Some thoughts on the redefinition of marriage

Several countries are currently discussing (or are already in the process of) redefining marriage. With that in mind, there’s a new paper by Ryan T. Anderson entitled: Marriage: What It Is, Why It Matters, and the Consequences of Redefining It. Although there are obvious religious considerations to this issue, Anderson isn’t actually discussing those issues in any detail in this paper.

The abstract expands:

Marriage is based on the truth that men and women are complementary, the biological fact that reproduction depends on a man and a woman, and the reality that children need a mother and a father. Redefining marriage does not simply expand the existing understanding of marriage; it rejects these truths. Marriage is society’s least restrictive means of ensuring the well-being of children. By encouraging the norms of marriage—monogamy, sexual exclusivity, and permanence—the state strengthens civil society and reduces its own role. The future of this country depends on the future of marriage. The future of marriage depends on citizens understanding what it is and why it matters and demanding that government policies support, not undermine, true marriage.

There are a few key points that come up throughout the paper. The first is that redefining marriage does not simply expand the existing understanding of marriage. It would actually contradict the traditional concept of marriage. Raising kids – and thus sustaining society – happens best in a stable home with both parents present. Marriage as an institution is primarily about bringing up the children that are produced by the husband and wife. As Anderson wrote in another paper on the same topic:

In recent decades, marriage has been weakened by a revisionist view that it is more about adults’ desires than children’s needs. This view reduces marriage primarily to intense emotional bonds.

If marriage were just intense emotional regard, marital norms would make no sense as a principled matter. There is no reason of principle that requires an emotional union to be permanent. Or limited to two persons. Or sexual, much less sexually exclusive (as opposed to “open”). Or inherently oriented to family life and shaped by its demands.

Redefining marriage would further distance marriage from the needs of children and deny the importance of mothers and fathers. It would deny, as a matter of policy, the ideal that children need a mother and a father.

Redefining marriage would also diminish the social pressures and incentives for husbands to remain with their wives and their biological children and for men and women to marry before having children. It would be very difficult for the law to send a message that fathers matter once it had redefined marriage to make fathers optional.

The traditional definition of marriage (one man, one woman, monogamous) does not restrict consenting adults from forming whatever other relationships they like.

The paper is presented in three sections. Here’s an outline of the major points:

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I. What Is Marriage?

  1. Marriage exists to bring a man and a woman together as husband and wife to be father and mother to any children their union produces.
  2. Marriage is based on the anthropological truth that men and women are complementary, the biological fact that reproduction depends on a man and a woman, and the social reality that children need a mother and a father.
  3. Marriage as the union of man and woman is true across cultures, religions, and time. The government recognizes but does not create marriage.
  4. Marriage has been weakened by a revisionist view of marriage that is more about adults’ desires than children’s needs.

II. Why Marriage Matters for Policy

  1. Government recognizes marriage because it is an institution that benefits society in a way that no other relationship does.
  2. Marriage is society’s least restrictive means of ensuring the well-being of children. Marital breakdown weakens civil society and limited government.
  3. Marital breakdown costs taxpayers.
  4. Government can treat people equally—and leave them free to live and love as they choose—without redefining marriage.
  5. We reap the civil society benefits of marriage only if policy gets marriage right.

III. The Consequences for Redefining Marriage

  1. Redefining marriage would further distance marriage from the needs of children and deny the importance of mothers and fathers.
  2. Redefining marriage would put into the law the new principle that marriage is whatever emotional bond the government says it is.
  3. Redefining marriage would weaken monogamy, exclusivity, and permanency—the norms through which marriage benefits society.
  4. Redefining marriage threatens religious liberty.

Check out the whole paper here.

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Related posts:

A legal defense of marriage

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21 thoughts on “Some thoughts on the redefinition of marriage

  1. Please name the positive value that is supported by legally discriminating against same-sex marriage (SSM). I can support the positive value of legal equality for all franchised citizens on its own merits (as well as support legal discrimination for those under the age of majority). Can the same be done for legally discriminating against SSM?

    I have yet to find any argument that successfully does so. But what I do find are arguments based not on fact and evidence but contrary belief supported by bias, bigotry, and discrimination on imaginary negative consequences.

    This tired old canard about marriage is really about the welfare of children has been debunked over and over and over again, and yet those determined to maintain a legal discriminate simply don’t seem to care about accounting for this compelling contrary evidence to these imaginary negative consequences and in the face of very real negative consequences for very real people who wish to share the same very real benefits accrued from legal marriage. This is not an unreasonable request on legal merit.

    Here in Canada, we’ve had SSM for nearly a decade. The welfare of children has not been negatively impacted. There is compelling evidence that same-sex married couples who have adopted have improved the welfare of these children significantly compared to children who remain wards of the state with no indication that these children in any way suffer compared to other adopted children in opposite gender marriages.

    Marriage defined to be fundamentally about the welfare of children indicates that those who share this fundamental belief should be actively campaigning to annul childless marriages, marriages of the elderly no longer able to produce children, marriages of the infertile, and so on. But we don’t see this. For these couples, we have no problem granting to them the legal equality to marry. Why is this? Well, because legal marriage isn’t fundamentally about producing and raising children, is it? It’s about attaining a legal status different from being not married. The production and raising of children is only one part of this legal status but not the central feature of it.

    The lack of honesty about why people resist SSM is revealing. So, too, is the cherry picking of data to try to paint SSM as a threat to all, a negative social effect of the public good, a disruptive and undermining influence to families. The problem here is that there is no compelling evidence to justify any of these, no demonstrable negative impact pertaining to these biases where SSM is legal. What we really have in play is this blanket argument of bias and negative belief that empowers the continuation of legal discrimination. Towards this end, the supposed welfare children is used as a shield (and an imaginary one, at that) behind which the opponents of legal equality hide.

    • tildeb: Please name the positive value that is supported by legally discriminating against same-sex marriage (SSM).

      I can’t actually think of a country that “discriminates against SSM”. In a few countries, like Canada, it has full legal equality with actual marriage. In most countries, same sex marriage just isn’t a thing. There’s no “discrimination” – every citizen has exactly the same legal rights to get married.

      A prohibition on cocaine use is not discriminatory against cocaine addicts. The law is the same for everyone.

      wrt the rest of your comment, the article will probably be a lot easier to understand if you just go back to the top and read this line again (emphasis added this time):

      In recent decades, marriage has been weakened by a revisionist view that it is more about adults’ desires than children’s needs. This view reduces marriage primarily to intense emotional bonds.”

      • There’s no “discrimination” – every citizen has exactly the same legal rights to get married.

        This reminds me of the same really poor argument used to legally discriminate against inter-racial marriages. It follows the same pattern: it’s supposedly not discrimination, we are told, to legally deny people who want/need/have to do X the right to do X because they have the same right as everyone else to do Y. There’s supposedly no legal discrimination against SSM, we are told, because all citizens can marry someone of the opposite gender.

        Anyway, I really would appreciate it if you could articulate what positive value is supported by legally discriminating against same sex couple.

  2. Tildeb:

    The welfare of children has not been negatively impacted.

    So you claim.

    There is compelling evidence that same-sex married couples who have adopted have improved the welfare of these children significantly compared to children who remain wards of the state with no indication that these children in any way suffer compared to other adopted children in opposite gender marriages.

    There is compelling evidence that just about anything is better than being a ward of the state. It does not follow that it is necessarily a good idea.

    Marriage defined to be fundamentally about the welfare of children indicates that those who share this fundamental belief should be actively campaigning to annul childless marriages, marriages of the elderly no longer able to produce children, marriages of the infertile, and so on.

    This is the most troll-like claim that I have read in weeks, if not all year. It simply does not follow.

    For these couples, we have no problem granting to them the legal equality to marry. Why is this?

    This sort of thing is a pretty common feature of public law. You need to learn a little bit about real-world law and how it works; I don’t have the time to get into it. Suffice it to say that there are factors of privacy, practicality, and societal good.

    The production and raising of children is only one part of this legal status but not the central feature of it.

    Utterly false.

    This reminds me of the same really poor argument used to legally discriminate against inter-racial marriages. It follows the same pattern: it’s supposedly not discrimination, we are told, to legally deny people who want/need/have to do X the right to do X because they have the same right as everyone else to do Y. There’s supposedly no legal discrimination against SSM, we are told, because all citizens can marry someone of the opposite gender.

    Precisely. The fact that you do not like something does not make it discriminatory. Whites couldn’t marry blacks; blacks couldn’t marry whites. Same deal. Right or wrong is another issue.

    Anyway, I really would appreciate it if you could articulate what positive value is supported by legally discriminating against same sex couple.

    There is no discrimination, but did you not read the article explaining the positive values?

    Well, because legal marriage isn’t fundamentally about producing and raising children, is it? It’s about attaining a legal status different from being not married.

    Being married is about being married? Great; having established that marriage is utterly pointless, the debate is over.

    • There is compelling evidence that marriage bestows benefit not just to those who enter this contract but that it provides a legal status for achieving a greater public good. That, in part, is why those opposed to SSM are impeding access to gaining this status by imposing an arbitrary sexual orientation rule. Pretending this arbitrary sexual orientation rule is not discriminatory because the same rule applies to everyone does not follow (as I have already explained). The law is still discriminatory even if applied to everyone. That the sexual orientation requirements is discriminatory is not in question; what is in question is whether or not the discrimination is valid and justified, meaning that its imposition on everyone should enable a greater social good.

      What is this greater social good that validates and justifies legal discrimination based on sexual orientation that outweighs the known benefits marriage provides?

      Beats me.

      Opponents fail to make their case to validate and justify legal discrimination aimed at a specific sexual orientation: same sex. In fact and practice, opponents of SSM are curtailing marriage and the benefits it provides not just to these folk but to the detriment of the public good. Those who support marriage as a beneficial social institution should be first in line to make sure it’s barriers are as few as possible to increase accessibility. Opponents, therefore, are not in any way promoting or protecting marriage as an institution but campaigning against it. What are these other reasons?

      I wanted one of these campaigners, someone, somewhere, to enunciate what greater social good is achieved by this specific legal discrimination, what positive value is being forwarded that validates and justifies denying some people the right to marry on the basis of sexual orientation.

      Nada.

      The previous commentator Guardian also fails to do this because s/he pronounces no legal discrimination is actually exercised. Tell that priceless little gem to those who are denied hospital visitation and consultation rights because they are not legally married to their spouse, denied legal status involving inheritance and estate settlements because they are not legally married to their spouse, denied pension access, property rights, and tax status because they are not legally married to their spouse. The harm from legal discrimination is quite real and ongoing; the positive value being protected and/or promoted by legal discrimination against same sex couples from being married is not.

      • The law is still discriminatory even if applied to everyone.

        Repeating an illogical assertion does not make it any truer.

        Those who support marriage as a beneficial social institution should be first in line to make sure it’s barriers are as few as possible to increase accessibility.

        And so they do. But what you advocate is more like encouraging people to eat candy because you do not want to limit the benefits of eating broccoli!

        I wanted one of these campaigners, someone, somewhere, to enunciate what greater social good is achieved by this specific legal discrimination

        You already have it. Troll alert.

        Tell that priceless little gem to those who are denied hospital visitation and consultation rights because they are not legally married to their spouse, denied legal status involving inheritance and estate settlements because they are not legally married to their spouse, denied pension access, property rights, and tax status because they are not legally married to their spouse. The harm from legal discrimination is quite real and ongoing

        Nonsense. Have you not heard of civil unions? Marriage is not simply a bundle of rights and benefits, which is exactly the point.

      • I wrote that “the law is still discriminatory even if applied to everyone” and you call this illogical. But it’s not; consider the law for age of majority. It discriminates on the basis of age but is applied to everyone equally because everyone gains the age of majority equally. As well, it is based on promoting a public good, namely, responsible citizenship. Neither is the case for legal discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation; the discrimination is not equally shared. All those who wish to marry may do so (with certain justifiable restrictions) except those who wish to marry a same sex partner. The discrimination is applied to all, it is true, but targets this minority without any equivalent justified reason of public good for the restriction.

        I have asked for enunciation of whatever this positive value that supposedly justifies the legal discrimination. You accuse me of trolling as if it has been given. Well, it hasn’t. Accusing me falsely doesn’t answer what positive value is being gained by legally discriminating against this minority (because sometimes a legal discrimination is quite justified). And although many people argue for a change in the law to allow civil unions, thinking themselves protectors of ‘traditional’ marriage while granting wiggle room to those same sex couples who wish to marry, the argument from judge Walker was quite clear: there was no compelling state interest to justify the denial of same-sex couples the fundamental right to marry, and that there was no rational basis for limiting the designation of ‘marriage’ to opposite-sex couples, citing (as the appeal court did, as well) that such a delineation would act contrary to the Equal Protection Clause (no state shall … deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws).

        Judge Walker was presented no evidence for any positive value withholding marriage rights from same sex couples and neither have I… even when I ask those who are against it to produce any. Without a positive value on which to base a justified legal discrimination, there is no compelling reason that is justifiable to continue to do so.

      • You can lead a horse to water… …but you can’t get him to answer the important question necessary to justify legal discrimination, namely, what positive value is being supported by denying legal equality to same-sex couples who wish to marry?

        And in case you’re still having difficulty grasping why legal inequality is the central issue here, let me use letters instead to describe the argument you support put forth against SSM:

        Denying people who want/need/have to do X the right to do X is not discriminatory because they have the same right as everyone else to do Y.

        Denying people who want to marry a same-sex partner is not discriminating because they have the same right as everyone else to marry an opposite-sex partner.

        This is a bad argument. This stands apart from any good or bad arguments that you think may be made for or against ‘X’, for or against same-sex marriage. You can’t say it’s a good or bad argument simply because you are for or against ‘X’, for or against same-sex marriage, unless you address why the discrimination its necessary for a positive value to be upheld. This is what must be done to justify other legal discriminations… such as age restrictions and functional restrictions. And this is exactly what you seem unable to provide for this discrimination, which renders your argument against X, against same-sex marriage, null and void of merit.

      • tildeb:
        You can’t say it’s a good or bad argument simply because you are for or against ‘X’, for or against same-sex marriage, unless you address why the discrimination its necessary for a positive value to be upheld. This is what must be done to justify other legal discriminations… such as age restrictions and functional restrictions.

        This makes no sense.

        Let us consider your positive example of discrimination, the case of age restrictions:
        “We accept that X is inherently a positive thing, but it must be engaged in responsibly. Hence we will prohibit those who are too young to be responsible from engaging in X. But beyond that restriction, we allow everyone to engage in X.”
        This seems sensible, and you seem to approve of the logic.

        Now let’s consider your presentation of same-sex marriage:
        “We accept that X is inherently a positive thing. Everyone has a right to do X. Some people want to do Y instead of X. Denying those people the right to do Y is discriminatory.”
        See where the logic all falls apart?

        These two things are independent. X is perceived as socially beneficial (for consenting adults), so all consenting adults may engage in X. Now you propose that Y should be permitted. But rather than demonstrating that Y is socially beneficial, you instead try to redefine X to include Y.

        Surely, if Y were really worth promoting, it could garner support based on its own merits?

      • Thank you for the comparison because it shows the mistake you are making. If X is marriage, then why are you suddenly inserting opposite-sex as if it properly defines it? This is exactly the discrimination we’re talking about.

        Let’s look at your analogy and make the same kind of substitution:

        “We accept that X is inherently a positive thing, but it must be engaged in responsibly. Hence we will prohibit those who are too young to be responsible from engaging in X. But beyond that restriction, we allow everyone to engage in X.”

        Let’s substitute:

        “We accept that driving is inherently a positive thing, but it must be engaged in responsibly. Hence we will prohibit those who are too young to be responsible from engaging in driving. But beyond that restriction, we allow men everywhere to engage in driving.”

        If the point is age, then there is no reason to introduce gender.

        If the point is marriage, there there is no reason to introduce gender.

        Now do you see the problem defining marriage and its social benefits to promote a public good to suddenly be conditional on opposite-sex partners? Without linking why opposite- versus same-sex marriages are demonstrably superior – what I call possessing an inherent positive value that can be shown to be undermined or negated by changing the partners to same-sex – then the argument is based on a presupposition that may or may not be true. And I’ve done the same by introducing the presupposition that only men can be responsible drivers; without showing why this is the case, the discrimination against women drivers is (I hope) obvious in the same way that the discrimination against same-sex partners from marrying is equivalently obvious.

      • Wow, that comment makes even less sense.

        tildeb:
        If X is marriage, then why are you suddenly inserting opposite-sex as if it properly defines it? This is exactly the discrimination we’re talking about.

        …you do realise that marriage, as a monogamous heteresexual thing, is not new, right? It’s been around for centuries. I’m not “suddenly” inserting anything. The proposal for sudden insertions is entirely from the same-sex lobby.

        Same-sex marriage, on the other hand, just isn’t a thing in most countries. But there’s still no discrimination. Straight people can’t get gay married either. Of course, regardless of the fact that marriage is a heterosexual arrangement, gay people can still get married to someone of the opposite sex. (And likewise, in countries such as Canada where same-sex marriage is a thing, straight people can do it too). If they couldn’t, you would have a case for discrimination. But the laws are equally applied to all. The only difference is what things are legal in which countries.

        If you want to argue that same-sex marriage should be a thing that’s legally recognised, go for it. But argue it on its own merits, not by pretending that it’s something different.

      • marriage, as a monogamous heteresexual thing, is not new, right? It’s been around for centuries. I’m not “suddenly” inserting anything. The proposal for sudden insertions is entirely from the same-sex lobby.

        This.

        At this point I am pretty convinced that tildeb has no interest in serious debate; at a minimum tildeb seems to fail to think any response through at all. In other words, tildeb may not actually be a troll, but is one nonetheless for any functional purpose.

        The fact is that throughout the ages marriage has only ever meant a male-female union, including in those cultures which admired gay relationships and even in those which did not distinguish between the sexes at all with respect to romance.

      • By presenting opposite-sex as the central ingredient necessary to ‘properly define it’ (meaning marriage) you are emphasizing (rather than inserting, as I mistakenly presented you doing) this element while conveniently ignoring what other properties have been central ingredients in the past, namely, race and faith (and property); historically and culturally, race and faith have been the overwhelming ‘traditional’ concerns (as the distribution of property also has been), but we’ve gotten past these legal hurdles of legal requirement for the same reason we’ll get past the gender requirement: because it, like the past emphasis on race and faith (and property), has no positive intrinsic value for the institution of marriage itself that affects its quality for the public good as a legal union. In comparison, there is a demonstrable harm caused by denying marriage to some on the basis of gender.

  3. Major respect to anyone trying to take this one.

    For me the whole topic begins with two questions (wrapped ineloquently as follows): Does the traditional Christian definition of marriage covers what marriage looks like in practise and protect those who aren’t Christian?

    Redefining marriage is tricky for some while leaving the definition as is presents difficulties for others. I do feel that the concept needs a bit of work – with greater recognition that there are different “models of marriage” (in the technical sense of models) and hence people ought to be able to marry accordingly to their chosen contractual model and get less defensive over revisions of a central working concept that seeks to pull the varieties together meaningfully and practically.

    I think that some of the trickiness lies in trying to pinpoint the foundation to marriage.

    Religious groups are (in my limited understanding) licensed by the state (mostly secular in Western civilisation) to perform marriages (i.e. Christians marry on behalf of the State (and not the other way around)). As such the foundation to legal marriage is non-religious and contractual. Recognising this makes it easier to accept a re-definition of marriage – in that no religious group has the propriety rights to marriage.

    I suppose some concepts could include:

    1.1 central concept marriage
    1.1.1 heterosexual and monogomous marriage
    1.1.1.1 in community
    1.1.1.2 with pre-nup
    1.1.1.3. religious groups extras
    1.1.2 homosexual and monogomous marriage
    1.1.2.1 in community
    1.1.2.2 with pre-nup
    1.1.3 polygamous marriage
    1.1.3.1 in community
    1.1.3.2 with pre-nup
    1.1.4 polyandrous marriage
    1.1.4.1 in community
    1.1.4.2 with pre-nup

    And the second we start doing that the notion of “marriage” becomes tricky to define. The focus is also important – whether at the heart of marriage lies “the committing together of people” or whether the centrality of marriage is “the caring for of offspring”.

    In light of that I’d suggest a dual-focused redefinition – one that lends significant weight to those individuals committing to each other and to their offspring. Am quite interested to see how the debate continues.

    • Thanks for the comments, Tim.

      I guess the South African solution is quite far along the road of creating the structure that you describe. So you have a standard legal definition of marriage, but also a provision that basically says, “Common-law marriages are legally equivalent, and what exactly constitutes a common-law marriage is defined by the standard practice of the relevant culture.”

      Effectively it creates a legal framework that allows for the recognition of polygamous marriages without having to define explicitly the number of wives who should be involved in a marriage.

      • Indeed; for good or ill SA has possibly the single most liberal constitution in the world. Essentially any pairing or group can “marry” given a minimum of cultural support.

    • As such the foundation to legal marriage is non-religious and contractual.

      Well, it depends. After all, the foundation for state recognition of marriage is religious recognition of marriage. It is an artifact of the separation of church and state; in this case, they may have got it wrong.

  4. I believe we no longer have a common-law marriage in SA (i.e. the assumption of marriage after a period of time but I don’t recall enough of the law to state whether we officially ever had such) but one may argue a universal partnership if there was the agreement to work together for profit. This is tricky because many people still believe that there common-law marriage. One may enter into a domestic partnership, but that would mean (as with the legal contract of marriage) spelling out the terms of arrangement.

    There are really only 3 forms of marriage in SA:
    1. In Community of Property (joint-estate with assets shared equally)
    2. Out of Community of Property (profit and loss excluded)
    3. Out of Community of Property with accrual (sharing profit and loss during marriage)

    Where our “liberal-ness” comes in is with the recognition of same-sex marriages/unions. Though religious groups may flavour their ceremonies, the legal contract is one of the three cited above. Poly-androus and -gamous unions/marriages aren’t technically legal here (but tell that to certain public figures). I’m be interested in seeing how the notion of domestic partnerships can be tailored toward communal unions … and would love to a reality-TV show with them!

    • My recollection from undergrad is that culturally accepted unions (such as polygamous marriages in certain tribes) are acknowledged as equivalent by the courts, though not classified as marriages. So yes, there are only the three forms of legal marriage that you described, but there is also a framework for recognition of other unions as functionally equivalent.

      That was over a decade ago, so things may have changed since then. And it was also before same-sex marriages were legalised, of course.

  5. Pingback: A legal defense of marriage | Spiritual Meanderings

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