Changing the Definition of Marriage

A friend sent me a long but very thorough article on the effects of changing social norms. It was interesting because it started with this, “Unlike most libertarians, I don’t have an opinion on gay marriage, and I’m not going to have an opinion no matter how much you bait me.” But, she went on to give various reasons why this decision goes much further than whether or not we’re discriminating. She discusses the changes to welfare, social security, and divorce law. I found it very helpful to see through the flawed arguments on both sides. Towards the end she says, “My only request is that people try to be a leeetle more humble about their ability to imagine the subtle results of big policy changes.” Humble? What’s that?

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17 thoughts on “Changing the Definition of Marriage

  1. Towards the end she says, “My only request is that people try to be a leeetle more humble about their ability to imagine the subtle results of big policy changes.” Humble? What’s that?

    Goodness knows. None of the people who think they ought to change marriage from a civil right to a privilege reserved by majority-approval seem to be the least bit humble about their big policy change…

  2. I imagine that with every great advance or fall in the human condition, there have been people who have argued, essentially, “We can’t possibly know the full ramifications of change” as justification for standing against change.

    However, I’m not convinced that humility is a particularly meaningful or direct argument for or against anything. There are countless examples of both good and bad consequences (intended or otherwise) that follow our choices. I love predictable outcomes as much as anyone, but it’s clear that human progress is due in no small part to our willingness to take risks.

    In any case, I hope it’s clear my comments here aren’t really about Prop 8 directly. I just think it’s worth remembering that change, of itself, carries no moral value. And humility may be a beautiful and helpful virtue, but it’s a very inadequate moral compass and a terrible guide for predicting outcomes.

  3. huh. Well now that I got my grandstanding impulse out of the way, I just reread my post and it sounds like I’m extolling the virtues of taking risks. Maybe I am a little, but it’s equally true of risk taking what I said about humility. In isolation, neither of these tendencies would serve us well for long.

  4. @Jon: Thanks for the insight. I don’t think the author was saying that humility would take us places, just a tool for being open to other viewpoints. I do agree that risks will get us places but they should be calculated risks and being open to all possibilities while calculating those risks does require some humility (I think).

  5. @ryan
    I’m curious to hear what you really think about Prop 8 beyond your highlighting the wisdom of humility (this post) along with your comments in the earlier post where you defended the right to legislate morality (though I’m not sure who actually opposed prop 8 for this reason) and described your sadness that the world has changed and your dismay that our fellow Mormons in California are being harassed.

    Based on these scraps of info I’m assuming your pleased that Prop 8 passed. But taken together these scraps seem like incomplete rationale for supporting Prop 8 (I’m not saying you claim they are).

    As an outsider looking in, I find it truly hard to understand any real passion for the support of Prop 8. It feels very small and un-Christian to spend any financial resources, time, or spiritual energy working to support an ammendment that can very reasonably be described as denying rather than defending marriage to the people affected by it. I totally get that a lot of people might vote to support traditional marriage for all sorts of reasons.

    But for a CHURCH to put this much muscle behind it? It diminishes the Church, even if it and its’ members have every right to do it. The Church’s involvement in Prop 8 will provide the most enduring public image of the Church for most Americans for the forseeable future. That may ingratiate Evangelicals of the Mike Huckabee variety (a super nice anti-Mormon if there ever was one!). But the Church risks leaving a shrill, mean-spirited impression on the millions of decent people who find themselves in the middle or left on this topic. What’s more, it’s clearly creating painful fissures within Mormon families all across the country. Talk about the virtue of humility in making big policy decisions! I’m genuinely puzzled and saddened at the prospect!

    Help me understand!

  6. Hmm, so people who want to preserve traditional marriage should consider that a ‘big policy change’.

    Given that “traditional marriage” is when a man gives his daughter to another man, with her having no say in the matter, and having no right to control her own money or her own property once married, and no right to refuse her husband sex or call it rape if he forces her against her will, yes, I say defending “traditional marriage” is a big policy change from the present, equal marriage legally mandated in the US.

    Extending the right to marry to same-sex couples is not a big a policy change, of course. No one has been able to show it is.

    Did you read the article?

    Yeah. Load of unthinking rubbish.

  7. @Jon
    Where it starts to concern me is the line from a (supposed) gay man in my previous post, “We may very well find ourselves in a situation where we must choose whether we would prefer religious discrimination over orientation discrimination!” I have a genuine concern that I am considered hateful for saying that I think homosexual behavior is a sin. I think the Church understands this, too. The article by Jane Galt to me was insightful because it points out that there are always more side effects than we predict. If everyone really believed in ‘live and let live’, I would be just fine with same-sex marriage. Unfortunately, I think passage of laws like this will open the door to new laws about what people can say about homosexuality. So, while I’d like to say that same-sex marriage won’t affect me and my rights (I really would), I believe that’s a possible side-effect of legalizing same-sex marriage. The LDS Church (LDS Family Services) could be ordered to put children in same-sex couple’s homes like the case of a Catholic adoption service in Boston. It’s easy to say that we’re reacting hysterically to something that is merely a possibility but there’s already some precedent.

    @jesurgislac
    Are you saying that same-sex marriage is not a new thing in the U.S.? It’s already a widespread practice where we have generations of families that have come from same-sex couple ancestors (obviously through adoption)?

  8. @Jon
    I think the church has made it really clear why it got involved. I just re-read its reasoning—a very thorough and well thought out explanation. Even if you don’t believe in the church, you can see the church’s perspective and why it would feel the need to voice an opinion.

  9. @ryan
    I agree that the Church is within its rights to support Proposition 8. But I still think it diminishes the LDS brand of Christianity. And the negative consequences (hurting the public perception of the Church and causing more anguish for active Mormon families who struggle to reconcile their faith with their experience on this topic) seem pretty profound to me. I don’t think it’s worth it. And I doubt this would be the focus (or even a focus) of Christ’s ministry if He were around today.

    I’ve been thinking about this from a “what’s the role of the government” perspective too. And I’ve got to say I’m at a loss to understand why the Church puts so much emphasis on the role of government in reflecting the beliefs of the Church on this specific issue. It’s really beyond irony given our own history with polygamy and the decades of pulpit-delivered legal and constitutional rationale for why the State had no business legislating these areas of our lives.

    It’s also hard to believe that, applied to practically any other social issue, the Church would craft a moral argument that relies so heavily on the virtue of the government! Take that just a step or two further and think of the amount of power we’d be giving to the State to legislate and enforce just about any aspect of our private choices. Imagine if sociologists determined through conclusive research that families with more than 3 children were much more likely to produce criminals. Would it be reasonable for the State to legislate that families could no longer have more than three children? Or what if the general population believed that Mormonism was a dangerous cult that poses a danger to children raised in that environment? Would it be within the rights of the State to pass legislation that denied LDS the right to civil marriage (to discourage the perception that Mormons are normal or acceptable)? Where do you draw the line? Just on matters that depart from your personal beliefs?

    In a pluralistic society like ours we’ve set up clear protections so that key individual freedoms and rights can’t be taken away by the masses. It’s not perfect and doesn’t always produce the right results, but it works pretty well. In the history of our country, we’ve generally resisted expanding equal rights to different segments of the population. I don’t need to go through the civics review because we all know this pretty well. But I think it’s vitally important to remember that in retrospect, we clearly see that our fears or ignorance about race, gender and religion were unequivocally wrong and misguided. And the general momentum, even with hiccups, has always been toward expanding rights, not restricting them. If history is any guide at all, I suspect that within a couple decades we’ll look back at the time we didn’t recognize same-sex people as equal participants in civic life and rights and wonder how we managed to be so wrong once again!

    And if you worry about slippery slopes or setting bad precedent or sending bad messages to our children, I say thank God we didn’t put the State in charge of your Church or your family! That’s where you come in. Turns out we shouldn’t rely on the State to teach religious faith – it usually doesn’t work very well for the human race when we try. And if my kids learn about gay couples in the public schools and I believe same-sex marriage is wrong, I’ll do just what my parents did for me when I was taught in schools that we repealed the Prohibition or learned about Indians crossing the Bering Straight. I’ll do the same thing my parents did when I asked why someone was smoking or drinking coffee. I’ll take responsibility for teaching my children what I believe and why it makes my life richer. And I’ll take it as a great relief that the government isn’t trying to do that for me. So it always has been since the Church was founded (a clear beneficiary of this uniquely pluralistic and tolerant society).

  10. @Jon
    I totally agree with you about the state. I just finished reading a biography of Brigham Young where there was a constant theme of, “leave us alone” and “the state shouldn’t meddle”. Brigham Young was all about trying to find a place where the Saints could gather and be self-reliant. He didn’t want them digging for gold because he didn’t think they’d learn the basics of self-reliance (that’s a discussion for another time). But, I think what the church is saying is that this opens the door for the state to say that it’s dangerous for kids to be raised in religious homes because their parents may teach them to discriminate (by calling homosexuality and same-sex marriage a sin). Trust me, I get all of what you’re saying. I just don’t think you can equate same-sex marriage to other horrible discrimination practices. That’s not to say gays haven’t suffered civil rights problems. It’s just simply not the same. Again, if I thought there could be a ‘live and let live’ philosophy, I would be fine with it. “But”, the article from the church says, “when governments presume to redefine the nature of marriage, issuing regulations to ensure public acceptance of non-traditional unions, they have moved a step closer to intervening in the sacred sphere of domestic life. The consequences of crossing this line are many and unpredictable, but likely would include an increase in the power and reach of the state toward whatever ends it seeks to pursue.”

    I also see an increase in the number of people who revere Richard Dawkins and some of his ideas. “How much do we regard children as being the property of their parents?” Dawkins asks. “It’s one thing to say people should be free to believe whatever they like, but should they be free to impose their beliefs on their children? Is there something to be said for society stepping in? What about bringing up children to believe manifest falsehoods?”

    The Wired author, Gary Wolf, later goes on to write, “Bad ideas foisted on children are moral wrongs. We should think harder about how to stop them.”

  11. I think it’s unprecedented to suggest that expanding rights is actually a secret backdoor for the State to begin restricting rights and invading privacy. I think it normally works the other way – you gradually chip away at rights of the disenfranchised and underrepresented. Then you gradually grow more comfortable with increasing tolerance for government sanctioned discrimination. But who knows? Maybe just this once it goes the other way, just because of the gays!

    Also, aside from the obvious characteristics, what do you think makes this kind of discrimination different from other kinds of discrimination? I’m curious to know what you think.

  12. Are you saying that same-sex marriage is not a new thing in the U.S.?

    Equal marriage – where both partners in the marriage have the same legal rights, obligations, and responsibilities towards each other – is (relatively speaking) – a new thing in the US: indeed, it’s less than 30 years ago that a husband’s right to rape his wife was legally removed. The definition of marriage as a civil right essential to the “orderly pursuit of happiness” is also relatively a new thing in the US: that was laid down by SCOTUS in June 1967. This too was a major policy change: explicitly requiring states to permit legal marriages that a majority of their citizens thought were morally wrong.

    Equal marriage is a major policy change away from traditional marriage. Marriage as a civil right is a major change. These changes are significant and relatively new, compared to “traditional marriage” in which gender roles were legally defined – and where religious prejudice could ban a couple from civil marriage – but these changes happened decades ago.

    Extension of the freedom to marry as equals to same-sex couples is not a major policy change.

  13. Are you saying that same-sex marriage is not a new thing in the U.S.?

    Equal marriage – where both partners in the marriage have the same legal rights, obligations, and responsibilities towards each other – is (relatively speaking) – a new thing in the US: indeed, it’s less than 30 years ago that a husband’s right to rape his wife was legally removed. The definition of marriage as a civil right essential to the “orderly pursuit of happiness” is also relatively a new thing in the US: that was laid down by SCOTUS in June 1967. This too was a major policy change: explicitly requiring states to permit legal marriages that a majority of their citizens thought were morally wrong.

    Equal marriage is a major policy change away from traditional marriage. Marriage as a civil right is a major change. These changes are significant and relatively new, compared to “traditional marriage” in which gender roles were legally defined – and where religious prejudice could ban a couple from civil marriage – but these changes happened decades ago.

    Extension of the freedom to marry as equals to same-sex couples is not a major policy change.

  14. Sorry about the double comment: I thought I was fixing an error, not posting twice. 😦

    ryan: I have a genuine concern that I am considered hateful for saying that I think homosexual behavior is a sin.

    If your concern is genuine, I would think the most effective resolution to your concerns would be to keep your belief that “homosexual behavior” may be sinful to yourself, rather than letting what ought to be a private belief lead to advocating discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation to others.

    Plenty of people believed interracial marriage was sinful in 1967. And they were entitled (still are!) to say so. That this led other people to think of them as hateful was the result of their behavior, not of their beliefs.

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