Tuesday, August 21, 2012

An outline of a secular argument against SSM (Part II)

[I don't often change my posts after they're published, except for minor edits (spelling, punctuation, syntactical errors, and so forth).  However, I'd completely finished Part III before I realized it had gone in the wrong direction.  So the last paragraph has been amended to fit the next installment.—TL]

One of my friends confessed, “I just don’t get marriage.  Why do people get married, anyway?”  This caused a bit of an embarrassed silence; the friend in question had left her husband and two kids for another woman, so there were all sorts of potential landmines for a well-intentioned idiot to step on.  Fortunately, I wasn’t there.

Again, we’ve been looking not at motivations, which are various and range from really good to really bad, but rather at marriage’s function in society.  I’m sure had anyone tried to discuss the matter, they would have dwelt on motivations while missing the fact that the question was really about the function. 

That no one automatically connects children with marriage anymore is hardly the tip of the iceberg; imagine my astonishment when, reading a thread on contraception, I came across a comment where a woman said, in dismissal of an argument: “What has sex got to do with reproduction?”  It’s as if we have started to believe that the primary purpose of eggs is not baby chickens but breakfast and baked goods, or that cars exist for satellite radio, Bose speaker systems and Corinthian-leather bucket seats rather than to get you from Point Alfa to Point Bravo.

And yet the future for the hosts of children born and raised outside of marriage is grim and looking grimmer. Researcher Kay S. Hymowitz argues:

We are becoming a nation of separate and unequal families that threatens to last into the foreseeable future.  On the one hand, well-educated women make more money.  They get married, only then have their children, and raise them with their husbands.  Those children are more likely to grow up to be well-adjust­ed, to do well in school, to go to college, to marry and only then have children.  On the other hand, we have low-income women raising children alone who are more likely to be low-income, to drop out of school or, if they do make it to college, go to a less elite col­lege, and to become single parents themselves.

With that in mind, let’s move into Part II of our discussion.

II: A solution without a problem

In Part I, we looked at marriage’s purpose as a social institution.  Marriage doesn’t exist merely to socially validate a couple’s love for each other; this position is actually something of a debasement of specifically Christian teachings, not one that crosses religious borders.  Rather, marriage establishes the set of relationships, rights and responsibilities needed within a specific culture to raise children to maturity.  It acts to protect the fathers’ vested genetic interest in their children, while giving the mothers and the children legal claims and protections against the father’s physical and psychological ability to walk away from his responsibilities.

For example, every culture has a definition of adultery, which is punished by penalties ranging from civil fines to execution; in marriage, the claims of one spouse over access to the other spouse’s gametes is not relative but absolute.  Most cultures have had some degree of arranged marriages, whether confined to the upper strata of society or not: the mixing of blood lines in familial relationships creates the strongest political alliances (what the Romans called amicitia), and founds not only extended families but communities as well.  Also, every culture has taboos against not only marriage but sex between people related within certain degrees; the closer two people are related, the more likely it is that their gametes when mated will trigger potentially fatal recessive traits.

By contrast, this is why attempts to repackage other cultures’ friendship rituals as “gay marriages” have been less than convincing even among gay people.  Besides the fact that it imports a homoerotic element where it is neither evident nor necessary, it reads into the other culture our own culture’s perception that love is the basis of marriage.  Even in classical Greece, the most gay-friendly society in Western civilization, no one saw a need to create a “marriage” for a sexual relationship that by definition is sterile.

The rejoinder, of course, is that older people are allowed to get married in our culture, even though their likelihood to reproduce is almost nonexistent.  But this simply testifies to the degree to which our society has forgotten or repressed the connection between sex, reproduction and marriage, the iron triad which informs the sexual mores of almost all cultures.  Senior marriages are a function of our time, in which people regularly live beyond their fiftieth, sixtieth and even seventieth birthdays; just over a century ago, the average life expectancy was in the low to mid forties, well before menopause.  For most of history, when a “May-September romance” occurred, it was between an older man still capable of reproducing (theoretically) and a younger woman still capable of bearing his children (theoretically).

This is not to deny marriage’s function of legitimizing sexual relationships.  However, in a time when most people have lost much sense of illegitimacy in non-marital sex, when “bastard” is simply another word for a jerk, the demand for same-sex marriage presents the appearance of a solution for which there’s no real problem.  Indeed, many gay people wonder why they need marriage when straight people are abandoning the institution: the legitimacy of their relationship is no longer in serious question, is it?  In the handful of states where SSM is recognized, the initial rush to the licensing offices quickly reduced to a mere trickle; getting the law changed was more important than actually getting married.

There are those who claim that traditional marriage is waning because it no longer serves the purpose it was created for, and that alternative forms of childrearing and family-forming will eventually take its place quite nicely, thank you.  Which creates a new dilemma: If these progressive visionaries are correct, then how can an irrelevant, obsolete institution possibly benefit gay couples?  On the other hand, if they’re wrong and the collapse of traditional marriage is merely the prelude to social and economic disaster, then how can allowing homosexuals to marry each other help save it?

The issue of gay parenting still isn’t addressed, though.  Although gay couples can’t directly have children by one another now, that may soon be changed by technological means.  Besides, there’s still adoption, IVF and surrogate parenthood.  How does this change the issue?