The Precautionary Marriage Principle



Will writes from Washington, D.C. (well, Arlington, Virginia). You can reach him at willblogcorrespondence at gmail dot com.

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66 Responses

  1. Avatar Simon says:

    “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.”

    This is a big speculation to make, and one there’s no evidence for. You need to do better than that before you can compare potential harm to potential benefits. That’s really why the secular case against gay marriage is so weak.

    Has the divorce rate skyrocketed in Massachusetts while remaining the same in Alabama? Can you find a study saying that young couples are cohabiting rather than marrying because gay couples are allowed to marry rather then for any number of other reasons?Report

    • Avatar Will in reply to Simon says:

      @Simon, Yeah, I recognize that this is a stolen base. But Douthat and Sullivan both seem to agree there are some non-trivial benefits to strong marital traditions, which is why I took it as a given for the purposes of this post.Report

  2. Avatar gregiank says:

    Shorter version: Status Quo bias.

    I think the argument about validation, indifference and recognition, while emotionally powerful, is a dead end. Each of those feelings is uniquely independent. This does allow for maximum passion, fear, hope and self-righteousness, but how can it possible inform us about what the law should be? Each person’s personal discomfort, like watery tarts dispensing scimitars, is not the basis for a form of government.

    I know when i got married, to a chick, i didn’t remotely think about what society thought or how THE STATE was giving me a pat on the head and tousling my hair.Report

  3. Avatar Aar says:

    I don’t find the idea of forbidding gay marriage on the basis of a theoretical harm to heterosexual marriage, despite the fact that no such harm has actually been observed in any state or nation that permits gay marriage, to be even slightly convincing. And that’s before we go racing down the slippery slope with the suggestion that the hypothetical, as-yet unobserved harm will “could have disastrous and long-lasting implications for families and child-rearing”. (A butterfly flapping its wings in Costa Rica could cause a hurricane off the Louisiana coast, so quick – let’s kill all the butterflies!)Report

  4. Avatar Jaybird says:

    While it may be true that heterosexuals weakened the institution of marriage by desanctifying it, being somewhat indifferent to adultery, being exceptionally indifferent to divorce, divorcing marriage from childbearing through the twin methods of birth control and bastardry, and doing so in such a way that the marriage/divorce/adultery numbers are indistinguishable between both the religious and the irreligious, the question must be asked: do we really want to weaken marriage even more?


    Really really?Report

  5. Avatar silentbeep says:

    No, I don’t find this compelling, at all. I don’t understand, how a potentially very small minority of the country, getting married (therefore, living more happy, fulfilled lives without the legally sanctioned alienation that so many are in) is going to harm me, as a straight woman that can get married anytime I want. No-fault divorce is already here, I can have my marriage annulled, the divorce rate is already pretty high. Happy adults in committed married relationships that happen to be gay are somehow ruinous for me? Sure.

    The speculative idea that it’s o.k. to continue the suffering of other people, just because is may make my marriage “stronger” baffles me. The “stablity” that you are trumpeting is based on the long historical alienation of gay people, culturally and legally. This alienation was profoundly dehumanizing and still is. I literally cannot imagine, being a gay person, told by straight people, that my life, my love, my home, my family, with another consenting adult is not good enough, to be recognized by the rest of society… as if my own private existance is like a plague that is going to ruin straight peoples’ lives.

    I don’t care how emotional this sounds. This “ledge” you are talking about is not wroth staying on because it is a “ledge” built on naive ignorance at best and hate at worst.Report

    • Avatar Kyle in reply to silentbeep says:


      I’m (not) sorry but I just don’t find this compelling at all. You could substitute gay for any sexual minority or class of persons who engage in behavior previously or even contemporaneously deemed sexually deviant and it wouldn’t be fundamentally changed. It doesn’t affect me if my neighbors are incestuous-married, or my other neighbors are polygamists, though planning for dinner parties might be involve some odd numbers.

      So by the very same reasoning, why maintain laws against the incestuous or polygamists? The benefit to society is diffused if not altogether moot and the people affected by such decriminalization would be significantly happier than I would be less happy, if happy is even the relevant emotion I would feel as an individual member of the society being harmed at-large.

      The bit I find the strangest is when you write, “my life, my love, my home, my family, with another consenting adult is not good enough, to be recognized by the rest of society…” What you’re talking about it hearts and minds in a discussion about policy and law. While the two are related, if society were to decide by plebiscite whether it wanted to recognize gay couples as married, it would impolitely decline the offer. So it seems odd to treat people who oppose SSM like cruel gatekeepers keeping people from being respected and recognized by society, when it really seems like society itself is doing the gatekeeping.Report

      • Avatar Will H. in reply to Kyle says:

        @Kyle, Honestly, this is the sort of thing that closes me off from listening to any of the pro arguments.

        Let’s be clear on this:
        Gays never had to ride at the back of the bus. There were never special water fountains set up for gays to drink from. It’s not like that, and it was never like that.Report

        • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Will H. says:

          @Will H.,

          Right. Being imprisoned, beaten up, or driven to suicide isn’t anything like having to ride in the back of the bus.Report

        • Avatar James Vonder Haar in reply to Will H. says:

          @Will H.,

          Today on Kyriarchy Live, it’s the Oppression Olympics! Let’s see just how much we can distract our enemies by pitting their struggles in a contest for moral legitimacy!

          Your implicit argument fails in two key ways. The first is presuming that it is relative, rather than absolute, level of injustice that matters. Whether, in fact, heterocentrism is or has been worse than ethnocentrism is irrelevant. They are independent phenomena, and our response ought to be tempered by the reality of the situation, not facile comparisons.

          The second is in assuming that it is self-evidently obvious that the oppression faced by the queer community is not worth discussing. I’m not interested in arguing what group is oppressed the most, but when, as short a time as seven years ago, it was illegal to do the action that defined a gay person, it’s clear that the level of oppression faced is much greater than your flippant comment would imply.Report

      • Avatar silentbeep in reply to Kyle says:


        “So by the very same reasoning, why maintain laws against the incestuous or polygamists?”

        You are equating two consenting grown adults, that have the virtually same relationship as any straights person, except they are gay, with other types of relationships, that have nothing to do with this debate.

        “What you’re talking about it hearts and minds in a discussion about policy and law. ”

        Which have relevancy in a discussion about policy and law regarding marriage and family. People enter into marriage and family in modern day America, mainly because of “hearts and minds.” I don’t get the point of family policy if such policy continues the status quo of oppression, alienation and bigotry. In fact, the anti-gay marriage argument within this context is also about hearts and minds as well: as I see it, it’s that straight marriage is a good thing for society, because it creates stability, thus less suffering and chaos and apparently gay marriage will cause a breakdown of society which would feel really, damn bad (I’m assuming that horrendous things would happen such as more poverty? less kids? I don’t get what the supposedly awful things are, since Will doesn’t list them, so I’m just left to ponder).


        Gays never had to ride at the back of the bus. There were never special water fountains set up for gays to drink from. It’s not like that, and it was never like that.

        No just things like potentially being arrested for having sex with another consenting adult would happen, being fired from your job, not being hired at all, and basically being considered a sub-human pervert. Oh and yes, getting beat up in the street for looking gay too, that still happens as well. And it would be entirely impossible for it to “be like that” because you can’t tell by looking at someone, who tries everything in their power to remain in the closet for example, who is gay.

        By that logic: women weren’t told they needed to sit at the back of the bus either, nor were told that they needed to drink from a different fountain, so no sexism right? no time in american history when women’s legal rights (such as owning property) were never equal to men right? I mean, what were these women complaining about.

        Also: I don’t think you get the threat of violence that looms over gay people who live in communities that make it known, that gay people are not welcome.

        This is whole discussion is an argument based on privileging the emotional, private, and financial lives of straight people, over gay because it’s good “public policy.” I don’t think discrimination is good public policy, plain
        and simple. What this post is, and what Douthat presents too, is a nice polite, moderate, policy-infused policy discussion of legally enforced bigotry.

        @kyle: what argument would you prefer, to convince others that gay peoples commited relationships and families, are just as valid, as straight peoples? what argument would you find palatable that would present gay people as not being the incredibly threatening minority that some believe are? Really I’d like to know this argument.Report

        • Avatar Kyle in reply to silentbeep says:


          Look, what I did was take the core of your argument and without any distortions applied it to equally applicable groups – your comment that they have nothing to do with gays, is irrelevant, not to mention wildly biased against potential gay polygamists – so that we could better view your argument on its on strengths. As I understand it, you’re saying you don’t understand how preventing one particular change in marriage law affects your marriage but do see how such a change would directly benefit those who are affected by it. Since you don’t understand it, you accuse people who do understand and then don’t support such changes of ignorance and hatred.

          So let’s break it down, if the current argument is over whether marriage is between one woman and one man, leaving aside for the moment how transgendered peoples fit into the mix, or whether marriage is between two people. Why must the magic number be two? If gender is an arbitrary distinction, surely the number must be as well, not to mention there’s significant historical precedent of that number being malleable. So then, it’s not unreasonable for someone who is married to be concerned as to changing the number. If people say their married, I’ll no longer know what it means? Are they committed to one other person or three? How can someone share themselves fully – the way I do in my marriage – with more than one person, inconceivable. While I grant that these might betray ignorance, they can hardly be considered malicious. If you can see how someone might be reticent to endorse such change in marriage between more than two people, you ought to be able to see how for someone whose conception of marriage involves a particular set of similar assumptions that have a fair basis in practice/habit, changing the gender requirement would also affect the entire concept of what it is to be married.

          I’m less interested in being socially conscious and self-congratulatory on the pro-SSM bandwagon than I am in seeing good responses to very real arguments and feelings out there.Report

          • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Kyle says:


            There are many legal problems that make polygamy much more difficult to implement. Even cursory thought is enough to reveal them, starting with the legal presumptions about being the one decisionmaker for incapacitated individuals.

            But if, after same-sex marriage is enacted, you wish to have this discussion, and to advocate for polygamy, go ahead. I wonder whether you will have the courage of your convictions.Report

            • Avatar Kyle in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

              @Jason Kuznicki,


              To the first point, how easy/not easy something is to implement doesn’t seem particularly relevant to whether something is the right/wrong thing to do.

              Second, to be clear, I’m not sitting here saying well why you’re at it make polygamy legal, I’m using it to make two points. First, that most of the impassioned arguments for SSM apply just as well to other sexual minorities and this is a strange civil rights battle in that the proponents of change have gone out of their way to stress that such changes would be minor and strictly limited to their group and no one else. I think that’s worth talking about.

              Second, that the misgivings people have about SSM might be understood better by comparison.

              In terms of a discussion of same-sex marriage it isn’t enough to say well this is the only thing we’re talking about because civil rights don’t work that way. Indeed, they’re specifically not supposed to work that way. A broader discussion here is worthwhile, I think.Report

              • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Kyle says:

                Politics is the art of the possible. I view polygamous marriages as being much more difficult to implement legally than same-sex ones, particularly given our legal norms of liberty and equality. In politics, these are relevant considerations.

                The social effects of polygamy — in practice, it would mean an excess of unmarriageable young men — would be bad as well. This is yet another difference, and a relevant one.Report

  6. Avatar Jonathan Dursi says:

    You know, even 33 years after it was made legal, in the 2000 census less than 5% of marriages are interracial: .

    Now sure, on the pro- side of the ledger, you have a not-inconsiderable number of couples who are pleased that their relationships are validated. But this represents very few people in the grand scheme of things. 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. What if the institution of marriage really was weakened by removing yet another hurdle to participation? And in fact, the divorce rate increased markedly around then.

    How would you have advised the Warren Supreme Court in 1967?Report

    • @Jonathan Dursi,

      One might have advised that this nation fought a civil war and enacted three watershed constitutional amendments in reaction to race-based slavery. This is grounds for viewing new laws based on race with a skeptical eye. There is no such reason for skepticism of laws concerning sexual orientation.Report

      • Avatar Jonathan Dursi in reply to Tim Kowal says:

        But the laws weren’t new; they went back to 1664, and wikipedia informs that “Virginia (1691) was the first English colony in North America to pass a law forbidding free blacks and whites to intermarry”.

        Given the long and difficult history, surely the precautionary principle argument for maintaing the status quo was at least as strong in 1967, yes? Maybe introduce some sort of different-race “civil union”, see how that goes for a while before allowing them full marriage?Report

        • @Jonathan Dursi, I should have left out “new.” And while there is some credence to long established customs, norms, and traditions, they are not a slam dunk. In the case of Loving v. Virginia, I’d still say the jurisprudence re racial discrimination rules the day, and led to the right result there.Report

  7. Avatar Trumwill says:

    I have a good deal of respect for Douthat’s perspective and at least a part of me fears that he could be right, but ultimately I find it unconvincing. I see more harm to the institution by forcing a small bit highly visible segment of the population into “alternate living arrangements” to marriage. I see Civil Unions as similarly problematic. I have straight friends wishing that they could get a CU as a nice, alternate, sorta-marriage. I think that nice, alternate, sorta-marriages are part of the problem. They allow people to evade making the tough decisions that they need to make firmly rather than drift into. Gay couples, as people unable to marry, provide a blueprint of sorts to avoid marriage.

    Of course, as pro-gay marriage people go I am something of an outlier because (a) I recognize the social import of marriage and the government’s role in it and (b) do not support “alternate arrangements” such as extended non-marital cohabitation. From my perspective, it’s disheartening to hear many of my fellow marriage equality advocates talk on the other hand about how the state should get out of the marriage business and/or otherwise supporting things that undermine the important social institution.Report

    • Avatar Kyle in reply to Trumwill says:


      The short question at the heart of this comment, Trumwill, is what should human relationships look like going forward? Purpose and practice.

      I’m going to say this is the most interesting part of the marriage debate for me, at least among thinking circles. I think it’s absolutely fascinating how the growth of same-sex/heterosexual civil unions in France has (at least in theory) contributed to declining marriage rates in that country.

      I mean the open question of where state, church, society, and dual-individuality can be debated endlessly.

      Still, the creation of an intermediary, non-marriage, benefit indulging civil union between two partners regardless of sex that respects/leaves untouched the specificity of marriage, I have to say appeals to me. Maybe true marriage is something that only appeals to a certain part of our populace but more people get married because it’s their only option.

      I’m one of those people that believes the elegant solution is to get the state out of the marriage business altogether and then just issue civil unions while recognizing religiously married people as such.

      I see the value in what you’re saying, that people would gravitate towards a demi-Marriage because it’s easier who might otherwise benefit or contribute to society’s benefit by being Married proper. I just think those people are the people who sixty years ago were miserable because they were married and social norms said “nope, you’re stuck with each other. SOL.” Maybe what relationships need are some of E.D.’s competitive federalism?Report

      • Avatar Kyle in reply to Kyle says:


        To clarify my views on marriage have shifted post-Caprica to favor marriage deregulation. (as I call it) Though it does seem that in Caprica, at least, there’s a rough correlation between polygamy and being in a crazy terrorist cult, I suspect it’s not strictly causal.

        Some people are multiple people-married, some people are gay-married, some people are straight-married, and they’re just relationships that reflect the people who make them work, not centuries old habits of people long dead enshrined in law and custom because it’s too awkward to ask who is the bride and who is the groom.

        After all if every marriage is different, why not make them more customizable?Report

        • Avatar Trumwill in reply to Kyle says:

          @Kyle, it may not be causal, but the correlation is sufficiently cause for alarm. I don’t actually have much of a moral problem with polygamy, but it’s not something that seems to lead to good results. Except in situations where there is a shortage of men, the result seems to be one man, multiple women, and social destabilization.

          One of the things that I don’t think gets nearly enough play with regard to the FLDS is that in addition to the terrible things they do with their daughters, they abandon their sons. They have to in order for it their system to work. That’s a pretty serious problem.

          Should the day come when polygamists successfully organize a sustaintable culture, we’ll talk. Until then, I am not a fan of using it as a reason to tear down institutions that, in my opinion, work. I recognize that there are some that would say the same about gays. But they’re wrong not in rendering judgment but rather in the judgment that they’re rendering. That’s why I think that this the pro-SSM side will ultimately win the argument. More and more people are recognizing that the threat that homosexuality poses to society at large is marginal.

          Why not make every marriage customizable? Well, I think I touch on that in my previous comment, but to be more explicit… because people need structure. We need a common language. When a young lady (or man, I suppose) asks “Will you marry me?” having some idea of what he is asking has value. The marriage contract provides the blueprint. From there you can sign prenups and whatnot when you want want to ammend or alter the boilerplate resolution. I just see a tremendous need for a boilerplate resolution. I see a value in it.

          (It’s getting kinda late and I am kind of tired. I hope I am being coherent here.)Report

      • Avatar Trumwill in reply to Kyle says:

        @Kyle, though I lament the high divorce rate, I cannot say that I long for the olden days where marriage tied people together regardless of whether it would be best for all to become undone. I see tossing aside the institution of marriage in favor of Civil Unions, devoid of the intricacies and customs that often make the run-up to marriage such a helpful step in the process of wanting to spend the rest of our life with someone, as throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

        I’m going to get personal for a moment. As I’ve crossed the age where none of my friends are married to the age that most of my friends are, one thing I have seen over and over again are men (and sometimes women) walking away either in the run-up to an engagement or during one. Relationships that lasted years (including one of mine that lasted 4.5). Why? Because they (we) were looking down the barrel of the rest of their lives. Give us an easy way out and we would have probably wasted years more of our lives and theirs.

        However much damage has been done to the weight of the the institution of marriage by the divorce rate and all that, the institution remains invaluable. Not on any practical or contractual way. I mean, divorce is always a legal option. But rather, because of the social meaning that we attrach to it. Marriage as not just a statement between people, but a statement between people and society. I think it’s good to be accountable to more than just ourselves.

        As someone that has a genuine federalist bent even when it’s inconvenient, I really don’t have a problem if California or any state wanted to give CU’s a try. I’d vote against it for my state, but I’d be interested to see/hear the results.Report

  8. Avatar Tim Kowal says:

    In case you’re interested to know Judge Walker’s reaction to the argument in this post, the Perry decision found: “Plaintiffs presented evidence at trial sufficient to rebut any claim that marriage for same-sex couples amounts to a sweeping social change.” This is an extraordinary statement: That social scientists have the ability to “rebut any claim” that radically changing the institution of marriage—in direct contravention to the will of the majority of the members of that institution—would amount to “a sweeping social change” is going to be a surprising bit of news to a lot of people, including, I’d guess, the reviewing court(s).

    Orin Kerr at Volokh identified well the problem with Perry’s finding:

    Whatever your views of same-sex marriage — or Judge Walker’s decision as a whole — I think this particular part of the analysis is pretty weak. First, the idea that same-sex marriage is not a significant social change strikes me as plainly incorrect. This is one of the more significant questions of social policy of our time: Whether you think it’s the greatest advance for civil rights in America or the end of the world, it seems pretty clear that it’s a big deal.

    Second, Judge Walker’s reliance on his factual findings to defeat the argument about the pace of social change seems to miss the point. The claim about sweeping social change is an an ex ante argument about uncertainty. Predicting the future is tricky business, the argument runs. Views of enlightened social policy can change, and our perspective today may or may not seem right tomorrow. For that reason, we should proceed cautiously in changing social institutions to avoid errors that may be hard to correct. Whether this is a valid constitutional argument or not, it seems odd to respond to it by making a factual finding about what the future will be like and then saying that the announced factual findings make the concern irrational. It misses the entire argument, which is about our knowledge-uncertainty, by trying to make it a matter of the judge’s power to find facts.


    • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Tim Kowal says:

      @Tim Kowal,

      <iThis is one of the more significant questions of social policy of our time: Whether you think it’s the greatest advance for civil rights in America or the end of the world, it seems pretty clear that it’s a big deal.

      I don’t see it. There are (as Will noted), a relatively small number of people to who it matters directly: those who would like to marry and can’t. There are a much larger number of people (the rest of us) on whom it will have no effect whatsoever. Admittedly, a fairly large segment of the latter has worked itself into a frenzy on the subject but, if this subject is closed, they’ll find something else to froth over: the Ground Zero Mosque, for instance.Report

      • @Mike Schilling,

        That argument gets same-sex marriage advocates nowhere but backwards. One can hardly argue, in one breath, that marriage is so important that it would be unconstitutional to deny it to certain people, and then, in the next breath, argue that traditional marriage proponents don’t have a case because marriage doesn’t really matter.Report

        • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Tim Kowal says:

          @Tim Kowal,

          I’m not so sure. If one person is denied habeas corpus, it’s unconstitutional. But it’s still just one person.

          Not like we’re doing it for anyone, anywhere in the world, for any reason, which would be a greater violation. Smallness is not a defense against unconstitutionality.Report

        • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Tim Kowal says:

          @Tim Kowal,

          It matters very much to the people being denied equal rights, and for me that’s a strong enough argument. But is Bob and Carroll’s marriage really of concern to Ted and Alice? Hysteria aside, not at all.Report

        • Avatar Tim Kowal in reply to Tim Kowal says:

          I think maybe I wasn’t clear. I am responding to the argument that @Mike Schilling repeated: that, “hysteria aside,” whether two people get married doesn’t concern anyone else. This argument scuttles the entire same-sex marriage argument. Assuming for the moment that domestic partnerships offered all the same rights as marriage,* then the only reason for continuing to insist on the label of “marriage” is that it means something as a cultural/social symbol. Thus, making the “what’s it to you” argument runs the risk of having it recited right back to you.

          *While it’s true domestic partnerships are not identical, the Perry decision didn’t seem to make much of this, noting “domestic partnerships offer same-sex couples almost all of the rights and responsibilities associated with marriage,” and thus the real problem was that “the withholding of the designation “marriage” significantly disadvantages plaintiffs. . . . [because] marriage is a culturally superior status.”Report

          • Avatar Tim Kowal in reply to Tim Kowal says:

            To go a bit further, if you take the position that it doesn’t matter to X if X has to give recognition of your marriage, then you must also take the position it doesn’t matter to you if X doesn’t recognize your marriage. How can X be said to withhold something of no value to him, yet that could enrich you? If X’s recognition doesn’t mean anything to him, then there’s no redressable injury to you if he withholds it.

            Of course, it does mean something to both the same-sex marriage crowd and the traditional marriage crowd. Their respective arguments are simply the inverse of each other: “I want you to recognize me as being married,” vs. “I don’t want to recognize you as being married.” If one side can argue “it won’t bother him none to observe my marriage,” then certainly the other side can argue “it won’t bother him none if I don’t observe his marriage.”Report

          • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Tim Kowal says:

            @Tim Kowal,

            You get to sit on the bus just like I do, but you sit in the back. Where’s the harm there?Report

          • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to Tim Kowal says:

            @Tim Kowal,

            > While it’s true domestic partnerships are
            > not identical, the Perry decision didn’t
            > seem to make much of this

            That’s to be expected, actually… it doesn’t need to, the Perry decision is based upon California law, not the larger question of domestic partnerships elsewhere in the US.

            California’s relationship with civil unions isn’t exactly the same as any other state’s relationship with civil unions, they’re all somewhat different.

            So the immediate question is, given the status of civil unions *in California*, is this whole kerfluffle “necessary”? Internal to California, not really, civil unions grant the same power of attorney and whatnot that a marriage does (unlike some other possible civil union arrangements in other states). In fact, I seem to recall a legal analysis prior to 8 being passed that said that it might hold up for just that reason (can’t find the story, sorry about that).

            But DOMA means that other states can ignore our civil unions. If you’re traveling and injured in a state that doesn’t recognize civil unions, you don’t necessarily have power of attorney or medical authorization powers that you get as inherited powers from your civil union.Report

      • If it’s done the right way, I agree that conservatives will move on. If it’s imposed by the courts, though, I think it’s something that could have staying power as it will be one of those issues that they can scream as loudly as they want about without having any expectations about having to do anything about it. Politicians and demogogs love issues like that.Report

  9. Avatar M. Farmer says:

    Douthat says – “the sense that cultural ideals can be as important to human affairs as constitutional rights.”

    And, yet, when choices have to be made between the two because of a conflict, rights are more important.Report

  10. Avatar Jaybird says:

    To be honest, your argument is one that sort of makes sense to me. I’ll use it as a jumping board to put together my best faith argument against gay marriage. (Note: I remain for gay marriage but there have been far, far too many half-assed arguments against gay marriage (of which yours, Will, is not one) that I’m interested in arguing against it if only for the intellectual exercise of doing so.)

    Marriage has, for a fairly long duration, meant a list of things. Maybe not everything on the list was present in every marriage, but the list always contained at least something that was… even if the *ONE* thing was that there was a man and a woman.

    Sometimes there was love (but there didn’t have to be), sometimes there was property (but there didn’t have to be), sometimes there were matters of propriety (but there didn’t have to be), and, yes, sometimes there were children (but there didn’t have to be but, given the nature of pre-birth control society, unless the guy was gay or there was a significant gap of age resulting in the guy being unable or one of the two were barren… there probably were children). In *EVERY* case, however, it was a guy and a gal.

    In recent decades, however, the definition of marriage has narrowed. Only rarely is property directly involved anymore (Charles and Diana being the last major one that I can think of). Birth control has pretty much divorced children from marriage (including my own, for the record)… if people do not want children, then they will not have children. More often than not, there *IS* love involved. Maybe not for long, but that’s pretty much the common thread that exists in all marriages.

    As such, it’s quite understandable that homosexuals would think that marriage is something that ought to be available to them. Why, they love each other! They want to be life partners! Love, honor, cherish! Until Death! Obey!

    However! Look at the US and what marriage, in practice, tends to look like. One man, one woman, children. Yes, there are exceptions… but note: They are exceptions.

    Now there is one very important thing to note about the vector we are on within this country. The country is engaging in more and more and more collectivism. Not just with Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid, but also with the new Obamacare. As time goes on (and has been going on), it’s been moving away from a libertarian position regarding our responsibilities toward society as a whole and more toward a “yes, you are your brother’s keeper” attitude.

    At the same time, marriage has moved away from a social institution to protect property and provide (and provide for) children into a more and more and more libertarian, individual-centric, attitude towards marriage (i.e., one focused on romantic love). This attitude has resulted in, among other things, skyrocketing divorce rates.

    To allow gay marriage is us, as a society, saying that the libertarian ideal of marriage is the correct one while, at the same time, as a society we’ve been saying that we are our brothers’ keepers.

    This will have unintended consequences and very few of those will be good. These unintended consequences will result in more divorces, fewer children, and, eventually, an unsustainable social safety net.

    If we are to move our society along a libertarian vector, fine. If we are to move our society along a communitarian vector, fine.

    What we cannot allow to happen is that we allow marriage to move in a direction where it makes the rest of our society unsustainable.

    (There. That’s my best shot.)Report

    • Avatar M. Farmer in reply to Jaybird says:

      Transition State power back to social power and we’re back on track. Libertarianism doesn’t necessitate atomization. Cultural norms will organically develope out of our unhindered interactions. The State cannot possibly engineer society according to the Great Plan — it will turn us into something which makes marriage a moot point.Report

    • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to Jaybird says:


      Not bad for a best shot, but you’ve got a sticky widget in there: “In *EVERY* case, however, it was a guy and a gal.”

      Nope, wrongo! Polygamy necessitates the removal of the article “a” and a change of the above to:

      “In *EVERY* case, however, it was between at least one guy and at least one gal.”

      My anthropology is rusty, so I can’t actually confirm this case, either, actually.

      I can easily imagine a high priestess being “married” (in the same legal sense as her fellow citizens) to a non-existent supernatural entity. I can easily imagine a Caligula analog marrying his horse. I have no evidence that either of those things was historically ever the case, though 🙂Report

    • Avatar Kyle in reply to Jaybird says:


      “Marriage has, for a fairly long duration, meant a list of things. Maybe not everything on the list was present in every marriage, but the list always contained at least something that was… even if the *ONE* thing was that there was a man and a woman.”

      I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought/said/wanted to scream this – particularly to people who blithely argue that SSM is no big deal. Whether you support it or not, it is a big deal.

      Building from Will’s line of argument and your own, politically and socially polygamy is a non-starter, there’s no well of support for it, no respectably lobbying institution fundraising for it, and SSM supporters go out of their way to say that gay marriage is still a marriage of two individuals, no more. Yet, there’s a significant amount of historical precedent for polygamy and absolutely zero for SSM. Which is actually kind of interesting when you think about it.

      In any case, once the current definition of marriage of one woman, one man, and enough money for a license is changed because the sex/gender requirement is rendered arbitrary or socially declasse, I think it’s literally impossible to construct a logical and/or legal argument for why the numerical constraints ought to remain that doesn’t involve the phrase politically impossible.

      At which point one stops and wonders, in a world where marriage can be between anyone/two/three? Does it have any meaning? What will this mean for relationships, companionship, differentiating between serious bonds and superficial ones? These are interesting questions to be sure but also scary ones. It’s hard to miss the role exclusivity and specificity play as the protectors of marital quality control.

      I’ve never thought of SSM as a libertarian-fueled individualistic social impulse and certainly that’s food for thought, Jay. My personal views are closer to what I commented on above off Trumwill’s comment, but I actually think the secular – I’m concerned about how this will play out – anti SSM argument does have validity. SSM proponents focus on arguing that “this change will only have the positive effects I want it to.” That doesn’t always work out and frankly, I think this is one of the few areas where the slippery slope argument is not facially irrelevant or sloppy arguing, precisely because so much of the SSM movement is predicated on demanding not to be discriminated against as a sexual minority while remaining adamant that allowing SSM will still allow America to happily continue discriminating against polygamists.

      But minorities are minorities are minorities and discrimination is discrimination is discrimination. Allowing SSM is also a strategic defeat for the idea that marital exclusivity/specificity is valuable discrimination and that means a loss of control or perhaps quality control. Now marriage might be fine, it might not, a new relationship equilibrium might be reached but for all the high emotion surrounding the subject it’s ultimately a fight for and against deregulation.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Kyle says:

        @Kyle, dude, sorry it took me so long to come back to this.

        I remain a full-throated defender of SSM as I see SSM as symptomatic of the redefinition of marriage… I mean, seriously, if heterosexuals had kept “their” houses in order and kept marriage as a covenant between parents (excepting the barren) for tax purposes, I doubt that this would have ever been an issue on the national stage… it may have been in a pocket of the country here and/or there, of course. But I doubt that it would have been seen as even an issue outside of those pockets.

        Since marriage *WAS* redefined by heterosexuals (AND IS CONTINUALLY REDEFINED BY THEM), why shouldn’t homosexuals be allowed to join in?

        Hell, we’ll need their help arguing against polygamists.Report

  11. Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

    So let me see if I understand this correctly…

    Whatever bad things that happen to the institution of heterosexual marriage, henceforth you folks now have a scapegoat?

    Perhaps I don’t want same-sex marriage after all.Report

  12. Avatar Pat Cahalan says:

    > 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.

    That is actually pretty strongly disputed as not being “the fact” at all.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Pat Cahalan says:

      @Pat Cahalan,

      Indeed. I wonder whether Will has been reading his own blog, in which I’ve been noting some of the ways in which domestic partnerships (and even state-level same-sex marriages) aren’t legally equal to heterosexual marriages.Report

  13. Avatar Francis says:

    “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. ”

    If this were actually a driving concern of the majority of the populace at any time in the last 100 years then think of the things that would never have happened:

    federal funding of roads and railroads (leads to mobility of labor / abandonment of families);
    women receiving education, voting, working, controlling property, making enforceable contracts, controlling their reproduction;
    no-fault divorce;
    Social Security;
    free trade agreements with foreign countries (more destruction of traditional patterns of employment);
    the Pill;
    judicial invalidation of anti-miscegenation laws;

    “Traditional” marriage works great in a low-density, immobile agricultural societies. Industrial and post-industrial society has done far more to destroy traditional marriage than gay marriage ever could.

    And to the argument: “We draw the line here”, I say — first get society to invalidate divorce laws. If people are willing to return to that state of affairs, then I’ll concede that “traditional” marriage is worth protecting.Report

  14. Avatar morzer says:

    It would be nice if Will actually argued his case against gay marriage, rather than building it around assertions, hypotheticals, vague fears – and, in sum, anything but evidence.Report