Saturday, July 15, 2006

More fuel for the Culture War's fire

I just read this in the Lexington Hearld Leader. It seems that social conservatives are upset because the University of Louisville is going to offer benefits to the heterosexual and homosexual domestic partners of university employees, with the University of Kentucky, the state's "flagship" university, set to follow suit.

Social conservatives argue that giving such benefits both:

a.) uses public funds to tacitly approve of and support lifestyles that the majority of the public disapproves of, and

b.) in the words of state Rep. Stan Lee, R-Lexington, "undermines families."

The second half of this is particularly troubling, though easy enough to deal with in reasonable conversation. Simply put, my family, and the families of every single person I know (here I am speaking of traditional nuclear families, though I don't think that the term "family" should be so severely limited) is in no way, shape or form threatened or undermined by the idea that the benefits that we enjoy might also be enjoyed by people whose households are not structured like ours.

The best case that I can make for his point, the most charitable construction I can muster, is that by providing marriage-like benefits to unmarried couples (and this sets aside the question of sexual orientation, which would be a relevant one if gays were allowed to marry) we have removed an incentive to get legally married. But, I must ask, do we really want marriages which are based principally on incentives, particularly economic ones? Is that the best reason to enter into such a sacred arrangement?

Given that our divorce rate is now well over 50%, and given the similarly alarming number of married couples who are miserable in their marriages but may never actually divorce, do we really want economic incentives to be a strong enticement to marry? I don't know about you, but if my marriage were only being held together by economic incentives, I certainly would consider that to be a morally, spiritually, or emotionally good place to be.

And, if I thought that Rep. Lee seriously believed that the fabric of my own marriage might come undone by giving domestic partner benefits to unmarried heterosexual and homosexual couples, then I might get very offended, or be extraordinarily amused (depending on my mood). But what is troubling about this is that I don't think that Rep. Lee seriously believes that this move undermines families. Rather, I believe that he is using inflammatory rhetoric to incite paranoid voters.

The first issue raised here, however (and in fairness to Rep. Lee, he raised both issues at the same time, as though they were connected, though I can't see the connection myself) is a more serious and more complicated one. Here are some relevant questions:

1. Does the use of state funds (these are, after all, public universities) to provide benefits to unmarried heterosexual and homosexual partners really constitute a moral endorsement of their lifestyles? Can the morality of their lifestyles even be fairly evaluated by considering only that they are unmarried but are still domestic partners?

2. Is this principally an issue concerning sexual morality (we can't support with state funds sexual arrangements which run counter to the majority's moral intuition) or an economic one (to attract the best talent to our universities, and as such to create the best environment for economic and intellectual growth in our state, we must offer competitive and even creative benefit packages)?

The culture warriors often use the language of democracy to undermine the protections offered by a democratic state. While our form of democratic government exists to prevent the extremes of a tyrannically authoritarian central government on one side and mob rule on another side; many fighting the good cultural fight appeal to both extremes, granting our presidential administration their equivalent to the divine right of kings on the one hand while arguing for the right of the majority to impose its will on the minority on the other. Here we see the second half of this equation, as Rep. Lee argues that the University of Louisville (and also, hopefully soon the University of Kentucky) is bound to impose the sexual moral intuitions of the majority on its staff, never mind the severe economic and intellectual consequences of draining the university of its talent.

Personally I'm proud of the University of Louisville for considering such a move, and I'm also proud that the University of Kentucky has at least verbally stood up to moralizing bullies and said that their benefits policy will not be impacted by the political views of the community. Good for them. Their primary job is to run a university, not appeal to the sexual moral intuitions of an ill-informed "majority," or to cave to the political opportunists who inflame the passions of that so-called majority.

4 comments:

Brian Cubbage said...

Good post! I have a couple of thoughts:

1) I wonder exactly how much public money really goes towards supplying employee benefits at U of L. Even though I work for U of L, I honestly don't know; I don't get any benefits from them. As far as the general budget of the university is concerned, though, the state only supplies a certain fraction of it, and not as much of it as the general public probably thinks. Of course, if Rep. Lee's point is that even one cent of public money is spent on providing domestic partner benefits to U of L employees, his point probably still stands; the state probably does supply around one cent of benefits per U of L employee. (Maybe a bit more; I don't know.)

2) I guarantee you that Rep. Lee and probably the majority of Kentuckians could care less that KY's state university system is competitive with others, or even that it's that good. KY legislators, for instance, sometimes issue a call to abolish the tenure system in our universities. The institution of tenure has its problems and its value is worth debating, but if KY unilaterally stripped its universities of it, I guarantee you that no one would take a job here, and those who had would start looking for the exits. The KY legislature doesn't really understand higher education all that well as far as I can see, and it doesn't seem to have much desire to understand it.

3) Both parts of the social conservative's argument, (a) and (b), rest on two implicit premises:

(1) One's sexual orientation, and the way in which it manifests itself in one's behavior, are fully free and responsible choices.

(2) Law and public policy should reward citizens' good choices and punish citizens' bad choices. Those who make good choices deserve more privileges and greater freedom; those who make bad choices deserve fewer privileges and less freedom. The aim of the government's acting in this way is to improve citizens' conduct.

Among political philosophers, (2) is called "perfectionism." In the present case, the perfectionist belief only makes sense because of (1); if a particular way of behaving fails to be a choice, then it makes little sense to try to reinforce that behavior using the persuasive means of state power. I think that Rep. Lee is trying to send the message that one's sexual orientation, and one's living out of it, are indeed choices. The reason why he and other social conservatives think that gay marriage, domestic partnerships, etc. "threaten marriage" and "undermine families" is because they seem to operate under the curious belief that if the state, or some other greater power, stops reinforcing heterosexuality, more and more people will choose homosexuality, with some unspecified disastrous consequences.

If this is the argument-- and I think it is-- I think it's patently ridiculous. Aside from the evidence suggesting that homosexuality has strong natural and genetic components, I find it difficult to view my own straightness as anything like a choice in the way the argument presupposes. I find it hard to believe that anyone, straight or gay, experiences sexuality that way. It's as if Rep. Lee believes that there is a deep reservoir of repressed gayness among the straight population that will come pouring out the second the guardians of public morality fall asleep on the job.

Tom said...

The dagger to the opposition, assuming they're making their arguments in good faith:

U of L spokesman John Drees said the benefit won't cost taxpayers anything. Revenue from premiums is expected to cover the added expenses, he said. The university is self-insured, meaning it pays for health care expenses directly rather than contracting through an insurance company.

If this is true, the only argument against this is bigotry. Though Kentucky politicians are not above bigotry when pandering for votes.

Brian Cubbage said...

Tom, you confirmed what I suspected. Where did you find the quote from Drees?

Of course, you're right-- politicians aren't above unintentional and even deliberate distortion.

Tom said...

Here under the heading: "What Will It Cost?".