A standard jibe from proponents of “gay marriage” is that marriages don’t eat each other up, so John and Mary’s can’t be affected by Ron and Barry’s. As one blogger puts it, “I can’t help but feel sorry for people whose families are so fragile as to be destroyed by someone else’s decision to make a long-term commitment to another person.”
The jibe fits very nicely with current understandings of human conduct, which tell us that we are (and should be) independent individuals making up our own minds how we will act based on personal goals and the incentives and disincentives our environment offers. On that understanding, which people consider a matter of simple rationality, the jibe seems unanswerable.
The response, though, is that man acts by reference to what things are as well as rewards and punishments. His rationality is conceptual as well as utilitarian. Sometimes we avoid lying or give something to charity not because it’s advantageous but because it seems the right thing to do. If someone offers me a million dollars for American state secrets in my possession, and I’m confident there will be no bad consequences to me if I accept, it will matter whether I am American and how I came by the secrets. Results aren’t everything: who I am (French, American, or North Korean) and what the action is (whether it would be a breach of loyalty or trust) will make a big difference no matter what the practical consequences are for my personal goals in life.
In the case of marriage, then, it matters what marriage is, and for that matter what men and women are and what sexual connections are. To believe in gay marriage is to believe that marriage is nothing in particular. It is an arbitrary name for a collection of relationships thought worth formalizing for one reason or another, so multiplying the types of relationship that can be formalized under that name can have little effect on the relationships themselves, except that the increased availability of formalization may be helpful to some.
The contrary view, of course, is that marriage is not a name but a basic institution, and as such has a definite nature and functions that carry with them duties and rights comprehensive enough to transform one’s situation and even affect who one is. Such a view makes sense with regard to marriage as traditionally conceived, since if it is understood as the legitimate enduring sexual union of man and woman it has an essential connection to the continuation of the race and basic constitution of society, and so to the most basic natural and social functions.
Expand marriage to include “gay marriage” though and it no longer has such a connection. As such, it can no longer support the same network of expectations, obligations and rights. The abolition of the United States of America as an institution, and its conversion into a sentimental connection among people who wish to recognize the connection, would have effects, even though one could say that it’s a poor patriot who needs the force of law to enforce his patriotism. Why shouldn’t the abolition of marriage as an institution also have effects?
(Here are some earlier Thoughts on “gay marriage”.)