A Tail is a Leg is a Marriage?

As usual, The Public Discourse’s latest article does not leave the reader disappointed. In its current post, Stephen Heaney offers an incisive argument on the illogical premises of gay marriage. His conclusion? Same-sex marriage and opposite-sex marriage are as similar as apple and oranges, but in his own rendering, the function of a leg versus the function of a tail.

For Heaney, proponents of same-sex marriage are guilty of defining marriage “according to non-essential characteristics.” In other words, society has largely defined marriage and its prerequisites by something other than its functional end. This is hardly a novel concept though Heaney argues it well. Similar arguments have been put forth by Robert P. George who argues that a prerequisite for marriage qua marriage, pardon the phrase, necessarily requires “genital complementarity.” Rightly so, the argument stands upon a commitment to natural law reasoning.

The premises of same-sex marriage, believed to mimic opposite-sex marriage, are the following: “Marriage is often characterized today as follows: 1) two people 2) who love each other 3) want to perform sexual acts together, so 4) they consent to combine their lives sexually, materially, economically 5) with the endorsement of the community. Since same-sex couples can meet the first four criteria, how can society refuse the fifth?”

Importantly, Heaney makes the insightful point recognizing that if we grant the status-quo interpretation of marriage and its function according to popular culture, then arguing against same-sex marriage inevitably results in its opponents being seen as judgmental bigots. Luckily, this need not be the case if its premises can be rejected. And, Heaney believes, as do I, they can. “If we accept the misdefinition of marriage using non-essential characteristics as the complete story, it would be impossible to reject same-sex marriage. Given the whole truth, however, it is impossible to accept it. No matter how superficially similar they are to real marriages, same-sex relationships cannot function as marriages.” But, we must ask, what does function really mean?

We must ask the question of whether the above prerequisites offer an exhaustive foundation for marriage or merely part of its foundation. The missing element in the enumerated list above is the assigned task to marriage for producing and raising children.

If society at large has separated the responsibility of producing and raising children apart from marriage, then a whole different discussion will need to take place. Needless to say, even the most hardened proponents of gay marriage are not wishing to eschew the value of opposite-sex marriage.

We must arrive at the conclusion that the production and raising of children is not  an addendum to marriage; no, the production, stabilization, and raising of children must be placed squarely within it and hermetically sealed from allowing more transitory functions to define marriage. What am I arguing? I’m arguing that marriage qua marriage must place at its very foundation the ability to produce and raise children. Anything less than this condition must be seen as insufficient as to designating a same-sex couple’s mutual interest in one another as a marriage.

Heaney  goes on to make the same argument showing the futility of desire and sexual intercourse as a sufficient basis for marriage:

If sexuality did not naturally bring us offspring, it is hard to explain why it exists, whether you believe in a purely material evolution or a loving designer of the universe, for it would serve no purpose. If sexual acts did not naturally lead to offspring, it is just as hard to explain how marriage would have appeared in human history, for it would serve no purpose.

This is a profound argument and one needing to be more heavily employed by evangelical discourse on the subject: the issue of legitimacy. Given our culture’s obsession with “rights,” it would be appropriate, I think, to establish the legitimacy and foundation of rights, even beyond their enshrinement in the Constitution. If same-sex marriage desires legitimacy, it needs to be able to express itself as as naturally occurring as opposite-sex marriage. Going back to the state of nature (which, I know, only hypothetically exists), proponents of same-sex marriage must argue  by means of its natural occurrence, that same-sex marriage has been occurring since the beginning of civilization and therefore easily recognizable. This has not been the case. Thus, for the state to “grant” legitimacy in the case of something that has no instrumental value is purely imaginative.

Opponents of this argument often equate the pursuit of the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement along with their own current struggle. The issue, however, dissolves when recognizing that in a hypothetical state of nature, race would not be a factor in determining equality; all races (and genders) would be equal by virtue of their having been created. The problem with equating the struggle for marital equality with racial equality is that racial equality is something that did not need to be bestowed or granted to African Americans by virtue of an intrinsic inequality. No, the Civil Rights Movement simply aimed to confirm—whether by legal status or through lunchroom sit-ins—what occurs naturally, which of course is racial equality. The Civil Rights Movement had to peel back generations of embedded racism where proponents of gay marriage have to “create” an artificially and extrinsically occurring institution and manufacture “rights” around something that is neither naturally occurring nor sufficient as to provide any unitive or procreative value.

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  • http://ricchuiti.tumblr.com Tim Ricchuiti

    But wouldn’t a proponent of this argument against same-sex marriage also be committed to arguing in favor of dissolving or preventing marriages in which at least one of the partners is incapable of procreation? So, no more late in life marriages, no marriages for impotent men or barren women, etc.?

    • Andrew Walker

      Tim, good question.

      I would answer that “no,” an individual who is impotent does not invalidate his or her marriage. I’m approaching my response around those conditions which are favorable versus those conditions which are unfavorable to creating life. The situation at hand, in the case of an impotent man, there is no gender genital un/discomplementarity, but simply a malfunction from what would have been a possibility; whereas with gay marriage there is, prima facie, the outright impossibility of ever creating a child. I hope that clarifies.

  • http://ancientfaith.com/podcasts/stevethebuilder/orthodoxy_and_homosexuality_part_two s-p

    This is a very interesting post, thank you. The definition of marriage is indeed based on Western post-enlightenment philosophies and views of the human being: Man is economic, sexual/passionate, contractual. As you say, modern Christians as well as gay rights advocates are working from the same paradigms and the assumptions are left unquestioned for the most part. What few are willing to engage is the examination of the assumptions of the nature of the human person. To Tim, the fallen world manifests itself in the inability of the human being to fulfill his created nature, however the inability to fulfill it due to illness, disability or even sinfulness does not abrogate the original intended order of things and nor bless or permit alternatives to the divine order, which is what that argument boils down to.

  • Matthaeus Flexibilis

    If evangelicals (and I speak as one) have divorced children from the essence of marriage via contraception, haven’t they already accepted essentially the same premises as gay marriage advocates? Contraception (in non-abortive forms) is usually seen as a form of taking dominion over creation, and yet it would seem that similar natural law arguments could be brought to bear against them.

    Moreover, evangelical ethicists like John Frame have no problem with contraception but do have problems with natural law arguments.

    On R. P. George’s natural law arguments in general, here’s a summary from the NYT Magazing profile of him (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/20/magazine/20george-t.html):

    ‘[George] brings almost every philosophical question back to a central debate about the nature of the self, a battle between reason and the passions. Moral philosophy, as George describes it, is a contest between the Greek philosopher Aristotle and the Scottish enlightenment thinker David Hume.

    ‘Aristotelians, like St. Thomas Aquinas, hold that there is an objective moral order. Human reason can see it. And we have the free will to follow or not. “In a well-ordered soul, reason’s got the whip hand over emotion,” George told the seminar, in a favorite formulation borrowed from Plato. Humeans — and in George’s view, modern liberals are usually Humeans — disagree. Against Aristotle, Hume argued that the universe includes facts but not values. You cannot derive moral conclusions from studying the world, an “ought” from an “is.” There is no built-in, objective reason for me to choose one goal over another — the goals of Mother Teresa over the goals of Adolf Hitler, in George’s hypothetical. Reason, then, is merely a tool of whatever desire strikes my fancy. “Reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions and may pretend to no office other than to serve and obey them,” George said, paraphrasing Hume, just as he does in seemingly every essay or lecture he writes.’

    If I understand John Frame correctly, he sees this as a false dichotomy between Aristotle/Aquinas and Hume. See, for instance, “Is Natural Revelation Sufficient to Govern Culture?” (http://www.frame-poythress.org/frame_articles/2006NaturalRevelation.htm) and chapter 14 of his _Doctrine of the Christian Life_ under “Natural Law” (pp 225ff). Says Frame:

    ‘So natural law arguments ultimately depend on arguments from Scripture. The argument is not merely “Play fair, because that is the natural law,” or even “Play fair, because you cannot help believing in fair play,” but “Play fair, because you cannot help believing in fair play, and we know that because the Bible says so.”

    ‘Of course, to say that is to remove much of the appeal of the natural law tradition, which is the claim that we may argue objective principles of ethics without recourse to Scripture. If [natural law advocate] Budziszewski and I are right, there is no such thing as a natural law argument apart from Scripture. Natural law arguments are, in fact, natural-law-arguments-warranted-by-the-Bible. That doesn’t mean that every natural law argument must be accompanied by Bible texts, but rather that as when an argument attempts to trace natural law back to its ultimate foundation, that foundation must be located in Scripture.’

    Elsewhere (http://www.frame-poythress.org/frame_articles/2010VanDrunen.htm) he writes:

    ‘People often say that it is difficult to argue ethical issues from Scripture in a society that does not honor Scripture’s authority. But it is even more difficult to argue from natural law. For natural law is not a written text. Even though it is objectively valid, there is no way of gaining public agreement as to what it says as long as we simply exchange opinions about what natural law says. For example, when people argue from natural law that abortion is wrong, they are essentially pitting their intuitions against the intuitions of others (intuitions which, when true, are often suppressed). Often such arguments are naturalistic fallacies, arguments from “is” to “ought:’ e.g., unborn children are genetically unique organisms, therefore we ought not to kill them. Arguments from Scripture are not problematic in this way [really?! --MF].’

    What do you think of this argument?

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  • http://TheEverwiseBoonton.blogspot.com Boonton

    I have often heard a joke that goes something like this, “instead of making marriage last a lifetime, they should make it a twenty year contract with an option to renew”. That’s sums up nicely the spirit of the ‘functional’ approach you detail above. If marriage is about producing and raising children let marriages auto-expire after 20 years or so (or make it 25 if you must). That’s plenty of time to produce and raise kids to adulthood, at which time everyone can go on their way.

    That is not the view of marriage provided in the New Testament, though. There two people enter a lifelong committment to ‘become one’. Children are not even mentioned. This, I believe, is a more realistic function of marriage. Before you can provide for children, you must provide for yourself. Not only must you provide for yourself in the present moment, but also your expected future moments.

    Joining with another person makes this task easier. You spread the risks of life across two different people. The legal system appears to have been built with this premise. If Donald Trump’s wife is found homeless on the street, she cannot get welfare. Instead the courts will order Trump to provide for his wife out of his income. Likewise you are generally responsible for the debts incurred by your spouse (with some exceptions). At no point do these obligations disappear or drop because the children are already raised.

    This is not to say this function is opposed to children. Quite the contrary, it complements children. If grandma has grandpa to help her in old age, it is more likely that mom and dad can put their primary efforts towards raising the kids rather than caring for elderly parents. In fact, its quite possible that grandma will be able to help mom and dad a bit with the kids rather than being a burden on them. I see no reason why this wouldn’t apply to SSM as well. If ‘Uncle Bob’ has his “Companion” he too is less likely to be a burden on the larger family should he become sick, unemployed, distressed etc.

    “We must arrive at the conclusion that the production and raising of children is not an addendum to marriage; no, the production, stabilization, and raising of children must be placed squarely within it and hermetically sealed from allowing more transitory functions to define marriage. What am I arguing? I’m arguing that marriage qua marriage must place at its very foundation the ability to produce and raise children. Anything less than this condition must be seen as insufficient as to designating a same-sex couple’s mutual interest in one another as a marriage.”

    This would make sense if humans had any particular trouble producing children, they don’t. Teenagers who can’t hold a job or even drive very well do just fine at producing babies. Humans differ from many other animals in that their great challenge is managing a lifetime that will only be productive in the middle years if all goes well. Again before you can care for another yourself must be taken care of and this is no small feat to pull off. That I put to you is the function of marriage, to provide for the foundation of healthy sustainable living that provides the extra resourses (both monetary and emotional) that are the foundation to properly produce and raise children from.

    This is not just an issue for those who are having children directly, its everyone’s issue as we all can reasonably expect to have a long period of life where others will have to help us. By structuring our lives so as to minimize the risk that we will have to draw resources away from those ‘producing and raising children’ we are contributing to what you feel is a fundamental goal. To describe this as a ‘transitory function’ is absurd. It’s like telling a woman whose pregnant her primary job is to give birth therefore she shouldn’t eat any food as that’s just a transitory distraction. If she does that she will die before she ever gets close to giving birth.

    This way of looking at marriage, IMO, more cleanly addresses questions that your way does not. For example:

    1. What about childless marriages? We like to hear stories about the 60 yr olds who find each other late in life and marry. But from the POV of producing kids this should be a horror story. But we like stories like this because we imagine such a couple will help support each other in their later years.

    2. Ditto for infertile couples. Your argument requires convoluted explanations for why such marriages are ok when the couple is different sex but not ok if they are the same sex.

    2.1 Likewise this explains why certain marriages tend to leave us with a bad taste in our mouths even though from a child production standpoint they should be optimal. For example, the ‘Anna Nicole’ type marriage where a young woman marries an old man. Such marriages are highly likely to produce children and in cases where the man is well off, the children are likely to be well cared for. Yet we don’t like such marriages and often greet them as suspect. We do so because we suspect they are not about two people making a sincere committment to care for each other but more about one exploiting the other and often undermining the way families mutually support each other (for example setting adult children against new children from the marriage, leaving the ‘original wife’ divorced and without support in her old age)

    3. Why not 3 or more? The problem with polygamy is diminishing returns. Yes a 3-person marriage does add more stability. If two people become sick there’s a 3rd to help them. But as you add more people to a relationship, its complexity increases expodentially. The series ‘Big Love’ uses this fact to make for good drama. The issues the main character faces with each of his wives (one’s a spendthrift, another’s immature, etc.) would make for a pretty dull show if it was just about that one marriage, but how they all interact with each other makes for a complicated drama. Good TV, though, isn’t necessarily good life. Juggling relations with one person is tricky enough, managing the numerous sub-relationships that come with polygamy is almost always too much. Granted there may be a small number of driven individuals for whom this can work but more often than not it generates more emotional costs than benefits IMO. From your pov, though, polygamy makes all the sense in the world. Few wombs sit idle in polygamous communities and to be fair you have to admit such communities do put a great emphasis on raising as well as producing children.

  • http://TheEverWiseBoonton.blogspot.com Boonton

    Andrew,

    I think this sums up a major hurdle many people have with the idea of natural law:

    “Opponents of this argument often equate the pursuit of the 1960′s Civil Rights Movement along with their own current struggle. The issue, however, dissolves when recognizing that in a hypothetical state of nature, race would not be a factor in determining equality; all races (and genders) would be equal by virtue of their having been created. The problem with equating the struggle for marital equality with racial equality is that racial equality is something that did not need to be bestowed or granted to African Americans by virtue of an intrinsic inequality. No, the Civil Rights Movement simply aimed to confirm—whether by legal status or through lunchroom sit-ins—what occurs naturally, which of course is racial equality. “

    Why is it obvious that being created means being created equal? Clearly it is possible to create things that are unequal. A writer can write an excellent book full of deep ideas but also a shallow short story that’s fun but not very deep. It seemed very obvious to people in the 1800’s that races were not created equal and their opposition to abolition was based on ‘natural law’. Likewise in the 1900’s it seemed very obvious that the ‘natural’ condition was that the races were created apart and should stay apart and only mixed due to modern economics and transportation…hence laws prohibiting interracial marriage were in accord with ‘natural law’.

    We now correctly dismiss such perspectives as a product of the time and environment of the people that held them. We incorrectly dismiss them on the erroneous grounds that we are ‘smarter’ and those poor primitive fools in the past were just ‘dumber’. This leads to the question of how can we tell that what is being proposed as a product of ‘natural law’ isn’t really just a product of our local conditioning?