October 22, 2005

Marriage "in Crisis"

Over at Volokh Conspiracy, there has been a lively debate going on over the entries of a new guest-blogger, Maggie Gallagher, a major opponent of same sex marriage.

Without going into her arguments too much, I'd just like to make a point about the idea of "preserving" marriage, and of marriage being "in crisis." Basically, my point is, if we wanted to "preserve" marriage, we'd actually be preserving a constant state of "crisis." Marriage has always been in crisis, insofar as it has never been completely nailed down in all of its particulars--its purpose, its use, its nature, its reality--much like another major part of life--government, or governance.

Marriage has always been adapting and evolving. Current issues like same-sex marriage, new reproductive technologies, and new lifestyles may put a certain (orthodox Christian) concept of marriage more in crisis than it's been in for some time, but marriage has never been static, just as governance has never been static. "Preserving marriage" as a general and unspecific notion is as ludicrous as "preserving government"--which government do you want to preserve? One that has a long history of oppression, inequality, and injustice? Ok, let's talk...(just kidding--I'll save that conversation for later)

The comparison between marriage and governance has been made repeatedly--John Milton specialized in it, the epistles of Paul and Peter use the metaphor pointedly, it features in novels like Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, Lolita, Madame Bovary, and The Scarlet Letter (and in a qualified way, The Quiet American), it becomes rather obvious in many of Shakespeare's plays (Macbeth, Richard III, and especially Taming of the Shrew), it's a subtext in many movies (High Noon, Shane, Giant, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Straw Dogs, and The American President come to mind), and it's probably the dominant metaphor in Greek tragedy and (obviously) Lysistrata. Christ's relationship to the church is even described as a marriage. (Leave a comment for any explanations)

And it's a good comparison--nearly every question you can put to the notion of governance applies equally well to marriage--contract vs. covenant? fairness vs. welfare? partnership or leader/led? based on negative or positive rights? how shall property be held? rights vs. obligations? when should it be dissolved? etc.

The point I want to make is simple. It is ludicrous to talk about governance as something with only one purpose and as something that has been perfected, even if only in writing. There has been no perfect image created of governance, and there never will be. Likewise, there has never been a single understanding of what government is for (in practice or in theory), and there never will be.

Marriage, like governance, accomplishes many tasks, and it works best when it is not constrained by fulfilling any one task. It works best when the relationship between the governors and the governed is not static and unidirectional. And it works best the fewer restraints are placed on who can take part in the union.

And like marriage, governance is constantly "in crisis"--and it should be. Marriage, like governance, is a craft, not a science. It is not based on a recipe; it is based on experience and logic. The experience of humanity does not point to a single purpose for marriage, and logic should carry us to a conclusion that we should not give it an imaginary one.

Crisis--yes, please!

[note: I crossposted this at Vox in Sox with another bit that tackles her concluding arguments. Read it here.]

Also, if you haven't read it yet (unlikely as that may be), the Leon Kass/Crooked Timber exchange is amazing. Leon Kass here, Crooked Timber here.
And I'm not sure if this is completely fair to Maggie, but it does make a solid point--the opposition to same-sex marriage is self-interested in the same narrow, non-societal sense that they believe defenses of it to be.


  1. Anonymous3:36 PM

    Marriage is in crisis, yes, and has been for centuries as you say. So it's extraordinarily hubristic to suggest we can go about legislating our way towards more perfection. Marriage is an evolved concept, not a man-made one--so who are we to think we can change it without consequence?

    Just as man's tampering with the climate has had effects we couldn't have predicted even ten years ago, tampering with a natural social institution could also have unseen effects. This doesn't mean there will for sure be such effects, but it's worth considering that deliberate tampering with things thousands of years in the making never turns out for the better.

  2. it's worth considering that deliberate tampering with things thousands of years in the making never turns out for the better.

    yeah, like medicine--there's no way we should contravene nature for something better. You know that avian flu thing? Thousands of years in the making. Better to just let it go its course.

  3. sandbox referee8:06 PM

    Likewise, some ancient social institutions (slavery comes most readily to mind, perhaps followed by human sacrifice) are probably objectively damaging to a society, and should be legislated away. That's not really an applicable comparison here, though, is it? A lot more legitimate than a humorous taunt about avian flu, perhaps, but still not quite there.

    I think the key difference here which sets marriage apart is that marriage is a private institution constituted by and directly affecting only the pair that comprise it. Straight people are not directly affected in any way by the marriage of two women, nor by their rearing children, nor by the eventual success or failure of their marriage, any more than a gay person is directly affected by the marriage of two straight people.

    Obviously, when expanded to the set of all marriages, this becomes a political issue. However, just as slavery and human sacrifice can have big-picture political and economic ramifications (in some cases very positive ones), yet are nonetheless judged based on their specific merits, personal and moral, so should marriage be judged. To forget that this political/cultural battle is being played out on the lives of living, feeling people is criminal. The religious right seems eager to paint a malevolent, machinating, monolithic and utterly dehumanized picture of capital-H Homosexuals, and thereby does great harm and disservice to an entire class of American citizens.

  4. Advances in medecine aren't necessarily unqualified goods either...

    Clearly, leaving the status quo intact threatens lives in the short term. People could die of bird flu if we fail to use our knowledge to develop an effective vaccine. The moral case for immediate aid is clear.

    But medecine does have its downsides:
    - Historically, things like disease have acted to cure cases of vast overpopulation like that in Africa today. Our medicine actually makes the problem worse.
    - The use of antibiotics has led to the rise of new, more resistant and powerful bacteria that could pose a threat in the long run.
    - Increasing lifespans allowed by medicine have dramatically altered the social landscape of Europe and the US, throwing the social safety nets into near bankruptcy as a result. Is increasing age of the population a bad thing? Not necessarily. Is it a good thing? Not definitively.

    How conceited are we to assume we can tinker with nature and get away with it scott-free?

  5. alum--if i may say so, i think you're missing the point, at least if you intend a comparison between the possible harm advances in medicine causes to the possible harm caused by further development of our concept of marriage from a procreative heterosexual union to a loving bond of intimacy.

    The point is, there is nothing "natural" about the form of marriage same-sex marriage opponents glorify. It is natural only within a very specific cultural schema; the biology of procreation does not itself demand a limit on the forms of cultural unions, and even biology has been overcome to some extent with new technology.

    A second point is that leaving things in the status quo in regards to marriage is clearly not what ssm opponents want. They want a significant cultural change and thus are no different from SSM advocates in that regard and should be subject to the same kinds of objections you have just voiced--are we so arrogant to believe that our (necessarily) flawed understanding of a previous cultural institution can be suddenly transplanted to the present with no detriment to ourselves?

    There is no crisis-free way, there is no path that lies free of significant obstacles. But most SSM opponents refuse to recognize this.

  6. Anonymous4:53 PM

    ...development of our concept of marriage from a procreative heterosexual union to a loving bond of intimacy.

    Love can be a part of marriage, but it's not necessary. This is a complete redefinition of what marriage is along idealistic and utopian grounds.

    We've already tried to include a goal of happiness in marriage by allowing no-fault divorce; that redefinition led to the collapse of perfectly stable marriages because people beleived they had to be happy to be married. Now imagine what will happen if you make the only requirement for marriage be love: marriage on a whim, frequent divorces, childbearing and child raising out of wedlock once parents decide they no longer love each other.

    The left will be the ruin of America.

  7. if you will notice, kind sir, the syntactically most important word in my phrase "loving bond of intimacy" is not "loving," which is a modifier, nor is it "intimacy," which is in a prepositional phrase--the key word is "bond." I mean for marriage to be a commitment of the strongest order. I believe that love is that strongest order.

    I do not believe that simple duty leads to truly "stable" marriages and especially not the kind of duty that subjugates one half of the bond--I would blame the failure of duty as the reason why so many people of my parents' were and are unable to commit wholeheartedly to a marriage--they desperately do not want loveless, ugly marriages of duty like their parents.

    Point the finger at the left if you want. Repression will out.