Contrary to popular belief, the debate over “marriage equality” — i.e., admitting that same-sex unions can be tantamount to marital unions — is not about securing equal rights for all. This language, after all, is so often thrown around, in houses of legislature as well as in our own living rooms. But it’s a misnomer; and it’s caused no small amount of confusion.
That people have a “right” to marry is, at bottom, a fuzzy notion. It’s fuzzy precisely because the term “right” is fuzzy. To many, rights are those claims we have on things that seem good to us: for example, shelter, food, and liberty — and even on more abstract things like the ability to vote. “I have a right to my opinion,” some say. “I have a right to do and say what makes me happy.”
Of course, at some point we’d all agree that rights to personal happiness fall apart. If what makes me happy is killing my neighbor, that’s not protected under my rights; and no one would disagree.
What sets apart right-protected actions from non-right-protected actions is often left out of the question. But it’s an important factor in determining where my rights end, and where someone else’s begin.
To think this way, we have to introduce a criterion for parsing the idea of “rights.” And that criterion is nothing other than goodness.
In the case of my wanting to kill my neighbor, there’s an obvious good that’s impeded in my carrying out the action: i.e., my neighbor loses his life. He’s got a right to that, no doubt. And when I infringe on his ability to secure that right, my action is no longer defensible by the same standard. In short — in a just society — two rights can’t contradict one another. Otherwise, justice is reduced merely to the will and desires of the stronger.
At bottom, then, in order to claim a right to some thing or action, that thing or action must be genuinely good, and must not contravene the goodness due to another member, or many other members of society.
When it comes to “marriage equality,” arguments from “equal protection under law” don’t hold water precisely because they presume that a right (i.e., to marriage) is being withheld when in fact it is not. Quite simply, there is nothing genuinely good about non-conjugal unions being named “marriages.” Marriage — historically — is a name reserved for a union between a man and a woman; and its character and meaning entails precisely that: the possibility for conjugal union. Calling a same-sex, non-conjugal union “marriage” is equivalent to naming a friendship between two young girls “parenthood.” Some similarities are present, sure — two people in relation to one another. But in each case, a critical, defining aspect is missing.
Nor do the rights of heterosexual couples to marry infringe or impede upon the rights of same-sex couples to marry, since the latter is impossible to begin with.
No doubt, advocates of same-sex marriage use “equal rights” language because it has a proven track record historically — for instance, in establishing the equality of black Americans with their white counterparts. In this case, a genuine good was being withheld from blacks that they had a claim on — namely, the goodness of enjoying, as human persons, the same treatment, evaluation, and liberties as other persons. “Equal protection under law” applied.
But in the case of gay marriage, no goodness is being denied the couples in question. And the actions of outsiders don’t infringe on any pre-possessed right. Same-sex couples simply aspire to an institution — and a type of relationship — that they cannot participate in (with one another). Arguments from “equal protection” are, on these grounds, baseless, since there is simply nothing equal about the romantic relationship between a man and a woman and the romantic relationship between two men or two women.