The Difficult Position of Same-Sex Marriage Opponents
Peter Suderman articulates why he suspects opponents of same-sex marriage are bound to lose: their opposition is based on intuition rather than rational justification. At least his opposition was. Suderman has since changed his mind on the prospect of this social change. When he tried to find support for his intuition that same-sex marriage was wrong and ought to be illegal, he couldn’t do so. The arguments that came to mind he found wanting. He concludes:
Same-sex marriage opponents are no doubt failing in part because of their own inability to express a compelling rationale for their position, one that starts with the existing public understanding of what marriage is and should be and then argues that such an understanding is best served by keeping out same-sex couples. But in the long term, I suspect that the fight for equal marriage rights will succeed because millions of Americans will struggle with their intuitive opposition and decide, as I did, that they can not justify it to themselves.
I suspect Suderman will be proven right. It wasn’t long ago that Willow and Tara’s relationship in Buffy the Vampire Slayer marked U.S. television’s first depiction of a lesbian couple. Now same-sex couples are commonly presented and accepted, and with each passing day the idea of same-sex marriage seems less radical and unthinkable. The meta-narrative about the homosexual lifestyle has also developed from a story of licentiousness and promiscuity towards a tale of love, sacrifice, and life-long commitment.
These changes in culture and the changes in law that have accompanied them put same-sex marriage opponents in a difficult position, not the least of which is being in the position of arguing against a conception of marriage that no one has ever, until recently, proposed and defended. The cultural acceptance of homosexuality is as old as the ages, but the idea of same-sex marriage is very new. There’s no going back to the ancient Greeks or Romans to study how they philosophically argued against the notion of same-sex marriage as it’s presented today.
Aware of this difficulty, Ross Douthat recently made a philosophical case against same-sex marriage, arguing persuasively for the preservation of a particular and ideal vision of marriage:
This ideal holds up the commitment to lifelong fidelity and support by two sexually different human beings — a commitment that involves the mutual surrender, arguably, of their reproductive self-interest — as a uniquely admirable kind of relationship. It holds up the domestic life that can be created only by such unions, in which children grow up in intimate contact with both of their biological parents, as a uniquely admirable approach to child-rearing. And recognizing the difficulty of achieving these goals, it surrounds wedlock with a distinctive set of rituals, sanctions and taboos.
As many rebuttals have shown, Douthat’s argument fails to explain how the social recognition of same-sex marriage prevents the preservation and “celebration of lifelong heterosexual monogamy as a unique and indispensable estate.” Andrew Sullivan, among the most vocal advocates for same-sex marriage, agrees with Douthat that lifelong heterosexual monogamy is unique, indispensable, and worthy of celebration. Sullivan’s position is that society can recognize both as equal while acknowledging their differences.
In addition to proving Douthat’s claim, opponents of same-sex marriage, if they want to have any chance of convincing their fellow citizens through rational argument, will in my estimation need to show, philosophically and persuasively, that the teleological meaning of human sexuality — procreation — is morally normative and that the difference between a heterosexual infertile couple and a homosexual couple is significant enough to justify allowing the former to marry while denying the right to marry to the latter. Proponents of same-sex marriage often note that we as a society recognize marriages of couples for whom procreation is a physical impossibility and that, therefore, the possibility for procreation is already not a definitive aspect of how we understand marriage. What same-sex marriage opponents need to do is show why the difference between a heterosexual couple’s inability to procreate and a same-sex couple’s inability to procreate matters.