One of the common arguments for same-sex marriage (SSM) goes something like this:
“Same-sex couples can adopt children, and in fact many of them already do. Wouldn’t it be better for those children if their parents were legally married to each other? Wouldn’t it be even better if we could all accept the validity of their parents’ marriage, without stigma? (You do believe that marriage is good for children, don’t you?)”
One answer is yes (maybe), I could imagine it might be better for that child if her parents were married, and with no stigma.
The other answer is that whether that’s the right answer or not, it’s the wrong question.
Taking a Systems View
Consider this by way of analogy. Some children are being raised in serious poverty. Wouldn’t it be better for them if the government gave their parents large amounts of money to raise them? The answer, of course, is that for the children who benefited from the extra nutrition, clothing, educational opportunities, and so on, it would definitely be better. Still, the United Stated decided during the Clinton administration that there was a huge downside to that policy. Was it better for some children to be granted government funds? Yes; but that was a right answer to a wrong question.
The problem with both of these questions, SSM and welfare, is that they don’t take the larger systemic effects of their decisions into account. Systems are powerful. As Peter Senge showed masterfully in The Fifth Discipline, a poorly designed system can cause even the best and brightest to make really poor decisions. His “Beer Game” summarized here demonstrates this in a way that’s both comical and horrifying at the same time. For another take on a related theme, read Steven Kerr’s classic “On the folly of rewarding A, while hoping for B.
Rotten Systems Yield Rotten Decisions
Both Senge and Kerr emphasize the uncanny power of systems over people, at least while they remain naive to the system’s influences. Therefore this is not about whether people are good or bad, rational or irrational. It’s about structures in which people’s seemingly rational decisions turn out to have unforeseen, undesired, and sometimes even disastrous effects. In the Beer Game, for example, the manufacturer, distributor, and retailer all make perfectly rational inventory decisions based on the information they have at hand–the kind of information businesses usually rely on. In the end they all perfectly, rationally bankrupt. The system does it to them, in all their rationality. The only way out of it is to re-structure the system. (In this case they could have all done far better by redesigning their communications flow.)
The question we started with at the top of this blog post is a systems-naive question. It takes no account of any long-term systemic influence that marriage policies might have upon children. For that reason, it’s impossible for it to be the right question to start with, in any social policy discussion. That’s not to say it’s never a good question, but that it’s never a good idea to ask it apart from the wider systems it’s connected with.
Better for the Child: Systems-Savvy Questions
So then what are the right questions? I propose these for starters. In keeping with my usual blog policy, I’m only trying to accomplish one thing today. For this post, my objective is to show that the question we started with is irrelevant in most discussions, because it gets introduced too early into the analysis. I’m specifically not going to attempt to answer these prior questions; I’m only going to list examples of what they might be.
Here then are some examples of systems-savvy questions regarding what’s best for children.
- What is society’s primary interest in marriage? Is it the couple, or is it future generations that may come from marriage?
- If society’s primary interest regarding marriage is for future generations, is there any other good way besides marriage to maximize future generations’ life outcomes?
- If so, then how do we best support those other ways?
- If not, then how do we best support marriage as an institution to build future generations?
- Are there societal influences that tend to encourage and support strong and enduring marriages (the kind that research has demonstrated to be most beneficial to future generations)?
- Conversely, are there societal influences that tend to undermine strong and enduring marriages?
- Specifically, have society’s lax attitudes toward sex undermined marriage as a widespread social institution?
- To what extent has the prevailing view of marriage shifted toward its being an institution for the benefit of the couple rather than for the benefit of the couple and their children?
- To what extent have these influences (7 and 8) done systemic damage to an institution that might (depending on 2, 4, 5, and 6) be our best ways of ensuring the maximum future for coming generations?
- To what extent does SSM endorse and reinforce influences such as those (7 and 8)?
Why the Question We Began With Is Always a Bad Question to Begin With
These are all prior questions. Now, the way I would answer them would lead to a conclusion that says that no matter how much individual good it might do to a child if her same-sex parents were married, the overall damage done to an entire generation through the undermining of marriage far outweighs that good. I would consider that the case even if we were talking about tens of thousands of individual children; for there are millions who are growing up in a culture broken due to broken views of marriage and parenting.
Maybe you disagree with my conclusions. What you cannot rationally do is jump to the individual case without considering the wider systemic situation. I could imagine situations where the question we opened with might be a good one at the end of a systemic analysis. Apart from that systemic view, though, your answer matters very little, because it’s the wrong question to ask in the first place.
P.S. Someone is sure to accuse me of being heartlessly indifferent to individual children’s plights. I said nothing of the sort. I specifically did not say, “Never ask what’s best for the individual child!” I said instead, “never ask that question without considering the wider systemic context, and its effect on millions of individual children.