Secular Right | Reality & Reason



Defend monogamy, not “happiness”

The New York Times reports on a confrontational interaction between Rick Santorum and people who support same-sex marriage:

“If you’re not happy unless you’re married to five other people, is that O.K.?” he asked.

That angered the audience, which booed his answer.

“I’m happy to engage in a discussion,” he continued, saying that he wanted to “give people a chance to answer, but we’re going to have a civil discussion.”

The woman who had asked the first question then persisted, saying that the question about bigamy was “irrelevant.”

“In my personal opinion, go for it,” she said. “But when two men want to marry … ”

Mr. Santorum interrupted, “What about three men?”

“That’s not what I’m talking about,” the woman said to Mr. Santorum, who spent close to an hour and a half before the crowd.

The session ended with many of the students booing Mr. Santorum as he left for his next event.

There are several issues here.

1) Rick Santorum is not a likable person. Even conservatives tend have a negative reaction to his affect.

2) Most moral views emerge through collective consensus, rather than individual introspection.

3) The consensus toward acceptance of gay marriage is such that as a descriptive matter Santorum is on the “wrong side of history.” Even most conservatives who oppose same sex marriage on grounds of principle will acknowledge this empirical reality.

3) But, I think Santorum has a point in response to those who defend same sex marriage as a pure matter of individual utilitarian happiness. If same sex marriage, why not “X” (fill in the blank). On rational grounds one must engage with this, but I don’t see most people doing so (they take it as insulting to make a comparison). I think the most honest path going forward is to shy away from excessively abstract rights or individualist justifications for the right to marry, and make the case of how it coheres with our vision of how a society flourishes, no matter sexual orientation. Santorum has a clear vision, and his detractors need to be more honest about this issue in regards to whether they have a vision separate from the Zeitgeist. Or do they? Going back to #3, it seems like this will be a case where proponents can run out the clock on reasoned debate, because the younger cohorts generally support the proposition of same sex marriage. The debate will disappear as the dissenters die.


  • RandyB · January 6, 2012 at 12:24 am

    The traditional view of marriage is that it’s between:

    1. Exactly two
    2. Not closely related
    3. Consenting adults (or near-adults with parent’s permission)
    4. Of the opposite sex

    Last year, a clergyman was sentenced to life plus 20 years for officiating at marriages that violated 1.-3., to general public agreement. But anyone who still believes 4. is a retrograde oppressor of minorities.

  • hanmeng · January 6, 2012 at 12:25 am

    Man on dog!

  • tim · January 6, 2012 at 12:51 am

    The fundamental problem is that Santorum definition of “traditional” marriage is not very traditional. Its actually a rather recent redefinition of the word.

    And to the response to X is easy – there are ready answers to all of them because they aren’t new arguments. Its the same ones evangelicals bring out whenever no one is available to seriously refute them.

    To answer Santorums question – three people in a marriage is more traditional than his definition. Why is he against it? And children, trees, or animals can’t consent to marriage.

  • Acilius · January 6, 2012 at 1:06 am

    I agree with Tim’s remarks above, and disagree with RandyB’s. We in the West seem to have settled on the idea that marriage is an agreement between two people to enjoy private life together. That rules out arranged marriage, polygamy, and other customs that are still the norm in great swathes of the world and which, not so very long ago, were the norm more or less everywhere. It also makes it very difficult to defend the notion that marriage should be exclusively for opposite sex couples, since it is perfectly obvious that same sex couples are capable of forming such agreements. Any questions as to how likely same-sex unions are to meet the objectives of such an agreement are rendered irrelevant by the very high rates of divorce, cohabitation, and out-of-wedlock birth among opposite sex couples, which together show that no population is particularly well-adapted to this modern conception of marriage.

  • Author comment by David Hume · January 6, 2012 at 2:08 am

    basically agree with the thrust of the previous comment. the *ends* of a state recognition of marriage in the USA seem rather specific, and more expansive that personal happiness (if “personal happiness” was the end we’d incentivize the childless couples, since they report being more happier, even though i’m skeptical of that literature).

  • Lorenzo from Oz · January 6, 2012 at 2:16 am

    What people fail to notice about the “traditional” view of marriage as being people of the opposite sex is that it was an imposed tradition.

    First, lots of cultures and societies have recognised versions of same-sex marriage: the social form is a great deal older than people realise. This, by the way, extends to Roman law.

    Second, if you ban such marriages (as the early Christian emperors did) and then kill (i.e. judicially murder) people who engage in same-sex activity then same-sex marriage is precluded. Given the reality of human sexual diversity, such brutality is needed to maintain the “tradition” in any society with some form of moral universalism. Take away the (necessary) enforcing brutality and, given the reality of human sexual diversity, the want to settle down together with legal support will re-assert itself. In a morally universalist society, there is no stable rest point in the middle. You either buy into the (thoroughly utopian) endless repression of sexual diversity or accept equal protection of the law: that is the practical choice.

  • Author comment by David Hume · January 6, 2012 at 2:45 am

    the ultimate preference on my part would be to move beyond facile appeals to ‘tradition’ or exceeding naive justifications based on ‘utilitarianism.’ there’s implicitly a *positive* vision for how we should organize society and human relations here at the center of american life, but it is often not well elaborated in comparison to people like santorum, or his opposites on the cultural left who wish to tear down most customary institutions.

  • John · January 6, 2012 at 7:04 pm

    I favor gay marriage, but I like Santorum’s thinking here. He obviously has thought the issue through, and was trying to engage the audience in higher level thinking. Their response was to boo him.

    Santorum thinks that moral reasoning should be logically consistent. Why should we support gay marriage? If it is simply a matter of liberty, there is no reason not to support polygamy, which was his point. There are other philosophical justifications for it, but the audience was not capable of offering any. Their feeling was, “Well, I know some gay people who want to get married, and it doesn’t feel offensive to me, but polygamy, that’s just gross!”

    If Lawrence Kohlberg had been in the room, he would definitely point out that Santorum’s moral reasoning was at a higher level than his detractors.

  • Jeeves · January 6, 2012 at 8:38 pm

    3) The consensus toward acceptance of gay marriage is such that as a descriptive matter Santorum is on the “wrong side of history.” Even most conservatives who oppose same sex marriage on grounds of principle will acknowledge this empirical reality.

    Maybe so. But the empirical reality for now is that old people vote–lotsa them. Meghan McCain’s father, for example:

    About her father’s opposition to gay marriage, she said, “My father is hopefully going to be the next one I can work on, and he’s sort of coming around.” She added, “he’s 75 years old, so it’s a bit different.”

  • Mark · January 6, 2012 at 9:50 pm

    The traditional view was that black people could be property–then they couldn’t.

    The traditional view was that children could be made to work much as adults do–then they couldn’t.

    The traditional view was that women could not vote–then they could.

    The traditional view was that private property rights allowed people or businesses to discriminate on the basis of race & religion when it came to public accommodations, land sale covenants, etc.–then they didn’t.

    What have we learned about “traditional views” today, RandyB?

    PS: Why are the American God people always pissy about the possibility of polygamy? Their God did not seem to have much problem with it. It seems the Muslims and fundamentalist Mormons are more attuned to the literal “Word” than American Godsters like Santorum.

  • Clark · January 7, 2012 at 2:34 am

    I think the problem is that one group of dominate religious views got to determine what acceptable marriage was. They then decided to get the state involved such that there’s not a clear state/religion separation. (Seriously – how would we react if the state was granting privileges or benefits based upon baptism and deciding which forms of baptism got to be counted?) Now the dominant religion has become minority (not Christianity, but rather a particular strain of belief within Christianity) and still wants to maintain its social dominance on this.

    Santorum’s thought experiment was right although his intuitions false. Why on earth should the state decide any of this? The problem is that people who want gay marriage to be acceptable really don’t want other changes made acceptable. But as Santorum notes its pretty hard to be consistent on this point without merely appealing to social mores. But if one appeals to social mores then why on earth can’t Evangelicals battle for dominance in the social arena? (As they are doing)

    Really the state should just get out of the religion business. We can’t imagine state religions (even though many states had them into the 19th century). Why do we still accept state regulation and indexing of benefits to religious belief?

  • D · January 7, 2012 at 2:40 am

    Santorum thinks that moral reasoning should be logically consistent.

    He’s trying to make the “slippery slope” argument. but the real slippery slope is marriage, period. After all, if you allow a man and a woman to marry, why not a brother and a sister? A mother and a son?

  • Author comment by David Hume · January 7, 2012 at 6:15 am

    Really the state should just get out of the religion business.

    1) i agree in principle

    2) this doesn’t work in practice

    3) also, marriage is a civil as well as a religious institution

  • Dan · January 7, 2012 at 1:31 pm

    The polygamy question is a real one. Around the world, polygamy is much more of a norm than same sex union.

    Even in America, soft polygamy (where one person has relationships with multiple people in a way that is not state sanctioned) is much more common than same sex relationships. According to the census only around 1%-2% of people identify as gay. Surely the percentage of two-timers is more than 1% or 2%…

    Apparently the inconsistency is lost on these students.

    As for this being a settled question, that is fairly absurd, for the following reasons:
    (1) As with abortion, large sections of the population will never be on board with same sex relationships. It goes against the theology of most most major religions in America and the world. And how do you think the Santorums are educating their 7 kids? How are the Duggars educating the 20 of theirs?
    (2) That children do not flow normally from same sex relationships is not a minor caveat. That biologically everyone has a mother and father is not a minor caveat. No changes in the law will ever affect this basic biology, meaning same sex marriage will always be logically awkward.

    I would argue that the reason why today’s cultures place special status and focus on opposite-sex unions is that those cultures have been selected-for because they have increased fertility. There is no reason to imagine this is going away and it seems instead to be growing more pronounced. For instance liberal secular Jews have a fertility-per-woman of close to 1 in America, which is half of replacement. Meanwhile the Haredi, or ultra-orthodox Jews, have a fertility of something like 7. The gap was never historically this large, but such a large gap is made possible by modern birth control.

    I can think of no populations in the world that are favorable towards same-sex unions that have an above-replacement fertility, except Israel. But really, Israel is an amalgam of two nations, with a secular nation and a religious nation struggling with each other. And guess which is demographically replacing the other?

  • Dan · January 7, 2012 at 4:20 pm

    There is a case to be made for traditional marriage from aesthetics, that occurred to me in relation to Donald Trump. Long before considering a run for president, Trump was a traditionalist on marriage, as evidenced by his defense of that Miss America contestant’s ‘courage’ as he called it.

    Donald Trump is not apparently religious, and he certainly is not conventionally moral.

    But he does have a strong intuitive sense and all of his success and interests (luxury buildings, beauty pageants, golf courses, his own women) is one big solar system with an intangible ‘appealingness’ as the Sun.

    I contend that Trump’s strong opposition to SSM is based on a gut sense to him that it isn’t the same authentic option, just as he would reject a Silestone or composite countertop in favor of granite every time in one of his buildings.

    It may be that in the end, people’s sense of where ‘quality’ lies may be determinative in the long run. I can think of no love songs at all that have been hits that focused on that this of relationship. Songs that focus on ‘soft polygamy’? Pretty much all of rap.

  • Acilius · January 7, 2012 at 4:54 pm

    @D: Between you, I think you and John have gotten it exactly right. “If it is simply a matter of liberty” (as John puts it) what forms of social organization we recognize, then all slopes are infinitely slippery.

  • Clayton E · January 7, 2012 at 10:35 pm

    I dont feel forms of marriage in non-western and non-Christian traditions are relevant to a debate about traditional marriage in America since different peoples and cultures have different traditions. That people in Vietnam may have once (and possibly still do I dont remember) practiced forms of bisexual polyandry has no bearing on definitions of traditional marriage in America, which are fundamentally rooted in the traditions of protestant Anglos (WASPs). One can feel that such traditions should be discarded, but those are the traditions in question, not those of Hindus or Confucians or Roman pagans.

  • Peter Patton · January 9, 2012 at 11:14 am

    First, lots of cultures and societies have recognised versions of same-sex marriage: the social form is a great deal older than people realise. This, by the way, extends to Roman law.

    This is clearly silly:

    1. Who are these “lots” of other cultures?

    2. Roman marriage laws were obssessed with procreation.

    3. In particular producing legitimate Roman citizens. This is not achieved by buggering slaves.

    4. The Latin Romans – as opposed to the Greeks – were extremely homophobic.

    5. What you call “Roman Law” is actually the Justinian Code; that is, Justinian the fascist – but very Roman – Christian.

  • Peter Patton · January 9, 2012 at 11:19 am

    The best solution is to totally reject the legalistic obsession with marriage – we HAVE moved on from Roman tree-swingers – and get the State out of the marriage business altogether.

  • Abelard Lindsey · January 9, 2012 at 10:05 pm

    Santorum presented the slippery slop argument against same-sex marriage. If same sex couples can marry, then why not group marriages, which leads to polygamy? Even though I am generally pro-SSM, I think this is a valid argument. Same sex marriage is no big deal. However, polygamy is intensely destructive to any kind of civilization. Liberals need to present a valid response to it rather than just act like jerks, as in the case of these kids.

    The other argument that conservatives must present is that same sex marriage will affect how straights treat marriage and that it is causative. They seem to avoid doing this for some reason.

  • dale · January 10, 2012 at 7:46 am

    @Abelard Lindsey I think that you’ve hit the nail on the head. IMHO the polyamory (group marriage) movement is the real danger to society. While studies exist that show that monogamous gay couples are decent parents, similar studies for polyamorous unions appear to be practically non-existent. Add to that the likely gender imbalance caused by greater male propensity to hog the opposite sex, and we’ll have a problem similar to China’s or the LDS’s. It’s fine if people decide that a group marriage is what they want, but there’s really no valid reason for the government to incentivize such behavior through marriage benefits. I wish that the religious leaders representing me would focus their political capital on the real danger instead.

  • John D · January 10, 2012 at 8:09 pm

    Sorry, but the slippery slope argument is intellectually lazy.

    “If we allow X, why not allow bad thing Y?” is not an argument that X is bad.

    Is drinking milk a slippery slope to drinking bleach?

    Since we can make claims of the harms of polygamy (which its advocates have been unable to rebut), we can forbid polygamy. The general harm outweighs any individual good.

    The same does not seem to be true of same-sex marriage. Opponents have not been able to articulate specific harms that would come to anyone by permitting same-sex couples to marry. (“People might lose respect for the institution of marriage” is vague and speculative; some other might gain respect for the institution of marriage.)

    I actually wish Rick Santorum (R-ManOnDog) were honest about his opposition to same-sex marriage. He’s opposed to it because the Pope has said that it is in conflict with Catholic doctrine. Why non-Catholics should be obligated to follow Catholic doctrine is beyond me.

  • Norman · January 12, 2012 at 12:05 pm

    It seems to me that the best argument against same sex marriage is Burke’s general argument for respecting tradition – say what you will about the irrationality of our traditions, they have gotten us this far, and that is no small thing given the complexity of human society and our ignorance of how it works. (At least that’s what I took from Burke – it’s been a very long time since I read his Reflections.) This strikes me as a very good argument for resistance to cultural change. But it is not a conclusive argument, because circumstances change, and because I don’t think that selection pressures in a complex system are likely to lead to global optimality even in stable circumstances (aside from the question of the relationship between morality and evolutionary stability). Because of Burke’s argument, I don’t accept arguments based on high level principles, such as individual liberty, as conclusive, any more than I accept tradition as conclusive. Ultimately, arguments for change have to be based on specific contextual arguments.

    Consequently, I support same-sex marriage, as none of the arguments against same-sex marriage make sense to me. On the other hand, I can understand the instrumental harm-based arguments against polygamy, though I don’t have a strong opinion as to their validity, given that the issues are ultimately empirical. If the tradition argument against polygamy and liberty argument in favour more or less balance out, for me the harm-based arguments tip the balance (maybe I’m giving tradition an extra thumb on the scales). It may be that descriptively the real reason for the current tradition against polygamy is that more men will lose than gain, and so the majority rationally are against it. That would have more ambiguous normative implications than the harm based argument.

    For me the more interesting question is why, descriptively, so many people are against same-sex marriage. Proximately, it seems be to the “it’s gross” argument, but that’s not an ultimate explanation. I can understand why, for evolutionary reasons, most people (including myself), feel that engaging is same-sex is gross, but I personally don’t feel that it is gross for others to do so. Why do so many straight people feel otherwise? My suspicion is that it is due to an over-generalization of our empathy mechanism. Is there some other explanation? Maybe this question has been addressed elsewhere on this blog – I haven’t been following for very long.



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