As we look to the future, it is only a matter of time that same-sex marriage will become the law of the land. The question is not whether, but when. Yet past this horizon a new one awaits. Advocates for same-sex marriage argue, correctly, that the civil privileges that the state grants to straight couples should not be held back for gay couples. Everyone agrees there. Yet not many advocates of gay marriage consider that if an existing institution, in this case, marriage, is unjust and flawed – there is another reform possibility. We can just abolish it. As crazy as this may sound, let me make a case for it today.
The problem begins precisely because the case for same-sex marriage is iron tight. Proponents of same-sex marriage have argued, I think correctly, that if two consenting adults choose to have a relationship with one another, that should be that, and the state has no business withholding the status of marriage to these two individuals. Usually, a secondary argument is presented alongside this primary argument, namely, that no one is harmed in this consensual relationship. Ergo, same-sex marriage should be legal. Remember these two arguments: A. consent, and B. no harm done.
The problem is that one can imagine many types of relationships that satisfy both these arguments, not just same-sex relationships. Arguments A and B appear to be over-inclusive. Social conservatives are right on this front. Let me demonstrate this with two examples.
Consider the case for incestuous same-sex marriage. Let's call this twincest. Wouldn’t both the primary, and the secondary reasons I have just presented for same-sex marriage apply to justify legalization of incestuous same-sex marriage? As long as there are A. two consenting adults, and B. as long as there are no negative procreative consequences, I see no reason to deny marriage to a pair of sisters or brothers.
What argument can we adduce to separate same-sex marriage from twincest. To make the former admissible, but the latter inadmissible? Let me right off the bat throw out the argument from procreation, since neither pairing is procreative. Let me suggest that the only remaining reason one can adduce for separating same sex marriage and twincest is an emotional reason: i.e. C. disgust or moral indignation. Same sex marriage doesn’t repulse us, incest does. Not so fast. This won’t work either, since revulsion or moral indignation is exactly the sentiment shared by opponents of same-sex marriage. If advocates for same-sex marriage want to deny incestuous marriage on the basis of moral indignation, they can hardly offer a reply to those who think that same-sex marriage is morally repugnant. This is the problem of legislating morality – one man’s virtue is another man’s vice.
Let me present a second example that highlights the same problem. Plural marriage. We want to say yes to same-sex marriage, but no to plural marriage. Plural marriage can come in the form of polygyny (one man many women) or polyandry (one woman many men.) Now, I will not recommend polygyny, that is marriage between several women and one man, since there are legitimate issues of gender inequality that such an arrangement implicates. It fails argument B. But I propose polyandry, that is marriage between one woman with several men. Again, the same reasons that permit same-sex marriage would also appear to legitimate polyandry. As long as A. consulting adults engage in activity in which B. they do no harm, they should be permitted to proceed as they please. Now, if you counter-argue that society will crumble, remember that this was the same reason that opponents of same-sex marriage had used years ago. As in the case of twincest, we have failed to find a reason to permit same-sex marriage, but disallow another type of relationship, in this case, polyandry.
Where do we go from here? I suggest that the reason why we cannot find a rule for permitting same-sex marriage but not twincest or polyandry is that the whole institution is arbitrary. There are no good answers because we haven’t asked the right question. And the question is: what reason could the state possibly have to elevate and privilege one type of human relationship over others? I can think of no reason. It is not that we haven’t found the elusive discriminatory criteria that would allow one relationship but not the other. It is that we cannot. My point is that neither we, nor the state, should be in the business of selectively endorsing and sanctifying one type of human relationship over another.
What the debate over same-sex marriage is going to do is to draw us to this inevitable conclusion. Once we realize that our reasons for establishing a cut-off point to a law or institution is arbitrary, the law or the institution must unravel. When it comes to traditional marriage, our society has defended an arbitrary cut-off point, determining for the longest time that marriage should only be limited to one man and one woman, bestowing the privileges and attendants benefits to those in such a relationship. The point I am trying to make is that shifting the cut-off point, as we are attempting to do today, draws attention to the arbitrariness of where we have historically set the cut-off point, and highlights the arbitrariness of our new cut-off point.
So I’ve used two apparently odious examples but I don’t need them to make the same point about the boundaries of state regulatory activity of which marriage laws is only a subset: the state should not have the authority, ever, to sanction and elevate particular conceptions of the good life over others. We already acknowledge this principle generally, outside of the realm of intimate relations, in the principle of liberal neutrality. For example, should I choose to spend the rest of my life watching endless reruns of Family Guy trying to determine the proper pronunciation of “cool whip,” I should be free to do so, without fear that the law will penalize me for what would appear to be a waste of my time.
Even though my argument appears controversial, I think most of you already implicitly agree with me. There are a whole host of other equally important and gratifying relationships that marriage laws today do not endorse. The sexual love between a man and a man, the platonic affection between a man and a woman, the bond between a man and his dog, the friendship between a girl and her grandmother. Don’t we all get a little miffed when our best friend finds a new girlfriend and they fall off the face of the earth (until they break up)? Who’s to say that these other types of relationships do not deserve public sanction, or at least a title equal to the privileged status of those who are traditionally married? Indeed these relationships can also go under or beyond two persons. Consider self-love, Narcissus’s love for himself. Who’s to say someone who chooses to remain single has chosen a lesser path? Or, we can go up in numbers for more complex kinds of relationships: kinships in extended families, membership in fraternal organizations can be as rewarding as monogamous long-term relationships between two people. All of these relationships produce human flourishing. Yet I ask: why is it that we place the romantic, oftentimes sexual relationship between two people (homosexual or heterosexual) on a pedestal above all others? There has got to be a reason if we are to keep the institution of marriage. The state should only act when there are plausible, publicly defensible reasons. Institutions should exist only if the state can articulate reasons for their existence. Tradition or the warm feeling of romance isn’t enough, precisely because we have already chosen to unravel the traditional meaning of marriage in our support for same-sex marriage. (And by the way, Plato privileged platonic love over sexual love, so whatever I’m saying isn’t really new.)
I am not seeking to invalidate the choices of those who are already married. If you want to get into a long term monogamous and romantic relationship, go for it. But do not assume that this relationship is more deserving of state sanction than a host of other important intimate, caregiving relationships. Don’t do it because you want a public badge of honor. Do it in spite of the institution of marriage, not because of it. You will be perceived as weird, even Wesleyan weird, but you will be right.
Those who are trying to do the good work to modernize marriage need to consider the other possibility of reform and challenge the assumption that the institution itself is worth saving. By all means fight for equality. But don’t just fight for gays and lesbians. Fight for everyone, fight for anyone who wishes to live by an unconventional standard of love.
Let me conclude. If you think about it, marriage appears to do the exact opposite of that which it has traditionally been supposed to do. Marriage doesn’t encourage love; it restrains it. With the infinite variety of human interactions, is there really a need for the state to establish the gold standard of human relationships? (If liberty requires that we should each be free to love as we please, equality demands that the state remains neutral as to whom and how we love, or indeed, whether or not we love at all.) Marriage purports to be an institution that celebrates love; yet history shows us that marriage has served only to control and restrain the possibilities of human love. Civil marriage, however defined, will always and arbitrarily confer social meaning and hierarchies. Perhaps we should simply abolish it.