I don’t much post on “moral issues” as defined by the MSM — gay marriage and abortion, for example. In part, the reason is that these issues tend to appear before us in a political context, and in their most cliche-ridden and extreme forms. Mainly, though, it’s because morality, as I understand it, precedes and supersedes such self-absorbed scuffles.
Morality is about the attainment of self-rule, manifested in specific behaviors. Without self-rule, freedom becomes impossible. If we are all ruled by our desires, one of two consequences follows: either the government must place very tight limits on our actions, or those who wield the greatest power will satisfy their appetites at the expense of the rest.
Gay marriage and abortion, as questions for moral consideration, stand at the opposite end of self-rule. Those who advocate these actions wish to increase, at some cost, their private satisfaction. Those who oppose them wish to control and rule over others. The more absolute the terms of the debate become, the more the first group appears self-indulgent, and the second, tyrannical.
Charles Krauthammer’s latest column, “Pandora and Polygamy,” uses the plot line of a new HBO series to reflect on the logical implications of gay marriage. The arguments for that arrangement, Krauthammer maintains, apply with equal justice to all sorts of alternative lifestyles, of which polygamy usually gets first mention.
After all, if traditional marriage is defined as the union of (1) two people of (2) opposite gender, and if, as advocates of gay marriage insist, the gender requirement is nothing but prejudice, exclusion and an arbitrary denial of one’s autonomous choices in love, then the first requirement — the number restriction (two and only two) — is a similarly arbitrary, discriminatory and indefensible denial of individual choice.
While gay writers like Andrew Sullivan hate this linkage, it’s hard to fault the logic. If marriage is all about personal choice, without regard to community ideals, then one should be able to marry male or female, one or many, man or beast. Krauthammer is also correct in observing that the decline of heterosexual marriage — a truly serious moral problem, with horrendous human and material consequences — has occurred wholly independently of the current mania for same-sex marriage.
Yet, despite being a psychologist and a very bright man, Krauthammer misses the deeper forces working against gay marriage and polygamy alike. In brief, morality doesn’t rest on logic. If you were to offer me money to purchase my children, I would be unlikely to reply, “Well, there are some arguments for and some against this bargain.”
Powerful emotions of pleasure and revulsion are attached to certain behaviors, which have been sanctioned by the community and are modelled and reinforced by most of its members. This sanction, as I have said elsewhere, isn’t arbitrary or faddish but the consequence of the struggle, over history, of many different species of behavior, and of the survival of the most adaptive.
Marriage isn’t about personal choice. Nor is it mainly about economics, Ann Althouse to the contrary. The community cares deeply about marriage because it orders the most basic biological and moral impulses: the reproduction of the species and the continuation of a way of life. Our way has been one man, one woman. This formula has no logic to defend it, but it does have the enormous weight of moral tradition. Rupture with that tradition is never easy, and rarely succeeds. Krauthammer wonders that polygamy engenders more revulsion today than same-sex marriage. The reason is that it implicates the vast majority of men and women: few of us are candidates for gay marriage, but most of us could end up in a harem.
In any case, I am less sanguine about gay marriage’s chances. Precisely because it doesn’t implicate the majority, it must overcome both tradition and indifference. That may change with time. Moral adjustments do occur: just in my lifetime, I have seen the place of women in the community significantly changed. But in this case — I would say, in all cases — it’s a risky business to bet against tradition.