Gay marriage and the reality of marriage

One odd thing that is rarely raised in the gay marriage debate is the nature of marriage itself – why is it that marriage exists? What is it for? This seems an odd omission. It’s not possible to come to any reasonable conclusion about gay marriage if one doesn’t even understand marriage in the first place.

Marriage is as universal as anything can get in human culture. It is everywhere, in all societies, nations, languages groups and ethnicities, throughout recorded history. It is also an extremely binding and exclusive commitment – once you marry your wife or husband, you are expected to live with your spouse exclusively for the rest of your life. While it doesn’t always work out that way, even today if you ask people what marriage should be like if all goes well, that is the answer that they will likely give.

The universality of marriage combined with its unparalleled and daunting level of commitment suggests its extreme importance – that it exists to protect or create something of vital importance to the entire human race.

What could this be? What could be important enough, vital enough, to justify such an enormous commitment?

The only plausible answer in my view is children. Marriage exists because children exist and must be cared for. Because children are typically cared for by their biological parents (rather than, say, sending them to a commune or leaving them to be raised by wolves), a binding commitment by the parents to stay together ensures that the child can be raised to adulthood and keep the human race going.

Considering this along with human sexuality and romantic love gives us a complete picture:

– Sex exists to bring forth children

– Sexual attraction exists so people will want to have sex, thus bringing forth children

– Marriage exists so that the children brought to life can be cared for

– Romantic love exists so that people will be willing to take on the burden of marriage and caring for children

Thus we see that all these things work together as a complete and coherent system for the betterment of humanity. Of course, much more could be said about each of these topics, but ultimately none of it changes this overall picture.

Some will ask “What about couples that can’t have children?” Such couples exist. In the same way, there are married couples who don’t love each other, who no longer have sex or who aren’t physically attracted to each other. Consider the following scenario: a couple enters an arranged marriage, but just after saying their vows, police arrest the husband for murder and the wife ends the marriage a few days later. By any standard an unconsummated, loveless week-long marriage that never produced children is a failure.

Does it follow, based on this and other edge cases, that marriage has nothing to do with children? Of course not. By the same logic, we would also have to say it has nothing to do with love, living together, mutual support, romance or sex. Marriage would thus be an empty void, and it’s staying power over history would be a complete mystery.

Marriage can only be understood if we define it from it’s centre, rather than from the edge cases.

From this analysis, we see that far from just being a cultural artefact, marriage is an essential part of what it mean to be human, just as sex, sexual attraction and romantic love are essential parts of what it means to be human. This is the reality of marriage. To deny it is to deny reality.

Changing the definition of marriage is therefore comparable to changing the definition of romantic love or of sex – a daunting task.

Should gay marriage be legal?

The discussion to this point leads to the conclusion that gay marriage doesn’t make a lot of sense as a concept. That doesn’t mean that it should be illegal. There are many silly things that are legal; to argue that gay marriage should be illegal, it is not enough to merely attack the idea. The legal question is separate.

Given that marriage exists for children and the needs of opposite-sex couples, it follows that same-sex couples are unlikely to benefit from the institution, at least not to the same extent. I expect that once we have gay marriage and the hype dies down, the take-up rate of marriage by same-sex couples will be far lower than that of opposite-sex couples, simply because of the different needs involved. But that doesn’t mean there is no benefit at all. If same-sex marriage encourages stable, long-term monogamy among gays and lesbians and discourages empty hedonistic lifestyles, that could be of benefit for them. No doubt there are also other potential benefits.

Apart from that there are a few reasons to legalise gay marriage, even if you agree with everything I’ve written so far. They aren’t the usual reasons given, but here they are:

One: Freedom is more important in a democracy than always having the right concepts. People have the right to be wrong and to make mistakes.

Two: People want it. Also important in a democracy.

Three: Feelings. Not as important as facts, but still not nothing. Gays and lesbians carry many emotional scars as a result of past unfair treatment, not to mention the pressures of navigating yourself in a society where you’re so different from everyone else.

Four: Practical concerns. Do we want a gay brain drain to other countries? Do we want the U.S. and Europe to propose sanctions against us for not having gay marriage? (I expect this to happen within 10 years.) Whether we like it or not, we aren’t making this decision in a vacuum.

Why should the government define marriage in the first place? If marriage is about children, the protection of children is a good motive for government action. If marriage is about love, does the government need to privilege love over the loveless? Romantic love over platonic love? Government benefits for having sex?

I don’t think that a government-mandated definition of marriage makes sense unless it is supported by a larger idea of what marriage is that is uncontroversial in society. That is clearly not where we’re at.

Without such an idea, the government definition looms larger than it should, especially in debates like this one. People talk about marriage as though it is a government-created fiction, like a tax break. Marriage is so much more than that.

We need to remove any government definition. This in effect would make gay marriage legal and polygamous marriage legal and who knows what else, although legal here would mean “the Government doesn’t care” rather than “the Government is giving you a special certificate because it approves of your personal life choices”.

Once that happens, society would likely drift towards a concept of marriage that reflects what it is, rather than what the ivory towers of our society would like it to be.

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