Last week North Carolina voted on the definition of marriage and came down on the side of tradition, while President Obama changed his stance on the issue, declaring his support for granting gay marriage rights. Since that time I’ve been a little crazy, frantically debating with everyone on Facebook who’s willing to debate with crazy people. One of my debates with a Facebook friend of a Facebook friend by the name of TJ ended with his question, “Who defines morality? And where did they get that authority?” I started typing my answer on Facebook, but got carried away and realized I was writing a blog post, not a Facebook comment. So here is my answer, a summary of my moral philosophy and how that applies to the gay marriage question:
God defines morality! Do you believe in God? If not, do you believe in good and evil? I don’t understand how anyone can deny that there is light and dark, good and evil in this world. If there is good, then the source of that good (or the good itself) is God. For most of us, some things are obviously evil, such as murder or greed, and some things are obviously good, like kindness and generosity. But sometimes it’s difficult to see clearly what is light and what is dark, and often it’s hard to choose light even when we recognize it. By nature, people have selfish inclinations and must work to choose good even when it might seem unpleasant. Also, evil influences can confuse us, especially if we’re not taught well and if we’re not actively seeking light. Light leads to happiness and darkness to misery. I believe the more we honor our knowledge of good and evil, the better we become at discerning good and evil. Part of honoring that knowledge is admitting to ourselves and others when our thoughts and actions violate our sense of right and wrong and then striving to become better.
No one can force another person to adopt her morality, but morality can be taught and learned. I subscribe to Aristotle’s idea that morality is learned mostly by influence—a less moral person learns from observing and interacting with a more moral person, especially children with adults. But articulating morals is important too – I think there’s quite a bit of research indicating that an effective teacher practices and preaches.
I also believe that when we’re surrounded by moral people, it’s easier to act morally, and when we’re around immoral people to act immorally. As families, friends, communities and nations, we often become more moral or less moral together. That’s one reason I care about the gay marriage issue.
My belief that marriage should be a title reserved for the relationship between a man and a woman rests on the moral premise that people should not create a human being without taking responsibility for that new life. In other words, I think biological parents have a moral responsibility to provide for, protect, nurture, love and teach their children. A child is most likely to have invested and available biological parents if the child’s father and mother are married, especially when the father and mother have chosen carefully and have fallen in love. My moral premise indicates that absentee fathers and mothers are not acting in a moral way.
One might ask, “What about widows and orphans? What about divorce? What about teenagers who give birth and are not yet responsible enough to be a parent?” I believe all of those things are tragedies, sometimes preventable, sometimes not. When a tragedy occurs, we pick up the pieces and move on the best we can. Substitute parents are found. But it’s never the ideal. That doesn’t make the child less precious. It doesn’t doom the child to a life of misery. But it creates challenges for the child. In my observation, those challenges often don’t fully manifest themselves until the child is a teenager. If the absent parent is absent because he or she chose to be absent, the child will feel this. No one wants to feel that all she was to her mother was a chance to make a few thousand dollars by donating an egg. No one wants to feel that his life and his needs are an inconvenience for a parent who was just trying to party and satisfy a lust. No one wants to feel that even though she was loved to a degree, it was too much work and not enough fun to stick around and raise her.
Who is not familiar with the stereotype of the “wicked stepmother” or the “redheaded stepchild?” And haven’t you noticed that most fairy tales begin with a child who lacks a biological mother, causing the listener to immediately feel pity for the character? There is good reason to feel pity; for most people, Mom is their number one advocate in life. Especially mothers, but fathers too, bond easily with their biological children. For a father, bonding is a little different, usually less immediate, less physical, but if he is around the baby, it doesn’t take much time or effort on his part to become completely devoted to his offspring. I am not suggesting that the stereotype of stepparents is the reality or that forming a strong bond is impossible; but there’s a kernel of truth in the stereotype, which is that non-biological bonding takes more effort.
The secular/hippie/modern morals movement, along with the availability of amazing medical technology, has created a lot of confusion for people on this issue. But the new morality—which seems to me to rest on the premise that we do not need to be careful about how and when we create a new human being–just doesn’t add up. For example, if I donated an egg to a gay couple so that they could have a baby, a lot of people would think I was somehow a hero. What if I don’t just donate the egg, but also the womb, and I grow a baby for the two men, using one of their sperm and my egg? Do I give birth and hand off the baby as a hero? Is it heroic to donate or sell children? I don’t think it is.
In other words, when a woman conceives a child and decides to give it up for adoption because she does’t feel she can give the baby what it needs, she may be making the best choice for her situation. But we must admit that conceiving the child in the first place was not wise. No normal person conceives children in order to give them up for adoption.
So back to the original question: “Who defines morality?” My answer was “God does.” That begs the question of how can we know what God’s definition is. My answer was that everyone intuitively knows to some degree—we call this intuition our “conscience.” Secondly, my answer is that by honoring our intuitive knowledge, we gain keener discernment of what is moral and what is not. And thirdly, that people learn morality from someone who is more moral them him or herself, especially from parents.
I have learned from people more moral than myself that children have a right to a mother and a father, and I was fortunate to be raised by a biological mother and father who are married. Growing up, I saw that it was easier for me to feel confident, secure, and happy, than it was for my friends who didn’t have married biological parents. Also, because my parents were acting morally, it was easier for me to act morally. I have siblings, nieces, nephews, cousins, aunts and many friends who did not grow up with married biological parents, and I have observed that lacking a biological parent hurts. Some of them adore their stepparents. Some of them have emotionally disowned their biological parents and emotionally adopted a stepparent. In other words, they have recovered to some degree or another because another adult stepped up and fell in love with a child. That doesn’t change the truth that the biological parent was acting immorally.
To finish my explanation, if we can accept the idea that a child has a right to be raised by her father and her mother, that it’s morally repugnant to create a human life without intending to devote oneself to nurturing that new life, then it follows that marriage between a man and a woman is special. Marriage ties together a man and woman, united for life as one entity with a shared home, shared resources, and shared procreative powers. Whether the couple intends to have children or not, the relationship they have is the ideal environment for a new life to begin and grow. Understanding this truth, it becomes clear why cultures all over the world revere marriage and use words like “sacrament” to describe it.
How does this apply to the gay marriage movement? Obviously, a homosexual couple cannot create a new life, and so their relationship, however loving and healthy, does not have the unique job of creating an environment for a child to be born and raised. “Marriage” is the word that we and millions of our ancestors have used to describe this special relationship. To call some other type of relationship a “marriage” is confusing. Many—maybe most—Americans have lost sight of the moral truth that life should not be created in a casual, accidental or mercenary way. Many—maybe most—Americans have lost sight of the truth that children have a right to be raised by a biological mother and father. Calling a gay or lesbian couple a “married” couple will not help people regain sight of this moral truth. It will further confuse people, especially children.
I can already hear someone’s retort: “How can you say that children have a right to something that nature sometimes take away?” In other words, some children lose a parent through an unpreventable death. How can we say they have lost a “right” if Nature does the same thing on a continual basis? My response to this question would be: do you not believe that human beings have a right to life? Nature eventually takes away every person’s life, but that does not make it morally permissible for another person to do so. The parallel, then, can also be true: Nature might sometimes take away a child’s father and mother, but that does not make it morally permissible for a person to do so.
I can also imagine the response, “But birth control has made it so that we have more control over when a life begins, thus making sex less risky and marriage less important?” The irony of this question is that the availability of birth control has not seemed to help our society prevent children being born out of wedlock. Single parenting has become more prevalent since the pill was invented, not less so. The last time I read about this subject in my Seattle Times, the latest study indicated that 50% of all pregnancies are unplanned. My interpretation of this situation is that the availability of birth control has helped people to see sex as more recreational than procreative, leading them to become increasingly casual about sex. Birth control doesn’t always work, for both technical reasons and social reasons, and where promiscuity is rampant, so are unwanted pregnancies.
So, TJ, Facebook friend of my Facebook friend, my answer to your question is that God defines morality, but he does not force it upon us. He leaves us freedom to find it ourselves and to choose to be moral or immoral. In our great nation we have government of the people, by the people and for the people, and so our laws reflect the morality of our people. They also influence our morality as they encourage or discourage moral behavior. As a society we must grapple together with questions such as how life ought to begin and what words we should use to describe different relationships. We also must answer the question of how the state should regulate behavior in order to protect others’ morals and rights, especially children’s, without violating the truth that people deserve a large degree of freedom. There’s not an easy answer; there’s no system that can in and of itself prevent evil and preserve good. In other words, there is no replacement for individuals making moral choices and thus creating, collectively, a moral society. If the majority of people stop trying to be moral, there’s little hope that the next generation won’t follow our poor examples. We are all in this together.
That being said, I believe that anyone who is sincere and thoughtful, who is willing to admit that not everything he or she does is moral, and who has observed and loved moral people, can grasp the basic moral truth that children have a right to be raised by their biological mother and father, and that marriage is a special and unique special relationship because it protects this right.