Poking my nose into Justin Martyr’s gay marriage debate

Reading over Justin Martyr’s debate over the morality of gay marriage with Larry of Rust Belt Philosophy, I think I’ve managed to come up with the single least catchy talking point on the topic of gay marriage:

All we’re really debating is how to handle a free rider problem for a government benefit.

Doesn’t exactly sound media-ready, I guess, but it seems like an accurate sum up of the issue.

Civil marriage exists, as do most government programs, to change the incentives associated with a particular activity. According to Justin, civil marriage is aimed at promoting stable, monogamous, male-female households and establishing them as the preferred environment for raising children.

Civil marriage, as it exists, allows in plenty of pairs who don’t meet that criteria. Infertile couples, elderly couples, couples not planning to have children, couples who cheat, couples who divorce are all essentially free riders under Justin’s schema. They gain from the financial and social benefits of marriage without adhering to the purposes for which it was designed. Depending on the exact goals of government-sanctioned marriage, all gays might be free riders or a certain proportion (not necessarily equal to the proportion of straights) would be free riders.

Now we’re playing a numbers and social sciences game. We want to be able to estimate the percent of free riders and the potential harm that they do and then balance it against the harm done by excluding legitimate participants. As long as the primary purpose of marriage is a healthy, durable environment for raising children, I think opponents have a difficult time maintaining that no gay couple could meet the requirements of marriage. There are too many counterexamples.

Estimating the percent of gays who would marry and not measure up probably requires actual data, so we can all check in with Massachusetts and others in about 18 years. However, as long as there is little reason to believe that we are near a free rider tipping point, I would argue that the proportion does not matter too much, especially if excluding gays wholesale does substantial harm.

Personally, I’m inclined to believe that excluding gays would do more harm than purging a different group of obvious free riders: women who have passed menopause. Gays are already stigmatized and discriminated against (recall that the president of the Montana Tea Party caught hell this week for appearing to endorse the murder of homosexuals). Justin may just be looking out for gays when he says he wished to exclude gays from the institution of marriage in order to protect them from “a very heteronormative view of homosexuality,” but this exclusion does contribute to the idea that they are too dangerous, too other. In addition, it reduces the chance that marriage and childrearing are promoted as compatible with homosexuality and a positive option for homosexuals.

Perhaps this free rider problem sounds a little dry, but it’s the necessary consequence of discussing government-regulated marriage. I still wish we’d just establish civil unions for everyone and leave marriage to religions, but, if that won’t catch on, perhaps Justin and others should just start promoting ‘sacramental marriage’ in contrast to ‘state marriage.’ I think state marriage stopped looking like their vision of sacramental marriage a long time ago (New York’s recent acceptance of no-fault divorce, now legal in every state, may have been the last nail in the coffin). Why not admit marriage doesn’t belong to them anymore and move on?

Note: I didn’t touch Justin’s claim that adoption is automatically bad for children (he goes so far as to say that gay adoption is “a violation of the rights of children” since they are deprived of their biological parents). Like Larry, I don’t believe Justin backed up that claim, so I’m waiting for Justin to answer some of the questions about adoption I wrote on the debate thread. He said he’d get to them after the debate, and I look forward to his response. I’m also curious how he applies his arguments to the case of his own adopted daughter from Ethiopia.

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  • The simple problem with "gay marriage" is that it's not marriage. If you wish to dispute that, which one is the husband and which one is the wife? IOW, all our law and language and thinking about "marriage" assumes a man and a woman. A man can no more "marry" a man than read a glass of water or drink Neptune. It simply makes no sense.

  • @CrowhillI'm curious, how gendered do you think marriage is right now? In most secular marriages, there doesn't seem to be much weight but on husbandly vs wifely duties. I've heard marriages that ask heterosexuals to take each other as their 'lawfully wedded spouse' and the vows themselves are usually extremely customized or identical, with no mention of obedience for the wife.What is the prevalent model of gendered marriage you think gays fall short of, Crowhill? Does it really just lie on one side of the sacramental marriage/state marriage divide?

  • I haven't read Justin Martyr's comments other than what you summarized in this post, but I can understand his view of adoption as a violation of rights of children (while simultaneously failing to see the connection to gay adoption). In the natural order of things, children have a right to be born to and raised by their parents. Another way of saying this is that parents have an obligation to lovingly raise any children they might have. I think we would all agree that to intentionally procreate without the intention to actually take care of the children we create by our actions is an injustice towards the children. In that sense the abdicating of parental responsibilities, whether it be by a deadbeat alcoholic parents who takes no interest in his/her children's lives, or by a parent who makes this abandonment official by giving up legal rights to the child, is a violation of the child's right to be raised lovingly by their own parents. It's not the adoption per se that is the violation thouh, it's the abdication by the original parent. And even this can be the right thing in some circumstances – but you could in most cases trace those circumstances to the parent failing his obligations to his child at some point. Adoption is when another adult steps in and picks up those abandoned obligations to the child and attempts, as much as possible, to make things rights and restore to the child the loving parent relationship that he/she deserved in the first place. So in short I would not say that adoption per se is a violation of a child's rights but that every adoption represents a violation of a child's rights (even, in a sense, in a case of the parent dying, because although there is no human being to blame for accidental death, there is still a sense of the child being cheated out of a normal parental relationship. It happened to me.)

  • Laura

    Hi Leah-Coming over from LarryNiven's blog, I'd like to repeat a point I made on Justin's blog: the legal right to marry has nothing to do with children. No law that I've ever heard of requires, forbids, or regulates procreation as part of a license to marry. Justin threw this red herring into the discussion at the very beginning and clung to it all the way through, refusing to discuss the ostensible issue at hand.@Jojosmom: It may be that parents have a legal obligation to treat children under their care with basic levels of physical sustenance, but no one can force or legislate emotion. Moreover, no legal right exists for children to "be lovingly raised by their own parents". This may sound harsh, and I don't mean to exacerbate the pain you felt as the result of your parent's death, but I don't see any way around it. @Crowhill: Oh, grow up. Your gender insecurity is your problem, not the rest of the world's.