[Justice Samuel Alito] went on to ask why, if
marriage were a fundamental right, four people —
“let’s say they’re all consenting adults,
highly educated. They’re all lawyers” —
could be denied the right to marry and form a single union.
— Jeffrey Rosen, Yahoo News
We should take seriously what Amy Davidson has called "Justice Alito's Polygamy Perplex" and the possibility that the legalization of gay marriage in the USA and elsewhere will be what's facetiously called the thin edge of the camel's nose heading down the slippery slope … in this case a slope leading to a reexamination of not only marriage under the law but also new thinking about family formation.
Good God, I hope so! I hope we slide down that slope with literally "all deliberate speed" — in the old sense, before that line became a sick joke with resistance to desegregation.
Jeffrey Rosen tells us that "[…] Justice Kennedy has insisted that laws disadvantaging gays and lesbians violate their dignity and their constitutional rights to liberty and equality," and Justice Kennedy is correct. What I'm interested in, though, includes the disadvantaging of gays by their not being able to take advantage of the crasser advantages of marriage.
I'm an unmarried/never-married guy with some background in history and ecology, and I understand that marriage has long functioned and functioned well for what is known as "natalism" or "pronatalism," the encouragement of the production and raising of children for the security of the State (see Exodus 1.8 f.) and prosperity of society: "People are the riches of a nation." But some time after Earth's human population hit three billion, pronatalist theory became pretty problematic ecologically, and military engagements throwing mass armies at one another haven't worked out that well from, say, the Napoleonic Wars through the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-89. And with a current human population of over seven billion and rising rapidly, with a significant number of countries with nuclear weapons for serious warfare, with climate change offering significant challenges and nonrenewable resources increasingly not renewed — let's say that nowadays natalism as public policy is a bad idea.
So non-reproductive unions can be in themselves a good idea.
Non-reproductive marriages where the couple adopts are an even better idea.
It could also be a good idea to have reproductive and family-raising units of more than two consenting adults.
The nuclear family has been a pretty popular way to manage marriage and child-rearing, but it has hardly been the only way; and the sort of rigorously nuclear family that's the dominant ideal in America nowadays — Mom, Dad, kid(s) — is a relatively new invention. Until recently, many children grew up in households, with a grandparent or two around (if they lived that long), and in the house or fairly close by, there were relatives, friends, and often a servant or, for the rich, a staff.
Indeed, I'm not that ancient, and I grew up in a functioning neighborhood in Chicago where there were significant adults in my life beyond my parents, and who helped raise me.
Anthropologists and science fiction writers have documented (anthropologists) or imagined (fiction writers) complex ways for getting children a good deal of adult attention in a manner that offers a range of models somewhat beyond Mom and Dad and without, as in the nuclear option, exhausting Mom and Dad — especially Mom — and often driving them, and the kids, up the wall.
There are alternatives: "line marriage" is suggested in at least four novels by Robert A. Heinlein, and various forms of threesomes are suggested in novels such as Samuel R. Delany's Babel-17 and Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time. And Ursula K. Le Guin, author of much anthropological science fiction, has a good deal of fun with the anthropologically baroque family life on her planet O, where the people are divided into two pretty much arbitrary "moieties" — halves — and "Marriage […] is a foursome, the sedoretu — a man and a woman from the Morning moiety and a man and a woman from the Evening moiety. You’re expected to have sex with both your spouses of the other moiety, and not to have sex with your spouse of your own moiety. So each sedoretu has two expected heterosexual relationships, two expected homosexual relationships, and two forbidden heterosexual relationships." Le Guin concludes her explanation drily with "It’s just as complicated as it sounds, but aren’t most marriages?"
What Justice Alito sees as a possible reduction to the absurd of the logic of gay marriage might turn out a good idea for variations on the theme of marriage.
Among other things the debate on gay marriage should encourage consideration of alternatives to the nuclear family, and the debate should combine that consideration of examination of real conflicts on marriage and, well, money. We need to debate vigorously the crasser advantages of marriage in tax breaks for married couples as such and tax deductions for children, even as those children are eligible for public support: for a major example, public schools.
I'm a former teacher and was raised a Chicago liberal; and I believe with all my heart in well-funded public education such as I got. I support downright generous public funding of schools and childcare and preschools, plus generous tax breaks for the first child and for adopted children. And for the second child for a couple, and maybe a third, in case, as my mother would've said, "In case, God forbid, something bad happens." Beyond that third kid, however, we need to talk.
In a world of seven billion people, should couples get tax breaks for exceeding a sensible bag limit for children?
Gay couples not reproducing are moving in the right direction. Gay couples adopting, are doing even better.
And a reproducing foursome that wants a third biological kid — well that's good, too.
From the Old Stone Age into the middle of the 20th century, encouraging families was an excellent idea. It can still be a good idea, but we must expand the definition of family to include various combinations of consenting adults and, sometimes, their kids. And we must get down to wonkish details about tax codes and crass discussions of advantages for families in terms of money.
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