Human beings are both rational and social creatures. We live not in herds but in ordered societies. We do this because it is good for us: the order of society that is necessary for us to live well is preserved by government and laws. If our government and laws do not help us to flourish (or if they actually assault our well-being), it is impossible to justify living under that government or those laws.
If government exists to support us in our flourishing, then it is obligated, in the deepest sense, to function in accordance with the truth of what is fitting for us. It is obligated to try to protect us from harm, and to support us in what is good for us….
The cause du jour, the primary contest over human flourishing, is the debate over the meaning of marriage.
The truth of marriage is that it can only exist between one man and one woman, for the sake of the children who may come as a result of their sexual union. Thus government is obligated to recognize the truth of marriage; to protect and support that project of bringing children into the world and caring for them; to recognize all and only actual marriages; and to discourage sexual acts in other contexts.
Proponents of same-sex marriage might well note here that my argument about the harm I undergo makes sense only if one agrees with my understanding of sex and marriage. This is, of course, true. With a different understanding of marriage, one might argue that same-sex couples are harmed by the lack of marital status because they believe it is owed to them.
The simple fact that no one in the entire history of humanity has ever thought it even possible for two people of the same sex to marry should give us pause. If it does not, then arguments about the nature of marriage should. I have argued previously in Public Discourse that marriage exists only as the union of one man and one woman, declared before the community, because the community has a stake in the outcome of their sexual union, i.e., children. If it were not the case that sex leads naturally (though not in every case) to children, the community would have no interest in the relationship, any more than in any other relationship of friendship or amusement. Indeed, it is impossible to imagine how anyone would have thought up the idea in the first place.
On the other hand, those who support same-sex “marriage” do so with an argument that looks something like this: “Nobody talks that way anymore. Nobody acts that way anymore. Therefore marriage has changed.” They look around at a society that, at least in practice, behaves as if sex and marriage mean nothing more than whatever the people who enter into a relationship want it to mean.
We may note that the conclusion of the above argument does not follow from the premises. The fact that many people think and act differently these days about marriage does not change the nature of marriage, any more than the nature of a cat would change if we decided to treat it like a rosebush.
If marriage is what they say it is, however, then marriage is nothing more than a contract. And if it is merely a contract, then the proper response of government and law is not to legalize same-sex marriage; it is to get out of the marriage business entirely. Law’s function, then, would be merely to help settle disputes between people who claim contracts have been violated. Any harm involved would be entirely a function of the terms of the contract, not the nature or circumstances of the people involved.
If, however, the nature of marriage is what I have argued for here, then two people who are literally incapable of marrying one another are not suffering a harm, or even a loss, when the society refuses to call their relationships a marriage. There is a difference between suffering a loss and simply not getting what one wants.
My wife, my children, and I are harmed when the government turns its back on the truth of marriage, and thus turns its back on its citizens’ flourishing. The government may force me to send my children to schools that mandate the celebration of same-sex relationships, thus violating my rights as a parent. It may prosecute me for hate crimes for the very expression of my views, thus violating my freedom of conscience and speech. I hope not. These harms are not a logically necessary outcome of the recognition of same-sex marriage, so perhaps that threat will dissipate. But the other harms that I have spelled out above are indeed necessary and harmful consequences of the adoption of same-sex marriage. The proper response of society to the widespread abuse of sex and marriage is not to multiply the harm by abandoning the truth. Rather, it is to get back on the right track.
My own view of same-sex “marriage” is remarkably similar to Heaney’s, even though my view has a different provenance than Heaney’s religious-philosophical one; for example:
The recognition of homosexual “marriage” by the state — though innocuous to many, and an article of faith among most libertarians and liberals — is another step down the slippery slope of societal disintegration. The disintegration began in earnest in the 1930s, when Americans began to place their trust in chimerical, one-size-fits-all “solutions” offered by power-hungry, economically illiterate politicians and their “intellectual” enablers and apologists. In this instance, the state will recognize homosexual “marriage,” then bestow equal benefits on homosexual “partners,” and then require private entities (businesses, churches, etc.) to grant equal benefits to homosexual “partnerships.” Individuals and businesses who demur will be brought to heel through the use of affirmative action and hate-crime legislation to penalize those who dare to speak against homosexual “marriage,” the privileges that flow from it, and the economic damage wrought by those privileges.
It should be evident to anyone who has watched American politics that even-handedness is not a matter of observing constitutional limits on government’s reach, regardless of who asks for an exception; it is, rather, a matter of expanding the privileges bestowed by government so that no one is excluded. It follows that the recognition and punitive enforcement of same-sex “marriage” would be followed by the recognition and bestowal of benefits on other arrangements, including transient “partnerships” of convenience. And that surely will weaken heterosexual marriage, which is the axis around which the family revolves. The state will be saying, in effect, “Anything goes. Do your thing. The courts, the welfare system, and the taxpayer — above all — will pick up the pieces.” And so it will go….
Given the signals being sent by the state, the rate of formation of traditional, heterosexual marriages will continue to decline. (According to the Census Bureau, the percentage of adult males who are married dropped steadily from 71.1 percent in the 1960 census to 58.6 percent in the 2000 census; for females, the percentage dropped from 67.4 to 54.6. (The latest available figures, for 2009, show no significant change since 2000.) About half of each drop is explained by a rise in the percentage of adults who never marry, the other half by a rise in the percentage of divorced adults. Those statistics are what one should expect when the state signals — as it began to do increasingly after 1960 — that traditional marriage is no special thing by making it easier for couples to divorce, by subsidizing single mothers, and by encouraging women to work outside the home.
The well-known effects of such policies include higher rates of crime and lower levels of educational and economic achievement. (See this and this, for example.) Same-sex marriage would multiply these effects for the sake of mollifying a small minority of the populace.
There is plenty of harm to be done by the state’s recognition of same-sex “marriage.” Heaney is right to warn against that harm.
For a deeper examination of the effects of state action on morality, see Francis J. Beckwith’s “Government Forms (or Deforms) Souls.”
I Missed This One
A Century of Progress?
The Marriage Contract
Libertarianism, Marriage, and the True Meaning of Family Values
Consider the Children
Marriage and Children
“Equal Protection” and Homosexual Marriage
Parenting, Religion, Culture, and Liberty
“Family Values,” Liberty, and the State
Civil Society and Homosexual “Marriage”
Perry v. Schwarzenegger, Due Process, and Equal Protection
Rationalism, Social Norms, and Same-Sex “Marriage”
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
Libertarian Conservative or Conservative Libertarian?
Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Part I
Bounded Liberty: A Thought Experiment
The Meaning of Liberty
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
In Defense of Marriage