The State’s Interest in Marriage Transcends Children because Marriage Does

My fellow Hang Togetherites are outstripping my ability to keep up! I’m going to have to follow Dan and post over the weekend or lose my window to cause trouble.

Karen agrees with Dan that the state’s interest in marriage arises almost entirely from the fact that sex can produce children. I know this is what all the bigshot Christian intellectuals say. It’s also politically convenient in that it minimizes libertarian/conservative tensions and relies as little as possible on metaphysical claims.

This is exactly the problem. The metaphysics of marriage can’t be conveniently walled off from its legal and political ramifications. The universe just isn’t that neat and tidy.

Let’s look at another issue for comparison. What’s the case for the prohibition of recreational drugs? On paper, the libertarian case looks good. Not everyone who uses coke drives while high or steals to support his habit. Why not just punish the behavior that harms others? If you ban drugs because they make people more likely to harm othes, where will you stop?

But in fact the act of consuming poison for pleasure really is qualitatively different from other behaviors (say, dropping out of high school) that make you more likely to be a threat to society. It is – formally and not just accidentally – a direct attack on my own status as a responsible agent. Admittedly the lines for self-harm are fuzzier than for harm to others. But if no self-harm whatsoever can ever be restricted as a matter of principle, it becomes impossible to argue that human life has intrinsic dignity, and thus impossible to justify prohibitions on murder, theft, etc.

What does this have to do with marriage? Sex creates (always, every time) a permanent metaphysical link between the participants. Like drug use, this has far-reaching consequences we aren’t free to simply ignore.

The proposition that sex is a metaphysical act is not a Christian teaching or even a religious teaching particularly. It’s the universal presupposition of all humanity throughout history and around the world except in the secular West for the last generation. Christianity certainly does add much profound religious teaching on top of this, teaching that explains the great mysteries of sex and also reversals to us even more profound mysteries. But the abbarant fact, the extraordinary datum that requires explanation and accommodation, is not that Christians think sex is metaphysical but that secularists do not.

Why does this matter? Partly because the moral imperatives associated with reproduction alone are an insufficient basis for a sound shared morality of social ethics for sex, just as libertarianism on feeding yourself poison leaves us unable to justify prohibitions on feeding other people poison.

It’s also partly messaging. What the world hears from us now, in effect, is: “Sex is about reproduction and nothing else! Nothing, do you hear, you wicked libertines! Stop enjoying sex right now!” Restoring the metaphysical mysteries of sex to the public conversation would both improve the credibility of our message on marriage and also restore some plausibility to Christianity itself. It wouldn’t hurt us to remInd people that the gospel can help make sense of the mysteries they themselves have admitted are central to human meaning.

Does this position imply every sexual sin should be illegal? Of course not. We’re allowed to say that we have a shared cultural understanding that greed is evil without making evey greedy act against the law. The same here. We have to reopen the public conversation on sex at a deeper level than mere reproduction. Otherwise it’s hard to see much hope.

5 Thoughts.

  1. Pingback: The State’s Interest In Marriage Is Not Co-terminus With The Nature Of Marriage | Hang Together

  2. Greg, you say “[b]ut if no self-harm whatsoever can ever be restricted as a matter of principle, it becomes impossible to argue that human life has intrinsic dignity, and thus impossible to justify prohibitions on murder, theft, etc.” I think that turns around the causality arrows, doesn’t it? Life has intrinsic dignity, therefore we punish murderers; but our punishment of murderers does not create dignity in life.

    Prohibitions on murder and theft exist because the murderer and thief have no right to take my life or my property. Whether he takes his own life or destroys his own property is an entirely different question. He may destroy his own property as much as he wishes, and answers to God for the waste. Similarly with his life. The fact that he may destroy without our retribution does not mean his life has any less intrinsic dignity, or his property less value.

    Punishment of murderers and wastrels is a question of jurisdiction, not dignity. We do not have the authority to punish everything that offends God. We may stretch out our avenging arm only to those things that interfere with the rights He has given us. So we punish the man who destroys my property, but not his own. We punish the one who takes another’s life, but he is answerable to God alone for taking his own because we have no claim on that man’s life.

  3. I forgot to say that I also agree with your point about messaging. I believe sex is about more than producing children – it is something God created to enjoy, and it assists in the genesis of that metaphysical union you identified. But that implicates facets one and two, and the state has nothing to say about them.

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