The Precautionary Marriage Principle
My views on marriage are pretty unformed, but – given the recent Sullivan-Douthat exchange – I thought I’d try my hand at explaining the type of secular, prudential argument against gay marriage that makes sense (to me, at least). Deep breath, here goes:
If you reduce the debate to a crude impact comparison, I think the case against gay marriage is actually pretty strong. On the pro- side of the ledger, you have a not-inconsiderable number of couples who want their relationships validated. But this represents very few people in the grand scheme of things, made fewer by the fact that many gays seem indifferent to the idea of marriage. On the other end of the spectrum, the social consequences of further eroding institutional support for traditional marriage (while admittedly speculative) could have disastrous and long-lasting implications for families and child-rearing. Sullivan implicitly recognizes this by making a fundamentally conservative case for gay couples: Let us in, and we’ll bolster the institution by reinforcing norms of monogamy and commitment. But what if they don’t? What if the institution of marriage really is weakened by removing yet another hurdle to participation?
This objection probably isn’t very persuasive if you think the right to marry your partner is an inalienable one, but if you believe that marriage is about extending social recognition to beneficial relationships, the idea of withholding recognition to protect those institutional benefits makes sense. Given the fact that gay couples already have access to domestic partnerships that replicate marriage’s material and legal benefits, I find this objection particularly compelling. Call it the precautionary marriage principle: withholding official recognition from gay couples could avoid speculative but hugely problematic social consequences for American family life, while the costs of not acting (given the availability of domestic partnerships and the relatively small number of gay couples) is pretty low.
As I said, this impact calculus is exceedingly crude. The significance of marital recognition to committed gay couples is beyond my ability to express in a blog post, and it’s awfully cold to disregard those feelings for the sake of something as speculative as preserving familial stability. But I do believe the customs, practices, and cultural norms that underpin social stability are both exceedingly important and frequently inscrutable, so maybe it makes sense to take a step back from the ledge and reconsider before officially recognizing gay marriage.