May 10, 2012

Of Slippery Slopes

Conservatives often assert that same-sex marriage will push us along the slippery slope towards the breakdown of marriage and polygamy. On the contrary it was the stress on procreation that led to the slide to polygamy under Jewish law and custom: both in the Levirate regulation requiring a man to bed his brother's childless widow; and the insistence on divorce of an infertile wife, or the taking of another wife or concubine (e.g., Hannah, Peninnah, and Elkanah; or Jacob, Leah and Rachel.)

Relationships that are based on achieving ends will fail when those ends are not met. Relationships that are based on mutual love, in which each to the other is an end in him or herself, will endure. As the Rabbis put it: "Any love that depends upon something else, when that something else disappears, the love disappears; but if it does not depend upon something else, it will never disappear. What is an example of love that depends upon something else? The love of Amnon and Tamar. And what is the love that does not depend upon something else? An example is the love of David and Jonathan." (Pirke Avot 5:19)

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


Tim said...

Well said, Tobias. Thank you.

JCF said...

Well-said, Tobias!

Kaliputra said...

An interesting choice of a love that endures, stronger than the love of women, given the current use of the Bible by some.

Daniel Weir said...

The continuing debates about marriage equality often include claims about procreation as the primary purpose of marriage, a claims which is at odds with the Declaration of Intention that couples in TEC must sign before marrying. While I think my wife and I did a good job of raising our two children, we certainly didn't get married in order to procreate and raise children. We married in order to experience the joy of being together. Not happiness, which is not always there, but joy. Why should I deny that joy to any couple?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, all. Daniel, I've often pointed out that even in relatively unreformed or unrevised marriage liturgies (i.e., 1662!), there is no vow to procreate.

Daniel Weir said...

After reading this post, I posted on my own blog:

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Good words, Daniel.

Sid said...


I disagree with your line of thinking somewhat. "Relationships that are based on achieving ends will fail when those ends are not met" is a tautology, so I'm not sure it gets you where you want to go. It seems to me that "mutual love," for example, is itself an end - a goal - that a couple can fail to meet, and, if that end is the basis of the relationship, it will not endure.

My read on our culture today is that it, in fact, predominantly does stress mutual love as the basis for relationships - just as long as the mutual love exists. In other words, our culture sees "love" as an emotion and not a verb. And, sure enough, there is little value placed on marriage per se: nobody will have a problem with a couple that lives together without benefit of marriage, for example. Also, as we would expect, when the "love" disappears, so does the relationship.

It is in this type of culture, that essentially values a relationship only to the extent that it provides self-satisfaction for its constituents, that "conservatives" (and I'm not sure the huge number of African-American pastors publicly disagreeing with the President on same-sex marriage fit that description, by the way) see no theoretical reason not to permit polygamy once marriage simulacra are normalized. It does seem more likely that some judge, somewhere, or more and more "what the heck do I care what people do; it doesn't affect my marriage" types will move in the direction of, inter alia, polygamy. And I would ask you, putting aside your personal feelings about the matter and/or understandable desire to not be associated with those advocating legal polygamy, how does it affect your marriage if polygamy is legalized? At the first remove that defines the thought boundary of most SSM advocates, it seems the answer must be "none," but I'm interested in your view.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Sid, I'm not sure I understand your question. Nor do I think you are using "tautology" correctly, or at least in a way I understand. I do think your example holds up: if mutual love is a goal, and the goal is not achieved, the relationship will fail. But I think this also partakes of the same notion which you appear to me to critique, that is, that "love" is a thing rather than an action. I would say that the failure to love is indeed a cause for the collapse of relationships; but that relationships in which the couple strive to "love, honor and cherish" the relationship will be thereby maintained. The point here is that love is, when so exercised, intrinsic to the relationship; while a mere sexual encounter (t use the example of Amnon and Tamar) or procreation (to cite another temporary aspect of many long-term marriages, is transitory. Many marriages fail when the "chicks fly the nest" precisely for that reason.

I'm also not sure about the "huge" numbers of black pastors out there -- I heard a handful on CNN this morning, and likely they are the ones who got the press. My guess is that most pastors don't want to touch the issue and will not take a position on it one way or the other -- but that's just a gut feeling.

Again I'm not sure I'm following you, but I don't think polygamy being legalized would have any effect on my marriage or anyone else's marriage; not that I think the legalization of polygamy is going to happen any time soon, or at least in forms other than our current practice of serial monogamy and tolerated infidelity ;-)

I will be posting later today (time permitting) a bit more reflection on the polygamy red herring (as I see it).

Daniel Weir said...

The polygamy argument rests on the " threat to marriage" question, but that is not the only question to be considered. What would be the benefits and harms to society if polygamy were legal?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Daniel, I'm sticking with the moral issue as I see it: the social and civic issues raised are, as you note, also very important.

Sid said...


I agree (mostly) with your first paragraph, as well as with your latest post, "The Nature of Marriage." That should indeed be the animating spirit in a marriage.

I look forward to your posting on polygamy (but perhaps "The Nature of Marriage" was it?). From my view, though, what I was getting at is that the utilitarian view of marriage is, essentially, what we have in our culture (I don't agree with that view, to be clear), and, from that perspective, there is little objection to polygamy.

If we were somehow able to turn the culture around and have widespread acceptance of the self-giving ideal in marriage that you so well expressed in your latest post, though, I still can't (personally) rule out polygamous arrangements in which the members exemplify that ideal.

Also, as you say, polygamous arrangements have no effect on your relationship, but you must know this is exactly what we hear all the time when people object to SSM: what I do with my same-sex spouse doesn't affect you, so you shouldn't care.

There is no argument for SSM that doesn't also admit polygamy; this is why we continue to hear about the "slippery slope." SSM doesn't have to lead to polygamy, but, if we're consistent in the underlying principles, it would.

Now, when we move beyond the nature of marriage to other costs and benefits, then, as Fr. Weir notes, there would be arguments against polygamy. However, "it will cost the government more money" can hardly be taken seriously, inasmuch as cost is ignored in every other budgetary instance. And I suppose widespread adoption of SSM will cost more money (in tax breaks, survivor benefits, etc.), too, so that isn't exactly an argument against one and not the other.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, Sid. I have to say I'm still not following you on how "There is no argument for SSM that doesn't also admit polygamy." I don't see how any argument for same-sex monogamy leads to polygamy at all. I think some of the arguments used for the decriminalization of seme-sex sexuality might do that, but monogamy is monogamy. What "underlying principle" are you referring to. The "underlying principle" I argue for is the union of two persons. That does not necessarily open the possibility to more than two, and explicitly denies that opening.

The only "argument" I know of -- and it is not one I make -- is that people should simply be free to do as they like when it comes to sexual relationships. If that's what you are talking about, then I see how that could lead to arguments for polygamy. But as I say, that's not an argument I make, nor do I think it necessary to make it as part of a case for same-sex marriage.

Sid said...

Thanks for the answer, Tobias. I tried to put a few of those principles out there: that marriage should be seen as utilitarian, i.e., as a means for satisfying individual desires; conversely, that marriage should be seen as a union in which the partners, without regard to gender, dedicate themselves in a self-giving manner to one another; finally, that no objection is permitted to a "marriage" arrangement if it doesn't negatively affect the objector's relationship. Polygamous marriages would also be permitted by any of these common arguments for SSM.

I understand your own position is a lot more sophisticated than those, but the reality in our culture is that these other arguments are the kinds being used to advance SSM. (When an argument is actually made; sadly, it's typical these days to have no more of a case made than to yell, "bigot.")

Roughly speaking, marriage as it's traditionally been understood is based on the complementarity of a man and a woman. I know you put little stock in that kind of a "tabs and slots" approach. Still, even if you find that principle to be laughably simplistic, at least it is a principle. What I'm afraid I don't get is how "2" as a descriptor for marriage is less arbitrary than "complementarity." The latter is based on something at least observable about human nature, while the former is based on something else that I admit to not knowing.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Sid, I guess what I'm not seeing here is anything leading towards polygamy that is particular to same-sex marriage. The utilitarian or hedonistic argument -- or "free love" if you will -- is not particular to same-sex relationships, and is NOT applicable to same-sex monogamy. Again, I've heard this position advanced in the decriminalization argument, but not in the marriage discussion; perhaps I've missed it; but, as I say, it is not particular to same-sex marriage, and could equally be made by couples arguing for the right to divorce and remarry.

People dedicating themselves "to one another" appears to me to require a binary relationship. (This is what I mean to get at in that post I promised, but which has been sidetracked; though I do mention it in my book: true mutuality cannot be achieved -- or at least is extremely difficult -- in any relationship beyond two people. Scripture attests to the inherent imbalances in the polygamous relationships it permits.)

Your third example ("this doesn't concern your marriage") is not, I think an argument "for" same-sex marriage but a response to the rhetoric of SSM being an "attack on marriage."

As to the complementarity issue; all I can say is that complementarity is a thesis with a lot of problems to it, which I've laid out elsewhere, and to one of which you refer. But "binary" is an objective fact that shouldn't require too much explanation. It may be "arbitrary" but it is at least objective and real. Two people are two people.

So the polygamy argument is largely a red herring that arises from more general issues about changes in sexual habits, and is not particularly related to the issue of same-sex monogamy.