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(When I did my template redesign earlier this summer, I had this idea that I was going to try to focus more on environment and anthropology-related topics. But lately this seems to be turning into a gay-rights blog.)

One of the most frequent claims made against gay marriage is that it breaks down the stability of marriage. There is rarely much to back it up, and so it's frequently ridiculed (as in this interesting article, found via The Hamster) by gay marriage proponents. But I think there's a way in which the argument is not quite as absurd as it seems.

It all depends on what you consider the basis of the stability of marriage, and on this issue the two sides seem to follow the two major trends of modern philosophy. Gay marriage proponents tend to take an instrumentalist view -- for them, marriage is a sort of contract that people enter into to solidify and formalize their relationship and secure certain benefits for themselves. This perspective is most apparent in talk about how marriage could be expanded to accomodate polygamy, and in proposals to split the religious from the secular/governmental aspects of marriage. Gay marriage opponents, on the other hand, take a romantic view -- for them, marriage is a mystical and time-honored union that cannot be captured by our crude utilitarian logic. This is most clearly evidenced in appeals to God's institution of heterosexual marriage in Genesis.

Romanticism often goes hand-in-hand with an appeal to the past. Mystical power tends to come to us from time immemorial, validated by its pedigree as something special because it is eternal and outside our human trials and errors. (Instrumentalists, on the other hand, celebrate trial and error and openness to reconsidering and revising.) So for marriage to work as advertised, it must maintain that myth. Any change made to the rules of marriage would weaken it -- and people's faith in it as an institution -- by demonstrating that it's merely a human social convention, subject to revision as we see fit. This is, in essence, a sophisticated version of the pure slippery slope argument I outlined earlier ("there's nothing wrong with gay marriage per se, but we can't change the version of marriage that we have").

In a sense, the romantic argument that gay marriage will undermine marriage as a whole is correct to the extent that people considering marriage take the romantic view. The question, then, is whether those people can be accounted for by a combination of 1) winning them over to an instrumentalist view, 2) allowing the passage of time to enshrine "any two adults" as the operational definition of the partners in a romantic view, and 3) weakening of marriage that is an acceptable cost of the gain in gay rights, a la the article linked in the first paragraph (I suspect that hard-core instrumentalists such as myself would see this third category as quite large).


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