10 August 2010

ROSS DOUTHAT ON THE MARRIAGE IDEAL

I admire, and often agree with, the opinions of Ross Douthat, who has the moral courage to contribute comparatively conservative essays to The New York Times. On 8 August 2010, he tries to put forth an argument for the distinctive and preferential nature of lifelong heterosexual marriages (in "The Marriage Ideal," New York Times, 8 August 2010).

He wisely refuses to accept the more common arguments against same-sex marriage, such as: "Marriage is an ancient institution that has always been defined as the union of one man and one woman, and we meddle with that definition at our peril. Lifelong heterosexual monogamy is natural; gay relationships are not. The nuclear family is the universal, time-tested path to forming families and raising children." He acknowledges that these arguments are wrong.

However, his inability to state clearly the positive and preferential arguments for heterosexual marriage should be an example to us all. Douthat can say that such relationships are "unique" and "distinctive," but he cannot tell us why their distinction should be preferred over the existence of same-sex marriage.

All he can say is:

"So what are gay marriage’s opponents really defending, if not some universal, biologically inevitable institution? It’s a particular vision of marriage, rooted in a particular tradition, that establishes a particular sexual ideal.

 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.


The point of this ideal is not that other relationships have no value, or that only nuclear families can rear children successfully. Rather, it’s that lifelong heterosexual monogamy at its best can offer something distinctive and remarkable — a microcosm of civilization, and an organic connection between human generations — that makes it worthy of distinctive recognition and support."

Again, Douthat is surely correct to point out the distinct features of lifelong heterosexual marriage. But he has not therefore made the argument that same-sex marriages should not be permitted. Thus, he represents a perspective that is surely prevalent across the generally tolerant United States of America. Most people are heterosexual and would prefer heterosexual marriage if marriage is in their plans. However, more and more people also do not want to deny gay and lesbian neighbors the opportunity to make a similar sort of lifelong, monogamous commitment.

Still, there are many people (including many politicians running for office this year) who do not want to admit that heterosexual marriage and same-sex marriage are the same thing. If they are not the same thing, then, is one institution to be preferred over the other?

I do not believe that one needs to make the case for preferential treatment. Douthat's inability to argue an actual preference for heterosexual marriage should be a lesson for us. It is difficult to argue successfully a rational or logical preference for heterosexual over homosexual marriage. Therefore, let them both exist.

The existence of homosexual marriages will not be a threat to legitimate and life-giving heterosexual marriages. In fact, the willingness --and need-- of homosexual persons to enter into the same types of lifelong and life-giving commitments as heterosexual persons is actually part of the conservative argument for marriage itself. It is a conservative position, not just a liberal one, that gays and lesbians should order their lives and relationships by entering into lifelong and disciplined relationships with the one they love.

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