Why does the same-sex marriage debate seem so futile?

Michael Cook
23 August 2012
Reproduced with Permission

Why is it so hard to have a calm, rational debate about same-sex marriage? In the US, Australia and Britain it is becoming louder and more bitter by the day. But the torrent of words flows over stone, unabsorbed by the other side. What many people fail to grasp is that key terms of the debate are being interpreted in different ways. Unless these are clarified, there is little hope of a meeting of minds. Here are a few of the issues which need to be unpacked.

Morality. Are homosexual acts moral or immoral? Nearly all discussion of same-sex marriage tiptoes around this issue. But unless we agree, there can be no progress. If they are moral, it is quite hard to explain why a relationship based on them should not be allowed to bond a marriage.

The question is not whether homosexual acts are legally permissible. The law offers scant help in determining what is moral and immoral. In fact, in Lawrence v. Texas, the landmark 2003 case which declared that it was unconstitutional to ban sodomy, the US Supreme Court declared itself to be agnostic about the moral value of homosexual acts. It acknowledged that "for centuries there have been powerful voices to condemn homosexual conduct as immoral. The condemnation has been shaped by religious beliefs, conceptions of right and acceptable behavior, and respect for the traditional family. For many persons these are not trivial concerns but profound and deep convictions accepted as ethical and moral principles to which they aspire and which thus determine the course of their lives."

However, the majority ruled that moral considerations were essentially irrelevant. "The issue is whether the majority may use the power of the State to enforce these views on the whole society through operation of the criminal law."

Asserting that homosexuality was made legal decades ago sidesteps the issue. By what principles should we assess the morality of these acts - or indeed of any acts? This is fundamentally what is at stake. If we want to be consistent, we have to be ready to accept all the downstream consequences which flow from accepting the principles. We have to use the same ethical principles to decide whether targeted assassination in Afghanistan, infanticide, or cyber-bullying is wrong.

Origins. Are they really "born that way"? Most supporters of same-sex marriage assume that homosexuality is as genetically determined as skin colour. Gays and lesbians were born that way and cannot change. Discrimination against them is as unjust as racial discrimination.

However, there is no settled science on whether homosexuality is hard-wired in one's genes, determined by childhood experiences or a matter of choice. Even the American Psychological Association - which supports same-sex marriage and same-sex parenting - admits that the cause or causes of homosexuality are extremely murky:

"There is no consensus among scientists about the exact reasons that an individual develops a heterosexual, bisexual, gay, or lesbian orientation. Although much research has examined the possible genetic, hormonal, developmental, social, and cultural influences on sexual orientation, no findings have emerged that permit scientists to conclude that sexual orientation is determined by any particular factor or factors."

In any case, genetics does not determine moral value. There is a genetic component to cancer, but cancer is not good. There may be a gene for alcoholism, but drunkenness does not excuse unruly behaviour.

It does seem unfair to deny marriage to a "sexual minority", a group of people whose sexual preferences are inalterable from birth. But there is no consensus - even among homosexuals - that that homosexuality is genetically determined.

"Marriage". What version of marriage are we talking about? After no-fault divorce was legalised and contraception became widespread, two parallel visions of marriage have emerged, the legally-sanctioned version and the pop culture version. Legally, marriage is "the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life." This version mandates exclusive fidelity to one partner for the whole of one's life. If you accept this, then contemporary sexual mores are confused and deplorable. Public policy should be directed towards actively promoting fidelity and decreasing the number of divorces.

The other version allows infidelity and regards "until death do us part" as a polite fiction. Traditional marriage is battered on one side by gay activists and on the other by marriage "experts" who want to reshape it. As a corrupt example of this, British academic Catherine Hakim argued the other day that the problem with countries like the US, England and Australia is that there isn't enough adultery. "Anyone rejecting a fresh approach to marriage and adultery, with a new set of rules to go with it, fails to recognise the benefits of a revitalised sex life outside the home," she writes in her latest book, The New Rules of Marriage: Internet Dating, Playfairs and Erotic Power. She sounds exactly like gay sex adviser Dan Savage.

The co-existence of two models of a fundamental institution creates a lot of confusion, and not just for homosexuals. Opponents of same-sex marriage, for the most part, have the legal definition in mind. Supporters believe that Catherine Hakim's version is just dandy. A real debate requires clarification of what kind of marriage is the ideal.

"Love". "Love" is another equivocal concept. An ideal marriage has always been viewed as a loving marriage. But is this love solely sexual attraction? Most supporters of same-sex marriage seem to think so. The attraction between two males or two females is sufficient justification for marriage.

However, erotic love is just one component of traditional marriage described above. It would be truer to say that it is all about commitment - of the spouses to each other and to the children - than that it is all about love. Traditionalists believe that redefining marriage to highlight the erotic dimension demeans the sacrifice which are necessary to create and sustain a family.

"Purpose". Does sex have a purpose? Does marriage? In most debates over same-sex marriage the question of ends emerges almost immediately. Most people believe that natural institutions have a purpose. Our hands are for grasping; our brains are for thinking; water is for drinking. The whole universe has a purpose, mysterious though it may be.

However, this point of view finds little support among contemporary philosophers. The Darwinian theory of evolution has scrubbed science clean of "purpose". Things just are. Stuff just happens. Nowadays post-modern philosophers deny that words have a stable meaning. Instead, they assert with Humpty-Dumpty, that "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less." If this is the case, then complaints that gays and lesbians are redefining marriage are simply unintelligible. Of course they are; what else are you supposed to do with words?

A presumption of malice. Effective debates are based on mutual respect. Your opponent may seem illogical, ignorant of the evidence or burdened by almost insurmountable prejudice. But both sides entered the debate aware that truth is elusive and hard to express. They realise that language is a blunt instrument but they persevere in the hope that conflicts can be resolved.

However, some parties - on both sides of the same-sex marriage debate - believe that in a matter as important as same-sex marriage it is impossible to hold a different opinion in good conscience. In their eyes, the issue is so blazingly obvious that only a fool or a knave could entertain a different point of view. Given that that their opponents are using words of more than one syllable and use a keyboard, they are not fools. Therefore they are "mendacious" (a favourite word) knaves, filled with hatred or a sheer lust for domination.

If this is the case, scorn and vilification are the appropriate responses. After all, would it be moral to shake hands with Hitler and exchange polite words about the weather? Of course not. Politeness would condone his evil policies.

In my experience, the presumption of malice is more common among supporters of same-sex marriage. Opponents tend to believe that love and marriage are founded on eternal truths which can be discussed rationally, however difficult that may be. But supporters are generally post-modernists, philosophically speaking, who are sceptical of "truth". In their eyes disagreements are disputes over power, not truth. Every debate is a winner-takes-all battle for domination and the "traditional" side is malicious, not just mistaken.

Same-sex marriage is a deeply emotional issue. Conjugal life is sometimes strewn with boulders and hedged by thorns, but marriage is a time-tested path to lifelong happiness. The gay and lesbian lobby believe that they are being unjustly excluded. But perhaps if we clarify some of the words we use in the debate, we can make some progress towards uncovering where true happiness lies.