For as long as I have debated topics of grave social concern, a particular sort of argument has been insouciantly tossed about by those who just want the conversation to end. It frequently takes the following form: “How will legalizing X harm me? I’m not being forced to do X. I’ll just keep on doing what I’m doing. Therefore I support the legalization of X.”
Ms. A might argue, for example, that the legalization of abortion does not harm her. Of course millions of other people have had abortions, and most never would have considered one had it not been legal. A large percentage of these women have been coerced into abortion by parents or boyfriends. And there is, obviously, the harm suffered by the children actually aborted. But Ms. A has neither had an abortion, nor been aborted by her mother, and so believes she has suffered no harm.
Similarly, Mr. B argues that he is not harmed by no-fault divorce. Of course divorce has gone from a rare proceeding, used under extreme conditions, to a commonplace social practice that ends nearly half of all marriages. Perhaps we could argue that these people, and their children, have been harmed. But Mr. B is still happily married after all these years, so he believes he has suffered no harm.
Finally, Ms. A or Mr. B will turn to you and ask how X will harm you personally. If you cannot come up with an answer, your support of X is expected.
The most common way to answer this question is to concede that X will not harm me personally, but to appeal to other considerations against X—based on the nature of human persons, ethical principles, the nature of law and society, and the overall institutional degradation that will follow the enactment of the policies in question. In this essay, however, I want to concentrate on the claim that such public policies do not harm me personally.
First, such a claim is self-serving. It only considers the harm done to me, while discounting as irrelevant the harm done to millions of other human lives; and the evidence of the harm caused to so many people by these two legalized atrocities is incontrovertible.
Second, such a claim is self-congratulatory. It assumes that when the change happens, harm may happen to other people, but it certainly will not happen to me. One therefore views oneself as superior to others, above the harm these practices cause.
Third, such a claim conveniently accounts for only that kind of harm that the arguer is thinking about at the moment, such as serious and obvious physical or psychological harm, while passing over less serious but no less real harms, and discounting the reality of moral and social harm.
Fourth, such a claim juxtaposes “no harm at all” with “irreparable damage” as the only two outcomes in a situation where one might be harmed. There are other possible states of affairs. One can be harmed, but choose to accept it for the sake of some other good. One can be harmed without realizing it. One can also be harmed, yet survive or even recover.
A harm is, at minimum, a kind of loss. Not every loss is a harm. It is best to save the term “harm” for those situations in which I lose something that belongs properly to me, something fitting to me without which I cannot flourish as well. I have a responsibility to protect such things. Others have a basic responsibility to refrain from taking these things from me, and occasionally, they have a responsibility to supply them to me.
We have been personally harmed by the regimes of abortion and easy divorce. We might not realize it; we might have survived it; we might choose to ignore it; we might even have recovered. But we have all been harmed.
How many men have lost children they never knew existed? How many women, having given in to the temptation to abort in a crisis simply because the possibility was there, easily accessible, and legal, now suffer for that choice? How many men and women, who otherwise might never have imagined the option had it been illegal, at least seriously considered the idea? Such temptations, seriously pondered, are damaging to us. Even if we refuse the temptation, there remains the shame of having proposed it; we may recover, but we have sustained damage. And the children who know that they were just fortunate not to have parents who destroyed their own children (or worse, that they just happened to be the children their parents did not destroy) live every day with the knowledge that their existence depends on the whim of those in power.
How many husbands and wives, having declared their love and fidelity until death, find themselves seriously tempted just to walk away from their marriage when bumps arise on their road to bliss? How many suspect that their spouses just might walk if things do not go their way? How many fear at the first major conflict that it might be the end of their marriage, rather than, well, just a fight? How many children live in fear when their parents argue, not because their parents indicate that they will divorce, but because so many of their schoolmates come from broken homes—and because the authorities in their lives, fearing to cause pain to children from broken families, insist that a family is whatever people say it is?
When the social structures have changed such that we all live in fear and suspicion that those we most love and who claim to most love us may abandon us or even destroy us, we are all damaged. This is true of a society where abortion is permissible and encouraged for women in desperate or inconvenient situations for bearing a child. It is also true of a society where no-fault divorce is a readily available path for troubled couples.
The knowledge that abortion and no-fault divorce are part of our culture makes my job as a husband and a father harder than it should be. It takes years of work to overcome the fears and suspicions that grow when these two evils are legally permitted choices. My family and I have suffered damage. We may not have suffered the damage of those who practiced abortion or underwent a divorce; we may have recovered. But the damage was nonetheless real. It is too important to pretend it did not happen.
Who has harmed us? I propose that it is the society of which we are members, through its government and laws. These are hard words that require justification.
Human beings are both rational and social creatures. We live not in herds but in ordered societies. We do this because it is good for us: the order of society that is necessary for us to live well is preserved by government and laws. If our government and laws do not help us to flourish (or if they actually assault our well-being), it is impossible to justify living under that government or those laws.
If government exists to support us in our flourishing, then it is obligated, in the deepest sense, to function in accordance with the truth of what is fitting for us. It is obligated to try to protect us from harm, and to support us in what is good for us. A society that, through its government, turns a blind eye when the human rights of its citizens are violated—when its homeless are robbed, its gay men are assaulted, its young women raped—is a society that is failing to do its job. A people who, through its government, declares by law that it is permissible to do these things to the people it is bound to protect, on the other hand, is a government that has turned on some of its people in favor of other, more powerful people.
The cause du jour, the primary contest over human flourishing, is the debate over the meaning of marriage.
The truth of marriage is that it can only exist between one man and one woman, for the sake of the children who may come as a result of their sexual union. Thus government is obligated to recognize the truth of marriage; to protect and support that project of bringing children into the world and caring for them; to recognize all and only actual marriages; and to discourage sexual acts in other contexts.
Proponents of same-sex marriage might well note here that my argument about the harm I undergo makes sense only if one agrees with my understanding of sex and marriage. This is, of course, true. With a different understanding of marriage, one might argue that same-sex couples are harmed by the lack of marital status because they believe it is owed to them.
The simple fact that no one in the entire history of humanity has ever thought it even possible for two people of the same sex to marry should give us pause. If it does not, then arguments about the nature of marriage should. I have argued previously in Public Discourse that marriage exists only as the union of one man and one woman, declared before the community, because the community has a stake in the outcome of their sexual union, i.e., children. If it were not the case that sex leads naturally (though not in every case) to children, the community would have no interest in the relationship, any more than in any other relationship of friendship or amusement. Indeed, it is impossible to imagine how anyone would have thought up the idea in the first place.
On the other hand, those who support same-sex “marriage” do so with an argument that looks something like this: “Nobody talks that way anymore. Nobody acts that way anymore. Therefore marriage has changed.” They look around at a society that, at least in practice, behaves as if sex and marriage mean nothing more than whatever the people who enter into a relationship want it to mean.
We may note that the conclusion of the above argument does not follow from the premises. The fact that many people think and act differently these days about marriage does not change the nature of marriage, any more than the nature of a cat would change if we decided to treat it like a rosebush.
If marriage is what they say it is, however, then marriage is nothing more than a contract. And if it is merely a contract, then the proper response of government and law is not to legalize same-sex marriage; it is to get out of the marriage business entirely. Law’s function, then, would be merely to help settle disputes between people who claim contracts have been violated. Any harm involved would be entirely a function of the terms of the contract, not the nature or circumstances of the people involved.
If, however, the nature of marriage is what I have argued for here, then two people who are literally incapable of marrying one another are not suffering a harm, or even a loss, when the society refuses to call their relationships a marriage. There is a difference between suffering a loss and simply not getting what one wants.
My wife, my children, and I are harmed when the government turns its back on the truth of marriage, and thus turns its back on its citizens’ flourishing. The government may force me to send my children to schools that mandate the celebration of same-sex relationships, thus violating my rights as a parent. It may prosecute me for hate crimes for the very expression of my views, thus violating my freedom of conscience and speech. I hope not. These harms are not a logically necessary outcome of the recognition of same-sex marriage, so perhaps that threat will dissipate. But the other harms that I have spelled out above are indeed necessary and harmful consequences of the adoption of same-sex marriage. The proper response of society to the widespread abuse of sex and marriage is not to multiply the harm by abandoning the truth. Rather, it is to get back on the right track.
Stephen J. Heaney is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Saint Thomas (St. Paul).