Private Freedoms, Public Legislation: A Case for Same-Sex and Polygamous Marriages Using John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty

The freedoms of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are the guiding moral principles of the U.S., as is the view that every man or woman is created equal. We may buttress these claims with John Stuart Mill’s “harm principle” from On Liberty as a moral underpinning by recognizing that marriage is an essentially private institution (made public only through legality) that does not interfere with anyone’s life external to the marriage‹in other words, the government has no right to legislate morality of a private and innocuous nature. With this in mind, to maintain the morality our country is founded on, and, consequently, the justice of its nuptial laws, we must legalize the marriage of both same-sex couples and polygamous unions.In Smith and Stevens v. Greenville, the essential injustice is the basic denial of rights to humans on the basis of sexual orientation. As Barney Frank points out, homosexuals are tax-paying citizens entitled to standard civic benefits. We cannot overlook the economic injustice perpetrated by this bias. Heterosexual married couples receive tax breaks; homosexual couples do not. Homosexual couples end up literally paying for their sexual orientation (and, in a sense, compensating for the discounts of heterosexuals), while not receiving any recognition or benefits. This is akin to the formerly hypocritical draft policy, in which ephebic Americans could die, but not vote, for their government. Not only does same-sex marriage not directly harm anyone else, but the standing institution of marriage does violate Mill by shortchanging homosexual couples.Furthermore, any question of whether homosexuals lead morally suspect lifestyles is rendered increasingly moot by scientific studies which show evidence of homosexuality as a biological, not societal or psychological, trait, one found even in octopi. If these studies are true (and common sense backs them; given rampant, nearly omnipresent homophobia, who would willingly choose to subject himself to universal disdain as a homosexual?), then the only objection to treating homosexuals with general equality is bigotry, and bigotry is an unacceptable mode of judgment.But even more enlightened critics argue that homosexual marriage compromises the sanctity of the institution, perhaps leading to a snowball effect of disintegrating integrity. Similar sentiments were doubtless raised when interracial marriage was legalized in 1968. As Sullivan argues, “marriage has changed many, many times over the centuries. Each change should be judged on its own terms, not as part of some seamless process of alleged disintegration” (Sullivan 280). It has changed because of acknowledged biases required change. Critics argue that interracial marriage does not fundamentally alter the foundation of marriage as same-sex coupling does, and that marriage is a union between a man and a woman. By this logic, does a loveless marriage of convenience or arrangement uphold the tenets of marriage by virtue of its participants being of opposite sex? This is far more damaging to the institution. Marriage is first and foremost about the official proclamation of love and commitment, qualities homosexuals are fully able to meet. The only difference between same- and opposite-sex couples, then, is that heterosexuals are capable of reproduction, another supposed “meaning” of marriage. Does a willfully childless heterosexual marriage jeopardize the institution? What about if one or both members are sterile? or fear for a potential child’s health? or if they choose to adopt? Can we fault them for these choices, or lack of choices? Are critics of same-sex marriage satisfied when a pedophilic mass-murderer impregnates his unemployed, glue-sniffing wife because their heterosexual union has produced a child? On a pragmatic level, overpopulation is a problem we should work to control, so homosexual marriages even serve a morally noble purpose.But what if homosexual couples want to adopt? Won’t their children grow up in an improper environment? Elshtain argues that the ideal of family “is a launching pad into more universal commitments” (Elshtain 128), but she “privileges a restrictive ideal of sexual and intimate relations,” namely heterosexuality (Sullivan 59). Yet half of all marriages end in divorce, demonstrating their inadequate reach to Elshtain’s ideal. Homosexual couples desiring children must adopt, indicating a willingness to parent, the likes of which many accidental pregnancies cannot boast. More importantly, however, same-sex couples who raise children and bear the official seal of a marriage license will gain a mainstream acceptance and act as a “launching pad” that overturns many moral, “universal” wrongs. Firstly, any strike for tolerance in one field creates a ripple effect of tolerance for others‹note how the feminist movement grew out of the civil rights movement. A moral victory for one minority is a moral victory for every minority, and legalizing same-sex marriage is a step for greater universal tolerance. Secondly, the illegality of same-sex marriage fosters a feeling of alienation among homosexuals. In the same way that black children under segregation felt a distinct sense of inferiority, the taboo nature of homosexuality can be a psychologically tormenting fact of life for many homosexuals. To allow this continue by promoting a legal divide is a willful act of harming the self-esteem of millions of homosexuals, who feel that if not even the law is on their side, then perhaps no one is. This is another direct infringement of Mill, and the only way to overturn it is by legalizing same-sex marriage, an act that allows homosexuals their constitutional freedoms, treats them with equality, and accords with Mill.Many of these claims apply to polygamous marriages, such as economic injustice. The makeup of polygamous families seems to frighten critics. Is a single parent any better or less equipped than two parents to raise a family with “good” ethics? No; the number of parents matters less than does the attention to and skill of parenting. If anything, polygamous marriages may provide a greater wealth of parental care. Many families already function in this way, with relatives acting as surrogate parents‹why not make this a legal right? Sullivan argues that sexuality is a “state” whereas polygamy is an “activity,” so there is no need for legislative change (Sullivan 279). This debases the philosophy of polygamy, which reasons that if Platonic and familial love can be diffused, then the same should apply to romantic love. This is as much a “state” of being as is believing that eros should apply to one’s own sex or the opposite sex. If polygamy is not a state because of its ambiguity of love, then bisexuality is not a state, a claim Sullivan would find hard to support. Romantic love is hard to come by with one person; if a taxpaying citizen is able to find it in plurality, then prevention of traditional proclamation of this love is another transgression of Mill. And, so long as polygamy is incorporated without sexism (i.e., only a man may have multiple spouses), it remains a private practice that doesn’t directly harm anyone else. In critics’ eyes polygamy, and same-sex marriage, may harm the institution of marriage, but marriage is above all else a private institution that emerges publicly only as a pronouncement of love and to reap legal benefits. You may not approve, but to deny these basic rights is to deny the basic right to equality of U.S. citizenship and to advocate government preclusion of private and benign freedoms.

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