- State and society are distinct; marriage is a pre-political social institution that
has a reality independently of the state. The state cannot redefine marriage.
- Marriage is a union between one man and one woman intended to provide the
context in which children are produced and brought up. Note that this argument
is distinct from the first: it is possible to argue that marriage has a pre-political
reality without holding to the definition of marriage as an exclusive heterosexual
union. You might, for example, endorse some form of polygamy (polygyny
- Supporters of gay marriage rely on abstract – ‘rationalist’ – arguments derived
from universal ideas of equality. This objection does not preclude conservative
support for same-sex marriage, but it objects to the type of arguments employed
by many of its supporters. It is not enough to talk of ‘marriage equality’; you
have to explain what good is advanced by extending marriage to same-sex
- Redefining marriage has unintended consequences. Changing the laws on
marriage requires amendments to many other pieces of legislation. After the
passing in the UK of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2014 The Telegraph
reported that there had to be ‘amendments to 36 Acts dating back to 1859;
special exclusions from the effects of the Same-Sex Marriage Act for a further
67 other pieces of legislation dating back 729 years and changes to dozens of
pension regulations which have legal force’ (The Telegraph, 21 February 2014).
- Along with the collateral effects on other laws (point 4) there are threats to the
civil liberties of those who object to same-sex marriage, such as marriage
registrars and people involved in the wedding industry. This is not a specifically
conservative argument. Libertarians would also be concerned about civil
liberties. But it has a conservative cast if we recall Oakeshott’s distinction
between an enterprise society and an association society. The latter leaves space
for moral disagreement and seeks compromise; one compromise would be to
have civil unions alongside marriage.
- Conservatives believe that moral authority has several sources, secular and
religious. Even those with secular views – Oakeshott, for example, was not
religious – tend to respect religious institutions. The objections of mainstream
churches to same-sex marriage therefore carry some weight, even if those
objections are not decisive in determining legislation.
- A more secular argument, influenced by Darwinian theory, is that men by nature
seek multiple sexual partners and therefore marriage binds men to families. It
also gives them an incentive for staying married by reducing uncertainty over
whether their children are their own. Interestingly, this argument runs counter
to the religiously inspired claim that men and women have natural ‘complemen-
tarity’ – that by nature they form a bodily union. The Darwinian argument
makes the opposite claim: marriage has to exist because of the inevitable
conflicts between men and women. It is a conservative argument insofar as
conservatives believe there are limits to human malleability, and evidence from
biological evolution supports this claim.
- Law should change slowly and not be elite-driven. The fact that a majority of
people support same-sex marriage does not detract from the charge that change
has been too rapid for its legal effects to be felt.
208 Part 2 Classical ideologies