Recently I posted a couple of blog entries that made reference to homosexuality. I didn’t seek the subject out, it just popped up in current affairs due to the publicity surrounding a couple of recent studies. However, writing those two blog posts reminded me that I haven’t actually written a blog entry laying out what I think about the legal status of same sex marriage. Contributing at least partially to that end, I submit the following.
The following is not written to convince you that my view on the legal status of same-sex marriage is correct. All I intend to do here is to ensure that you know what my view on the legal status of same sex marriage is.
I’ve heard it said that since we live in a pluralistic democracy, the fact that there exists a sincerely held view wherein the union of two people of the same sex counts as marriage (in some cases, that belief is held by two people of the same sex who believe that their relationship should be granted the status of marriage by the government), means that the government should endorse such unions as marriage in order to be fair, so that it respects everyone and gives everyone the same rights. It’s surprising how common this point of view actually is, and its existence is testimony to the shallowness with which some people think about democracy and government. The very idea that beliefs just create rights that should be enshrined in law is not even intellectually respectable enough to be rebutted. It should simply be laughed at.
If anything, the view that the government should respect the existence of ideological pluralism should lead to the conclusion that no subset of society should have its disputed views enshrined in legislation. Since law is the voice of the people, it doesn’t seem right that the law should speak on your behalf in saying something that you think is wrong. But of course, there has to be some limit to this if law is not to be paralysed. There need to be some fixed points that are non-negotiable and which the government will uphold no matter who likes it, namely basic doctrines about human rights and dignities. If there were disputes about whether black people (or white people, or Asian people) should have the same status as people that everyone else has, then regardless of that pluralism, the government would have a duty to treat those people as having that status anyway.
That said, I do not for a moment believe that I have a basic human right to a government certification of my relationship with my wife (any more than I think the government has the right to interfere with my relationship with my wife). The government’s not giving me such certification does not in any way undermine my dignity or personhood. I therefore have no time for the claim that government certification of same-sex relationships as marriage is a human rights issue. It is no such thing, because there exists no such human right. None. Since I do not believe that any human rights at all are at stake here, this takes me back to my previous comment: Some people say that if you’re going to take seriously the fact of ideological pluralism in society, and if you think that the way the government passes laws should reflect that pluralism, then you should really say that the government should certify same sex relationships as marriage.
One follow up comment suggests itself: If the government certifies any relationships as marriage, then it has to operate with a view of what marriage is. Why should the government operate with a traditional view of marriage, which is itself contested in this pluralistic society, if it refuses to operate with the view that same sex unions count as marriage on the grounds that it’s a contested view and we live in a pluralistic society?
Fair enough. That’s an extremely good question. Let me be clear: I’m not saying that I just buy hook line and sinker the view that the fact of pluralism in society really does mean that the law should reflect a pluralism of values. Here I’m granting that position for argument’s sake. But if I do grant it for argument’s sake, how do I answer this question (for argument’s sake)? If we buy the pluralist stance being taken here, then I don’t answer the question by trying to justify state certification of my marriage but not the union of two men. I answer it by agreeing. I add to this: Let’s get the government out of the marriage business (including the marriage business dressed up in a different name like “civil unions”).
I believe there is a true stance on what constitutes a marriage. It’s the union of a man and a woman who intend to be partners for life. I think there are reasons for treating opposite-sex couples in a way that is different from how we treat same-sex couples that people should be able to understand quite apart from their religious beliefs. Moreover, I’m a Christian, and as such I believe that God made us and therefore is the one who decides what we were meant for and how, in general terms, we were meant to relate to one another. I think the Bible unambiguously presents marriage as a union between a man and a woman, and therefore nothing else counts as a marriage (I think efforts to deny that this is the biblical outlook fail, as I’ve explained elsewhere). A man and a rock, a woman and a tree, a man and his favourite sheep, a woman and her horse, a man and another man or a woman and another woman who care about each other very much (in no sense do I deny or trivialise those feelings). These can all be unions of some sort, and they might be deeply meaningful to the people involved, but in my view it’s an error of fact to say that they are marriages.
In an effort to inject a little emotional and political momentum against my view, some have said that just defining marriage this way is no different to what was done by racists in years gone by. People claimed that they weren’t treating black people as inferior, they were just defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman of the same colour, and therefore denying a black person and a white person the right to marry. This however is a basic misreading of history. In fact in the type of scenario just described, blacks and whites were forbidden from marrying one another. This only made sense, of course, because they were actually capable of marrying one another, and everybody realised this. The issue is not that such unions would not, in the view of many at that time, have counted as marriages. The issue is that people believed (as some do now), quite wrongly in my opinion, that it was wrong to mix the races in marriage. My view on same sex marriage, however, is that it’s not even marriage.
Whatever views I might hold on the morality of sexual behaviour between two people of the same sex, what I have just said does not even require that one have an opinion on it. It does not say anything positive or negative about any sexual behaviour. It is neither more nor less than a stipulation about what marriage is (or is not).
There are two ways that the law can treat marriage that will not involve riding roughshod over citizens who share my view on marriage. Firstly, it could endorse my view on marriage and only enable certification of relationships that meet those criteria. I would have no problem with this, because I would think the law was right. But not everyone agrees with my view on marriage. Now, I certainly wouldn’t want the government to take a false stance on marriage. Nor, for that matter, do those who believe in same-sex marriage (they just lack the insight to realise that they’re asking us to do just that, from our perspective). There is one other rather obvious stance for the law to take towards marriage: None at all.
If I discovered that there had been an error in paperwork, and that my wife and I were not legally married, would I suddenly think that we had been an unmarried couple for thirteen years? Of course not. Even if it turned out that we were not legally married, it’s obvious to me that, based on what I think marriage is, our relationship is a marriage nonetheless. The government can do nothing to add to (or detract from) this. OK, it might be nice to have other people declare me married, but it’s hardly my right to have them do so. Whether they do or not is up to them. What’s more, if the state did not take a stance on marriage, then the “same-sex marriage” controversy would not be an issue. Those who think that homosexual acts are sinful would continue to do so while those who did not would continue to think as they do. People would form relationships as they choose (as they currently do), and the law – that is, the voice of all of us – would not be called on to officiate any of them. If you wanted to get together with friends and family, come before the church (which is what I would do, being a Christian), and make your relationship public, then you are more than welcome to. As a Christian I couldn’t imagine not doing that: Celebrating the divine gift of marriage. But why drag my neighbours, kicking and screaming, into the mix? (That last question may sound a little strange to those who aren’t used to thinking about democracy and what law really is.)
So there we are: When it comes to marriage, the government should take my way or the highway. If it’s not going to do the whole marriage thing correctly, it should not do it at all, and we would not be any poorer for it.