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Sunday, February 29, 2004

What is marriage for?

An excellent op-ed in the Times on the disconnect between conservative cries that legalized same-sex marriage will destroy civilization as we know it and liberal appeals to one's civil right to do whatever one pleases, never mind the consequences. The solution?

For a productive dialogue, we should be asking the question this way: is giving gays the right to marry good for society? And to answer that, we must ask what larger social purpose marriage serves.

The main reason marriage is considered good for society is that committed relationships help settle individuals into stable homes and families. Marriage does this by establishing collective rules of conduct that strengthen obligations to a spouse and often to children.

This is why the word itself is so important. The power of "marriage" lies in its symbolic authority to reinforce monogamy and stability when temptation calls. The hope is that, having taken vows before family and friends, people will think twice before breaking them. It is this shared meaning of marriage that is central to the success of so many individual unions.

("Joining the debate but missing the point," Nathaniel Frank, New York Times 2.29.04, reg req'd)

Copyright © 2004 by Philocrites | Posted 29 February 2004 at 3:41 PM

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February 29, 2004 11:16 PM | Permalink for this comment

I'm a little uncomfortable with the notion that liberals on this issues advocate the right to "do whatever one pleases, whatever the consequences." To me, the argument tends more toward accepting that there is no legal basis for discriminating against couples simply on the basis of gender.

Also, we have a lot of evidence from the Scandinavian nations, which were seeing a strong decline in marriages even before allowing registered same-sex partnerships, and it looks like the decline of the institution of marriage has not been accompanied by any sharp increase in social evils. I think that weakens the argument that America will fall apart without "traditional" marriage.

As for the slippery slope argument advanced, that dog doesn't hunt IMHO. There are very clear, documented problems with incestuous and child marriages, whereas these kinds of problems have not been documented in the case of same-sex unions.


February 29, 2004 11:59 PM | Permalink for this comment

Ah, but these are parodies of both sides' positions. Conservatives overstate the rightness of tradition, but they recognize its central role in shaping what people value in their lives. Liberals overemphasize rights — which are abstract principles that many people can't always square with their felt interests — but they recognize that a free society must defend people's individual rights against the tyranny of the majority.

That's why I like liberal arguments that refuse to be limited to abstract appeals to rights or appeals to the toleration of minorities. Recognizing the social value of marriage for same-sex as well as male-female couples puts the case for gay marriage in terms of an expanded but traditional interest. Davidson Loehr offered a more polemical version of this basic approach in "The Fundamentalist Agenda" in UU World.

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