My theory about Same Sex Marriage

I’ve been watching the same-sex marriage debate for quite some time, and I have decided that most of the arguments from both sides are confused and confusing. I have resisted saying this publically because I couldn’t put my finger on what the problem was, but now I have a theory:

There are two completely different things that we call “marriage”, and we are getting them mixed up.

The first thing, which I call “legal marriage” is the definition in law of a status that two people can be in.

The second thing, which I call “ontological marriage” (from the Greek “ontos”, “being”), is this big idea of what being married “really is” – it is the “essence”, or “core nature” of marriage.

These are two different things that often do not line up. If the government decided tomorrow that my wife and I were no longer legally married, that would not stop us from actually being husband and wife. Equally, a couple might have completely ended their relationship, but the government still has them as “married” until they file the right paperwork.

In a perfect world, the definition of marriage should match the ontological nature of marriage. The problem is that two groups of people have two understandings of what the ontological nature of marriage is, and both are trying to force the legal definition to match their understanding.

The problem will reside as long as the one word is used to describe the two things. Whatever happens in the law, the legal definition of marriage will match one group’s ontological understanding, and “exclude” the other’s.

Because both sides hear a change of the legal definition as an attack on the ontological nature, they will both fight the legal battle extremely aggressively – both are defending an understanding of the ontological nature of marriage that they hold to be very important.

A side issue, but still very important, is the concern that religious groups have that a new legal definition of marriage would force them to recognise and administer that change within their services. Again, the problem is that what the church (mosque, synagogue, temple etc) does is celebrate their understanding of the ontological reality of marriage. They do not want to participate in a legal marriage that they do not believe matches the ontological reality – and they do not want to be sued for refusing to do so (recent events in the US and Ireland have highlighted this possibility).

For as long as both concepts use the same word, they will constantly be mixed up with each other. I don’t think there is an easy solution, and I don’t think there is an easy way out of the acrimony coming from both sides.

Perhaps a solution would be if the legal definition found a new word: delete “marriage” from the law books, and make everyone a “civil union”. Then each community and sub-community can celebrate marriages which may or may not be recognised as civil unions for governmental and legal purposes.

There is no doubt that it is good if the legal definition matches the ontological reality, but if it doesn’t, then we can still rejoice in the ontological reality. However, while society is divided on what that that reality is, the legal definition will be powerfully divisive.

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14 thoughts on “My theory about Same Sex Marriage

  1. Great article Mike. I think it’s a helpful distinction to make.

    Another issue at stake is that if same-sex relationships are legally recognised as marriages, then that would presumably bring with it the rights of parenthood. This would open the way for same-sex couples to use surrogates to have children in Australia. It becomes a children’s rights issue. Does a child have a right to be brought up by their biological parents (tragic circumstances notwithstanding)? We’ve robbed children of their biological parents before. We called them the stolen generations.

      • Thanks heaps for the article Mike – I didn’t know about it.

        Still, as it says – ‘Same-sex couples and singles are banned from using altruistic surrogacy in Western and South Australia but it’s believed only one in 20 couples who want to use a surrogate do so in Australia, with most having babies born through a foreign surrogate.’ It seems it’s difficult here (to find an altruistic surrogate), or they prefer to pay a surrogate (decrease emotional attachment?), or they prefer not to have the biological mother in the same country (keep them apart from the child?), or some other combination of reasons.

        I think ‘altruistic surrogacy’ is problematic to begin with – what right do adults have to rob a child of their biological parents (even when they think they’re being ‘altruistic’)? Paid surrogacy even more problematic.

        But what do you think – would redefining marriage mean more pressure to relax surrogacy laws to allow these new marriages to have children? Wouldn’t that be a logical outcome – to allow greater ‘equality’ we would need to open more avenues for gay couples to have children (given they can’t have them in the same way as heterosexual couples)?

  2. Surrogacy is a completely different issue – and a really really complex one. I have not thought about it enough. However, regardless of what you think about surrogacy, current equality legislation means that gay couples would be treated the same as singles or hetero defacto couples. The legal status of “marriage” means very little – if anything – these days. Would gay marriage change surrogacy landscape? Maybe, but I’m not sure how much.

    Secondly, I have a general philosophical problem with fighting one bit of legislation because it might lead to another one. The slippery slope argument is currently being used against Christians in schools “if they can do this, then what will they do next?” and I’m not really a fan of it.

    My big question always is “what is the problem?”. I think I hear three different problems mixed up in the surrogacy debate:

    If the problem with surrogacy is “kids should have their biological parents” then it applies regardless of the sexuality of the new parents. In that case, then the issue should be fought on those grounds, and I think there is a powerful case to be made that much of society will hear. Serious thought needs to be applied to the implications for adoption of children with living parents and, to a lesser extent, to our policies on child removal and fostering.

    If the problem is “kids need a mother and a father”, then that is equally true of adoption; single people adopting or surrogating (?); and couples who break up. The principal is true, but should it be legislated for? And if so, we must legislate for it equally.

    If the problem is “gay people raising kids will raise the kids in a harmful direction” (or something like that), then are we also applying that principal equally to other parents – alcoholics, work-addicts, racists – who might guide their children into very harmful directions? Or is the argument that gay parents are worse for the other child than these other cases?

    The problem is that all three reasons get mixed together in most discussions, and the very real value in discussing reason 1 gets drowned out in our community because it gets mixed with reasons 2 and 3. In the end, some of us risk saying that surrogacy is bad if gay people do it but kind of OK for others, and I’m not sure that this is a valid position.

    Only interim thoughts, of course.

  3. Thanks so much for such a thoughtful reply Mike. The distinctions you make are so helpful.

    As I understand it, a ‘slippery slope’ is an informal fallacy. It can be false if there is no warrant provided that we will get from point A (SSM) to point B (opening up surrogacy). But if there is valid warrant, then the slippery slope isn’t necessarily false. Is that right?

    E.g. the argument ‘if we redefine marriage to include homosexual couples, then it will eventually get redefined to include polygamous relationships’ is a slippery slope argument. What’s the warrant for getting from A to B? Well, the argument given for SSM is ‘equality’. Surely polygamous relationships can argue in the very same fashion – ‘our love is equal too!’ There seems to be valid warrant to make the link. I’m not sure what the case is with Christians in schools – maybe there’s valid warrant to that slippery slope argument, maybe there isn’t.

    Re: (1) – agree!
    Re: (2) – agree! And I think adoption should be for a husband and wife. This is the ideal and we should protect it.
    Re: (3) – again, I agree – in adoption we should screen the parents (alcoholics, work-addicts, racists etc.) All of these things require a moral compass … now where shall we get that from? 🙂

    Anyways, you’ve made me think more carefully about the ‘children’s rights’ argument against redefining marriage. More thought required here! I think it’s good to be up-front that our reason for opposing the redefinition of marriage is that this is the way God created us and marriage and so it’s best for human flourishing. Then to also engage people where they want to engage (e.g. protecting children, equality, etc.) as it comes up.

    • I might be harsher than others, but I think that the slippery slope is never valid. Something is right or wrong in and of itself (or its context, ordering, etc). But I do not think something is ever wrong just because the argument for it could then be (mis)applied to something else. If slippery slope is the only argument we have for something, then we need a better argument.

      The other side of it is how we then fight for what we are right. I got into this in my FB post, basically arguing that the mistake of the anti-same sex marriage campaign is that it has tried to get politicians to act against the majority view, rather than trying to change the majority view. You might be interested in that conversation.

  4. Let me get this right. Your thoughts are perhaps to “replace in the law books the words ‘marriage’ with the words ‘ Civil Union.” Does that also mean that you think perhaps God should “update” the Bible so that everyone can agree? The Bible clearly states that a “marriage” or “union” is between a man and a woman. Period. There is no changing that no matter who you are. God does not change. Period.
    Please help me to understand if I have this correct.

    • Actually, I’m saying the exact opposite. The biblical definition of marriage is unchanging, marriage is unchanging. So governments should not be in the business of defining the word, either by changing it or defending it. In fact, they should not be in the business of controlling or enforcing marriage. Instead, governments can legislate civil unions, for tax and other legal purposes, and take the word marriage out of their legal language.

  5. I agree with Mikes comments of Nov 24th, the word “marriage” does not belong to the government, it did not originate with them, as the concept of marriage did not. It is obviously a biblical term and defines a male/female union that is as old as humanity. The term Civil Union, and it’s attendant functionary meanings as it pertains to statutory laws within a given commonwealth is of course subject to the said commonwealths desires, laws and boundaries. It seems to me that the separation of church and state is is extremely clear. The government cannot suborn and change the biblical meaning of the word marriage, despite the desire of many same sex people who wish that they fit within the biblical and historical meaning of the word and seem to resent the fact that they do not. The words “civil union” can change and reflect the will and whim of the government and it’s people, but the word Marriage cannot, and should not. In any typical marriage, as in my own, I was joined twice, once in the courts by signing he paperwork, and once in a church. A same sex couple might be able to sign the paperwork, if they courts so decide, but if the church refuses to perform the service they should not have any legal right to force the church to perform the “marriage rite”. How can anyone presume to force any church to change to suit their whim?

    A delicate subject, but as society tends feel that anyone is entitled to anything they want if they want it bad enough, society now feels that a same sex couple that cannot have a baby should be given one. If Nature does not see fit to let them create a child naturally why should the law attempt to legislate it? Couples with the inability to conceive throughout history have been creative in this regard, but it seems that the law might be better left outside of it.

    As a parent with young children, I reject anyone that feels that they have the right to teach my children or in any way demonstrate to them the attitude that they can “choose” their gender as if choosing a new outfit. If they are minors they should in no way be exposed to this line of thinking in public schools any more than they would be exposed to a teacher telling them that porn should be explored whenever they want or that drinking, drugs and any other mis-aligned behavior deserved an equal opportunity as they form their personality. As the politically correct lgbt community seeks out new converts to help themselves feel less isolated I think that we, as parents have a right to protect our kids from this thought process.

    It’s hard to isolate one line of this thinking from the others, as they are all interconnected and when woven together they might just produce a rope from which our society might very well hang someday.

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