Gays And The New Public Philosophy

Robert Skidelsky

Robert Skidelsky

With humanity’s millennia-old focus on collective survival no longer a primary concern, a few fortunate societies in the West have become preoccupied with matters of human, or individual, rights. In recent decades, we have experienced a second flowering of the individualism associated with such nineteenth-century thinkers as John Stuart Mill.

The rights of the individual were submerged by the horrors of the first half of the twentieth century. But since the 1960’s, the passions expended until then on righting collective wrongs have been increasingly channeled into securing the rights of humans as individuals. Indeed, if the West can be said to have a public philosophy nowadays, it is a philosophy of human rights.

A small but significant example of this is the United Kingdom’s recent debate in Parliament of a bill recognizing the right to same-sex marriage, which follows a decision taken in France this spring to legalize same-sex marriage. Indeed, the UK is something of a latecomer: thirteen countries already allow gay marriage, and the usually conservative current US Supreme Court recently struck down the “Defense of Marriage Act,” adopted in 1996 explicitly to ban gay marriages, and a law prohibiting gay marriage in California.

Only in 2004 were British gays allowed to form “civil partnerships” – relationships with the same legal status as marriage, but denied the title. This did not settle the matter; the passion for human rights simply moved to the next level. Denial of gay couples’ legal right to call themselves married is – has become – intolerably discriminatory. But allowing them to marry has proved a harder legislative nut to crack than allowing them civil partnerships.

The parliamentary debate that has preceded the likely passage of this legislation revealed a classic case of an institution (marriage) coming into conflict with a cause (human rights). Both opponents and supporters of the bill concede that marriage has changed in various ways over time. They also agree that a central core has remained constant. But they disagree about what that core is.

The chief argument of those opposed to the bill is that marriage has always meant a lifelong union aimed at procreation and child-rearing. This is its “normative” meaning – the best that the human race has come up with to secure its survival. As such, marriage is inescapably to a member of the opposite sex.

Against this, supporters of same-sex marriage argue that the one constant that defines the married state is a loving couple’s commitment to “share their journey.” Love and commitment are the only relevant criteria. It is simply unfair to withhold the status of marriage from those who want to make this public vow.

Many and ingenious have been the attempts to split the difference. In the House of Lords, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, a former Lord Chancellor, moved an amendment requiring the bill to distinguish between marriage (same sex) and marriage (opposite sex). The common word marriage, he argued, would remove any discrimination, but the brackets would recognize that the two states were different.

Supporters of the bill allowing same-sex marriage pooh-poohed “marriage in brackets.” With the defeat of the Clashfern amendment by 314 votes to 119, much of the bill’s original form remains intact. Churches would not be required to consecrate same-sex unions, or teachers to promote them (against their conscience); but, as far as the state is concerned, marriage would be gender-blind.

The arguments on both sides have been of high quality, especially in the House of Lords. But, as I have sat and listened to the debate, I cannot help wondering what a break it is in human history for so much intellect and feeling to be focused on such a small matter as the state’s withholding of a word, marriage, but not its substance.

On the lexicographic point, opponents of same-sex marriage are surely right. Historically, marriage has not been, as one peer described it, an “elongated envelope,” into which any expression of love and commitment can be packed. It is not so regarded in contemporary Britain; and even less so in the non-Western world, where unions of men and women are considered the norm.

But there is a glaring weakness in the arguments of the bill’s opponents: while they hint darkly at the “unintended consequences” of legalizing same-sex marriage, they cannot spell out exactly what these consequences would be. It is not obvious that “normal” marriage, procreation, or child-rearing would be threatened by this “add on.”

In fact, opponents of the bill fail to mention that traditional marriage is in a fairly advanced state of decay in Western societies. Fewer and fewer people are bothering to get married, and marriage is regarded less and less as a lifelong union. Families are having fewer and fewer children, and more and more children are born out of wedlock. So one of the “unintended consequences” of the bill might be to add welcome recruits to the ranks of the married, even if these recruits are of a historically unusual kind.

After much soul-searching, I voted for the bill, though without any acute sense that I was striking a blow for freedom. There is a clear status benefit to the minority; no obvious harm is being done to the majority; and the long-term consequences are unfathomable. In the end, it seemed a no-brainer.

Yet it left me uncomfortable. Every institution, Mill wrote in On Liberty, had to justify its keep; if it could not, it deserved to be swept away.

But what counts as justification? The very institution in which I sit, the House of Lords, has no rational justification in terms of its composition or powers, as reformers have been quick to point out. But the very longevity of an institution like marriage is some mark of its worth. At the least, prudence should give the reformer pause.

© Project Syndicate


  1. Mark Platt says

    This was surely a refresh of the old institution, which in its time has served as a commitment to a godhead, a means of securing valid off-spring, and a way to acquire without bloodshed new lands, titles, or wealth.
    However, surely the main prize was the chipping away of unfair and inhumane discrimination from it’s structure.

    In far too many countries and cultures, being sexually different from the mainstream is still a difference too far, denying gay men and women that most laudible American claim, ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’.

    I’m glad that you voted for the change Lord Skidelsky, and I’m certain that Mill would, at least in principle (I have no knowledege of his views on homosexuality), have approved.
    In short, my happiness has been increased at no measurable cost to anyone else, and through that happiness I feel much more a vital and respected member of society.

  2. Bewildered says

    I am fed up with society telling me that homosexual orientation is normal, precious and the same as a heterosexual one. This makes no sense to me from a biological or societal perspective. Excuse me, but is it not obvious that no species can survive if it promotes homosexuality as a norm ? Are we talking about a world in which InVitro fertilisation becomes the method of propagating our species ? Is sex merely a leisure activity with the added bonus that it might be even nicer with someone you care for ?
    I am not suggesting that society should discriminate against people on the basis of their orientations, civil partnerships can adequately enshrine this notion in a legal sense. To be really fair, the same rights should be extended to any long term co-habitees even if they are family members or any other unformalised relationship. As far as I am concerned, heterosexuality remains the aspirational norm for a society and whilst homosexual liaisons do exist and should not be discriminated against, by definition these should be regarded as deviant.
    Does this take on these issues automatically label me a homophobe ?

    • Mark Platt says

      No, just biologically naive. Homosexual behaviour is observable in many creatures and all human population groups, and may have some reproductive function. It most certainly is not a deviation, since it is innate. Sex is also much more complex in many animals than being merely about reproduction, and is observable in many mamals as providing bonding and pleasure providing activity.
      All of that is neither here not there however, since marriage in and of itself is not a ‘normal’ arrangement, it is a creation of cultures and societies, and so is open to definition, and re-definition. Pro-creation may or may not be part of the arrangement, but it is not a requirement in any arrangements, rather a societal expectation; sometimes shared by the marrying couple, sometimes not. An additional complication is that children are present in many gay or lesbian relationships…
      As to whether societies have an aspiration, I think not. I think that societies are made of individuals, all of whom have aspirations, some of which will be to have children, some of which will be too have a good life, some of which will be to be loved.
      As for sharing the right to marry, the arrangement is built on certain premises, a prime one being that the dangers consequent to the off-spring of any sexual liaisons from near relatives are such that they should be discouraged. This obviously does not apply to lesbians and gays, but the simple fact of the existing familial relationship must mitigate against it being an option. I certainly would not want to marry my brother, and if I want leave him something from my estate I easily do so under existing legal arrangements.
      So, not a homophobe, perhaps just a little blinkered in your thinking.

  3. Mark says

    While it is clear that marriage in many parts of the world is a union of man and woman, this is largely down to the conservatism of a majority of the world’s major religions. There are exceptions where same sex couples are not “unnatural” in the sense that religion has often tried to champion. The multiplicity of religions establishes that any one religion does not have a monopoly on the institution of marriage. As a cultural universal therefore, with significance for the religious and the not so religious or semi-spiritual, it should not be assumed to lie under the exclusive moral authority of any one faith. This obvious fact is clear to anyone taking an objective view, but clearly this will not find favour from within the majority of forms of particular faiths. Ironic that many religious people fail to grasp the true significance of the idea “universal”, and on the contrary, cannot wait to speak on behalf of an Almighty deity on such matters, with mere literary quotes to support this bold claim.