Homophones, Homosexuals, and the Essence of Marriage
Some days I feel a bit radical and think the state should just get out of the whole marriage business altogether – problem solved. But I have some sympathy for the conservative case that state sanction is a useful encouragement of a valuable institution. Then again, would people pushed into marriage by such incentive really be in society’s interest? Regardless, if the state is going hold the official stamp of approval it seems unjust to prohibit same-sex couples from participating.
Previously I praised Judge Vaughn Walker’s decision that found that the state has no legal cause to deny homosexuals the right. A reader, Cyberquill, protested that creating a new right was unwarranted given the traditional definition of marriage. We proceeded to have a long debate on the topic in the comments if anyone is brave enough to dive in. Recently he refined his argument and sent us the link. He infuses the argument with a bit more flourish than typical but his argument rests on the standard case that granting the right through courts just opens it up to everybody and dilutes the institution making it essentially meaningless. Thus, if a constitutional right to marriage exists for homosexuals, why not for ketchup bottles? Yes, that’s really his argument, but its reasoning is not that uncommon.
Since marriage itself would remain legal in Connecticut and the laws of the land must apply equally to all, how could it be constitutional to permit marriage for some but not others solely based on who or what they are? What if the law were to ban marriage between Heinz and Heinz but not between Heinz and Hunt’s? And even if it applied to ketchup across the board, marrying ketchup with mustard or mustard with apple sauce would still be allowed.
The provocative and game Cyberquill considers noticing that “marriage” is a polyseme a profound and meaningful observation. Following his logic, he’d have you believe that we need a constitutional amendment to prevent homonyms from breaking the binding of society. I admire Strunk and White as much as the next guy, but I never thought verbal traditionalism carried such high stakes. As a resident of Massachusetts, where we love Barney Frank but (apparently) hate Samuel Johnson, I await the linguistic apocalypse.
Until the armageddon, let me tempt the fates further by explaining why traditionalists miss the essence of marriage. But how is one to decide what properties make up the fundamental components of marriage? Cyberquill – after partially conceding marriage’s varied history – believes marriage is defined by numbers and gender. Why? I suppose it’s convenient to his argument. It seems he’s confusing marriage’s participants for its properties. Given his fetish for tradition allow me to reach back through history to Plato and Aristotle. They taught us that purpose is the crucial underpinning of nature. Teleology, not lexicography, ties the knot of marriage.
In PGA Tour v Casey Martin, the justices sought to determine the goal of golf in order to decide whether a handicapped golfer should be allowed to untraditionally participate (use a golf cart) in the official tournament. Was walking essential to the sport? More broadly I could ask what relationship the participants themselves have for the purpose of marriage.
If the state has an interest in regulating marriage, we must ascertain what the purpose of marriage is for the state. I return to Judge Walker’s decision. He writes,
The state regulates marriage because marriage creates stable households, which in turn form the basis of a stable, governable populace.
I’ll leave it to lawyers to certify whether that squares with legal precedent, but it appears that the purpose is clear and is relevant to the state interest. Permitting same-sex marriage satisfies that criteria, whereas “automarriage,” condiment matrimony, and other extreme unconventional unions don’t. Some religiously motivated campaigners might argue procreation defines marriage’s telos. But unless the state were to ban all infertile couples, it seems tailoring the prohibition to gays won’t fit with the Fourteenth Amendment.
Marriage need not be arbitrary or trapped in the inertia of orthodoxy. The union of equality and marriage share a purposeful bond. Although I still might leave ketchup off the wedding menu.