Divorce and the Doctrine of Individualism

Divorce and the Doctrine of Individualism February 9, 2012

This post is part of a debate on gay marriage.  Matt led off with a post on gay marriage and deep friendship, and I rebutted him in three parts.  Now he debuts a new argument, which I’ll respond to tomorrow.  (Oh, and once again, photos are my fault, not Matt’s).

The second of Professor Anthony Esolen’s arguments that I’d like to concur with is the idea that homosexual marriage would “seal us in a culture of divorce.” Again, this hits at a major talking point of the gay rights movement. I remember it fondly as a cynical poster outside an old history teacher’s room: how can conservatives talk about the “sanctity of marriage” when half of all marriages end in divorce? What exactly is it that we’re trying to protect from homosexuals?

The implication is that if conservatives are really concerned about the state of marriage, then what they really ought to be concerned about is no-fault divorce. Well, agreed. No-fault divorce is certainly a numerically bigger problem. If as a birthday present President Obama and Congress got together and gave me the choice of either banning gay marriage or ending no-fault divorce, it wouldn’t even be a hard choice. Gay marriage immediately affects far fewer people, and the negative effects of divorce are multiplied by the fact that children, not simply the partners of the marriage, are drastically affected. But this doesn’t mean that we can just shove gay marriage to the side as a “wedge” issue mostly irrelevant to society. Because neither of these issues can be reduced to the mere numbers gay marriages versus broken straight ones. It is about the principle that we would be affirming. Here’s Professor Esolen again:

At the basis of all civilization lies trust: I must believe that the people driving down the road will stay on their own side of the yellow line. If I did not believe that, and believe it with something approaching absolute certainty, I could not drive. Divorce begins by undermining trust in marriage (and that is bad enough, given our plummeting birth rates), and ends by undermining trust altogether. We must retrace our steps: we must bring some semblance of justice back to divorce law. But how can we do this, while legalizing homosexual “marriage”? Again, the principle for the legalization is simply that people have a right to “fulfill” themselves sexually. But some marriages are unhappy– or some people who are married come to think that it would be more “fulfilling” to leap over the fence. How can we deny them this? Or how can we blame them for it? How can we penalize the breaker of a family, when his or her motives are exactly the same as those we have blessed in the case of the homosexual?

So the logic behind gay marriage- people have the right to seek the fulfillment of their sexual and emotional desires- is the same that has brought us the devastation of divorce. And I think most people across the political spectrum agree that increased divorce has caused a lot of destruction, even if they ultimately believe people should still be free to break up their marriages. So, Esolen says, it’s laughable to think we can solve any of the social problems associated with divorce while accepting the reasoning that gave us those problems in a different situation.

Now, obviously, government is free to do contradictory things. Zeus will not come down from the clouds and strike dead a law because the motivation for its passage is in contradiction to some other end of the government.

So why couldn’t we just have gay marriage and stricter regulation of divorce? I will suggest, without having the space to fully support it, that ideas have a funny way of working their way out to their logical conclusions through history. Let’s take the most famous example of contradictory principles of government in American history, namely the institution of slavery existing for decades alongside the claim of the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal and endowed with certain rights. If we look at the abolition movement and the way the Gettysburg Address draws its argument directly from the Declaration, we see the principle established imperfectly in 1776 coming to fruition in the 1860s and beyond. This seems to be what has happened with the principle of the fulfillment of desires, which first brought us no-fault divorce and then opened the door to gay marriage. The two are as unlikely to be separated as were the Enlightenment principles of the Declaration of Independence could be separated from Gettysburg and the freeing of the slaves.

Another important consideration is the manner in which gay marriage has been legalized in America so far. Where gay marriage has been legalized it has come almost exclusively through the courts, usually reinterpreting existing law or explicitly overturning laws voted for by the people. Though the rhetoric differs slightly, the underlying principle that is now being established as a precedent by those courts is that identified by Esolen- people have the right to be able to seek to sexual and emotional fulfillment however they so choose. Since any significant limitation or change of divorce rules would have to go through the same courts, it seems impossible that gay marriage could be simultaneously maintained. At the very least gay marriage would have to be supported by some heretofore unheard of general principle. You can’t get rid of abortion while Roe v. Wade stands, and you couldn’t get rid of no-fault divorce when the principle that justifies is it is enshrined in law for other purposes.

“Liberty is not the ability to do what you want, but the right to do what you ought.” – Lord Acton

Esolen himself has much harsher things to say how the culture interacts with these principles, some of which I find questionable. Yet certainly when I look around at the gay pride parades, the “it gets better” videos, and other aspects of the gay movement I see behind it all the animating principle that Esolen is opposed to. This is not a movement that looks like it is seeking the restraints and constrictions and commitments imposed by the institution of marriage, but rather sees marriage as just another type of self-expression that they should be legally entitled to. Don’t think that potential divorcees seeking their own perverse type of freedom and fulfillment won’t notice.


This post is part of a debate on gay marriage.

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  • Chris

    It’s a little off-topic, but whenever I see someone complain about “plummeting birth rates”, I immediately write them off as a crank. It’s just empirically false. Birth rates in this country are not plummeting. They’ve been basically flat for three decades, with if anything a slight upward trend. Frankly I think worrying about about a lack of people in the U.S. right now is more than a little nuts, but your mileage may vary.

    Like I said, somewhat off topic, but revealing too. This is not about divorce. It’s making sure we have a population cranking out babies as fast as possible, because that’s what women do.

    • Birth rate =/= fertility rate, so as a point of fact Esolen is right and you are wrong.

      Now I would agree that fertility rate is the more important measure but if we are already looking at details as abstract as a synthetic rate then stopping exactly at that level of detail is a little specific. So if we look at fertility rates the total fertility rate doesn’t cut it and we should also look at various social groups. And then it’s pretty obvious that the high American fertility rate is driven by (a) births to immigrants and (b) poor people having kids out of wedlock. Now all babies are good babies so I won’t complain about this. But, looking at it from the other side, the European part of America, middle class coastal liberals with low religious commitment, i.e. the culture that would like to bring itself to the rest of America, has fertility rates just as catastrophically low as those of Europe. So in the context of cultural effects of the dominant culture the relevant fertility rates are low.

      Of course a lot of this is debatable and the question of which statistic is relevant can get a little complicated. But this brings me to my actual point: If your reaction to people disagreeing with you about this is to “immediately write them off as a crank”, well that’s a set of ideological blinders rather than a sign of sophistication.

      • Ray

        Well, considering that the most direct way to raise the birth rate, while keeping TFR constant would be to kill all the old people, I’m going to say that declining birth rates in the absence of a decline in TFR isn’t a bad thing.

        on immediately writing off people as a crank — it’s only bad if you’re writing people off that aren’t cranks. Otherwise, it’s always a good idea to get to the right answer as fast as possible. For example, if everybody without an ideological axe to grind seems to think that Aquinas’s five ways are invalid (even fairly sympathetic individuals like Anthony Kenny and Ken Miller), someone who confidently asserts their validity without claiming to have a new argument is most likely a crank until proven otherwise. I hope even you’ll agree this strategy works fine with anthropogenic global warming “skeptics,” creationists, and people who think the “racecar on a train” thought experiment disproves special relativity.

  • Zanzanar

    Well, this is the first time I’ve seen someone explicitly advocate loveless marriage.

    • Zanzanar

      Actually, given that you want to eliminate love as a justification for marriage, I can’t think of anything you would want to put in its place. It can’t be procreation, because then the divorce rate would be 100% for anyone who lived past menopause. It can’t be raising children, because if it was, it wouldn’t exclude gay marriage. The same goes for property. So what is the purpose of marriage?

      • Define love.

        (I would argue that marriages founded on winds of passion are, in fact, loveless marriages.)

    • Thomas R

      Is that what he’s doing? If so I might be more willing to agree with him here. The idea marriage has to be about love is modern and could seem to imply when you don’t have tingly feelings anymore a marriage ends. So it could relate to “divorce culture.” US rates of divorce were high, by international standards, a century ago. (And by “a century ago” I don’t mean last century, I mean 1912) Possibly because the US tended to be individualistic and more likely to see marriage as being about a couple rather than also being the union of families.

      On top of that it’s not really a requirement even now. As a disabled man I’ve considered getting married for the insurance benefits and because it could aid independence. As a Catholic I worry that would be “phony” but I don’t know if it would be. A companionship or Platonic-love marriage would seem to be acceptable in Catholic history.

      Only problem is defending loveless marriages isn’t necessarily an argument against same-sex marriage. Two people of the same-sex could marry for lifelong companionship and not love. I don’t know that that would undermine, or even change, any loveless marriage I could have. In fact, as long as no sex or romance would be involved, I would think I could maybe have a loveless civil marriage to a man and still basically be within Catholic teaching. It would just be a legal arrangement and a man would likely find it easier to carry me. (I don’t need to be carried around much, but on occasion)

      • Iota

        Thomas R,
        (Aside from the main discussion)

        “In fact, as long as no sex or romance would be involved, I would think I could maybe have a loveless civil marriage to a man and still basically be within Catholic teaching.”

        I may be wrong, but I think that would qualify as the sin of “giving scandal”…

        Incidentally, the notion of “scandal” in this specific sense can be a bit useful, I think, when thinking of Matt’s earlier argument (about how homosexual relationships threaten male friendships)…

        • Thomas R

          You have a point. And since I have same-sex attractions I guess it could be a temptation. (Although in that case I could just go with a fully heterosexual guy I find unattractive, but yeah the scandal issue would still be there)

  • So the logic behind gay marriage- people have the right to seek the fulfillment of their sexual and emotional desires- is the same that has brought us the devastation of divorce.

    I’ve pretty much said all I wanted to say here already, but let me thank you for making it clear that you believe people, in general, should not have the right to seek the fulfillment of their sexual and emotional desires. I think that pretty much sums up the difference between us.

    • Thomas R

      I’m not signing on to everything he says, but I think the implication he means is that “the fulfillment of their sexual and emotional desires” is

      1: Wrong because marriage isn’t just about desires, but about commitment and responsibilities. (I’ve seen advocates for same-sex marriage that agree with that. Maybe the majority do even, I don’t know)

      2: That the “fulfillment of their sexual and emotional desires” can be capricious. If you’re not getting that fulfillment you can go on to the next marriage or the next or the next. It’s a focus on what you want to feel in a marriage and implicitly not preparing one for when marriage doesn’t give you your desires, a thing that will happen in most marriages at points.

      Although in some ways this seems to be an argument against some arguments for same-sex marriage rather than an argument against SSM itself.

  • anodognosic

    I would question two of your assumptions.

    First, that most people who divorce do so for stupid, selfish reasons. Of course we see highly publicized marriages that do, most recently Kim Kardashian’s (or, arguably, Newt Gingrich’s). But divorce is not a pleasant matter, and I sincerely doubt that most people who get one do so lightly. Just because it’s not a state-sanctioned reason doesn’t mean it’s not a damned good one.

    Second, and more importantly, I challenge the assertion that no-fault divorce caused massive devastation in society. I mean, sure, it does show that people who’ve had a divorce are worse off, and children of divorce are much worse off than those whose parents stayed together. I don’t contest that at all. But you have to consider–worse off as compared to whom? Remember, when you talk about couples who divorced, you’re inevitably selecting for unhappy marriages. Awful, selfish people would be so whether married or divorced. Maybe there’s some benefit for the state to force them to remain married, but it’s hard to say how beneficial it would actually be.

  • Emily

    Wait, I am SO confused. If the principle behind the legalization of same-sex marriage is “sexual ‘fulfillment'”, and no fault divorce is also based on “sexual ‘fulfillment'”…what is heterosexual marriage supposedly based on? If it’s something other than “sexual ‘fulfillment'”, why would you assume gay marriage is not also based on those other foundations for marriage? If straight marriage is about family, lifelong commitment, etc. as well as sex, why can’t gay marriage be as well? I am pretty sure gay people desire those things as much as straight people.

    I’m not trying to pick on you here. I just REALLY don’t get the entire foundation of your argument.

    • Matt Gerken


      • Zanzanar

        Popping ’em out, or raising them?

        • Both, presumably. Stable marriage is particularly good at stabilizing and uniting the two.

          • Zanzanar


            blah blah blah blah blah blah blah childless couples blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah infertility blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah elderly blah blah blah blah blah adoption blah blah blah…

          • There are deficient expressions of the perfection indicated by natural norms. Then there are imitations of nature that deviate entirely from its ordinary expression, so that they aren’t just deficient, but belong to a wholly different species of act.

          • In a marriage where either spouse is infertile or impotent, the proper matter is still present (man and woman), and so the form can be realized to a limited extent (the desire to bear and rear children, the complementarity in sexual union, etc.). Perhaps in the absence of children the marriage is incapable of ultimately realizing its natural end. And that’s unfortunate (as any infertile couple will tell you — thus infertility frequently causes deep marital problems).

            I can already hear Leah responding with a comment about the irrelevance of matter, etc. etc. And I can hear myself replying, and see objections (as Zanzanar puts it “blah blah”), so ultimately here are the first principles this issue is going to come down to:
            1. Is there a morally significant order in nature which is determinative of the goodness or evil of certain species of acts.
            2. Or, more fundamentally: does the perfection of the individual human being follow from the perfection of human nature? And is human nature essentially tied to matter?
            3. Or, more fundamentally still: is there an intelligent and benevolent creator by whom all nature is directed toward the perfection of creatures — toward a greater participation in His own likeness?

            Without settling these basic points this conversation is likely to be fruitless.

          • Ray

            I’m sure all the childless couples, elderly, and empty-nesters out there are happy to know that their marriage is a “deficient” version of the real thing. If anything, this is an argument for divorcing the minute the children leave for college.

          • Touchstone


            So I take it that what you’re saying is that you differ from Matt; you think there aren’t good secular arguments against gay marriage. If you don’t already think that, you should start.

            Very few atheists are going to be comfortable with the concept of natural law you’ve laid out. This is not because all atheists hate natural law thinking (c.f. the enlightenment). You’ll find plenty of atheists (though apparently not on Leah’s blog) who will go along with you to say that sex is ultimately not about “pleasure” or “mutual gratification” or anything like that but rather about procreation.

            Where they’ll get off the train is where you draw the boundary between certain kinds of non-procreative sex (“deficient expressions of the perfection”) and others (“that deviate entirely from its ordinary expression, so that they aren’t just deficient, but belong to a wholly different species of act.”). This seems hard to do without a tradition and authority to tell you which is which.

            For example, a New Atheist could easily give you an account of the “natural” based in naïve evo-psych, and say that because sexual desire exists because it encouraged procreation, all sexual activity (including homosexual activity) is an expression (perhaps horribly deficient) of the procreative urge.

            Now, here’s an intriguing second-order question: do you feel comfortable with people arguing what you believe to be the right thing using what you think are quite obviously the wrong reasons? Or would you prefer that Catholics simply try to help others see the truth of Catholicism?

            Obviously, if you believe (1) you may still answer (2) for, well, strategic reasons. I think it’s still worth asking the question, though.

          • Zanzanar

            croncor: It sounds like you’re saying that actual physical possibility of creating a child is the most important thing in a marriage, but that couples can still score points if they can put a penis in a vagina. would it be an OK compromise if gay couples were given little penis and vagina statuettes, and promised to stick one in the other every once in a while?

          • Alex

            “There are deficient expressions of the perfection indicated by natural norms. Then there are imitations of nature that deviate entirely from its ordinary expression”

            What does that mean? I read that several times and I’m still scratching my head.

          • Alex

            I think that this discussion would benefit greatly if you gave concrete examples of “natural law” that most everyone can agree on.

            From my perspective the whole business seems “not even wrong” however, examples would greatly help me to see your point of view.

      • I’m sorry, that’s so completely inadequate.

        That boils down to “The only reason why gay people should not be allowed to get married is that they cannot have children who are biologically a child of both parents.”

        I am currently engaged, and have been thinking quite hard about all the reasons I wish to get married; why it is important to me to be married, rather than just in a relationship.
        And children didn’t come into that process for me, in any way. I want to have children, and so does my fiancee, but beyond agreement on that one question (which a gay couple could agree they do/don’t want to adopt), progeny didn’t enter the equation when I proposed. Thus the reasoning that led me to propose to my fiancee is entirely accessible to a man proposing to his boyfriend, or a woman to her girlfriend. If they can make the same decision for the same reasons, how is it that my desire to do that is legitimate, and part of the bedrock of society, and their desire to do so is damaging and linked to no fault divorce and the collapse of society?

        • Strictly speaking, your attitude as described could be an impediment. But such points are rightly not enshrined into law.

          The government’s interest in supporting marriage is that children result. Yes, there are infertile couples or elderly couples, &c., but those are the abberations in a barebones, non-statist approach to marriage.

          Moreover, such outlier objections seem to forget that marriages still model otherwise healthy marriages, the teaching effect of a good example or a good counterexample of that great social universal — marriages inevitably express of What It Means To Be Man and What It Means To Be Woman.

          • Kogo

            No. The government’s “interest” in supporting marriage is that it’s citizens want to get married.

          • anodognosic

            “…marriages inevitably express of What It Means To Be Man and What It Means To Be Woman”

            See, a lot of social conservatives are so caught up in what marriage represents that they lose sight of what marriage is, which is two people pledging to live their lives together. This kind of union isn’t good because of natural law, because it represents the sacred union of the male and female forms, yadda yadda yadda; it’s good because it’s good for people. And frankly, given that is is good for people, I don’t really give a rat’s ass what it represents.

          • Each comment preceding this one begs the question, ignoring what marriage is in a variety of ways, which is and always has been at the heart of the issue.

            What things represent is part of what things are.

      • Heartfout

        Biological children only, or children in general?

      • Emily

        This is qualitatively different from “family,” which I listed, how?

      • Alex

        Speaking of examples, Matt I don’t think you ever answered the question of what kind of society it is that you are looking. I mean specifically.

        Are you hoping that we eventually become more like Saudi Arabia in which the existence of homosexuals is not acknowledged and anyone who commits sodomy is put to death (or at least is heavily punished for their transgression)? I certainly hope not – which is why I am asking.

        Frankly I don’t know what you mean by “I oppose the normalization of homosexuality”. The only way I can think to interpret that is that you want homosexuality to once again be seen in society as an abomination. You want a situation that is more like the middle east. Is that accurate?

        • Matt Gerken

          I am not a Muslim. I am Catholic. I’m more interested in the Middle Ages than the Middle East.

          • Alex

            You didn’t answer the question. What sort society _specifically_ do you want to see?

        • Chris

          Wait, your response to the question
          Are you hoping that we eventually become more like Saudi Arabia in which the existence of homosexuals is not acknowledged and anyone who commits sodomy is put to death
          is to say you’re interested in the Middle Ages, when . . . homosexuals were not acknowledged and sodomy was punishable by death?

          I know Leah vouched for you, and I’m trying to be civil here, but the charitable interpretation of that statement is that you’re shockingly tone deaf. And, frankly, I think that’s being generous.

          • Katie

            Incidentally, Saudi Arabia actually has a thriving underground gay scene, precisely because same-sex interaction is much less heavily scrutinized than male-female interaction. They’re too busy watching out for women looking at men.

            Anyway, Matt was just being cheeky. I don’t think he wants us deviants put to death, just repressed into (outward) conformity.

  • Except gay marriage is not harmful. Divorce is. It doesn’t matter if there’s a similar principle at work — there’s a similar principle at work behind the use of heroin and the use of morphine, but one is demonstrably harmful. If curbing divorce is a priority for society (which I don’t think it should be, despite being deeply affected by my own parents’ divorce), make it about the fact that it damages people, not about expression. It’s dangerous to compare the two as if they’re equal in any objective/neutral way, because they aren’t.

    • 1. Attitudes underlying marriage have an effect on marriage.

      2. Existing and harmful hetero attitudes underlying marriage will be crystallized by SSM, for the removal of these harmful hetero attitudes will necessitate knocking down the supports under SSM.

      3. Marriage harmed.

      Judging by your response, you dispute No. 2. Out of honest curiosity, how?

  • Matt, I think virtually every premise of your argument is wrong — not morally wrong, but factually wrong.

    1) The implementation of no-fault divorce in the US did not, according to the most thorough research we have, increase divorce more than temporarily. The academic debate is mostly between studies finding a small long-term effect, and those studies finding no long-term effect. You’d have to ignore the large majority of studies to maintain that no-fault divorce has had a large long-term effect on divorce rates. There is therefore no reason to suppose that we can significantly reduce divorce rates just by repealing no-fault divorce laws.

    2) “Where gay marriage has been legalized it has come almost exclusively through the courts….” Same-sex marriage is legal in six states in the US so far, plus D.C.. In half of those states (NH, NY, and VT) plus D.C., same sex marriage came about through legislative acts, not court orders.

    That’s not including states where legislatures have passed same-sex divorce laws but been vetoed by governors or referendums. It’s also not including Washington State, where the legislature just passed a marriage equality law.

    If you look at it by population, rather by states, then for the large majority of Americans living in areas where same-sex marriage is legal, the reason is legislative action, not court action. (Because New York’s population is very large.)

    By any measure, same-sex marriage is now happening mostly through legislation, not through court cases.

    4) “Though the rhetoric differs slightly, the underlying principle that is now being established as a precedent by those courts is that identified by Esolen- people have the right to be able to seek to sexual and emotional fulfillment however they so choose.”

    The courts didn’t just use slightly differing rhetoric from what you describe; they used entirely different logic. Wikipedia’s summary of the majority opinion in Goodridge illustrates this well enough:

    Chief Justice Margaret Marshall, writing for the majority, wrote that the state’s constitution “affirms the dignity and equality of all individuals. It forbids the creation of second-class citizens,” the state had no “constitutionally adequate reason for denying marriage to same-sex couples,” and “The right to marry is not a privilege conferred by the State, but a fundamental right that is protected against unwarranted State interference.” The Court held that the State does not have a rational basis for denying same-sex couples marriage on the grounds of due process and equal protection.

    Although you apparently parsed that as the “right to be able to seek to sexual and emotional fulfillment however they so choose,” no reasonable observer would agree. More importantly, no Court would agree, so the precedent you claim has been created doesn’t actually exist.

    So, in sum: Getting rid of no-fault divorce is unlikely to lower divorce rates, but would harm abused spouses. Marriage equality in the US, where it exists, has come about slightly more often through legislative action than through court order, so focusing solely on the Courts makes no sense. The precedent you claim has been set by marriage cases actually doesn’t exist at all. And nothing about same-sex marriage would prevent no-fault divorce from being repealed.

    • Matt Gerken

      Alright about the states. But I think the point about courts stands because they show us the most high profile reasoning about why we must have gay marriage, and in the near term if to be imposed on the whole country it will be done through the courts.

      As for the legal reasoning you cite, I simply disagree that it is completely different. I think in order for it to make sense at all, it must have the principle of sexual fulfillment as a premise. What other possible reason could there be for believing that we have a natural right to marry either sex, and that failing to recognize such marriages makes people with certain desires second class citizens?

      • Thanks for admitting you were wrong about the states.

        As for the legal reasoning you cite, I simply disagree that it is completely different.

        You can disagree with me that the ocean is wet, but that doesn’t change the fact that the ocean is wet. It just makes you someone who doesn’t base his opinions on facts.

        I think in order for it to make sense at all, it must have the principle of sexual fulfillment as a premise.


        And, more importantly, can you please directly quote the Court in Goodridge — or Judge Walker’s decision in California — where they say anything about “the principle of sexual fulfillment,” or something that clearly means that?

        What other possible reason could there be for believing that we have a natural right to marry either sex, and that failing to recognize such marriages makes people with certain desires second class citizens?

        “Natural rights” are the basis of Catholic philosophy, but the Constitution is the basis of court decisions in this country; judges are not required to believe in “natural rights” in order to be adjudicate American law. So your question is irrelevant.

        The legal decisions have mostly been based on the fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution, aka the Equal Protection Clause.

        In order to overcome the right to equal treatment, the government has to show that forbidding same-sex couples from marrying is rationally related to a compelling government interest. (Legally, the government’s reasons for barring same-sex couples from civil marriage can’t allowed be either arbitrary or religious.)

        So that’s what the legal, constitutional argument is about. It is NOT about some made-up “right to sexual fulfillment.” If you disagree, then please prove it with quotations from court decisions.

        • butterfly5906

          It’s worth mentioning that the vast majority of Americans have premarital sex and that many gay couples have made lifelong commitments to each other without an official marriage license. State-sanctioned marriage is not actually necessary for “sexual and emotional fulfillment.” But to deny those couples the legal and financial benefits that the state gives to heterosexual couples that do not have children (whether through infertility or choice) is to arbitrarily create a second class of citizens whose relationships are seen as less “valid” than others.

          • * Infertility is a burden and often feels like a bait-and-switch, and a diagnosis is not always certain.

            * In merely childless couples, attitudes towards children may change.

            * As for elderly couples, well — stranger things have happened.

            Just as the state has no business defining marriage, the state has not business predicting the future except when inescapable and definitional.

            Definitionally, no man-man or woman-woman couple may, alone on a desert island, build a family. It is merely a human construct and would not, without other assumptions, be created. It is not this observation which condemns it absolutely, for many good things are buttresses flying against the gravity of What Holds The Universe Together.

            My point: It is a third-tier human relationship because it is based on second things. There are not nearly the degrees of separation between marriage and What It Means To Be Human as there are between SSM and What It Means.

            To wit, Marriage, unlike SSM, preserves and is naturally an expression of first things.

            (My rebuttal is of course a question of what is right and not merely what may or may not be legal, but I presume all readers are interested in truth in whatever inconvenient flavor it comes.)

          • Katie

            The Ubiquitous:

            Can you please make an argument for marriage being the glue of the universe? What does it mean to be human and where have you come up with that definition?

            Certainly from an evolutionary perspective, the nuclear family is a recent and artificial institution, only as old as agriculture, when the ability to hoard resources suddenly made paternity relevant. In an immediate-return hunter-gatherer tribe, a lifelong monogamous pair bond is not only unsustainable, but plain silly. And these are the conditions under which most humans on earth have lived so far. Some still do.

            (Also, the German language called and it would like its capitalizations back, please.)

          • What does it mean to be human? Well, for the understanding I accept — and, notably, did not define — refer to the Catechism. But this will be another rabbit trail, so I will show a reasonable approximation using only a fair consensus as primary data. Being Catholic, I have no problems between data and theory; there is one truth; &c. To wit, I don’t face the problem of putting into a round hole some other round hole.

            (N.B. In any case, the human race features men and women. The human race is composed roughly half-and-half. To my mind, should we really eliminate unnatural death, or greatly extinguish it, this points to monogamy or absolutely no barriers.)

            For a fuller response, I’ll make another comment elsewhere with nesting room.

          • Response ready, beginning, “What does it mean to be human?” and getting worse from there.

          • @Katie

            As far as I know the hunter-gatherer societies we know about had/have marriage. And while they typically allow polygamy it is normally rare for economic reasons. The pre-civilizational free love thing is a horny phantasy of 19th century socialists wrapped up in pseudo-science.

            (Im Übrigen ist Rechtschreibung und Grammatik fremder Leute zu kritisieren die Internetversion von Kritik an ihrem Aussehen; ein Verhalten dem man spätestens mit Beginn der Schulpflicht entwachsen sein sollte.)

          • Katie

            Well, sure, if you define marriage so loosely that it bears no resemblance to the modern concept (lifelong, monogamous pair bond). Still, concepts like partible paternity don’t come out of nowhere.

            (Ich hab nichts von Grammatik oder Rechtschreibung gesagt. Ich dachte nur, dass seine Großschreibungen ein bisschen komisch wären.)

            Did I get that right? I’m afraid my German is getting a bit rusty.

          • I feel like a kid who just figured out his parents were asking each other if the little boy ‘s behavior prevented him from deserving I-C-E-C-R-E-A-M today. Heh.

      • Tex

        I think we can boil down your argument to “people think they should have SSM because they want it also people divorce because they want to. Once we establish that people can do one because they want to, they can do the other because they want to. ” By that logic people marring in hetero relationships because they want to get married also = divorce.

        Gays want to marry for the same reasons heterosexuals want to, which is a rather long list of reasons mixed and matched for individual couples (i.e. this person makes me happy, rights conferred by the state, financial reasons, making their relationship permanent, ect). Children may play a large part in some couples reason to marry, but they don’t at all in others. If were going to apply the children criteria though theirs no difference really between the hetero couple that cant have kids and so adopt and the gay couple who adopt except how society treats them.

  • Ray

    Claiming that gay marriage upholds a principle of “right to sexual fulfilment” without mentioning the mitigating principle of consent is deeply dishonest. If you do that, you’re not just comparing gay marriage to divorce, you’re comparing it to rape.

    Gay marriage seems to respect the principle of consent for all parties

    no fault divorce may not respect the consent of those indirectly affected (e.g. children) and if unilateral, may not respect the consent of those directly affected. But then again, requiring consent not to do something, even if bound by prior contract, would seem to be an argument in support of slavery too, so it’s perhaps too much to ask.

    FWIW, I think both gay marriage and no-fault divorce are defensible, but the former seems if anything more unambiguously so.

  • deiseach

    “people have the right to be able to seek to sexual and emotional fulfillment however they so choose”

    But we do put limits on those; even in easily-available marriage with the option of no-fault divorce, we don’t (yet) permit polygamy/polyandry; if I find sexual fulfilment in drowning kittens, PETA for one will kick up a fuss about how I seek my ends, and we have social disapproval of – for instance – cheating when one is in a relationship (even if not marriage).

    Even if I have a right to seek emotional and sexual fulfilment, there is no right to have these things – because there are a lot of people out there who don’t have someone to love, who can’t get a sexual partner (why else do we have prostitution?), who face aging and being alone because their youth, looks, sexual allure and/or financial circumstances are waning.

    If I have an absolute right to be sexually/emotionally fulfilled, then the robotics bods had better get on their bikes and come up with lovebots sharpish, so everyone can have a domestic companion regardless of age, appearance, social status, economic circumstances, or just being an asocial, plain, awkward, introverted, self-centred person who is most comfortable with human interaction at arm’s length (any resemblance between this description and your obedient servant is purely intentional).

    We can’t guarantee truth, justice, reasonably priced affection and a hard-boiled egg to everyone.

    • anodognosic

      Somehow, you saw the word seek, even bolded it in your response, and then proceeded to completely ignore it for three paragraphs and act like anyone is arguing for guaranteeing sexual fulfillment.

      Also, as for your ridiculous kitten-drowning example: Freely consenting adults. Freely consenting adults. Freely consenting adults. Say it with me: Freely consenting adults. Freely consenting adults. Everybody now: Freely consenting adults. Freely consenting adults.

      Can we please, PLEASE get over comparing homosexuality to pedophilia, dog-fucking, and murdering, cute, adorable little kittens? We can debate polygamy and prostitution on their respective merits. But if you’re making this kind of comparison, here’s a rule of thumb: if it doesn’t involve FREELY CONSENTING ADULTS, you’re knocking over a straw man.

      • So polygamy is not a straw man.

        • anodognosic

          It is not a straw man to contend that allowing any and all unions of freely consenting adults would entail allowing polygamy as well. If that argument is made, it is legitimate to point that out. It is not legitimate to say that if you allow same-sex marriage, you must allow polygamy. There is a substantive difference between the two, with different potential social implications, and each must be argued on its merits.

          • I agree with every word you just wrote. No, really.

            If consent is the sole criterion of the good, however, there are no barriers. Presumably, since you differentiate between matters of consent, consent is not the sole criterion of the good.

            This makes the next question fairer than a sunny day: What other criteria do you use? How do you justify them? Do they impeach your own immediate goal?

  • Jay

    Matt, in the interest of letting beliefs be constrained by expectation, what specific changes in the divorce rate do you expect to see as a result of the legalization of same-sex marriage? Do you expect jurisdictions that legalize same-sex marriage to see greater increases in their divorce rate than ones where same-sex marriage is prohibited? Do you expect that the divorce rate nation-wide will go up as a function of how many states allow same-sex marriage?

    I appreciate that you’ve made an empirical prediction, but I’d like to pin you down on exactly what sort of data you expect to see — and conversely, to figure out what sort of results would persuade you that you’re mistaken on this point. Of course, we can hardly conduct a double-blind experiment here, so causality can’t exactly be proven one way or another. But that’s why I want your specific predictions now, so that if the data does come out against you, you can’t just explain it away after the fact. If divorce rates actually went down in states that allow same-sex marriage, for example, I assume you would take this as strong evidence against your position?

    • Jay

      I should note that Leah already posted last summer inviting opponents of same-sex marriage to make exactly such predictions. But to my knowledge Matt, you were not one of the commenters on that post.

    • Matt Gerken

      Social science is too easily made fraudulent. I will make no prediction, and I don’t think this is a good way of judging my or anyone else’s arguments. I was not making an empirical claim exactly; one could be sealed in a culture with an improperly permissive attitude toward divorce even if relatively few divorces occurred. There are many factors we can’t isolate affecting divorce rates, I just want to deny people the bad logic of the sexual fulfillment principle as a reason for doing it.

      • Jay

        Okay, so, I accept that there are methodological problems in evaluating claims of this sort. Still, I think it’s pretty suspect to say “legalizing same-sex marriage will have a concrete impact on the divorce practices of straight couples — but even though that’s an empirical claim, I don’t expect to observe an empirical result.” This argument sounds suspiciously like a refusal to stick your neck out, because you’re not really so sure that the results will obtain.

        Let me put it this way. Correlation != causation, so even if divorce rates don’t change much as more and more states legalize same-sex marriage, that result wouldn’t prove your argument to be wrong. But still, if divorce rates go down as same-sex marriage goes up, that should count as strong evidence against your position. All things being equal, surely you do expect divorce rates to go up, right?

        Or let me ask the question this way. You’ve described what you see as a likely consequence of legalizing same-sex marriage. But whether this harm will actually obtain is a contested factual question. So what observations would be enough to convince you that you’re mistaken on this point? If the answer is “nothing,” then that strikes me as a pretty serious red flag. But if it’s not nothing, I’m very curious to know what it is.

      • Heartfout

        You were not making an empirical claim?


        I’m sorry for the language, but that is exactly what it is. Both in this post and in the post before you and Esolen have made direct empirical claims about how gay marriage will effect society, and now, with the sudden realisation that, oh shit, you might actually be asked to back up these claims, you are running away and saying that you weren’t really making empirical claims at all, despite the fact that as we are discussing the effects of gay marriage on society, all of the resulting claims on both sides must be empirical.

        That is utterly pathetic, and it says to me that you aren’t actually interested in debating the issue, but instead you want to justify your preexisting views about it, much like your constant usage of unjustified assumptions and assertions in both pieces. If indeed these are the strongest arguments against gay marriage, then I’m forced to become even more in favour of it, just because the opposing arguments are so damn weak.

        • Lose cool? Chill out.

          Effects are largely and most importantly going to be a question of attitude. Attitudes towards marriage have certainly changed, and these are necessarily unempirical. As Mike Flynn put it, “God is in the details.”

          • Ray

            Attitudes aren’t an empirical matter? I think there are a great many pollsters and experimental psychologists who will disagree with you there.

            A god of the details is very much like a god of the gaps. He shrinks every time you buy a bigger microscope.

          • Pollsters measure particular opinions. They do not measure attitudes.

            Forgetting for a moment that such is idiom — which apparently is not attributable to Mike Flynn originally — God is not merely the god of the details, as if that indicated sole domain or authority, and this does not undermine His. This overlaying intelligibility implies an underlying intelligence.

          • Ray

            I notice you do not mention the psychologists. I might also note that opinions are influenced by attitudes, or do you deny that as well? In any event, it seems to me the only way you can claim your statements about attitudes are non-empirical is to define the attitudes you refer to in such a slippery way as to render your statements utterly without content.

            As for the rest of what you said, I’m not sure whether it would be more fruitful to ask how you know any of that stuff, or whether I should ask what it’s supposed to mean in the first place. Probably neither.

          • * Well, psychologists don’t measure, strictly speaking.

            * Measuring a specific opinion in the manner of a pollster, for that matter, reduces the cut and fit and shape and material of an outfit into such component elements. The true sense is lost, replaced by a false sense, or a true sense of false things. Call me a Luddite, but I do not trust filterers.

            Since you didn’t ask: Argument from intelligibility, “God is in the details” is a Googleable idiom, and a microscope — ever more bricks — does not diminish the necessity of understanding how those things go together.

          • Ray

            I see. So your arguments are not just incoherent but unoriginal as well. Well, I would give you a point by point on why the concept of God is of no help in solving these pseudo-problems, but that would take us too far afield, and you’ve probably heard it already anyway. It’s not relevant in this particular context, where you are simply trying to weasel out of having to defend your own beliefs. And to demonstrate the futility of that in particular I have one word: psychometrics.

          • Funny, that incoherence. Keeps seeping in.

            In any case, please prove that originality is truth. Here I thought that was the goal.

          • Ray

            Funny how you always try to shift away from the topic (can attitudes be measured) and respond to claims I haven’t even made (e.g. originality = truth.)

            Anyway, from the first sentence on the Wikipedia article on psychometrics we have “Psychometrics is the field of study concerned with the theory and technique of psychological measurement, which includes the measurement of knowledge, abilities, ATTITUDES, personality traits, and educational measurement.”

          • Just poking the ad hominem, you know.

            As for psychometrics, I know nothing about it except that it is a social science. Knowing what little I do about social science, I have the strong feeling that it is largely involves asking the wrong questions and forming the answers to fit a theory. As a rule, I distrust the social sciences before I trust them.

            But words could probably not explain my attitude very well, so I’ll stop.

        • … or the understanding that they go together.

  • keddaw

    Matt, why not just get the state out of marriage? Have the state treat everyone as an individual and we can sign legal papers to grant the significant other(s) the rights that the state currently affords married people alone.

    Then we can have religions set up their own legal contracts which would disincentivise divorce as much as their particular faith requires and as much as a fair legal contract would allow.

    Doesn’t this solve ALL your problems? Or do you actually want to impose your definition of marriage, and the restrictions your faith somehow claims as the real rules of marriage, upon everyone else regardless of their faith?

    • Katie

      Because culture.

      The idea is that certain norms, certain ways of organizing society, are inherently better for everyone. Don’t look to Leah for a rebuttal of that one.

      But yeah, if you have a pluralistic idea of value or simply respect autonomy, contractualism is the way to go.

  • Jill

    It makes no sense to say that “children” are the only reason and justification for marriage without objecting to heterosexual infertile couples marrying. I’ve never heard an anti-gay-marriage person say that a woman who’s had a hysterectomy should be prohibiting from marrying, nor a man rendered infertile from something like testicular cancer. How does an elderly couple marrying not fall under the category of seeking “sexual and emotional fulfillment however they so choose”. A woman without a uterus has ZERO chance of becoming impregnanted by her male husband, but we allow such marriages.

    As long as people are entering such arrangements fully consenting, I say people can form whatever property contracts they want with each other, be they a man and woman, “sister wives” polygamy, or two men. Let the churches decide for whom they’ll grant their special public committment ceremonies.

    • And again, this begs the question: Is marriage merely contract? You presume it is not, and therefore your conclusion follows.

      Arguments for and against gay marriage will eventually boil down to what marriage is and what the government has to do with it. Political ontology, I say, and that’s a nervous combination.

      As long as we’re tossing grenades, here’s a fairer one: I have never heard a pro-SSM person describe why the state should at all be involved in marriage if children are *not*, generally, the final cause of the package deal.

      • Tex

        Because it allows a simple way to associate both people in the marriage as far as the government is concerned in the many ways it interacts with people. A simple example would be a young couple gets married, husband gets in a car wreck and dies without having written out a will. The wife is then entitled to negotiate w/ his family over her inheritance from him whereas is they were not married it would be much harder for her to have any claim to an inheritance. It also allows her to have input on his medical care if he doesn’t die but is not capable of giving his input whereas if she were not married to her she might not even be allowed to visit him in the hospital. There are many many other ways this works where marriage associates the couple legally and that association legally benefits both people in the marriage.

        Obviously this is far from the only reason or even the most prominent reason people get married, but it is the primary reason the government is involved. The children issue isnt really that much of an issue as far as the government is concerned.

  • Defining marriage is essentially a question of ontology. It is the law’s duty to reflect this and not to change it.

    Now, the objection will come that marriage these days is a social arrangement which need not be directed towards the raising or rearing of children, and the law must reflect this with equity. But this is precisely the question at issue: SSM will seal us in a divorce culture, remember, is the claim.

    Institutionalizing SSM will certainly impede if not effectively prevent the right repair of what marriage is in practice, preventing us from helping it approach what marriage is as a matter of definition. When our culture gets back on its feet, it will find that someone tied his laces together.

    • (Please note that our culture is described as a “him,” depraved as he is.)

  • Seperate point, seperate comment: If there are seven happy, once-married couples having dinner at Elizabeth Taylor’s, what is the marriage rate?

  • What does it mean to be human? Looking at humanity writ large, as such a question requires, we see an alt-sexual species reproducing sexually. (We ignore twinning, that XXY syndrome, &c. in saying such, as is only fair to such a broad question.) Before introducing questions of will, intellect, soul, life after death, and theism in general, we see that humanity qua humanity requires exactly what all species require — reproducing. In this case, it requires reproducing sexually. This is no cavil. If there is no or even insufficient or even inadequate quality of reproduction, the species fails, or fails to compete. At worst, it will will die. At best, it will suffer not being what it should. There is no higher stakes than this.

    I will not belabor the above as it can only be unobjectionable. It does not in and of itself constitute an argument against SSM. I do not here invoke birthrates.

    Man being a social creature — I say social as in the manner of, maybe, ants or bees, again and absurdly assuming no special status for the one known rational animal — it is incumbent upon what could be called, weakly, “society” to organize how things are done to ensure things are done. Just so with the high society of we rational animals, but higher. And with cocktails.

    Despite later admitted capacities for reason, man may not abrogate what even makes men alive. In fact, I would say that given man’s capacity for reason, he should be more rigid than, say, dolphins when considering what is and is not valuable. Man, recognizing the pattern, is more beholden than the animals to obey it. Just as the lizard our lizard brain, though our lizard wears a saddle.

    If you wish to make the case that man, despite being an animal, may deny the nature of being human as I have defined it in his will to power, you may. If you wish to make the case that man, being bound to his desires, must indulge them as he can, you may. But you cannot assert that man may both indulge when nature calls while ignoring the same. You may as well say that he may simultaneously shed his clothes as put them on.

    These points do not in and of themselves constitute an argument against SSM, but these are the necessary partial answers to the Big Questions raised earlier. From these answers I believe an objection to SSM may be solidly drawn.

    • Katie

      Uh, no. These are two different definitions of nature you cite there. One draws on desire (presumed to be innate and therefore “natural”) and the other on some rationally abstracted definition of humanity to which we’re all supposed to conform, regardless of inclination.

      Besides, and I can’t believe I have to point this out, we don’t need everyone to reproduce to maintain the human species. Not to mention, human beings have sex thousands of times per live birth, ovulation is concealed in the human female and women are receptive to sex even after menopause or while menstruating, human sex lasts WAY longer than it does for pretty much any other animal, etc. Human sexuality has very little to do with reproduction.

      • I did not say we must all comply. I said that broad institutions such as marriage should be writ large and simple. There is an inherent value in marriage as it has always existed (at least in the cultures which conquered the world,) which is demonstrable by the case you make.

        I say the case you make because your point about fertility being relatively rare seems to me to make it more important, not less, that some institution writ large regulate specifically male-female sexual activity which exists, that it makes more frequent and fruitful its most important end. (This must be true should we grant that propagation of the species is more important, writ large, than the dispensable satisfaction of a particular member of the species.)

        Because this union — call it “mirage” — is a large institution, necessarily cross-cultural, it must not have too many rules. Man and Woman, permanently in union, seems to me to suffice, as it ever has. For equity of opportunity, if nothing else, we also impose monogamy, seeing as the human race is half-female.

        Besides, and I can’t believe I have to point this out, we don’t need everyone to reproduce to maintain the human species.

        If you do not participate in this vital, Darwinian mission that the species survive, you may recuse yourself and play some other game. My point: It is some other game.

        That SSM is necessarily a lesser game than marriage is the first cornerstone against same-sex marriage. Assumptions regarding the right use of government and the effects of unilateral social decrees would take you the rest of the way.

        These are two different definitions of nature you cite there.

        Good point. But this second definition doesn’t come into play until the Chestertonish last paragraph, which segues from the materialistic naturalistic approach to man to finally answer, “What does it mean to be human?”

        Let me rephrase more clearly: To consider the nature of what it means to be human we first look at what humans are. With this corpus, undeniable, we have an outfit to choose. Do we choose to behave on merely instinct or do we choose to act in some way other than instinct? This is the choice between “will to power” and “putting on some clothes.”

        Given that we are cognizant of ourselves and that our behavior affects how the species survives, why would we not want an institution which will preserve the species qua species, whether or not we directly participate?

        Look at it another way: Whether or not we participate, we are all stakeholders in marriage. With SSM, whether or not we participate, we are not stakeholders.

        Before you leap for joy, remember that the case against SSM is that making SSM equivalent to marriage unqualified does in fact diminish an institution we all are inherently interested in, merely by SSM not intrinsically being an institution we are intrinsically interested in. It is as if bubble gum were declared gluten.

    • butterfly5906

      “From these answers I believe an objection to SSM may be solidly drawn”

      I’m not sure exactly where you are going with this, or how it relates to same-sex marriage, or even homosexual sex. (Maybe it’s because I’m not Catholic and so I’m missing some of the assumptions you are making? I don’t know.) However, I can’t see any path from these premises that doesn’t lead to it also being wrong for priests and nuns to be celibate.

      • As above, especially:

        If you do not participate in this vital, Darwinian mission that the species survive, you may recuse yourself and play some other game. My point: It is some other game.

  • Kogo

    *”Liberty is not the ability to do what you want, but the right to do what you ought.” – Lord Acton*

    No, I’m pretty sure liberty IS the ability to do what you want.

    The “right to do what you ought” seems to me like a definition of liberty that the Revolutionary Guard of Iran or the government of North Korea would be entirely comfortable.

    I don’t know if you noticed, Leah, but we founded this country because of certain . . . differences with the British nobility, rather than out of admiration for them.

    • I agree, and I will one-up you by explaining what I mean: He is wrong because he is British.

  • Why can’t people “seek the fulfillment of their sexual and emotional desires” by finding a partner they love and also be responsible and committed in that relationship? Seeking fulfillment of one’s own desires doesn’t mean a person can’t simultaneously care about the desires of others, especially of the person they’re with. I’ve gotten rather sick and tired of this argument that if a marriage doesn’t live up to a nostalgic fantasy some people have in their heads about the so-called “good old days”, then it must be a selfish and uncaring relationship.

    Marriage has changed a lot over the years, and despite the problems, I think the change has overall been good. I think it’s better for people to get married to someone they want to marry rather than doing things like having forced marriages or staying in a horrible relationship. Heterosexual people who’ve benefited from the many changes that have resulted (e.g. being able to marry who they want, rather than having a forced marriage; being able to marry someone of a different skin color) now turn around and talk about how same-sex marriages are so horrible and selfish and how marriage laws should not be changed to allow them.

    As sad as divorce may be, I’d rather live in a country that has no-fault divorce rather than one with really strict limitations on divorce. I’ve noticed that people who complain about the high divorce rate fail to mention that one of the contributing factors for why the divorce was higher in the past may have been that people felt forced to say in marriages — sometimes even when there was abuse. I care about the quality of the relationship, not just that people stay together, even in a bad relationship.

    @The Ubiquitous:
    From a comment above

    The government’s interest in supporting marriage is that children result.

    People get married without having children and have children without getting married.

    • Sure, but I leave it to you to either prove the merits of fatherless homes or negate, somehow, the drawbacks.

      • What about the drawbacks of staying in a horrible marriage, even one with abuse? It’s isn’t the case that staying married is the best option in all situations, which is why I don’t think allowing divorce is bad thing. It’s up to the people to make their own decision.

        In response to that same comment from above, marriage doesn’t have to be about What It Means To Be A Man and What It Means To Be A Woman. Maybe this is what some people think marriage should be about, but this kind of definition just leads to sexism, where people are expected to act a certain way due to their gender, where everyone’s relationship is expected to be the same. That kind of definition of marriage takes away people’s rights and tells them they have to be like everyone else, that they have to let other people’s expectations control their lives.

        • Typo:
          Meant to write, “It isn’t the case . . .”