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The Digester

Szabo is optimistic that equality is inevitable because, as older homophobic voters die off, they are replaced by the liberal younger generation. This rather presupposes that liberal youngsters remain liberal in their dotage. Obviously I'd like to think this was true, but having seen a number of my peers gradually lose their idealism as they settle down, get mortgages and have kids, I'm not so sure their moral code won't go the same way.

Third Avenue

Young people do change their views over time, and undoubtedly liberal youngsters will become more conservative in attitudes. Twas ever thus. But I think this happens much more in the field of economics, taxation, even education and health policy. It is less likely to happen in the field of personal relationship, or views of other people's personal relationships. Consider how attitudes to all kinds of personal moral issues have been transformed over the last 50 years, while the low-tax high-tax debate trundles on as always. Is the friend of a gay couple likely to welcome them into their house at the age of 30, only to bar the door once 40 comes along?...

So while few things are ever inevitable, I think Szabo's optimism will, in the long term at least, prove to be correct.


>>Consider how attitudes to all kinds of personal moral issues have been transformed over the last 50 years, while the low-tax high-tax debate trundles on as always>>

Hmmm, dunno about that - don't you think individualism has won both of these arguments (not necessarily on the merits of the case, I would add).

On this I find it difficult to strike anything other than a conservative note. Marriage historically has had a dual basis:

1) A religious sacrament (whether labelled as such by the varying religious divisions or not) whereby a couple, in the presence of the deity, move from one state of being to another.

2) A social recognition of the same - best described as a social institution whereby privacy is ensured; the business of child-rearing is to be shielded from the general competition between the sexes.

It may seem to you an appallingly reactionary thing to say, but I don't think either of these two historical strands connect with the concept of gay marriage at all, and I'm wondering if such a marriage - even if it exists as a legal entity - would have any meaning as a social institution at all?

One's private relationships are entirely one's own business - but I'm afraid that what you call "marriage" is *everyone's* business and that's why I think the accusation of "homophobe" against anyone who opposes this notion is misplaced...


Rather unsurprisingly with Shuggy (this is getting to be a habit).

That said, I'm glad he said it, to save me looking like even more of a caricature conservative than normal.

The Digester

Shuggy - I'm no social historian but I think your characterisation of marriage in the past is at best partial and at worst naive (for many women for instance it was simply an economic necessity). And anyway, we're discussing the position now, and I would argue that for most people (in the UK at least) marriage now has very little connection with the two bases you outline.

The fact is, in a secular society, marriage is principally a signal to that society that two people intend to spend their life together. If you like the idea of a social contract, you can go on to say that they are given certain civil rights in return for a formalised commitment that helps society cohere. And if that's the case, there's no reason why they have to be of the opposite sex.

Third Avenue

Shuggy, Blimpish - needless to say, I disagree. Marriage has changed and evolved radically over the centuries. The early Christian church took a rather dim view of it (St Paul's advice to Christians is clear: don't do it, unless you really, really can't handle celibacy). Later it assumed, as the Digester said, an economic and even a dynastic role, before only in its very late manifestation becoming something intimately associated with romance and love. Initially, this was seen as extremely dangerous (consider the scene in Pride and Prejudice between lady Catherine de Burgh and Elizabeth - Lady Catherine represents the 'traditional' view of marriage; Elizabeth the 'new' order. Elizabeth wins the arugment, and now we would view a marriage simply for money and family connections to be at best morally suspect, whereas once it was not just the order of the day but seen as a positive moral good).

In the 19th century marriage was radically transformed (at the time, it was argued, terminally undermined) by the legal weakening of the money and dynastic elements: women were allowed to keep their own property on marriage, and, perhaps more fundamentally, were not automatically deprived of custody rights in the event of a divorce. That, combined with lengthening life expectancy, has transformed marriage and society's view of it in a way that, I would argue, makes post-1960s legislation look rather anaemic.

None of this is necessarily an argument for gay marriage: merely to say that marriage is a flexible institution that is now very, very different from what it was in past centuries.

As for gay couples: I would frame the argument in this way. Society views marriage as a positive thing, and its effects go beyond the raising of children (not to say that the raising of children is not supremely important). Heterosexual couples who will never have children (for reasons of age, illness or inclination) are not prevented from marriage - not because it would be too complex to frame a law to do this, but because society recognises that, even when no children are involved, marriage is a positive thing for the individuals concerned and, crucially, for society at large. It encourages commitment and mutual support, and fosters wider ties within extended families that have a beneficial impact beyond the two individuals involved. It seems to me, therefore, that allowing gay couples to marry is a positive step forward. Its impact on non-gay couples will be far smaller than that of some of the changes that marriage as an instituation has undergone over the past 2000 years.


"I'm no social historian but I think your characterisation of marriage in the past is at best partial and at worst naive (for many women for instance it was simply an economic necessity)."

Digester - I understand perfectly well that marriage is an economic institution but I don't understand why people seem to assume that this is *all* it represents. (Btw, accuse me of anything but having been through one of these, "naive" unequivocally does not describe my view of this institution - can you say the same?).

As with the above point, it isn't a question of whether marriage is a social contract - of course it is - but rather whether this is *all* it is. I'd have to say that from my experience of it, marriage is completely unlike any other contract I've ever entered. In so many ways, marriage is very unlike a contract.

If you ask yourself *why* people should feel the need to signify their intention to spend the rest of their lives together, you'll get further down the road.

Your arguments are framed in very individualistic terms - it's all a matter of rights and choice. But this ignores the fact that marriage is a *social* institution and therefore I'm afraid what society in general thinks of it, and how it understands it, is absolutely crucial.

I did not put forth this argument because I believe gay marriage should never be allowed but only to make the point that the equal rights argument is fallacious. What both your comments have ignored is that while of course marriage has changed in a number of respects, these changes are relatively superficial in comparison to the enduring reality that it has always been understood as a union between a man and a woman.

I'm afraid the opinions of rather politicised lawyers in the US can't alter this fact and I don't think one can be so sanguine that a change of this nature would "be far smaller than that of some of the changes that marriage as an instituation has undergone over the past 2000 years."

Moreover, if the concept of marriage is to be flexible regarding the gender of the participants, why so much rigidity regarding the *number* of participants in the union? On what possible basis could polygamy be excluded?

Third - on the historical point, I really don't think the dates fit with the actual experience. If marriage was so drastically undermined in the 19th century, why did it take until the latter half of the latter half of the 20th century for it's effects to filter through?

You've also misused St. Paul to make an erroneous assumption about the early church's view of marriage - but I won't bore you with that just now. Stimulating conversation as ever, but I need my bed...

Third Avenue

Shuggy - there are some things I would agree with you on. Marriage is, of course, a social institution: hence my citing in the original post the blog that analysed shifting public opinion. While in general I take a very dim view of politics by public opinion and/or referendum, it is clear that such changes as gay marriage can't happen in a vaccuum. But in California (as in Spain, Canada, and many parts of Europe), it is not 'politicised lawyers' but democratically elected legislatures that have effected the changes.

Lots more to say, but, as you say, sleep must sometimes take priority...

Third Avenue

Okay - back to work...

Shuggy - you misquote me slightly. I did not say that gay marriage would be far smaller in its impact on the institution of marriage than other changes: I said that its impact on *non-gay couples* would be small. The impact on Mr and Mrs Average of Surbiton of changes in property law, divorce rights, tax rules is immediate and significant.

Polygamy: I really think this is a red herring. Polygamy would require a totally different legal set up quite unrelated to marriage law. If polygamy is at the bottom of a slippery slope, then gay marriage isn't at the top of it.

On 19th century changes: I did not say that marriage was 'drastically undermined', merely that many argued that it was (I would disagree with them). But the changes certainly changed the legal essence of marriage, for good or ill.


I see the logic of your argument, but it's a primarily utilitarian one, not a moral one - you think that because marriage works well, and you can't see any reason why gay couples shouldn't be able to gain from its being redefined to fit them, too, without compromising its integrity. We can differ over our view of the evidence on this, but basically, given that the institution's not in the best state right now, it hardly seems the time for radical innovation in this way.

Polygamy: bearing in mind that extending marriage to gay couples is making progress for on the basis of a rights agenda - reshaping the legal framework around a conception of sovereign personal choice - then why should peoples' wish for multiple marriage also be constrained, simply by the status quo? After all, lots of people subscribe to beliefs which are perfectly compatible with polygamous marriage; why should they be denied their choice. (Let's not even mention the Marquess of Bath and his wifelets.) It's not that gay marriage is at the top of that slippery slope - but it's the current manifestation of the tendency that is.

Third Avenue

I'm not sure that I accept that my argument is primarily utilitarian. I believe that marriage is good for the individual and for society, and that the reason for that is that a publicly stated and publicly recognised commitment between two people is morally good, not just good in an Excel-spreadsheet kind of way. Family cohesion, bonds that transcend the transient, mutual support - these are morally worthwhile. (Gosh, that makes me sound a bit conservative - but, quite seriously, I think that a lot of the thinking behind gay marriage is actually conservative).

You say that marriage is not 'in the best state right now' and that therefore this is not the time 'for radical innovation'. I could, perhaps mischeviously, argue that surely the fact that it is not 'in the best state' is an excellent argument in favour of 'radical innovation'...

On polygamy - as I've said, I don't see gay marriage as being part of a 'rights agenda' around a concept of 'sovereign personal choice', so I don't really accept the basis of your argument. Having multiple 'wifelets' is not illegal (the 'sovereign personal choice' is already there), neither is adultery or living in a free-sex commune. The point is: what kind of structures does the state recognise as bringing particular benefits to society.

The legalisation, long, long ago, of adultery in the UK did not put us at the top of a 'slippery slope' leading to pressure for some sort of marriage between husband, wife and bit-on-the-side.


By utilitarian, I didn't mean in a coarse way. To reformulate it, your argument doesn't position the extension of marriage to gay couples as a matter of basic justice - it is a moral good but not a moral necessity.

About polygamy - I know you don't see gay marriage as part of a rights agenda, but that's the way the debate is running. If everybody supporting gay marriage took your evolutionary line on it, I'd be less bothered about slippery slopes; but the campaign has taken to moralise, and argue from hard principle - and it's not entirely clear when those principles will stop. Your point about adultery shows this - its legalisation was for practical reasons rather than any endorsement of high principle; in fact, as the principle of choice has become the driving force, the legal status of adultery (as a basis of blame in divorce) has been eroded.

To turn to your suggestion that a lot of the thinking behind gay marriage is actually conservative; I'd say that it can be, but as such isn't binding on a conservative to follow, because there are countervailing objections such as Shuggy's (as is the nature of conservative thought). Your argument for gay marriage is conservative, because it takes moral virtue as an external given (this could be from God or nature or whatever - but you see some things as good for people, and to be promoted). But as I said, the argument that's winning the day is one rooted in rights and a morality rooted in free individual choice - and that, it seems to me, is deeply unconservative.


... and what highlights the difference between you seeing gay marriage as moral good rather than moral necessity: your discussion here with me and Shuggy is a model of civility, with no underlying accusation of 'homophobia' as is more often the norm.

Third Avenue

I set great store by civility...

Of course, being against gay marriage is not (necessarily) a sign of homophobia - I know of many gay people (although fewer, I think, than a few years back) who are against it for the very reasons I have cited as being in its favour: they view it as a conservative policy designed to impose a traditional, pro-family agenda on a part of society that has always seen itself, and been seen by others, as being outside the usual bourgeois constraints. I think that basically they are right, although I disagree with the conclusion they draw that this is a bad thing.

As for the 'rights' agenda - while I agree that it is a component of the debate, I don't think it's 'the way the debate is running' in a slippery-slope sense. Debate on gay marriage has, perhaps mysteriously, never really taken off in the UK. Here in the States, where it is very much a live issue, the case for it is very often made in the way I have outlined. Of course, it suits some opponents of gay marriage (I'm not including you in this!) to portray it as being an aspect of the 'me, me, me' society, in order then to slap it down as being at the top of the aforementioned slippery slope, and some of the more simplistic proponents of it fall into the same trap. But, in any case, our argument should be whether gay marriage is a positive thing or not, not whether some people use weak arguments to support it - which, while interesting, is surely irrelevant to the merits of the issue.

Should it be 'binding on a conservative to follow'? No, of course not. But it should make conservatives at least pause to think about what kind of society they want to build, and not simply dismiss it out of hand, as too many do, as yet another step on our road to perdition.


I didn't think I was making a slippery slope argument - it certainly wasn't meant to be. Given that your thesis seems to depend heavily on the moral primacy of consent, I don't understand why polygamy should be at the bottom of anything, slippery slope or otherwise.

Why is - or we should really say, why are - the claims of the polygamist to have his or her particular arrangement sanctified by the state's legal protection worth less than the gay man or woman's?

While my argument could reasonably interpreted as conservative, I do believe in the concept of universal human rights - I just not sure the right of an individual to participate in any social institution of their choosing, on their own criteria that are not widely shared amongst the members of the polity, actually exists.

I think much of the importance of social institutions stems from the extent to which what they are understood to represent is universally understood. I'm afraid here my interpretation is a bit too Hobbesian for some: in the red in tooth and claw struggle for sexual partnership, marriage is unquestionably a vital stabilising factor. In this view, the importance of the marriage ceremony as an act of social recognition lies in the fact that people recognise it signifies a message to all comers to back off. The reality of the situation is that in as far as it affects their lives in the general business living in a community, no such need for gays exists. I'd have thought rather the opposite was the problem: generally people don't intrude; instead, they are suspicious and aloof.

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