Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Secular Case for Gay Marriage Examined

Pradeep submitted this old article by a chap named Adam Kolasinksi for criticism, and I am happy to oblige.

The debate over whether the state ought to recognize gay marriages has thus far focused on the issue as one of civil rights. Such a treatment is erroneous because state recognition of marriage is not a universal right. States regulate marriage in many ways besides denying men the right to marry men, and women the right to marry women. Roughly half of all states prohibit first cousins from marrying, and all prohibit marriage of closer blood relatives, even if the individuals being married are sterile. In all states, it is illegal to attempt to marry more than one person, or even to pass off more than one person as one's spouse. Some states restrict the marriage of people suffering from syphilis or other venereal diseases. Homosexuals, therefore, are not the only people to be denied the right to marry the person of their choosing.

It does not follow from the nonuniversality of the marriage right that it is not a civil right. Take as a counterexample the right to vote. The states also regulate voting in many ways, disallowing the right to those under 18, felons, the unregistered. and doubtless other groups. Yet were they to deny it to blacks or women, or dare we think it, homosexuals, it would be a clear civil rights issue. Homosexuals have the same right to vote as everyone else. Should they have the same right with regard to marriage? Or, to put it another way, should our right to marry any person we choose who is single, adult, and of the opposite sex, simply be revised to omit that last criteria? It recently had an additional criteria, requiring the happy couple be of the same race. This was changed in Loving v. Virginia in 1967. Why not the criteria requiring gender difference be removed in 2009 in similar fashion? Whatever else may be said of the idea, the argument that it is not a civil rights issue won't fly.

I do not claim that all of these other types of couples restricted from marrying are equivalent to homosexual couples. I only bring them up to illustrate that marriage is heavily regulated, and for good reason.

Yes. Close relatives are forbidden from marrying to prevent birth defects in potential offspring, and to aid in beneficial diffusion of genetic material (giving our species better survival odds in the face of diseases and other threats) as well as social customs, inventions and knowledge, which have obvious benefits. These benefits would be hampered in a society that allowed siblings to court siblings. Brothers would have a near insurmountable advantage against any other suitor, daily access being the most obvious. This would cause much more isolation in the society, as families and cultures would mix less, and thus invariably lag behind those who socialize freely, as history has shown repeatedly. Ask China.

The benefits of restricting diseased people are obvious enough. As for polygamy, that was the dominant form for most of human history, though it does seem less optimal in a modern civilization than monogamy. It would contract the genetic variability discussed above, as well as create a potentially dramatic negative social change with a much higher population of single men.

The challenge is for people like Mr. Kolasinksi to present equally compelling reasons to deny the right of marriage to homosexuals. So far these reasons have varied from nonexistent, to blatantly false ("the definition of marriage hasn't changed in thousands of years), circular ("it will lead to more people thinking being gay is OK"), and absurdly ignorant ("homosexuality goes against evolution"). The anti-gay marriage crowd has just about the worst quality of argument of any group currently waging political war this side of the Natural Law Party. Let's see if Mr. Kolasinksi can improve on that.

When a state recognizes a marriage, it bestows upon the couple certain benefits which are costly to both the state and other individuals. Collecting a deceased spouse's social security, claiming an extra tax exemption for a spouse, and having the right to be covered under a spouse's health insurance policy are just a few examples of the costly benefits associated with marriage. In a sense, a married couple receives a subsidy.

If this is his best case for the "marriage subsidy" argument, its a weak one, for in the second two examples the otherwise single people would get their own tax exemption and health insurance elsewhere were they not married. True, many such situations are cheaper if one is married, but first of all, this is just the gross side of the argument, and second, in many cases it is more expensive to be married. Whether being married increases or decreases one's income taxes depends greatly on what the relative levels of income are between the couple. At some level, certainly below $250k apiece, a couple who make roughly equal incomes will pay more income tax married than their combined payments would be if they filed singly.

So if Kolasinksi is going to argue that marriage is in effect a social investment from which we should expect a healthy return, he's going to have to do a lot better than collecting a deceased spouse's SS checks.

Why? Because a marriage between to [sic] unrelated heterosexuals is likely to result in a family with children, and propagation of society is a compelling state interest. For this reason, states have, in varying degrees, restricted from marriage couples unlikely to produce children.

Oh my, where to begin. First off marriage is not required to procreate. Second, homosexuals are such a small percentage of the population that it is unlikely their marriage status would effect the birth rate significantly. Third, the argument is contradictory at its core - if we want more babies, and marriage creates more babies, then we'd want as many married people as we could get. That is, unless Kolasinksi dares argue that homosexuals disallowed from marrying each other will become good heterosexually married baby makers. It is not as though there is a limit on marriage licenses. Further, current rates of procreation are far beyond what is needed for our society to survive, and there are many compelling arguments that it is in society's interests to have fewer, not more children. Underpopulation is not a problem under which the earth suffers.

And of course the biggest problem with Kolasinksi's argument is that it is a blatant case of special pleading, as he finds a way to weasel out of eliminating any other sterile group from the marriage pool:

Granted, these restrictions are not absolute. A small minority of married couples are infertile. However, excluding sterile couples from marriage, in all but the most obvious cases such as those of blood relatives, would be costly. Few people who are sterile know it, and fertility tests are too expensive and burdensome to mandate... Some couples who marry plan not to have children, but without mind-reaching technology, excluding them is impossible. Elderly couples can marry, but such cases are so rare that it is simply not worth the effort to restrict them. The marriage laws, therefore, ensure, albeit imperfectly, that the vast majority of couples who do get the benefits of marriage are those who bear children.

Now that there's a dance Fred Astaire could appreciate plenty. Elderly couples marrying are rare? Says who? And homosexuals marrying isn't? How rare do they have to be before it's worth the effort to restrict them? Please. Kolasinksi is yanking arguments from his keister. We don't allow people under certain ages (depending on the state) to marry, I suspect the enforcement effort would be comparable. And closing in even worse logic, his last claim is backwards. The premises he's working with would suggest the desire to ensure the highest proportion of wannabe procreators get married, not the other way around.

Homosexual relationships do nothing to serve the state interest of propagating society, so there is no reason for the state to grant them the costly benefits of marriage, unless they serve some other state interest. The burden of proof, therefore, is on the advocates of gay marriage to show what state interest these marriages serve. Thus far, this burden has not been met.

Say no more. Society has thousands of orphans that would benefit from being raised in a loving stable two-parent home, and it just so happens we have a small percentage of the population capable of creating such homes, but incapable (at least together and without considerable medical assistance) of having children of their own. It's a match made in Family Values Heaven. What say ye Kolasinksi?

One may argue that lesbians are capable of procreating via artificial insemination, so the state does have an interest in recognizing lesbian marriages, but a lesbian's sexual relationship, committed or not, has no bearing on her ability to reproduce.

Neither does anyone elses. See above.

Perhaps it may serve a state interest to recognize gay marriages to make it easier for gay couples to adopt. However, there is ample evidence (see, for example, David Popenoe's Life Without Father) that children need both a male and female parent for proper development. Unfortunately, small sample sizes and other methodological problems make it impossible to draw conclusions from studies that directly examine the effects of gay parenting. However, the empirically verified common wisdom about the importance of a mother and father in a child's development should give advocates of gay adoption pause. The differences between men and women extend beyond anatomy, so it is essential for a child to be nurtured by parents of both sexes if a child is to learn to function in a society made up of both sexes. Is it wise to have a social policy that encourages family arrangements that deny children such essentials? Gays are not necessarily bad parents, nor will they necessarily make their children gay, but they cannot provide a set of parents that includes both a male and a female.

Kolasinksi misses the point here by assuming a false choice: two heterosexual parents vs two homosexual parents. The fact of life for millions of children is one overworked parent, gay or straight, and the statistics have been plentiful as to the negative correlation of that and the quality adult that child becomes. Kolasinksi's political allies are quick to raise these statistics when arguing against allowing/condoning single parentage, yet now somehow they would have us believe that children in homes with two homosexual parents would be worse off than with one. His argument defeats itself.

Some have compared the prohibition of homosexual marriage to the prohibition of interracial marriage. This analogy fails because fertility does not depend on race, making race irrelevant to the state's interest in marriage. By contrast, homosexuality is highly relevant because it precludes procreation.

False premise and false logic: the state's interest in marriage goes far beyond fertility issues (it was originally primarily about property), and homosexuality does not preclude procreation. It simply makes it more difficult, requiring some form of medical intervention, similar to heterosexual women who get pregnant via invitro fertilization. I suppose Kolasinksi would dismiss that group as too small to worry about as well. How convenient.

Some argue that homosexual marriages serve a state interest because they enable gays to live in committed relationships. However, there is nothing stopping homosexuals from living in such relationships today.

There is nothing stopping heterosexuals from living in such relationships either, and yet they still (mostly) prefer the stability, property arrangements, family structure, and legal protections of getting married. Why shouldn't gays want the same things, and further, why wouldn't the family values crowd cheer that desire? It makes little sense to criticize people for living uncommitted socially irresponsible lives while simultaneously denying them the ability to live otherwise.

Advocates of gay marriage claim gay couples need marriage in order to have hospital visitation and inheritance rights, but they can easily obtain these rights by writing a living will and having each partner designate the other as trustee and heir. There is nothing stopping gay couples from signing a joint lease or owning a house jointly, as many single straight people do with roommates. The only benefits of marriage from which homosexual couples are restricted are those that are costly to the state and society.

Yet as we've already established earlier, the costs to the state Kolasinksi has presented are either deceptive, or tiny. Again, there is nothing stopping heterosexuals from doing the things Kolasinksi suggests, and yet the primary purpose of marriage originally was about property, because the benefits to both partners (especially the least self-sufficient one) were considerable. Why deny them to homosexuals?

Some argue that the link between marriage and procreation is not as strong as it once was, and they are correct. Until recently, the primary purpose of marriage, in every society around the world, has been procreation.

No, it has been about distribution and control of property, and about having a life partner, depending on how recently he means. To my knowledge there has never been a major society that set procreation requirements on people who wanted to get married.

In the 20th century, Western societies have downplayed the procreative aspect of marriage, much to our detriment. As a result, the happiness of the parties to the marriage, rather than the good of the children or the social order, has become its primary end, with disastrous consequences. When married persons care more about themselves than their responsibilities to their children and society, they become more willing to abandon these responsibilities, leading to broken homes, a plummeting birthrate, and countless other social pathologies that have become rampant over the last 40 years.

A plummeting birthrate is a social pathology? What a strange worldview that reveals. As for broken homes, if that is the concern of Kolasinksi and his crew, then why aren't they calling for a reversal of the most recent redefinition of marriage: divorce? That changed the definition of marriage from "til death do us part" to "as long as we like it". The irony is rich that a group battling hard to prevent one tiny group from forming stable committed families, while making no effort to prevent over half of Americans from dissolving their marriages, would call itself "pro family". Oh, and I know I'm picky and all, but what does any of this have to do with homosexual marriage?

Homosexual marriage is not the cause for any of these pathologies, but it will exacerbate them, as the granting of marital benefits to a category of sexual relationships that are necessarily sterile can only widen the separation between marriage and procreation.

Not significantly. That separation has been made huge by myriad factors whose effects are larger than that of homosexual marriage by orders of magnitude, such as the increasing average age for marriage.

The biggest danger homosexual civil marriage presents is the enshrining into law the notion that sexual love, regardless of its fecundity, is the sole criterion for marriage.

Divorce already did that. There's no putting the genie back in to the bottle now.

If the state must recognize a marriage of two men simply because they love one another, upon what basis cant it deny marital recognition to a group of two men and three women, for example, or a sterile brother and sister who claim to love each other?

For the exact same reasons it does now. None of them depend on the heterosexuality of the people in question. This is a blatant red herring.

Homosexual activists protest that they only want all couples treated equally. But why is sexual love between two people more worthy of state sanction that love between three, or five? When the purpose of marriage is procreation, the answer is obvious.

On the contrary, if procreation is the goal, then polygamy, not monogamy, is the preferred choice. Once again Kolasinksi's argument fails even granting his flawed premises.

If sexual love becomes the primary purpose, the restriction of marriage to couples loses its logical basis, leading to marital chaos.

Except that it hasn't, which is a perfect way to end this article, for Kolasinksi's arguments are giant speculations at best, mere guesswork as to what would happen were gay marriage allowed. The problem is this isn't theoretical any more: several states and countries have legalized gay marriage and so far not a single one of the nightmares brewing in the imaginations of the Family Values crowd have transpired. Old-fashioned heterosexual marriage continues on its merry way in those places as if nothing has happened, because, well, nothing has.


Troublesome Frog said...

It never ceases to amaze me that people who argue against gay marriage always assume that the people they're arguing with will be totally freaked out by the idea of polygamy.

As I see it, the purpose of marriage in a modern society is to allow adults to define their family associations in an orderly and consistent way. We modify our family structures by procreating, marrying, and adopting children.

I'm fine with the government providing facilities to keep track of those relationships and "fast track" the legal privileges associated with them, but I am uncomfortable with government heavy-handedly dictating which of those relationships are appropriate. I don't see why we should not allow adults to define their families as they see fit.

ronaldo said...

It seems odd to focus in on the polygamy aspect of your fine refutation of a flawed article, but that’s where my head is at today.

“The benefits of restricting diseased people are obvious enough. As for polygamy, that was the dominant form for most of human history, though it does seem less optimal in a modern civilization than monogamy. It would contract the genetic variability discussed above, as well as create a potentially dramatic negative social change with a much higher population of single men.”

The “seems less optimal” argument doesn’t seem like you. Would you agree that it’s not particularly a strong one to justify the prohibition of polygamy? (Maybe that's not what you were doing.) Having genetic variability is a good thing I guess, but would the reduction of it truly warrant laws against polygamy? And, though a higher population of single men indeed seems like a negative, the higher population of married women could be seen to counteract that drawback. (Besides, given the relatively small amount of people willing to marry more than one spouse, these drawbacks seem pretty harmless.)

“On the contrary, if procreation is the goal, then polygamy, not monogamy, is the preferred choice.”

I’m curious if you (and the author you’re refuting) mean “the goal for humanity” or “the goal for the individual.” This might make a difference as to whether polygamy would be the preferred choice. I’d have to work on the math.

pradeep said...

Thanks ScienceAvenger for your excellent takedown of Kolasinksi's piece. You really need to consider writing for scienceblogs.

ScienceAvenger said...

Pradeep, thanks for the kind words. I asked them about it, but they apparently found my lack of scientific specialty and publication off-putting. So be it, I'll fight the good fight wherever I am able.

ScienceAvenger said...


Why does the "less optimal" position not sound like me? I'd describe most of my political positions that way, since politics is, at its heart, judgement calls among competing values and priorities, and doesn't often lend itself to black/white solutions.

I think it's pretty clear that polygamy produces more offspring for the population, since the females are the limiting factor in the process, but like you I haven't done the math. As it is, I'm not a big fan of the prohibition of polygamy, and dabble with the idea that in a modern society short-term group marriage might be optimal.

ceorge said...

I like your counterexamples as Kolasinksi's original arguments, out of the context of your critique is compelling.

I dislike your references to "Kolasinksi's political allies." It seems desperate at best. I also dislike the ad hominem attacks. That is one thing I can't stand about most of us. Since we have a better argument, why can't we just lay out the facts side by side, without insults, and let the reader be the judge?

surely intellectual discussions are much better than heated arguments.

other than that.

thank you for your work.

ScienceAvenger said...

Thanks for the compliments Ceorge. I agree intellectal discussions are superior to heated arguments, but I also think those who take intellectually dishonest positions (ie the ID crowd)should not be treated with the same respect as those with whom we have honest disagreements.

However, to what are you referring in my piece? I just reread my article and found not one ad hominem attack. Whether or not something is an insult is somewhat subjective, and definitely not the same as an ad hominem, but I didn't see much of that either. And finally, why is a reference to Kolinski's political allies "desperate"?

Specific examples go a long way towards making criticisms credibile and constructive. Otherwise, they carry about as much weight as the insults you so decry.