Same-Sex Marriage: A Socratic Dialogue in the Modern Idiom

Posted on March 16, 2011


Sappho: Have you heard, Socrates, that HM Government intends to launch a consultation on extending marriage rights to same-sex couples?

Socrates: Yes, but isn’t it obvious that marriage is a natural institution established for the purpose of the procreation and nurturing of children, and by nature requires the coupling of men and women?

Sappho: That’s bigotry. How would you like being banned from marrying the person you love? Haven’t you heard of gay adoption, IVF, or surrogate mothers? Marriage and procreation are different things.

Socrates: Adoption is not a method of procreation. As for other methods, they still require coupling of genes from male and female, even if it happens in a laboratory. Nature has ordained that the co-operation of both sexes is necessary for the creation of new life. And yes, I would like to be allowed to marry someone I love, but it doesn’t follow that society should sanction all relationships, provided they are between consenting adults. What about incestuous relationships, for example?

Sappho: Socrates, do you have to raise such a revolting subject? Anyway, you are making it all about sex. Marriage is about a loving commitment.

Socrates: You squirm at the mention of incest, but the only reason for the taboo against it in a society whose civil discourse revolves around utilitarian notions is the likelihood of genetic abnormalities in resultant offspring. If marriage and procreation are separable, there is no reason for its prohibition. Healthy societies impose rules regarding appropriate sexual conduct. Your own instinctive reaction suggests you recognise that these rules should reflect certain ideas about human dignity, not just about utility. Marriage is a loving commitment, but of what kind? It is a particular commitment of which a sexual relationship is the distinguishing factor between it and other kinds of commitment. Its uniqueness is shown by the willingness of a couple to have children together, binding themselves to each other for life. Human offspring are not like the animal young, for they require a long period of physical nurturing and a protracted period of social formation. All the evidence suggests that these work best when the raising of children is carried out by two biological parents – one of each sex. That is why I argued that marriage – in its fundamental form as a permanent union of man and woman – is a natural institution. It arises organically from human nature to provide for the continuation of the race, which is divided between male and female members for this purpose. Whether you believe this nature was designed by God, or evolved through random processes, doesn’t matter for the purposes of this discussion. The fact is that human flourishing, and the survival of our race, depends on stable heterosexual marriages.

Sappho: Hmm . . . interesting, but I’m sure people used all sorts of clever arguments to justify slavery in the past. Besides, if, by adoption, we construct a family from biologically unrelated people, why can’t we do the same for gay couples? Doesn’t this militate against your idea that children must be raised by their biological parents, that the family is a natural institution?

Socrates: Adoption is not an attempt to ‘construct’ an ideal family, but a damage-limitation exercise necessary when parents are unable or unwilling to raise their own children. If this happens, we seek to place children in situations which resemble as closely as possible the natural family unit. This makes sense only if we hold up the natural family as the ideal. If not, why go to such lengths to try artificially to recreate the ideal for adoptive children? And, yes, people did try to justify slavery, but truth always wins out in the end. Eventually, arguments against slavery won the day because they were true. Supporters of same-sex marriage often resort to stigmatising its opponents as ‘bigots’, and their arguments as ‘hate speech’. Why are they frightened actually to engage in discussion? Opponents of slavery didn’t need to resort to this, because their arguments had their own force. Besides, we are talking here about a course of behaviour, not about an inherent characteristic such as ethnicity. Judging the rightness or wrongness of behaviour is what moral reasoning is all about.

Sappho: Okay, I accept that heterosexual marriage is a natural institution, even ideal. But to continue the race, not everyone needs to get married. If two gay people are romantically committed to each other, why obstruct their living together as a couple? What has it got to do with anyone else? Can’t we just leave them be?

Socrates: General acceptance of active homosexual behaviour correlates with its increased incidence. It is more common amongst the university-educated than the uneducated, more common amongst the middle classes than the upper and working classes, and more common in urban centres than in rural areas, because the educated urban middle classes tend to be more tolerant of it. When was the last time you met gay farmers from the Outer Hebrides? I’m not denying that they exist, but social and cultural norms do influence general behaviour, including sexual conduct, for good or ill. When norms of acceptable behaviour change, actual behaviour does, too. Keeping a marriage healthy is not easy, and it helps married couples to have their relationship honoured in a unique way. Even primitive societies do this, because heterosexual marriage provides something vital to all societies: children. You ask what same-sex marriages have to do with anyone else, yet marriage is not just a private contract, but a social institution. This whole argument is about social recognition of same-sex relationships, about whether society should recognise and celebrate these relationships and accord special status and privileges to gay couples (although I can’t see what such relationships contribute to the common good that might require society to do so). Supporters of same-sex marriage flip-flop between arguing that what same-sex couples do is their own business, and asserting that society should recognise and celebrate their commitment to each other. Parliament already decided to ‘leave them be’ in 1968 when it decriminalised homosexual behaviour in private. What is being demanded now is something entirely different, and, moreover, it is being demanded that it should be given without debate over its propriety.

Sappho: You’ve raised a number of interesting points, Socrates. Maybe I should call off my civil partnership ceremony with Anactoria while I think about this.

Socrates: Good idea, Sappho.

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