Sunday, August 10, 2014

This is your brain on marriage equality (part 2 of 2)

L: I suppose you won’t accept the claim that the genesis of marriage is relevantly similar to the genesis of the daddy-daughter date?

R: Doesn’t that claim commit you to controversial views in theology or human evolutionary biology?

L: All it requires is that, just as one or more persons invented daddy-daughter dates as an inherently different-sex institution, whoever invented marriage did so as an inherently different-sex institution.

R: But how do you know that whoever invented marriage did not intend it to be a more general and gender-neutral institution, like the “parent-child outing” I mentioned?

L: Human history? I think we had a consensus—about marriage being a different-sex institution—that was, if not unanimous, at least so ancient and widespread that even cultures most celebratory of homoerotic desire did not question that marriage was a different-sex institution, even when their most creative thinkers were willing to abolish or change that institution in countless other respects (as in Plato’s Republic). The cracks in this consensus are a recent local flash in the pan.

L: We can’t infer from what was historical to what is right.

R: Agreed, but your question was about what was intended by whoever invented marriage.


R: But—here is a related worry—I think that perhaps we are in a different boat on this matter than we were even just a few years ago.

L: How so?

R: To ask whether marriage is an inherently different-sex institution these days is like asking whether Utah should refused admittance to the United States. That ship has already sailed, right? Some places have already decided that marriage is not an inherently different-sex institution.

L: Well, consider this: what do you think a son would say if his father told him they were going on a daddy-daughter date together today? And if the father said this after an uncountably long phase of going on daddy-daughter dates and father-son adventures, and after the other families in the community had noticed these institutions and adopted them as well? What would the son say to his father’s announcement?

R: I suppose the boy would laugh. Then he would attempt to correct his dad: “you mean we’re going on a father-son adventure, right, dad?”
L: What if dad replied “I know we used to go on those. We still can if we want to. But I overheard a few of the neighbors last night took their boys on daddy-daughter dates for the first time. I figured that if they can do it, so can we.”

R: Ah, I see. The boy would say “the neighbors are confused. They can’t take sons on a daddy-daughter date just like they can’t take moms on a father-son adventure. They can say what they want, but you and I need not be confused.”

L: I would not put it quite that way about marriage. But the gist of the son’s response seems correct in his case. The father is viewing a decision whose coherence is dubious to begin with as if it’s a coherent and exemplary feat.


R: I’m not persuaded by that last response. But I’ve felt there is something unfair about comparing marriage to daddy-daughter dates, and I think I just realized what.

L: What?

R: The complex title “daddy-daughter date” has a grammar that presents its different sexes fairly explicitly. But the lone word “marriage” doesn’t. It’s too bad for you that whoever invented marriage didn’t use a complex title like “man-and-wife marriage” or “male-and-female marriage.”

L: And it’s too bad for us all that the makers of dictionaries didn’t arrange the entries alphabetically by their definitions so we could look up the words.

R: You would not read much into the fact that the word “marriage” isn’t grammatically more complex?

L: I already said that the inventors of the daddy-daughter date could have called it anything at all. Stuff’s what it is and isn’t other stuff—for reasons that are not completely at the mercy of our labels.

R: But it still seems relevant here…


L: There’s another way of looking at the last two points. Do you think professional baseball is baseball?

R: Yes...

L: Is professional soccer soccer?

R: Of course. And the same with pro basketball, pro golf…

L: And professional wrestling?

R: Hmmm….No…Professional wrestling isn’t wrestling.

L: Why not?

R: It's fake. Those guys in the ring aren’t competing. They’re acting. Sure, they’re big and strong and could whip me in a real wrestling match. Some of them may even have been (or be!) real wrestlers. But what they’re doing in that ring, with the strutting and boasting and jumping and slamming—that’s not real wrestling.

L: But it’s called “wrestling”. Indeed, “professional” wrestling. Doesn’t a professional usually mean something like the best example?

R: I suppose so. But the only “professionals” in those rings are professional actors.

L: But don’t some people who watch professional wrestling think it’s real?

R: Some do; but of course that is no proof that it is real.

L: But you see my point, right?

R: That same-sex marriage is marriage about as much as professional wrestling is wrestling?

L: I didn’t say that. You can’t always take a title at face value. And you can’t always tell where the title applies just by looking at some grammar in the title itself.

R: But if that is your point, it undercuts your argument, right? Doesn’t professional wrestling just show that words—like “wrestling”—can historically expand from a narrower meaning to a wider meaning? Why not with “marriage”?

L: Professional wrestling does show that words can expand their usage in different ways. But sometimes words—here “wrestling” and “professional”—are used to make stuff seem like what it’s not. Some things might be thought and talked about as “marriages”—by a person, group, church, or state—without really being marriages.

R: You may be unsurprised, but I am unconvinced…

Russell DiSilvestro
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State


  1. Interesting discussion!

    "L: All it requires is that, just as one or more persons invented daddy-daughter dates as an inherently different-sex institution, whoever invented marriage did so as an inherently different-sex institution."

    Even if we grant that someone invented marriage with the intent that it was an inherently different-sex institution (I don't think we can know who invented marriage, let alone their intentions - but that's another issue), why assume that the original inventor of marriage should have the final say about whether or not marriage is an inherently different-sex institution? Modern marriage has changed from ancient conceptions of marriage in a number of important ways. Why think that this particular idea of what marriage should be is immune to change?

  2. Russell,
    Thanks for the complete picture. Again, I’m still concerned about Lefty’s efforts here. Well, Lefty, if we're talking about "real" marriage as marriage in its historically original intent (assuming this is revealed in the breadth of its occurrence as a practice), then likely most of what our married heterosexual friends have is also not "real" marriage either.

    Just as a cursory review of history seems to reveal marriage’s inherently different-sexedness, so it also reveals marriage as an institution inherently economic and political. Economic in several senses: as being properly between members of the same or comparable economic status (deviation required significant justification), as being properly about securing the family’s (writ large) economic status and prospects, and, especially for the lower classes, as a means of providing additional labour to earn or to produce (i.e., children). It was also political in several senses as well: as being properly about securing political alliances between families, houses, tribes, peoples, etc., and as de facto determining the social participatory rights, privileges and obligations of its members. So, why, Lefty, should we not also retain these inherent qualities of marriage?

    Bringing up Plato is interesting here, as the Greece of Plato's era was deeply patriarchal and patrimonial by our standards (recall Euthyprho) wherein marriage was primarily an institution of property. Plato saw eliminating marriage and family-based child-rearing (in the Republic) as a matter of justice if women were to be treated as equals to men. In other words, Plato could find no better way to ensure a society in which women could be the equals of the men with whom they were naturally equal (by the quality of their soul) than to eliminate marriage and the attendant family structure. In the Greece of his time, marriage was the institution within which a man can take a woman as his property, primarily for the purpose of securing his paternal status over her children (also considered his property). Aristotle quickly corrected his master, reinstating marriage as central to social stability (though not justice) and to the broader institution of property. A: "Crazy old man, thinking men should give up their wives and children."

    If we also look at comparably ancient texts, especially religious ones, we see marriage as at once different-sexed, but also one in which a man may marry many women and have them all simultaneously as wives, properly between families of the same tribe, economic status, and political rank, and faith. Indeed, marriage was something that secured for a man both property and status (wife and children), as well as honour.

    So, what “real” marriage is Lefty referring to by his appeal to the history of the institution?

    If we have, as a society, come to understand marriage as no longer inherently an economic or political institution, if it should no longer be inherently an institution of property, and even if it need no longer be inherently an institution of child-rearing, why should we not similarly purge it of this claimed inherent different-sexedness?

    Further, if we do allow an appeal to history to determine an institution, then what on earth are we doing in a democracy, since government historically was never inherently something “of, by or for the people”? Not even Plato, in creating his ideal city, in which women could be equal, marriage abolished, and children raised in common, could entertain an experiment with democracy. I mean, historically, this whole democracy thing is “a recent, local, flash in the pan.” Yet, I’d think Lefty would be reluctant to say it hasn’t been a good experiment, worth trying, and even worth maintaining. But that’s really it, isn’t it… marriage equality is about an experimentation with a social institution, in the effort to make it more just, more justifiable, more equal?

  3. Matt and Chris,

    I think you’ve put your finger (nay, your fists!) on one of the weaker spots in Lefty’s case: why should we think that the original intentions of those who invent an institution should be decisive in thinking about what the inherent features of that institution really are?

    In what will no doubt prove to be a too-short response, though, let me suggest a couple things. First, what are the alternatives here? Well, one alternative is that institutions just don’t have any inherent features, period.

    Another alternative is that institutions do have inherent features, but they are determined by someone or somewhere besides the inventors. Perhaps from the majority of those who have lived under the institution? Perhaps from the current slice of people who are living under the institution right now? I can see many variants on these, but on most of them (all of them?) it looks like a defense could be mounted, for marriage or for other institutions, of finding an inherent feature.

    One reason for thinking the inventors of an institution are relevant, however, is that they seem to set the parameters upon what the institution is, which later generations are free to modify, but only within limits. For example, consider what I believe to be the evil institution of chattel slavery. No doubt most of us would think, and be thankful, that the institution of chattel slavery is no longer practiced today in the United States. But what if someone said “ah, but there’s another way of looking at this; the institution has survived, but it’s been gradually changed; it’s changed its names and it’s changed its players, but there’s still an unfair division of labor between the 1% and the 99%; so chattel slavery is still alive and well in the good old U. S. of A…”

    I think we would be right to expect that this explanation of the continuing existence of the institution of chattel slavery is not likely to succeed. Why? Well, you don’t have to be a philosophical expert on the persistence conditions for institutions to realize that, whatever its inherent features may be, chattel slavery is not around in the United States today. But part of the basis of your confidence here, I think, is the idea that the inventors of chattel slavery had certain things in mind when they created the institution, and those things are no longer in place.

    In fact, part of the response to the pluriform types of marriage across cultures and eras of history is to wonder: “hey, what is it that makes all these different types of arrangements marriages in the first place?” When you start asking if they share a lowest common denominator, despite their differences regarding economics, and status, and religion, and other things, it’s not hard to predict what that lowest common denominator will include.

    To combine these threads, what would the future have to look like for you to conclude that the institution of marriage had disappeared or been destroyed? Like chattel slavery in the U.S.? (I recognize but resist the move the assimilate one of these institutions to the other.) Seriously, some people worry that same-sex marriage is an attempt (perhaps the latest attempt) to “destroy” marriage. But set that to one side, and consider: just what would it take to destroy the institution of marriage, like the institution of chattel slavery? Attempting to this question brings us around to thinking, in a kind of back-door way, about what the inherent features of marriage as an institution might be. And don’t the intentions of the inventors have some say here as well?

  4. Russell,
    Thanks for the response and the clarification it brings. But, it seems to me your account of the history of institutions is far too intentional, as though someone sat down and said, "Hey, we have this problem, and X will fix it." But let’s suppose that’s how it happened.

    The one social problem which, until very recently, had no better solution, is key to making sense of why marriage has historically been a different-sex practice: children and paternity. When access to social and personal goods depends on who one's parents are, or who one's children are (e.g.: inheritance, citizenship, religion, title, honor, wealth, access to other major social institutions, financial support, education, status, etc.) it makes it exceedingly important to be able to establish with the least doubt bearable who one’s parent are and who one’s children are. Marriage, as a sexual and reproductive union between a man and woman, was a highly successful solution to that problem, so long as everyone agreed that whatever children are born in the marriage (i.e., to the wife) are legitimately the husband’s.

    Your characterizing marriage as inherently differently-sexed only makes sense against this historic function. Lefty has left this dimension out of his argument, and Righty hasn’t helped either. Social institutions don’t just get invented for the fun of it, they solve major social problems and are retained so long as they continue to solve those problems or are transformable such that they can be used to solve other social problems. The seemingly inherent different-sex character of marriage only makes sense if we look at it as a solution to a fundamentally sexual-reproductive problem, which dovetails with other problems like property, access to social goods, etc. These are less and less issues of concern for us in our society today, not least because it is clear that couples do not have to be married to one another to ensure paternity, inheritance, quality child-rearing, status, nor access to other major social institutions. It no longer matters whether a man is married to the mother of his child for his child to have a claim on him and vice versa. The old social problems for which marriage was a solution are not really social problems for us anymore, and as they are, marriage is no longer the determining element of the solution.

    That said, what social problems does marriage help us solve today? Well, let’s look at some of the things marriage does: it still tracks paternity, but it also does things like support the rearing of children (though tax credits, tracking custody and decision-making for children, etc.). Also, marriage is taken as an indicator of who should be able to make decisions for another person in hospital or care facility, it indicates who beneficiaries likely are for insurance and banks, and it indicates who the police should call in an emergency. It also indicates who can enter the country, share a visa, or become a citizen. In short, it is what helps to differential serious life-long committed relationships of care and obligation from room-mates, good friends, casual lovers, or even siblings (married partners outrank siblings and parents in decisions about health care, insurance, banking, etc.).

    Marriage is an enormously useful social institution, still for us today. But, if what it does for us now, as a socially recognized practice and state supported institution, is by and large to differentiate those who have a deep and long-lasting public commitment to care and obligation for each other from those who are not, then what is the purpose of the institution remaining different-sexed?
    Lefty’s argument about marriage equality seems to me to have mistaken the essential feature to be who the participants should be. I’m suggesting that Lefty should look at little deeper at why that might have been the case.

  5. PS: I'm all against chattel slavery, and was all against marriage (I'm among those who would not cry if it were "destroyed" and have argued with gay and lesbian friends that they shouldn't seek marriage, but should help get rid of it), though I think I might have persuaded myself here that there might yet remain value in it. I just firmly believe that the different-sexedness of it is increasingly irrelevant to that value.

  6. How would you compare marriage, as a social institution, as an inherently different-sexed partnership, with other cultural institutions such as 'citizen', 'pharoah', or 'voter', which for most of human history has included members of only one sex?

    Perhaps the concept or institution of marriage is more comparable to something like 'species' or any word in a language, which a biologist or competent speakers of a language recognize even if there is a significant evolution of its features over time; they retain their meaning as much through lineage as through retaining some key features, while no species, no word, and indeed no cultural institution remains exactly the same over time.