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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