Friday, March 03, 2006


(The following is a slightly edited response to a question about homosexuality, same-sex marriage, sin, and the afterlife. I republish it here because I think the ideas are important and because I doubt that many folks peruse the "comments" section--where the original response is located.)

First of all I think it is important to say, as C. S. Lewis did in his popular book, Mere Christianity, that religious folks tend to focus inordinate attention on sexual flaws or faults but that their scriptures emphasize spiritual shortcomings—pride, selfishness, lust for power, heartlessness, etc. That comment is appropriately followed by the confession that immorality of this, and of the sexual variety, permeates all lives—including my own. We are all, to varying degrees, enmeshed in immorality.

Secondly, I think of most actions as being on a continuum or scale that terminates, at its apex, in an ideal. Nobody achieves the ideal, but it exists as the goal toward which individuals and societies strive and by which they judge their own moral circumstances. In my estimation (a view endorsed by the Judeo-Christian historical tradition) the “ideal” domestic relationship is a male-female marriage. And marriage, in my view, is an institution whose primary function is the creation of a loving, stable union of husband and wife within which children are raised.

Over the last half-century, however, marriage has been progressively redefined by feelings of affection. The inevitable consequence of that redefinition has been to undermine the child-rearing aspect of marriage. When heterosexual marriage is defined in this manner, there appears to be little to distinguish it from same-sex unions. But when one focuses on sexual fidelity for the sake of a family, it becomes clear that what applies to almost all heterosexual unions does not apply at all (biologically) when it comes to same-sex unions.

In concrete terms, however, not everyone is so constituted (or emotionally arranged as a result of social interaction) as to realize the ideal of marriage. In addition, some persons may be able to achieve non-marital ideals by virtue of the “gift of celibacy.” What I find positively destructive, however, is the insistence on making feelings of affection the basis for understanding marriage—and thus relegating sexual activity and reproduction to activities that, outside of marriage, are still ok. I think it is inevitable that the institutionalization of same-sex marriage will further lessen this vital linkage (since reproduction, by definition, is not part of same-sex intercourse).

On a more individual note, a rather unbiased study, done at a Vancouver hospital and published in 1997 in the Oxford University International Journal of Epidemiology, came up with these conclusions: “In a major Canadian centre, life expectancy at age 20 years for gay and bisexual men is 8 to 20 years less than for all men. If the same pattern of mortality were to continue, we estimate that nearly half of gay and bisexual men currently aged 20 years will not reach their 65th birthday. Under even the most liberal assumptions, gay and bisexual men in this urban centre are now experiencing a life expectancy similar to that experienced by all men in Canada in the year 1871.”

This conclusion coincides with others that are available to persons who want to discuss, honestly, the health impact of same-sex intercourse. Unfortunately, our society isn’t interested (in this and numerous other subjects) in having an honest discussion. Instead, vilification of individuals who don’t toe the line that social elites favor is the order of the day.

Do my observations and this medical data mean that same-sex intercourse is “immoral”? I think it indicates that it, like sex outside of marriage, doesn’t live up to the “ideal.” The same is true, I would assert, of my divorced state of affairs. Yet I don't justify myself by saying (as intellectuals like Constance Ahrons do) that “good divorces” are plentiful and that children aren’t regularly damaged by marital breakups. I don’t exhibit the ideal, but I try to do the best that I can under the circumstances. And, I continue to honor, rather than undermine, the ideal.

What I find most depressing is the tendency that all of us have to disparage ideals for the sake of justifying our own actions. When divorce began to be popular, intellectuals quickly began to declare that single parents could raise children just as well as a married couple and that “quality time” was all that mattered. People yearning to justify themselves ate it up. But it wasn’t true. (Patrick Moynihan discussed this topic a bit in his well-known essay, “Defining Deviancy Down.”) I think the same things are being said now about raising children in two-adult homes where the sex of the adults is inconsequential.

As to your question about the afterlife, I have only the inclination to believe that, if there is something like rewards and punishments, we will be judged by one who will be more merciful and understanding than myself. (And I say this with the thought that I myself am inclined to be understanding, seeing as I am acutely aware of my own faults.) In short, doing pretty well, given one’s circumstances, is what I tend to expect of folks—not perfection. I can’t see how a perfect judge would be less understanding.


stuckinsepia said...

I don't understand why you say that a man and a woman are the ideal parents to raise children, and that there is currently too much emphasis on "emotions," which takes away from what truly matters (the raising of children.) I had a father and a mother who hated each other, and I can honestly say I would have rather been brought up by one or the other than had to listen to their constant bickering and sense the everlasting tension in the house. You make too many assumptions (basing your opinion on the non-exceptions) and define things far too broadly (or sometimes far too narrowly) to make a valid point. I know plenty of homosexual couples who I know for a fact would have raised a more stable child than my parents did. I would go so far as to say that the "ideal" would involve to people in love and in a happy enough condition to pass such fruitful stability to their children. A homosexual couple might very well have had better potential to raise me well than did my parents.

RKirk said...

Stuck in sepsis,

No issue can be addressed sensibly by appealing to anecdotal evidence. Some single 16-year-olds would raise children better than two adults, but using that example to argue that 16-year-olds make good parents is unjustified.

Your argument is based on the exception. Mine, as you note, is based on the "non-exceptions." If one is talking about ideals (which I was doing) one must look at "non-exceptions." No rule at all follows from arguing based on exceptions. In legal circles the statement, "Hard cases make bad law," makes a similar point. When one is drawing conclusions about marriage and the raising of children, the same logical principle applies.

Concerning why "a man and a woman" should be "ideal" parents, the answer is, I think, fairly obvious. Biologically, only a man and a woman can produce children. If the two are married, then procreation is done within a committed family. Children who live in such situations have models of male-female relationships, a father, and a mother. The idea that any of those things is superfluous, seems to me an untenable assertion rooted in political ideology. Statistics about child welfare back up my assertion. Children without a two-parent family don't do as well as those who have a two-parent families. The idea that either sex is dispensible in terms of psychological development, flies in the face of common sense, biology, and thousands of years of cultural history.

I don't think you understand what I said about emotions and marriage. It is obvious that there are bad parents and unhappy marriages. The same is true of shack-up situations (where women are more likely to be abused than women who are married). My point is that marriage, institutionally, should exist (and used to exist) primarily for the sake of providing a stable, legitimate environment for children. If procreation is not the primary focus of the institution, then more and more kids will be born or raised outside the protection of a stable family. Indeed, that is what has happened in the last half century. In the U.S. the illegitimacy rate is 33%--68% among American blacks. Many single women now think little about having a child without having a husband--consciously depriving their offspring of that crucial male relationship. And why do they do all these things? In large part because the link between marriage and procreation has been severed in our society.

Indeed, the very reason for marriage is unclear if feelings of affection are at the center of the institution. What does a document add to visceral feelings--and why should one stay in a relationship once those feelings change? Thus, a very modern couple pledged to be with each other (in their superfluous wedding vows) "as long as we both shall love." One commentator wryly remarked that the proper wedding gift for this couple would be paper plates. Children brought into a marriage that was consummated under those assumptions can expect the same stability as kids who live with parents that are shacking up.

Yazzi said...

If a marriage exists only for the purpose of procreation and the raising of children in an "ideal" heterosexual environment, then is the marriage with one sterile male (or female) as invalid as a homosexual relationship?

I do agree that the reproduction purpose of marriage in our society has certainly been downsized, as you point out with the rise in single mothers. However what I don't understand is your need to stress the ideal. Ideal is just what it's definition implies, "absolute perfection". And pefection is a concept thus far withheld from human potential. Thus, because it does not, and will not, exist it is folly to base any theory on the ideal. In the real world, emotions are a huge role in creating a person and an environment. An important theory in the Enlightenment stressed that the environment shapes a person. I completely agree with stuckinsepia as I have had a similar experience. I know of several homosexual couples, single mothers, etc that are raising/could raise a normal healthy child. No, the child does not have two heterosexual parents and thus you would not consider this child healthy or normal. However the child is in a loving environment and I believe that if you are raised in such a caring atmosphere that it will affect you in a positive way. There are plenty of children of heterosexual parents that became mass murderers, same as the children from other situations.

In short, classifying by an improbable concept of the ideal is folly and exhaustable. You will get nowhere by speculating the impossible.

yazzi said...

I just caught a glimpse of an error I made in the above message: ** correction: its (not "it's") **

RKirk said...

The case of heterosexuals who can't have children is a point that needs to be addressed--and it requires the kind of thought that you and stuckinsepia seem able and willing to devote to the topic.

My argument is that marriage would not have become what it has been, institutionally, were it not for the fact that most heterosexual couples produce children that are then raised within the confines of marriage. Indeed, if marriage had been defined by the nonreproductive segment of heterosexual couples, it would be defined in the same way as it would be for homosexuals--i.e. outside the realm of "reproductive responsibility." "Illegitimacy" is not a concept that attends either infertile heterosexual or any homosexual unions. Yet it has been critical to the understanding of marriage in Western civilization--at least until recently.

As I said in a previous post, people don't always live up to the ideals of a civilization, but what is being suggested vis a vis "gay marriage" is equivalent to doing away with the concept of illegitimacy, which, not surprisingly, has already been undermined for the sake of "sexual liberation."

Concerning ideals, your stated view all but makes them irrelevant--until, of course, your own ideals come into play--in which case they are again important (even if we can't perfectly enact them). In other words, your objection to "ideals" seem selective or ad hoc--applicable only to the other guy's ideals.

I would reiterate that the position I am opposing, and I think you are supporting, links marriage, fundamentally, to feelings of affection, not to the raising of children. I am confident that that position has, and will continue, to undermine the welfare of children and the institution of marriage itself. Marriage is unnecessary if it is only about a public declaration that one has deep feelings for someone else. Such feelings change. The objective obligation to provide a stable home for one's offspring is quite another matter.

Finally, pointing out the obvious fact that heterosexual couples aren't perfect and that some homosexual couples would be better parents than heterosexual abusers doesn't deal with the fundamental question we have been discussing: What are the ethical/philosophical bases of the institution of marriage? And would the recognition of homosexual marriages undermine those basic principles?

Anonymous said...

Your conclusions seem too platonic and impersonal for my eyes. I feel that reducing any argument for a law banning Homosexual Marriage to a Christian ideal of "perfection" is ludicrous. To begin with, I grew up without Christian morals and subsequently I believe that values exist in a Godless universe. According to my education on the Bible (from Bishop's), which I clearly admit to as being biased, man created the Bible a terribly long time ago making ancient traditions concerning the ideal marriage, or even relationship outdated. I hope one day in the near future the Senate will not be polluted with a mixture between Church and State.

RKirk said...

I agree that "reducing any argument for a law banning Homosexual Marriage to a Christian ideal of 'perfection' is ludicrous." And I don't do this. I merely note that the broad civilizational attachment to male-female marriage coincides with the Judeo-Christian tradition. Moreover, my arguments (which you don't mention and mischaracterize) don't appeal to scripture. They focus on the connection between male-female marriage, sexual fidelity, and child welfare. To characterize the legal customs of almost all civilizations for the last thousand years as "Platonic...perfectionism" is what strikes me as "ludicrous." What also strikes me as worthy of further consideration is the logical basis you employ for "values" in a godless universe.

As to the "mixture of church and state" you bemoan, I would point out that your "ideal" was in no way contemplated by those who drafted the First Amendment--which doesn't use the phrase "separation of church and state" but rather proscribes a national "established religion"--a phrase clearly understood as a denomination subsidized by taxes, a la the Church of England. Read "ON TWO WINGS" by Michael Novak to get a better understanding of the way religion informed the politics of the Founding Fathers and continued to do so until the secular reinterpretation of the 1st amendment that began in 1962.