Public and Private

Here is an idea I’ve had about the Great Bathroom War of 2016, which may be quite wrong for all I know:

Perhaps it is an argument about what should be public, and what should be private.

From my perspective (which according to the Attorney General of the United States is one of Hitleresque bigotry possibly mitigated by stupefied, quivering fear of change) gay marriage is absurd, because there is nothing public about homosexual sex acts or the feelings homosexuals have for one another. There is nothing public about whatever feelings straight couples have for one another either but their sexual relations and stable legal contract do result in a very public good, the production and education of children, which is the only reason why the legal contract known as marriage exists.

(Of course I realize my understanding of marriage existing for the sake of producing children has been antiqued since the invention of the pill and that marriage nowadays means nothing more than “an expression of love” according to which by contract a man’s life is ruined if his wife decides to leave him, but we are talking theory here, not concrete realities.)

So, if homosexual relationships are by essence private they ought not be ratified by legally enforceable contracts. What are they ratifying? Sex acts?Feelings? As far as the broader society is concerned, those things are nobody’s business.

Take the transsexual movement. If anything is private and none of the business of the broader community it is a man’s feeling that he is somehow, deep down, a woman. As far as the public is concerned he is a man. If he puts on a dress and asks his friends to call him Caitlin they might humor him because they like him and don’t want to hurt his feelings. Asking to be legally recognized as a woman, however, is an absurd imposition of the private on the public.

Religion, on the other hand, is by essence public. That does not mean it must be subsidized by the state or that among the duties of the king is the suppression of heresy, but that religion is a large scale communal activity. It implies group worship, group rules of behavior, and group education in a specific tradition. It is, and must be, institutional, which is the only way a community can persevere across generations. Because it comprises a group and because it regulates group behavior, it inevitably influences the broader society. Religion of an individual, or shared by a couple of individuals, is an impossibility.

My opinions, which were common sense and held by everyone until about last week, seem to be the inverse of what the powerful people in business and government think.

What we see nowadays is an inversion of public and private. People are encouraged to publicize their private lives and lobby that their private realities be enshrined in law. In order to achieve this public communities like churches and schools must be made to submit. (Again, by “public” I don’t mean government entities.)

The victors are atomized individual and their private desires, the losers are organic communities.



  1. After that post about the tenuousness of middle-class-hood, I’m surprised you’re not making the jump. A marriage is an alliance, a social commitment. It doesn’t begin or stop at reproduction. A married couple is, in almost every respect, in a better position than unmarried couples. They stay together longer, they live longer, they’re more likely to buy a home, more likely to send children to university, more likely to live longer, more likely to not live under the poverty line. All of those factors are of interest to society and should certainly be of interest to our governments.
    That’s not about sex acts or feelings, it’s about stability and the general well being of society. You seem to think your vision is antiquated, but not at all. It’s very much post-war. An antiquated view is one in which family extends to aunts and uncles, cousins, in-laws. It’s about a joint project- one in which we may not even like each other, but we’ll still work together for the well being of the tribe. That’s not just good for the tribe, but also for the neighbours and from there there’s a knock on effect. Enough good tribes and we have civilization.

    1. Wow, you are as bourgeois as I. Good point about the relative novelty of the independent nuclear family, but marriage as a contract for producing children is a constant even in tribal and polygamous societies. Reproduction is the assumption motivating marriage. Otherwise it becomes just a convenient household arrangement indistinguishable from, say, a pair of elderly sisters living together.
      You are married, right? In your experience does having your friendship and relationship backed up with a legal contract provide the sorts of benefits you describe above?
      I don’t know for sure what comes first, a stable marriage or a stable middle class lifestyle. I suspect, though I can’t prove, that rather than marriage creating middle class habits, middle class habits allow people to marry well. Taking a poor person with with a chaotic lifestyle the modern poor tend to have and sticking him in a marriage seems to work out as well as putting him in a middle class job or middle class house: generally ends in disaster.
      OTOH take a stable middle class family and introduce an element of chaos – whether drugs or divorce – and the family is poor before the know it.

  2. I think the two go together, marriage + lifestyle. I see differences even within families. The married couples are more solid, even if it is sometimes for purely bureaucratic reasons.
    In my case, I’d say you’re right, we were “married” before we had a marriage contract. The lifestyle pre-existed the document. That being said, it was incredibly difficult to navigate from a legal angle. Who owns what, names on mortgages, who pays which bill, how much autonomy do we have with each other’s money. And all of that with the threat that if anything happens to one of us the other might be faced with an inheritance tax of 40 to 60%. Possibly being forced to sell property to foot the bill.
    Marriage allows us to invest jointly not just emotionally, but financially. It’s this alliance that over the years allowed us to care for Mike’s mother when she had dementia. His divorced siblings couldn’t or wouldn’t do it. It also allowed us to take in during two different periods the children of family members who were divorcing.
    Of course there are married people who are a mess, but I’d venture to say they or their spouse don’t understand the concept of a joint project- and the sort of commitment that’s required.

  3. Lucretius · · Reply

    I don’t know if marriage is best understood by the concepts of contracts, things that are made in “rational self-interest.” Marriage seems to be better understood in terms of common good, but especially vows and sacrifice for higher things.

    Instead of implying images of businessmen shaking hands, we should try to invoke images of knights fighting dragons to save the princess, but even more so fighting his vices to save the princess. Or Citizens refusing to cave into the social pressure of Nazi Germany and instead help those being persecuted. We should imagine firemen who refuse to abandon people in fire. God forbid, but we might want to induce images of a certain Person being crucified for the sake of mankind even!

    When we think of contract and thus of mutual self-interest, we see marriage erroneously as this:

    Christi pax,


    1. A contract is not an image to which marriage is being compared, but the term by which marriage is being defined. Marriage is not analogous to a contract, it IS a contract by its essence. You can add or subtract whatever romantic notions or images you want, I’m talking about the nature of the thing.

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