Thursday, August 11, 2011

A Secular "American" Case Against Same-Sex Marriage?

As I was putting together my syllabus for my introductory moral issues course (which has a unit on same-sex marriage) I was looking for something to pair against an essay of mine (in support of civil marriage for same-sex couples), and stumbled across a 2004 essay by Kay Hymowitz, "Gay Marriage vs. American Marriage."

The essay struck me as interesting in part because it sought to root a conservative position on this issue in something other than thinly-veiled (or not-so-thinly-veiled) religious arguments. Specifically, Hymowitz tries to argue that the American Founding Fathers' vision of marriage--and the conception of marriage that continued to prevail through the 19th and into the 20th centuries--is fundamentally at odds with same-sex marriage. But according to Hymowitz, this isn't because the founders were deliberately appropriating from their religious heritage certain moralistic ideas about what intimate life partnerships should be like. It was, rather, because they saw marital unions as a providing a very fundamental social unit, one on which the success of their republican project might stand or fall.

Hymowitz's argument, in brief, seems to be this: A democratic republic of the sort the Founding Fathers sought to build requires citizens suited to that kind of society--citizens who embrace the democratic notion that each citizen is an autonomous participant in government who has both the liberty and the responsibility to take an active role in shaping society.  If a democratic society requires such civicly engaged and autonomous citizens, then the success of that society depends on a child-rearing environment conducive to creating the these civic virtues.

This fact led to an interest in shaping the institution of marriage to reflect democratic ideals of autonomy and self-governance--so that, for example, marriages were entered into by consenting adults who chose their own life partners, rather than by children in unions arranged by their parents; and marriages were not confined to partners of the same social class or clan, but could be freely entered into in defiance of these kinds of non-democratic divisions.

But underlying this progressive reshaping of marriage, according to Hymowitz, is the foundational assumption that the marital unit exists for the sake of rearing the next generation. The entire reason why we should care about the character of the marital relationship is because it is the context within which the next generation is reared.

Marriage, in short, exists for the sake of providing a framework or context within which the next generation is shaped--for better or worse--for participation in civil life. As such, the government has a stake in marriage as an institution. There's a reason why the state is in the marriage business, we might say. And participation in marriage, by extension, becomes more than just a private contract with another person. It becomes, instead, an act of participation in a crucial social institution on which democratic society depends. But it is insofar as the marriage is the context for child-rearing that it serves this social role--and hence, it is insofar as it is a context for child-rearing that it imposes responsibilities on citizens rather than merely affording them a right of association.

In this light, Hymowitz sees changes in marriage patterns and policies over the last half century as posing a serious threat to the original understanding of marriage's role in society. Insofar as marriage has come to be seen as nothing but a contract between two individuals, one that can be broken by mutual consent at any time, it has ceased to be the vehicle through which individuals in their private lives contribute to the wider social life. Hymowitz blames the "severing" of the relationship between marriage and reproduction, between the private pair bonding and the social responsibility of child-rearing--a severing epitomized by no-fault divorce and its concomitant dismissal of the parents' shared commitment to acting as partners in the rearing of healthy and productive members of society.

Hymowitz sums up her argument in the following way:

Gay marriage gives an enfeebled institution another injection of the toxin that got it sick in the first place: it reinforces the definition of marriage as a loving, self-determining couple engaging in an ordinary civil contract that has nothing to do with children. That's no way for marriage to get its gravitas back. It is marriage's dedication to child rearing, to a future that projects far beyond the passing feelings of a couple, that has the potential to discipline adult passion. "The gravity of marriage as an institution comes from its demand that love be negotiated through these larger responsibilities [surrounding procreation]," Shelby Steele has written in response to Andrew Sullivan. Ignore those responsibilities and you get, well, you get the marital meltdown that this generation was hoping to transform.

I say this is an interesting argument. I do not, however, think it is ultimately a convincing one. As I was reading Hymowitz's essay, I could not help but think about the infertile heterosexual couple who, before they say their vows, know that they are never likely to have children. Or the elderly couple, both widowed, who meet at the community center and decide to get married (although both are far past their child-bearing years). Or the lesbian couple raising two children together, deeply aware of their responsibilities as parents to nurture and guide their children into a productive and healthy adulthood.

These cases highlight two fatal oversights in Hymowitz's argument. The first oversight neglects a distinction of real importance, one which is blurred by Hymowitz's use of such phrases as "the fraying of the marriage-child rearing bond". She blames this "fraying" for "increased poverty and inequality"--but in making her case for this harmful effect she doesn't show how married couples who don't have children contribute to this problem, but focuses instead on children growing up without the benefit of married parents:
Too often, single-parent families, whether divorced or never married, are poor—and very much poorer than their two-earner counterparts. Instead of being the self-reliant units the Founders envisioned, too many of them are dependent on a powerful nanny state, either for welfare payments or for determining custody and tracking down child support. And instead of being the self-governing institutions of republican theory, nurturing sturdy, self-governing citizens, too many single-parent families, as many studies have shown, bring up kids who as adults do markedly less well on average in school, career, and marriage than those who grew up in intact two-parent families.
Hymowitz concludes this line of argument with the following flourish: "Think of the past several decades of high rates of divorce and illegitimacy as a kind of natural experiment testing the truth of the Founders' vision. The results are in: if we forget that marriage is both a voluntary union between two loving partners and an arrangement for rearing the next generation of self-reliant citizens, our capacity for self-government weakens."

But it is only by equivocation that Hymowitz can get to the conclusion she wants here. There are two ways to sever the connection between loving partnerships and childrearing. One can have children outside the context of such voluntary, loving partnerships--and one can have such voluntary loving partnerships without children. It is the former, not the latter, which is the source of the "increased poverty and inequality" that Hymowitz bemoans.

Let me put the point this way. If Hymowitz is right about early American thinking about the institution of marriage, much of that thinking was shaped by a desire to ensure that this institution embodied characteristics that would, when children are born into them, create productive citizens. But it is one thing to have children outside the context of such an institution. It is something else again to have this context in place without children entering into it. The latter poses no threat to the creation of productive citizens. Put simply, it's not marriages without children that are the problem. It's children growing up without the stability and partnership that committed marriage can help to foster.

But there's a nuance to Hymowitz's argument that I'm overlooking here. Hymowitz thinks that without the expectation of children in a marriage--without the idea that having and raising children goes with getting married--marriage loses its "gravitas." In short, she thinks that the character of the marital relationship changes, ceasing to have the properties that contribute to healthy child-rearing, once people stop thinking of it as inextricably bound up with having children. If having children is optional rather than expected, marriages will lose--even in those cases where couples do have children--the traits that make a marital relationship so conducive to producing productive and healthy citizens.

This is an interesting claim. Is it true? I don't know, but I'm skeptical. I know from my own life that my marriage took on a new meaning and significance once their were children. In fact, I've been married twice. The first, entered into when I was quite young (early twenties), ended in divorce before there were children--before there were even thoughts of children. The second is still, I am happy to say, going strong. I'd like to think it would still be going strong even if there had been no children, but my point is this: Our marriage became about something more than the two of us when we started having children. Staying together became about more than just the happiness we found in each others' company. It became about our shared commitment to raising these two precious children. My participation in a marriage that did not involve children in no way diminished the broader significance that my present marriage has for me because children are involved.

And so, based on this anecdotal evidence, I'm a bit skeptical of the claim that the existence of marriages which don't involve children or the expectation of children somehow diminishes the society-building virtues of those marriages in which children are a part. Admittedly, this evidence is wholly anecdotal, but I doubt Hymowitz can do better for her contrary view. It would certainly be much harder for her to muster up the wieghty kind of evidence that she is able to muster up in support of the idea that having children outside of marriage is problematic. This may explain why Hymowitz relies so heavily on blurring the distinction between children-without-marriage and marriages-without-children, making her case against the latter rest on the negative effects of the former.

But whatever we think about this, there is a second crucial oversight in Hymowitz's article, based on a second failure to make important distinctions. I have in mind the distinction between making babies and raising them. Married couples who can't make babies can still raise them. As such, married same-sex couples can still participate in raising the next generation. Many do. Many more want to. For many gay and lesbian friends of mine, marriage is about raising children in the sense that they see the finding of a life partner as bound up with the hope of raising a family.

The fact is that same-sex marriage would increase the number of married couples who cannot readily produce babies of their own to raise. But in a world where so many children lack the kind of stable partnership for child-rearing that marriage helps to create, this implication of same-sex marriage would hardly be the negative one that Hymowitz links to "fraying" the connection between marriage and raising children. In the end, her argument rests entirely on a blurring of distinctions.


  1. Let me add that dragging the founders into this is pure propaganda. You don't hear anything about marriage in the constitution or the federalist papers. The declaration of independence was all about divorce- from England, properly explained and defended by way of a long train of harms and abuse.

    What "attitudes" the founders may or may not have had about marriage is wholly irrelevant. In their wisdom, they were silent on the matter, as far as I am aware.

  2. Anyone who tries to argue from the "childbearing is the purpose of marriage" standpoint should read Stephanie Coontz's Marriage, a History. If the founding fathers believed anything about marriage, it was what the social zeitgeist dictated that they should believe at the time. The view of what marriage is and what purpose is serves has altered considerably over the several thousand years of human civilization - to base a system of government on the hope that it will cease to change is futile at best.

  3. I actually find the argument quite boring. It is clearly made in bad faith. Legitimate argument does not take its conclusion as a given and look for a clever way of supporting it. This is like a legal argument, and it is intellectually defunct since its practitioners are uninterested in genuine inquiry regarding the relevant issues. The real motivation for developing such arguments is clearly reactionary homophobia, which does not deserve the intellectual charity your post demonstrates.

  4. Burk and nuclear.kelly: I was thinking of adding a section to this post questioning Hymowitz's historical premises--Coont'z book is great, and I think really does raise important challenges to Hymowitz's historic narrative; and I share your suspicion, Burk, of the normative weight that Hymowitz attaches to the views of marriage that the founders purportedly held. They believed lots of things, and much of what they believed was shaped BY and so reflected some of the views that directly influenced out founding documents. It doesn't follow that all of these beliefs thereby borrow some of the authority of the founding documents themselves

    But I decided to set aside those concerns about Hymowitz's premises in favor of simply showing that, even granted them, Hymowitz's argument is unsound. Her conclusion simply doesn't follow, EVEN if you accept her claims about foundational "American" marriage and its role in promoting the success of a democratic society.

  5. cheek: What interested me about this argument was its attempt to make the conservative case from a different foundation than those one usually sees--and, more specifically, on the aims of developing a society of self-determining, autonomous individuals who can participates as political equals in democratic governance.

    To think that a case against same-sex marraige can be made on THIS foundation is surprising enough for me to be of interest. It turns out, of course, that this case CAN'T be made on that foundation. But as a philosopher I think it is my responsibility to show that an argument fails BEFORE psychologizing about motives. Once it has been demonstrated that an argument is unsound--and not merely unsound, but rooted in some glaring confusions--one can properly ask why someone who is obviously intelligent should come to treat such muddled thinking as if it demonstrated something it doesn't.

    Of course, sometimes it is obvious in advance of any charitable exposition of an argument that it is unsound--and often enough in such cases, I simply ignore these arguments as unworthy of my attention. And if I am talking about such arguments purely among those who immediately see the unsoundness as readily as I do, it may be appropriate to skip the philosophical work of demonstrating unsoundness and jump straight into psychologizing.

    But if I choose to address these arguments at all in cases where the audience may be a mixed one that includes people who don't immediately see the unsoundness of it, I believe that as a philosopher and as a teacher I have a responsibility to explicate the argument as fairly as I can in order to clearly explain where it goes wrong.

    Doing so is also an invitation to transformative thinking: People who find themselves nodding along with Hymowitz's argument and are then shown the multi-level unsoundness of it are invited to reflect on WHY they found themselves so readily nodding along, their critical faculties so dulled that they failed to see the obvious shortcomings. Sometimes (hardly always) this kind of experience is the very thing that moves someone to say to themselves, "Wow, maybe I am being homophobic." This effect isn't going to be achieved if one dismisses the argument in advance as homophobic (a move that is only likely to inspire defensiveness).

  6. I tried to comment earlier, but it's not showing up. I'll try to summarize my points, and I apologize if I end up double-posting.

    I basically think that while your approach is generally correct, in this case it is inappropriate for a couple of reasons. First of all, while it is prima facie interesting to try to justify what seems a discriminatory practice by appeal to Kantian concepts of autonomy, this shouldn't surprising since people (including Kant himself) have been doing it for years. Kant justified imperialist practices and attitudes towards Africa and Asia because Africans and Asians were supposed to lack the capacity for genuine autonomy. This type of pseudo-intellectualism is quite common.

    The second reason I think such arguments should be given short shrift is that it implies this is an open moral question. I think the time for such intellectualization of this issue has past. Alternatively homophobia, in all its forms, ought to simply be stigmatized. We would not feel it necessary to engage a philosophically clever racist intellectually. In fact, such engagement would be grotesque. I think the same standards should be applied equal treatment for homosexuals.

  7. cheek: Since the question of whether this argument deserves the label "interesting" is far less significant than the issue of how one should respond to those who offer such arguments, let me focus on the latter.

    I was at a strategizing meeting for Soulforce a few years back where Mel White essentially put forward the same argument that you offer here--namely, that on the issue of social discrimination against gays lesbians, the time for argument is over and the proper project is to stigmatize those who seek to perpetuate their indefensible position. As I recall, Mel used the racism analogy, arguing as you do that to take rationalizations for racism seriously legitimizes them.

    When Mel offered these arguments I was both drawn to them and troubled by them--drawn to them because in the face of injustice, the urgent task is to end it, not to debate whether or not it should be ended. In effect, by entering into the latter debate one might very well be playing into the stalling tactics of the defenders and beneficiaries of unjust regimes. To end the injustice, there comes a point at which everyone who is going to be convinced that the injustice is real has been convinced, and social change requires stigmatizing and shaming those who seek to legitimate the injustice, thereby disempowering them.

    At the same time, the nonviolent conflict resolution trainer in me teamed up with the philosopher to feel really uncomfortable with Mel's argument. The former has experienced and taught the power of reflective listening in inspiring an openness to what opponents in a conflict have to say. The latter has a deep (perhaps naive) devotion to the power of reason to change minds. Both agree on the notion that one can actually learn something from one's opponents even (even when they're way off base), so long as one approaches them with an attitude of respect.

    My tentative conclusion on this matter, then and now, is that one needs to strike a balance between (a) acknowledging the seriousness and sincerity with which at least SOME offer arguments in support of what I see as clearly unjust, and (b) not being sucked into a holding pattern of endless debate in which substantive action in support of social change is put off until everyone is persuaded by the strength of the arguments (in other words, put off forever). Being sucked into the latter IS naive. But it is NOT naive to think that some people (such as college freshman from culturally homogenious small towns), having never been exposed to anything but the weak prejudicial arguments, might be transformed by having those arguments treated fairly and charitably only to have them exposed as inadequate.

    And I also think one shouldn't underestimate the stigmatizing power of a systematic intellectual shredding of an argument that is initially put forward in its most charitable form.

  8. Perhaps I should qualify my point. I understand the motivation for taking the respectful approach and identify with it to an extent, but I think this is justified only as an approach to private inter-personal interaction. Public, and especially institutional actions must be handled quite differently. The context matters greatly. I'll try to explain using situations a teacher might encounter (since you referenced that, and it's a world I'm also familiar with). As an authority, it is incumbent on the teacher to ensure that discrimination is not tolerated within the domain of his authority (i.e. the group learning space(s)). I think this entails not treating discriminatory rationalizations with respect in the classroom since they are likely to pose real emotional danger to any LGBT students who happen to be in the class as well. Even if the teacher makes it clear that s/he disagrees with the argument, taking them seriously suggests that there are two sides to that story, a suggestion that could pose a very real threat to other students who happen to be potential targets of discrimination. The danger of doing psychic damage to the vulnerable, in my opinion, trumps the duty of the teacher to broaden the experience of the culturally ignorant. However, one-on-one during office hours, I think it would be perfectly appropriate to explain to such a student why his arguments are verbotten in the classroom as well as why they fail.

    In suggesting that homophobia ought to be stigmatized, I don't mean to suggest that every person with homophobic sentiments is irredeemably evil or even that everyone has been convinced who is likely to be. There are people I love and respect morally whose moral perception fails on this issue for whatever reason (the most common is biblical literalism), and in private conversation I attempt to reason with them and unravel their rationalizations. However, in the public sphere, I still think such engagement is inappropriate and at times possibly even quite dangerous.

  9. I think Hymowitz' argument misses in two directions.

    1. If raising children were the issue, then as Eric points out the idea of allowing marriages between people who could not expect to have children would also undercut the "gravitas" of marriage. But also, if gay couples were intending to adopt, according to the argument they'd be PROMOTING the gravitas of marriage. By the argument Hymowitz presents, the secular state ought to recognize ALL marriages, gay or straight, so long as the couple was committed to reproducing or adopting children.

    2. Legal marriage isn't necessary for child rearing. My wife and I were not legally married when we tried to become pregnant (I wasn't a Christian at the time, and I was not too committed to legal formalities anyway, although my--now legal--wife WERE committed to a life long union). We wanted our daughter and whether or not we were legally married according to Hymowitz' argument the state had an interest in promoting OUR relationship as well.

    It seems to me that legal marriage is neither necessary nor sufficient for the well-being of children, so the facts do not support the main premise of her argument.

  10. cheek: I think there is something really important in your concern. What I'm wrestling with, if you will, is parameters.

    I agree that as a teacher I should not allow abuse of a minority group in my class to occur under the guise of intellectual debate. At the same time, as a teacher of moral philosophy, what I teach is the development and critical assessment of arguments on moral matters--and it seems important to consider the moral issues that are most pressing in contemporary discourse in order to make the course relevant to the issues that matter to the students.

    I don't see how I can do the latter without considering arguments *against* same-sex civil marriage. We might put it this way: to be a philosopher about the issue of same-sex marriage IS to charitably engage with the best opposing arguments and defend a position on the basis of such engagement. So the question is when and where it is legitimate to approach the issue of same-sex marriage *as a philosopher*, and when and where doing so improperly empowers homophobic rhetoric.

    In class, it is my job to teach students how to think philosophically about issues--and preferably about issues that matter to them and about which they have opinions which shape their choices. In terms of philosophical merit, I don't think there is much question that the arguments in support of same-sex civil marriage (not religious marriage, which is another matter) are FAR stronger than those against. As such, a straightforward philosophical assessment of the arguments will reveal that this is an issue where approaching the matter philosophically actually gives us an answer to a question that is treated as vexed in the public sphere. And this can then generate follow-up reflection on why it is treated as controversial, if it isn't because there are compelling arguments on both sides.

    All of this seems to me a very useful set of lessons for a philosophy class. Some issues really are vexed from a philosophical standpoint. Some are not. Some arguments really are bad, even though they are routinely offered in public debate and treated as compelling. Some arguments are really good, but widely ignored. These are things I want to teach--and the same-sex marriage issue helps teach these things.

    But at the same time, I don't want to give homophobes in the class a platform for heaping abuse on sexual minorities in the class. Up until this point, my instinctive strategy has therefore been to approach this topic mostly through a lecture format rather than open discussion. If the arguments are coming from ME, a former faculty advisor for the LGBT student group on campus, the sexual minorities in the class will likely know that I am mentioning the arguments as opposed to USING them--talking about them for the sake of critiquing them, instead of invoking them for the sake of furthering the marginalizations of sexual minorities--and hence that THEY are not being attacked in class.

    But I worry about this, too, because this approach can convey the impression that I am dominating the discussion for the sake of preventing good arguments against same-sex marriage from coming out.

    To avoid this impression, I try to be as fair as possible, and as complete as I can, in surveying the arguments...and it is here that the concern about empowering the rationalizations of those who perpetuate injustice comes in. I guess I have been working from the premise that, here in Oklahoma, I am not lending legitimacy but acknowledging the legitimacy that these arguments actually have for the sake of showing that they shouldn't have such legitimacy.

  11. I must admit that the situation I had in my head was a classroom discussion, which you never suggested or implied. That's probably because these are the classes I have mostly taught myself. I agree that it might be more acceptable to present such material in a lecture format. However, I would find it very difficult to force, for example, a young gay man, to read arguments opposed to gay marriage, mostly because all such arguments I have read (including the one you reference in the original post) rely on prejudiced false assumptions that alienate homosexuals.

    I do have some sympathy for the difficult situation a moral philosopher is put in (especially in the, in most ways, lovely state we both live in). Specializing in epistemology, I'm fortunate to be mostly insulated from that particular dilemma. Perhaps, if it is necessary to present such material, a disclaimer could be placed on the reading assignment signaling that the arguments are clearly fallacious and offensive. This measure would of course undermine a homophobic student's confidence that his view is being treated fairly. I just can't give as much weight to the concern that a privileged class is frustrated as I do to the worry that an already alienated and vulnerable class of students be further harmed (of course unintentionally) by the educational enterprise.