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Culture Is Wedded to Nature

James Hughes is wrong to sever the cultural from the natural, argues bioethicist Margaret Somerville in defending heterosexual marriage

Margaret Somerville

Special to Betterhumans

Monday, August 04, 2021, 7:09:06 AM CT

Margaret Somerville

Complex relationship: "Nature and culture are not necessarily in conflict," says bioethicist Margaret Somerville. "Marriage is the cultural complement to the biological reality of procreation"


"We must overcome the tyranny of the natural and build human institutions that serve human needs," believes James Hughes. Rather, I believe, we must seek to understand the natural (that, after all, is the primary goal of science) in order to be able to respect and protect life in all its forms and diversity.

In his recent column "Beyond Gay Marriage," Hughes disparages my defense of heterosexual marriage as an example of how conservative bioethics idolizes "the natural over the reasonable."

Human institutions severed from a deep understanding and accommodation of the natural, especially of human nature, have a potential for great harm, even evil. We need both nature and culture, the latter of which includes reason and science.

An awareness of the natural is not a constraint, except to the extent that we decide that respect for it is of such importance that there are certain things we must not do. Surely all of us would want to know what those things are. And nature and culture are not necessarily in conflict, as Hughes proposes. Rather, their relationship is complex.

Indeed, human nature itself is defined partly by our ability to modify nature through culture. To do this is not in itself evil or unnatural and may even be morally required. Moreover, as poetry and art demonstrate, awareness of the natural and respect for it can give us access to a much broader range of human ways of knowing than are available if we believe (wrongly) that reason -- in the sense of cognitive mentation -- is the only such way.

These other ways include intuition, especially moral intuition; human memory (history, "memes" -- units of deep cultural information passed on from generation to generation); ethics; examined emotions; common sense; imagination and creativity.

Universal features of marriage

Research by scholars Katherine Young and Paul Nathanson from McGill University's Faculty of Religious Studies has shown that, over millennia across all world cultures and religions, marriage exhibits not only variable features, but also universal or nearly universal ones.

Those universal features include the norm that marriage is always between a man and a woman and sets up ideals for procreation. Marriage is the cultural complement to the biological reality of procreation. In other words, marriage has always been associated with the inherently procreative relationship between a man and a woman, and institutionalizes, symbolizes and, in doing so, supports such relationships. And it is to do with children and the genetic links, in both directions, between parents and children -- marriage allows children to identify their biological parents and vice versa.

Ironically, this means that while same-sex marriage and polyandrous marriage (more than one husband) do not fulfill one or other of these required features of marriage, polygynous marriage (more than one wife) fulfills both. Consequently, any objections to the latter would have to come from a different base than those to same-sex marriage or polyandrous marriage. So a limited version of Hughes's proposal for multiple partners to a marriage does not face the same objections as those to same-sex marriage, although there are other arguments against it.

Religion and history

Having relied on data from religion, in view of the nature of the readership of Betterhumans.com, I hasten to add here that an antipathy to religion should not be converted into a knee-jerk reaction that marriage has been a religious institution and, therefore, like religion, is now irrelevant -- which is, indeed, the approach taken by Hughes.

Wherever we stand on religion, we must appreciate the long-established role of marriage as a cultural and societal construct (most often mediated through religion, it can exist independently of that connection), if we are to fully understand the arguments in the same-sex marriage debate.

In an irrelevant diatribe, Hughes accuses me of a "wonderfully ahistorical argument." With respect to the history of marriage, he should heed his own advice.

Dismissing ad hominem attacks

Hughes uses the standard ad hominem techniques to dismiss my arguments against same-sex marriage.

The first is to label me a conservative (I'm not, but neither am I a liberal). Because of the nature of my work as an ethicist, while realizing that one's own personal values are always an influence, I have never taken a "package approach" to the values that should govern the ethical issues that I debate in the public square. This has caused some people grief on occasion. Because I had defended their views in the past, they have been shocked when I subsequently disagreed with them on some other matter. "We thought you were on our side," they have shouted.

I recently received what I considered a great compliment. I was speaking at a conference on elective caesarean sections -- should all women giving birth be offered a c-section? A person in the audience, very opposed to such an approach, came to the microphone and said, "My group is very worried about what you're going to say. We've read lots of your 'stuff' and we can't tell where you'll come down on an issue."

The second is to label me homophobic (I'm not, but that is irrelevant). Hughes has to do this by implication, innuendo and very careful use of language in order not to attribute to me statements that I have never made and beliefs that I do not hold, but still give the impression of homophobia. Take, for instance, the following: "In other words, though Somerville is far too suave to phrase it this way, homosexual relationships are unnatural." Or, "Somerville makes clear that she is not a simple homophobe in her book..."

That means he thinks that I'm a complex homophobe, whatever that might be, and, indeed, as the sentence reads, that I might also be a simple one outside "my book." (As an aside, Hughes's statement, and the strategy it represents, brings to mind the long battle we fought in HIV/AIDS forums to get rid of the -- at the time so prevalent -- term "innocent victims" to describe people who had been infected with HIV other than through sex or injection drug use. It necessarily implied the latter were guilty victims who did not merit the same concern and support as innocent ones.) In short, Hughes makes a huge and completely unwarranted jump from what I say about gay marriage to what (he thinks) I must believe about gay relationships and gay people and, on that basis, labels me homophobic.

The third is to attribute censorial and judgmental attitudes to me. For instance, Hughes accuses me of "scold[ing] that gays often discuss whether monogamy will be an expected part of their relationship." People with such "school marmish," quaintly old-fashioned, self-righteous characteristics can rightfully be dismissed without needing to consider the case they are making. But, in discussing whether same-sex marriage would necessarily change the symbolism that opposite-sex marriage creates and carries for society, what I actually wrote was the following:

Sexual monogamy is a given in the Western institution of marriage, although not always honoured in practice by individuals. In contrast, it is often stated that one of the first decisions to be negotiated between same-sex partners is whether the relationship will or will not be sexually monogamous. For gay partners, faithfulness can be a commitment to a life-long relationship in which the fidelity is to the relationship, not to a monogamous sexual partnership. Marriage between one man and one woman symbolizes sexual monogamy. The same is not necessarily true of same-sex marriage.

In what way is that scolding?

Child-centered model

There is a major difference between saying that "having both a father and a mother is what Nature intended" -- which Hughes wrongly asserts that I said (it fits nicely into his line of argument, so why worry about accuracy!) -- and saying, as I have, that children -- whether their later sexual orientation proves to be heterosexual or homosexual -- need a parent of each sex, preferably their own biological parents. Male and female parenting is different and complementary and children need both. Parenting may function in much more complex ways than we previously imagined. Anyone keeping up-to-date on the latest genetics research has reason to take such a view seriously. That research shows that gene expression, in particular, expression of the gene in baby rats that codes for their later nurturing behaviour towards their own offspring, is dependant on their mother's nurturing behavior towards them.

Hughes refers to creating a family through adoption, donated sperm and ova, and "studies" that show that these children are "just as loved as 'natural' children." First, this statement is far too sweeping a generalization to be taken at face value. Second, research brought forward on both sides -- to support the case for the superiority or adequacy of either traditional or nontraditional families -- always needs to be challenged in terms of its objectivity and accuracy. Much of this further research remains to be done. Third, there can be a major difference between what is best for children in general and what is best for a particular child. Consequently, we need research and analysis at both individual and societal levels.

Finally, important as love is, it is not the only important element in a child's life. To intentionally disconnect children from their biological parents, or access to the knowledge of who those parents were -- and therefore who the children are -- is a very serious action that requires strong justification, especially when facilitated by society. So what basic presumptions should govern in such conditions of uncertainty? And when there is conflict between what adults want and what children need, who should be given priority?

Hughes adopts an intensely adult-centred model of marriage -- indeed one that goes far beyond that advocated by the vast majority of people in favour of same-sex marriage. In his view, marriage contracts should include any number of people who want to participate. That statement made me wonder whether Hughes might be, for same-sex marriage advocates, what Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer (to whom Hughes refers with approval in his column) might be for the pro-choice lobby.

Recently, Newsweek referred to Professor Singer, who supports abortion on demand, as "the pro-choice movement's worst nightmare come true." He was reported as confirming to a Newsweek interviewer that he believed that in some cases either abortion or infanticide could be ethically acceptable and, in those cases, there was no logical reason to differentiate them. Pro-choice advocates argue that abortion and infanticide are different in kind and the former does not in any way validate or lead to the latter. (In the same vein, those people who oppose same-sex marriage because they are hostile to homosexual people and want their belief that homosexuality is immoral publicly affirmed, are a "worst nightmare" for those who argue against it on other grounds.)

I believe we must adopt a primarily child-centred model of marriage and that requires that we retain its current definition. I agree with Hughes that "the real task is to build a society that maximizes the full potential of the personalities of its citizens." Those citizens include children and with respect to marriage their needs must take priority over adults' preferences.

That being said, we must also respond to the valid claims of same-sex couples for recognition and protection of their relationships. That requires legal recognition of civil unions or partnerships that provide benefits and protections to the people who enter into them.

Social experiment

Same-sex marriage would be a major social experiment of unknown impact on one of the most vulnerable groups in our societies: Children. Because it changes marriage in a fundamental way, it would affect all children, not just those in same-sex families. There are some general rules in ethics that might help to guide us in deciding for or against it:

Protect the vulnerable: When claims are in conflict or not all can be met, we should act in such a way that the most vulnerable people -- here children -- are given preference in terms of protection and benefits, especially because they are the only ones who have no say in what happens to them.

Apply the precautionary principle: We should work from a precautionary principle -- first do no harm -- and the people wanting to experiment must prove it is reasonably safe to do so.

Do prior research: When serious harm could be involved, we must complete as much prior research as possible before proceeding.

Choose the less ethically controversial option: A more ethically controversial option (same-sex marriage) is only justified if a less ethically controversial one (civil unions) is not available or is clearly inadequate.

None of these conditions is fulfilled in the case for same-sex marriage.

Margaret Somerville is the founding director of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University. Somerville plays an active role in the worldwide development of bioethics and the study of the wider legal and ethical aspects of medicine and science. She is deeply committed to the public's right to be involved in the decision making shaping our society. To this end, she authored The Ethical Canary: Science, Society and the Human Spirit and Death Talk: The Case Against Euthanasia and Physician-Assisted Suicide.