April 18, 2004

Conserving marriage

By: Manuel A. Lopez

While opinion polls have consistently shown most Americans are in favor of maintaining current marriage laws, two-thirds of high school seniors and a majority of those in their twenties favor gay marriage. The reason for this divergence is clear. There has been less public argument against gay marriage than in favor of it. While older people nonetheless tend to retain an older view of marriage, many young people have concluded that opposition to change merely reflects prejudice or squeamishness. Moreover, the case for gay marriage largely boils down to the simple claim that everybody should be treated the same way. This is always a powerful claim in a democracy, especially among the young.

The problem in the debate so far has been the failure to grasp what marriage means in most people’s lives. Marriage is so much a part of our world that we have trouble imagining how things would look without it. Some people say marriage is “by definition” between a man and a woman. But that by itself tells us nothing. We have to seriously consider what stands behind this definition, and why people are so attached to it.

It seems undeniable that the potential for reproduction constitutes something unique about the union of one man and one woman. Science may eventually change that, but sexual reproduction is sure to remain the easiest and manifestly most natural way. Even if some marriages are childless, it surely makes a difference that all marriages are between men and women. Marriage as we know it is bound up with–are even a product of–natural sexual differentiation, the most massive and undeniable feature of which is the potential for reproduction. This gives rise to a feeling that marriage is part of the natural order, an order bigger than ourselves and our desires. To be sure, widespread divorce has weakened this feeling over the past thirty years, but it remains a powerful force in people’s lives, one that we perhaps take for granted precisely because of its ubiquity. Permitting marriage between people of the same sex would make marriage a different thing—and not a better one. It would fatally weaken the arguments against polygamy and lead to its eventual legalization.

More than any other institution, marriage provides guidance that helps people live their lives. One need only think of the times in one’s youth when one wondered whom one would eventually marry. (I can attest that even young homosexuals wonder about this–though with a certain ambivalence.) Those youthful daydreams, which are so important in shaping and coloring the rest of one’s life, would not be possible in a world without marriage, and would not be easy in a world where marriage was merely one choice among many. Our youthful (and not so youthful) daydreams presuppose marriage as a touchstone, a choice which isn’t simply a choice but is somehow the choice.

Disconnecting marriage from procreation would make it seem less bound up with a world larger than we are. Marriage would seem more like a commitment we make, an act of the will, and less like an acceptance of or conformity to the fundamental order of things. Perhaps such a change would, to some extent, constitute greater realism. However, I don’t think it would produce greater happiness, either in itself or in its consequences, which would include people taking their marriages less seriously, considering alternatives more readily when the going gets rough, and seeking guidance more often in desire, whim, and fashion. This is not a religious argument, nor is it “homophobic.”

Moreover, we should be wary of fundamental changes in laws and institutions, even when those changes are in themselves improvements. Humans are not so rational that we can dispense with awe or the sense that some things are greater than human enactment. Any major change in marriage laws would weaken people’s sense of marriage as something slightly awesome that must be accepted or rejected on its own terms. Any such change would encourage us to pay less attention to the demands of marriage and more attention to ourselves, to consider how we might gratify the desires we feel, even to look within ourselves to see what desires we find.

We humans are ambiguous creatures. We are of course unhappy if our desires are thwarted, but we are also unhappy if we have no guidance apart from desire. Our desires themselves need to be guided or informed by a view of what is good, what constitutes happiness. Some desires can lead to happiness, others cannot; distinguishing between the two is sometimes a delicate task, one at which we all need help, especially when we’re young. No institution informs the desires of most human beings in as profound and salutary a manner as marriage.

Instituting homosexual marriage would indeed provide guidance to some young homosexuals, and would thereby improve some people’s lives. This is a serious argument. however, I don’t think marriage could be as crucial to us as it is to other people. Marriage has developed over many centuries to meet the needs of heterosexuals. Gay marriage would inevitably be a kind of imitation. Like most imitations, it couldn’t wholly succeed, and would therefore result in more or less self-conscious parody.

Widening marriage to include people of the same sex means stripping it of much of its meaning and diminishing it for everybody. This would have a relatively small effect on the lives of people who are already married, and whose notion of marriage is already largely settled, but it would have a profound and harmful effect on future generations of Americans.

Manuel Lopez is a graduate of Harvard College and Law School, and has taught political theory at Harvard and the University of Chicago. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago.