The decision of the New York state legislature to approve gay marriage will be seen by some as a symptom of an underlying disease called “moral relativism.”  But this is a mistake that, I think, blocks our understanding of what is really going on. One need only look at the joy and satisfaction with which the decision was greeted by some to recognize that, far from indicating the disappearance of morality, the legislation is indicative of a strong moral order, and it is this order which is really at issue when we debate gay marriage.

Charles Taylor, in his A Secular Age, outlines the contours of what he names the Modern Moral Order (MMO). The MMO replaces pre-modern versions of social hierarchy with an “order of mutual benefit,” organized around the securing of rights for individuals and their ability to exercise these rights in exchanges that conduce to mutual benefit, particularly in securing for all “the needs of ordinary life.” The order does not aim at anything “higher” than this; it does not seek to replicate some transcendent form (Plato), nor conform to any religious command. Its progress consists in the extension of this order of mutual benefit to encompass as many persons as possible – and in theory, everyone. In its more robust forms, the political order is called upon not simply to protect rights, but bring more and more into effect the equality of persons it promises – Taylor calls this the increasing “intensity” of the order, as opposed to its mere “expansion” to more and more individuals. In this latter mode of “intensity,” the modern State is at its most “crusading,” for it does not simply seek a negative freedom but seeks to use laws to demand recognition of some good.

Assuming Taylor’s characterization is right, gay marriage may seem like a no-brainer, since the law enables individuals to enter into a mutually-beneficial exchange that securing a particular powerful element of ordinary life, marriage. The State has no interest in protecting any kind of transcendent order, including that of some supposed order of gender.

But if that’s true, why is the State interested in marriage in the first place? The common response is because of its interest in children, and so considerable time has been spent debating the effects of gay parents on children. But here is one place where I agree with commentators who suggest: the horse is already out of the barn. We already have a society where nearly 40% of children are born outside marriage, and where many others are the victims of no-fault divorce. That is, the connection between the State’s involvement in the sexual relationship of marriage and the raising of children is already severely strained – indeed, I have no doubt that the strain from these other factors is far, far greater than the strain that may be imposed by accepting gay marriage.

So, why is the State in 2011 interested in marriage? Here it seems we meet an internal inconsistency in the advocates of gay marriage: on the one hand, the common argument here is that “gay marriage doesn’t harm anyone else’s straight marriage” – which is to say, who I marry is a private affair. But if it’s a private affair, why is there any need for the State? “Sodomy laws” are not being actively advocated; the State is not currently seek to “ban” consensual homosexual intercourse. Why does the State need to be involved in approving a sexual relationship, given that the relationship can be broken at any time and given that the relationship need not serve to raise children?

Here, it seems to me, we meet up with the really crucial problem for the MMO, and that is its conception of sex as private, and yet extremely publicly important. That is, we exist in a social order currently that places enormous importance on sexual relationships in terms of “living a good life,” and only seems capable of bringing down public figures on these grounds, and yet sex is also understood as private and not subject to public regulation and debate. This “laissez-faire” attitude toward sex is, I submit, the second most-important incoherence in our society. (The first is the “laissez-faire” attitude toward property and wealth.) This incoherence then issues in incoherent laws. Abortion is certainly one – since the abortion debate is really about sex. Divorce is another. Now we have gay marriage. What we have in these laws purports to be the State being “laissez-faire” about sex – but in fact, the State is increasingly enforcing the idea that being “laissez-faire” about sex is (like, say, being laissez-faire about race) right. We have a right to have sex with and marry whomever we want, and the State must be around to enforce that right.

And so we might say that the real issue in gay marriage legislation is not “moral relativism,” but rather its opposite: a regime of moral order that strongly disciplines our social relations. Taylor emphasizes the ways in which the advent of modern social orders involves more – not less – disciplining of the order. The difficulty in this case (and this is where, it seems to me, the issue differs somewhat from abortion) is that the vindication of gay marriage by the State is not simply a matter of allowing certain persons to do certain things, but rather of enforcing the right of these persons to do these things. Will this demand the recognition of this right from everyone else, and from all other organizations in the society? The laws as currently written provide for “exemptions,” but one has to wonder how these sorts of exemptions will hold up over the long term, especially for organizations which in any way receive public funding (e.g. most Catholic institutions of higher education!).

But preoccupations with these matters will only distract us from what I think should be the central issue here: gay marriage is not a symptom of a disease called moral relativism. Rather, it’s a symptom, and perhaps not the most pressing symptom, of a MMO unprepared to deal coherently with human sexuality.