Friday, May 25, 2012

The Social Meaning of Marriage: Some Thoughts on Wedgwood's Same-Sex Marriage Argument

USC philosopher Ralph Wedgwood has a published a very helpful article, "The Meaning of Same-Sex Marriage," in The Stone (the New York Times' philosophy forum). In it, he notes the debate over same-sex civil marriage shouldn't be limited to the legal issues, since marriage (even in its civic rather than religious sense) has more than just a legal meaning defined in terms of the legal rights and responsibilities it bestows. It also has a social meaning.

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.

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.
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.

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: 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.


  1. It seems to me that Wedgewood’s argument is founded upon a number of questionable assumptions.

    First, he seems to assume the coincidence of common social meaning and institutional purpose. I see no justification for such an assumption. It seems to conflate the questions of why people get married and what people understand marriage to be communicating with the question of why we have the institution of marriage, and by sleight of hand suggests that by addressing the former questions, we have settled the latter. Since he is advancing a communicative understanding of the telos of the institution of marriage, it seems to me that this is a case of question-begging. What if marriage and its norms had a social purpose that was not fully comprehended in the communication of social meaning?

    Second, and following on from the previous point, Wedgewood seems to take a lowest common denominator approach to understanding marriage. Once again, this will be perceived as question-begging for many who are not already convinced by something akin to his communicative theory of marriage. Why should the common traits of individual marriages serve as the starting point for understanding why marriage takes the form that it does?

    I would suggest that marriage takes the form that it does because there is something unique about sexual relations between a man and a woman, their potential consequences, and their social significance. While the full measure of this unique character will not be exhibited in every instance – which is why lowest common denominator approaches can easily screen it out – if we line up all committed male-female partnerships with committed same-sex partnerships, despite important commonalities, the differences would be unavoidable.

    Same-sex relationships and male-female relationships are not equal, and we should not pretend that they are. This does not mean that the love in one form of union is stronger, or that the persons are to be accorded lesser dignity (as no single persons need be accorded less dignity on account of their single status). It does, however, mean that society has a vested interest in committed sexual partnerships between men and women that far exceeds that which it has in the case of same-sex partners.

    Marriage between a man and a woman serves to uphold the most fundamental relationships in society: the relationship between the sexes, the relationship between biological parents and their children, the bonds of blood, lineage, and kinship. By surrounding the sexual partnership between a man and a woman with social norms and according it a peculiar social significance, we are protecting the norm and ideal of children finding their origins in an aneconomic, pre-technological, pre-political loving and personal union of pledged bodies, which is intrinsically open to their being, a being not rendered purely contingent upon the choice or the rights of the parents.

    Such a union protects the norm and ideal of children having simple origins, with just two parents, holding biological (genetic and gestational), legal, and social parenthood together, and maintains their right to a lineage. It upholds the interest of both of the sexes in the raising of the next generation, treating their input as incommensurable and as being neither interchangeable nor disposable, representing both halves of society to the child as mother and father.


  2. (cont.)

    Such a union honours biological bonds that serve as a check to social constructivism. It protects the wider horizons and deeper sources of human nature that lead us to transcend the State’s management of the present, the human will represented in technology, science, and law, self-invention, and individualism. Marriage and the family, which flows into and from it, upholds the claims of our biology as they relate to sexual relations and procreation, it upholds the claims of children upon biological parents and biological parents upon children, it upholds the familial duty of preserving and passing on legacy, it upholds and strengthens the responsibilities with an extended family. Marriage introduces us into the natural mysteries of sexual difference, and the relationship between man and woman, as a realization of the phenomenology and biological destiny of the sexed body (refusing to subject this entirely to personal choice and intention). It brings us into contact with the power of procreation through loving personal bodily union. It relates us to the mysterious bonds of blood, kinship, and the many phenotypical relations that form a connection between us and our blood relations.

    Same-sex partnerships have a significantly different character to them, and do not represent or protect these same realities. In certain cases they would seem to be considerably at odds with them. The difference between same-sex partnerships and octogenarian partnerships between men and women should be obvious: the latter, while not individually realizing all of the ends of the institution of marriage, maintain and reaffirm the form of the institution within which all of those ends can be integrated.

  3. Al,

    Thanks for this. I must concede that I don't wholly follow your arguments at every turn, since the language is sometimes ambiguous (that is, it can be interpreted in several ways) and often seems to gesture towards arguments rather than lay them out precisely with all the hidden premises laid bare. This should be taken as an invitation to try again for the sake of people like me, who are left scratching our heads.

    Before you try again, however, I should note that I attempted to unravel and address the possible meanings of a similar line of argument a while back. In fact, the argument you lay out here is so reminiscent (in terms of word choice and rhetorical gestures) of that line of argument I responded to at length earlier that I suspect it may have been your argument (it was laid out by someone with the same first name as you over at Storied Theology, in response to some of my posts there).

    Hence, I will invite you to click over to that earlier post and consider my attempts to unpack the possible arguments being made as well as my criticisms of them.

  4. I should add, however, that I cannot promise to respond quickly to any additional comments, since I am finishing up an intensive three-week course and have to deal with all the grading for that course coming in over the next two days.