how seeking to expand the civil rights of gay Americans impinges the religious freedoms of other Americans (or how the right to marry isn’t as fundamental as freedom of religion), but his lengthy response urges me to try.

Firstly, I must correct a seeming misapprehension. Justin says:

For me to have a lack of sympathy for those whose conclusions I oppose would require me to believe that they are all lying about their motives and are, in fact, consciously striving for the downfall of our society. It is disheartening to think that the courteous and discoursive [sic] MRH might believe something equivalent from the other side.

Flattery will get you everywhere, you handsome and articulate fellow! Of course, there’s no need to ascribe to me such a negative view of opponents of same-sex marriage, just as there’s no need to assume that supporters of same-sex marriage believe that gay people and their supporters want to bring about the downfall of society. We can certainly disagree – and even disagree without sympathy — without believing that the other’s motivations are so base. Take heart, Justin, that my courtesy does not merely cover disdain.

Our mutual good intentions thus assured, let us move to the actual matter at hand.

I view the denial of the right of same-sex couples to marry as a form of discrimination. And yet, if that right were granted, might there not be a new “reverse” discrimination against those who oppose it? Here’s Justin:

I offer you the not-so-hypothetical examples of a Christian organization that places adoptive children only with married couples and the business that only prints invitations for marriage ceremonies. In either case, with the civil-rights argument, that religion or that business has a definition of marriage — one that relates directly to their beliefs about the relationships that they are encouraging — that would, overnight, be invidious discrimination.

I’ll grant that, in a world where same-sex marriage is legal and discrimination based on sexual orientation is illegal, the invitation company might not be free to refuse to print invitations to same-sex marriages. Let’s also grant that, if they take public funds, the Christian agency might not be free to decline to place children into households where both parents are of the same sex. Their definitions of marriage would suddenly come into conflict with that of the state and, indeed, they would be guilty of legal discrimination.

Should our sympathy for this printing company and this adoption agency weigh more or less heavily than our sympathy for a gay couple that wants to marry? My initial answer was that, of course, we feel more for the latter, because I tend to sympathize with victims of discrimination, not agents of discrimination. Justin’s riposte was as follows:

My response to the expression of sympathy for “the victims of discrimination,” rather than “agents of discrimination,” is to wonder whether Matt’s sympathies are applied on the basis of individual cases or he’s speaking of victims and agents as class distinctions. If the former, one would expect his sympathies to cycle: The Catholics who are rebuffed for discriminating against homosexuals for purposes of adoption (to keep with the prior example) are, in turn, being discriminated against by the government in relation to the their ability to take private initiative in keeping with their beliefs about the most beneficial homes for children. If the latter, the application of sympathy — presumptuous in its assignment of roles — amounts to declaring a moral preference for homosexuals versus traditional Christians.

My sympathies apply to victims of discrimination both as individuals and as a class. Let’s address the challenge to the latter lemma first. In the spirit of cordiality and charity, I’ll interpret this as a rhetorical maneuver rather than as a genuine claim, but will respond with a rhetorical maneuver of my own: does sympathizing with the victims of racial discrimination, as a class, amount to a moral preference for blacks over whites? Of course, it does not. Rather, it amounts to a moral preference for equality and justice over inequality and injustice.

In the case of individual victims of discrimination, would my sympathies cycle, as Justin suggests, to Christians who are unable to deny service to homosexuals? I suspect it would not, because I don’t consider the imposition of equality to be discrimination. Was the decision in Brown v. Board of Education discrimination against segregationists? Surely not. Of course, the two cases are not entirely parallel. The distinguishing factor seems to be that the objections are motivated by religion rather than some other value system. I’m not sure that this should make a difference. Justin seems to think it does, however, and maybe some of you do as well, so let’s consider it so and proceed.

We are confronted with a choice, then. We either discriminate against same-sex couples by denying them the right to marry, or we discriminate against “traditional Christians” by forcing them to recognize same-sex marriages. Are we at an impasse? Faced with discrimination on either side, are we unable to judge between them? Of course not. Not all instances of discrimination are equal, and there is no moral obligation to tolerate intolerance. We must have a rubric to decide which is worse, and mine works by evaluating the harm done to the class or individual discriminated against. It seems clear enough to me that more harm is done by denying same-sex couples the right to marry than by granting it.

Justin said something else very interesting:

It oughtn’t take but so much intellectual distance to realize that the struggle isn’t between religious dogma and objective civil rights, but between two competing ideological worldviews with different understandings of what marriage, in its essence, is.

I don’t agree, unsurprisingly. I think extending marriage rights to same-sex couples is a simple question of civil rights. But Justin is right that there are competing ideas of what marriage is. And here is where we stop dancing around the real point. We’re arguing a point of public policy. We know what the traditional religious view of same-sex marriage is, but if we are to make it the law, we need another basis. Our secular democracy demands extra-Biblical justification for its law-making. So what is the secular, social argument against same-sex marriage?

Unfortunately, it’s not a very good one. Justin bases his opposition to same-sex marriage on:

… the utility of marriage to bind the genders in biologically affirmed union and to tie generations in an historical thread of ancestry and progeny, often with religious underpinnings. If this is the vision of marriage that one holds, then homosexual relationships, whether they inspire approval or disapprobation, are simply not marriage, and to redefine marriage to include them would inevitably erode the institution’s utility.

As loath as I am, in general, to argue from marginal cases, surely defining marriage as a procreative pair cannot be sustained in the face of some simple counter-examples. Can a heterosexual couple who are (independently or mutually) infertile be said to be truly married under this definition? What about a married couple that abstains from sex? And do we want the state to invalidate marriages that do not produce progeny, or require fertility and genetic testing before validating a marriage certificate? Do we want the state to compel married couples to attempt to conceive? No, we do not.

The other side will counter, lamely I think, that it is not actual fertility, but rather some kind of potential, Platonic fertility that matters: a marriage must include male and female genitalia, whether they are joined in sexual congress or not. This is, of course, absurd.

How, practically, would redefining marriage to include same-sex relationships “erode the institution’s utility?” This is the question that has never been answered to my satisfaction. Marriage, as Justin points out, has many benefits to society. These include the strengthening of familial and societal ties, the establishment of persistent kin groups and affinities, and the financial stability of combining households, benefits, and assets. Where, in any of this, should gender matter? Is there a fear that, should the option of same-sex marriage become available, men and women that would otherwise marry each other and produce offspring will be tempted to instead marry members of the same sex? If this is Justin’s argument, I think he drastically overestimates the number of closeted homosexuals in our society.

Besides, any of the arguments that society depends on “traditional marriage” for its procreative potential apply just as well to same-sex marriage as they do to homosexuality simpliciter. Homosexuals are, by and large, going to refrain from marrying members of the opposite sex and reproducing with them whether same-sex marriage is legal or not. Do opponents of same-sex marriage also want to outlaw homosexual behavior? Do they want to compel heterosexual behavior?

Advocates of the right to same-sex marriage draw a clear distinction between religious marriage – marriage as defined to any particular religious group that offers it as a rite – and civil marriage – marriage as defined by the regulations and structures of legal statute. I have never seen an argument against same-sex marriage that was not grounded in religious belief. I believe strongly that any religious person should be free to decline to officiate at, attend, or acknowledge any marriage that offends his or her beliefs. I believe just as strongly that he or she should not have the right to enshrine those beliefs in law.

Not All Discrimination Is Equal