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Gay Marriage and the Limits Of Consequentialism

Ross Douthat does a very fair job [1] of summarizing the Regnerus study on outcomes of gay parenting, and how that study can plausibly be used as the basis for arguments either for or against gay marriage. And I am inclined to agree that the consequentialist case for gay marriage – that it will change gay culture for the better, that it will strengthen marriage as an institution, etc. – is inevitably weaker than the consequentialist case against – a case which says, basically, that since you don’t know what the outcome will be you should move very slowly and incrementally in implementing any change.

But to my mind, this just points to the limits of consequentialism. The precautionary principle, if taken really seriously, is an argument for never doing anything. Social science is never going to be able to tell us enough to confidently endorse changing social arrangements. When Zhou Enlai was asked what he thought was the significance of the French Revolution, he answered, “it’s too soon to say.” That’s surely the right answer to any question about what the impact of gay marriage might be – and will probably be the right answer forever, if only because of the extraordinary number of confounding variables.

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?

The law is not designed to make sure that every child is raised in an ideal home, nor even to make sure that our homes steadily approach some asymptotic ideal. The law is designed to protect children from situations of abuse and neglect, and otherwise to preserve the peace and to facilitate the social arrangements that the citizenry finds natural and sensible. It is the citizenry, acting through its representatives, that should decide what is natural and sensible, which is why I feel the legislatures of the several states [2] are the right venues for deliberating this question, but the point is: the deliberation isn’t really about social science theory, but about sociological reality.

The case for gay marriage – the Burkean case, you might say – is simply that what amount to common-law gay marriages already exist. Numerous gay couples settle down for long-term, even life-long relationships of mutual support. They jointly own property. They bear, adopt, and rear children. These are already existing realities, not hypotheticals. They are not the product of state diktats; they are the product of organic cultural change which, in turn, has shaped changes in the law. The question before the people is whether to recognize these realities, and, if so, as what. “As marriage” is one answer – the answer favored by those who want to secure those already-existing arrangements, for families already in them and for future generations who might want to form similar arrangements. And it’s the answer that seems to be getting intuitively more persuasive to more and more people as they look at these couples and at straight marriages and don’t see any fundamental differences that the law should be cognizant of.

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18 Comments To "Gay Marriage and the Limits Of Consequentialism"

#1 Comment By sdb On June 12, 2012 @ 11:33 pm

I think you are more or less correct. Society has pretty well given its approval of adoption by gay couples, IVF, and artificial insemination – so kids are going to be raised by gay couples regardless of the consequences. As far as kids go, I guess the real question is whether kids do better if the gay couple raising them is cohabitating or in some form of legal union. If kids really do worse being raised by gay couples, does the legal recognition of gay marriage harm more kids by increasing the number of couples raising kids than it helps by creating more stable environments for kids already being raised by gay couples. I don’t think that’s knowable.

Perhaps a more important question is what broad social acceptance of gay marriage will do to societies expectations for what it means to be married. If Savage is right, and it means that we redefine monogamy, then I suspect that this social trend is largely negative. This [3] in the times seems to suggest that such expectations are evolving.

What does this mean for the stability of marriages? A study of gay couples in Scandinavia (where civil unions have been in place since the 90’s) show that gay unions dissolve at twice the rate of straight unions (lesbians are slightly higher than gay unions interestingly enough). Will the normalization of gay marriage lead to a change in social expectations making marriages less stable more generally? I don’t know, but I don’t think it is crazy to worry about it. It seems to me that decrease in stability we’ve seen over the past generation has two worrisome effects. The first is on outcomes for the kids in those relationships. The other is elder care.

So what’s a good Burkean to do? Public policy isn’t going to stop the overwhelming change in favor of gay marriage in young mainstream society. Hopefully the courts will stay out of it and allow states to experiment. States that do experiment, should provide strong protections for religious traditionalists (keeping tax exemption in place, allow religious charities to operate as is, allow private schools to teach traditionalists sexual ethics, allow parents of kids in public schools to opt out of gay affirmative sex-ed,etc…). States that do not endorse gay marriage should be sure that there are ways to implement contractual protections for gay couples (deal with kids, hospital visitation rights, strict non-discrimination laws in the public sector, etc…). After 50 years, we may see that all is well in MA and MS is still the pits. Or we may find that the blue states are in social shambles and everyone is strung out on pain killers and antidepressants because of screwed up family life. I’m not convinced that proving gay marriage is bad for society will change people’s minds (it hasn’t seemed to move the meter on divorce), so this may be an irreversible experiment. I hope it works!

At any rate, I sure wish activists on both sides would tone down the rhetoric. GayMarriage isn’t going to bring civilization to its knees, and every traditionalists isn’t a theocrat looking to implement stoning for sodomy. I usually disagree with the substance of your posts, but I sure appreciate your thoughtfulness and tone.

#2 Comment By Steve Sailer On June 13, 2012 @ 12:19 am

I think it’s mostly about the political advantages of playing offense rather than defense, about defining your group as oppressed victims so you aren’t accountable.

For example, the NYT has been in a tizzy all week about allegations that at the Horace Mann school a generation ago, teachers hit on students. It’s pretty obvious if you read the article carefully, you see that this is primarily a case of homosexual harassment with the gay leadership protecting the harassers.

But the concept of “homosexual harassment” barely exists in the well-behaved modern mind, much less the idea of a gay mafia looking out for abusers. The commenters all blame “pedophiles” even though the article doesn’t document cases of pedophilia. The gay marriage whoop-tee-doo has acculturated everybody to think the best of gays, so they have a hard time getting any kind of grip on reality.

#3 Comment By cw On June 13, 2012 @ 12:30 am

I think we should prevent poor people from marrying so they so the don’t have children because we already know for a fact that the children of poor people have really bad outcomes.

#4 Comment By Mitchell Young On June 13, 2012 @ 2:14 am

“And it’s the answer that seems to be getting intuitively more persuasive to more and more people as they look at these couples and at straight marriages and don’t see any fundamental differences that the law should be cognizant of.”

But studies such as the Regnerus one show there are, in fact, differences. But actually one of the most enlightening aspects of the study is just how rare these ‘stable, homosexual couples are’ (and I am indebted to your commentator to pointing out studies in Scandinavia show this instability also).

Given the rarity of longterm, homosexual, pairings, it is hard to claim that some sort of Burkean organic revolution is behind changing attitudes. More likely it is something that did not exist in Burke’s time — mass media.

#5 Comment By JD On June 13, 2012 @ 8:39 am

They bear, adopt, and rear children.

Basic biology here: “they” do not “bear” children. ONE partner in a gay relationship can bear a child by pairing with an opposite-sex person somewhere else, but that is not “THEY” doing anything.

You’re confused not just as to biology but as to human institutions. The purpose of marriage isn’t to give an “you’re awesome” award to long-term roommates who occasionally have orgasms together. The purpose of marriage is to provide a set of incentives and duties to get a man to settle down and be responsible for the children that he sires with a particular woman. Given that no gay person sires any children with another gay person, there is no need to incentivize either one of them to take care of the (non-existent) children that they sired together.

#6 Comment By Mark On June 13, 2012 @ 10:50 am

Why the unique debate?

Because unlike all the other circumstances that you listed – SSM and especially raising children in such a household is purely a choice. (I’m talking about social recognition and sanction, not about sexual desire.) Life is unpredictable. Parents do die. Adoption for the orphan is considered an improvement, a moving toward the ideal. Alone among that list, SSM and parenting is something that is chosen. A society can say no. All up until today have chosen to. To say yes is to reject the opinion of all those ages and introduce more unpredictability and an intentional moving away from the ideal.

#7 Comment By blah On June 13, 2012 @ 11:16 am

“Society has pretty well given its approval of adoption by gay couples, IVF, and artificial insemination – so kids are going to be raised by gay couples regardless of the consequences”

No it didn’t, they just went ahead and did it… Society didn’t even think about it.

#8 Comment By cw On June 13, 2012 @ 1:30 pm

I think all this talk of consequentialism is just a rationalization for animus against gay marriage. How many gay parents are out there now? .5% of the population? 1%? What happens if gay marriage triples the number of gay parents. 1.5 – 3% of our population are gay parents? We are really worried about the consequences of that? Like I mentioned above, poor people make terrible parents in general. They make up 15% of our populations. If we really care about good parenting, shouldn’t we be getting all rightious about poor people’s poor parenting skills?

Really, opposition against gay marriage is due to either religion or predjudice.

#9 Comment By Thatch85 On June 13, 2012 @ 3:16 pm

JD wrote, “The purpose of marriage isn’t to give an ‘you’re awesome’ award to long-term roommates who occasionally have orgasms together.”

Do you really think that’s all that a same-sex couple is capable of? What about a straight couple that cannot or chooses not to have children? When a couple, regardless of the genders of its members, puts itself before the community, it is not making a promise to the community to have children — certainly not as far as the law is concerned.

#10 Comment By Steve Sailer On June 13, 2012 @ 6:49 pm

The most obvious consequentialist danger of gay marriage is in discouraging homophobic young straight men with 2 digit IQs from getting married. After another decade of reality shows about My Big Gay Wedding, straight guys from the left side of the bell curve are going to associate getting married with being gay, so they will be less likely to be married.

But, no pundits have 2 digit IQs, that that half of the popluation is ignored.

#11 Comment By JD On June 13, 2012 @ 7:08 pm

Not every individual heterosexual marriage has children, yes, but it is only heterosexual relationships where there is even the barest of possibilities that the relationship itself (without a third person getting into the mix) will generate a brand new human being. Thus, it is only as to heterosexual relationships that the state has an interest in imposing particular incentives and duties towards those (possible) children.

This is not to say that children don’t end up living with gay couples. But the gay couple didn’t produce those children, and there’s no reason for the state to force (say) a lesbian non-mother to have duties towards her lesbian partner’s children — if anything, the state should be worried about forcing the sperm donor to have duties towards his children.

#12 Comment By David in Houston On June 16, 2012 @ 11:35 pm

@ JD: Procreation has NEVER been a requirement to getting married in our country. Never. I personally know straight couples that are married, and chose not to have children. They HAVE the right to make that choice. Why you’re applying special rules to gay couples that don’t apply to straight ones is questionable.

Perhaps you can explain why someone like Rush Limbaugh has the right to marry and divorce four times and never have children? How does his disregard for the sanctity of marriage AND the disregard for fulfilling his “procreative” obligation to the state, benefit society in any way? Your position (and that of NOM and the likes of Robert George) come down to one thing, and one thing alone: Because a man has a penis, and a woman has a vagina, they should have the right to marry. You’ve already excluded procreation from the argument when you say, “Thus, it is only as to heterosexual relationships that the state has an interest in imposing particular incentives and duties towards those (POSSIBLE) children.” Possible. Not required. If procreation is NOT required, then you cannot use that as justification to exclude gay couples.

If procreation were truly an issue for the state, why wouldn’t the state exclude elderly straight couples from getting married? It would be very simple to accomplish: Anyone over the age of 50 can’t get married. Done. Even if procreation were possible for those couples, the state believes it would be unfair for a child to be raised by parents that will be senior citizens by the time the child is an adult. It is not unreasonable for the state to do what’s in the best interest of the child. Of course, this will never happen in our society because that would actually impact straight people’s lives, and they would never approve of harming their own self interests. Gay people on the other hand?Where’s the downside in discriminating against a group that you’ll never belong to?

#13 Comment By John Howard On June 19, 2012 @ 9:02 am

Marriage should approve and allow conception of offspring with each other. We should prohibit, not approve, of same-sex procreation, however a lab might attempt it. It is too unethical and unnecessary and would lead to designer babies and screening and government regulation of procreation for everyone. Keep procreation natural so that everyone is created equal, as the union of a man and a woman.

#14 Comment By John Howard On June 19, 2012 @ 9:07 pm

I’ll make that clearer: We should prohibit same-sex procreation, by any method a lab might attempt it. Prohibit it in principle. Say that marriages have an abstract right to conceive offspring, and same-sex couples do not. Affirm that everyone has a right to marry and procreate, but only with someone of the other sex.

I haven’t seen any response from any TAC writers, do they disagree? Do they think we should allow labs to produce embryos that are from stem cell derived gametes? Do they have any thoughts on the relationship to marriage of being allowed to conceive offspring? Do they understand that marriage rights are in jeopardy?

[4]

#15 Comment By Dave Patterson On September 25, 2012 @ 9:08 am

To say to anyone that you have no right to have or adopt children because of being gay (male or female) is ludricous. I know many gay people that are outstanding parents. They have the same values as straight people and are often more nurturing. No one chooses to be gay it is not passed down from parents. No one in my family on either side was gay. Just me raised by a single mother after my father passed when I was seven. I did not choose this life, I am not stupid to want to discriminated against, but I would not want to see a child loose a wonderful life because they had gay parents by natural birth or adoption. Gay men and women are very caring, responsible people.

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