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December 16, 2012



Why is it taken for granted on both sides that marital ceremony and status is any of the state's business?

Keep politicians out of personal relationships: abolish the state regulation of marriage! Let Facebook decide who gets to be Best Friends Forever. Or let society treat each relationship on its merits.


I disagree that tradition is irrelevant to the debate. However, I don't think of tradition as something that needs to be contrasted with the rational. Rather, tradition actually counts in favour of gay marriage. Ralph Wedgwood offers a nice statement of that view here: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/05/24/marriage-meaning-and-equality/


@ Matthew - that's a good piece by Wedgwood, but is it about tradition, or rather the social meaning of marriage?
(I wasn't saying that tradition is irrelevant - not at all - just that I doubt that there can be an enlightening debate between those who oppose same-sex marriages on traditional grounds and those who don't).


@Chris - I suppose it depends in part on what you think a tradition is. It could mean just a brute description of how things have been done in the past, so that anything new counts as a break with tradition. But I take it Wedgwood thinks it's wrapped up with social meaning. Certain traditional ways of doing things (e.g. saying I'm part of a married couple) count as the expression of certain social meanings (e.g. we're committed in the long-term). So justice can require extending or broadening those traditions by making them more all-encompassing. Maybe it's better to see social meanings as depending on traditions rather than as identical to them. But I suppose the broader point is that the standard liberal defence of gay marriage - whether in terms of rights or freedom - relies on a very thin concept of marriage that doesn't properly capture all of its importance.

Thanks for the thought-provoking post!


I find it difficult to believe that this is still an issue we're fighting over. How would gay marriage, or even polygamy, interfere with ones ability to be in a commited relationship with the opposite sex. It's just plain silly.


I wonder why representatives of the state get so fussed about this when it calls into question the usefulness of their interference.

Many legal bods are calling for equal shared-property protections for unmarried couples (regardless of sex). At that point the state subsidy/protection is hollowed out.

The agitators may end up with a collapse of the state model and a return to mutual contract.


I would favour the idea of marriage as a contract expressing romantic commitment all be it a contract without the need for valuable consideration. Hence the incidents of marriage should be at the option of the parties. So you could have a ten year union renewable at will or polygamy etc subject to minimum safeguards e.g. no marrying of eight year old girls for reasons of child protection. This is perfectly in accord with free market ideas and most people believe in romantic love these days.

The controversy arises not from the state but from the desire of religious groups to control sex and marriage as part of their power trip. The retention of a state church heightens the controversy and the mess. The C of E wants the privilege of being state backed but the freedom to ignore Parliament on theology. The irony is lost on the bishops that a kingly divorce is the origin of the Anglican ascendency. They should be forced to accept Gay nuptuals and women bishops. If they will not "evolve" then disestablish them. Allowing them to be a state church but without submitting to Parliament is a deplorable abuse of the Democratic legislature.

As for Scruton "Some of us are troubled by the" fact he seems to have no grasp of moral philosophy. Belief in equality and liberty lie at the heart of civilised values. They are the core of any respectable philosophy at all. What does it say about some one when he cannot see that? No wonder you cannot take Toryism seriously when at every turn Conservatives show they are stupid and heartless holding onto out dated ideas based on selective quotes from the bible or tradition. Carefully ignoring the text or traditions they do not like such as helping the poor or working for peace rather then selling arms to dictators like The prime minister or should he be named "arms dealer in chief?".

Canada Goose

However, here's the irony: the progressives who are nostalgic about the economy of the 1950s are the very same ones who have (quite rightly!) criticized conservative nostalgia about the 1950s family. The 1950s family was no great shakes and certainly wasn't anything more than the particular manifestation of a variety of historical processes, and was certainly not the Platonic Ideal of The Family. Progressives have pointed out all the ways in which the 1950s family was problematic and had some good laughs at the expense of the, in their view, silly conservative nostalgia about it.

David Friedman

Your point about why both sides prefer to frame the issue in terms of equality is ingenious, and may well be correct. But I am not sure it works for the part of the argument that relates gay marriage to polygamy.

If the issue is one of equality, one can plausibly argue for gay marriage but against polygamy on the grounds that everyone is equally entitled to have one marriage partner at a time and nobody is entitled to have more than one. That's more plausible than the corresponding argument against gay marriage, that everyone is equally entitled to marry someone of the opposite sex. But if the issue is one of liberty, then the same arguments apply to polygamy as to gay marriage—that someone should be entitled to marry anyone else who is willing.

In the U.S., at least, opponents of gay marriage claim a link with polygamy, supporters deny it. That means that the opponents are framing the issue as an argument about liberty, although one they reject, which does not fit your pattern. Is the same true in the U.K.?

I should probably add that I suspect many supporters of gay marriage think polygamy should be legal (as do I), and deny the link for strategic rather than philosophical reasons—more generally, that there is a substantial libertarian element in the gay rights movement here.

Peter T

My reason to doubt the wisdom of introducing gay marriage is not tradition and not religion: marriage is not for the marriage partners, gay or straight, but for the potential children of the relation. If if were not for the children, the state should simply leave the organization of personal relations alone. Children benefit from a long-term loving relationship of their mother and father. To stabilize this relationship, we recognized marriage publicly and added material incentives to stay together. Many men and women have taken the opportunity to benefit from the incentives, of course, without having children or, at least, without having planned to have children - the state obviously can't sneak into the private plans of people and shouldn't do it. To extend marriage to a couple that by biology can't have children seems not to offer any benefits to potential children, but it rather sees marriage as a service to the couple whoever it may be.

David seems to prefers one step further to give benefits to polyamoric relationships, which I consider corrosive with respect to raising children, but with gay marriage legalized the children might have been sufficiently pushed out of the picture already.

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