Final (possibly) thoughts on the ‘gay marriage’ debacle

Executive summary: show me the arguments. Why should marriage law take the shape proposed by the ‘Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Bill’ (rather than various other forms which it could take)?

The public discussion over the revision of NZ marriage law has been a complete farce, a situation which all sides should be saddened by. That so many people have effectively been bullied into staying silent on the issue, and that those who have spoken have so seldom offered coherent argumentation, should be matters of serious concern. Of course, a common reaction to this will be mockery and derision, perhaps in conjunction with a supercilious tone – but that constitutes rather little by way of response, and I’m cynical enough to not particularly care.

My own view on the matter, as most of you will be aware, is that marriage is properly restricted to couples involving partners of the opposite sex. I realise the issue is divisive (understatement) and highly personal for some of my friends, and I think my natural temperament is reasonably conciliatory, so I don’t post these kinds of comments lightly. It is a complex mix of personal experience, political and religious factors which lead me to saying something on the topic. Hear me out if you are able. Unfortunately the parliamentary select committee chose not to listen to my oral submission on the issue, so this is my alternative drop in the bucket of public debate. There are lots of things I could blog on, but this one seems popular at the moment, and it seems lots more people read this kind of post than most others.

Firstly, it may seem to you that my own personal ethical and/or religious views should have no impact on the shaping of public institutions. For all its apparent reasonableness, this however is an absurd position which cannot be applied equally across the board – I think it commits the proponent to a kind of self-referential incoherence. These institutions will be shaped by ethical considerations of some kind, often motivated by one’s bigger picture Weltanschauung (religion?) and I believe it is in everyone’s best interest that the public square is open to debate on them and not constrained ‘a priori’ by a small set of “allowable” viewpoints. If your substantive ethical view (e.g. one aligned with secular humanism) is allowed, why not mine? It may be felt that any reasons I give below are just a sham to cover my inherently irrational religious beliefs or emotive medieval prejudices; in response I would suggest that a similar ‘psychologising’ move is quite possible for supporters of the Bill, though actually hardly even necessary given the paucity of arguments being offered from that side. [It may be claimed that while religion claims esoteric private knowledge, secular humanism is just based on rational inference from publicly available information. This is to misunderstand the nature of both Christianity and secular humanism, but if you want to discuss this more you are very welcome.]

Perhaps the main hindrance to the debate is the widespread belief that the ideals of ‘progressivism’ (as narrowly construed by the cultural elite of today) are in some sense the default position. They don’t really need to be argued for, for they are obviously true to any educated person. That the precise boundaries of the ideal are so malleable just shows how advanced the concepts are. Some might call this “the new indoctrination”. What results is the sometimes brutal attempted subjugation of any alternative viewpoint, with the characterisation of traditionalist or conservative opponents as uneducated reactionary bigots clinging on to a last vestige of societal privilege rather than showing us as we prefer to be seen – as everyone’s favourite underdog rebels, caped crusaders for truth, goodness, beauty, and a flourishing society.

Well, … in fact I probably won’t be wearing a cape anytime soon, and I have few illusions about my own motives and character; I know they are mixed and muddied. “So shut up then”, you say perhaps. But in a messed-up world there are still a few things worth standing up for, and the integrity of the base unit of society seems like one of them to me. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t oppose all ‘progressive’ thinking by any means, but I urge the need for alternative voices, and alternative conceptions of how debates should be framed, to be heard. I am well aware of the phenomenon of religious hypocrisy (Jesus spoke about it, and it hasn’t changed much since then), but keeping one finger on the pulse of my own life and my feet on the ground, I aim for now to continue to speak into the cacophony of the public square because others no less sullied or imperfect than I are already speaking, and a lot of what they are saying is in need of correction. Actually, it’d be cool if you could join me; just engage your brain, check your beliefs, and open your mouth (or type something and post it online).

Now, to revise (in case you missed the memo) – why would anyone support the standard view of heterosexual marriage, to the exclusion of other forms?

See here [link] for more in-depth argumentation along the lines which I offer. What is given below is a revised form of what I’ve published elsewhere, as I got lazy.

If marriage is important, an understanding implicit in State recognition, we need to be clear about what it is. Those who believe that all relationship types should be equal in the eyes of the law ought to promote not same-sex marriage, but rather the abolition or privatization of marriage. Some will say that the current move is just a first step to a wider reinvention of the institution, while it is also claimed that the proposed shift could only strengthen marriage in NZ – but these cannot both be true. I suggest that marriage is rationally limited to male-female pairs, and that no compelling alternative view of marriage is on offer in the public debate.

Marriage is a pre-political institution that arises across the world in a range of slightly different forms as a result of the biological realities involved in producing children. In NZ it is shaped by norms of monogamy, fidelity, and love, as a result of the universal intrinsic link to children and our culture’s belief in the equality of the partners. Only a pair from the opposite sex can share life together fully (socially, economically, physically) in a union that can result in children. A quote from Bertrand Russell is used to good effect in this [link] recent document from UK Catholic bishops: ‘But for children, there would be no need of any institution concerned with sex …. It is through children alone that sexual relations become of importance to society, and worthy to be taken cognizance of by a legal institution.’ Extending marriage fails to recognise why the institution currently has the form it does. In jettisoning the biological family unit as its basis, along with biblical statements which reinforce the relevant norms for many in NZ, we are left floating in a relativistic soup.

The primary public good of marriage is families, including children; it is a good for children to be raised by their biological parents where possible and the State may appropriately choose to provide benefits to the kind of union where that can occur. But there are ancillary goods too, which helps to explain the legitimate inclusion of many couples without children. It is a good to have models of the kind of union that in many cases produces the primary good. It is good for society for members of the opposite sex to share life together fully, with commitment. The government is not interested in the fertility of individual couples but does have an interest in promoting opposite-sex parenting as the ideal. Not recognising the value and form of this institution shaped around children’s wellbeing would be a failure by the State.

The proposed amendment continues to discriminate against a number of relationship forms; 15 kinds of couple are listed in Schedule 2 of the Bill, and multi-partner relationships are similarly off the cards. Yet, having divorced marriage from both biology and biblical norms, justifying the particularly contours seems left to tradition or accidents of history – I think poor bases for law. 

Objections & Replies:

”Marriage has nothing to do with kids!”
– I contend that the norms associated in our culture with marriage exist to a large extent due to the link with children. Since things like love & fidelity are talked about in the revised context of ‘gay marriage’, I take it that most proponents of the Bill want to retain the general shape of the institution and just extend it to more couples. The difficulty is that the institution has the basic shape it does for a reason, namely (in the first instance) children. Another reason, I would argue, is sourced in the biblical/Christian tradition (there is of course marriage, or something like it, in various other cultures, but what we talk about in ours is associated with romantic love, an idea which has a distinctly Western & Christian history to it in this country). I don’t think you can expect to stick the same name on something which is quite different (marriage turned into merely two people romantically attached who want to have this relationship situation recognised) whilst retaining the general shape.

Of course, some will say to themselves “lol, he thinks marriage is all about having kids – how unbearably old-fashioned”, but it’s not my claim that there are not ancillary goods to marriage, and the question remains: what do you think marriage is about, and given your view, why should the government get involved at all? If you don’t believe in government involvement in marriage, you don’t believe in gay marriage.

“Okay, sure, marriage can be linked to kids (if the couple wants), but gay couples can have kids and some heteros can’t – surely you’re just discriminating on what is now, thanks to Science, a completely arbitrary basis?”
– If the government’s interest in marriage is primarily due to the connection to children and stable families, then it is justified in limiting what it regards as ‘marriage’ to relationship forms which bear an intrinsic connection to children, i.e. heterosexual unions. Some hetero couples will not want to or be able to have children, but they still participate in a kind of union which is by its nature oriented towards children. It is not in the government’s interest to discriminate based on a couple’s desires or issues of reproductive health (thus rejection of childless hetero couples would be unjust). It is however in society’s interest to promote the norms associated with marriage, and a good way it can do that is to recognise committed heterosexual unions with the unique term for this situation which has arisen in our culture, namely ‘marriage’. A legitimate question for the government in deciding what to recognise as ‘marriage’ is whether a particular kind of union is associated with the primary societal function of marriage. If a kind of union is not associated with the determined function and does not reinforce the norms which are a result of that function, it is only fair that it not be deemed a member of the class defined in terms of that function.

”Bow down to progress, hillbilly! Once upon a time, people like you banned inter-racial marriage and did other dastardly things, but that time is gone, (thanks be to Science!)”
– Banning or discouraging inter-racial marriage is inconsistent with the position which I have outlined, which emphasises that the key aspects of marriage are an intrinsic orientation towards children, along with the associated norms. Inter-racial marriages have exactly the same orientation towards children as those between people of the same race (I don’t know how race can be sensibly defined in any case, just in case anyone wondered). People in the past may have offered reasons to reject homosexual unions which also resulted in rejecting inter-racial unions, but I don’t know what those would be, and they’re not the reasons I have offered.

“Don’t throw ur religion @ me, fool!”
– 1) please read my argument, above.

2) I don’t understand why the revised contours of marriage law as offered by proponents of “gay marriage” constitutes the default position. If it does not, I think the shape proposed requires argumentation. Can you oblige plz?

“If you’re not gay, this doesn’t affect you. Leave them/us alone to get married as they/we wish.”
– Marriage is a public institution, and the shape of marriage law is a matter of legitimate public interest.
– One effect of the law will be to facilitate joint adoption by homosexual couples. This is a large issue which I have not discussed, as I am not an expert in it; basically I think the case needs to be made before such a change is brought in, and from what I have read, the social science is ambiguous regarding the overall outcomes of homosexual adoption. The question obviously affects adopted children, which is a constituency I have some interest in.

“Get with the times – this is democracy, bro, you can’t stop it.”
– I don’t expect to stop it, I just think it is appropriate to register protest. If true democracy results in marriage being redefined into an ad hoc and unjustly discriminatory creation of the State, then so be it. But I’d like genuine public debate on the matter first, with the academic defenders of both sides presented. Even go so far as to hold a public referendum if you really want ‘democracy’ – but don’t be too surprised when you lose.

[From a hypothetical Christian]: “You need to quote the Bible and/or to assert its necessity in moral issues. If atheists don’t like that, too bad. There are no good secular arguments concerning the nature of marriage, so don’t even go there.”
– Dealing with this objection to my approach fully would require at least a post on ‘faith & reason’, which I may get around to eventually. But, in general I think that some claims that Christians make are open to assessment by ‘public reason’ – i.e. don’t require accepting specifically Christian precepts. Marriage is not a uniquely Christian concept (though its form as we know it has been influenced by Christian ideas), and I think there are good arguments for retaining something like its current form, without having to refer to the contents of special revelation. When I see people of a ‘presuppositionalist’ bent misrepresenting arguments based on broadly ‘secular’ premisses, I (probably irrationally – the existence of many bad arguments against a position doesn’t show it to be true) feel a little more justified in my conclusion.

Well, there’s plenty more that could be said on all of this, and I’m not really an expert – just an amateur dabbler annoyed by how amateur some of the other dabblers talking about this are; if I saw many others writing about this in a way that I agreed with, I wouldn’t have bothered, but I didn’t, so I did. There are quite a few people studying subjects like law & philosophy who could step up to the plate on things like this, and should be able to do so more competently than I, but each to their own.
If you made it to the end, well done, it’s probably time to get a life. Beyond that, I hope I haven’t infuriated you too much (I’ve probably managed to alienate atheists, agnostics, and evangelical Christians, but followers of other religions should I think be happy enough); let me know sometime, and I’ll happily buy you a coffee to discuss it if you wish (offer limited by my finances, but very much open for now).


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