In the debate over whether same-sex partnerships should be equal in all legal and fiscal matters to marriage between a man and a woman, one argument goes as follows: If the two partners share the responsibilities and duties of caring for each other, the burden on the rest of society decreases. The state thus ought to recognize and promote such arrangements, for example by making it easier for same-sex couples to transfer and co-own property or by extending tax breaks that have historically been limited to heterosexual couples.
Yet another question emerges: If the granting of benefits hinges on lessening the burden on society, why should tax benefits be limited to two-person partnerships? In the case of heterosexual marriage, the answer is pretty straightforward: Society places value on procreation and on the raising of children, and at least the former requires the active participation of a man and a woman. Additionally, heterosexual marriage has long been seen as the most practical institution to ensure a peaceful and sheltered upbringing of kids. Alternative constellations are possible – in the West as well as in other cultures – but the idea of a two-person heterosexual marriage is most firmly entrenched in our current social fabric.
It’s a different question when same-sex marriage enters the picture: Arguments from procreation aren’t available in this case, and one of the basic distinctions between two-person marriages and other forms of romantic partnership fails. Three or four people may also love each other dearly, vow to take care of each other until death, run a household together, purchase property together, and support each other through sickness and existential sorrow. Indeed, we might say that polygamous relationships remove a bigger burden from the rest of society and should thus be especially valued: Even if one partner dies, the partnership of the others may survive intact.
The current fixation on monogamous relationships (which most advocates of same-sex marriage embrace as well) is another holdover from the paradigmatic example of traditional heterosexual relationships. It doesn’t really matter for the political and legal analysis whether we should prefer monogamous relationships for biological reasons – just as biological arguments aren’t helpful in the debate over same-sex marriage. Biology might help us understand why heterosexual couples usually outnumber homosexual couples, but that’s irrelevant in the debate over recognition.
If we abandon the idea that marriage is fundamentally sanctified by the ability to procreate, we’re left with a changed understanding of the family, and of what constitutes its social value: Family can be seen as the community of people who are so devoted to each other that they have agreed to share all important material and immaterial possessions. Politically and legally it doesn’t matter whether this sense of devotion is rooted in biology or not, especially since adoption law now allows for an alternative way of bringing children into the family.
The quest for marriage equality is another step towards a complete re-imagining of personal and intimate partnerships. A few decades into the future, today’s paradigmatic ideas about kinship, family, and partnership will seem unrecognizably antiquated.