Two years ago today the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage was a constitutional right, and that states could no longer refuse to recognize such marriages. If an alternate universe existed in which I was forbidden to marry Kristi, and then the legal landscape changed, I would be ecstatic! So the jubilation on the part of same-sex marriage proponents is something I can empathize with.
And this ruling was celebrated by many more people who are not themselves same-sex attracted, but who cherish the notion of equality. Indeed, that is how this issue was framed – “marriage equality.” What could be more central to our political system than the notion of equality under the law?
But while I am sensitive to the deeply emotional aspects of this question, and while I grasp the impulse for equality that drives this issue, I believe the Court was profoundly mistaken in its decision. And the reason for this has nothing to do with any animus toward homosexuals, or with any grievance with the desire for equality. It has to do with the meaning of marriage itself.
The slogan of “marriage equality” is effective as a piece of rhetoric, but it is crucially deficient as a matter of policy, because the key issue here is not the meaning of “equality” but the meaning of “marriage” itself. To illustrate, let me just make up a word – globberstinkle. Now, if I were to launch a campaign for “globberstinkle equality”, the first item on the agenda would be to define what globberstinkle is, and only then could I advocate that the right to globberstinkle be recognized in an equitable way. Likewise, the root issue in the case of same-sex marriage is not equality, but marriage itself. How is marriage to be defined?
It seems to me that there are two ways to define marriage. One way I will refer to as the organic definition, and the other I will call the synthetic definition. My argument here is that same-sex marriage depends upon a synthetic approach to defining marriage that ultimately collapses into incoherence.
But first, what do I mean by an organic definition? Organic food is that which is made without the addition of chemically formulated (or you might say, synthetically formulated) compounds. It is grown naturally. When I speak of the organic definition of marriage, then, I am speaking in terms of a definition of marriage that arises from the natural order itself.
What does such a definition look like? Well, here are the bullet points:
- Men and women are different.
- By virtue of this difference, men and women can reproduce.
- For human beings, producing children involves a long-term commitment to teach and train children with the uniquely human features of rationality and conscience.
- The same act that produces children also creates a tremendous physical, emotional, and psychological union.
- This union, to be a true union, is mutual and exclusive and permanent.
- Thus, male-female sexual complementarity points to a mutual and exclusive and permanent union which is the context in which children may be raised – in other words, marriage.
These are just the bullet points, of course, mere summaries of centuries of reflection on what constitutes marriage across many different cultures. The defense of each point would require much more elaboration – which is exactly what we see in the classical tradition of Plato and Aristotle, the biblical tradition of Judaism and Christianity, the religious tradition of faiths as different as Islam and Hinduism, and the rationalist tradition of the Enlightenment. Though these strands of thought would disagree on many important issues, they share this definition of marriage that derives from the natural order. That is what I mean by the organic definition.
This organic definition grounds the definition of marriage itself in male-female complementarity. (As an aside, notice that it has nothing to do with other issues, like race. The redefinition of marriage to mean marriage between only those of the same race was a tragic and illogical departure from the organic understanding of marriage.) And by grounding the definition of marriage in the conjugal union of one man and one woman, the organic view also limits marriage to two parties.
Perhaps you don’t accept this organic definition. What’s the alternative? The alternative is the synthetic definition. By this I mean (as Webster’s defines it) something “devised, arranged, or fabricated for special situations to imitate or replace usual realities.” In contrast to the organic view which defines marriage based on logical deductions drawn from the nature of male-female complementarity, the synthetic view argues that this natural order is irrelevant, that marriage is purely a social construct, and that we are free to re-arrange the components of a marriage any way that we wish.
Justice Kennedy eloquently summarized this synthetic view in his opinion two years ago:
The nature of marriage is that, through its enduring bond, two persons together can find other freedoms, such as expression, intimacy, and spirituality. This is true for all persons, whatever their sexual orientation.
However, my contention is that once the definition of marriage is loosed from its organic moorings, this synthetic view quickly undermines the very concept of marriage. How so?
In the first place, there is no logical reason that the synthetic view of marriage should limit it – as Justice Kennedy did – to a bond of two persons. If the issue here is the freedom of “expression, intimacy, and spirituality” as he claimed, then why should three or more persons not be permitted to enjoy these freedoms in the context of a group marriage? On the same day that the Court issued the Obergefell decision, the respected Politico website published an op-ed in favor of the legal recognition of group marriages. As the author argued:
Polyamory is a fact . People are living in group relationships today. The question is not whether they will continue on in those relationships. The question is whether we will grant to them the same basic recognition we grant to other adults: that love makes marriage, and that the right to marry is exactly that, a right.
It does no good to respond by saying that polygamous marriages should be prohibited because they place women in an unjust and abusive relationship. This article isn’t simply proposing one-man-plus-multiple-women marriages; it is arguing for the legal acceptance of all forms of group marriage, whether three men, two men and two women, or any other synthetic combo you can think of.
Without the organic backdrop of male-female complementarity, which inherently involves a duality, the synthetic definition of marriage has no legitimate grounds for denying legal standing to group marriages, other than sheer prejudice.
Further, why should marriage be limited to two persons? Is it not possible that a person may find “expression, intimacy, and spirituality” with something other than a person? Just a couple of weeks after the Obergefell decision, Arizona State law professor Gary Merchant argued in a piece on Slate that humans should be able to marry robots (when I first read it I immediately thought about James Franco’s guest appearance on 30 Rock!). In the stirring conclusion of his article, Merchant declares:
But as the court emphasized at the close of its opinion in Obergefell, the issue comes down to the “fundamental right” of a person in a free society to choose the nature of the relationships and lifestyle they choose to pursue, providing they do not unreasonably harm others in exercising their choices. Robot-human marriage is not about robot rights; it is about the right of a human to choose to marry a robot.
What could be more “synthetic” than the marriage of a human and a synthetic object like a robot? And how would someone who rejects the organic view of marriage deny a person such a right?
For that matter, why should marriage be about anyone or anything else at all? An article from the December 20th issue of Cosmo featured a story about a young lady who decided to marry herself.
In the months since the wedding, Erika has truly committed to herself, she says, fixing up her apartment, traveling, and working on her book. When people ask if she’s married, she says yes, and introduces people to her other half.
“For so many years, people had been telling me I was a great catch,” she says. “I caught myself.”
How can the benighted Justice Kennedy deny this person her right to find “expression, intimacy, and spirituality” in marriage merely because she doesn’t accept his archaic version of marriage as between “two persons together”? Shouldn’t she have legal standing to enjoy this most precious of all freedoms?
My point is that the synthetic definition of marriage, divorced from the natural order of male-female complementarity, has no grounding for a definition of marriage other than the arbitrary wishes of those making up the definition. As Humpty Dumpty told Alice, “It means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” And if “marriage” can mean anything, then it means nothing. And therefore the phrase “marriage equality” has as much meaning as “globberstinkle equality.”