Forget the tyranny of “the natural” and build human institutions that serve human needs
This August, Betterhumans has arranged for me to debate Margaret Somerville in Toronto. Somerville is a bioethicist at Montreal’s McGill University who is opposed to assisted suicide, using transgenic transplant organs, cloning and a long list of other things she deems offensive to human dignity. Somerville has also decided this month to paddle upstream in opposition to Canada’s legalization of gay marriage with an open letter to the gay New Democratic Party MP Svend Robinson.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I once hosted Svend Robinson in the US at a meeting of the Democratic Socialists of America, the New Democratic Party‘s American sister party; that I marched many times with a fist and rose banner in Chicago’s gay pride parade; and that, although today married to a woman, I have a sexual self-identity so bent that it may not be mappable onto Euclidean space.
Despite these compromising and entangling alliances (sounds kind of hot when I put it that way), I would like to comment on Somerville‘s defense of heterosexist marriage for two reasons. First, her letter succinctly sums up what is wrong with conservative bioethics: The idolatry of the natural over the reasonable. Second, it gives me an opportunity to cruise past the gay marriage debate, which is so last week, and advocate one of my favorite utopian ideas: Replacing state marriage with flexible cohabitation and child-rearing contracts.
Social versus natural
Let’s start with Somerville’s letter. She says that the reason that we shouldn’t permit gay marriage is that, “Social features are open to change. Inherent, natural ones are not. Marriage, like many important social institutions, is a combination of natural reality (the biology of procreation) and social construct (the culture that nurtures and supports procreation).”
In other words, though Somerville is far too suave to phrase it this way, homosexual relationships are unnatural. Somerville makes clear that she is not a simple homophobe in her book The Ethical Canary because she says that it’s okay for kids to be raised by gay parents, as long as the household includes both a lesbian couple and gay male couple, because having both a father and a mother is what Nature intended and what is good for the child. Not what God intended—no, we can’t use the G-word because we’re in the realm of secular ethical discourse—but what is natural.
It’s a wonderfully ahistorical argument since all simian and anthropological evidence suggests that what is natural for our species is for men to beat each other up, establish a dominance hierarchy and take ownership of as many women as they can control. The majority of all documented human cultures practiced polygamy. What’s natural for women, it appears, is to try to have as many liaisons with attractive males who are not their owner as possible to maximize their kids’ genetic fitness and reduce the risks of outside males killing her kids by making paternity ambiguous.
In the natural order, all this should take place in a village social structure in which kids are raised by a dozen or more people of all genders, including older siblings and cousins. All this monogamous, nuclear family death-till-we-part stuff is recent flummery forced on us by culture and religion, and is about as natural as monastic celibacy, flush toilets and reading.
So Somerville and other would-be natural law theorists in conservative bioethics and jurisprudence are just making up their version of nature as they go along. Nature is whatever they happen to favor, and not the tendencies to violence, depravity and licentiousness, or cultural creativity and rational free-thought which they find troublesome. If anybody cares about what the true biological constraints are on human nature, it’s we
pointed out recently in A Darwinian Left, we have to acknowledge those constraints if we are to overcome them and create a truly human civilization.
Kids won’t go hungry
Somerville suggests in her letter that the role of (or at least the assumption of) marital fidelity is to cement parents’ sociobiological drive to nurture and raise their little gene machines. Therefore we need to maintain the system of heterosexist marriage, and not screw it up with reproductive technologies and gay marriage, or kids will go hungry in the streets.
How offensively crude and silly a statement of the “naturalistic fallacy,” that the is dictates the ought, and how absurd a view of human life. Adoption also has deep sociobiological roots, and studies show that children of gay parents and children born from donated sperm or eggs are just as loved as “natural” children. And who really cares what our genes want, and what messages they whisper in our brains? Our genes also want us dead, and I don’t think we’re obliged to listen to that either.
The real task here is to build a society that maximizes the full potential of the personalities of its citizens, not a society that builds some ludicrous cargo cult totem to a mythical natural order. Human institutions are meant to serve human needs and interests, so why does the state get involved in marriage in first place? Somerville says “society needs marriage to institutionalize the inherently procreative relationship between a man and a woman.” Wrong.
We need state recognition of marriages because people who live together become intimately dependent on one another and we need to recognize, protect and manage those dependencies. Families are a different kind of social unit than individuals, and things work best when families are granted certain rights and responsibilities, so we need to have rules about what families are. Children, in particular, thrive best when raised by families and their care needs to be managed by binding contractual arrangements to protect their interests and those of their caregivers. Human interests and relationships need protection, not procreation—the human race would keep procreating without legal ties just fine.
Civil union contracts
So let’s replace marriage with civil union contracts. Those contracts can have adaptable clauses—with software we could write them with push-button menus—so that every two to five people who want to enter into a cohabitation or child-rearing contract could specify ahead of time what exactly they were agreeing to.
My aunt once told me that she was astonished that my wife and I had not only lived together for eight years before getting married, but that we had “talked everything to death. We never talked about anything till after were married.” My aunt died with that husband, but can’t we all agree that it would be a good idea for everybody to have a good long, hard talk about what exactly they mean by marriage before they “tie the knot?”
For instance, is infidelity a definite contract-breaker? Somerville says “marriage between one man and one woman symbolizes sexual monogamy. The same is not necessarily true of same-sex marriage.” She scolds that gays often discuss whether monogamy will be an expected part of their relationship. That just means queers are smarter and more honest than straight people, and a lot less likely to end up on Jerry Springer throwing chairs.
People should be clear if a drug habit, or sudden veganism or Atkinism, or refusing to turn out the light at a reasonable time of night are grounds for abrogation of the contract. Must the kids be baptized, and can Dad 2 and Mom 1 take them to the local coven’s full moon bacchanals? How many warnings do I get about leaving dirty pots in the sink, and is there binding arbitration?
Canada I salute you. By legalizing gay marriage—while the US Supreme Court gets death threats for just saying sodomy shouldn’t be a felony—you and the rest of the industrialized world show that there is still hope for humanism and liberal democracy. Now, while we try to catch up in the States, you and Europe need to take the next step and recognize that the state has no business dictating how many people should be allowed into these contracts and what they should entail.
We must carry the rational human design of human institutions to its conclusion, despite the frenzied opposition of those to whom Nature or God have revealed the way things are supposed to be . “Well, yeah gay marriage is one thing,” they’ll probably say in a couple of years, “But them thar polyamorous child-rearing contracts, that just ain’t natch-u-ral.” Right. That’s what makes them human.
James Hughes Ph.D., the Executive Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, is a bioethicist and sociologist at Trinity College in Hartford Connecticut USA, where he teaches health policy. He is author of Citizen Cyborg and is working on a second book tentatively titled Cyborg Buddha. From 1999-2011 he produced the syndicated weekly radio program, Changesurfer Radio. (Subscribe to the J. Hughes RSS feed)