by Daniel McCarthy
by Daniel McCarthy
The best thing that the movement for gay ‘marriage' has going for it is the ineptitude of its opponents. That most Americans are quite content with old fashioned, man-and-woman marriage was made clear enough in 1996, when President Clinton signed the "Defense of Marriage Act" in the midst of a presidential campaign. Clinton was no friend to monogamy, but he knew how to read the writing on the wall.
Not so most (neo)conservative critics of gay ‘marriage.' Unwilling or unable to invoke such concepts as natural law or, God forbid, religious truth, they have fallen back on utilitarian objections to extending the status of marriage to homosexual unions. So unconvincing are these utilitarian objections that the whole question of opposing gay ‘marriage' is thrown into doubt. The public, or at least that part of the public that is semi-literate or better, may well conclude that if this is the best that the ‘nays' have to offer, the ‘ayes' should have it.
There are good reasons to be against gay ‘marriage.' Contrary to what some libertarians seem to think, it would only be an expansion of State power, with the State redefining an institution older than itself, one that it did not create in the first place but only recognized. Returning marriage to religious institutions would be the better idea, as Ryan McMacken has argued. Putting aside the role of the State, those who believe that matrimony is a sacrament, or who through natural law reasoning find fault with homosexuality itself, have their own grounds for rejecting gay ‘marriage.'
There are even plausible utilitarian arguments against gay ‘marriage,' though they will be no more popular with the political and media elite than theology or natural law reasoning. The simplest and best utilitarian argument is surely just that very few people indeed stand to benefit from gay ‘marriage,' while large factions of the population — traditional Christians and Muslims, for example — will be outraged. This is a ‘cold' utilitarian argument. It doesn't try to be egalitarian and treat unequal kinds of behavior as the same, which is presumably why it isn't much used in polite discussion.
All of this goes against the prevailing currents among those who argue for and implement public policy, of course: the journalists, academics, lawyers and politicians of 21st century America. But none of the arguments that sail along with the prejudices of this class — which scoffs at ‘natural law' but accepts on faith ‘human rights' — can adequately supply a reason for opposing gay ‘marriage.' The problem that emerges might be called the Stanley Kurtz Question.
Kurtz has been trying mightily to show that gay ‘marriage' is harmful in a practical sense, that it will in fact undermine traditional marriage by weakening the "ethos of monogamy," which will in turn lead to more heterosexual promiscuity and even, eventually, the legal recognition of "polyamory." There are several basic logical problems with Kurtz's arguments. Nowhere does he prove — or even attempt to prove — that if married homosexuals are engaging in adulterous affairs that married heterosexuals will be tempted to follow suit. Why would heterosexual couples model their behavior after homosexuals? There's good reason to think, based on statistics Kurtz himself reports from a study by in his "Beyond Gay Marriage" article, that what provides the "ethos of monogamy" is women. Lesbians in civil unions, according to the University of Vermont study that Kurtz cites, value monogamy more highly than men in heterosexual marriages. This would seem to confirm what has long been known — that men, regardless of sexual orientation, are more promiscuous than women, regardless of orientation. It's the presence of a woman in heterosexual marriage that accounts for the "ethos of monogamy." The legal recognition of gay ‘marriages' will do nothing to change this fact. Women, straight or lesbian, will not stop being monogamous just because ‘married' gay men have difficulty with it.
Even less will gay ‘marriage' lead to the acceptance of polygamy and "polyamory" — and once again, Kurtz himself provides the evidence. He lays great stress in his "Beyond Gay Marriage" article on the absence of "romantic love" from polygamous relationships. But it is precisely the belief in "romantic love" that animates supporters of gay ‘marriage.' They claim that it can exist between two individuals of the same sex as surely as it can between two of different sexes. Given the murky nature of "romantic love," it's hard to say that they're wrong. If, as Kurtz argues, "romantic love" is absent from polygamous relationships, they will not enjoy even the limited support that gay ‘marriage' does. There is simply nothing to say that the elite class, let alone the public, will consider polygamous or "polyamorous" relationships as the same thing as one-to-one unions of hetero- or homosexuals.
(There is also the point that people who like to engage in orgies, which is what "polyamory" is, probably do not, for the most part, want to get married and thereafter engage in the same orgies with the same people all the time. As for polygamy, one wife is usually trouble enough for any man.)
Kurtz is correct to attack "family law radicals" in his "Beyond Gay Marriage," but these Left-wing legal revolutionaries are a separate issue from gay ‘marriage' advocates. The family law radicals are dangerous whether or not there is gay ‘marriage,' and are in fact a much bigger threat in their own right, using as they do the power of the State to directly subvert parents and families. Kurtz is also correct to lament the erosion of the "ethos of monogamy" that has already taken place, but this is owing not to heterosexuals imitating homosexuals, but rather to the sexual revolution in general — about which Kurtz writes in "The Libertarian Question" that "on balance, I think we as a society have gained much from the weakening of the old sexual taboos." No-fault divorce, increasing promiscuity and out-of-wedlock births, and now the fad for single-motherhood have all exploded without gay ‘marriage.' These things simply have nothing to do with homosexuality, ‘married' or otherwise, now or in the future.
One might well suggest that Kurtz's arguments, as weak as they may be, are nonetheless the best that can be made in the current political and cultural climate. There's a considerable amount of truth to that — and therein lies a problem. Moral traditionalists have all too often cut themselves off from the basis of their own beliefs in order to appeal to the media, the political class, and the State itself. In the long run this has little hope of success, and indeed in the short run it looks unlikely to stop the movement for gay ‘marriage.'
But whether or not it does, the price that is being paid for fighting on these terms, the abandonment of good argument in favor of politically expedient poor arguments, is surely much too high. It throws religion and philosophy — to say nothing of common sense — out the window in favor of pandering to the political class. For one thing this has the effect of extending the secularism of the U.S. government into discussions of mores and morality. It also contributes to turning politics into a spectacle. If rationalizations like Kurtz's are acceptable in a matter like gay ‘marriage,' they soon become accepted in the graver public matters of war and State power, as everyone becomes habituated to putting the demands of political power ahead of those of truth.
July 31, 2003
Daniel McCarthy [send him mail] is a graduate student in classics at Washington University in St. Louis.
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