July 12, 2014

The Circle of Our Embrace

If you ask someone to define a circle, you will likely get several different definitions, depending on their mathematical sophistication; but if they are good definitions they will be accurate. Some may be procedural: a circle is the shape traced by a compass moving through 360 degrees. Others may be Euclidean: a circle is the set of all points in a plane equidistant from a single point. Note that these “definitions” can also accurately be called “descriptions.” They both limit what a circle is and how a circle is formed. The question, “But why is a circle defined or described in this way?” — were it to arise — would very likely be met with a blank stare; though a wise philosopher might simply respond that this is a convention useful in geometry and mathematics, and of course there are an infinite number of circles that can be drawn around any given point, and this gives us a tool to name them and work with them.

Would that the marriage debate were so simple. There are some for whom it is that simple, in their own minds. Marriage is “defined” — for example — as “the lifelong union of one man and one woman,” and any example that doesn’t meet the definition falls outside the term. Some such definitions are also fairly called “descriptions” but nonetheless draw the line at some things being within the category while others are not.

Leaving aside the reality that a strict application of that definition fails to address whether a marriage that ends in divorce was ever a marriage, or still is, the more serious problem arises when people ask the question about marriage that I hazard no one would ask about circles: “Why is marriage limited in this way.”

When faced with this question, some will resort to a merely definitional and tautological approach that boils down to, “Because that’s what marriage is.” This is unassailable, but also not a real answer to the question, as it begs it.

Other answers will commonly include an appeal to the fact that only men and women can procreate. Of course, the problem with that answer is evident: people can procreate without marriage and marry without procreation — so clearly the ability or the lack thereof cannot be essential. The creation of such notions as virtual or potential procreativity seem even further removed — and beside the point as even those who definitely can procreate might not marry or procreate; and this particular dodge is ultimately a subterfuge to preserve the “man and woman” requirement in their essential, rather than procedural, reality — which the more astute among you will recognize as another form of begging the question.

Among other appeals will be the well-worn fallacies of appeal to authority, tradition, or numbers — forces to which one may choose to bend but which are not in themselves proof of the rightness of the premise.

Ultimately, the question with which we have to deal is much more serious, and much more complex, than simple definition or description. It concerns the lives and loves of countless human beings, seeking to order their lives under a discipline that allows those lives and loves to flourish and grow. It is not easy to stretch definitions when they are deeply entrenched in a culture, but it is incumbent upon us to recall that marriage is a cultural convention, and an infinite number of circles that can be inscribed round any given point.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


rick allen said...

“Why is marriage limited in this way.”

A word is always merely conventional. The question is whether there is mischief in referring to two different things by a single term. The principle of equality, after all, can be violated in two ways, either by treating things that are the same differently, or by treating things that are different the same.

"Marriage," in whatever language, has always refered to the social, legal and religious form of the biological relationship of opposite sexes. It has overwhelmingly not been thought to arise out of just any sexual relationship of any two individuals, since sexual relationships between people of the same sex poses no possibility of procreation. Society, law and religion have always had a unique and compelling interest in those sexual relationships that will require the long-term care, nurture and training of children.

The sexual relationship of couples of the same sex is undoubtedly analogous. But it does not raise the same social concerns as the sexual relationship of those whose sexual activities carry the possibiity of bringing new human beings into existence.

I don't think that this is mere "homophobia" or "bigotry." There have been any number of civilizations quite accepting, even celebratory, of homosexual couples. But they didn't call those relationships "marriage," since they didn't and couldn't build the ties of parenthood and kinship.

And of course procreation can take place outside of marriage. I believe we are almost to the point that it now takes place mostly outside of marriage. But that is what society, law and religion have labored mightily to prevent. Marriage is not itself the biological relationship of opposite sexes, but the preferred social form which we have always found best for children and most condusive to the moral responsibilities of parenthood. In that sense it is a uniquely human phenomenon, a "convention." But it arises out of a biological reality, that sex between a man and a woman has a unique capability to create these responsibilities.

Tobias Haller said...

Rick, I am not sure what your point is other than to bash away in insistence on your premise in typical circular fashion.

No one (at least not I) is claiming that "marriage" in whatever language (whatever that is supposed to mean!) has not been applied to the "social, legal and religious form of the biological relationship of opposite sexes." (I assume by "biological" you mean "sexual.")

But you get the facts completely wrong in your fourth paragraph. In some cultures (though not the primary Mediterranean ones that formed the substrate for Judaism and Christianity) "marriage" (or the terms used in those other languages!) has been used for same-sex couples, and procreation has nothing to do with it. You fail to distinguish the Greek celebration of pederasty (in a culture that would not have found adult same-sex relationships to be anything but problematical; the Greeks and Romans were "homophobic" in that sense) from the cultures of Asia, Africa, and the New World in which stable, permanent adult bonding of same sex couples was treated exactly as "marriage." The modern West now joins this ancient heritage.

The substance of your error lies in the unfounded and unproven premise that the reason people marry, and the reason society is concerned about it is due to the need for the long-term care, nurture and training of children. This is simply false, as children can be, and are, raised in many different ways in many different cultures that either have marriage or not; there is no necessary connection between marriage and child-rearing. Many cultures -- including the Upper Class English Culture of the 19th - 20th century -- separate parenthood from child-rearing to a significant degree, yet are very keen on marriage.

The real reason for human marriage is that most people like to have sexual intercourse, and like to connect that experience with someone whom they love. It is that "liking" and "loving" that in fact is what tends to bond human couples. The bonding is not -- in a social context -- solely or even primarily for offspring, but for the couple themselves. This is why people remain together in spite of having no children, when they can have no children, or after the children have gone. This is the actual human evidence which you choose to ignore.

You are presenting a sub-moral and utterly secular argument for marriage, and it is one that is not only mistaken in its major premise, but wrong in its conclusion. As the courts have found.

I'll say it one last time, Marriage is not for the purpose of procreation, but provides (in the opinion of some cultures) the best place for it to happen when it does. It is not, therefore, in most cultures limited to those who are capable of procreation. If you cannot accept that fact, there is no point in further discussion. All that remains is bigotry -- the obstinate holding to a false premise in spite of all evidence to the contrary.

dr.primrose said...

Rick, I think you also overlook the social concerns inherent in marriage just beyond taking care of children.

Preliminarily, let me say that taking care of children is, of course, important. But gay and lesbian people have children, too. And as several courts have recognized in the same-sex-marriage cases, extending marriage same-sex couples who have children grants those children important rights and protection that they would not otherwise have. There is a societal benefit just in that.

Same-sex marriage has benefits to society in the same way the opposite-sex marriage does. Let me mention just two of them.

First, societies have long recognized that many young men, whether gay or straight are, without putting too fine a point on it, are wild beasts and there’s a societal need to tame them. Society often tolerates a period of sowing one’s wild oats for a limited period of time but doesn’t want that period to extend too long. Society wants men to settle down and become responsible citizens. Historically, marriage is seen as the tool that does that in large part. And modern biological and psychological studies have shown that to be true. Testosterone levels go down and men become more caring after marriage. There is no benefit to society for middle-aged men continuing to act like men in their late teens and early twenties. Marriage, whether same-sex or opposite-sex minimizes that.

Second, there is a societal benefit where, as in marriage, one member of society is legally responsible for another member of society. The government grants a huge number of benefits to married people for this reason. If a married person gets sick, the spouse has the right to deal with medical personal and to make medical decisions for the other. The government is thus freed from making those decisions itself or going through a long, laborious process for determining what other person will be responsible for the hospitalized person. Likewise, if a married person dies, the spouse receives much of the decedent’s assets tax-free. The government is thus freed from having to support the spouse if the spouse has no assets of his or her own. Social security survivor benefits operate similarly and for the same reason.

There are many other similar examples. But the underlying basic idea is the same – if one person will take on the legal responsibilities for another person in marriage, society benefits and the government will then grant married persons certain benefits for taking on those responsibilities. This societal benefit applies in the same way, regardless of whether the couples is same-sex or opposite-sex.

Tobias Haller said...

Thank you, Dr. Primrose. These are the social realities that the concept of marriage enfolds, regardless of the sexual status of the couple. Marriage is a civilizing institution, in and of itself.

It also occurs to me I did not fully address Rick's lexical assertion concerning the word "marriage" itself. One of the revealing things about the vocabulary of marriage is that, in most languages with which I am familiar, the vocabulary of marriage has absolutely nothing to do with procreation. The sole exception is "matrimony" which -- to fall into the etymological fallacy for a moment -- relates to the status of becoming a mother; noting that in conventional use this meaning is all but unknown.

The rest of the vocabulary has to do with the joint status of becoming spouses, the creation of the socially recognized bond: in gender neutral terms such as spouse, espousals, nuptials, wedding, wedded, married, the Greek gam- cluster. In some languages the primary focus is on the householding aspects, in terms such as the Spanish casado or the English husband; or words that indicate the possession of a spouse, such as the Hebrew be'ulah. None of this terminology reflects any connection with procreation.

The same is true when one looks at the liturgies, most particularly the vows: no one vows to have children; rather, they vow to establish a life-long exclusive relationship which, contrary to the Roman Catechism, may or may not be ordered to the procreation of children depending on the couple's actual capacity to procreate. As Dr. Primrose points out, couples infertile by circumstance or by nature are capable of raising children, so that point is utterly moot.

So, in the long run, this logomachia is utterly pointless, and rests on nothing other than the felt need some have to distinguish mixed- from same-sex marriages. This is why we have adjectives, and those who feel the need can make liberal use of them, while marriage itself simply becomes the inclusive term that covers all such partnerships -- just as now an array of adjectives allows heterosexuals to engage in open, plural, convenient, Josephite, companionate, etc., etc., marriages.

rick allen said...

Dr. Primrose, of course I recognize that some gay couples raise children. My comments to Father Tobias were intended to be very limited, that the older understanding of marrige is not arbitary, but rather that opposite-sex sexual relationships are, factually, not exactly the same as same-sex sexual relationships, and that therefore it is appropriate to consider them distinctly.

There is no question that those who undertake the considerable burden of raising children should have some social encouragement to do so. But, even among married couples, we have two distinctive legal fields which address that. There is the case where the children are the couples' own--in which case their rights as parents are, in a sense, automatic. There is, by contrast, the case where the couple does not have a child themselves, taking rather the role of rescuing children who, for whatever reason, have lost their parents, and that relationship is governed by the law of adoption. Adoptive parents, unlike natural parents, must quality, must prove that they will be good parents, and there must sometimes remain some role for the original parent.

When a gay couple has children there are two conventional scenarios. Either one member of the gay couple is the natural father or mother of the child, and the other parent has left, or died, or deserted. Or, the gay couple has adopted. In neither case is there an automatic parenthood, as recognized when the child is conceived, born to, and raised by his or her natural parents. If the gay couple is to be recognized as a set of parents, at least one other natural parent must have had his or her parental rights extinguished, either by death or judicial decree.

I am, again, not talking about the morality of the situation, or suggesting any social policy, other than pointing out the simple initial fact that, in this respect, there is a distinction that is real, and it may provide some grounds for distinguishing couples who may aquire children on their own and couples who can only acquire children in a rescue situation, or by extinguishing the parental rights of another.

I don't think it's bigotry to keep these distinctions in mind in we are indeed constructing an entirely new set of legal standards. It also seems rational, to me, to consider, for instance, whether in this case the norms of adoption are more appropriate in the case of gay couples than the norms of marriage. That does not deny the imperative to extend certain benefits to those raising children, and the recent dramatic increase in the number of children born outside of marriage probably should cause us to re-examine some of the benefits automatically extended because of the once-justified assumption that marriage and children go hand in hand.

Tobias Haller said...

Rick, I very nearly didn't approve your last post, as given your usual habit you have now shifted the ground to be about issues of adoption, rather than the nature of marriage.

However, I will take this opport8unity to point out in response to this that the alleged difference you raise here is not between mixed- and same-sex marriages as marriages (which was the original issue) but between any marriages in which the couple have their own jointly biological offspring and those that do not. A same-sex couple adopting is in exactly the same position as a mixed-sex couple adopting. Someone else's parental rights are extinguished (or in the case of death, naturally lost) whenever there is an adoption -- whether the couple is capable of having their own children or not.

There was a time, prior to the arrival of marriage equality, when one member of a gay couple (who could not marry) might have to "adopt" the natural child of their partner, while a mixed-sex couple, by virtue of marriage, simply gained a step-child. With marriage equality the need to adopt is mitigated, and instead of there being a difference in form or structure from mixed-sex marriages, children can now become part of the new family through marriage of same-sex couples.

So as far as your "issue" goes, there is less need to maintain separate categories -- or if there is a need to do so, it is based not on the couple's relative gender, but on whether their children are fully or partially natural or adopted.

There was never a justified assumption that marriage and children go hand-in-hand, except on the part of those who so assumed. Children were seen as a blessing, but not an assumption; hence the prayers for children to be born, and the absence of them when the couple could not have children.

Marriage equality in fact renders your distinction utterly moot, and if you are truly concerned about children, you should welcome the development rather than trying to draw false distinctions.