Thursday, January 10, 2013

A Response to Brandon Vogt: Part One - Marriage As A Changing Institution

Recently, the National Organization for Marriage posted an article from a young Catholic thinker named Brandon Vogt which supposed to analyze the ten reasons that same-sex marriage advocates give to bring LGBT people into the fold of civil marriage. As a marriage equality advocate (heck, as one who is in a marriage with another man), I found myself vehemently disagreeing with most, but not all, of what Mr. Vogt stated. Yet because I found the article – and the arguments that Mr. Vogt made – compelling, I have decided to analyze each point that he made, and instead show why we must extend marriage rights to same sex couples. Realize that Mr. Vogt has set up his inquiry as making a statement that many marriage equality advocates make, then supposedly refuting the statement.

Mr. Vogt first point in in reference to marriage equality advocates stating; “Marriage has evolved throughout history, so it can change again.”

Different cultures have treated marriage differently. Some promoted arranged marriages. Others tied marriage to dowries. Still others saw marriage as a political relationship through which they could forge family alliances. 

But all these variations still embraced the fundamental, unchanging essence of marriage. They still saw it, in general, as a public, lifelong partnership between one man and one woman for the sake of generating and raising children. 

This understanding predates any government or religion. It’s a pre-political, pre-religious institution evident even in cultures that had no law or faith to promote it. 

Yet, even supposing the essence of marriage could change, would that mean it should? We know from other areas of life such as medical research and nuclear physics that just because you can do something doesn’t mean you ought. After all, such action may not be ethical or serve the common good. Even if this argument had historical basis, it would not necessarily be a good reason to change the meaning of marriage.

There are two important things to recognize in Mr. Vogt’s response, things that will be important to remember as we analyze other arguments that Mr. Vogt makes. First, in this paragraph, he is acknowledging that marriage has had differing purposes in different historical contexts. For this I applaud him, for it would be intellectually specious to argue that marriage has always had one purpose, when history clearly teaches otherwise. Marriage was clearly used as a method of establishing political control or alliance as well as was an easy method of  transferring property or inheritance rights. Outside of a religious context, marriage can be seen as an economic or political union for the benefit of (historically) males. Additionally, Mr. Vogt is semi-correct in asserting that “in general” marriage was viewed as a method of “generating and raising children”. Yes, propagating your lineage has been an important aspect of marriage throughout the centuries (for property right transfers), but it has not been the only or even sole reason for marriage as a legally blessed covenant. To go on and assert, after listing the other reasons marriage has been legally bless, that one historical reason (procreation of children) is THE reason why society has recognized marriage overlooks the other fundamental reasons that has marriage existed in society. Based upon that logic, I could just as easily claim that the male ruling class viewed marriage solely as a way for them to dominate women, and thus they ensured that it was legally recognized. Though Mr. Vogt can argue that procreation was an important part of why society has historically recognized marriage, it is clearly not the only reason why we have recognized the institution.

Second, Mr. Vogt has acknowledged the societal aspect of marriage (as opposed to government) when he says that, “This understanding [procreation purposes of marriage] predates any government or religion. It’s a pre-political, pre-religious institution evident even in cultures that had no law or faith to promote it.” This admission by Mr. Vogt is important, especially as we get to the points that he makes in his article. Though Mr. Vogt may not have realized the argument that he was making, in essence, he has asserted that society has a conceptualization of marriage and its purposes, and the law reflects that understanding. This is a very democratic perspective on culture and cultural values, and one which I have argued for in the past. This argument of societal understanding of an institution, and how the law reflects that understanding, will be important in the near future.

Yet, the main purpose of Mr. Vogt’s argument is to assert that marriage has mostly existed between one man and one woman. A simple look at history, even his own scriptures, can dispel this notion. Throughout history, polygamy and polyandry have been widely practiced, and those relationships legally recognized. In the comments section of his article, Mr. Vogt acknowledges this, yet tries to distinguish it by asserting that such marriages could be still viewed as “one man, one woman”. Yet this makes no sense. In a polygamous marriage for example, though you may be able to have this perspective from the woman (she is, in fact, only married to one man), this 1-1 ratio does not exist from the perspective of the man. He is in fact, legally married to multiple women; it is not one man, one woman. It is one man, multiple women. Though those women are not legally married to each other, the man is still married to all of them. So historically, even if we acknowledge the supremacy of procreation as a reason for marriage, marriage has not been a static institution and has in fact changed drastically over the centuries.

Finally, Mr. Vogt says that even if marriage does not have historical meaning, and has changed throughout history, that does not mean that we should change it now. Agreed. Yet the flip-side can also be true, that just because marriage has not been historically extended to same-sex couples, that does not mean that it shouldn't be. Arguing for or against tradition, though helpful, is not an adequate or intellectually stimulating exercise. Instead, we must argue WHY tradition is good or bad to support, based upon the knowledge that we now have about history and the institution that we are discussing. 

I look forward to delving into the other nine marriage equality arguments, and Mr. Vogt's critique of them. I also look forward to your comments. Part two can be found here


  1. Thanks for the comments, Kyle! I really appreciate your insights and charity. A few thoughts in response:

    1. I never said marriage has had "differing purposes in different historical contexts." It's true marriage has been *used* for different purposes, but its inherent purpose has remained unchanged: to unite men and women for the creation and rearing of children.

    Perhaps an analogy will help clarify the difference here. I have a guitar, and its inherent purpose is to play music--that's the fundamental reason it exists; that's its nature. Yet I can exploit that purpose (playing music) for other ends: to make money, to delight my family, to create harmony with others, etc. This means there are different levels of purpose which we have to differentiate. We must distinguish between marriage's essential purpose and the secondary purposes for which that essential purpose is used.

    2. You charge me with asserting "society has a conceptualization of marriage and its purposes, and the law reflects that understanding." Though I never said that, I can mostly agree, so long as you're not suggesting the society creates the conceptualization. Society simply recognizes a reality that's clear from biology and anatomy: men and women are sexually different, children can only come from one man and one woman, children have a right to be raised by their mom and dad, and therefore society should promote and regulate the only institution where all these things are possible, what we call marriage.

    3. I mostly agree with your last paragraph, but you seemed to have missed the introduction to my article. There I made clear I wasn't proposing *positive* arguments for traditional marriage, only refuting the most common arguments I've heard in support of "same-sex marriage."

    Also, I agree historical consensus is not definitive proof for any argument. It's wrong, for example, to say that since the overwhelming majority of people throughout history have believed in God, therefore God exists.

    But historical consensus, or what you call tradition, is a striking and legitimate bit of evidence. A much higher burden of proof is placed on the person who, by rejecting the historical consensus, essentially claims that most people in history were egregiously wrong.

    Therefor regarding "same-sex marriage," tradition poses a real and serious challenge to advocates. If "same-sex marriage" is truly natural, amoral, and beneficial to society, how did every single society in the history of the world miss that?

  2. Brandon,

    1. If the primary purpose of marriage were procreation, infertile/sterile couples or those who did not intend to procreate would not be allowed to marry. Marriage is not a guitar. If you believe it is sacred, you must realize that It provides a wide range of enrichments beyond bearing children.

    2. The anatomy argument strips away all of the benefits of marriage to single out the one difference that cannot be bridged. Homosexual people have children, and those children should not be denied the stability of married parents. Marriage equality promotes family.

    3. Placing a higher burden of proof on someone challenging historical consensus? Things are quite a bit different when you have the perspective of someone who has not been in the favored demographic for all of history. Are you suggesting that women are not equal to men, or blacks are not equal to whites?

    1. Andrea,

      I'd rather government get out of the business of "sanctifying" (as far as the state is concerned) marriage altogether and leave it to individual communities to decide how they want to recognize various interpersonal relationships. Given that, I still think you overlooked some details and thus some of your counterpoints don't effectively counter his points.

      1) Marriage has primarily been about procreation and rearing children. If it hadn't there wouldn't have been racist laws in the past barring inter-racial marriage as those bigoted laws were ultimate to keep blacks from "breeding" (the word I imaging the bigots using) with whites. Any of the other "wide range of enrichments" would be the secondary properties to which Brandon refers.

      2. Homosexual couples may raise and nurture children, yes; however, they cannot procreate (out of biological reality) on their own. The only way that either person in a homosexual couple may become a biological parent is to solicit the assistance of a third party of the opposite sex (i.e. a sperm donor or a surrogate). While I'm not sure I agree with it entirely, the premise Brandon puts forth is that children have the right to be raised by their mom and dad (assuming biological) and that, because of this, it is (based on the premises provided) best that their parents are married.

      3) There have been matriarchal cultures. Also, racism has certainly not been limited to those who happen to be in the numerical majority in a given society (the phrase "white devil" comes to mind).

    2. It would take a long time to address every single reason opposition to marriage equality is unconstitutional. Civil marriage is a license with limitations placed on it by the government. Constitutionally speaking, the government needs a legitimate interest to be furthered in order to enact each restriction. I have yet to hear such an argument from those against marriage equality. None I have talked to are willing to read cases like Goodridge v. Dept of Public Health in MA and state why they believe the court was wrong.

      There is no rational relation between denying availability of a marriage license to couples of the same sex and likelihood of a child being raised by its biological parents. Heterosexuals get divorced/break up. Gay people can adopt. Gay people may have a child in a heterosexual relationship and later have a homosexual relationship.

      Furthermore, please provide a cite that children have "the right to be raised by their mom and dad" and propose how are we going to go after heterosexual people who deny them that right. Blaming gay people for the faults of society at large is anti-gay.

      There are MANY more benefits to marriage. It is a deeply personal decision based on the freedom of intimate association. Loving v. VA found marriage to be a civil right. Denying gay people that right due to one possible aspect of marriage, biological reproduction, is pretextual.

      Regarding anti-miscegenation statutes, people didn't even want to sit on a bus with people of different races, which does not support a conclusion that procreation was the only concern.

      If anecdotes of matriarchal cultures are sufficient to disrupt historical consensus, so to should acceptance of homosexuality in ancient Greece.

    3. All the more reason for the dissolution of the licensing of marriage by the state altogether. The state shouldn't have been involved in establish who can get married to whom under what circumstances in the first place. Private society is more than fit enough to handle such decisions. A gay couple doesn't need the state's permissions to have a wedding ceremony, it's only the government benefits that are naively tied to "marriage" (instead of strictly either co-habitation or raising of children) that are at issue. If people against civil unions and the like could realize that allowing gay couples to share in wedded bliss does not impose that definition on *their* own version of wedded bliss, then it wouldn't be the issue it is. Unfortunately, opponents seem to have a hard time separating the notion of a union sanctioned by the state and a union they sanction by private society (usually by means of a church).

      "Gay people may have a child in a heterosexual relationship and later have a homosexual relationship." I can attest to this first-hand as I know personally someone that had a child with his girlfriend at the time and later moved in with his (now ex-)boyfriend. It's something that certainly a situation that throws a wrench in the works of the "same-sex marriages only" argument.

      The "children have a right to be raised by their mom and dad" bit is not my argument but Brandon's, and certainly subject to scrutiny. I'd say it's more of, perhaps, a nicety than a right considering the fact that children can be orphaned very early in life. Also, calling something a right that is dependent on specific action of a party that is external to those exercising that right, is hardly a right at all (at least, not a natural right inherent to one's being).

      Homosexuality was certainly accepted in ancient Greece, notably among young warriors-in-training and their mentors. However, it seemed like, at least from the modest study I've done of it through college elective classes, that Greek society still expected men to find a wife and for them to bear children but they didn't seem to have any problem with them homosexual relationships on the side of that marriage with his wife ... although I don't recall any mention of formal ceremonies to join two people of the same-sex, but it's possible that it's simply something I'd never run across in text.


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