Logic,  Marriage

Reasoning About Marriage

There are points in debates when arguments get left behind and emotions take over. Perhaps the national debate over marriage has reached that stage. It is not good when debate descends into a slagging match. There are arguments to be made and we should keep our heads. If we do this perhaps we can reason better with each other.

Much has been written in the defense of traditional marriage. And I, because I agree with traditional marriage, think those arguments are good arguments. However, it is not as if those who disagree with me don’t have any arguments. They do. So, why legalize same sex marriage? As far as I can tell there are four main arguments in support of a different definition of marriage. The following is an attempt to show why they don’t convince me:

1. Argument from Equality. 

All people are equal, equally valuable, equal before the law etc. All people should be able to get married. A homosexual is a person. Therefore, homosexuals should be able to marry. 

2. Argument from the analogy between sexuality and ethnicity/gender. 

It is wrong to exclude people on the basis of gender or ethnicity. Sexual orientation is like gender or ethnicity – it is unchosen and a non-moral issue. Therefore it is wrong to exclude people from marriage due to their sexual orientation. 

3. Argument from love. 

Love is a good thing. We should, as a society, celebrate love. Marriage celebrates love. Homosexuals love each other. Therefore we should celebrate their love through marriage. 

4. Argument from harmlessness. 

As long as there is no negative outcome for an action it should be legal. There would be no negative result from legalization of homosexual marriage. Therefore it should not be opposed.

The above reasons are the most commonly given as to why marriage itself should be redefined in order to include same sex couples.

Let’s begin with the first one. An appeal to equality is plausibly the best argument for redefining marriage. And its appeal is broad. The most fundamentalist Christian, the most radical liberal and the most argent capitalist all believe in some kind of equality. The Christian believes that we are all equal before God with no one being more or less worthy of salvation than the next person. The liberal believes no person should be excluded from anything on any grounds. The capitalist believes everyone should be able to seize their own opportunity to create and grow wealth.

One problem is that the equality argument may not count as a reason for redefining marriage; it seems to assumes the definition is between two adult people whatever the sex.

The argument appears to be about who is or who is not allowed to get married, but overlooks the need to provide a reason for changing the definition. The liberal agenda focuses on issues of inclusion – who is and who is not permitted to participate in institutions. However, the argument to allow access to marriage by same-sex couples must first be an argument about what marriage is.

To see this consider another law – it is illegal to sell alcohol to minors. If our legislators wanted to allow younger people to buy alcohol they would not need to change the definition of drinking. One might say that it would be wrong to exclude any adult from buying alcohol on the basis of their gender or ethnicity, but one would not need to redefine drinking in order to do so.

If marriage is, by definition, a life long, exclusive, intimate relationship between one man and one woman for the purpose of raising a family then clearly two men cannot marry each other. One needs some way to show that there is something wrong with the definition of marriage being what it is: the union between a man and a woman. It may be the case that same-sex couples desire to be married, but that is not an argument for changing the definition. A desire for something is not, on its own, a reason.

One might respond by saying that laws about who may get married are also, in some respects, about access. A person cannot legally marry a minor, for example. But, even on these grounds, the definition does not even exclude a homosexual person from marrying a person of the opposite sex. They do have equal access in this respect.

One might, instead, insist that definitions follow from the argument. One begins with an institution and then defines it in terms of whom one thinks should be able to have access.

The traditional definition, however, is not without independent grounds. The genus of the term, “marriage” is not founded on consensus. Rather, it is defined based on what is already there in reality. Marriage is defined in terms of the relationship of mothers, fathers and their children. There is a static physical and observable status of the people involved in marriage – one male and one female joined together for the purpose of family.

My own view is that marriage is a gift from God to people for their good. Because it is grounded in a definition given by the one who designed us it is the best definition. Of course, I recognize that religious grounds are unacceptable to non-religious people, but nothing about what I have said is irrational or incoherent. It is, however, a reason for defining traditional marriage the way I do.

The physical (and religious) restraint on the definition does not allow for a redefinition without making the definition rely on a completely different principle. Marriage is not reducible to a legal contract between two consenting adults and consequently should be open to access by whomever we decide. Rather, marriage is a legal recognition of a relationship that precedes government and is the foundation for any society – family.

What would be needed by the non-traditionalist to make her argument? One would need to show that the definition of marriage, as traditionally conceived, is somehow irrational or unduly harms a special class of people. And this is why the debate in the Supreme Court is so vital. The burden of proof is on those who wish the court would oppose any state that chooses to uphold a traditional definition. The traditional definition has a good rational basis in anthropology, biology, history and not least Christian and other religious belief.

The task for the non-traditionalist is firstly to suggest that there is something wrong with the traditional definition and secondly to show the grounds for a new definition. Equality of access is not, in itself, an argument for either of these.

There are some other arguments that follow from the equality argument. For example, homosexual couples are not able to enjoy the material benefits available to married couples. However, those arguments are not strictly relevant. They are not arguments for why marriage should be redefined. One might think it is wrong to exclude same sex couples from such material benefits, but one needs a reason for thinking this.

The second argument is based on an analogy between gender and ethnicity on the one hand and sexual orientation on the other. This is a poor analogy and, again, is an argument about access to marriage when it should be an argument for the change of the definition of marriage. But even if the debate wasn’t about a definition, but about access, the analogy still wouldn’t work.

The comparison is illegitimate for at least three reasons. First, ethnic and gender differences are publicly observable or demonstrable. Sexual orientation is based on say-so. Many LGBT proponents argue that there is a genetic determination for sexuality. The theory has had wide appeal and, for some, has led to the view that sexuality is more akin to gender and ethnicity. The problem is that the hypothesis is impossible to prove. There exists no way to verify a person’s sexual preference through testing DNA or any other intrinsic trait of a person.

Second, there has been no violation of the rights of anybody. The civil rights movement, to which the modern LGBT movement seeks comparison, sought to overturn laws that did not treat black people equally. But this is not true of LGBT people. No one has sought to deprive them of their rights. They may get married, and have all the other rights afforded to citizens and residents of the United States regardless of sexual orientation, gender or ethnicity.

Third, whether someone is black or white, male or female is, in itself, not a moral issue. The argument that being gay is likewise not moral in that sense is wrongheaded. Clearly, whether or not one thinks homosexual marriage is permissible has to do with whether or not one thinks that homosexual behavior is morally justifiable or not.

The point is that there is a clear disanalogy between being of  a particular ethnicity or gender on the one hand and engaging in sexual acts with people of the same sex on the other. The former is clearly not an issue of moral culpability whereas the latter is an action for which people are responsible.

There also seems to be sexual activities that even those who advocate homosexual marriage object to. Sexual practices such as rampant infidelity, pedophilia or necrophilia are considered immoral by most people. What makes our objections to these acts not analogous to gender or ethnic discrimination?

Some make the argument that sexuality, though self-defined, is like gender since gender is also self-defined. Much is being made of gender reorientation at the moment. Transgender organizations are attempting to argue that gender is, in part, chosen. If we decide that it is wrong to discriminate on the basis of gender when it is chosen then it is wrong to discriminate on the basis of sexual preference if that too is self-defined. If there is no intrinsic connection between the physical attributes of gender and the gender of a person (the physical can be adjusted to correspond with the choice) then the analogy holds. More recently, though less plausibly, we have heard Rachel Dolezal suggest that race is also a matter of self-determination.

This argument relies on a wider worldview assumption that is rooted in a kind of existentialism. Its power lies in the belief that we are radically free to determine our identities. In common parlance – we can choose to be who we wish to be. Consequently, this kind of appeal is gaining popularity. People who choose to change their physical gender are seen as being liberated from the constraints of their body and becoming who they really are.

And Hilary agrees (Clinton campaign shirt)

There are some counter arguments available to this position. First, what is the criteria for self-determination? Are there limits to what we should be choosing for ourselves? I don’t necessarily mean legal, but moral limits. Is it right to allow people to become what they choose? What if that choice is to die or to be radically thin? What if a person desires to be eaten by someone else and “be” food? These may sound radical, but they are intended to point to some notion of nature. Human beings are a certain kind of thing. If there is no intrinsic quality that makes us human then there are precious few things we should be restrained from becoming. But this seems to go against a number of other intuitions we have about who we are.

Religious communities are particularly strong on this issue. We are, according to Christians, a designed being with a human nature to which we should accord our lives. We are designed for family and operate best when we accord our lives with that design principle. That is not to say we are going to find perfection in monogamous heterosexual marriage. We are deeply sinful and selfish. Our marriages, no matter how good, are not perfect, but they are the best way to live because they accord with our design.

There are, also, alternatives to marriage for intimacy. If a person finds himself or herself with sexual desire for someone of the same sex and cannot, due to conscience, marry a person of the opposite sex it is not better for them to follow that desire wherever it might lead. A desire for intimacy can be met through learning deep non-sexual friendship. Many with feelings of same-sex attraction come to find intimate non-sexual friendships meet a deeper need than nakedness ever can.

Furthermore, sexual relationships between two people of the same sex are arguably more harmful in the long run. This is probably going to sound deeply offensive to some, but the kinds of activities that take place between non-married couples especially gay activities lead to physical injury (not to mention psychological harm). Gay sex is not a simple harmless activity and, despite great efforts to limit its effects, causes many people great physical harm. If this is difficult to hear; it is not difficult to understand or to see why.

The third argument begins with the assumption that love is a good thing. Surely we all think that! Yet love is not a term to be used about every relationship. A young child who “loves” her adult abuser does not have a “love” to be celebrated at all let alone in a marriage celebration. That is not to suggest that an abusive relationship is analogous to a homosexual relationship, only that not every relationship that defines itself as loving requires some kind of recognition. Most loving relationships outside one’s family have no formal legal status. Friends who love each other dearly do not automatically require a societal or legal recognition of that love. Furthermore, some self-proclaimed “loving” relationships should not be celebrated by anyone since they are immoral relationships.

Second, a celebration of love is not an obligation for society. No law requires that we all celebrate all relationships that declare that they are loving relationships. An affair is not celebrated by everyone no matter how loving the partners say they are. We are talking about a law that is binding on society, but that appears much too strong.

Finally, marriage is not identical to a celebration; it is a union of a man and a woman. We celebrate such a union, but celebration of love does not require a marriage nor does marriage require a celebration.

Many say live and let live. What harm can it do? The final argument rests on the idea that legalization has no negative consequences. The problem with this argument is that it is false. There are many negative consequences to the alteration of the definition of marriage. Here are a few. First, the consequences for those who believe marriage is of religious significance are that their view, once marriage is legally redefined, is at odds with the law. If nothing else, this introduces a social strife that is going to be a headache for legislators for generations to come. Some commentators tell us that this will go away in a generation, but this is highly improbable. For one thing, Christians don’t have a sexual ethic based on pragmatism but on a fairly static text—the Bible. And the Bible is pretty clear on the matter of marriage and of the condemnation of homosexuality. It is very unlikely that Christians are going to change their minds on this issue.

Second, as a consequence of redefining marriage in law there is a severe threat to other parts of United States constitution. Many argue that freedom of religion must be quelled in order to allow homosexual marriage to obtain equal standing in practice. Already we have seen state legislators attempt to deny convinced Christians to have the ability opt out of presiding over gay weddings if they serve in government agencies.

There will be many who suffer court appearances because they refuse to make a gay wedding cake or allow gay couples to stay in their bed and breakfast accommodation. The outcome of all this could be the withdrawal of Christians from public service and businesses that are exposed in this area. Moreover, they won’t be leaving just because of their consciences; they will be leaving because they will be forced out by law. 

An undoubtable upshot of all this is probably that the very thing complained about at the moment by the LGBT community will be all the worse carried out against those for whom homosexual behavior is deeply sinful. They will be subject to discrimination. And not just due to their sexual ethic, but due to the worldview they hold. They, as I do, believe that sexuality is not defined by us, but by God in whose image we are made. We don’t get to decide how this works, to make the world in our image, but to live according to how God made us and how he tells us to live. This kind of worldview will be subject to public scrutiny and it will continue to be subject to public harassment and discrimination.

Many are incredulous to hear traditional marriage proponents also suggest that redefining marriage to be a consensual relationship between adults to open the door to more kinds of relationships. However, there is nothing, in principle, that prevents this “slippery slope.” There are already arguments for including polygamy in a definition and, once the “door is opened,” who’s to say what an adult’s sexual preference should and shouldn’t be?

This generation is greatly deceived if it thinks that there is no harm in upturning a centuries old definition of marriage. A good dose of restraint is needed at this time. Perhaps we will be glad of all our checks and balances in America that may make these changes slow enough to allow us to think and perhaps avoid the consequences.

There is an angry, aggressive agenda at work here. And perhaps an overly angry ungracious response.  Some of the LGBT movement is a threatening movement bent on achieving its ends whatever others might think. To allow such a coercive movement to get its way just to avoid provoking their temper is foolish.

Finally, a word on discrimination. We could do with a little more of it. I don’t mean we should hate each other more (just the opposite), but we should be able to discriminate between good reasons and bad reasons. We should be able to ask for reasons for why we think the way we do. And we, living as we do in a land that prizes public and open debate, should have good arguments to back up our conclusions. As far as I can see there is no good reason for changing the definition of marriage. 

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.