Belle, who favors same-sex marriage, nonetheless says that this is one of the most compelling anti-SSM arguments:
The change SSM advocates propose is a radical one, and we can’t be sure exactly what will happen. The last time a radical change to marriage was enacted on the grounds of maximizing individual liberty and happiness it turned out to be a disaster from a broader point of view, and especially for children.
Even if Belle is just playing devil’s advocate here, I think it’s worth responding.
First of all, it’s not clear that civil recognition of same-sex marriage is itself a radical change. I’ve argued in the past that SSM is just a relatively small side effect of two genuinely radical long-term trends. The first radical change is feminism’s defeat of “separate spheres” ideology: Now that it’s no longer true that women and men fulfill two strictly-bounded, separate roles, the rule that only women may marry men and vice-versa has lost its logical basis in our society.
The second radical change is the gay rights movement, which has made huge strides towards acceptance of the equal humanity and dignity of lesbian and gay relationships.
It is these two radical trends – which effect so much more than just marriage – which have made SSM a real possibility in our society. And although it’s certainly true that we “can’t be sure exactly what will happen” due to those two radical (and still ongoing) changes, it seems unlikely that either of these trends can be stopped just by opposing same-sex marriage.
Second, the most recent “radical change to marriage” wasn’t no-fault divorce; it was the near-total elimination of the marital exemption to rape laws. Although like all changes to marriage, this change was in the works for years before it led to a change in law, most of the actual modifications of the relevant laws took place in the 80s and 90s.
Is it possible for someone who takes the anti-SSM arguments seriously to justify the elimination of the marital rape exemption? I’m not sure it is. The Burkean hand-waving approach (short version: we can’t be sure that unintended effects of any change won’t be bad, so all change is bad) would clearly weigh against outlawing marital rape; making it illegal for husbands to rape their wives significantly changed the rules of every existing marriage, with who knew what results? And giving wives the right to refuse sex with their husbands strongly suggests that marriage is not only about procreation, but also includes concern for what’s good for adults – exactly the view of marriage that same-sex marriage opponents always say they oppose.
Finally, contrary to the conventional wisdom, no-fault divorce wasn’t an unmitigated disaster. To this day, social scientists argue about no-fault’s impact; many empirical studies have either found that no-fault divorce laws had no effect on long-term divorce rates, or had only a relatively small effect.
More importantly, no-fault divorce has literally been a lifesaver for some abused women. Even if we assume that no-fault divorce increased the divorce rate, its benefits may still outweigh its negatives.