Thursday, February 06, 2014

Government interest in marriage, particularly same sex marriage

A thought just occurred to me.

My daughter has become a same sex marriage advocate.  A couple of weeks ago, we were in the car, and I wanted to find out how much she had thought about it.  So I asked her what arguments she knew for same sex marriage and what arguments she knew against it.  Naturally, she had more to say in favour of it than against it, so I raised some issues against it to see how she would respond.

First, I asked her why she thought the government was interested in marriage at all.  After all, there are different kinds of relationships--the relationship between a man and a woman, the relationship between siblings, the relationship between business partners, and the relationship between friends.  So I asked her why the government would issue a license for a marriage, but not for BFF's (best friends forever).

She wasn't sure, so I pointed out the fact that the government is interested in the good of society.  Society is made up of people.  And where do people come from?  A man and a woman.  And that's the only place people come from.  Same sex couples are incapable of producing people, so the government has no interest in licensing that kind of relationship.  The government does have an interest in protecting, encouraging, and incentivizing the relationship between a man and a woman, but they have no such interest in the relationship between same sex couples.

Grace had a quick reply to that.  She pointed out that a lot of opposite sex couples are incapable of having children.  She was using a reductio ad absurdum.  My argument had been based on the premise that the government should only issue a license to couples capable of producing children.  She pointed out that some opposite sex couples are incapable of producing children.  If we consider it absurd to deny two 50 year old people the right to marry simply because they can't have children, then we'd have to reject my premise.

We talked about that for a while.  I'll spare you the details.

The thought that just occurred to me was that Grace had attempted to refute a general principle by the use of an exception.  The general principle is that the government should issue a marriage license only to couples who are capable of producing children.  The exception that almost all of us would accept would be opposite sex couples who, for whatever reason, are incapable of having children.  We certainly wouldn't deny a 26 year old woman to get married just because she had had a hysterectomy.

But I was just thinking about how opponents to same sex marriage sometimes respond to pro same sex marriage arguments.  One argument goes like this:

1.  If two people love each other, they should be allowed to marry.
2.  Portia and Ellen love each other.
3.  Therefore, Portia and Ellen should be allowed to marry.

Opponents to same sex marriage will make an ad absurdum argument by the use of an exception to the first premise.

1'.  If two people love each other, they should be allowed to marry.
2'.  A brother and sister love each other.
3'.  Therefore, a brother and sister should be allowed to marry.

Once the dust settles because of the emotional frenzy that results from audaciously comparing homosexuality to incest, the advocate of same sex marriage will say that there is a legitimate reason for excepting siblings from the general principle.  It's because the children of incest often have birth defects, and the government shouldn't allow the kind of coupling that is detrimental to children.

But what if one of the siblings is infertile?  In that case, they are incapable of producing children, whether healthy or  not.  Should they then be allowed to marry?  What objection could a same sex advocate raise?

I suppose many will just bite the bullet and say we should allow those people to get married.  Why not?

But suppose some are still against it. How could they oppose it and remain consistent with their premise that if two people love each other, they should be allowed to marry?  They've got to come up with a justifiable reason to make an exception for infertile siblings while still allowing same sex couples to marry.

The one basis for exception they'll never use is that incest is morally wrong because once you bring morality into it, then that opens up a Pandora's box for the morality of homosexuality that everybody wants to avoid in this whole debate but that is probably at the heart of it for most of those who oppose it.

Another option for same sex marriage advocates is to say that rather than excepting individual couples from being allowed to marry, there should be an exception for certain kinds of couples.  In the case of incest, it's the kind of coupling that is detrimental to children.   So if there happen to be members of that kind (e.g. infertile siblings) that happen not to be detrimental to children, they can still be disallowed because they are still members of the same kind.

After all, it would be impractical and intrusive for the government to start prying into the biology and health of individuals who want to marry, which they would have to do if they are going to weed out the fertile couples from the infertile couples.

But that brings us back to the point Grace made earlier about how some opposite sex couples are infertile.  She was attempting to show that if we should only allow marriages for couples capable of producing children, then we should disallow marriage to infertile opposite sex couples.  But if we are going to make marriage legal or illegal based on the kinds of marriages they are rather than the individual circumstances of couples, then we should allow infertile opposite sex couples to marry because they are at least members of the only kind of relationship capable of producing children.

So an opponent to same sex marriage could still argue that since opposite sex couples form the only kind of relationship capable of producing children, then it's the only kind of relationship that the government ought to license.  And it doesn't matter that there happen to be some opposite sex couples who are incapable of having children since they are still members of the only kind of relationship that is capable of producing children.

After all, a big part of this debate has to do with the benefits associating with a marriage license.  One of those benefits is tax breaks.  Even though in a household with two members who are both capable of working and therefore splitting their expenses, they still get tax breaks that single people who have to bear all the household expenses themselves don't get.  If a couple gets married and therefore pays less taxes, single people have to pick up the slack.

We all pay taxes that go toward things that may not benefit us personally, but that benefit society as a whole.  Since we're members of the same society, we typically think it's worth it to pay taxes to benefit society as a whole.  So as single people, we might be perfectly okay with paying extra taxes that relieve a burden on married couples since we think marriage is good for society and ought to be incentivized.

But why would any of us want to pay extra taxes to privilege a kind of relationship that doesn't benefit society since it's incapable of producing children?

It seems that same sex marriage advocates would need to come up with some reason for why the government would have an interest in licensing their relationship.  Why incentives that kind of relationship as opposed to, say, BFF's?

I've heard various suggestions for how same sex marriage benefits society, so it has been done.  One that I think is a pretty good reason is so same sex couples can adopt.  And I don't mean being able to adopt new borns since there's no shortage of opposite sex couples wanting to adopt new borns.  I'm talking about older orphans.  I think it's better for those orphans to be adopted by same sex couples than to live in foster homes or orphanages.

Another benefit is to curb the spread of disease.  Let's face it. The homosexual community is more promiscuous than the rest of us.  I've had gay people tell me this themselves.  If same sex marriage were incentivized, we should expect that to lessen promiscuity and correspondingly the spread of disease.  That would be good for society.

It is easy to make arguments in isolation, but when you try to iron out all the kinks in your noetic structure and make everything consistent, it takes a bit of work.  I encourage my daughter to think things through, and she is a bright girl.


At 2/06/2014 10:35 PM , Blogger JB Chappell said...

It seems to me that if the government if giving tax breaks for married couples, and then adding tax breaks for kids on top of that, what we're really incentivizing (at first) is monogamy, not the potential to produce children. And if that is true, then there is no reason to oppose same-sex marriage. Of course, as you say, then the potential for incestual relationships comes into play. Why not brother and sister?

At some point, I think we all have to admit that what's occurring is an endorsement of accepted norms as "healthy". Do you love each other? Check? Are you monogamous? Check. Is this a healthy relationship? ... Well, most people would agree that a brother-sister relationship of this sort is not a healthy one.

The people make these determinations, and the government reflects the power of the people. At this point, it's becoming clear which direction the people are leaning.

At 2/07/2014 11:18 AM , Blogger Sam said...

You make a good point about incentivizing monogamy rather than the potential to produce children since tax breaks are given for children separately from the tax breaks given just for being married in the first place.

By why incentivize monogamy apart from any interest in children? What interest does the government have in that? And why that particular kind of relationship? Why aren't there licenses for BFF's to incentive people to be best friends forever?

I was just thinking yesterday that the purpose of giving tax breaks to married couples may not have had anything to do with encouraging monogamy or incentivizing the potential to produce children. Today, in most marriages, both people go to work and have an income. When I wrote this blog I insinuated that it was unfair since the married couple get to pool their resources and share expenses whereas single people have to shoulder all the expenses themselves. So even without tax breaks, married couples already have a financial advantage, and it seemed unfair that married couples get an additional financial advantage from tax breaks and that single people, who are already under financial strain, have to pick up the slack.

But that's only how things are now. They haven't always been that way. It used to be that men went to work and women stayed home. A single man had more of a financial burden than a married man because a single man only had to feed himself whereas a married man had to feed himself, his wife, and any children he had. That is probably why tax breaks are given to married people. If so, then maybe we should stop giving them since that isn't how the world works anymore.

If we decide whether to grant a marriage license based on whether the coupling is healthy or not, then on what basis could we say that a brother/sister relationship in which one or both of them are infertile is not healthy? I saw a talk show a long time ago where a twin brother and sister were separated at birth and grew up not even knowing they had a sibling. They met as adults, still not knowing they were siblings, and fell in love. They later found out they were brother and sister. They tried to get married legally on the basis that they were not legally brother and sister. What is unhealthy about that relationship?

Many people have argued that homosexual relationships are not healthy, especially male homosexual relationships. So if health is a factor, it seems like an argument could be made against male homosexual marriage just as well as infertile incest marriage.

At 2/07/2014 12:46 PM , Blogger DagoodS said...

Marriage confers benefits upon the participants. Including real estate ownership and possessory rights, inheritance rights and property rights. It confers legal benefits such as loss of consortium, privilege in testimony, modification of name, and immigration status. Economic benefits, like family discounts, insurance rates, social security benefits and tax benefits (both income and inheritance). Right to spousal support, medical decisions, visitation rights.

Because there are so many benefits, the government has an interest monitoring those entering the arrangement. We do not want people marrying a number of persons to obtain immigration status. Or eliminate inheritance tax. Or gain tax deductions. The licensure process ensures the benefits are granted to those entitled. It prevents bigamy, fraud and lack of consent.

BFF’s and business partners* do not get benefits by virtue of being BFF’s or business partners; hence the government is not interested in monitoring those relationships.

*business partners are a bit of a hybrid, as there is some benefit conferred by virtue of the business agreement. And the government does have an interest in enforcing the agreement, doing so within the legal system.

Notice none of those benefits have to do with children. None. Whether one can, cannot, should or should not have children is irrelevant to marriage benefits. [Any “benefits” with children arise as a parent. Ask any person with children what benefits or rights their second spouse has with the children. None. The parents have rights. Not the spouses of parents.] None of these benefits have to do with sex. None. You can, cannot, should or should not have sex, yet these benefits are in place regardless what one does.

I am not convinced any of these benefits were provided to incentivize marriage. More a recognition of an ongoing historical relationship. I doubt many people are marrying to get a discounted membership at Costco. And if they are marrying to get immigration status, the government actually questions the legitimacy of marrying for such an incentive!

At 2/07/2014 3:28 PM , Blogger Sam said...

DagoodS, what is the purpose of conferring all those rights on a man and woman who live together as opposed to two BFF's who live together?

At 2/10/2014 9:23 AM , Blogger DagoodS said...


Good question. In reviewing legal history, I would have to say anticipated permanency in the relationship (ironic considering the no-fault divorce destabilization ) coupled with the traditional norms of husbands being breadwinners with wives as homemakers.

Laws traditionally follow historical precedents—we regulate societal concerns already happening. (It is rare laws anticipate future problems; they typically react to current situations.) Marriage was already in place prior to laws regulating it. Economic regulations such as spousal support, social security benefits, dower, inheritance rights, etc. were seen as ways to protect the wife from a husband’s economic power in the relationship. In short, we did not want the husband to make all the money, the wife stay at home, making the home, and then the husband deprive her of any economic benefit at his death or divorce.

As society changes—with benefits like “friends and family” plans, for example—we may reach a point of regulating BFF’s.

We look to the law itself for the purpose. The problem with opposing gay-marriage by claiming “government purpose” within marriage statutes themselves, is that the statues ONLY regulate the relationship between the married individuals. Not children. The regulations can equally apply whether the couple is the same gender or not. The same race or not. Therefore the claim that government’s purposes in marriage statues are thwarted, impinged or unfulfilled in a same gender relationship falls flat.

At 2/13/2014 3:50 AM , Blogger JB Chappell said...

I think short answer to your question on why we incentivize monogamy as opposed to just generating offspring is because that was probably a popular political maneuver at some point. Want some tax breaks? Sure sounds good. Sometimes it's as simple as that, and trying to develop some philosophical consistency out of our tax code is a misguided process. I think you are spot on when you identify that the tax code seems to not exactly reflect the way the world currently works. Those who need the breaks the most are often those who don't see them. Meanwhile, corporations and the 1% have no end to write-offs.

The longer answer is that, again, monogamy is considered the sign of a well-adjusted relationship. Swingers are frowned upon. "Open" relationships are still the exception, not the rule. Of course, one big practical reason for this is prevention of STD's. Monogamous couples are not nearly as likely to spread disease as the polyamorous. This is one good practical reason for recognizing gay marriage: monogamy should be encouraged/rewarded in a subculture that has generally been far more promiscuous, and with disastrous consequences. So, from a public health standpoint, it makes sense. As for why BFF's would then not be incentivized, hopefully that becomes obvious: just because two bros are sleeping under the same roof, does not mean that they aren't spreading Hepatitis C to a sexual partner every weekend (or whenever).

The million dollar question, of course, is the one you later ask: how is "healthy" determined? I don't think there is a good answer there, except that it will be whatever society accepts at the time. There are plenty of monogamous, heterosexual relationships that are obviously unhealthy. 70% of these end up in divorce, after all. And, nebulous as that is, if one accepts that society eventually settled on a marriage practice that (generally) "works" in heterosexual, monogamous marriage, then I'm not sure we have a good argument for why it can't continue to identify working relationships.

I have no doubt that some have argued that "homosexual relationships" are unhealthy. Not sure if that means monogamous unions or what. The problem with that is we're generalizing. What percentage are we talking about? How does that compare to "heterosexual relationships"? How specific are we willing to get? After all, one could easily argue that certain red flags in heterosexual marriages are very good indicators for failure, but no one would dare suggest that we actually deny marriage licenses based off them (low income, for example). Invasion of privacy, and all that. Which is fine; but then the minute we do that we're acknowledging that there are other important considerations.

Here's one to consider: the abortion issue. If we truly care about ending abortion in most instances, I think we'd all have to acknowledge that we need more stable couples willing to adopt children. I think we'd also have to acknowledge that there aren't enough heterosexual couples to bear that burden. Odds are, there aren't enough homosexual couples either, but it certainly would ease the burden. Yet, traditional marriage advocates would deny us this potential solution because of arbitrary definitions.

Oh, for sure, some would argue that gay parents aren't fit to raise children. But while making such evidence-based arguments (which have counterpoints of course), they'll ignore other red flags in heterosexual relationships. They won'ty have a problem with low-income families raising kids, or with unedcuated parents, etc. Why? Not because the research indicates that they'll do better than gay parents, but because they what matters most: the backing of the Bible.

Which we all know is what's *really* lurking in the background here, but the traditional marriage advocate has to say everything but, because in admitting what everyone else knows, the enterprise collapses.

At 2/17/2014 10:50 PM , Blogger Carlos F. said...

Interesting post, Sam. I am a fan of your blog. It seems to me, however, that you may be starting to consider marriage too much as a means-to-an-end.

Many supporters of same-sex "marriage" allege that we should accept ssm because it will lead to good consequences, these often being something to the effect of: "reducing the rate of suicides amongst homosexuals," or "reducing the spread of AIDS," or "promoting norms of fidelity and permanence amongst homosexuals," etc.

It seems to me, however, that this is just flatly misguided for a number of reasons. One is that you do not need to redefine marriage in order to address any of these issues. You needn't redefine marriage, for example, to discourage suicides amongst homosexuals, or to promote norms of permanence and fidelity amongst homosexuals, etc. There are completely separate avenues by which one can seek to advance such goals.

Imagine, for example, that we supposed that redefining marriage to allow for man-animal marriages might promote "norms of friendliness, good treatment and care of animals" and that it discouraged "animal suicide" or whatever (and that we, as a society, really, really cared about such things). Would that thereby mean that we should redefine marriage in order to allow man-animal "marriages"? Well of course not, and for at least two reasons: (I) marriage has a metaphysically significant nature and it serves a compelling public purpose (viz. attaching mothers and fathers to their children and to one another) and the doing away of this purpose or metaphysical nature by redefining it or undermining it is not only an absurd exercise but is also bound to be utterly pernicious; and (II) redefining marriage isn't necessary in order to promote norms of friendliness, good treatment and care of animals. The same reasons come to bear on pleas to redefine marriage to "discourage suicide amongst homosexuals," or to "discourage the spread of AIDS in homosexual communities," etc., etc.

I purse this topic at more length in my blog here:


At 2/21/2014 8:22 PM , Blogger JB Chappell said...

Carlos, there is no ONE definition of "marriage". We (by that I mean, most Western societies) would never have gotten to monogamous, heterosexual unions if the "definition" of marriage hadn't been changed in the first place. So what makes that move off-limits now?

And in the public sector, good luck trying to argue that marriage is "metaphysically significant."

At 2/22/2014 4:05 PM , Blogger Carlos F. said...

By marriage, JB, I just mean the metaphysically comprehensive union between a man and a woman that is ordered towards procreation. Of course, civil law has, throughout history, meddled with marriage "around the edges," so to speak, by determining lawful conduct between spouses, or determining how many spouses one may have, or determining the age at which one may marry, etc. But until 20 minutes ago, virtually no society in the history of man has decided that marriage has nothing really to do with male-female comprehensive complementarity and procreation, but rather with the trite and ethereal interests of adults and how they "feel" about their relationship.

At 2/23/2014 7:17 PM , Blogger JB Chappell said...

Carlos, unfortunately, the "virtually" betrays the fact that there have been, in fact, cultures that have endorsed same-sex marriages. It isn't new, although it is certainly a minority phenomenon.

Appealing to majorities and lowest common denominators does not a definition make. There is not, and never has been, any one definition of marriage, only that which society has stamped as "approved". Feel free to argue for why society should not approve, but appealing to non-existent static definitions is just misguided.

Demonstrating some kind of metaphysical significance to a monogamous, heterosexual union might be a start, but like I said, in a government setting, good luck trying to establish that on non-religious grounds. And we all know that's what this boils down to.

No is upset by this because they've come to hold that marriage somehow metaphysically excludes same-sex unions. No, they are upset because their religious beliefs contradict the direction society is heading, and they know they can't object on religious grounds. So, they have to resort to misguided efforts like trying to say marriage has always been something or other, when that is patently not the case, nor would saying something has always been the case be a good argument for preventing it from changing.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home