The proponents of legalizing same-sex marriage should congratulate themselves on a number of victories in recent years. The fact that some 17 US states now allow gay marriage—and laws banning gay marriage have been challenged by courts in 7 additional states—is making a real difference in people’s lives on a day-to-day basis. However, if this freedom is to be extended to all the remaining 33 states, its supporters will need to sharpen their arguments to eliminate a number of vulnerabilities in their position.
Many people argue against bans on gay marriage by framing the issue as one of marriage equality. They seek to extend this right to gays because it is a right currently enjoyed by heterosexuals. This approach is generally consistent with other causes on the Left, which also crusades against pay discrimination on the basis of gender and against discrimination by restaurant owners towards patrons on the basis of race or sexual orientation.
The first problem with current approaches to defending same-sex marriage is that the nature of marriage itself requires discrimination. We would not condemn the individual of discriminating tastes in a spouse, who dedicatedly searches for a partner he respects and loves more than anyone else. We would condemn the marriage entered into carelessly, thoughtlessly, and therefore indiscriminately.
Let’s imagine three people for a moment: Greg, Jane and Jessica. Greg wants to marry Jane, but Jane refuses because she’s not attracted to men, and rather prefers to marry Jessica.
When you think about it, a true anti-discrimination stance on marriage would mean that if Greg could demonstrate that his marriage proposal was denied on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, disabilities, etc., he could sue on the grounds that he has been denied a valuable marriage. Of course, no one advocates this.
One might respond that the government specifically ought to ban only the kind of discrimination which denies people things they need, like jobs, food, education and such. But by what standard do people need jobs, food and education, but not marriage? Gay marriage advocates support their position by citing the ways in which couples need a legally recognized marriage to live together prosperously. If the problem with outlawing it is that it discriminates and deprives someone of what they need, why not also outlaw a discriminating choice of a spouse? Greg could argue that his happiness and prosperity depend upon his winning Jane’s hand in marriage.
But this represents a completely backwards perspective. Gays should have the right to marry not because of the value of nondiscrimination or equality, but because they have the right to be free to live and associate with others on their own terms. No individual in a civilized society is beholden to a single employer, restaurant, or school for the resources they need to survive. If an individual is fired by an employer—or rejected by a potential spouse—he can seek another who will agree to hire or marry him. But an individual has no replacement for his own life, and that’s why he needs to be left free from interference so he can pursue it by offering his best in exchange for the best that others have to offer. If a man can convince a consenting adult to hire him or to marry him, he should be free to do it.
Now, a number of marriage equality advocates are able to sidestep this first pitfall by asserting that surely, the government has no call to discriminate against gays. After all, aren’t all individuals equal in rights?
This leads to the final, fatal flaw in the currently popular argument, and indeed any defense of same-sex marriage in the name of “marriage equality.” As a Maryland court pointed out when it delayed Maryland same-sex marriage rights for six years, same-sex marriage bans do not separate individuals into separate classes: under such laws, all individuals, gay and straight, are allowed to marry, so long as they marry an individual of the opposite sex. The fact that the argument for gay marriage can be undermined by such objections demonstrates that current argument isn’t getting to the heart of this issue, and a new argument is needed.
People have the right to marry because it is the moral right of every individual to pursue his or her own happiness. This right requires that the government identify the nature of the marriage contract and enforce its conditions. Without marriage, couples seeking a level of commitment extending throughout life would not have any legal recourse in case of a breach of the terms of the arrangement. Many relationships get along fine without a legally binding agreement, but people have a right to commit themselves to such agreements in order to plan their future.
Mountains of evidence demonstrating that homosexual love is very real, even commonplace, have squashed any reasonable moral objection to homosexual relationships as such. A marriage literally starts with the vows of love of two lovers, and this is a sign that we must take the pursuit of romantic values to be the defining element of marriage. Thus we should extend its applicability to all couples, including same-sex ones.
People have the right to marry not because everyone should get the same deal out of life, but because the freedom to choose one’s spouse by one’s own standards necessarily includes the freedom to choose the best. The freedom of every individual to choose the best, happiest life he or she can possibly lead is the fundamental basis of a free society, and is the only standard which can grant full, passionate moral authority to the cause of extending same-sex marriage rights.
Creative commons-licensed image from Wikimedia Commons.