Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Framing Gay Marriage

I just came across an interesting post by an author in the U.K. He pointed out that gay marriage could be viewed either as an issue of equality or as an issue of freedom. Seen in one way, the argument for it was that homosexual couples were entitled to the same rights as heterosexual couples. Seen in the other, the argument is that people are entitled to marry whom they please. 

It can be viewed either way but, he argued, in practice it was framed as an issue of equality. His explanation was simple. The right, which was against gay marriage, was much more comfortable criticizing arguments from equality than arguments from liberty. The left, which was for gay marriage, was much more comfortable making arguments for equality than making arguments for liberty. So both sides agreed that what the controversy was really about was equality.

I suspect his point is more accurate for the U.K. than for the U.S., that the liberty argument plays at least some role here. But his distinction may be relevant to one feature of the argument as I observe it. In the U.S., one argument against gay marriage is that, if it is accepted, the next step is polygamy. Supporters mostly deny that there is any connection, rather than arguing (as I think they should) that polygamy too should be legal.

If the argument is about equality, one can plausibly deny any link to polygamy on the theory that as long as nobody is entitled to be married to more than one partner at a time, everyone is equal—more plausibly, I think, than one can make the corresponding argument against gay marriage, that everyone is equally entitled to marry a member of the opposite sex. If the argument is about liberty, on the other hand, it would seem to apply just as strongly to the case of polygamy. So in this case, the right seems to prefer to view the case for gay rights as a (mistaken) argument about liberty, and only the left as an argument about equality.

I am curious as to how that part of the argument plays out in the U.K. Readers with expert information are invited to comment. And I may put the question to the author of the post.


Robert Easton said...

Given that gay marriage already exists in the UK except in name (since we have "civil partnership"), it doesn't feel like a high priority issue to me, and indeed both sides seem to consider it less of a priority than in the US as far as I can tell. There are some difficult cases with transgender people (who may have to get divorced, then change gender, then get a civil partnership to the same person) but apart from that it's an issue of name only. Which makes me think the whole debate is about status. Some people want gay relationships to be officially declared to have the same status as straight relationships. Another group of people are opposed to (officially) giving gay relationships that level of respect. This is perhaps similar to the "equality" justification much more than the "liberty".

This would also explain the attempt to dissociate with polygamists. Those are currently much lower status than gay people and gay marriage advocates do not want their position dragged down by that.

Justin said...

I'm curious why you think the equality argument is stronger for homosexuals than polygamists. The following two statements to me seem logically equivalent:

1. Outlawing gay marriage does not constitute an inequality because both gay and straight people are allowed to marry a person of the opposite sex and neither is allowed to marry a person of the same sex. Thus everyone plays by the same rules.

2. Outlawing polygamous marriages does not constitute an inequality because everyone is allowed to marry one person and nobody is allowed to marry multiple people. Thus everyone plays by the same rules.

Power Child said...

@Justin, the inequality is not an inequality of rules but an inequality of fulfillment. I.e. people who desire to marry one person of the opposite sex may do so, while people who desire to marry in other ways may not.

Of course, it isn't just someone of the opposite sex. It also has to be someone above a certain age who is 1) not already married and 2) not closer than something like 4th cousins. Notice that gay marriage advocates don't tend to want to break down these barriers any more than gay marriage opponents want to break down the barriers around traditional marriage.

Power Child said...

David, I think there is an underreported but fairly widespread feeling among American conservatives that gay marriage is bad not for any equality or liberty reasons, but for a social stability reason. That is, the nuclear family headed by a father and mother is seen as the key stabilizing agent of societies (there is much evidence and logic to support this view) and gay marriage is seen as another nail in the coffin of the nuclear family.

Things like no-fault divorce, abortion, premarital sex, the destigmatizing of single parenthood, etc. are seen as other nails in the coffin put there by previous generations, but many conservatives see gay marriage as a potentially decisive blow.

David Friedman said...


I'm not sure I can explain why one argument from equality seems to me more persuasive than the other. Possibly it's because the difference between marrying someone of the same sex, if that's what you are attracted to, and marrying someone of the opposite sex, if that's what you are attracted to, seems fairly small to me. The difference between a marriage of two people and one of three or more seems larger.

David Friedman said...

Power Child:

You may be correct about the attitude. But it seems to me that gay marriage is much less of an attack on the traditional structure than easy divorce or the acceptance of casual sex.

Indeed, one can see it as a support for the traditional structure. People who are unambiguously homosexual are unlikely to make a successful heterosexual marriage--but they might well make a successful homosexual one. And a homosexual marriage is more like a heterosexual marriage than a homosexual non-marital relation is.

That's particularly true of lesbian couples which seem, by casual observation, to be at least as stable as heterosexual couples and perhaps more so.

Noah Carl said...

In principle, gay marriage and polygamy should both be legal. But, on consequentialist grounds, only the former should.

chris said...

Thanks for those comments.Here in the UK, I just don't recall polygamy ever being raised as a serious issue, in this context or any other. We don't have a Mormon tradition here, and I suspect that married people who'd like another partner would rather cheat than acquire multiple mothers-in-law. (The mother-in-law joke is a strong cultural meme here).
Logically, I think you're right; freedom requires that polygamy be legal. But in the UK, it's not so much that this is taboo (in the way homosexuality once was) but rather - if the matter arises at all - it is a cause of humour: "you want four wives? You're a glutton for punishment, aren't you?"

Greg Yarmit said...

For me argument for gay marriage is the question of liberty. Liberty is still restricted with age, incest and etc. Note, that these restrictions varied across different cultures and time. We have biblical example of Lot's daughters having children from their father.
I don’t agree with argument for equality. Equal under what laws or rules? If you argue for equality than solution should be NOT to allow gay marriage but not to have laws that have different treatment of married and unmarried couples (or people in polygamous family).
Some laws are not related to marriage but still could be relevant here. I am not expert on this but try to address child custody. Assuming that law prefers mother as child guardian how this is related whether this married or unmarried couple? Having (obviously adapted) child in gay family. Who is the mother?

Greg Yarmit said...

One more thing. In previous message I argued that solution for equality is to remove all laws that discriminate married and unmarried people ( and not to legalize gay marriage).
But if we argue to allow gay marriage as liberty issue than we have to allow discrimination by any private company based on your marriage status, life style and etc. for insurance or any other purposes.

Power Child said...

David, a few responses:

" marriage is much less of an attack on the traditional structure than easy divorce or the acceptance of casual sex."

The act of homosexuals getting married is perhaps less of an attack on traditional structure, but we must also consider the effect gay marriage will have on the way people think about marriage a generation or two from now. If gay marriage is a big part of why future generations don't see marriage as very sacred or important, that should lead a lot of reasonable, non-bigoted people to oppose gay marriage. (Currently, 44% of young people consider marriage "obsolete" according to a recent Pew poll. Will opening marriage up to homosexuals encourage this worrying trend?)

"Indeed, one can see it as a support for the traditional structure."

Only as long as you don't think having a mother and father is integral to that structure.

Still, I have thought a lot about marriage's "civilizing" effects, and there may be something to it, but what's interesting is that you don't hear many people in the gay rights movement talking about this.

"People who are unambiguously homosexual are unlikely to make a successful heterosexual marriage--but they might well make a successful homosexual one."

As gay marriage becomes legalized in various states I'm very interested to see whether gay couples who marry will end up with a higher divorce rate than the general population or some other group of relevant comparison. My cautious prediction is that the gay divorce rate will be very low for a few decades, but then it will begin rising, and it will eventually rise very high and stay there. And as you almost hinted before, the gay male divorce rate will be much higher than the lesbian divorce rate.

"And a homosexual marriage is more like a heterosexual marriage than a homosexual non-marital relation is."

This is a logical statement, and to most people gay marriage being more like traditional marriage is good. However, the gay rights movement does not seem to agree. For instance, I've seen one prominent gay rights activist write against gay marriage; his argument was something like "gay people shouldn't want to get married because that's something straight people do, and therefore gay people getting married will destroy the gay identity."

Jim Rose said...

You might wish to look at Doug Allen’s

Allen says that marriage is an institution designed and evolved to regulate incentive problems that arise between a man and a woman over the life cycle of procreation.

The real problem with same-sex marriage is same-sex divorce.

Marriage includes a set of exit provisions in terms of the possible grounds for divorce, rules for splitting property, alimony and child support rules, and custody rules.

1. Many institutional rules within marriage are designed to restrict males from exploiting the specific investments women must make upfront in child bearing.

2. Since same-sex marriages are not based as often on procreation, these restrictions are likely to be objected to and challenged in courts and legislatures. To the extent divorce laws are changed, they may hurt heterosexual marriages, and women in particular.

3. Given that same-sex relationships are often made up of two financially independent individuals, there will be litigation and political pressures for even easier divorce laws since the problem of financial dependency will be reduced.

Alterations in divorce laws to deal with issues of same-sex divorce necessarily apply to heterosexuals, and these new laws may not be optimal for heterosexuals, making marriage a more fragile institution for them.

The actual outcomes of no-fault divorce laws, as an example, could hardly have been more different than what was expected and intended. The most obvious outcome was the immediate large increases in divorce rates.

No fault divorce laws influenced the rate at which women entered the workforce, the amount of hours worked in a week, the incidence of spousal abuse, the feminisation of poverty, and the age at which people married.

No-fault divorce influenced a series of other laws related to spousal and child support, child custody, joint parenting, and the definition of marital property.

Many of these changes had subsequent impacts on the stability of marriages. The actual outcomes of no-fault divorce were unanticipated and unintended.

Marriage may provide a poor match for the incentive problems that arise in the relationships of gay and lesbian couples. Forcing all three relationships under the same law could lead to a sub-optimal law for all three types of marriage

p.s. I forgot to mention second wives clubs which lobby for limits the length of time of alimony to the first wife. Natural allies for higher income gay divorcees

Anonymous said...

In my estimation, you can preempt many marriage problems by repealing marriage licenses in general and creating contracts when a couple has a child, through natural or artificial means. Also, the couple can choose how to contract out what will happen with assets, and the liability of the children.

There could be requirements when children are born or adopted, but I see no other compelling reason. If a couple so chooses to not contract assets, then there's always probate!

John T. Kennedy said...

"Supporters mostly deny that there is any connection, rather than arguing (as I think they should) that polygamy too should be legal."

I think polygamists that could tell you that gay marriage already is legal in all 50 states - you won't go to jail for it. Polygamists on the other hand can go to jail without asking for state recognition of their marriages.

John T. Kennedy said...

The proper right to marriage is simply the right to be left alone. Gays have this right with respect to marriage in every state, unlike polygamists. The right to state recognition or marriage is a positive right. There is no justification for the state to grant positive rights since positive rights necessarily come at the expense of others.