As candidates vie for the Republican nomination, we are no doubt about to see an upswing in anti-gay-marriage rhetoric. Mike Hukabee has already started us off and it will get worse. It is only a matter of time before people start claiming, once again, that if we let same-sex couples marry, we might as well let people marry animals.
For the record, this is a stupid argument. It misunderstands that modern marriage is built on the ability of people to both want and consent to marry. Modern marriage also assumes the moral personhood of its partners. It wasn’t always like this. The history of marriage is complex and involves a huge variety of traditions including polygamy and polyandry, same-sex marriages, slave-marriages, temporary marriages, and even marriages to ghosts!
There have been shotgun weddings, forced mass weddings, and weddings as business transactions. In truth, consent and love have really had very little to do with marriage, which is, incidentally, the central point of the movie The Princess Bride. The reason Wesley has to get to Princess Buttercup before the priest declares her and Humperdink “mawied,” is that once he does, when Humperdink forces himself on her sexually, he isn’t raping her. Even though she never agreed to marry and would never consent to have sex with him, at that point in history, their status as man and wife meant that he owned her body. Marital rape is a new concept that has existed for only about forty years. Buttercup’s only way to stop her new husband, as she herself tells us, would be to kill herself.
So the analogy between same-sex marriage and animals is both stupid and insulting, but let’s forget that. Let’s take the bigots at their word and ask the more basic question, should we care if people marry animals? My answer is no, we shouldn’t.
The fundamental truth of modern marriage is that one person’s marriage has nothing to do with anyone else's except, perhaps, one’s children. My marriage neither affects nor depends on anyone else’s. Marriage is a self-contained agreement between two people. If my wife and I ever get divorced, it will be because of our own actions and our own choices. Certainly, one or both of us may have been convinced by, or tempted by, others, but it is still our own individual choices to continue with or end our relationship. We affirm our choices every day as we decide how to comport ourselves.
My neighbors will not stay together longer if my wife and I do, and they will not be more liable to divorce if they see us having trouble. How do we know this? Well for one, a tremendous number of divorces are surprises to the couple’s friends. We really don’t know anything about anyone else’s marriage; we are lucky if we know something about our own.
Now to the case of humans marrying animals. Should I care if my friend Sarah, for example, marries a horse? Why should I? If she wants to share her house with a noble steed, then she has to clean up after it, make it food, and encourage it to exercise (much like wives have been forced to do for the majority of human history). Veterinarian bills are cheaper than human doctors’ and plenty of households only have one working partner. There will be no kids (unless Sarah also marries a goat). And suppose Sarah dies and the horse inherits her estate? Eventually, the horse will also die and that money will make its way to the government. Perhaps the savings will help us pay for Obamacare. In short, what Sarah does with her spouse is not my business.
Obviously, there are those who will argue that marriage to animals is abuse, but I don’t see that. Certainly sex with the horse may be, but we aren’t discussing bestiality, we are discussing marriage. There are plenty of celibate married couples. The horse probably has no idea that he or she is married, doesn’t know if Sarah is a nag (did you catch that joke?) and won’t be bothered if Sarah wants to watch Downtown Abbey instead of National Velvet. The two may, in fact, be happy and faithful until death do they part, and if Sarah rides other horses without her spouse’s consent, the horse probably won’t notice.
Here is the point: Faulty analogy aside, claiming that gay marriage would lead to cross-species marriage is really no objection at all. One has to show, instead, why other people’s marriages are our business in the first place. To show that, one has to argue that we are our brother’s (and sister’s) keepers, and if it turns out we are, then conservatives in this country have a lot more to answer for before they get to the wholly unimportant discussion of whose love we are supposed to disapprove of.