Piers Benn

Conundrums and Controversies


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Gay marriage – afterthoughts

(This article is due to be published in Think – philosophy for everyone, in 2013 or 2014).

In February 2013, a UK parliamentary Bill to legalise same-sex marriage was approved by the House of Commons. There will be stronger resistance to the Bill in the House of Lords, but there is little doubt it will be approved there as well. Although some commentaries on the issue were insightful, there was a fair amount of huffing and puffing on both sides.

There are many – like the gay Tory columnist Matthew Parris – who think that once same-sex weddings have taken place, people will look back and wonder what the fuss had been about. He compares them with MPs who once opposed the 1967 Act that legalised male homosexual acts, but couldn’t see the problem once it had been passed and generally accepted. Like most of us, they had conformist tendencies. And perhaps because of this, they followed the liberalising trends and became embarrassed about their earlier attitude, once the challengers of the earlier status quo reached a critical mass.

The same thing is happening with attitudes to same-sex marriage. However, conformity operates in more than one direction. It is too early to know whether the forces of conformity will eventually lead people to change their attitudes yet again, if enough others do so too. In that case, some people will wonder why they had ever accepted gay marriage; why they had gone with the tide so readily.

But what are the best arguments for and against same-sex marriage?

The most frequently aired argument on the ‘pro’ side appeals to a familiar conception of fairness. Fairness is thought to entail equality of treatment for heterosexuals and homosexuals. So if straight people can marry, it is unfair to gay people if they cannot do the same. But although this is enough for many people, it won’t quite do – or not yet. For fairness may be more precisely understood as requiring equal treatment of equals, and unequal treatment of those who are not equals. So the obvious question is whether gay relationships are, or can be, equal to straight ones, in a way that is relevant to the case for same-sex marriage.

Opponents of the Bill deny this. They usually appeal to what (in their view) marriage essentially is, and what it is for. In their view there can be no same-sex marriage, because marriage is – essentially – a sexual union between a man and a woman, founded on a mutual vow of permanence and sexual exclusivity. And though it may serve many purposes, central among them is to provide an optimal environment for bringing up children.

Advocates of same-sex marriage (or ‘marriage’) challenge this traditional account, in predictable ways. Why, they ask, can marriage exist only between a man and a woman? The obvious way to create same-sex marriage is to legislate for it. And why should a true account of what it is for, exclude same-sex marriage? Opponents, just as predictably, say this misses the point. Parliament can pass whatever laws it likes – it can legislate for men to ‘marry’ their mothers, if it chooses – but human laws cannot turn such relationships into real marriages. But again, one wants to ask: why not? On what basis can anyone pronounce on what constitutes a real marriage?

Much of the opposition comes from religious organisations, and any attempt to force them to conduct same-sex weddings would complicate things. In many cultures, weddings are religious ceremonies in which the blessing of God is sought for the union. You are married only if God sanctions this union, even if there are no outwardly discernible differences between the lives led by married and unmarried couples. And according to a traditional Christian account, the nature and purposes of marriage are ordained by God. Procreation is foremost in this account, even in Churches that have no objection to contraception. Moreover, the institution of marriage is held to be obviously good for society, in providing an ideal environment for the raising of children, among other things. So in view of the significance mainstream religions give to marriage, there is the problem of whether religious institutions should be obliged by law to conduct same-sex marriages, even though this goes against their core doctrines. This would be a particularly difficult problem for the Church of England, given its peculiar position as an established Church.

In my view, it would be wrong to try to force religious institutions to marry people of the same sex. It would be wrong for the clergy to conduct services against their own conscience, and it would therefore be wrong for the State to require them to do so. The Church of England is fiercely split on the issue, and is already in an awkward enough position with regard to many ordinary heterosexual marriages, with some clergymen wincing when they conduct weddings for people who clearly have no Christian belief or commitment. Many clergy say that they cannot marry a gay couple, because there can be no such thing as a gay marriage – the ‘wedding’ would be meaningless at best, sacrilegious at worst. They might also point out that same-sex couples would still be able to marry (or ‘marry’) in a civil ceremony, if the law is changed to allow this, just as heterosexual couples can. So the debate needs to focus on whether there should be civil marriage ceremonies for homosexual couples, as there are for heterosexual couples. This brings us back to the question of the nature and purpose of marriage.

Some people will shrug their shoulders and ask why it should matter whether or not there is a legal ceremony of marriage for gay couples: if it makes people happy and harms no one, then we should by all means let it go ahead. On this view –
to put it somewhat crudely – to see a couple as married is no more than to see them as having a certificate saying they are married. If that certificate means a lot to them, by all means let them have it.

But if this is all it is, it is hard to see why people want it so much. Many people want it, of course, because they think it is more than this piece of paper. So we now have the question of what this additional element can be. Suppose that a gay couple in a civil partnership want their relationship ‘upgraded’ to marriage. What would this ‘upgrade’ amount to? What is the difference between their current status, and their desired status? After all, they may have lived together in a faithful sexual relationship for years; they may have been recognised as a couple by everyone they knew, and so on. So neither the observable nature of their relationship, nor its social recognition, would be changed by civil marriage. Why then would they desire it?

Here is a possible answer, that has always applied to heterosexual marriages: a marriage is not a mere living arrangement, or the mere existence of a certificate, but is founded in vows that are witnessed and ratified by a recognised authority. A civil marriage is thus, in some sense, endorsed by the State. To be meaningful at all, it has to be an officially recognised transition – an objective change in status. And this helps to understand why social conservatives regard the co-existence, with marriage, of other living arrangements that mimic it, as undermining the institution of marriage. Hence, to the question posed by many social liberals: what is the point of marriage, if people can have relationships with the same quality and purposes without it? comes the logically equivalent ‘conservative’ question: how can these other relationships be regarded as equal to marriage – or even legitimate at all – if marriage does indeed have a point? Moreover, in view of the centrality of a sexual relationship in traditional understandings of marriage, there comes the question – which may be uncomfortable for those who take it seriously – of what, if anything, is the proper place of sexual relationships apart from marriage? This too is relevant, for it is clear that at the root of many people’s objection to gay marriage is a moral objection to homosexual activity. To put it harshly: if gay sex per se is bad enough, a solemnly declared intention to carry on with it in a particular relationship is, in an important way, worse.

These days, concerns like this will mostly be raised by people with a traditional religious commitment. However, since this discussion is about civil marriage for gay people, it leads back to the question of what the point is of civil marriage in general. Some people, of course, deny that it has any good or useful function at all. Gay people who hold this view may not want to campaign for gay marriage. At the other end of the spectrum of moral attitudes, I recently heard a well-known Catholic philosopher suggest that the State should get out of marriage altogether and leave it to religious institutions, since only such institutions – especially the Catholic Church – have a true understanding of what marriage is. In his view, there should be civil partnerships for straight and gay people alike, with marriage the preserve of religious bodies.

Whatever should be said about this, marriage is widely regarded as beneficial for society. All societies observed by anthropologists have some form of marriage, and there must a reason for this. The most obvious benefits to societies that accrue from marriage are practical, somewhat unromantic things: to provide a stable and loving environment for children (for example, without a succession of stepfathers or boyfriends intruding into the lives of a mother’s existing children), to secure the transmission of property down the generations, to maximise loving mutual support for spouses, to secure an environment for (one hopes) a fulfilling sex life and to provide a safeguard against sexual jealousy – which can be a lethally destructive emotion. Of course, we all know that many marriages are not like this. But this obvious fact does not show that the institution does not provide net benefit to society. It is also clear that many relationships of cohabitation that were never formalised by a state official in a marriage ceremony are, in effect, ‘quasi-marriages’, providing at least many of the benefits of marriage. So if marriage is of net benefit to society, for the reasons above, then quasi-marriage is likely to be as well.

The relative benefits of marriage and quasi-marriage lead us to an interesting, and surprisingly difficult, question in their own right. The benefits of stability and loving home environments for children can come from both arrangements alike. They lead us back to the question of what the ‘upgrade’ from faithful cohabitation (or civil partnerships) to marriage, can really be. This – in passing – leads to another question (at least, for those who like the minutiae of philosophical detail): what is a religious officiator or civil registrar doing when he or she pronounces that a couple is now man and wife? Is this an announcement of an existing fact, or is it a ‘performative utterance’ (like ‘I promise’) which creates the fact it announces? It seems to me more like a performative utterance. To that extent, it has some similarities with a legal ceremony conferring citizenship upon someone who is already resident in his chosen country. The couple was not married before the ceremony, and is married after it. And the ceremony signifies the State’s endorsement of a couple’s living in a particular kind of relationship, which society recognises as constituting a marriage.

Assume that there is a purpose to this state endorsement, at least for heterosexuals. The couple’s relationship is not thereby made more loving or harmonious. But it is officially recognised, and indeed in past times was widely seen as morally necessary in order that a man and woman live together as man and wife. To return, then, to the main question. Should there be state ceremonies of that kind, for same-sex couples who desire it?

The difficult issues about the relative merits of cohabitation (or quasi-marriage) and marriage, and of the value of marriage to society, arise with respect to marriage in general, and not only to the proposed same-sex marriages. But those who object to same-sex marriage often take the potentially procreative nature of heterosexual marriage to be the major defining difference. Society has, on this view, an interest in the stability of the institution in a way it seemingly does not for gay marriage. This will probably emerge when the first gay divorces come to court: why should the State require any criteria to be satisfied for divorce, other than the desire of at least one party to end the relationship? This is indeed a difficult matter, but again, it is one that already arises concerning existing divorce. The question arises largely because there is far less social expectation nowadays that people who wish to live together and perhaps raise a family, should actually be married – i.e. should have gone through a legal and/or religious ceremony. Nevertheless, marriage persists and most people consider it to have some importance. They still want an official ‘stamp’ on their relationships. Is there any good reason to deny this to those same-sex couples who want it?

When all is said and done, I don’t think there is a good reason to deny marriage to gay people. It is true that, if same-sex couples can no more be truly married – in some metaphysical or theological sense – than sons can be married to their mothers, then that fact cannot be altered by any legal rite. But then again, human laws should not be expected to settle such questions. Human societies decide what kinds of social arrangements they want, and they often do decide upon arrangements that substantial minorities reject as illegitimate. Divorce is a case in point, which the Roman Catholic Church does not recognise in principle, and which gives rise to some internal disagreement within other churches. But it is clear that there is an increasing acceptance within society of same-sex marriage. There is, admittedly, an interesting and slightly maverick view (put forward, for example, by Brendan O’Neill, of the webzine spiked-online) that gay marriage is being foisted upon the ‘masses’ by a liberal elite that wants to lecture ordinary people on which institutions they should accept. The fact is, however, that ordinary people have come round to the idea in large numbers.

What about the argument concerning procreation? We could counter this by pointing out that many married couples either cannot, or choose not to, have children, and that increasing numbers of gay couples, especially lesbians, do raise children together. But this is perhaps too obvious. There is a deeper worry that is worth addressing, which is that the solemnity of traditional marriage vows has always been reinforced by a sense of the great responsibilities involved in raising a family, and of the sacrifices that present generations must make for future ones. The thought is that by granting equal status to relationships that are less likely to be rooted in this commitment to the future, the perceived significance of all marital vows will be subtly altered; that they will become less like vows and more like contracts, or that a romanticised idea of love will occupy a more central place than it should have. But it is, of course, clear that this is happening anyway – that married couples are splitting up because romantic expectations are no longer being satisfied, or because one party falls for someone else. When this happens, it is usually bad for children. Would allowing same-sex marriage make this any worse? We cannot be certain. But two things should be said – first, that only a minority of marriages will be gay ones, and second, that when gay people actually want to make vows in public, that suggests a seriousness that is probably lacking in many heterosexual commitments. It is even possible that a public perception of gay couples as seriously committed – something for which gay men, at least, do not currently have a great reputation – will actually enhance the seriousness with which marriage is taken in general.

This leads to a final point. There are many gay people who recoil from the hedonism and promiscuity with which the ‘gay lifestyle’ is popularly associated (mostly among men). They are, like many of us, bourgeois at heart. There is nothing wrong with that. And they long for an ‘official’ recognition that their love has the same precious worth as that of heterosexuals. This is where considerations of equality do quite properly count. The mantra ‘It’s not fair, because it isn’t equal’ is uttered prematurely in many contexts. It can easily be used as a substitute for dispassionate argument. But once these arguments have been had, we can sometimes see why equality does matter, after all.


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Some misunderstandings about ‘genetic determinism’

Many people who oppose unjust discrimination against particular groups in society – who want to oppose sexism, for example – are angered when they hear that unequal treatment of different groups is justified by genetics or neuroscience. For example, many feminists react scornfully to claims that there are genetic underpinnings to psychological differences between the sexes. Science that tells us this, they say, must be bad or biased science, because it leads to conclusions that they regard as sexist.

Similar outrage is provoked by the idea that sexual orientation has genetic roots – by which is meant: not that there is a ‘gene’ for being straight, gay or bisexual, but that one’s sexual orientation is partly shaped ‘from the beginning’, apart from culture or individual choice. For example, many people think that if being gay is significantly shaped by a genetic predisposition, then there is no choice about whether or not to behave accordingly. Some gay people, of course, welcome such claims, saying they show that being gay is just as ‘natural’ as being straight, and that no one can be blamed for it – or, indeed, for acting on it. Many moral conservatives, on the other hand, hate these claims, because they think it would entail exactly that, and would go against their view that that being gay is an immoral choice.

When it comes to neuroscience, many people are concerned about the implications that this rapidly developing field might have for human freedom and responsibility. Such worry is understandable, for we do indeed find enthusiastic attempts to debunk our pretensions to free will, on the basis of neuroscience. It is claimed, for example, that choice is an illusion, because the subjective experience of choice is preceded, by a split second, by events in the brain that are supposed to be the real determinants of action. Many people are deeply worried about this seeming threat to freedom and responsibility, and conclude that  any neuroscience research that purports to prove such things must be flawed. They may even say that neuroscience is sinister per se, rather like ‘race science’.

The problem with all these reactions is that people whose hearts are in the right place – who oppose some kinds of discrimination, and who believe in moral responsibility – are pretty confused about both ‘genetic determinism’, and the proper scope of neuroscience. With ‘genetic determinism’ (there is a reason for the scare quotes) there is, first, a misunderstanding of what it is, and second, a mistaken view of what it implies.

At its most plausible, ‘genetic determinism’ is not strictly determinism at all, but rather the claim that we have various dispositions whose causes have a significantly genetic component. Some of these dispositions are emotional – such as fear of attack, or affection for one’s children – and have clear survival advantages for us or our descendants. They also incline us towards certain sorts of behaviour. For example, if men are (on average) more promiscuous than women, there is a partly genetic cause of this. One familiar story tells us that for maximum reproductive success, a male needs as many female partners as possible, whereas a female needs no more than one or a few male partners. We can therefore expect that millions of years of Darwinian evolution would have selected in favour of relative male promiscuity. It has given males a greater average disposition towards promiscuity.

However, if this genetic story is correct, it does not imply that males are literally compelled to be promiscuous. We can see the disadvantages as well as the advantages of this genetic disposition, and are able to act to curtail it. Nor do genetics or biology exclude culture and socialisation as causes of behavioural dispositions, for genetic causes are one kind of cause among many others. Nor, finally, does it morally justify greater male promiscuity, or a moral double standard for judging men and women’s behaviour. You can’t appeal to genetically explained biological factors to justify such moral claims – or at least, not in any straightforward way.

Furthermore, when it comes to appealing to genetic or biological factors to justify certain practices like sex discrimination, any such story can only be a statistical one. Statements like ‘men are more competitive than women’, even if true, are only statistically true. They are like saying that ‘men are taller than women’. This is an everyday way of stating a statistical truth, and only a pedant would object to it by pointing out that some women are taller than some men. We all know what is meant by saying ‘men are taller than women’; there is no need to qualify it by adding ‘on average, men are taller than  women’. The same should go for competitiveness, promiscuity, aggressiveness, or any other characteristic that men are said to possess more of than women.

A likely reason why debates about ‘nature versus nurture’ tend to become so heated is that adherents of a more ‘social scientific’ model tend to see in genetic explanations a sinister agenda, which seeks to justify all kinds of false and harmful claims. And there can be no doubt that some such claims have been justified by appeal to genetics. But once we see why the truth of some genetic explanations for human behaviour does not have these implications, we are in a position to evaluate them in a more objective way. This is a good thing, for the ability to reach conclusions according to where the evidence leads, rather than according to where we would like it to lead, is an important mark of intellectual integrity.