Over at MarriageDebate.com Maggie Gallagher has been dealing with one of the standard arguments for “gay marriage,” that there can’t be an essential connection between marriage and procreation because after all 70-year-old women are allowed to marry even though they can’t have babies. Miss Gallagher handles the question very well, but there’s a lurking point worth bringing out.
For roughly 2000 years, pretty much no one [I have no idea why she limits it to 2000 years or to “pretty much no one”] ever thought of saying that because we let older women marry, and because some married couples don’t have children, marriage is not really about childbearing, it is primarily about adult relationships.
It is only in the context of the SSM [”same-sex marriage”] debate that people (gay marriage advocates) began to argue, and judges began to rule, that because older women can legally marry, marriage is not about procreation.
It seems to me the argument presented by the “gay marriage” advocates isn’t opportunistic, but faithfully reflects the technocratic point of view now commonly identified with rationality itself. On that view, to say marriage has to do with the continuation of the species is to say that the relationship between marriage and having babies is like the relationship between an auto shop and fixing cars. Of course it’s not, so on that view no essential function can be found for marriage other than allowing people who feel connected to formalize their relationship. That’s the only result marriage brings about in each and every case, so that (the argument goes) must be its rational purpose. Such a view also seems to avoid an inhuman “biological machine” theory of sex that people believe would otherwise follow.
The argument would make sense if we were fundamentally technological beings whose lives consisted in the adaptation of means to whatever ends we happen to choose. That’s not so, though. What we understand ourselves to be has to do with qualities and relationships that are at once more subtle and complex and more stable and enduring than the technical requirements for choosing goals and bringing them about.
In fact, the fundamental social relationships that define who we are are based on not on technical rationality but on what might be called functional identities. One thing that defines me, for example, is nationality: I am American. The reason nationality matters is that it involves mutual promotion of the common good, and so has necessary functional aspects. Nationality means, among other things, that I should obey the laws, do my part to promote the common welfare, defend the country against its enemies, and so on. Nonetheless, I had the same nationality when I was a newborn and would have it if I were insane or on my deathbed. I would still be American if I became a traitor, and our allies during wartime do not become American even though they protect America from her enemies.
Nationality, then, doesn’t depend on actual performance or ability to perform certain social functions even though it has to do with those functions. It defines me as someone who characteristically would do and would want to do such things—conditions permitting—because of what I am, not as someone who happens to be in a position to do them just now. The fact nationality has to do with the characteristics that define us rather than specific cause and effect is what makes it a motivator that can be relied on. It is because it has to do with essential qualities that it goes deeper than the particular accidents and circumstances of life.
Being a man or woman, and being married, are like having a particular nationality only much more so, since sex has been around much longer and touches us much more deeply than nationhood. Marriage is constituted by what the participants and their relationship are understood to be. Being a man or woman is basic to what one is. The sexual union of a man and woman touches them deeply and by natural design—even if not in every case—produces children. Those things are far too basic to the pattern of human life to ignore or treat as purely technical matters. Marriage thus recognizes, orders and supports natural functional identities that we can’t help but feel and that can’t help but guide our actions, and thereby makes possible an orderly and reliable system for the connection of human beings to the social order and the continuation of the species.
To say that marriage could just as easily involve two men or two women is as much as to say that being a man or woman is fundamentally irrelevant to what one is and that the importance of sex is irrelevant to its natural function. At bottom, that is the message of liberal cultural radicalism. What sane person believes it though? And if being a man or woman is irrelevant to what we are, and sex is simply what the parties make of it, how could marriage—which would reduce to a private contract based on idiosyncratic purposes—gain enough purchase on what we are to serve anything like the function it has traditionally had?