Justin Li


Marriage and the Society

2008-05-19

One of the headlines over the past couple of days has been the overthrowing of the ban on same-sex marriage in California. The news made several of my friends gay; they were so jubilant I noticed a mass change in Facebook status about the event. Not unexpectedly, however, there was also a lot of outcry about the decision. I was thinking about all this, and here are some of my thoughts.

My first question was, why is marriage important to people? All this struggle in California indicates that marriage is an issue we care a lot about, but it is not obvious why we care so much about it. For the LGBT community, the issue has as much to to with social equality as marriage. Marriage, they claim, is a universal human right and therefore should apply to everyone, regardless of sexual orientation. However, it remains that people want to get married, and that they view marriage as something special.

I was talking to my friend (a Christian) the other day, and I asked him, "why is marriage important in the Christian tradition?" His answer, and from what I could learn on Wikipedia (which in fact offers very little in this area), were essentially that it is somehow recommended. The level of "recommendation" is different for different denominations; while some view it as optional, others consider it a sacrament and a duty. Since it is important to multiply and have children, and since one should be married before having children, marriage becomes a necessity.

It might seem strange to you that when I talked about reasons to get married, I would talk about religion. The reason I did that is because, for the past few years, I've held the believe that marriage is unnecessary. In modern society, people get married and divorced, so marriage clearly is not a deterrent against couples separating. At the same time, people are having sex and kids without being married, and so marriage is not the only way to children. In fact, the simple fact of being married says nothing about the person's state, whether they are happy, in love, have kids. The only thing it does say is how that person can file tax returns.

The above philosophy, as I discovered a few months ago, is called free love. If marriage does not say anything about a couple, then it is unnecessary. People can fall and remain in love just as well if they weren't married, and if marriage does not provide anything for them, well, why are they married? From this psychological point of view, marriage has nothing to real offer. Certainly it might provide a false sense of comfort, knowing that they are recognized as a couple. But again, that is not a contract (or at least, not one that is difficult to break), and so if the spouse really wanted to leave, the other is powerless to stop them.

Everything I said above is empirically true. People know, perhaps not consciously, that marriage is not a miracle cure for relationships. That said, marriage in its current form is not entirely pointless. From a sociological point of view, I can understand if marriage encourages children, which will help sustain the society. Marriage also stabilizes the two people involved, so support each other and prevent more extreme actions. Also, for the two people married, there are various benefits to being married and having children, most of them being economical, such as tax cuts. These results, however, are not unique to marriage. There are other ways to get tax cuts, other ways to provide support for people. More importantly, these are not benefits in terms of the relationship, but benefits to the society and to each individual. Marriage in this sense is simply a trade agreement between two individuals and the government.

Now, let me address same-sex marriages for a bit. From the Christian perspective, same-sex marriage is at best unnecessary, and at worst a sin. The first is easier to understand: since two people of the same gender cannot have children, there is no need for them to be married. This interpretation, of course, does not explicitly deny the right of marriage to these individuals. The worst interpretation, that homosexuality is a sin, is slightly harder to understand. Just as marriage is simply recommended and nothing further can be said, so too is the status of homosexuality as a transgression against God.

The problem, as anyone who has talked to me about religion will know, is that such claims are unsupported. Why is homosexuality bad? It is not against nature, and if consensual it doesn't physically affect anyone other than the participants. Further, marriage is considered a universal human right, as stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (article 16).

Moving past the church, I also have issues with several positions opponents to same-sex marriage have, specifically the arguments that same-sex couples can already get civil unions, and that it would be against the tradition of marriage. For the first, claiming that civil unions give the same rights as marriage, and yet refusing marriage itself, is simply a reenactment of the "separate but equal" system of segregation against blacks. Either both homosexual and heterosexual couples should only be allowed civil unions, or both should be allowed to marry. As for the latter argument, that it is against the tradition of marriage, there are examples that tradition is not always the good thing. Slavery, too, has been a tradition, since at least the Egyptians (who built the pyramids?) and lasting till at least the 19th century in the United States, and is still rampant in some regions. Should slavery been kept for tradition's sake? Probably not, and so keeping marriage purely for tradition's sake is not a valid argument.

There is, however, a bigger issue at hand: why is the government recognizing marriages anyway? For the purpose of the state, marriage is merely a way to record that two people are related in a specific way. It turns out there's another term for that, one I've already mentioned: civil union. Marriage, as a religious concept, should not even be used in the law, as per the doctrine of the separation of church and state. Let the church worry about who can get "married"; the state only needs to worry about who can get civil unions.

One last point, although this might be considered extreme. One might ask, why are civil unions special? Consider the fact that the state does not govern any other kind of human relationships: there are no records of who is friends with who, or if someone had an extramarital affair. Logically, the government is only interested in the economic aspects of relationships, and its impact on society in general. The important thing is not that two people are married, but that they are somehow economically different. If that is the true purpose of marriage related laws, then perhaps even civil unions should be abandoned. Speaking from a purely theoretical point of view, the government should more correctly define a maximum number of people allowed (although the exact number would be controversial) in a "social group", and use that as the unit for economic and social evaluations. This way, if people feel they are attached to someone, regardless of their gender, they will have the rights and duties of being "united". If a group of people feel the same way about everyone else in the group (colloquially, polygamy or more correctly polyamory), they would be accepted as a single social unit as well.

While the above may seem like crazy talk, there is also clearly a system of (bizarre) morals underneath it all, which I will explore at a later date.

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