Monday, March 25, 2013

Morals, Ethics and the Definition of Marriage

Traditional marriage, which was supported by a majority of Californians, is contested and on March 26, 2013 will be taken up by the Supreme Court. This essay was written in 2008 by Michele Coldiron, the executive director of the California Catholic Women's Forum, in anticipation of the vote on Proposition 8. It has been slightly edited to make it more timely and is an account of some of her thoughts on the matter. We reprint the article here in order to contribute to the discussion and our prayers go with the legal team that will be presenting the case:


This essay explores the concept of marriage at a fundamental level - one that looks at the nature of the human person and the good that it will provide. It explores natural law as the basis of marriage: historically, ethically and through the definition of marriage as the unitive and procreative gift of self to the spouse.


The title of Prop. 8, Eliminates Rights of Same-Sex Couples to Marry. Initiative Constitutional Amendment, includes the words "right" and "marry". 

Marriage. Its definition is the subject of this essay. 
Right. A right is a "moral or legal entitlement to have or obtain something or to act in a certain way. That right is defined as morally just and honorable" (Oxford American Dictionary, OAD). A moral is "concerned with the goodness and badness of human behavior ...The principles of right and wrong" (OAD). Thus there are two ways in which to define the word right.

1. A right may be defined as the outcome of behaving in a moral way. Morals are based on a religious code – a Truth – and the rights emanating from them are definitive.

  1. Because morals cannot exist without a religious, natural or legal foundation for defining a common good, in a "tolerant" society—meaning the absence of religion or denial of natural law—a code of ethics substitutes for the moral framework. In the modern European model, for example, the collective consciousness of the citizens exercised through the vote is supposed to buffer the political excesses on either side of the spectrum. The "common good" is achieved through competing interests vying for a majority and the opportunity to implement that vision of the world. There is no foundation of "truth". 

Here we get to the crux of the question. In the paradigm of a society with no religious foundation and an ethical code with no good or evil (moral relativism) it is possible to start from the premise that same-sex couples have a "right" to marry, for rights are malleable and contingent on the wants of the most people, and are ever capable of modification as well. Same-sex marriage was codified in California because some people in the judicial system, based on their way of seeing the world, decided so, and the constitutional amendment that was voted on in November, 2008 was a stand off between a moral worldview and a morally relativistic worldview, each of which produces different outcomes. One has history and the common good on its side, the other unrestrained individual freedom. The state of California, by the way, already extends legal protection to same-sex unions, though not encompassed in the definition of marriage. 

The issue should also be explored at a deeper, more fundamental level - one that looks at the nature of the human person.

Marriage In History

Considering marriage through history and various cultures, one notices that man and woman naturally tend to come together in a specific way, the ultimate purpose being perpetuation of the species. 
Man plus woman = baby. 
This is self-sustaining. Without the attraction between male and female and the resultant unity in the sexual act, there would very quickly cease to be a human species. Because of this, throughout history humans have attempted to make their surroundings as safe as possible in order to more easily raise children. As these groups of individuals grew into communities, they codified laws to support the union of adults and the protection of the resultant offspring. This natural tendency occurred in many, varied cultures and is a reflection of the moral state known as the natural law.

Natural Law

Just as there are physical laws that govern the universe there are natural laws that constrain us morally. When we follow these laws we prosper and are happy. When we neglect these laws we are at best uneasy. When we defy them we get hurt. Natural law is the bedrock of an understanding of the human condition. There are for instance laws in physics, in mathematics, and there are moral laws.
These laws constitute the truth. They are not arbitrary and it is possible and desirable to know them. One need not refer to God in order to do so either. The search for truth in the physical world is what scientists do. The search for truth in the moral world is what philosophers do.

If you jump off a cliff in an attempt to defy gravity and break your neck, so too if you try to twist the meaning of marriage in order to satisfy your wants, you will get hurt. This is not to say that we don't err and foul up our relationships all the time, for we are only human. It is not the 'what is', but the 'what should be'. When we redefine natural laws we are creating a new category of 'what should be'. If you don't believe in God, that is okay. The rules still apply. An airplane will fly whether or not you believe it can. It is possible and desirable to know these laws which constitute natural truth. The search for truth is the most important purpose in life.

In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis shows how detrimental divorcing civil life from natural law is. Lewis states that natural law is the source of value judgments. Historically, the concept "common good" is based in natural law. Outside a civil society rooted in the concept of natural law the only phrase that remains operable is "I want". How do we know which wants are good and which are bad without recourse to a values system? When a series of "I wants" clash, it is the most powerful "want" that wins and the progression up the ladder of stronger and more ruthless clashes ensue until a totalitarian society of domination results. This is Nietzsche's "will to power" and can only be accepted when we scrap traditional morals. Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote in the 18th C, The Social Contract, no. 8, "Man must be forced to be free" if his individual will goes against the common law created by the collective citizenry. The result of that particular contract was the French Revolution and subsequent tyranny. Tyranny is the de facto endpoint of any society not rooted in truth. The 20th century has given us plenty of experience dealing with ideologies not based in natural law. Nazism and Communism are examples.

Ethical Issues

Marriage sustains itself as a natural institution with minimal assistance from the state. Same-sex marriage, however, cannot exist on its own without intervention from the state. It is not a natural, self-sustaining institution. Jennifer Roback Morse gives an interesting discussion of this in her article Same-Sex "Marriage" and the Persecution of Civil Society, June 3, 2008.

Marriage has two aspects, the unitive and the procreative. Same sex marriage denies the unitive, complementary aspect of marriage and the procreative function of marriage is ruptured as well. The basic unit of society, the family, is also corrupted, as homosexual acts are closed to life. Channeling towards a good that is naturally sustaining is right. Channeling towards a situation that disrupts the natural order of things is destructive. Because of this, same-sex marriage will eventually destroy society.

Many ethical issues of today, from the use of embryonic stem cells for scientific research to abortion, come from a code of ethics with no solid foundation in truth.  Allowing homosexual couples a state sanctioned marriage will necessarily demand more use of reproductive technologies. Already they leave us in dilemmas such as the increasing possibility of siblings unknown to each other getting married and putting the gene pool at risk. How soon will it be before genetic testing is required for couples seeking a marriage license in order to protect the common good? What about frozen embryos that end up in the middle of "property" disputes in divorce cases? Will any child be able to assume that though they have not been adopted, they are the biological child of their parents? These are among the consequences of altering the natural definition of marriage. 

Stakes in this Debate

The stakes in the Proposition 8 debate are high, for reasons outlined above, as it is a continuation of the erosion of this moral framework. It is our duty not to go down the road of reinventing marriage, but to defend it. If we do not the result will be the slow breakdown of civil society as one standard after another falls, all of them based in natural law. But it will more importantly result in the distancing of ourselves from the true goal, the ability to do good for each individual.

Finally, ponder Pope Benedict XVI speaking to young people in Yonkers, New York, April 19, 2008: 
"Have you noticed how often the call for freedom is made without ever referring to the truth of the human person? Some today argue that respect for freedom of the individual makes it wrong to seek truth, including the truth about what is good. . And in truth's place – or better said its absence – an idea has spread which, in giving value to everything indiscriminately, claims to assure freedom and to liberate conscience. This we call relativism. But what purpose has a 'freedom' which, in disregarding truth, pursues what is false or wrong. . Dear friends, truth is not an imposition. Nor is it simply a set of rules . . . That is why authentic freedom is not opting out. It is an opting in."

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