Monday, December 13, 2010

I am for you, and you are for me, not only for our own sake, but for others’ sakes

I came across an article in Slate today written by an old acquaintance of mine, the constitutional scholar Kenji Yoshino. The topic of Yoshino's piece is a newly published scholarly paper entitled "What Is Marriage?" which argues that the state need not, and indeed should not, recognize same-sex marriage. You can find the paper here. In his piece for Slate, Yoshino argues that the authors' position actually does more to cheapen the idea of marriage than to protect it. This made me curious to read the paper itself. (Warning: there is frank language in what follows.)

The paper begins by arguing that
some sexual relationships are instances of a distinctive kind of relationship - call it real marriage - that has its own value and structure, whether the state recognizes it or not, and is not changed by laws based on a false conception of it.
The authors then set out to discover what this real marriage is. The major premise is this:
As many people acknowledge, marriage involves: first, a comprehensive union of spouses; second, a special link to children; and third, norms of permanence, monogamy, and exclusivity.
This sounds reasonable, at least to me. But I started scratching my head when the authors began to develop these principles. Here is the implication they draw from the principle that marriage necessarily involves a comprehensive union of spouses:
Because our bodies are truly aspects of us as persons, any union of two people that did not involve organic bodily union would not be comprehensive—it would leave out an important part of each person’s being.
I think what they are trying to say is what Whitman said when he wrote "Yet all were lacking, if sex were lacking." One can agree with this, it seems to me, and still deny that anything has been proved in this part of the paper. The authors have merely clarified their own favored meaning for the term "comprehensive." Others might consider a union "comprehensive" if it involves profound and lasting feelings of love and trust. (The authors consider such people "revisionists.")

The authors' point is also confusing because it fails to attend to time. It cannot be uncommon for married couples in their fifties, or even in their forties, to all but set aside their 'organic bodily unionizing.' We still consider them really married. Perhaps the conclusion the authors wanted to draw was that "any union of two people that did not, at some point in the union's history, occasionally involve organic bodily union, would not be comprehensive." (Or is real marriage a time-dependent concept, like some kind of indicator light on the headboard that illuminates when you're having sex?)

The authors continue:
This necessity of bodily union can be seen most clearly by imagining the alternatives. Suppose that Michael and Michelle build their relationship not on sexual exclusivity, but on tennis exclusivity. They pledge to play tennis with each other, and only with each other, until death do them part. Are they thereby married? No. Substitute for tennis any nonsexual activity at all, and they still aren’t married: Sexual exclusivity—exclusivity with respect to a specific kind of bodily union—is required.
I find this confusing, because the authors were supposed to be talking about comprehensiveness (the first principle), yet they've helped themselves to exclusivity (the third principle). And they also seem to be confusing necessity with sufficiency. What I mean by that is, exclusivity with respect to a specific kind of bodily union is required...OK, say for a moment that we agree with that. But does exclusivity with respect to a specific kind of bodily union suffice? Presumably not - there is that second principle yet to attend to, the one about the "special link to children." Yet if exclusivity with respect to a specific kind of bodily union is not sufficient, then why are we denigrating tennis as not being sufficient? Perhaps we should be asking whether tennis is necessary to be married? Tennis with the kids, maybe? By now I'm confused enough to believe anything.

Then we get to the good parts. Assuming I have parsed all of the euphemisms correctly, I think the authors next argue that 'organic bodily union' only occurs when a woman accepts a man's penis into her vagina. ("organic bodily unity is achieved when a man and woman coordinate to perform an act of the kind that causes conception.") Interesting. Let's recap the argument then:

1. A real marriage requires a penis to enter a vagina. (At least once? On date nights? The authors are unclear.)

2. Mathematically then, it follows that a real marriage requires an odd number of penises and an odd number of vaginas.

3. But in a typical same-sex relationship, there are an even number of penises or an even number of vaginas.

4. Therefore, same-sex relationships cannot be real marriages. QED

The paper goes on for quite a while, and frankly I got tired of reading it. But it seems as if the main argument is really the one about penises entering vaginas. Thinking about penises entering vaginas, say the authors, helps us to make sense of real marriage as a harmonious complex of organic bodily unions, special links to children, and norms of permanence and exclusivity.

OK - if you say so. Or not. Again, I'm not sure what has been proved in this paper. It seems to be a great, big, superheated version of a bumper sticker I saw once: "God Made Adam and Eve, Not Adam and Steve!" Anyway, I'm reminded of another work of philosophy I read not long ago: Frankfurt's On Bullshit.

No comments: