May 19, 2006

The Value of Uniqueness

Hatched by Dafydd

The most typical response from those who support same-sex marriage to anyone who opposes it is this: "suppose your state adopted same-sex marriage; would that somehow hurt your own relationship with your wife? Would you love her any less just because two guys or two girls could also get married?"

The second question masquerades as a restatement or clarification of the first, but it's actually an insulting irrelevancy. We're not talking about love; pure love between any number of people has never been illegal. Only certain manifestations of love have been legally proscribed.

One such manifestation is sex. Sex other than within a traditional marriage used to be illegal nearly everywhere within Christendom (and Jewishdom); over the centuries, societies recognized the foolishness of trying to enforce marital fidelity by law.

Then, until recently, what were considered the most extreme versions of sex (to some people) were outlawed by the all-purpose word "sodomy," which typically referred, it seemed, to anything the judge wouldn't do with his own wife. I have argued for nearly twenty years that our organic documents -- especially the Declaration of Independence -- recognize a general "liberty interest" that more or less says the government should not try to regulate purely private "matters of conscience."

This, the Libertarian Axiom, has never been accepted as generally true; but in specific cases it has. And in particular, in the 2003 case of Lawrence v. Texas, the Supreme Court struck down all laws banning "sodomy," however defined.

So let's drop the "love" and "sex" stuff and get back to marriage.

First, same-sex marriage is not itself a "liberty interest." Liberty is the freedom to do something, to undertake some action -- from saying something to assembling to transacting business to having sex. But legal recognition of a same-sex union as "marriage" does not confer any freedom of action; you are already free to have gay sex, to live together, to call yourselves married in other than legal circumstances.

Rather, it's a demand for social approval of certain actions... and "social approval" is never a liberty interest.

Thus, society can restrict what kinds of relationships get dubbed "marriages" without restricting liberty. But should it? Does same-sex marriage actually harm society... and more specifically, does it actually harm already existing marriages?

The answer to the first question above -- does legal same-sex marriage somehow hurt my relationship with my wife? -- is Yes, of course it does... because it cheapens the unique value of that relationship.

Semantic note, it wouldn't hurt my relations with my wife (we would still interact the same)... but it would hurt the relationship as a separate entity, just as it would if we suddenly discovered the rabbi who married us was really an imposter, and we weren't actually legally married.

The reason is that uniqueness is itself a value; take away the unique nature of marriage, and the value is greatly diminished. All that stands between marriage and shacking up is that unique nature.

Illustration: suppose you go out with the girl of your dreams. Or, if you are a girl, the boy of your dreams. (If you are gay, please reverse those... see how ecumenical I am?) You have been friends with this person for some time, and you secretly love her. Him. Whatever.

At the end of the date, this person turns to you, takes you by the hands, and says "Pat" -- let's hope your name actually is Pat -- "I love you." Then the person kisses you passionately.

You're ecstatic. You're walking on air. All the way hope, it's like a Fred Astaire movie.

Then the next day, you tell you friends... and they solemnly inform you that she (or he) says that to every person she dates... kiss and all.

Now how do you feel? You feel like crap, because you realize that there was no uniqueness in that proclamation: she loves everybody, which is the same as saying she doesn't love anybody, especially not you. What made the three words valuable (even holy or sacred) was your mistaken idea that they were unique, something she shared with you and with nobody else. As soon as you realize those same words were offered to every Tom, Joaquin, and Yuri, they cease to have any value.

So we agree, I hope, that uniqueness itself is a quality that can imbue a situation or relationship with high, even holy value. Make the unique universal, and the value it adds vanishes altogether.

Back to marriage. Relationships have value not only to individuals but to the groups and societies those individuals form. A lawyer-client relationship, for example; it's useful to the individuals involved, but it's also useful to society to have an avenue where people can get advice without having to worry that their problems will be spread all over the community.

So we reward such relationships with special privileges (confidentiality, for example) -- and we confine them by special rules (defining who is a lawyer and who is a client of that lawyer). This is because we, as a society, believe that lawyer-client relationships benefit our society -- so we want to encourage them, and we also want to regulate them to ensure people are not just taking advantage of rights without fulfilling the obligations.

Marriage is the same: society has decided (rightly, in my opinion) that traditional marriage is a huge benefit not just to the individuals involved (typically more than two: husband, wife, but also children and potentially Grandma and Grandpa), but also to society as a whole: it nurtures children in the best possible environment, it combines the male with the female principles, it civilizes men, it protects women, and it provides an axis around which the wheels of larger institutions rotate, including property ownership, parental obligations, and our interaction with the government from testimony to taxes.

So we encourage it. But such encouragement is meaningless and useless if it's universally applied to every imaginable relationship of one or more human beings.

A "marriage" of thirteen women and six men is not the same as a traditional marriage: it does not have the same qualities, it does not have the same effect, it does not underpin our society the same way as does the particular relationship we have always called Marriage.

When society jettisons all distinctions between different types of relationships and chooses (or is forced) to call everything "marriage," then Marriage loses its uniqueness as an institution, hence its value to society and the individuals within the marriage.

It's like saying that any two or three or fifty chums chatting with each other are the same as a lawyer talking with his client, and they get all the same rights and privileges. There are rights of universalism and rights of exclusion; marriage is the latter. When an exclusive right is granted to all, it loses any value it obtained from uniqueness... which means all value whatsoever.

So the answer is yes: if California were to change the law to allow same-sex couples to legally marry (or groups larger than two, or persons already married, or consanguineous groups, or groups that do not obtain a license or go through a marriage ceremony), it would indeed damage my relationship (not relations) with my wife: the change would diminish its value, because it would remove the quality of uniqueness that underpins that value.

Thus, there is real damage to society from opening "marriage" up to all sorts of other relationships. And make no mistake: those advocating same-sex marriage also advocate the other changes listed in the paragraph above, because they rightly recognize that their real enemy is the very concept that any form of relationship at all can be excluded from the state of matrimony. If you recognize that society, in the form of the State, has any say whatsoever in determining who is "married," then there is no reason why it cannot restrict marriage to opposite-sex couples.

Their only consistent argument is to say "marriage for all, under any form of relationship." And marriage-for-all is ths same thing as marriage-for-none: definitions are by nature exclusionary; and Humpty-Dumpty aside, when you can simply redefine a word to mean anything convenient at the moment -- then that word actually means nothing at all.

There is a fancy word for this: nihilism. And those who are most forceful in advocating same-sex marriage are by and large marital nihilists who simply want to eliminate legal marriage altogether. Bear that in mind when you listen to their blandishment; substitute "polygamy" for "same-sex marriage," and you'll see that their arguments survive intact.

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, May 19, 2006, at the time of 2:49 PM

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Tracked on July 6, 2006 6:00 PM


The following hissed in response by: popconfirm

Dafydd - brilliant argument! I enjoy your use of analogies in such situations, as they lend so much clarity.

The above hissed in response by: popconfirm [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 19, 2006 4:50 PM

The following hissed in response by: Mr. Michael

I agree that the pro-Gay Marriage folks are less interested in making it legal than they are in eliminating Traditional Marriage altogether. They don't like the idea of being a minority, and think that if they can be legislated to be normal, then we all will have to accept and celebrate their lifestyle. That is pretty much counter to every Human instinct, but I understand their desire to be accepted. Too bad for them, it wouldn't work.

I also agree with the proven benefits of a Husband/Wife marriage... it not only improves the lives of the couple, but their whole extended family are statistically better off, and the whole of our population does better.

I'm not convinced that making Gay Marriage legal would somehow cheapen the unique value of a marriage between Husband and Wife. Being a compact between Man, Woman, and God, those three will decide whether a Marriage is Special, not some outside force. But if the approval of others appeals to you, Society would still recognize a difference between a Traditional Family and a Legally Defined Family. It's why I just don't see a benefit to the Gay Community to force this issue. You can force a legal definition through in order to command a change in legal behavior, but it will probably make your actual acceptance MORE difficult, not less. As can be seen in so many other issues, when you attack an institution it rises up in defense of itself. Heck, Traditional Marriage in the United States is losing ground in some parts of our Society (esp. in the urban black community) to the point that it can't get much worse if left alone.

But ATTACKING Traditional Marriage this way would make a it MORE special, it will create an "Us" versus "Them" situation, Living Together and even Divorce will be an act of thrusting yourself into the "Them" category... thereby recreating a taboo towards them that just doesn't exist anymore.

I'm not in any way advocating an attack on Marriage in order to save it. I'm just pointing out that attacking it this way, even if it succeeds in the Courts, will not in any way cheapen the unique value of that relationship. By bringing attention to it, and showing the alternatives to it in a stark light, it may even increase the value of Traditional Marriage in the eyes of a Society which has lately not paid it enough attention.

The above hissed in response by: Mr. Michael [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 19, 2006 9:57 PM

The following hissed in response by: RBMN

Since there's no constitutional right to a marriage license--not yet, recent judicial hallucinations notwithstanding--marriage is whatever state lawmakers say it is. And lawmakers have chosen to define it in the traditional way. The American people, through their representatives, have also decided to register people for the military draft in the traditional way--men only. That includes men that can't fight their way out of a paper bag, and it excludes some female construction workers who throw bags of cement around like pillows. But tradition is preserved, and that tradition has precious value that ties us to thousands of years of history--something we never appreciate fully till it's gone.

The above hissed in response by: RBMN [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 19, 2006 10:07 PM

The following hissed in response by: Dick E


I’m certainly no fan of same sex marriage, polygamy, polygyny, or poly-(whatever it is for same sex couples). And I believe the State can and should define marriage as one man/one woman. And I think you are also correct that some same sex marriage advocates want lots of other weird relationships to be legally recognized. (One man one goat, etc.) But I don’t quite follow your uniqueness argument.

Take your example of the, ah, experienced young lady on a first date. The guy knows he’s not the first (not “unique”), but there is no reason he couldn’t marry her -- he probably shouldn‘t, but that‘s another matter.

Many marriages are ended because one party is unable or unwilling to maintain a unique relationship with the other. For this or other reasons some marriages become serially “non-unique”. You know: Marry, divorce, marry, divorce, marry ….

On the other hand, there are “open” marriages where one or both spouses feel free to carry on with others (maybe even same sex others), but this doesn’t disqualify their relationship as a marriage -- although maybe it should.

I suppose these kinds of relationships could “cheapen[] the unique value of [the] relationship” between you and your wife, but I’m not sure any of them should be illegal or not recognized as marriage.

Then there’s the uniqueness of the one man one woman nature of marriage, as opposed to all the other kinds of relationships. Yes, it’s true, one man one woman is unique in the universe of possible human relationships. But as far as I’m concerned, the most important uniqueness is the truly unique relationship between me and my wife. And frankly, if any of the same sex, multi partner or even bestial relationships were given the title “marriage” I would feel my marriage neither cheapened nor threatened by it. I would find it appalling, deplorable, and (another pejorative of your choice), but it wouldn’t affect my marriage.

One final note: A word frequently bandied about nowadays is “homophobia”. It is almost always misused, because the person accused of homophobia is rarely “afraid” of homosexuality: They merely disapprove of it or of some of the objectives of the homosexual community -- such as same sex marriage. I seriously doubt that you are a “homophobe”, but the Daily Kos dingbats would likely pounce (if they were smart enough to find their way to your site) on your “non-unique = cheaper” argument.

The above hissed in response by: Dick E [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 19, 2006 11:23 PM

The following hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh

Dick E:

I seriously doubt that you are a “homophobe”, but the Daily Kos dingbats would likely pounce (if they were smart enough to find their way to your site) on your “non-unique = cheaper” argument.

They might have a hard time working around the fact that I came out [hm, bad word choice] foursquare in favor of Lawrence v. Texas. But then, they would probably just snip that part out and pretend I never wrote it.

(I frequent the SFWA bulletin board; believe me, I'm used to being called every dirty name in the book and some that are surely neologisms.)


The above hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 20, 2006 1:24 AM

The following hissed in response by: nk

Thank you. Excellent post. You articulate the reasons I changed my view on same-sex marriage better than I could. I too believe that we have a general right to liberty so I had a "what's the big deal" attitude towards same-sex marriage. Until I saw same-sex marriage itself derided as "aping the model of the nuclear family" by people who use words like "tolerance" and "pluralism" to demand society's approval of each and every one of their gonadal urges. Who see children as burdens and even punishment. Who assert that the nuclear family has been harmful to women. Who think that fathers should have a right to demand children be aborted in order to avoid paying child support. A sane society interested in perpetuating itself through its posterity will write off such people as acceptable losses.

The above hissed in response by: nk [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 20, 2006 6:09 AM

The following hissed in response by: BigLeeH

A brilliant post. I couldn't have said it better myself. A fact proven by my attempt to say more or less the same thing in response to "With this Ring I Y'all Wed."

One hears the gay "marriage" movement touted as a libertarian issue. Why, it is asked, should gay men or lesbian women not be allowed to marry and to receive the social and legal status that marriage affords?

The problem with this argument is to ask what, exactly, homosexual couples are not allowed to do. They can have a big party and invite all their friends. They can stand up in church and make promises that they may or may not keep -- assuming they can find a suitably "progressive" church. They can share a house, a car, a bank account and a bed. In that bed they can do pretty much anything they like, as far as I am concerned and any law that says otherwise should be struck down.

What they can't do is to force the rest of us to call them "married" when we think that the word refers to something else altogether.

Its a bit like women who want to enroll in a men's school. It is impossible by definition. The second the first woman enrolls in an all-male school it becomes a co-ed school and the all-male entity no longer exists. We could have a spirited debate about whether anything is really lost -- whether the new co-ed school is just as good as the old all-male school -- but it is harder to deny that something is lost when the institution of marriage no longer means the union of a man and a woman; that is to say when marriage as an institution is destroyed.

Marriage is a social and political framework built to civilize the inherant procreative tendancy of heterosexual couples by encouraging them to form stable families in which to raise their children. The defining benefits of marriage are for the next generation -- not for the married couple but for their children. To the extent that marriage confers benefits to the current generation we can consider providing those with civil unions but even then we need to remember that the situations are different and fair doesn't always mean exactly the same.

One of the things that won't be the same is that men and women can be "married" while male couples will be best friends forever and female couples will be tweedy women who live as roommates.

The above hissed in response by: BigLeeH [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 22, 2006 1:36 PM

The following hissed in response by: cdquarles


Marriage as defined by the Bible is an expression of (or exercise of) religion. This used to be beyond the ken of Congress to abridge (though Congress can affirm it); and, therefore, should by implication be beyond the ken of the Judiciary to abridge as well.

As you so eloquently stated, contracts are not so protected, and certainly civil unions are certainly a valid option. Nevertheless, civil unions are not marriages .

The above hissed in response by: cdquarles [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 27, 2006 8:48 PM

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