An Argument For Gay Marriage And Against Traditionalism

I am puzzled by appeals to history to oppose gay marriage because history is only the story of what people have done and never of itself directly tells us anything about right or wrong.  Results of history can serve as warnings about effective and uneffective approaches to goal x or goal y but what people thought in the past means very little to me unless there are still good reasons to think it.  Historically speaking, as far as I can tell without a history specialization, most civilizations have been undemocratic, racist, xenophobic, “tribalistic” (in more or less civilized forms), superstitious and vastly ignorant about all sorts of scientifically knowable realities, biased towards males against females, etc.  Of course there are exceptions to these rules but without centuries’ worth of struggles to break with core human instincts towards traditionalism, tribalism, autocratic rulership, the kind of contemporary world in which we live would have been impossible.

You must forgive a philosopher here for musing about history a bit (and I welcome any corrections from historians and anthropologists whether or not they have any consequences for the overall plausibility of my philosophical case in this essay).  But to give a crude story (which I welcome those better informed than I to correct) when I look at human history, what I see is a long struggle to overcome primeval ways of thinking that were evolutionarily useful for overcoming in the harsh struggle for scarce resources against ever-present natural threats.  In such a context, it makes sense to me that human beings needed to develop “fictive kinship” relationships in which they associated others in their tribe as though they were family members in order to foster their willingness to cooperate with them.

It makes sense also why they had to develop a profound mistrust of outsiders and what was unfamiliar in order to protect themselves from competitiors for resources and the violent possibilities of other humans.  It makes sense that they developed taboos to avoid poorly understood threats and why they often enforced their codes through measures so violent as to be barbaric by our lights.  The tribe suffers harm in connection with a certain action and so prohibits anyone else from risking that harm again.  And the penalties are harsh because there is serious concern for survival at stake.

So, yeah, someone got sick eating mixing meat and cheese or off of eating shellfish and so there must be prohibitions.  If someone contributes to such dangerous behavior, then the strongest lesson is the most severe.  You rule by fear and the strongest fear is the fear of death, so you rule by the fear of death.  So, you stone people for violations of health codes, for disobeying their parents, for disobeying pretty much any authority, because tribe cohesiveness is most essential to ordering yourselves for survival and untamed humans are violent, dangerously curious, and not to be trusted to freely do the right thing.

And we’re extremely hierarchical, rank-conscious creatures that function through such disciplinary strictures quite well.  We need those sorts of boundaries psychologically.  So historically reinforcing them in brutal fashions was better than the other option—humans left to their own devices ignoring the accumulated wisdom of the tradition, tradition which embodied the conclusions of the tribe’s experience.  In this context, the most important thing to survival of the tribe is not only conformity but whatever conduces to creating humans more prone towards conformity itself (which is John Richardson’s brilliant exposition of what Nietzsche means by “the herd instinct”).  The more we adopt not only traditions but the propensity to obey traditions because they are traditions (which I will call traditionalism), the more we become able to internalize received cultural wisdom and the survival benefits that such inherited techniques bring with it. This also reinforces our general attachment to the tribe and our mutually beneficial cooperation.

In this context, conformity is a highest good and individuality is a serious threat.  There is little “existential” anxiety, no wondering “who am I?” or “what if our gods are not the ‘true’ ones?” or “how should I live?”  There’s a healthy dose of racism too because the tribe’s rule is enforced as absolute and felt in one’s bones (so bred to be conformist) to be absolute that the outsider represents something incomprehensible.  They’re not even human they’re so outside of the cultural categories by which you understand human life.  Their codes are evil, their language is jibberish, etc.

This is a crude sketch, subject to many particular corrections by anthropologists, historians, and sociobiologists, of course.  The gist of it though is that human traditionalism has origins in harsh conditions in which reinforcing social instincts was paramount to respecting things like liberty and individuality for particular members of the herd.  Inculcating codes based on experience was more important than allowing individuals to develop their own sensibilities.  Traditionalism, an ingrained inherent respect for tradition qua tradition, was far more vital to survival than free thought and forms of questioning that demanded every tradition give account of itself.

It has taken free thought centuries to overcome traditionalism and get us this far to the crucial point at which citing tradition is no longer an acceptable reason for a belief or for continuing a particular practice.  And for a long time challenging prevailing tradition or pointing out its inconsistencies made you not only “wrong” but godless.  Not only Socrates but Jesus was accused of atheism, that’s how tightly bound tradition, morality, and religion were in the ancient mind.

Now in all things, a first instinct towards respecting established conventions and traditions is still advisable for the some of the same reasons as it was back in ancient times:  what is known is usually immediately less risky than what is unknown.  And even where you might be choosing between evils, “better the devil you know” is sensibly the first inclination.

So, now, gay marriage.  Thousands of years of human tradition are against it (or, more accurately, didn’t even contemplate it) and so we need to ask what implicit reasons did they have to oppose or restrict homosexuality or to not institutionalize it in marriage, and are they reasons that matter today?  If they don’t matter today, then we should abandon them.  We do not need to be slaves to tradition and reinforce traditionalism for its own sake.  You would have to make a really sophisticated case to me to accept that we must do something like that.  I think civilized 21st Century human beings can handle the nuance of balancing respect for tradition’s accumulated wisdom with an ability to reinvestigate and revise its contestable or outdated claims and practices and to correct for its omissions.

So, when looking at marriage, what are reasons that it was never between gays?  This is a historical question, again about which others likely know a great deal more than I.  But taking a stab at it, there are a number of factors that go into rejection of gay marriage historically.  We can start with irrational disgust.  It’s part of an animal’s sexual orientation to be inclined towards certain animals as sexually attractive and others as sexually repulsive and certain sexual acts as attractive and others as repulsive.  In other words, as a heterosexual human male you are overall inclined towards being sexually attracted to human females but not human males, baboons of either sex, peacocks of either sex, etc.  This orientation of course need not be absolute as a given person might have a wider range of sexual attraction than another.  All that is important to establish is that there are sexual attractions, indifferences, and repulsions, be they biologically or socially created, encouraged, or discouraged.

Now, there is some really interesting neuropsychology from people like Haidt and Greene I have recently been reading and writing about that links our feelings of disgust with our inclination to call things immoral or wrong.  Like, for example, they put test subjects at a disgusting desk filled with used tissues and other garbage, a sticky table, etc. and found their moral judgments were harsher.  They hypnotized suggestible patients to find an innocuous word like “raises” to be disgusting and then after awaking the patients asked them to evaluate the morality of a city planner who frequently raises issues to the city council and the patients suspected he was immoral, they rationalized the response by saying they thought something was “fishy” about someone who does that.  They interpret their disgust with a word into a moral judgment.

But these experiments are not needed to make the point more simply—the ugly, the odorous, the misshapen, the deformed have long been more suspected of evil.  In art if one wants to evoke the sense of evil, repulsive physical traits are the trick because our minds tend towards indiscriminately lumping together aversions.  There are not adequate psychological boundary lines separating morally neutral deformity and immorality by morally defensible criteria.

On the flip side no scientific proof is needed to establish our tendency to believe the best about the moral virtues of those who look good, smell good, feel good.  While we are able to override these aversions and attractions based on reason when it comes to individuals, these are our natural tendencies.

And when it comes to dealing with those who look different or whose practices are different from ours, there are aversions that we are prone to rationalize in moral terms.  We’re more likely to believe that foreigner is up to no good than someone who looks familiar to us and often it’s a race based aversion that we’re rationalizing into a moral distrust.  Of course it’s not always that way.  Some people of other races and nationalities are bad and some practices not only do repulse us but should repulse us.

Nonetheless, I suspect most moral aversion to homosexuality is a rationalized form of physical aversion to it by heterosexuals.  It’s as natural to a heterosexual to be repulsed by the sight of two men engaging in sex as it is for him or her to be attracted to the sight of a heterosexual couple having sex (at least when in the right frame of mind).  That’s because of the particularity of heterosexual sexual orientation, it is towards one thing and (at least sometimes) strongly averse to the opposite.  And there’s nothing intrinsically right or wrong with those aversions and attractions as they occur to us psychologically.  But they are themselves proof of nothing but how our minds work and, possibly, what kinds of aversions and attractions aided us in survival in our more nakedly animal stages of species development.

But then the gay marriage question becomes a more specific one.  We can (theoretically at least) posit that we can end adverse treatment of gays based on aversion without outright reconceiving of marriage.  Can our society “accept” gays while still nonetheless not changing the definition of marriage.

The question though that arises here is what is wrong with changing a definition?  We do so in science all the time when we have a new account of a thing which more adequately describes it and accounts for its relationships to other things.  The word “mass” doesn’t mean the same thing in Einstein’s physics as it does in Newton’, for example.  The definition changed to get a better handle on a phenomenon.

Marriage is an institution, not a natural property of course, so changing this definition is not about more accurate description in the same way that changing the word “mass” is.  Marriage is a normative concept, one undertakes a set of cultural norms when one participates in the institution.  But this norm cannot be laid down willy-nilly either.  It would be silly to say I’m married to my computer (in anything but an analogical sense.)  It would also be silly (or just a banal metaphor) to say that the peanut butter marries jelly when you make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or that when I throw my book against the wall the book and the wall “marry each other.”  We cannot just define the word to mean anything, it has to have something to do with a relationship of commitment and  institutional support.  But does it have to be between one man and one woman?  Can it be between multiple people?  Can it between more than one species?  Can it be between people of widely varying ages?  Can it be between people under 18 years old?

Historically, we see some options.  We see marriage largely as a tool for merging families.  This makes sense in terms both of economics and primal tribal unity concerns.  Marrying between families tightens their bonds to each other, reinforces the fiction that they are kin to each other by creating kin that actually do belong to both families.  So procreation is a high value served by heterosexual marriage.  Another prima facie reason for homosexuality to be discouraged is that it produces no kin (at least not directly or inherently).

Economic gains from marriage are to be had both on the local and the broad cultural levels too.  There is a partnership with another family with economic gains and the more children you have means the more hands you have for the farm.  And in primal times and throughout most of human history (when life is nastier, more brutish, and shorter) the tribe needs as many children as it can get because so many die through miscarriages, during childbirth, etc. and only live to 35 even if they do survive longer.  We’re animals, we need to reproduce ourselves and this is a high priority no one needs to explain or seriously defend.  So, our social norms still wind up privileging heterosexual sexual unions for this purpose, even in cultures where homosexual sex is understood to happen in other contexts with varying degrees of social approval.

There are even less seemly aspects to historical definitions of marriage.  They often denigrated women to the status of property and reflected chauvinistic virtues.  Even where sex between men has been approved, there have been misogynistic attitudes towards not being the “receiving” partner because it would make you like a woman.    Similarly, numbers of wives have varied in different cultures.  The Bible is littered with people with approved polygamous marriages—they are treated as an unquestioned norm.  One of the ten commandments is not “There shall only be one man to one woman.”

King David wasn’t even rebuked for having sex with someone other than his wife.  Nathan attacked him for being someone so wealthy in wives who nonetheless stole the only wife of a guy with just one.  We’re told God loved polygamous old David otherwise, with not a hint of criticism of his lifestyle—when he’s not stealing the “property” of a poorer man and murdering him.  In fact, in Deuteronomy we learn that you HAVE to take on an extra wife if it’s your brother who has died and his wife is going to be a widow.  Why?  Because the number of people in a marriage wasn’t important.  Economic and social wellbeing, looking out for family, THAT’S what mattered, pragmatically enough.

Finally, another reason there was never “gay marriage” before is that the whole idea of homosexuality as a defining characteristic of someone is a very recent invention, historically speaking, as Michel Foucault argues.  Classifying someone on the basis of such a thing was not the way the ancients or even the medievals or early moderns thought.  We are in a new time in whichviews on sexuality have been drastically influenced by culture and science in a number of ways.

In all of these circumstances there are a lot of economic and social reasons for heterosexual marriage that are all open to reassessment unless we are to genuflect before tradition as blind traditionalists who assume it is always wise and never in need of revision.

So, to me, the relevant questions are, what do we want marriage to mean to us?  What roles do we want it to serve?  What virtues do we want it to teach people and reinforce in the culture?  What are its best social contributions worth promoting and what harmful effects should we teach people to reject from our historical (or present) versions of it?  And then when it comes to gays specifically, the questions are manifold:  Would these full and equal citizens of the country be helped or harmed or unaffected by inclusion in this institution?  How would they affect marriage’s ability to promote the virtues we want it to promote?  How would their marriages affect the social order?

In 21st Century America, we reject arranged marriages for the most part and on principles that I think are rationally defensible for the most part.  The reason is that we believe that love relationships are so important to human emotional, psychological, and ethical health that the economic and social benefits of marriage should not be sought where this is not present—at least at the start.  We may value staying in marriages which have lost their love for the sake of the benefits to children of having two parents and we may promote endurance for the sake of virtues related to commitment more generally.

But we are also a no-fault divorce culture that thinks that the less people who are harmed by one’s divorce (and the more people made happier by it), the more acceptable (and even preferable) a divorce becomes.  And in our present day culture, many are persuaded that “staying together for the sake of the kids” only harms the kids more anyway by role-modeling unloving dysfunctional marriages and by making them live with unhappy, unfulfilled parents.  And there is recent evidence for this view, but that’s a digression.

What is important to establish is that our contemporary view of marriage understands it as part of the pursuit of personal happiness and not as subject to socio-economic concerns.  Your own interests are paramount in your choice of a partner.  We could go back to the historical model and marry for socio-economic stability of the larger people or for the sake of our families but what ethical reason is there to do that when in our scenario we can both have love, with the happiness and virtues associated with it, and by default create socio-economic stability just the same through being married?

While we’re at it, we can end this nonsense where people like me are unmarried at 30 and get on with possibly more socio-biologically efficient practices of marrying and procreating as soon as we can to replenish the species as much as we can.  We can go back to the days of forming families in our teen years.  Why not do this?  Because, again, in our culture we believe that happier people make for a better society.  We also believe that nearly all people should be educated at least 4 years into their mentally and physically mature (childbearing) years and a good number should be educated even as long as 8 years in order better to fully maximize their mental powers as human beings and to advance our civilization technologically and culturally.

For a significant of number of us who want to be professionals, schooling is to take even longer into our adulthood, usually as many as 12-17 years past the onset of puberty.  During periods of schooling and other forms of career grounding, it is harder to be economically stable enough to provide a secure foundation for children.  But we put these other goods, the advancement of our collective learning and innovation ahead of having kids at 14-15 and going to work on the farm.

So, our definition of marriage is changed.  It’s not to be entered into just to make babies or primarily to provide socio-economic stability.  My personal socio-economic stability can now be delayed as long as I like as long as I am not endangering any dependents by doing so.  I may marry as late as I like or not at all, I shouldn’t marry someone I do not love, if I marry I have no obligation to produce children and I certainly should not have them with the primary intention of producing laborers.  If I marry, my partner is not to be treated like property but like an equal and is not to be forced into the arrangement but to participate willingly.

Marriage is supposed to make people stable, provide a healthy environment for children, to encourage virtues related to commitment, love, responsibility, mutual support, kindness, generosity, and self-sacrifice, and to contribute directly to the individual happiness of those in the marriage and everyone directly affected by the marriage.  Indirectly, it is encouraged because it tends to create people who are more grounded, who are less flighty due to their increased responsibilities, and who have a greater personal investment in the well being of the community now that they have more people in their lives who belong to the community—a partner, children, etc.

Now, if I’m right in my encapsulation of the nature, benefits, and virtues of marriage I have here listed, my question is what does any of it have to do with heterosexuality or homosexuality?  Homosexuals can love, can commit, can be responsible and stable (on average they make more money than straights at present), can self-sacrifice, can have a mutually recognizing relationship (assuming they’re both of age) that doesn’t treat the other merely like property.  And, contra-anti-gay-propaganda, gays are no worse with children than anyone else.

Gays can a far better shot at happiness if they can marry who they like than if they are socially coerced into sexual relationships that go against their inclinations and which would be unfair to their spouses and children.  But homosexual marriages don’t create children!  But unless you force gays to procreate with people they’re not inclined towards (a rather cruel demand no heterosexual would ever accept herself as it is a form of social rape!) they’re not having children anyway.  Within gay marriages, homosexuals can more stably raise children or opt not to, just like any heterosexual couple, and through the advances of modern technology (and even through old school “biblical” means of creating surrogates) can even have children of their own.

And gays are not going to vanish by pretending they don’t exist.  They’re here, they’re queer, we need to get used to it!  But they can adopt and give children two loving parents where there might otherwise have been none or only one or even two unloving heterosexual parents.  And even where all things are equal, if there is love and wisdom in parents, what difference is it to their parenting skills the sex of the person they sleep with?  What matters to good parenting is not whether you’re gay or straight but your emotional intelligence, your character, and your love.

How does opening marriage to gays affect the larger society?  Well, at present we are under no threat of extinction and, so, the option of forcing gays into heterosexual sex is not a fire extinguisher we have to seriously consider employing.  There can be, as there always have been, non-procreating homosexuals with or without gay marriage.  This does, however, increase the number of possible homes for children however which is a key social benefit (especially for those of us concerned with providing alternatives to abortion through increasing the number of potential adopting parents).  And it does make gays more likely to both procreate (through modern technological means or by holding their noses) and also to have marriages to which they can commit more completely body and soul.  Sounds win/win to me.

More importantly, gay marriage reverses the prejudicial and demeaning messages that (a) homosexuals’ inclinations are only about sex when they are just as much a combination of lust and love as any heterosexual attraction is.  When gay relationships are associated with an institution of love and commitment and are not merely relegated to infamous bathhouses, then the truth about gay LOVE will be taught to the larger culture.  It is a truth that prejudicial institutions have long suppressed.

When we use an institution to treat people like slaves, it is a lot easier to call them subhuman.  As long as we exclude gays from what our culture treats as one of its absolutely most central and “holiest” institutions, we send the message that they are second class citizens and that their love is illegitimate to the culture—that it neither stems from nor creates virtue and that it does not serve the public good.  Those are falsehoods.

Homosexual love is just as capable of virtue and vice as heterosexual love.  Excluding that love from institutional recognition is prejudicial and deceptive.  It reinforces irrational, biological disgusts of some heterosexuals that reflect more their own sexuality and social conditioning than any moral truth, and reinforces a crude fear of otherness barely any different than the primal fears of foreigners, other races, or menstrual blood.

We are no longer living in barbaric cultures.  It is time to let go of our evolutionary distrust of the Other.  Xenophobia, racism, homophobia—-these are all socio-biological responses to primal triggers.  In centuries BC, it is more understandable that people lept straight from their disgusts to moral claims.  But this it the 21st Century, you need to correlate a trait with its demonstrable causal connection to vice or great social ill before you can say that it is a cause for denigrating or downgrading the rights of someone who has it.  People’s crooked noses only reveal them as villains in cartoons, not in the real world.

(b) Gays should have the right to marry and not merely have civil unions (or, better, we should all simply have civil unions and make marriage entirely personal) because the government should not be in the “separate but equal” business.  It’s unconstitutional and with good reason.  Separate is not equal.  Marriage is a social institution and a whole class of people from it is not acceptable, even if a consolation prize is offered.  Such practices send the message that some people are second class citizens worthy of only second-rate recognition of their relationships.

The government cannot tell you what church to get baptized in.  It can’t tell you who you can or cannot marry.  Both certificates are filed with the government.  How would the religious feel if the government rejected their baptisms because it decided Presbyterian baptisms don’t count—only Lutheran ones or Catholic ones?  It’s a matter of conscience where you are baptized or if you are at all.  And it should be a matter of conscience who you marry or if you do at all.   The government should not be in the business of judging validities and invalidities here unless there are issues of harm to parties—coerced spouses, underaged spouses, animals and others unable to consent as spouses, spouses who resulted from sale.

Ironically, throughout history being sold into marriage was often the norm.  Now it’s an abhorrence.  I think such changes in conception of marriage were for the better.  And, remember, the idea of separating church and state—given the enormous equation of people with their culture’s religion was once an anomaly in human history.  Every modern advance away from racism, monarchism, theocracy is a pull away from primitive human inclinations and the practices of most centuries of human societies.  It takes a training in suspicion of traditionalism to pull against all that socio-biological force of traditionalism to get away from these tendencies.

The net sum gains of gay marriage:  More marriages, more commitment, fidelity, love, self-sacrifice, responsibility among homosexuals.  More stable homes for children.  Less gays in sexually doomed marriages to straights with the concomitant divorces.  No exclusion of citizens based on morally irrelevant factors from participating in cultural institutions.  No “separate but equal” standards that make for second class citizens.  Love and commitment are more clearly defined as the core of marriage rather than degrading economics or social transaction concerns that disregard individual happiness.

All of this is increase in freedom for all to pursue their own happiness.  It’s a further strike against slavery to our overly-ingrained tendencies of our species to be traditionalistic and fearful of Otherness.  It’s a teaching instrument for us to overcome our irrational disgusts and learn to separate knee jerk aversions from moral repulsion, which is an increase in our abilities to assess issues fairly, rationally, and only according to relevant distinctions.  It means less promiscuity (if decreasing promiscuity is a good you want), decreasing the chances of sexual diseases and emotional and relational instability.  Mainstreaming gays, makes them happier, cuts down on their suicides, gives young people who are gay more confidence that they can be accepted for who they are in the larger culture and that they can pursue their dreams and consummate their loves just as well as it they were straight.

If you care about the alarmingly high rate of suicides by gay teens, if you care about the disproportionate bullying gay kids suffer, I don’t see how you could oppose using our institutions to send the message that no class of people in the culture is made up of second class citizens or will be shut out from institutional support for their pursuit of happiness of full human fulfillment.  And I care far, far more about those kids and the adults they grow into being than about being consistent with the long series of brutalities and irrationalities that make up the human history of fearing and suppressing otherness within societies and just across their borders.

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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