Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Marital "Ideal"

Note the debate between Ross Douthat, Andrew Sullivan on gay marriage and Glen Greenwald.

Ross Douthat says conservatives must oppose gay marriage in order to uphold "one of the great ideas of Western civilization: celebration of lifelong heterosexual monogamy as a unique and indispensable estate." Heterosexuality promotes life and the monogamy then assures that child parenthood:

"The point of this ideal," Douthat says, "is not that other relationships have no value, or that only nuclear families can rear children successfully. Rather, it’s that lifelong heterosexual monogamy at its best can offer something distinctive and remarkable — a microcosm of civilization, and an organic connection between human generations — that makes it worthy of distinctive recognition and support.

In their own, unique ways, Sullivan and Greenwald counter by noting this is not a zero-sum game whereby one relationship has to be condemned by the state while the other is promoted.

I will focus on the discussion between Douthat and Sullivan. Greenwald essentially makes a legalistic argument that yes, counters Douthat's zero-sum game analysis without addressing his concern about the cultural ideal itself.

"I don't disagree with this at all," Sullivan says on his own blog. "I remain in awe of the heterosexual life-long coupling that produces new human life. There is a miraculous, sacred, awe-inspiring aspect to it. I understand why this is a Sacrament, and have no interest in being included in such a Sacrament since it is premised on the very Thomist arguments Ross puts forward." But, and this is his key point:

"...the question is whether this ideal should rest on its own laurels or needs to be elevated by law and doctrine to the highest level of human relationship, and also, in order to achieve this ideal, actively exclude others - both in the religious and the secular sphere?"

Sullivan does not believe religious institutions actually uphold, let alone believe in those "ideals." He then notes those instances where religious institutions break from this marital ideal. The Catholic Church for example, allows infertile couples to marry as well as people who are past child-bearing age. It permits and in fact commends parents who adopt children even though this would violate the Mr. Ross' procreative ideal standard and it permits married couples to annul their marriages. Some protestant churches reject both, Douthat's monogamy and procreative ideals by freely permitting divorce and contraception. The Catholic and Protestant churches have, in Sullivan's opinion, squandered whatever justifications that might have justified a prohibition on gay marriage.

On the merits I think he is right. A conservative could say (and in fact some have said) that the recognition of the marriages which gay people would enter into confirms what they (socially conservative heterosexuals) have only conceded and makes the resurgence in values which they seek only that much harder.

Sullivan conceded too much to Douthat, for in effect Mr. Sullivan said heterosexuals who otherwise should have won the battle for privileging heterosexual marriage defaulted for their failure to live by the standards that separated them from their homosexual neighbors. Celebrating and privileging heterosexual intercourse would have been perfectly acceptable since it and it alone guarantees that life will be passed on from generation to generation.

This fear that our procreative situation is precarious is misguided. We don't have to celebrate heterosexual monogamy in order to sustain civilization and link one generation to another generation. (Our society may have to uphold monogamy as an ideal for reasons that affect gay and straight people alike), but heterosexuality itself will occur naturally, whether "heterosexual monogamy" is upheld as the "ideal" or not just as homosexuality will occur naturally, whether it is condemned or not. And if we compare the proportion of people who are straight (90 - 97% of the population) to the proportion of people who are gay (3 - 10% of the population) there are more than enough straights and bisexuals in heterosexual relationships reproducing to make up for the number of gays and bisexuals in homosexual relations who do not.

If, as our conservative opponents say, there aren't that many gay people out there, then "we have nothing to fear but fear itself."

No comments: