Leal, On Gay Marriage (Review)

Leal, Dave, On Gay Marriage (Cambridge: Grove Books, 2014) pp. 27 
 ISBN: 978-1-85174-906-5

This is a booklet rather than a book, part of the Grove Ethics series (E174). Dave Leal teaches at Oxford in the Philosophy, and Theology and Religion departments. Written in 2014 soon after the passage of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, it deals with and alludes to issues more familiar with the British context than I am. The brief format of the series means that it is quite compressed in style, as Leal includes more ideas in the work than he can clearly explain—though that is very possibly more my shortcoming than his.

The booklet is divided, after a one page introduction, into three chapters of roughly equal length. The first is entitled “Gay,” the second “Marriage,” and the third “Gay Marriage.” The first chapter opens with the apparently controversial statement that “Christians can live without gay.” He quickly proceeds, however, to an equivalent statement that “Christians can live without straight.” It is the practice of mapping human being according to various purported sexualities that he finds problematic. Leal explores the connection between “sexuality” and identity, and indeed challenges the reality and relevance of the notion of “sexuality” at all, understood in terms of identifying or labelling either oneself or others according to sexual preferences or practices as though these are part of a person’s “essence.” A Christian perspective on identity, he suggests, must be grounded primarily in our fundamental relation to God, in the light of which all other identity commitments are provisional.

The second chapter plumbs the meaning of marriage, which Leal intentionally de-centres as a primary mode, at least of Christian life. The focus of the chapter is much more on legal questions with metaphysical questions concerning the nature of marriage bracketed. The reason for this is that marriage takes and has taken different forms in different cultures and historical periods; there appears to be no “essence” of marriage accessible to public reason, although it is true that different groups have what John Rawls has termed a “reasonable comprehensive doctrine” of marriage. Thus multiple legal patterns of marriage have emerged in different jurisdictions. This is not to say that marriage across jurisdictions does not share some central ideals, and Leal identifies three as primary—sexual exclusivity, permanence, and consent. Noting these features, Leal suggests that the “goods” of marriage might be articulated in terms amenable to public reason and the “human good,” as a guide to those responsible for drafting legislation, that it serve this human good. An important issue addressed in this chapter asks whether marriage is simply a cultural-legal matter which may change in accordance with social and cultural shifts. Does marriage “evolve,” as suggested by one minister in the British parliament? Leal comments:

It is certainly a matter of historical fact that once there was Marriage [according to the Marriage Act 1754], and later there was Marriage [according to the Marriage Act 1949], but this does not suggest that marriage evolves. Perhaps all the Culture Secretary meant was that we change our minds about what we mean by marriage, which would not, of course, be a comment about marriage at all (16).

Perhaps metaphysical questions about the nature of marriage cannot be bracketed after all.

Having laid the foundations of his discussion in the first two chapters, Leal now asks, What, then, of gay marriage? and asserts that, “Christians have no reason to expect marriage laws accurately to reproduce their own conception of marriage” (18). Leal is no doubt correct in this assertion, particularly given the secular, liberal-democratic context in which he writes—a context shared by Australia.

However, he is unprepared to leave it at that, and offers arguments to suggest that changing marriage laws to affirm same-sex marriage may not be a good idea. He argues, on the basis of consequences deriving from liberalisation of divorce laws, that it is simply not the case that liberalising marriage laws to include gay couples will have no real impact on heterosexual marriage—or marriage itself. Further, marriage was never conceived as a form of relationship for heterosexuals in any case; “Who, after all, believed in heterosexuality before the nineteenth century?” (19). Marriage, as a form of human relation, pre-exists any human laws regulating it, and arguably, any religious development as well.

Marriage was traditionally conceived as a form of relationship binding male and female, accepting the biological relation between the two, along with the form of natural sexual reproduction of humans, as a reality to which marriage corresponds. This conception may arise from a religious perspective . . . or it may simply be rooted in a sense of respect for the natural, without any additional religious dimension. This appeared to be the main conviction of those who identified themselves as homosexual but opposed changes to permit same-sex marriage. Those who opposed the introduction of same-sex marriage did not principally see marriage as answering to the particular appetites and identities of types of people (19).

This concern with creaturely reality, especially with respect to procreation and childcare (though this is a point not developed by Leal), suggests that marriage itself is something, that it is grounded in the nature of how things are, and thus not simply “what we say it is,” or the mere creation of legislation.

“Marriage is what we say it is” would separate marriage from that conception of human reality it has traditionally been seen to belong to. If that conception of reality is deemed to belong to a comprehensive doctrine not defensible in public reason—or dismissed as merely the present mood of past centuries—it is not at all clear that the alternative conceptions of reality, such as the sexuality map . . . are in fact any more publicly defensible. The result looks unlike discernment, and more like the choice of a different doctrine, the triumph of a different partiality. The loss, then, is perhaps precisely that of tradition, and if that is indeed lost, to be replaced by mere legislative contingencies, the harm done to marriages by that move remains to be seen. There were never any winners here though. If a stated aim was to open up marriage to same-sex couples, but in doing so marriage necessarily lost its original meaning, we may wonder whether anyone has made a significant gain (20).

One may guess that the long-term effect of the recent changes to marriage will be to reinforce the conception of it as a creature of the legislator’s and participant’s wills, and therefore make it more fragile as a social institution, and more readily rejected, with unfortunate consequences for those that the institution might be concerned to protect (24).

This is a thoughtful essay attempting, successfully for the most part, to contribute a reasoned argument in non-sectarian terms to an issue fraught with tension in the public sphere. Leal includes many more ideas than could be expansively developed in the format of this series, but what he has developed is worth careful consideration.

4 thoughts on “Leal, On Gay Marriage (Review)

  1. The arguments in this post strike me as rather intellectually lazy.

    1) Marriage has not always been defined in terms of permanence, sexual exclusivity, or even consent. Any historian will tell you that. Take a look at the Mosuo culture, which practices “walking marriages” – men and women participate in polyamorous relationships, and children are brought up by an extended family (consisting of aunts and uncles or grandparents) instead of by a husband-wife unit. These familial and sexual arrangements are neither sexually exclusive or permanent. In many Middle Eastern and even contemporary South Asian societies, anthropologists document that one legal remedy to the rape of a woman is that the rapist marry her. So, marriage does not always entail meaningful consent either. I think if you were intellectually honest, you’d be prepared to live with the fact that marriages across time and across cultures have demonstrated great diversity and don’t simply hew to any one particular ideal or vision. Marriages spring from the cultures that produce them, so they are as diverse as the cultures underlying them.

    2) Arguments lose force when they are overly abstract, and yours (or, rather, Leal’s) don’t rely on any empirical details for substantiation. When you say that marriage “is grounded in the nature of how things are” – what exactly do you mean? Try explaining it instead of resorting to high-falutin abstractions. Is how things have always been that 80% of pre-modern societies practice some form of polygamy? Is how things “are” the fact that in almost every pre-modern culture, women did not have access to economic and social rights (e.g. over property, or initiation of divorce) on the same terms as men? At the very least, be honest that you don’t want to keep a good deal of what marriage has always “been like” – you, like many Christians, detest many aspects of pre-modern marriage. Don’t pretend to idolize some pre-statist, Golden-Age marriages. They don’t exist.

    All in all, an astoundingly poorly researched, ahistorical, overly abstract post that could use a good bit more thought and research. Graded F.

    1. Hello Maiso,
      Thanks for visiting. It is quite true, as you say, that marriage has existed in many different forms over the centuries and across cultures. But the post does acknowledge that: “The focus of the chapter is much more on legal questions with metaphysical questions concerning the nature of marriage bracketed. The reason for this is that marriage takes and has taken different forms in different cultures and historical periods.”

      It is also true that Leal’s work was brief: an essay. It does contain more than I could include in a review, and is quite focussed on its major point, and adduces evidence for those points – including discussion of aspects of British law around the recent same sex marriage act, and philosophical reflection. For the focus of the essay, it had good lines of reason and evidence. I commend it to you.

      And yes, you are quite right that I (as a Christian) would oppose certain aspects of pre-modern marriage – and not just marriage. However, I do not idolise some “pre-statist, Golden-Age marriages,” as you suggest. Actually, neither Leal nor I in that post, were trying to elucidate Christian arguments, but to ask concerning what the human and social “goods” of marriage might be.

      And thanks for grading my work. I do appreciate good readers.

  2. You did not answer the central question of my post: When you say that marriage “is grounded in the nature of how things are” – what exactly do you mean?

    The reason that as many as 80% of pre-modern societies practiced some form of polygamy/polyamory surely derives from the fact that monogamous marriages are profoundly unnatural. That reason, surely, is why so many heterosexual marriages are plagued by infidelity. Wouldn’t a more “natural” state of being acknowledge human sexual appetities and the desire for multiple sexual partners? Maybe you – as a Christian – don’t think that’s good. But surely that’s more “natural”? No?

    If the point of your post was to elucidate the human and social goods of marriage, attempting to derive some pre-statist notion of what marriages “are” (whatever that means) seems like a strange way to do so. If your goal is to articulate the types of goods that marriages can contribute to, why does it matter what it was in the past? Especially when the past gives us such horrific examples of failures? Unilateral divorces in Muslim societies where men could initiate divorce, but not women? Child marriages in the Ancient Near East where heterosexual men married girls so young that it would in modern days be considered pedophilia? Really? So here’s a second question that hopefully won’t go unanswered: Why is “discovering” what marriage really “was” in the past (if, in fact, there was ever such a thing) so important if proposing some vision of the goods accomplished by modern marriage is your stated goal? It just does not make sense.

    Finally, what does the liberalization of divorce laws have anything to do with same-sex marriage? I think you should admit the whole “I’m looking for non-Christian, non-sectarian arguments against gay marriage” shtick is just plain hypocritical, because no amount of empirical evidence or reasoning will change your mind, no? As a Christian, you would not accept same-sex marriage regardless of any evidence or argumentation to the contrary. The Word of God is supreme. So why the pretense that any of this argumentation could possibly change your mind, or those of your ilk, unlike with, say, agnostics or atheists who come to the debate being genuinely open to persuasion?

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