Thursday, February 14, 2008

Human Pair Bonding and Government

Here and here, a couple of the contributors at Positive Liberty are trying to gin up a discussion of something I touched on many blog posts ago -- not to say the idea originated with me, far from it: the idea of getting past the gay marriage morass by forcing the state out of the business of marriage per se. As I put it at the time, and still believe, lo these many months later:

As for gay marriage, I'm for it. Actually I'm for governments recognizing civil unions among consenting adults, and for leaving marriage completely to the private, non-tax-supported religions. "Marriage" should have no more legal status than "Last Rites", "Confession," or "Bris."
Just to be clear, and to be maximally provocative in keeping with the norms of the blogosphere, I will add that I find nothing worrisome about civil unions involving more than two consenting adults. If individuals wish to form a civil union consisting of a threesome, foursome, fivesome, etc., I don't see why government should get involved beyond officiating the paperwork and attending to the terms of the contract according to customary standards of contract and family law.

I realize there is presently a dearth of case and statutory law to guide, say, a situation where N1 parties to a N2-person civil union with N3 kids wish to dissolve the union, but lawyers and judges and legislators make the big money and justify their existence by sorting through these kinds of things. The situations that would ensue from such a change, as thorny as they might be, do not strike me as anything inherently beyond the capabilities of civil law.

Andrew Sullivan has frequently argued for legally-sanctioned gay marriage on grounds that it represents a demand that gay people be included in an institutionalization of love that conservatives like to claim as a source of virtue and social stability. Formalizing gay marriage entails subjecting gay people to the same expectations as straight people -- in other words, dragging them down with the rest of us. He correctly notes, although he wouldn't put it quite this way, that marriage is fundamentally a set of duties, and only incidentally a source of benefits, and meager ones at that. I agree, but I think it asks too much of religious believers, and does so needlessly, to ask them to apply marriage to forms of human sexuality they find icky and unholy, if not abominable.

I think all of the above applies equally well to polygamous relationships. Recognizing these relationships in civil law has the foreseeable effect of regulating them in the interests of the affected parties and legitimate state interests (e.g., questions of child custody). It need not have the effect of conferring moral approval -- the moral assessment can remain the province of persons and churches, and leaving the m-word out of the state-authorized unions is essential to that.

I suspect the antagonism to this idea is, in part, an example of the tendency of religious believers to claim, on one hand, that their religious beliefs follow the will of god, but to insist, on the other hand, that governments ratify the beliefs here and now. Isn't it good enough that Jesus or Allah will torture the wicked for eternity, deprive them of angel wings, take away their harps, zero out their virgin allotments? The so-called almighty's justice never seems to be enough, judging by the eagerness to jail or execute transgressors in this life. It's fair to wonder if they really believe in the authority they say they do.

Whatever can or should be made of my digression on polygamy, there are good reasons to separate civil unions from marriages, leaving the former to governments and ceding the latter to religions. The discussions on Positive Liberty cited above have plenty more on these topics and are worth a read.

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