Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Marriage for gay people and magic horses

I've been talking with a bunch of conservative friends about gay marriage. Some of them claim that it's part of the meaning of "marriage" that only people of different genders can get married. I think that "marriage" is a family-resemblance term, and that a difference of gender between the participants is not necessary. It's one among many things that cause us to call something "marriage", but something can still be a marriage without it. As Justin and Brandon might recall (but probably don't) from our discussion about concepts a year and a half ago, I like to give cluster-theory accounts of just about every descriptive term as a way of saving analyticity and the classical view of concepts.

It's a very strong claim that gay marriage opponents are making here. If being of two different genders is an essential part of the meaning of marriage, then "gay marriage" is like "round square" -- something logically impossible and unimaginable. I hold that "gay marriage" is more like "flying pig" or to use David Lewis' example, "talking donkey." We can imagine these things, even if the latter term ("pig", "donkey") would usually predispose to expect that the former term ("flying", "talking") won't be present. I can easily imagine two people of the same gender getting married. (By the way, I wouldn't bet against the ability of biologists a thousand years in the future to generate actual flying pigs and talking donkeys.)

Let me list some other things that contribute to something's being a marriage. None of these are necessary or sufficient conditions, but they do contribute to something's being a marriage:
-Being, or having been, in love.
-A commitment to having sex with only your spouse for the rest of your life.
-There being a big ceremony intended to initiate and celebrate this commitment.
-Living together, or wishing you could if circumstances prevent it.
-Having sex with your spouse, or having done so on a regular basis.
-Raising children together (which gay people can do, given adoption or artificial insemination).
-The application of some legal stuff to you (about the inheritance of property, health benefits, taxation, recognition of what you're doing as "marriage", etc.)
-Some externalist elements -- whatever marriage is, it's what my mom and dad and various other couples I know are involved in.

To see how flexible the concept of marriage is, consider this ancient Chinese folk tale about the origins of silk, which involves the possibility of inter-species (though heterosexual) marriage:

Legend has it that once there lived a father with his daughter, they had a magic horse, which could not only fly in the sky but also understand human language. One day, the father went out on business and did not come back for quite some time. The daughter made him a promise: If the horse could find her father, she would marry him. Finally her father came back with the horse, but he was shocked at his daughter's promise.

Unwilling to let his daughter marry a horse, he killed the innocent horse. And then a miracle happened! The horse's skin carried the girl flying away. They flew and flew, at last, they stopped on a tree, and the moment the girl touched the tree, she turned into a silkworm. Everyday, she spit long and thin silks. The silks just represented her feeling of missing him.

1 comment:

Justin said...

I never got around to that 2nd post on Kripkenstein, largely b/c I pretty much agreed on reflection with what you said there. As for your present posting...

Lewis has a line somewhere that goes something like this: "Like any up to date philosopher of the 1950s, I believe in the cluster theory of concepts." I thought you would apprerciate it.

Incidentally, I don't think what you hold is properly called a version of the classical view of concepts. It's probably more like a probabilistic or prototype theory, depending on how your details get spelled out.

I will report that my own intuition that gay marriage is possible (i.e., that something is possible which could properly be called gay marriage) is awfully firm. Suppose we learned that 100 years from now, laws were rewritten so that all employees were regarded as "married" to their employers. Nothing substantive about the employee/employer relationship changes -- it's not that employees and employers live together (in general) or have children together (in general) or anything else along those lines. It's just that people use the word "married" for the employee/employer relation. Then it would be pretty clear that people in the future have changed the meaning of "marriage". Gay marriage seems to me to be nothing like this.

My own linguistic intuitions go much further than this, in fact. I don't think any of these are conceptually impossible: fathers who marry their daughters, brothers who marry their sisters, 1st cousins who marry, men who marry 8 wives (so, say, a mormon who's married 8 times over), 8 people who married together (so, say, some other type of religious group where 8 people come together for 1 joint marriage), infants who are married (suppose that some culture married their infants to one another rather than set up pre-arranged marriages), etc. I have pretty firm intuitions that each of these is possible. Of course, that's not to say that each of these relations is unobjectionable -- it may be that certain types of marriage should not be allowed. But the definitional argument against gay marriage seems pretty uncompelling to me.