Eulogy for Traditional Marriage

What is the best definition of marriage—is it a bond of love between adults (of either sex) or the union of a man and a woman?

My purpose in outlining the classical case for marriage isn’t to bolster the NO-campaign. It is to clarify why being un-persuaded about same-sex marriage is not necessarily thoughtless or heartless. What follows, then, is a kind of ‘eulogy’ for traditional marriage, a tribute to a venerable idea that seems to have failed to commend itself to a majority of Australians.

 

The classical, or traditional, view of marriage is not dumb or mean. It can be, but it doesn’t have to be. And nor is it particularly religious, even though it coincides with what the major Faiths teach.

The clearest arguments for preferring the classical notion of marriage have not received much airtime. This is perhaps because those arguments seem merely academic compared to the heartfelt appeals of YES-campaigners and the serious concerns of the NO-campaigners. And I sincerely hope my attempt to rehearse some more abstract reasonings don’t disregard the very real hopes and fears of our community.

If the polls are right, a change to Australian marriage law is only a matter of time. I, for one, won’t be grumpy about that. The benefits of living in a liberal democracy far outweigh any angst people may have over losing an argument like this. I also hope and pray that if same-sex marriage is legalized it will make a positive impact on the mental health outcomes of the LGBTI community.

My purpose in outlining the classical case for marriage isn’t to bolster the NO-campaign. It is to clarify why being un-persuaded about same-sex marriage is not necessarily thoughtless or heartless. What follows, then, is a kind of ‘eulogy’ for traditional marriage, a tribute to a venerable idea that seems to have failed to commend itself to a majority of Australians.

1. Equality in Marriage

Many who disagree with the concept of same-sex marriage still feel the force of the key argument in its favour. If marriage is a bond of love between two adults, it makes perfect sense to extend the legal definition of marriage to include couples of the same sex. After all, same-sex love is just as real as the love between people of the opposite sex. Given this fact, and assuming marriage is just a bond of adult love, same-sex marriage follows as a matter of logic, and of justice.

But while everyone can (and should) accept that same-sex love is as important as heterosexual love, many do not believe that marriage should be thought of simply as a bond of love between adults. Many see marriage as definitionallyconnected to the one kind of human bond that can (at least in principle) create children. In other words, it is the union of a man and a woman. This emphasis on ‘procreation’ can, of course, be questioned: What about the elderly or infertile couple? I will try answer this below. But the key point remains: If we think of marriage as linked in some way to procreation, same-sex marriage just doesn’t follow, either as logic or justice. Rejecting same-sex marriage involves no judgement about the quality of same-sex love, let alone homophobia. It simply acknowledges that same-sex couples are a different kind of human bond, one that doesn’t have the defining characteristic of marriage.

Every definition of marriage excludes bonds of love that don’t fit the definition. For example, the proposed redefinition of marriage will still exclude polyamorous unions (not to be confused with polygamy). The loving bond of a bisexual man and his male and female lovers will be excluded from any definition that insists marriage can only be between two people. But this ‘exclusion’ does not involve a negative judgement about bisexuality or the quality of polyamorous love. It simply follows from the two-person definition of marriage. In exactly the same way, excluding same-sex couples from marriage isn’t a judgement about the quality of same-sex love. It is a logical consequence of the opposite-sex definition of marriage.

The question is: What is the best definition of marriage—is it a bond of love between adults (of either sex) or the union of a man and a woman?

2. The Universality of Marriage

All cultures we know anything significant about have affirmed the same core idea of marriage, as the union of a man and a woman. Evidence of any other concept of marriage is entirely lacking from the historical record, despite unsourced claims to the contrary. Even in polygamous cultures, where an elite male takes several wives, the classical definition of marriage is still operating: the man is thought to have several separate marriages, each involving a union between just one man and just one woman.

The customs and laws surrounding marriage have, of course, differed over time and throughout cultures. But the central idea of marriage is universal.

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