Defining Marriage

You probably know the arguments opponents to marriage equality bring up again and again: some say gay marriage should be illegal because homosexual couples cannot bear children, but of course, they now can through in vitro fertilization and artificial insemination. They can also adopt, or (gasp!) not have any children. Also, according to this line of reasoning, we should of course outlaw marriage of a couple in which the man has been castrated, the women have passed menopause, or either party is otherwise infertile, right? Another, more sinister claim is that gay couples cannot rear children effectively, but this has actually been proven pretty much false.


Clearly, these arguments are quite ridiculous. But, surprisingly, there is actually a sound, rational argument against gay marriage. Dinesh D’Souza, a conservative Republican Christian, writes that “state legislatures, drawing on tradition and appealing to the values of their constituents, have defined marriage in a very particular way”. He lays down the following list of features to define a marriage:

1. Marriage is between people

2. Marriage partners are of legal age

3. Marriage involves two partners

4. Marriage partners cannot be too closely related

5. Marriage is between a man and a woman

D’Souza argues that it is irrational to support the removal of one of the criteria while leaving the rest intact. The point is actually a good one; after all, if we look at the criteria presented, we can see they are all quite integral to the definition of marriage, right?

Some of these rules are quite vital to the institution of marriage. D’Souza writes that marriage must only involve humans, he claims that otherwise, men will want to marry their dogs. While D’Souza is joking, he actually touches at a central issue here, the issue of consent. While animals will likely never be able to give their consent to a marriage, if we came into contact with intelligent aliens whom we could understand and communicate with, there would really be no reason we shouldn’t be allowed to marry them. I mean, marrying aliens has got to be pretty awesome, right?


Consent also underscores the necessity for feature #2 . If two five year olds wanted to get married, they wouldn’t understand what they were getting into. They couldn’t truly consent, from an intellectual standpoint as well as a legal one. We have to set the bar somewhere, and so it’s currently at 18. Really, at whatever age we recognize two people as being fully-fledged citizens of society is the age at which they should be legally allowed to marry. Luckily, young people do typically tend to grow out of this restriction, so it’s not a big deal.

But what about the rest of the “defining” features of marriage? What exactly is wrong with incest and polygamy?

These are both intensely fascinating issues. For example, one of the key problems with polygamy is that it often leads to the abuse of young girls. A polygamous farm in our backyard housed 468 children. Unfortunately, many of the young girls there had entered into the marriages of some of the older men. Again, however, the key problem here is that of age and consent; these girls were too young to enter into marriage contracts and were likely manipulated. However, apart from this rather large blip, the rest of the children on the farm were doing quite well. Just as people mistakenly assume gay couples can’t raise children well, many also assume that polygamous households must have a terrible effect on children. It’s a knee-jerk reaction to a strange and misunderstood practice. If polygamy is regulated and conducted between adults, there is no reason to think the children of their union would be any worse off.

Another issue with polygamy is that of marriage rights. In current polygamous marriages in the United States (and there are estimated to be over 100,000 people living in polyamorous households in our county, though some place that figure much higher), the key problem is that there is one legal wife, while the rest of the members of the marriage are “spiritual” wives, who get none of the benefits of the other members of the legal couple. Like the problem of the abuse of underage girls in polygamous marriages, the distribution of marriage rights can also be solved by making polygamy legal, because then all members of the marriage would be legally recognized.

In addition, polygamy is thought to disparage women, but they know what they’re getting into beforehand. After all, it’s not as though members of straight marriages don’t think it through. A final issue with polygamy is that it’ll screw up our ratio of single men to single women. A one to one ratio is optimal for society, and giving sex gods the ability to have multiple wives will surely screw that up for the rest of us. Clearly, a society with an overly large proportion of single men is going to be in for some trouble, but would that actually happen? This is similar to the procreation objection to homosexuality. Sure, if all the men in the world married one another, we’d have a  problem, but we know from the numbers that this wouldn’t happen.

Now, there are cases of kings taking dozens of wives, but for non-royalty, the average number of extra wives (or extra husbands) taken up would likely be very small. We can in fact examine what has happened in nations that allow polygamy. India allows Muslims to be polygamous, yet under 6% of the Muslim population are involved in polygamous relationships. India actually is facing a gender ratio problem, but that is more a product of infanticide than polygamy.  So really, polygamy doesn’t seem to be all that bad, and judging by the amount of cheating that generally occurs in relationships, it may actually be a more comfortable situation for some currently monogamous people.

Even more controversial than polygamy is incest. Virtually every major religion and culture shuns this practice, and most holy books condemn it. Meanwhile, this phenomenon exists as well. God, talk about mixed signals.

(As an interesting side note, the Hindu objection to incest was so strong that they developed an elaborate system of gotras in an effort to ensure that incestuous marriages were avoided as far as seven generations down the road.)

The only real objection to incest between consenting adults is that of inbreeding. The claim is true; close relatives are more at risk to produce children with birth defects. However, is this really a reason to take away their right to wed?  We’ve already established that bearing children should not be a criteria by which whether or not people are afforded the right to marry. In addition, there are alternative procedures to produce children for the educated and wealthy incestuous couple. Furthermore, there are a whole host of factors that increase the risk of birth defects in children. People who have genetic disorders are more likely to pass their disorders on to their kids. Women over the age of 35 are more likely to produce children with Down Syndrome. Women who take drugs, alcohol, or medications while pregnant are more likely to have kids with birth defects. Heck, even the children of two white people or two black people are more likely to develop certain diseases!

Yet all of these groups are allowed to marry and have children. So why shouldn’t incestuous couples be afforded the same privilege? Restricting rights and prohibiting procreation on the grounds of “inferior” genes is not a path we want to go down again.

There are a handful of smaller objections to this practice, but they are as silly as the ones raised against gay marriage. According to most, incest (and homosexuality, and polygamy) is “unnatural”, but so are elevators, cars, air conditioning, showers, toilets, cell phones, and beds. People may also fear the repercussions of widespread incest.  And like polygamy, it’s not likely to become very popular because, well, Darwin.

In the end, there really aren’t any good reasons to oppose gay marriage, polygamous marriage, and incestuous marriage.  If the parties involved are consenting adults, then they should have the right to marry. It’s okay if you don’t like these practices. I don’t like them all that much either. But that is completely distinct from the question of whether these activities should be lawful or not, and our feelings shouldn’t weigh on the facts.


We’ve come a long way now, and so I thought we’d wrap up by revisiting the defining features of marriage laid out by Mr. D’Souza:

1. Marriage is between people

2. Marriage partners are of legal age

3. Marriage involves two partners

4. Marriage partners cannot be too closely related

5. Marriage is between a man and a woman

6. Marriage is between two people of the same race

7. Marriage partners cannot use contraception

8. Marriage partners can own property only in the name of the husband

9. Married couples cannot have abortions without the consent of the husband

10. Married couples must engage in an exchange in which the wife’s family pays the groom’s family in cash or gifts

…Wait a minute! Some of those weren’t there before! What’s with all these rules destroying the sanctity of our traditional marriages!? ….Ohh, so you’re saying that some of these features were removed, one at a time, from the legal definition of marriage? And then what happened?….Nothing? Marriage wasn’t ruined for everyone else?

Hmm, I guess it’s time to get with the times…

2 thoughts on “Defining Marriage

  1. Pingback: Who Reviews Judicial Review? | Chirag's Blog

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