Sunday, June 07, 2009

An Atheist take on Same-Sex Marriage

This, from addresses the question I've raised before – why does marriage exist in a culture at all?

What is it that a married heterosexual couple can do that any couple living together can’t do — especially if we imagine changing a few contract laws to allow for things like property sharing? What is so important about a marriage certificate that any couple, gay or straight, would want to hold it up? What do they hope to gain by having society acknowledge their relationship as a marriage?

...Setting aside all of the loaded arguments about raising children and heterosexual relationships, the most fundamental characteristic of civil marriage which differentiates it from other contractual relationships is the fact that it establishes, legally, socially, and morally, a new kinship — and by extension, a new family.

A group of people can sign a contract for the purpose of setting up a new business, but they don’t thereby become kin or family. Two people can sign a contract assigning one the legal authority to make medical decisions for the other, but they don’t thereby become kin or family. Two people can sign a contract to jointly share property, but they don’t thereby become kin or a family.

When two people marry, however, they do become kin — they are now related to each other. Furthermore, they also establish kinship ties with one another’s families — and in some cultures, establishing kinship ties between the two families has been regarded as the purpose of marriage, not establishing kinship ties between the two people actually getting married.


Kinship is an important thread in the social fabric. It isn’t an “institution” like marriage because there are generally no specific legal, religious, or social rules regulating it. Kinship is, instead, an amorphous creation of many other institutions which help people structure their relationships with one another.

If you know that someone is your kin, you know that you have different legal, social, and moral obligations to them than you do to total strangers. If you know that two people are kin, you know that they not only have different obligations to each other than they do to you, but also that you have different obligations to them as a group then you would to them as individuals if they weren’t kin.

Marriage establishes a relationship which does not and cannot exist for people who are simply living together. However much a cohabiting couple may love each other and however long they may have been together, their relationship is not such that it can be described as “kin” and, as a consequence, they cannot make any legal, social, or moral claims on others to treat them individually and jointly as if they were kin.


There is, after all, much more to being “kin” than the legal benefits...

To begin with, there exist important moral obligations kin owe one another. These obligations may be enforced legally, as in some cases with marriage, but very often they are informal and unspoken yet nevertheless supported by one’s social milieu. Kin are expected to, wherever possible, financially and emotionally support one another when a crisis hits. A man who lets his mother become homeless will be ostracized by those around him, while siblings are expected to support one another when there is a death in the family.

The flip side of this are the obligations which the rest of the community owes to those who are tied together through kinship bonds. People who are kin are not supposed to be treated as if they were complete strangers to one another. If you invite a married man to a party, it is expected that the invitation is also extended to his wife — to deliberately exclude her would be a serious insult which would not exist if you invited one roommate but not the other. When a woman’s son achieves some success, you congratulate her as well — you wouldn’t act as though she had no significant connection to him.


There will be social pressures to acknowledge gay unions as marriages, however, just as there are social pressures to acknowledge the other listed relationships as marriages. When a person acts as though a spouse is little more than a random stranger, that will normally be perceived as an insult — and with good reason. But if Chris Burgwald or anyone else chooses to act in such a fashion, they will be as free to do so with gay marriages as they are to do so with other marriages today.

In summary, what’s the point of gay marriage? The point of gay marriage is the point of all marriage. Marriage is different from other contractual relationships because it creates bonds of kinship. These bonds are in turn different and more important than other bonds: they create significant moral, social, and legal obligations both for those who are married and between those who are married and everyone else. Some individuals may not choose to acknowledge those obligations, but they exist and they constitute the basis of human society — a society which includes both heterosexual and homosexual human beings.

Yes, the argument made by opponents of same-sex marriage is that it is the basis of human society. It is a major, if not *the* major structural component around which the rest of society is organized. It may be that changing it will make society stronger, but recognize that it's a major change – possibly on a par with changing all the chemical bonds in a pool of gasoline.

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