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February 24, 2010

going deeper on gay marriage

At a meeting last week, we discussed whether gay marriage makes a good topic for discussion in a philosophy or civics course at the high school or college level. Some participants argued that there are no good secular, public reasons against gay marriage. Students (at any level) may have personal convictions against it, but they can only disclose those convictions (if they dare). They will not be able to make arguments relevant to fellow students who hold different convictions. All the neutral arguments favor gay marriage. And that makes it a poor choice for a discussion topic.

I'm not certain that's correct, but I do think that gay marriage is nested in broader issues that make better discussion topics. IF we should live in a liberal, democratic state that is neutral about religion, AND IF that state should give special legal recognition and benefits to "marriage," defined as a very specific contract between pairs of consenting adults, THEN that recognition and those benefits should be available to gay citizens as well as straight ones. That argument seems very straightforward to me and virtually impossible to refute on its own terms. But ...

Should we live in a liberal, democratic state that is neutral about religion? That's a good, complicated, heavily-discussed topic. It raises thorny cases. For example, Martin Luther King was a Christian minister and theologian who made brilliant, "faith-based" arguments against segregation. Those arguments influenced policymakers and voters in our liberal democracy. Was his influence appropriate? If so, why?

Second, should the state recognize and provide benefits for only certain kinds of contracts, defined as "marriages?" Today, in some states, gays may marry legally. But everyone who marries enters into a contract that has certain features. It is designed to be permanent, although there is an intentionally difficult escape hatch in the form of divorce. It combines in one package monogamous sexual intimacy, economic unity, parenting and adoption rights, cohabitation, tax benefits, inheritance, and other legal privileges. Clearly, these elements could be unpacked and offered a la carte.

In practice, marriages do differ. Some people who marry are never sexual partners nor plan to be. Some couples do not expect or value monogamy. Prenuptial agreements may override the principle of economic unity or common property. Yet it remains important that the state -- and social custom -- favors one model of marriage (even when gay marriage is permitted).

I think this second issue (standardized legal marriages versus a la carte contracts) is pretty interesting. If legal marriage became very flexible, it would be like forcing everyone to negotiate their own prenuptial agreements. I would personally hate that idea. It seems extremely stressful to have to invent one's own model of marriage as a couple and then write it all down in legal terms. I would much rather buy into an existing legal and social norm. But this seems like a worthy topic of discussion.

February 24, 2010 8:25 AM | category: philosophy | Comments



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