Reply to George: XIV. Justify Your Love

[This post is part of a series analyzing Robert George's widely-read article, "What is Marriage", which appeared on pages 245-286 of the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy. You can view all posts in the series here.]

Robert George has some challenges for us “revisionists.” He says we can’t meet them, but you know what?  He’s wrong.

What exactly is he saying?

George starts with typical clarity and grace.

Although the conjugal view is, despite its critics, not only inferable from certain widely accepted features of marriage and good for society, but also internally coherent, no version of the revisionists’ view accounts for some of their own beliefs about marriage: namely, that the state has an interest in regulating some relationships, but only if they are romantic—presumptively sexual—and only if they are monogamous.

This sentence is 66 words long. The verb (“accounts”) doesn’t appear until word 33. To get to the subject of the sentence (“no version”) you have to wade through four — four! — introductory phrases set off by commas. Is this trivial?

No.

Bad writing is a great mask for poor reasoning:  If it’s this hard to read, it must be deep! Or:  I don’t know what he’s saying but he sure sounds smart! Don’t fall for it.  In reality, convoluted prose often means there’s less here than meets the eye.

Anyway, back to his argument.

Obviously, I disagree that George’s conjugal/procreative view is “not only inferable…but internally consistent.” As we’ve seen, it manages to be circular and self-contradictory at the same time — no mean feat.

The rest of the statement has problems, too. After all, no one is arguing that that state has an interest in “regulating” only romantic, monogamous relationships. The state sets down law for all sorts of relationships:  parent and child, guardian and ward, business partners, buyer and seller, donor and recipient

This is so obvious, in fact, that I point it out mainly as another instance of George’s inadequate presentation of his case, something that’s allowed him to gloss over many of its flaws.

George is really challenging us “revisionists” to demonstrate that (1) the state has an interest in applying marital law to relationships as long as they are (2) romantic and (3) monogamous.

The purpose of government

In point (1), as far as I can tell, George is bringing up a common theme among procreationists:  The state has an interest in continuing the generation of healthy, educated, and well-adjusted citizens. Therefore, the state has an interest in regulating the relationships of those adults who bear and rear each successive generation. But why does the state have any interest in regulating marriage if marriage is unconnected to children?

There is so much wrong here.

I’d like to start with the ugliness of the question itself — ugly, because it relies on the (understandably) unstated assumption that the state should only do those things which benefit the state.

That may be the guiding principle in a totalitarian country. In a free land, though, we have to remember this: The individual does not exist to serve the State.

For instance, freedom of speech is vital to good governance and is thus in the interests of the state — but that’s not the only reason we allow individuals the right to speak freely. The same is true of freedom of religion. And assembly. And a multitude of other rights guaranteed to citizens.

It’s un-American to imply the government should secure a citizen’s rights only if they are in the interests of the state. And it’s profoundly un-American to deny the citizens are endowed with:

certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…

Worth repeating: to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men. It is not the duty of the citizen to justify his or her rights to the state.

This is actually a major parting of the ways between our opponents and us. Conservatives, almost by definition, insist the burden of proof is on those who advocate change. But in a free country, shouldn’t the burden be on those who would limit that freedom?

The “revisionist” case for civil marriage

So let’s reframe George’s first issue. Stop focusing on the interests of the state. Let’s just ask why our “revisionist” view does imply the government should enact marital law. Keep in mind that George isn’t asking here why same-sex marriage should be legal. No, he asking why marriage itself should be a legal concept under the revisionist view.

First, let’s remind ourselves of George’s definition of this view:

Marriage is the union of two people (whether of the same sex or of opposite sexes) who commit to romantically loving and caring for each other and to sharing the burdens and benefits of domestic life.

Well, this is easy.

Adults who want to want to “commit to romantically loving and caring for each other and to sharing the burdens and benefits of domestic life” will often want to raise children.  It’s perhaps the most daunting and profound task the ordinary person will face, and as a great book says, “Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up.”

It’s clearly in the interest of children to have a stable environment and to have regulations around the parents’ commitment to each other and to the child. This is true whether you’re a revisionist or a procreationist, whether you’re same-sex parents or opposite-sex.

But take children out of the picture. Imagine two adults, Riley and Jordan. Riley is a highly-paid Vice President of Manufacturing, while Jordan builds a reputation as an artist (but doesn’t make much money). What happens if Riley dies?

  • Does Jordan get to keep their home, or must it be sold and their savings liquidated to pay estate taxes?
  • Will Jordan receive the social security payments that Riley paid into the system?
  • Where does Riley’s pension and 401(k) go?
  • If Riley is hospitalized before dying, who will get to visit, and who makes the difficult end-of-life decisions?

These are all legal questions and they require a legal solution. Many of our opponents repeat the pernicious myth that Riley and Jordan could handle this through wills and powers of attorney. Tell that to Ron Hanby and Mark Goldberg.

The nightmare of legal limbo

Ron Hanby, struggling with depression, took his own life on October 2, 2008. Mark Goldberg, his partner of 17 years, battled Rhode Island bureaucracy for weeks before the state would release Ron’s body to him. Ron had no living relatives. The couple, however, did have:

  • wills
  • living wills
  • power of attorney documents
  • and a Connecticut marriage certificate (Rhode Island didn’t permit same-sex marriage or even civil unions)

None of that mattered in Rhode Island. Mark spent every day of his immediate grief on the phone with state officials, trying to get his husband’s body out of the morgue. Finally, after four weeks, a state bureaucrat took a special interest and helped him get Ron’s body released.

Read Mark’s own description of what his life turned into:

I called the Police to our home where the death occurred and in two hours they performed their investigation, offered their condolences, removed Ron’s body and left our house. No one offered any information on what I was to do next. No phone number to contact the detective in charge, no information on where they were taking Ron’s body, no information on what I as his partner for so many years should do next.

Ron had no next of kin other than me.  I shared our Wills, Living Wills, Power of Attorney and Marriage Certificate to the Police Department, Medical Examiner’s Office and the Department of Health, but no one was willing to see these documents. The State Law stated that a two week search for next of kin must be done. The Medical Examiner’s office waited a full week before placing an ad in the Providence Journal. After no one responded they waited another week to send paperwork to the Health and Human Services Department listing Ron as an unclaimed body. During this four week process, I was on the phone every day trying to convince someone, anyone, that I was the person claiming Ron’s body. The same response came back to me every time; “It’s State law, our hands are tied, there’s nothing we can do”.

I attempted to place an obituary in the Providence Journal and again, I was denied because we were not blood relatives, and the Journal had to comply with state rules. GLAD, the Gay and Lesbian Advocacy and Defenders could not help me because our bond was not recognized in the State of RI. After four weeks an employee in the Department of General Public Assistance of Human Services took pity upon me and my plight. She reviewed our documentation and was able to get all parties concerned to release Ron’s body to me.

When this came to light, the Rhode Island legislature tried to pass the most simple of legal recognitions for same-sex couples:  a bill creating funeral rights for domestic partners. They passed it in a bipartisan show of humanity: 63-1 in the House, unanimously in the Senate. And the Republican governor vetoed it.

The National Organization for Marriage urged legislators to let the veto stand. (Robert George is the Founding Chairman of NOM.) Chris Plante, executive director of NOM-RI, wrote:

[T]he proposed legislation simply is not necessary… The right of any person, without regard to sexual preference or relationship to the decedent, to serve as a designated funeral-planning agent is already expressly guaranteed by Rhode Island Law 5-33.1-4. That statute only requires a simple notarized form naming an agent.

Ah, yes, Rhode Island Law 5-33.1-4. Of course. And what can we say in return except:

Thank you Mr. Plante!

Mark and Ron had wills, power of attorney, and an actual marriage license? Simpletons! They should have known to go to a notary and designate each other as funeral planning agents, pursuant to R.I. Law 5-33.1-4!

This is the Kafka-esque nightmare faced by couples who “commit to romantically loving and caring for each other and to sharing the burdens and benefits of domestic life” in states that offer their relationships no legal recognition. Lord only knows how many other forms and requirement Hanby and Goldberg would have needed to get their legal rights. And that’s just in one state. Imagine the hell they would go through if they decided to travel cross-country, investigating procedures and filling out forms in every state they visited.

Of course, some problems can’t be solved even if you have every bit of paperwork intact. Shirley Tan learned this the hard way when immigration officials shackled her in front of her kids and spouse, and hauled her off for possible deportation.

“Regulating”?

These examples point out another big flaw in the way George framed the issue:  But why does the state have any interest in regulating marriage if marriage is unconnected to children?

Hmm. That word:  “regulating.”

“Regulating,” for me at least, has connotations of control. Regulation says you must do this or must not do that. But many of the “regulations” around marriage have to do with rights.

These rights exist so people can build a life together that neither could build alone. They exist so that if one partner dies, the other is not devastated by losing their home or struggling for weeks to retrieve the body from the morgue. They exist so you can keep your partner in the country instead of having her deported to the place where a man killed her sister and mother and tried to kill her.

George almost understands that.  He believes the government should recognize and regulate marriage for couples who can procreate (and, through tortured reasoning, for couples who can’t procreate but still have a penis and vagina).

However, he claims it’s “much harder to defend” the need for legal, civil marriage when the partners are merely people who “commit to romantically loving and caring for each other and to sharing the burdens and benefits of domestic life.” That’s mind-boggling, a statement that could only be written by someone who (1) does not understand what it means to commit to another person or (2) has some personal need to endorse his own view at the expense of rational argument.

Let’s assume, for George’s sake, that the answer is (2).

Next: We’ll look at parts 2 and 3 of this “challenge” from George.

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13 Responses to Reply to George: XIV. Justify Your Love

  1. 1
    KellyK says:

    I see this kind of argument a lot, and it horrifies me. People arguing against SSM state that anyone who wants can get all the rights and responsibilities of marriage by working with a lawyer and filling out multiple pieces of paperwork. And yet, even for people who have all kinds of paperwork, it gets ignored, or some obscure little law renders it invalid. You don’t need a few hours with a lawyer to get all the legal protections of marriage–you need a legal dream team to identify the quintillion pieces of paper you need for everything that comes up. And even if you can afford that, you’re screwed if you move out of state and the rules change.

  2. 2
    RonF says:

    The author cites the Declaration of Independence, thus:

    … certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…

    And then states:

    Worth repeating: to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men. It is not the duty of the citizen to justify his or her rights to the state.

    This is actually a major parting of the ways between our opponents and us. Conservatives, almost by definition, insist the burden of proof is on those who advocate change. But in a free country, shouldn’t the burden be on those who would limit that freedom?

    But you cheated a bit here. You left out an essential part of the DoI citation:

    that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, …

    In for a penny, in for a pound. If you want to hang your hat on the DoI’s assertion of the function of government to help us preserve our rights, then you have to accept the DoI’s assertion of where those rights come from; not from government, but from our Creator. And there’s no way that either the writers of the DoI or conservatives now see the Creator as having created same-sex couples a right to marriage.

  3. 3
    Rob Tisinai says:

    Ron, hard to make that claim when there is no clear consensus on who (or even what) “their Creator” referred to. It’s no accident that the document contains no reference to “Christ our Lord” or “the God of our Fathers.”

    Furthermore, later on when writing the First Amendment, they made it plain that the government is to take no official stance on who or what “their Creator” is.

  4. 4
    Bear says:

    Ron, I don’t think you understand what the Founders were saying with the phrase “endowed by their Creator” . They weren’t appealing to any particular god or deity, which may or may not approve of SSM. Rather, they were placing the endowment of those rights squarely out of reach of any human authority. And the personal beliefs of various religious individuals fall under the designation of human authority.

  5. 5
    chingona says:

    I agree with Bear’s interpretation. And, RonF, do you really want to go in for penny, in for a pound on what rights the founders envisioned? With all that would mean for blacks and women?

  6. 6
    KellyK says:

    Exactly what Bear said. It doesn’t matter what the founders thought about the Creator, since they also enshrined in our Constitution that the state shouldn’t favor one religion over another. And the point here is that the purpose of government is to protect rights, not to regulate things for the state’s benefit.

  7. 7
    AMM says:

    Maybe I missed that part of my Government class in high school, but I don’t recall that in the USA, at least, the State existed for the benefit of the State. I thought it belonged to and existed for the benefit of its citizens. I thought this was one of the radical ideas of the Enlightenment which the US’s Founding Fathers based their own idea of government.

    Now, much of the rest of the world runs its governments on the basis that the citizens exist for the benefit of the State, but isn’t that why so many of those citizens want to move to the USA, imperfect as it is?

  8. 8
    paul says:

    Even if the State exists for the benefit of its citizens rather than the other way around, that just makes you go through a few more logical hoops on the way to the state regulating some behavior of some citizens for the benefit of those citizens and others.

    But that just gets us back to the previous set of questions a little later. It still doesn’t explain why the state should regulate the romantic/life partnerships of people differently depending on their sexes.

    Sometimes I wonder whether people making these kinds of ultimately callous arguments have simply never had any potentially insight-triggering events happen to them, or if they’re completely lacking in empathy.

  9. 9
    Susan says:

    I wonder about them too, paul. The arguments seem so….selfish.

    But I want to pick up a few threads here. First, yes, we properly use the State to regulate behavior only when that behavior impinges on the rights of other people. I fully realize that there are numerous laws which violate this principle, but I further argue that laws like that are improper. This principle is sometimes styled “the right to privacy,” but what it really should be called is a limit to the State’s appropriate authority, on the ground that, here we go again, the State exists for its citizens, not the other way around.

    This, I believe, is what the Founders were getting at when they said that human beings have rights “endowed by the Creator.” This is a deistic way of saying that human beings have, as a matter of philosophy, intrinsic rights, in and of and for themselves, rights which are not granted by the State, nor can they be legitimately abridged by the State. I think most Westerners think this without even questioning it. I think it. It is, at bottom, however, an opinion, and some other societies past and present do not share it. It is impossible to “prove” such a statement one way or the other, but I will assume that the vast majority of people reading my words agree with it.

    Mr. George – he writes so poorly that it’s hard to tell, so this is a guess – seems to be of two minds on this one, specifically, he and the people who agree with him have rights, other people do not. This is by no means an unusual position, but it is not legitimate logically, and it should be contradicted on every instance on which it occurs, in season and out of season.

    I once challenged a group of right-wingers to debate me, on-line, on the question of SSM. (I am a 66 year old married straight woman; I don’t have a horse in this race.) I really did want to hear arguments on the other side, but as in this case, all I got was mush. (“[Straight] men will no longer have romantic feelings for women” if same sex marriage is legalized. Huh?)

    My daughter has an interesting hypothesis, which I put forward here for the group’s consideration. She thinks the whole controversy, when you boil it down, comes to feminism. Here’s the reasoning: in the traditional thinking, there was the husband, who was in charge, and there was the wife, who submitted. This seems nice and orderly. But if we have two people of the same gender married, who’s the boss and who’s the underdog??? Can’t tell! Horrible! Ban it! Before you know it, even straight married women will declare that they are the equals of their husbands!!!

    Mr. George’s writing and (you should excuse the expression) “reasoning” are so poor that I am about to wonder why we are spending any time on him at all.

  10. 10
    Jake Squid says:

    Yeah, Susan, I agree with your daughter. A large part of the argument is over whether or not there should be rigidly defined gender roles. It isn’t everything the disagreement is about, but you can see it clearly holds an important position.

  11. 11
    Elusis says:

    Michelle Bachmann says that gay families aren’t families. http://bit.ly/qurDcX

    So that’s classy.

  12. 12
    paul says:

    Susan, I agree also. When these people say that same-sex marriage contributes to the destruction of marriage-the-institution, that’s exactly what they’re talking about, and they’re right. Just as with every marriage between opposite-sex equals, same-sex marriages will make it that much harder for patriarchal men to believe they can beat up their wives or children without anyone else having something to say about it, will make it that much harder to indoctrinate young girls into the idea that they’re only good for making and taking care of babies, will make the idea that the romantic relationship between husband and wife is merely an imperfect metaphor for the Church’s role as Bride of Christ that much more risible.

    But you know something: if the idea that queer people can get married makes you love your own spouse less, that’s not a problem that has to do with queer people getting married.

  13. 13
    Susan says:

    will make the idea that the romantic relationship between husband and wife is merely an imperfect metaphor for the Church’s role as Bride of Christ that much more risible.

    Let me pipe up here and say that if you read the passage you allude to all the way through (first juridical postulate: read on) you will find that to make this metaphor work the husband has to be willing, nay eager, to sacrifice himself, even to a horrible death, to protect his wife. (Or if you want to re-cast this, that either party in a good marriage should be eager to go to any lengths, even to their own disadvantage, to protect their partner.)

    Funny how the wife-beaters don’t get to that part.