Thinking Christian

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SSM and the Argument From Future Opinion

Posted on Feb 13, 2013 by Tom Gilson

I hear it all the time:

“Christians in years to come will be just as ashamed over the Church’s opposition to same-sex marriage today, as we are now about slaveholders in the South using the Bible to support slavery.

So very wrong: and yet so close to the truth. I’ll explain why.

First, here’s what’s wrong in it. It’s what I call an argument from future opinion:

We ought not do x today because in the future we’ll find out that x was wrong.

As an argument it’s obvious nonsense. As rhetoric, though, it can be effective, for its purpose is not so much to persuade the reasoning self as it is to shame the emotional self.

There’s another way to look at these things, though; and here is where a “future embarrassment” argument actually makes sense.

Begin by picturing in your mind a culture built solid on a foundation of ethics and morals, on family, church, and community.

Now imagine with me, what if by some slow process of decay, or maybe by someone’s strong advocacy, that foundation were replaced by a culture of relationships based on adult personal satisfaction?

What if the effect of that were to be a huge increase in divorces and in children born out of wedlock?

What if it meant generations of children being raised by someone other than their own parents?

What if it caused millions to experience the crushing pain of their parents’ divorce?

What if it meant millions of “inconvenient” children being killed before they could even be born?

And what if there arose a strong political campaign to cement that culture of adult satisfaction into place, by calling it “marriage” when two people, who couldn’t possibly raise their own children, wanted to be in a special relationship for themselves?

Do you have that image in your mind? (I know, it’s not hard to see. We’ll come back to that.)

Now picture this: What if the Church didn’t speak out against such a thing? Wouldn’t it be a massive embarrassment to all future Christians?

Comparisons are impossible, so I don’t want to say, “wouldn’t it be as embarrassing as the mistakes Southern Christians made on slavery?” But undeniably it would be a horrifying burden of guilt and shame for the Church to carry.

The statement I opened this post with typically comes from same-sex “marriage” (SSM) advocates. But there are some believers, too—I’m in an extended conversation with one right now—who think it’s time to “face facts, recognize that SSM is a done deal, throw in the towel, and find some way to coexist with new realities.” There are some who say there is no way we can oppose SSM while genuinely loving same-sex attracted persons; and that our witness to the world hangs more on our love for them than it does on defending marriage.

But here’s the problem: our witness to the world also depends on how we defend the defenseless. And there’s no one weaker in today’s world than tomorrow’s children.

Much of what I pictured for you above was all too easy to “imagine,” because it took no imagination. It would have been an “argument from future opinion” if someone had put it forth it in 1955. Now it’s current reality. Not all of it is, though; and what is, need not remain so.

The Church, to be the Church, must speak for the helpless and weak. In this case, the ones we’re defending are the children of future generations. They’re children who need their parents—their actual parents, united in a lifetime marriage commitment—to be equipped and ready to raise them.

So when people say,

“Christians in years to come will be just as ashamed over the Church’s opposition to same-sex marriage today, as we are now about slaveholders in the South using the Bible to support slavery.”

We have an answer. It’s not based on future opinion but on present reality:

“We dare not let future generations be embarrassed at how we let them down by failing to speak up for truth in this crucial hour. We dare not force the Church in the future to bear the shame of our inaction today.”

____

Also posted at The Point Blog.

Related: Research Ethics and Same-Sex “Marriage”

Also from Reasons for God: Does the Future Have Moral Authority?

63 Responses to “ SSM and the Argument From Future Opinion ”

  1. Sault says:

    I’m assuming that you are avoiding using the word “love” because you are reserving a special meaning for it in this context?

    By that I mean something along the lines of “a relationship so committed and deep and special that we can’t help but make babies because of it”. Which would follow why you don’t use the word when referring to same-sex couples, I suppose.

    Anyways, as I understand you so far, your argument goes something like this -

    Things were okay in 1955.

    Then came the birth control pill and gay advocacy.

    Since we could then have sex without worrying about having children, we stopped associating marriage with children. This was aided to some degree by gay advocacy groups.

    Since it became more about “us” rather than about “them”, we had more divorces and abortions. People also held the institution itself as less important and began having children outside of marriage, too.

    In the present day, allowing same-sex couples to marry would ruin whatever meaning “marriage” had left, and this absence of meaning would cause a continuation of the harm that the birth control pill and gay advocacy have already done – i.e. more divorces, more abortions, more unwanted pregnancies, more tearing of the social fabric, etc.

    While both the pill and the gay advocacy are causes here, we can’t fight contraception [ref], but we can definitely fight same-sex marriage, so we should.

    Okay, so what did I get wrong? This article is the closest that I’ve seen to a full and proper disclosure of how you feel on the issue, so I’m drawing both from it and from the last time that I remember you talking about SSM.

    I’m really interested in the new development of 1955 being a year of “a culture built solid on a foundation of ethics and morals, on family, church, and community.” Part of the reason that I’m so interested is because it was still a decade before things like equality for black voters.

    Of course I’m bound to disagree with you, but I’m hoping to get an accurate understanding of what you’re actually saying before I go any further.

  2. Tom Gilson says:

    I didn’t say 1955 was a year of perfection. But it was a time when sexual morality and family structure was saner than today.

  3. Beez says:

    I do understand why SSM supporters seem baffled by arguments that it will “destroy traditional marriage”. It really is just one more symptom and link in a long chain of “death by a 1000 cuts” to traditional marriage. Because little attention is given to attempting to reverse the other declines, it gives the appearance that too much focus is placed on stopping SSM. I sometimes wonder if we stopped treating defense of marriage as a LIFO buffer and more of a FIFO buffer, would the message would be any less muddied? (I’m just spitballing, here.)

  4. toddes says:

    I find statements along the lines of the following as purposely obtuse:

    “Part of the reason that I’m so interested is because it was still a decade before things like equality for black voters.”

    Somehow you can’t reference the good things about the past without having to own the negative things as well.

    Though I am surprised, given the subject is SSM, that Sault cited voting rights instead of the sodomy laws that were on the books in the US at the time. The battle cry in the movement to get these repealed was “Get the government out of our bedrooms”. Ten years later (from the time of the Lawrence v. Texas decision) we have petitions to involve the government. Funny what the future holds.

  5. Sault says:

    @toddes

    Let me see… why would I not bring up the immorality of anti-sodomy laws when speaking to conservative Christians, some of whom have expressed quite graphically before about how morally and physically disgusting it is to them… hmmmm…

  6. toddes says:

    Because they would be exponentially more relevant than trying to compare sexual preferences with racial bigotry.

    And then going on to link moral values with physical disgust as though the former has anything to do with the latter.

  7. toddes says:

    For that matter, if you believe that the two (former anti-sodomy laws and current ‘SSM’ legislature) are related (and they are) then what does it matter whether some have expressed (justifiably) moral outrage and/or (irrelevantly) physical disgust?

  8. Sault says:

    what does it matter whether some have expressed (justifiably) moral outrage and/or (irrelevantly) physical disgust?

    What is the quickest way to make my point – that Tom’s original statement paints a far more charitable and rosier view of that particular time than is warranted? Begin a debate over the morality of anti-sodomy laws and risk it turning into a debate over the morality of the practice itself, or point out a moral failure that we can all agree upon?

    Perhaps I know my audience better than you do? It doesn’t matter, because it worked – Tom clarified that his original statement was one strictly about sexual morality, and not the more general praise that the statement originally came across as.

    While I have some thoughts about the validity of the statement (the mid 1950′s having a higher quality of sexual morality and family structure), this is something that I’d like to present with some kind of research/evidence to back me up.

    What do you think about Tom’s statement?

  9. Keith says:

    @Sault, #8:

    Stephanie Coontz’s book The Way We Never Were covers this ground.

    It’s a lot denser and not as readable as the other book she’s known for Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage, but it’s good work.

    If you are interested in societal trends in marriage and families, and you haven’t read these two books, you’re in for a treat.

  10. Sault says:

    I appreciate the references. I will look into them as I am able. Until then, I have questions.

    Let us imagine a society that conforms to a conservative Christian values. I want to speak only about hetero couples – for this portion of the conversation, we avoid the topic of same-sex couples at all, and focus on the Christian definition of the word instead of the secular/social/legal definition.

    (I apologize for belaboring that point. I’m trying to keep this line of questioning very specific)

    What do we do about couples who want to dedicate their lives to each other, but choose not to have children? Can we call them married, in a Christian sense of the word? <– this is, I believe, what Tom is talking about when he speaks about a relationship based on personal satisfaction

    What if they decide later on that they do want to have children after all?

    What about a couple who gets married with the intention of having children, but can't conceive, yet can't bear the thought of adoption?

    Hell, what about a couple that chooses to adopt, whether they can biologically conceive or not?

    In other words, should we limit the title of marriage to only those couples who have actually have children?

    Who gets to be married, the title of marriage I mean, in an ideal world/society conforming to Christian values?

  11. Tom Gilson says:

    Sault, these questions have all been addressed here previously.

    Suppose a couple gets married with no intention or no ability to have children. The answer is the same in either case: it would be an incredible intrusion for the state to require couples to affirm on their marriage license that they have proved their intention and their medical ability to conceive.

    With same-sex couples, of course, the answer to that question is apparent with no intrusion.

    So in an ideal world, who gets to marry? A man and a woman, provided they meet other reasonable restrictions including age, genuine intent (as e.g. opposed to marriage for fraudulent citizenship), not being currently married already, etc.

    That part isn’t complicated. Basically it’s that the government’s role in marriage is to affirm and recognize it, to be involved only to the extent that’s necessary to ensure that marriage is marriage.

    Then why should government get involved in so-called same-sex “marriage”? That’s exactly what I’ve been asking from the start. Why on earth should it have even been brought before the government even to think about it?

  12. d says:

    I also recall that it has been mentioned many times before, the answer to the question (eg. “is this couple able and willing to have children once married”) IS apparent, without intrusion, for many heterosexual couples as well.

    If some woman is old enough to collect social security checks, she’s too old to bear children. Simple. So why don’t we consider her too old to take part in the institution of marriage? Since children are not possible, to borrow your thinking, she must be abusing the institution of marriage to secure for herself some form of self-serving and personal satisfaction. And isn’t that the poisonous thinking that has decayed the institution over the years?

    Raising practicality concerns about invasive laws just avoids dealing with the principles behind the view you offered. Even if laws to detect infertility are too invasive or would give government an immoral amount of power, it seems your view would still require us to morally condemn elderly newly weds.

    So do you morally condemn elderly newly weds? If so, then your position impales itself on its own absurdity, for surely its obvious that marriage between the elderly can be morally good, desirable and honorable. If not, then we must admit marriage can be morally good, desirable, and honorable even when children are not possible (and the practicality issue is a red herring), and it raises the question why this cannot be so when the couple is gay.

  13. SteveK says:

    d,

    Since children are not possible

    Since when are you, or anyone else, including a doctor, able to predict the future with absolute certainty? People who cannot have children have children all the time.

    And in the cases where all the biological plumbing has been removed – or something similar – there’s no requirement by the state that anyone report this. But Tom already said that when he said this: “it would be an incredible intrusion for the state to require couples to affirm on their marriage license that they have proved their intention and their medical ability to conceive.”

    Maybe that’s what you want the state to do in order to protect and ensure the sanctity of marriage. That would be ironic if indeed that was your position now.

  14. Tom Gilson says:

    In the case of elderly couples, d, marriage is still the same kind of thing that it is with younger ones: the comprehensive union of a man and a woman. It’s consistent with the overall principle in a way that same-sex couplings could never be.

  15. d says:

    SteveK,

    Fine, go ask a doctor… but what do you think they are going to tell you if you ask him/her if a post-menopausal women is able to give bear children without the aid of technology?

    Maybe that’s what you want the state to do in order to protect and ensure the sanctity of marriage. That would be ironic if indeed that was your position now.

    Huh? I don’t think you understood my post or the point it was making. Tom’s view, as he expressed it in the OP and to Sault, suggests that the absurdity is not that we would want to vet couples to discover if they are unwilling or unable to have children before they enter into marriage, but the impracticality of actually doing it.

    But it the case of homosexuality, it is practical, and therefore Tom thinks we should disallow their marriages. But in the case of some heterosexuals it is also obvious. But Tom does not think we should disallow their marriages.

    So we see there are some obvious problems with the underlying principles here..

  16. d says:

    In the case of elderly couples, d, marriage is still the same kind of thing that it is with younger ones: the comprehensive union of a man and a woman. It’s consistent with the overall principle in a way that same-sex couplings could never be.

    So a marriage that cannot produce children is the same kind of thing as a marriage that can produce children? Well then I simply submit that the categorical lines here are somewhat arbitrarily drawn. They are the same type of union in-so-far as the feelings, the desires and dreams of the couples, the bonds, etc. They are not the same type if you consider the ability to bear and raise children.

    And its quite obvious, if you have ever known a gay, long-term committed couple, their relationships are easilly observed to be the same type of union that one finds in heterosexual marriages, in terms of feelings, desires, dreams, caretaking, etc – at least in all ways but the biological gender. But why should the line be drawn there?

  17. SteveK says:

    d,

    But in the case of some heterosexuals it is also obvious.

    It’s not so obvious to the state, and anyway it doesn’t matter because your argument misses the point of the underlying principle defining marriage.

    So we see there are some obvious problems with the underlying principles here..

    Where?

  18. SteveK says:

    d,

    So a marriage that cannot produce children is the same kind of thing as a marriage that can produce children?

    The difference is a measure of degree, not kind. A round ball that is not exactly round is still round in kind, but compared to a perfectly round ball does not have the same degree of roundness.

  19. d says:

    SteveK,

    The difference is a measure of degree, not kind. A round ball that is not exactly round is still round in kind, but compared to a perfectly round ball does not have the same degree of roundness.

    Whether two things are different in kind or degree depends on the properties you are looking at, and the categories in question.

    A perfectly round ball belongs to the kind “ball”.
    An imperfectly round ball belongs to the kind “ball”.
    A perfectly round ball belongs to the kind “sphere”.
    An imperfectly round ball does not belong to the kind “sphere”.

    Same two objects, both the same in kind and different in kind.

    And as I’ve already said, when I observe friends of mine who are committed gay couples, its obvious their relationships are of the same kind of relationships one finds in heterosexual marriages. The biological gender is simply not a property one needs to be concerned about when determining the “marriage kind”. Same sex relationships are a variation within the kind, not a different one. Its the same kind of romantic love, its even the same kind of love that leads to children for fertile heterosexuals – and it deserves to be treated the same under the law.

  20. d says:

    It’s not so obvious to the state,

    No, sorry, sometimes it is. An 80 year old woman, for example, is not capable of bearing children, period. Its obvious to.. well… everybody, including the state.

    This is an utterly baffling point to get stubborn about.

    .. and anyway it doesn’t matter because your argument misses the point of the underlying principle defining marriage.

    My argument did what I set out to do, primarily – that was highlight the red herring of the “practicality” response offered by Tom, and the obvious tension in creates in his position.

    I don’t know how to explain the point any more clearly..

  21. Tom Gilson says:

    “And as I’ve already said, when I observe friends of mine who are committed gay couples, its obvious their relationships are of the same kind of relationships one finds in heterosexual marriages” who don’t have kids and do not care to have kids.

  22. Tom Gilson says:

    d,

    Let me ask you a question in preparation for my full answer to what you’ve been saying here.

    Do you believe that there is something that marriage essentially is? Do you think there is an answer to the question, “what is marriage?” If so, do you think it is an enduring answer or a culturally contingent one?

  23. Keith says:

    d has a point:

    If children are the issue, the government should disallow marriages where heterosexual couples cannot have children.

    Let’s say I have a vasectomy, and my wife dies: should the government allow a fertile woman to marry me?

    Tom, in #11 focused on intrusion (“it’s intrusive to ask in one case, but in the other case it’s obvious”). That makes no sense to me.

    We have historically used blood tests in the US to disallow marriage if you have an infectious disease (syphilis primarily). Why is a test for fertility more intrusive than blood tests for infectious diseases?

    Regardless, if intrusion is the question, we can disallow the elderly from marrying without further concern.

    This argument should not be about “bearing children”.

    Make the argument that it’s better to raise children in a home with a mother and father (which means you should be arguing about adoption not marriage), or make the argument marriage should be reasonably limited to heterosexual relationships, fine, make those arguments.

    But to focus on the ability to bear children doesn’t make sense (unless you include heterosexuals that cannot bear children in the argument).

  24. Keith says:

    @Tom, #11:

    The reason government should get involved in same-sex marriage is because marriage involves the civil rights of citizens. If one citizen has a civil right other citizens are denied, there needs to be a strong reason.

    (And before anybody says “what about domestic partnerships”, there are civil rights denied gay people that are not available through domestic partnerships. One example is the right to petition for a partner to immigrate: a different-sex foreign national partner may enter the US, a same-sex foreign national partner may not.)

    It’s slightly off-point, but the mistake NOM & friends made was they thought they couldn’t lose this one, and never got out in front of the civil rights argument.

    I think this discussion might have ended differently if NOM had quickly agreed the government should get out of the “marriage” business entirely. Establish federal “domestic partnerships” any two people can register for, that carry specific civil rights, and let “marriage” be a religious concept.

    But NOM went for the big win and lost it all.

  25. Tom Gilson says:

    Keith, before you can say that “marriage is … ” anything, you have to have some sense that “marriage is …” something in particular.

    What I mean by that is this. If marriage is not defined in some particular sense—if it has no essential meaning—then you can’t predicate anything of it meaningfully. Or perhaps you can predicate anything at all of it, which amounts to not being able to predicate anything of it at all.

    So before you can say marriage is a civil rights matter, perhaps you can say what marriage is. Can you define it in a manner that explains all its aspects clearly? I’ll allow you some looseness around the edges, since it’s an imperfect world; but can you give a principle-based definition of marriage that explains why it fits where you think it fits, and doesn’t fit where you don’t think it does?

    If so, and if you can make it work for SSM, you would be the first I’ve seen to do that.

    And if not, then you really ought to examine whether you can say anything meaningful about it at all.

  26. Tom Gilson says:

    Oh, and by the way: looseness around the edges is necessary for any social institution, and I think it’s a sufficient answer for the elderly couple question. They are partaking in an institution for which they bear every qualification but one, and who is going to deny them that?

    The same cannot be said of same-sex couples. It’s going not just a bridge too far, but a whole peninsula. It’s not just, for them, a matter of, “hey, who’s going to deny them that,” but “will we allow a whole institution’s reality to be re-written for this?”

    Sure you can see the difference.

  27. Tom Gilson says:

    Look at it this way. Grandma Smith and Grandpa Jones get married. Is there anything in that that implies that marriage is no longer, at its core, about family, meaning not just the couple but also the generations to come?

    But the more SSM is recognized, the more it shows that marriage is not about the future, not about children, not about generativity, but about something else entirely: “you and me, babe.”

  28. Tom Gilson says:

    Further on #25:

    You say marriage is a civil rights issue. Sandra (that’s a made-up name, I assure you) says marriage is a chocolate pound cake. Ridiculous?

    Sure. But is Sandra that much more ridiculous than Alexandra Gill, sho says marriage is for herself and herself? Or Sharon Tendler, who says it’s for her and a dolphin? David Levy seriously suggests marriage is for man and robot. Or woman and robot. Or perhaps any multiple combination thereof, who knows? For after all, Britain seems to have cleared the way for marriage to involve more than two partners.

    What is marriage? You have found some exceptions to the principles by which I define it. By what principles do you define it? What exceptions do your principles admit of, and which do they exclude? How does your set of principles explain the institution’s importance in society, and its mutual relationship with law and the state?

    Is Sharon Tendler’s “marriage” a civil rights issue? Alexandra Gill’s? David Levy’s suggested version? Why or why not?

  29. Tom Gilson says:

    Note on the Alexandra Gill link: the original has disappeared, but there is independent confirmation.

  30. SteveK says:

    Grandma and Grandpa Jones would be an example of a marriage that lacked the capability to produce children. It’s no different than a car without a working motor still being a car, but lacking a certain capability. The state rightfully classifies these non-working cars as cars, not something entirely different as d is suggesting.

  31. d says:

    Tom wrote:

    “And as I’ve already said, when I observe friends of mine who are committed gay couples, its obvious their relationships are of the same kind of relationships one finds in heterosexual marriages” who don’t have kids and do not care to have kids.

    … or can’t have kids, despite the desire too… in any case, they are marriages nonetheless.

    Let me ask you a question in preparation for my full answer to what you’ve been saying here.

    Do you believe that there is something that marriage essentially is? Do you think there is an answer to the question, “what is marriage?” If so, do you think it is an enduring answer or a culturally contingent one?

    Neither. Marriage is contingent upon human nature. So long as human nature endures as it is today, so does marriage.

    They are partaking in an institution for which they bear every qualification but one, and who is going to deny them that?

    Well, if its a qualification that you tout as essential to the whatness of marriage (ie, bearing and raising future generations), then you ought to deny them, or at least morally condemn them the way you condemn gay marriage for that very same reason.

    The same cannot be said of same-sex couples. It’s going not just a bridge too far, but a whole peninsula. It’s not just, for them, a matter of, “hey, who’s going to deny them that,” but “will we allow a whole institution’s reality to be re-written for this?”

    It still seems you are resting on a principle here that would require you to *at least* morally condemn the elderly and married, or otherwise non-child bearing and married, even though you expressed apathy about doing anything about it legally.

    And even so, if we were to consider marriage for the elderly and non-child bearing as a sort of courtesy offered by the state for practical purposes, not something that is a good in its own right, then I’ll say I think you are a bad judge of distance and size – its certainly not a bridge too far or a whole new peninsula to offer the same courtesy to gay couples- its a minor variation of the same exact theme.

    Look at it this way. Grandma Smith and Grandpa Jones get married. Is there anything in that that implies that marriage is no longer, at its core, about family, meaning not just the couple but also the generations to come?

    Well, there is the fact that they can’t actually have more kids, so I don’t really understand what you mean. In what way is Grandma Smith and Jones’ marriage about future generations, and not their own personal satisfaction? If you want to say there’s something symbolic of future generations in the marriage between Grandma Smith and Jones, then I’d probably say same-sex relationships also symbolize that, and resonate with all the other themes of marriage as well.

    And really, for what reason do we even raise future generations if not to experience joys and – yes, even personal satisfactions – including the kind that come from loving, committed relationships? The emotional well-being of people still matter once they become adults… its not ALL about the kids. So marriage is ALSO about the well-being of adults, and that’s not a bad or selfish thing that “decays the institution”. In fact, I think its a very necessary part. To remove it or even brush it aside too far, would be to put the whole institution in peril.

    But the more SSM is recognized, the more it shows that marriage is not about the future, not about children, not about generativity, but about something else entirely: “you and me, babe.”

    .. no more so than Grandma Smith and Grandpa Jones…

  32. Keith says:

    @Tom:

    I think we could agree that marriage has had many meanings and played different roles in different cultures.

    When I say I agree marriage is about children and the next generation, I’m not saying marriage isn’t just as much about life-long commitments, companionship, and the transfer of economic value or social status. All have historically been true and usually more-or-less at the same time. We’re a complicated species. :-)

    I’m going to avoid your question about principles because I don’t believe we can define “marriage” by any set of principles (it’s culturally contingent). Marriage has never been about any one thing, or even any small set of things.

    The problem is we have historically stored a large set of important civil and human rights issues in a single box labeled “marriage”. Those issues included the truly vital (“can children have sex”, “can women own property”, “how should children be raised”), as well as the less important (our specific laws about immigration, taxes, social safety nets and death benefits).

    What’s happening now is we’re unpacking that box and dealing with those issues separately. From a human rights view (we should maximize freedom of thought and expression when possible), I think unpacking the marriage box is a good thing.

  33. Tom Gilson says:

    Keith,

    If marriage is culturally contingent, and if there are no principles by which you can define marriage, then “marriage” is an empty construct. It’s whatever.

    And if that’s the case, then you cannot say, “marriage is a civil rights issue.” That’s a principle you’re saying we should apply to marriage, which is just what you say cannot be done.

    You speak of unpacking a “marriage box,” when what you’re doing is unpacking an ephemera, an undefined something-or-other. In fact, you’re not unpacking anything, because you don’t think there’s any definite something there to unpack. You’re inventing a box that has in it what you choose to put in it, and then you pull stuff out of it and call it unpacking.

    Now, it so happens that I believe marriage is a civil rights issue myself. The difference between you and me on that point is that when I say “marriage,” I have a definite meaning of the word in mind. Thus I have a definite and supportable idea of what I mean by civil rights applied to marriage.

    You have, let me say it as blatantly as I can, and by your own admission, an unprincipled view of marriage and its relationship to civil rights.

    I’d be more than grateful if you would prove me wrong on any of the above, but it seems to follow from what you’ve written. Please show me that I’ve misunderstood you, if I have.

  34. Tom Gilson says:

    d,

    Marriage is a social institution. It has a definite shape and form, and yet because it involves real people it has some fuzziness around the edges.

    So there is nothing in the view I’m defending that would require me to condemn the elderly who marry. Marriage is the comprehensive union of a man and a woman in their case, too. It is that kind of union in their case, in a way that same-sex unions cannot match or emulate.

    I could expound and expand on that, but I’m rather bored with the complaint you’re raising. You’re not saying anything new.

    Besides that, until you can provide a practical and realistic definition of marriage with fewer loose ends than the one I’m defending, you have no leg to stand on. You’re trying to float on a cloud, laughing at me for not having a solidly grounded view because I’m floating on an ocean liner tied up at dock.

    Okay, the analogy doesn’t quite work, but I think you get my point. My position has fuzzy edges, as is understandable and appropriate to an institution practiced among real people in the real world. As far as I can tell, yours has no shape to it at all.

  35. SteveK says:

    Well, if its a qualification that you tout as essential to the whatness of marriage (ie, bearing and raising future generations), then you ought to deny them, or at least morally condemn them the way you condemn gay marriage for that very same reason.

    No. The natural process of becoming infertile with age does not change what marriage naturally is. What you are implying is that the state should deny a couple marriage status when they become a certain age. A couple married in their twenties would become unmarried at age 60. That makes no sense. Nowhere else would you suggest this be done.

    For example, a human remains a human even when they lose consciousness or the ability to reason. You don’t lose your legal status as human (except in the case of a fetus, but that’s another discussion). A tree remains a tree even when it loses the ability to reproduce other trees.

  36. Tom Gilson says:

    Good clarifications, SteveK, thank you.

    Further on the issue of principle and definition:

    When you say marriage is a civil rights issue, Keith, you’re expressing an opinion in the realm of normative fact. You’re saying that we should treat marriage in some manner consistent with the ethical principles of civil rights that have been increasingly (one hopes) prevailing in the West. To say that is to imply that there is a bad way to treat marriage, and that one who treats marriage in that bad way is to that extent a bad person. That’s what normativity is about.

    Now if someone is going to invoke a normative claim about x, and to say that my treatment of x makes me (to that extent) a good person or a bad person, I want to know what x is. I want to know if there’s enough principled substance to x to bear the weight of the normative principles that are alleged to apply to x. If x is a substanceless void, I can’t see myself being either good or bad on account of how I treat x. It has to be a real thing, or else the way I treat it can’t really matter.

    So unless you can provide a principle-based definition of marriage, I don’t think you can assign any normative value to how one treats it. And you specifically cannot say that the way we treat marriage is a civil rights issue. Until you define the term, you’re attempting to hold me and others accountable for our treatment of something undefined.

    Xasiuh34piuhgt34 is undefined, too. Can we make xasiuh34piuhgt34 a civil rights issue? I’m sorry, but I won’t allow myself to be held accountable to it until I know what it is. And it would be foolish for anyone to let themselves be held accountable to “marriage” as a civil rights issue, until someone gave “marriage” a definition that could bear that moral weight. Which historic man-woman marriage can do, and SSM, by your admission, seems not to be able to do.

  37. Keith says:

    @Tom, #33, #36:

    I never said “marriage is a civil rights issue”, those are your words; I said “marriage involves the civil rights of citizens”.

    I’m not saying marriage is necessarily undefined; I’m saying cultures have repeatedly re-defined marriage throughout history, and in our specific culture marriage incorporates a huge, unrelated set of ideas which have accumulated over several hundred years. Those two facts overwhelm any simple definition like “marriage is about the children”. That statement is factually not true for many cultures (including cultures from which our culture is derived), and I doubt it’s true even for most marriages in our own culture.

    If marriage is culturally defined, anything I could say about marriage that is universally true must necessarily be so general as to have little utility.

    I agree any definition of marriage will require some fuzziness, but you’re using that limitation as a defense of something that’s little more than “I know it when I see it”.

    When you say “marriage is the comprehensive union of a man and a woman”, and that “same-sex unions cannot match or emulate”, well, I’d be curious about this “comprehensive union” of which you speak. How exactly do you measure that?

  38. SteveK says:

    How exactly do you measure that?

    *giggle*

  39. Tom Gilson says:

    Keith, you also said, “If one citizen has a civil right other citizens are denied, there needs to be a strong reason.”

    If that doesn’t make marriage a civil rights issue in your mind, what does it make it instead?

    I never said marriage’s “simple definition” was “It’s about children.” And unlike the correction you just offered me, I never said anything that could be remotely construed to be that “simple definition.”

    Meanwhile you haven’t offered me anything solid enough with respect to what marriage is, that it should have any moral purchase upon me. It’s your opinion against mine, for all I can tell. So what? What made that a matter of persons’ civil rights? That’s a serious question. What principled basis do you have for holding a moral principle over me? I see none!

    If there’s nothing universally true about marriage, then why do you treat my disagreement with you as a moral matter? I can’t be wrong, in that case: I can be different, but what makes that wrong?

    As for your question about comprehensive union, I’ll have to come back to that with some quotations and explications, probably tomorrow, though maybe sooner. If I forget please feel free to remind me.

  40. Keith says:

    I’m not sure how to answer “what does it make it instead”? I think of SSM as a civil rights issue, because same-sex people are citizens, denied specific rights our society bundles with marriage. When you use the phrase “marriage [itself?] is a civil rights issue”, I’m not sure what you intend.

    Reading through the previous postings, I believe I owe you an apology. You did not, in fact, say “marriage is about children”; early posts attributed that position to you and I didn’t catch it. My apology is officially tendered. :-)

    What is your definition of marriage, and why is SSM excluded?

  41. bigbird says:

    Do you believe that there is something that marriage essentially is? Do you think there is an answer to the question, “what is marriage?” If so, do you think it is an enduring answer or a culturally contingent one?

    Asking if there is an enduring answer or a culturally contingent answer to the question of “what is marriage” seems little different to asking if morality has an objective basis or not.

    People believe one or the other, and the enduring answer will not always match the culturally contingent answer.

    Argument is usually then difficult, because people are already committed to one of these positions.

    How was slavery abolished? Christians such as Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect certainly spearheaded the campaign in Europe. But perhaps the spread of Enlightenment ideals such as human freedom were what made it even possible (despite the racist views of key Enlightenment figures).

    But it’s those same Enlightenment ideals that have changed Western society so much in the last 50 years that are now changing the culturally contingent definition of marriage.

  42. Tom Gilson says:

    bigbird,

    Please be careful with this business of “Enlightenment ideals.” What are they, and where did they come from?

    Peter Gay (b. 1923), an émigré from Nazi Germany, not only championed the Enlightenment in opposition to the Nazism he had experienced firsthand, but also saw it as inspiring the American liberalism with which he had come to identify. His two-volume history, a bestseller that won the National Book Award, appeared at the apogee of 1960s liberalism. His idealization of the Enlightenment of Hume and Voltaire as the seedbed of modern liberalism was the equivalent, in realm of cultural history, to modernization theory—that all societies everywhere were moving toward urbanism, industrialization and democracy—that then ruled the social sciences.

    It takes a long time for such a powerful, regnant and, one should add, cogent view first to crack and then to crumble. Yet the view of the Enlightenment as a purely secular phenomenon has indeed cracked and crumbled.

    From David Sorkin, Godless Liberals: The Myth of the Secular Enlightenment. See also this NY Times review of his book on that topic.

  43. Tom Gilson says:

    Keith, I strongly recommend you read Girgis, Anderson, and George’s What is Marriage?. Alternatively you could read Ryan Anderson’s web-based series based on the book’s topics.

    I draw my definitions and understandings from this book, since it does it so well. Marriage is the comprehensive union of a man and a woman. What is comprehensive union, then? It is a permanent and exclusive uniting in activity, in goods, in commitment, and in body. It’s the sharing of lives, of thoughts, of desires and dreams, and of projects including (typically though not always) child raising.

    This is only possible in its fullness for a man and a woman. I’ll quote from the book (p. 25f) to explain why.

    What makes for unity is common action: activity toward common ends. Two things are part of a greater whole—are one—if they act as one; and they act as one if they coordinate toward one end that encompasses them both. A carburetor on a Detroit assembly line and a transmission in Highland Park are two things; when combined to coordinate toward a single encompassing goal (convenient locomotion), they form one machine….

    Organic unity is similar, only strong: Henry Ford’s design—a human choice—imposed unity on the parts of the Model T. The parts of a body have their unity by nature. They are naturally incomplete when apart, naturally greater than their sum when together.

    In shost, your organs are one body because they are coordinated for a single biological purpose of the whole that they form together: sustaining your biological life. Just so, for two individuals to unite organically, their bodies must coordinate toward a common biological end of the whole that they form together. When they do so, they do not just touch or interlock. Their union is not just felt, or metaphorical …. Though more limited, it is as read a the union of a single body’s parts.

    Between two people, that sort of union is impossible through functions like digestion, for which individuals are naturally sufficient. But it is a remarkable fact that there is one respect in which this highest kind of bodily unity is possible between two individuals, one function for which a mate really does complete us: sexual reproduction. In coitus, and there alone, a man and a woman’s bodies participate by virtue fo tehir sexual complementarity in a coordination that has the biological purpose of reproduction—a function that neither can perform alone….

    But bodily coordination is possible even when its end is not realized; so for a couple, bodily union occurs in coitus even when conception does not. It is the coordination toward a single end that makes the union; achieving the end would deepen the union but is not necessary for it.

    The emphasis is in the original. There can be sharing between persons of the same sex, and it can be very meaningful indeed; but the kind of comprehensive union that marriage involves can only be achieved between a man and a woman.

    Now, this is intended only as an answer to a specific question, one that Keith asked: what do I mean by “comprehensive union?” It’s not the whole argument and it’s not the whole book, so if it leaves other questions open, I understand and expect that.

  44. Tom Gilson says:

    Thank you for your apology, by the way, Keith.

  45. Tom Gilson says:

    I’m not sure how it is that you think that SSM is a civil rights issue but you do not understand how marriage itself is, but that’s of no import. My comments above are equally valid if we substitute “SSM is a civil rights issue” for “marriage is a civil rights issue.” This all has to do with your views still: I’m trying to understand what you mean by “marriage,” with or without “same-sex” attached to it; and I’m trying to see how a contingent view of marriage (which I think you hold) could hold any moral purchase on any other person.

  46. Tom Gilson says:

    bigbird rightly said,

    Asking if there is an enduring answer or a culturally contingent answer to the question of “what is marriage” seems little different to asking if morality has an objective basis or not.

    I agree. That’s my point. If marriage has no objective basis, then the morality connected with it probably doesn’t either. And in that case, if your morals have no objective basis, I’m not interested in having you impose them on me. They’re yours, not anyone else’s unless they choose them for themselves. (And even then we all have to deal with the fact that objective morality does exist, and it’s possible to choose one’s one morals wrongly.)

  47. Ray Ingles says:

    Tom, what do you think of this C.S. Lewis passage in this context?

    “Before leaving the question of divorce, I should like to distinguish two things which are very often confused. The Christian conception of marriage is one: the other is the quite different question – how far Christians, if they are voters or Members of Parliament, ought to try to force their views of marriage on the rest of the community by embodying them in the divorce laws. A great many people seem to think that if you are a Christian yourself you should try to make divorce difficult for every one. I do not think that. At least I know I should be very angry if the Mahommedans tried to prevent the rest of us from drinking wine. My own view is that the Churches should frankly recognise that the majority of the British people are not Christians and, therefore, cannot be expected to live Christian lives. There ought to be two distinct kinds of marriage: one governed by the State with rules enforced on all citizens, the other governed by the Church with rules enforced by her on her own members. The distinction ought to be quite sharp, so that a man knows which couples are married in a Christian sense and which are not.” – C.S. Lewis, ‘Mere Christianity

  48. bigbird says:

    CS Lewis – There ought to be two distinct kinds of marriage: one governed by the State with rules enforced on all citizens, the other governed by the Church with rules enforced by her on her own members. The distinction ought to be quite sharp, so that a man knows which couples are married in a Christian sense and which are not.

    This happens to be my view as well. Relying on the secular state to support the Christian view of marriage seems unwise to me. In a secular democracy, once a majority of people disagree with your view, change is going to be difficult to oppose.

    Unfortunately, we’ve depended on state endorsement for our view of marriage for far too long – even when it is clear that the two definitions have diverged many years ago. Easy, no-fault divorce and serial monogamy have long been part of secular society, and perhaps it is because we have not forged our independent church view of marriage that these views have crept into the church.

  49. Tom Gilson says:

    I really doubt C.S. Lewis would have thought the same about a total re-definition of marriage.

    And on this I disagree anyway, because there are unavoidable legal implications attached to marriage. Religious and legal marriage cannot so easily be separated.

  50. bigbird says:

    Religious and legal marriage cannot so easily be separated.

    They *are* separated in countries such as Germany. Germans have a civil ceremony provided by the government, and if desired, a church ceremony a day or two later.

    The bride and groom at the German wedding my wife was a bridesmaid for some years ago didn’t regard themselves as married until after the church ceremony.

  51. Tom Gilson says:

    That’s not much to go on. They didn’t regard themselves married until two days and one ceremony later. Is there more to it than that?

  52. bigbird says:

    They didn’t regard themselves married until two days and one ceremony later. Is there more to it than that?

    To legally marry in Germany, you need to attend a government ceremony.

    The Christians I know undergo a Christian ceremony in addition to the state ceremony, and it is after the Christian ceremony that they regard themselves as married.

    The point is that the legal and religious marriages are entirely separate.

  53. Tom Gilson says:

    From what you’ve said so far, bigbird, the legal and religious weddings are entirely separate. In what ways are the two sorts of marriages separate after that?

  54. bigbird says:

    In what ways are the two sorts of marriages separate after that?

    Those who undergo the Christian ceremony regard their marriage as a Christian marriage, as well as being legally married. Those who do not regard themselves as legally married.

  55. SteveK says:

    I too don’t see any separation. There is still only one legal marriage, and isn’t that what we’re talking about? If we’re only talking about separate views of marriage then we have that now and bigbird has what he wants.

  56. Tom Gilson says:

    bigbird, are you aware that either you are not answering my question, or that the answer is that there really is no difference?

    I’m not trying to pin you in any corner, I’m not trying to score points or win anything. I honestly want to know whether there’s a difference in Germany between legal marriage and Christian marriage; and I want to know how it plays out practically. If you don’t know, that’s fine, I’m not demanding anything; but I was hoping that you did.

  57. Tom Gilson says:

    SteveK, that’s right. I’ve seen people have two ceremonies in the U.S. What’s the difference between that and the German version?

  58. bigbird says:

    I honestly want to know whether there’s a difference in Germany between legal marriage and Christian marriage; and I want to know how it plays out practically.

    Is there a *legal* difference? No. The only legal marriage is the state marriage. Church weddings have no legal force.

    The church however does not let the state define marriage for them. They comply with a state marriage because they have to. But Christians there see a need to distinguish state marriage from Christian marriage. And so they have their own marriage ceremony.

  59. Ray Ingles says:

    In what ways are the two sorts of marriages separate after that?

    When Catholics divorce legally, they can legally remarry. But in the eyes of the Church they are not divorced – there’s no such thing a divorce, according to the Church – and they are not free to remarry.

    Is this not an example of a difference between religious and legal marriage?

  60. SteveK says:

    @bigbird,

    The church however does not let the state define marriage for them.

    As a citizen who cares about the people and the culture, I don’t want to let the state define marriage any way it wants to. So in that regard, this issue is not a Christian vs. State issue. The wrong definition of marriage ought not be promoted and encouraged by the state. I hope we can all agree on that.

  61. d says:

    SteveK wrote:

    No. The natural process of becoming infertile with age does not change what marriage naturally is. What you are implying is that the state should deny a couple marriage status when they become a certain age. A couple married in their twenties would become unmarried at age 60. That makes no sense. Nowhere else would you suggest this be done.

    Of course I wouldn’t suggest it be done. I’m illustrating to you the some of the possible implications of the positions you and Tom are expressing. At the very least, you should have a moral problem with new marriages between those obviously unable to reproduce, like unmarried elderly couples – if you stand by Tom’s previous claim that we don’t restrict them from marrying so that the government does not become to invasive.

    For example, a human remains a human even when they lose consciousness or the ability to reason. You don’t lose your legal status as human (except in the case of a fetus, but that’s another discussion). A tree remains a tree even when it loses the ability to reproduce other trees.

    And a marriage is a marriage even when it involves two people of the same gender. The “kind” vs “degree” distinction is something I already dealt with.

    Same-sex marriage can easily be said to be a difference of degree, if one is looking at different categorical boundaries (ala, “sphere”, vs “ball”). And I think that’s the most common-sense view, if you actually look at the nature of relationships of committed gay couples. Its plain as day they are of the same kind, and that the couple is better for being a couple rather than single and celibate (the only alternative Christianity wants to offer them, to live a good and moral life).

    I liken it to offering a man born with one leg, a bonesaw to cut off his other one, and claiming that this is what he must do to remain “whole”.

  62. SteveK says:

    d,

    The “kind” vs “degree” distinction is something I already dealt with.

    I don’t think you have, d. Your explanation ends up ruining any chance you have at drawing any line of distinction between “kind” and “degree”.

    You said “Whether two things are different in kind or degree depends on the properties you are looking at, and the categories in question.”

    What that means is that any relationship can be argued that it is just a difference in degree – you just have to look at it the right way.

    So….an infant / adult marriage is different to the degree that it involves people of different ages. No big deal. A living person / dead person marriage is different to the degree that one is living and the other is not. No big deal. A marriage is anything you want it to be!

    There are others on this blog that can explain this much better than I can.

  63. d says:

    SteveK,

    Arguing that the real categorical boundaries are different than you suppose, is not the same thing arguing that they aren’t real, or are malleable to our whims.

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