So what is this social meaning of "marriage"? Wedgwood notes that an institution has such a meaning when there are a set of "understandings and expectations...that almost all members of society share." Such general understandings and expectations typically exist when an institution is traditional, that is, when it has been around for awhile and has become part of our shared cultural furniture. While laws might support such an institution, it has a life apart from the laws. And so, as Wedgwood puts it, marriage is "a traditional way of life imbued with social meaning, held in place by law."
This is a point, Wedgwood notes, that opponents of same-sex marriage tend to stress. But Wedgwood argues that if we look closely at the social meaning of marriage, it actually gives a further argument in favor of marriage equality, in addition to the legal argument that tends to be what progressives on this issue focus one. Here's how Wedgwood puts it:
So what exactly is this (social) meaning? Since it consists of generally shared understandings and expectations, it can not include any controversial doctrines (such as the traditional Christian belief that marriage symbolizes the union of Christ and His church). It must consist in more mundane and less controversial assumptions about what married life is normally (though not always) like. These assumptions seem to include the following: normally, marriage involves sexual intimacy (which in heterosexual couples often leads to childbirth); it involves the couple’s cooperation in dealing with the domestic and economic necessities of life (including raising children if they have any); and it is entered into with a mutual long-term commitment to sustaining the relationship.But while it is important to make this last concession on pain of living in denial, Wedgwood doesn't think this fact about the traditional understanding of marriage can carry the weight that opponents of marriage equality want to give it.
At least until quite recently, it was also part of this social meaning that every marriage was the union of one man and one woman.
And why not? Here's where Wedgwood's argument gets interesting. For Wedgwood, to understand which features of the traditional social meaning of an institution are most important, we need to know what benefit is conveyed by the existence of an institution defined in this way. And for Wedgwood, the benefit is a communicative one. Here's how he puts it:
...by marrying, a couple can give a signal to their community that they wish their relationship to be viewed in the light of these generally shared assumptions about what married life is like....In this way, marriage’s social meaning makes it possible for couples to communicate information about their relationships in a particularly effective way. This is important because people do not only care about tangible benefits (such as money or health care or the like); they care about intangible benefits as well. In particular, people care deeply about how they are regarded by others — which inevitably depends on the information about them that is shared in their community.What the social meaning of marriage does is enable couples to communicate something to the broader society that it would be much more difficult to otherwise communicate efficiently: "This is how we'd like to be regarded and treated by our neighbors, our friends and family, our community, and the broader society." The "this" might be a bit more involved than Wedgwood indicates in his sketch. I supect it generally involves the communication of a commitment to sexual and romantic fidelity which leads society to view sexual activity--and the cultivation of romantic feelings even when they don't involve sex--with someone other than the spouse in a different light than such activity would be viewed if the couple weren't marriage.
But such details aside, Wedgwood's makes the very interesting point that a person's sex is well-established and readily communicated apart from the institution of marriage. You don't need marriage to communicate that. And so the communicative benefit of marriage is in no special way served by hanging on to the old assumption that married couples are comprised of one man and one woman.
More profoundly, he notes that the traditional social meaning of marriage has changed over time based on considerations of justice. Notably, the marital partnership used to be generally understood as a hierarchical one in which the woman is subordinated to her husband. Marriage is not superfluous for communicating such a message--but we've decided that such a message is one that shouldn't be communicated let alone practiced, because fairness dictates against such subordination. And so justice has led us to change our social understanding of marriage in ways that substantively effects what is communicated by it.
The capacity of gay and lesbian couples to signal society about how they want to be regarded is compromised when these couples are denied access to the institution of marriage. And you need a compelling reason to deny a social benefit available to some that is denied to others. In this case, then, social justice issues speak in favor of changing the social meaning of marriage, but in a way that eliminates none of the communicative benefits of marriage--since matters of gender are so effectively and efficiently communicated in the absence of the marital institution.
Put another way, more of the communicative function of marriage was lost when we stopped treating the marital relationship as hierarchical than will be lost by extending marriage to same-sex couples, since in the latter case nothing is really lost at all. Instead, the capacity to have access to that mode of communication is just made more broadly available.
Overall, this strikes me as a significant argument. I think Wedgwood may underappreciate the extent to which prominent defenders of marriage equality already reach beyond the legal arguments and consider the social meanings of marriage. While it is true that a tactical interest in distinguishing civil marriage from religious marriage has led to a focus on the legal dimensions of the civic institution, there are plenty of defenders of same-sex marriage who pay serious attention to broader social concerns. Andrew Sullivan, for example, has long stressed the social impact of being denied, as a gay man, participation in an institution of such weighty social significance. Jonathan Rauch has long pointed out the social effects that same-sex marriage can have--an argument that goes well beyond equal access to a set of legal rights. More generally, gays and lesbians generally know that "marriage" entails a social recognition of the couple as a united pair, a "family"--and one of the main reasons they want access to marriage is for the sake of having their intimate partnerships appreciated publicly as the family units that they experience them to be.
My own argument about the meaning of the term "marriage" also goes beyond understanding it as a legal arrangement. In brief, my view is that marriage in its core meaning refers to a certain way of being related to another person. As such, this core meaning is not lost if marriage is available to partners whose personal characteristics (such as their gender) don't prevent them from relating to each other in this marital way. If infertility does not prevent a couple from being related in the marital way, it follows that procreative potential is not an essential feature of the marital relationship--and barring such a feature, same-sex couples can relate in all the meaningful ways that heterosexual married couples relate.
But even if defenders of marriage equality are already aware of the social dimension of marriage and its significance for the debate, Wedgwood has nicely articulated an important point and stressed an aspect of the issue that might have gone underappreciated.
So what should we make of his argument? Is it convincing? I suspect that critics of Wedgwood are most likely to question whether the specific communicative function that he highlights is really the chief benefit of marriage as a social institution. Some, such as Margaret Somerville, locate the chief good of marriage not in a benefit enjoyed by the married couple, but in a benefit enjoyed by the broader society. Specifically, she thinks that what marriage does is symbolically honor the procreative pair-bond, lifting it up for special social recognition and support. This singling out of the life-producing pair-bond for special recognition is, on her view, supposed to help promote certain social values that she believes it is good for society to have. Jean Bethke Elshtain offers an argument along similar lines in a 1991 Commonweal essay, "Against Gay Marriage".
Obviously, Wedgwood's perspective doesn't directly take on arguments like this (which could be independently challenged in terms of society's willingness to, among other things, marry heterosexual octagenarians). But I think his perspective raises important difficulties for Somerville and others like her, by bringing to the table further concerns that would need to be weighed against whatever social values are supposedly promoted by denying marriage equality.
Specifically, refusing equal access to the individual goods that marriage affords--such as the communicative goods Wedgwood identifies--impacts the values inculcated within a society. Most would agree, I think, that valuing equality--both equality under the law and equal access to participation in less tangible social goods--is good for society. And there is symbolic damage to our social respect for equality when sexual minorities are denied participation in such a core social institution as marriage. We shape our social values when we legitimize such social marginalization. We symbolically vindicate differential treatment based on unchosen sexuality. The value that equality is granted in society is correspondingly diminished.
Is there any value promoted by limiting marriage to procreative couples that is so significant, so crucial to promote--and so impossible to promote in any other way--that it justifies such a sacrifice in society's regard for equality?
That, it seems to me, is the question that opponents of marriage equality need to answer. And I doubt very much that any good answer favoring inequality is forthcoming.