What is Marriage?

As our society debates what the definition of “marriage” should be, we would do well to remember that by defining a term at all, we must exclude everything that does not fit that definition.

If we say that a chair must be a thing on which you can sit and which has four legs, we can say that a table is a chair, but a rock is not.  If we feel that that is unjust to the rock, we can remove the requirement about four legs, and then say that a rock is a chair, also.  But what if clouds feel left out of the status and benefits of being recognized as a chair?  Eventually, the good intentions of inclusion render reality silly.  Loosening a definition–stretching the field of things that can fall within its purview–weakens the nature of the thing being defined.

However we define marriage, we will, by the nature of “definition,” exclude some people and types of relationships.  It stands to reason that some of those excluded will be good, kind, decent people who only want respect and rewards for committed relationships.  But to expand the definition to a point where all such people are included would necessarily make the definition so broad as to be meaningless.

If we can call anything a chair simply because we feel deeply that it’s fair, then anything at all could be a chair, and the term, as a matter of useful distinction, loses all value.  So it is with marriage.

Some common sense thoughts to keep in mind, prompted by reviewing this editorial from National Review:

Our actual point was and is that same-sex marriage is a contradiction in terms that undermines the logic of the institution. There is a governmental interest in ensuring that as many children as possible are raised in a home by biological parents who are committed to each other and to them for the long term. There is no governmental interest in recognizing other types of adult relationships, and proponents of same-sex marriage hardly bother to try explaining what that interest could be. Sooner or later their case always falls back on the alleged unfairness of not treating committed same-sex couples as though they were married.

Imagine two brothers who, after some family tragedy, try to provide a loving household to a child. What they are doing is certainly praiseworthy, and may even deserve some forms of governmental support. But their relationship is not a marriage, and treating it as such furthers no intelligible purpose. That conclusion would not change if the men were unrelated and having sex with each other. In neither of these cases would governmental recognition of the relationship as a marriage serve either the purpose of regulating procreative sex or any other legitimate governmental purpose. Still less is there a justification for treating one of these hypothetical pairs as married but not the other.

6 comments on “What is Marriage?

  1. Hiya Huston!
    As I’m sure you can recall I struggled with our faith about a decade ago, and though I strongly disagree you might feel that I still do… I am ALL FOR Same Sex Marriage and argue that with some assistance a same sex couple CAN parent and raise children. I TRULY believe that Love is Love and that there is NOTHING that could invalidate my relationship except for my husband or myself. As Eleanor Roosevelt so famously stated, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
    We MUST catch up!

  2. Hi, Yoli! Thanks for taking the time to comment. You don’t really get into my post very much, but I will agree that of course “a same sex couple can parent and raise children.” My point on this issue has always been that the natural, biological nuclear family is the best environment for children to grow up in–all pertinent research supports that. While kids can and do thrive in other situations all the time, I think we have a responsibility to endorse the best scenario, across the board. Still, no one else should be judged, mistreated, or looked down on for not fitting that mold.

  3. The logical flaws in the National Review’s argument are painfully apparent, not to mention the contradictions with their other conservative positions.

    The government certainly has an interest in childrearing, because a child brought up in a loving home with parents who are able to provide for them are likely to be better citizens when they grow up and will probably cost the taxpayers much less money over their lifetimes. However, there is no evidence that a heterosexual couple are ipso facto better parents than a homosexual couple or a dedicated single parent. Heterosexual couples in our culture today have a 50% divorce rate, and merely staying together doesn’t indicate that the children of those marriages were well treated.

    A second problem is the idea that having children is always a public good or that the government has some proper role in “regulating procreative sex”. The world population is growing far too rapidly already and curbing that growth is probably a more legitimate public good than encouraging it. If the government were to seriously regulate procreative sex, it would need to issue licenses for each child, ensuring that the parent(s) had the means, the skills, and the commitment required to qualify. I’m guessing most children in this country don’t have parents who would be able to get such a license.

    Lastly, if government is really interested in the welfare of children, then it would provide the services necessary to support young families: ample paid maternity and paternity leave, free or heavily subsidized child care for working parents, shorter working hours and longer vacations, and quality health care for all. Unless they are willing to do so, we can assess their concern for children to be bogus.

  4. “However, there is no evidence that a heterosexual couple are ipso facto better parents than a homosexual couple or a dedicated single parent.”

    Try here, here, and here. Note that the first source is even from a “progressive” source, trying to deal with the facts’ implications for their goals.

    I don’t think non-nuclear families are bad, but I do know that the best environment for a child is in one. I’m not ranking where different family structures fall on some kind of judgment scale, but I do want to support the one that is clearly best. Children deserve the best, not whatever’s convenient for adults.

    “Heterosexual couples in our culture today have a 50% divorce rate, and merely staying together doesn’t indicate that the children of those marriages were well treated.”

    So what? This only suggests that we should work harder to strengthen marriage, not abandon it. Child abuse is simply not as common as your suggestion might indicate.

    “A second problem is the idea that having children is always a public good”

    If nothing else, it’s absolutely crucial for the sustainability of the social-welfare complex, as Europe and Japan are learning. (The latest news on this front: Germany plan to tax young people to help pay for the needs of older people, due to falling birth rates–here.)

    “The world population is growing far too rapidly already and curbing that growth is probably a more legitimate public good than encouraging it.”

    The global population boom on the 20th century had virtuall ynothing to do with birth rates. It was due to improved medicine, diet, and other factors that kept more people alive at the same time–life spans grew dramatically around the world.

    Your last paragraph is just based on biased assumptions. That doesn’t mean they’re untrue (though they are), but stating a policy opinion in glowing terms is not a strong defense of it.

    • I would agree that two parents are, all things being equal, better than one. Whether the parents are of the same or different genders is not important, but whether the parents are present in the home and able to provide for their children, spend time with them, and insure that they gain the experiences necessary to improve their lot in life – these are important factors. It is these factors that are far more affected by the economic security of the family than the genders of the parents.

      If you want to do something to reduce the divorce rate, the simplest and least invasive method would be to provide greater economic stability for households, making sure that they aren’t threatened with bankruptcy in the event of illness or threatened with losing their homes if their job is moved to China, providing subsidized child care to allow both parents to work when necessary, or insuring that wages are high enough to allow one parent to remain home. What steps do you think government should take to strengthen “traditional” marriage?

      As for the population explosion, of course it is caused by a number of factors and it is hard to generalize about the world at large. Population growth is high in countries that don’t yet have the diet and medical advances of the developed world, for example. Also the temporary increase in costs of old-age benefits caused by the post-WWII baby boom can be ameliorated in lots of ways – like increasing taxes on the wealthy for example. Having more babies so that in 20 years there will be more workers paying into Social Security is hardly a smart response to the problem.

      I do have biases about how we can strengthen families – I believe we need to ease the unnecessary economic tensions of their lives and give them more time and energy to devote to their children. I believe we need to provide supports for children at every stage of their development to assist parents who are unable to give their children the advantages they require to develop. I’d be interested in hearing your ideas.

  5. Again, I read the studies, and thought about this. I have always maintained, that, as common sense would indicate, a child does better with loving parents, who take care of their children and each other, treat family members lovingly insomuch that the parents stay together, thus giving the children a positive example of creative and amicable conflict-solving and other relationship skills. (What a sentence that thought produced! :D)

    The “old” sociology affirmed this, and current does not say much different.

    But to me, it seemed like the most reasonable conclusion from the data they had was, that we just don’t have the data to produce good studies about same-sex parents. Maybe that’s because same-sex parents aren’t always indicated, or maybe because the ones, who adopt children tend to be the ones, who do better.

    But all in all, it seems that the best guess from the data is, that same-sex parents are like remarried parents or something. Not quite there with the nuclear family, but still, they have two parents, who love each other and who take care of their children.

    I don’t see a sociological reason for the proscription so many seem to want. And even faith-based feelings don’t make that much sense to me as long as they pick just the same-sex couples.

    The Bible condemns divorce, and all kinds of abandonment of family members (in that you always have the duty to take care of them). I don’t see the same condemnation towards cohabitation or single-parenting.

    The final issue is, do we, as believers, have the right to force our values on people who don’t have them, just because some of us get an anxiety/panic attack when they see a gay couple or something.

    In fact, I don’t see a reason to lay a special condemnation on homosexuality, among other forms of adultery and fornication. And besides, if you’re pronounced “man and wife” at city hall, have you made a covenant before God? No.

    We should separate secular law from religious law. As a deeply religious person, I don’t see any justification to infuse religious law into secular law, if we pretend to live in a democracy. Democracy is not just about majority rule: it’s about minority rights, too. A majority that tramples the rights of minorities, is not a democratic, but a dictatorial one. I’d rather have the democratic one.

    Thanks for your attention.

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