Monday, July 25, 2011

Does Gay Marriage Perform the Functions of Marriage?

The "Sunday Styles" section of yesterday's New York Times has a collection of articles on how gays are responding to the legalization of gay marriage in New York State. The recurrent theme is how gay marriage might satisfy the same social needs that are satisfied by heterosexual marriage.

For example, one article by Lisa Belkin is entitled "For the Sake of the Children." Gay men and lesbians want to legalize their marriages as a way of securing their attachment to their children. One mother is quoted as saying, "We feel like we're marrying the kids."

But is this really true? Is the legalization of gay marriage warranted because it performs the same functions as heterosexual marriage?

On his blog, Empedocles denies this in two recent posts on the function of marriage and on answering the arguments for gay marriage.

He argues that the evolutionary function of marriage is to solve the problems that arise from heterosexual intercourse--particularly, the need for producing and rearing children. Since the function of marriage as a social institution is to solve this problem, and since gay marriage would not serve this function, it is just for government to legalize heterosexual marriage but not gay marriage. This does not violate the "equal protection" clause of the United States Constitution, because equal treatment allows for discrimination against those people who lack the qualifications relevant to performing a social function, and gays cannot perform the function of producing and rearing children.

For me, this argument raises three sets of questions.

(1) Do gay marriages perform the function of producing and rearing children? For some gays, the primary purpose of gay marriage is to support the bond between gay parents and their children. Are they wrong about this? If they are, does this imply that gay parenting should be illegal, because gay parenting cannot properly perform the social function of producing and rearing children?

(2) Do childless marriages perform the function of securing conjugal bonding? Many gay marriages will be childless. But, of course, many heterosexual marriages are childless. If Empedocles is right about marriage having only one function--producing and rearing children--then any childless marriage is not really a marriage. Is there any socially relevant difference between a childless heterosexual marriage and a childless gay marriage?

Is conjugal bonding a distinct function of marriage? If so, does that mean that reinforcing the exclusive sexual bond of the marriage partners allows marriage to solve the social problems associated with sexual mating? Has evolution produced conjugal bonding as a natural desire distinct from parental care?

(3) Does marriage require governmental licensing? Empedocles seems to assume that the social institution of marriage cannot function without a system of governmental licensing by which the government acts as the "describer" in specifying what counts as a marriage. But then he also speaks of how "social stigma" is often the most effective means for holding partners to their marriage vows and their parental duties. If so, does that mean that marriage as a social institution depends mostly on the social norms of civil society rather than the laws of the state? Throughout most of human history, marriage has been enforced by social practices without governmental licensing. Does this suggest the possibility of "privatizing" marriage, so that the norms of marriage would be determined by families, churches, and other social institutions without the necessity of getting a license from government?

Some posts on "Darwinian marriage" can be found here, here, and here.


Empedocles said...

The argument isn't that gays cannot perform the function of producing and rearing children. Infertile couples can not do this either. The function of marriage is the prevention of problems that result from the production of children, which is an entirely different point.

Empedocles said...

Also, I'm not against gay adoption, as the post implies.

Empedocles said...

And I don't think that a childless marriage is not really a marriage.

Larry Arnhart said...

If the function of heterosexual marriage is to prevent the problems that result from heterosexual parenting, then why isn't it the function of homosexual marriage to prevent the problems that result from homosexual parenting?

Empedocles said...

It's not to prevent the problems that result from heterosexual parenting, it's to prevent the problems that result from heterosexual intercourse, namely, the problems that result from the production of a child. Maybe we're getting hung up on the word "parenting." "Parenting" I think is an ambiguous word, sometimes we refer to someone parenting a child meaning producing a child, and sometimes it means the raising of a child. So if you mean the producing of a child, then we're in agreement. But in that case, if parenting means producing, then there is no such thing as homosexuals parenting a child, which is obviously false.

CJColucci said...

It may well be that heterosexual marriage evolved as a solution to the problems caused by heterosexual intercourse and the production (or risk of production) of children. But as the institution has evolved, it has developed other functions as well, and an institution that performs those other functions may well be of value even when production or the risk of production of children is not at issue. I, for example, am infertile, but I have been married nearly 20 years. I think my wife and I benefit from the institution of marriage in innumerable ways. That we, or the gay couple down the street with two children, are not within the original and primary concern of the institution of marriage may be true, but that hardly answers the question whether extending the benefits of such an institution to my wife and I, or my gay neighbors, is a good idea.