I want to commend to your attention Noah Millman’s post titled “Gay Marriage and the Limits of Consequentialism.” In it, Noah talks about the Regnerus study, and says why its claim to show that kids raised by same-sex parents have worse outcomes than kids raised in a traditional heterosexual households is beside the point in the SSM debate. Excerpt:
My own instinct is that, yes, growing up with same-sex parents poses some interesting psychological challenges. If you are a boy raised by two women, for example, you may need to look elsewhere to find a male figure to identify with. But plenty of straight fathers do a lousy job of role-modeling. Moreover, there are innumerable other circumstances that pose unique psychological challenges, more obviously serious than being raised by a same-sex couple: being raised by an elderly father who dies during your adolescence (I have several adult friends who lost parents in adolescence; all of them were shaped profoundly and permanently by the loss); being raised by young parents whose marriage does not survive the inevitable strains (my parents married right out of college, and split when I was seven); or being raised by people who are not your biological parents at all (I am an adoptive father). We do not have a great national debate about whether to prevent older men from marrying younger women, or whether to prevent further encourage delaying marriage (rather than opposite – social conservatives fret that we are marrying too late on average), or whether to curtail adoption (though there are dissenters, the overwhelming consensus on left and right is in favor of adoption as a humane response to the great number of children in need of stable homes). What’s special about gay couples that requires them to clear the bar of ideality?
This is an important point, and, I think, one that speaks to why, though I am an opponent of legalizing SSM, I don’t freak out over kids being raised by same-sex couples. Still, a couple of points:
1) It seems to me that at this late stage in the debate over same-sex marriage, the meta point is the one that I find most salient, and most frustrating to deal with. The idea that social science has anything to contribute to the way society is going to deal with this issue is a complete sham. Complete, from soup to nuts. I bet you couldn’t find one SSM supporter in 10,000 open to having his or her mind changed on the issue by anything social science says. To be fair, it’s pretty much the same deal on the other side.
At the root of this issue is one of moral right and wrong, and rights themselves. There have been social science data showing that black schoolchildren perform better academically when they’re in all-black classrooms. This makes at least some intuitive sense, having to do with reasons of history, psychology, and emotional dynamics. But there is no movement to re-segregate classrooms along racial lines, because most people recognize that to do so would be fundamentally immoral. Similarly, if you think gay marriage is morally right, and indeed a civil right, then no study or collection of studies is likely to budge you. And if not, not.
What I object to, and never tire of pointing out, is the charade that science and rationality have much to do with this discussion, except when their authority is invoked in an attempt to squelch perfectly reasonable objections to undertaking a radical social experiment. But you have heard this from me already.
2) Noah is surely correct to point out that we have all kinds of domestic situations in which persons are raising children in irregular households. No one proposes to forbid or to otherwise make more onerous the raising of children by single parents, or by adoptive parents. Why hold gay parents to that standard? It’s important to concede that
no serious person suggests that gay parents ought to be forbidden to raise kids. no one with serious standing argues that gay adoption should be forbidden, or that gay parents should have their children taken from them. [updated for clarification's sake] I can think of one set of gay adoptive parents I know, and as far as I can tell, they do a good job. I would much rather their child be raised by them than be stuck in the orphanage where he was. Whatever my views on SSM, I would not favor laws against gay adoption.
That said, SSM proponents always, in my experience, fail to appreciate the more fundamental concern of many folks on the other side of the issue. In the past 50 years, as a result of the sexual revolution and its technological genesis, the Pill, we have lived through a massive re-ordering of our civilization’s fundamental views on the meaning of sex and marriage. This didn’t begin in 1964, as Philip Rieff has shown, but we know that the 1960s were a watershed event in social history. As I have repeatedly contended here, gay marriage may be a radical innovation, but it is the logical next — and final — step in the sexual revolution. Society would not be prepared to accept SSM so readily if the groundwork hadn’t been laid by 50 years of redefining the meaning of marriage. Rieff, who was one of Freud’s great interpreters, has been clear and persuasive that jettisoning the Christian view of sex and sexuality has been at the heart of the social revolution in the West. There’s a great short passage in “The Triumph of the Therapeutic” in which he reflects dryly on the Christian clerics who try to pretend otherwise.
Anyway, it seems to me that a Burkean could say, as Noah does, that like it or not, SSM reflects an organic, historical change in the polity’s understanding of marriage, and ought to be accepted on those grounds. There is reason in that. I get where he’s coming from. On the other hand, as Noah recognizes, it is certainly true that we don’t really know where this sort of thing may take us, because it has never been tried. For many — certainly for Noah — that is no reason not to do it. Let us not fail to understand, though, that by changing the law to reflect that there is no meaningful difference between same-sex marital pairings (and, in turn, parenting) and the standard, which is rooted in biology, theology, and long historical experience, is a very big deal. If marriage can mean anything, it means nothing. This, I believe, is the reality we will all be living with for generations, because we have been slip-sliding there for at least two generations already.
Hubris. That’s the thing.
3) It’s funny, but for me, given my professional background and personal interests, the thing that galls me the most about this entire debate — and you can see this in the nature of my posts, I think — is its dishonesty, at least on the part of the crusading news media. There is zero chance that anything that reflects negatively on gay culture or the gay experience will be aired in the mainstream news media. Ten years ago, at the height of the Catholic sex abuse scandal, a liberal journalist friend and I were talking about what people would not allow themselves to think or to say about the scandal’s roots. I told him that among the Catholic right, it was impermissible to say that the culture of celibacy might have something to do with it. He told me that among liberal Catholics, it was not permitted to talk about the role of gay male cliques in the priesthood in perpetuating the scandal. Of course we both knew that in the mainstream media, it was common — and, let me say, appropriate — to critically examine the institution of celibacy, and how it may or may not have helped to create a culture of sex and secrecy. But among the media, you were not to discuss homosexuality in relation to the scandal, except to point out that it had nothing at all to do with the molestation, and those who said that it did were just outright bigots.
We never seem to learn the lesson about confirmation bias in our journalism. A decade ago, in the march up to the Iraq War, conservatives like me didn’t want to hear anything that contradicted what we were sure was a clear and certain moral case for war on Iraq. We denounced even other conservatives who pointed to truths, or at least to facts, that we preferred not to see as morally reprehensible (“unpatriotic conservatives”). And look where that got us.
Social conservatives could be wrong about where all this might be going, on the matter of religious liberty and all the rest. But seriously, people, don’t you ever get sick and tired of being propagandized? Don’t you ever wonder if maybe, just maybe, the other side has a point, and we’re not going to see it until it’s too late? That there is nothing to be learned from the wisdom of the past? I know, I know: it’s not the American way. Alas for the American way.
Anyway, my overall point here: social science is irrelevant to this debate. Consequentialist arguments, which say that the rightness or wrongness of a particular position depends on the outcomes, are powerless to move either side. I’m not changing my views on SSM because of it, and you aren’t either, not because we’re bad people, but because science is irrelevant to the core principles at stake here. Let’s not pretend otherwise.