Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Problems with Undefined Marriage

I’m not the only one who has argued that once the traditional definition of marriage is gone, then any combination of marital union is, in principle, possible. We were mocked, of course, as alarmists. Here is the first foray I have seen by the cultural left to add polygamy to the acceptable forms of marriage (by no small thinker, by the way).

SINCE the Supreme Court’s 2003 decision in Lawrence v. Texas, Americans have enjoyed unprecedented freedom in their lifestyles and private relationships. The decision held that states could no longer use the criminal code for social engineering, dictating the most intimate decisions of citizens in their choice of partners and relations. But even as states have abandoned laws criminalizing homosexual and adulterous relations, they have continued to prosecute one group of consenting adults: polygamists.

Jonathan Turley goes on to argue that it was only right for the Court to keep the government out of other people’s private business “so long as they do not harm others” and now this protection, initially intended for a pair of homosexuals, should be extended to consensual polygamous relationships.

First, I think it should be noted that the cultural conservatives were right in every regard: if the traditional definition of marriage is removed from the institution, then every imaginable permutation of relationship is possible under a now undefined label of marriage. Why limit it to two? Turley thinks we shouldn’t. Why limit it to adults? To humans? (The charge of speciesism is on the rise in many culturally left circles.)

Turley notes that Scalia dissented from the Lawrence decision by making this very point. But, Turley disagrees on the grounds that, “There is no spectrum of private consensual relations – there is just a right of privacy that protects all people so long as they do not harm others.” In other words, Turley thinks it misses the point to list and explicate all the possible marriage permutations because there are no such specific rights, just a general right to private, non-harmful behavior. By arguing thus, Turley ends up agreeing with Scalia, he just refuses to name the possible marriages we will want to allow in the future. It doesn’t make his point at all to simply not list them.

So the point seems made by both Turley’s positive argument for polygamy and his failed attempt to argue against Scalia: it will not end at polygamy. By removing the traditional definition of marriage (life-long, monogamous, heterosexual), no suitable definition has been put in its place. And without a definition there are no boundaries.

The attempt is often made to redefine marriage using vague terms like “adult,” “consensual,” and “love.” Who is to say who an adult it? In many cultures that age reaches down into prepubescence. What of cultures in which arranged marriages are made between children. Are the consensual adults in this case the parents and not the marriage partners? Is that OK with Turley? “Adult” doesn’t help us solve the problem of the slippery slope.

“Consensual” is a radically slippery term. On one end, some feminists argue that even traditional marriage necessarily includes rape. On the other end, the SIECUS (what is left of the Kinsey Institute, and very influential in sex education curriculum in public schools) argues that pedophilia is only wrong because our social norms have seen it as shameful in the past. The correction to shameful pedophilia is not to get rid of the pedophile but the shame. “Consensual” doesn’t help us either.

“Love” is not a definition – it is an emotion. Mom and son love each other. The members of NAMBLA love little boys. It is too broad and broadly applicable a term to be of any help defining any relationship out of bounds for our modern marriage sensibilities. It is not help to Turley either.

And then, finally, there is the old chestnut (and new bumper-sticker) that every sexual practice is OK as long as it doesn’t harm others. This line suffers from some of the same semantic malaise we rehearsed above. I would like to have Turley or others sufficiently define “harm” so as to allow polygamy and homosexual marriage while disallowing incest or bestiality. But without going into great detail, it has been noted in study after study that the much more common, but no less harmful, act of fornication, harms plenty of other people.

Single motherhood (which, outside of adoption, happens because of sexual behavior) is the single greatest predictor of poverty, criminality, prison time, socially dysfunctional behavior and unemployment. And those are the kids, not the moms. So, all that harmless sexual behavior that we shouldn’t say anything about has radical, negative and mesurable consequences.

I just don’t believe there are actions we engage in that don’t touch other lives, and negative behaviors, no matter how private, will have negative effects on others.

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