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On marriage equality

Marriage equality is great, but liberals should give conservative arguments more credit.

This post will probably offend you. I’m about to give both sides of the gay marriage debate a fair hearing. This means I think the topic is debatable—and it also means I think public discussion on it’s been a let-down.

The truth is, there are at least some conservatives who have done a decent job of questioning the logic for gay marriage. Liberals are often too dismissive of them. They are right that the arguments, on reflection, don’t quite stack up. But they are wrong to dismiss them as irrelevant or laughable.

Polygamy and incest
The most common objection to legalising gay marriage is that wouldn’t actually achieve marriage equality: polygamy, incest and minors would still be prohibited.

This should not be hard for liberals to answer. Some just say that they would support legalising polygamy and incest. Others draw a distinction by saying that they, unlike gay marriage (but like minors, presumed incapable of consent), carry harms or risks.

But the comparison is not irrelevant, as some liberals claim. The principle used in support of marriage equality has to be consistent for all cases: you can’t just use it only when it’s convenient. Given that the bill legalises none of those things, it’s a fair question to ask.

Nor does it matter if the comparison is insulting. It is not their claim that gays are comparable to polygamy and incest in every respect. It is merely that the principle used—equality—should apply to everything. If you think incest should be treated differently, you have to explain why that overrides equality. It’s not enough just to assert “it’s not the same”.

An arbitrary definition?
That leads into the next challenge. Liberals point out, rightly, that it is not for the state to be arbitrarily limiting the definition of marriage. But conservatives, rightly, counter that restricting marriage to groups of two is still arbitrary. So now everyone’s definition is arbitrary. What gives?

There is no “correct” definition, per se. But there might be a least arbitrary definition.  The two least arbitrary lines are everyone (i.e. consenting groups of any size and composition) and no-one (i.e. the state does not administer marriage). No-one seems to like the latter. As for the former, many liberals don’t hold this line so for the sake of the argument let’s assume it’s also unpalatable—we’ll return to it later—and say we’re trying to find a line in between.

The conservative definition goes like this: marriage is the founding of a family. It then follows that spouses should in principle be capable of adding to that family.

I say “in principle” deliberately. In practice, everyone (including polygamists) could adopt (assuming we allowed it)—but since we ruled out “everyone”, that’s not very helpful. The next arbitrary line, according to conservatives, is groups with members necessary and sufficient, in the ordinary case, to naturally add to a family.

The “necessary and sufficient” part (i.e. one man and one woman) makes sense if you have to draw a line somewhere. The “naturally” part has several logical leaps, most strikingly the appeal to nature fallacy, but it still makes it less arbitrary.

What about the “ordinary case” part? A common liberal objection is that the “nature” part would rule out infertiles. This misses the point: malfunctions aren’t intrinsic to the nature of the physiological composition of the couple.

The line that conservatives propose has problems. Indeed, all lines other than “everyone” and “no-one” suffer from a degree of arbitrariness. But their definition isn’t ludicrous: it’s less arbitrary in the sense that there is an external idea behind it (founding a family). Drawing the line at all groups of two has no such backing.

How liberals should address these challenges
That doesn’t mean that conservatives have the upper hand. It just means that liberals need to do more than scoff at those objections. Some liberals have been engaging well with conservatives, but far too many just label them crazy.

The easiest path is just to meet their challenge: to support marriage for all consenting groups. This should, at a minimum, include polygamy. It should probably include incest (where consensual) too. This satisfies the “less arbitrary line” I talked about earlier. Support for the bill then relies on getting closer to that ideal than the status quo. The more gutsy liberals do this. For some it’s a bit much.

The other route is to explain why those other cases should be ruled out. The case against incest normally holds that there is always a power imbalance between family members that undermines the consent. There’s probably some case against polygamy via the mechanics of romantic relationships, though I’m not sure how it works. One needs to be careful on this route. Showing a harm isn’t necessarily enough to override the right to marriage (people can consent to harms). Either the harm has to be intrinsic and cross some consistent line, or it needs to contradict some other consistent principle.

What liberals shouldn’t do is criticise conservatives for attempting to assert a definition. Once the state recognises marriage, it has to define it—you can’t avoid that. And a definition can’t (in a logical sense) be “wrong”. It can just be better or worse. Therein lies the debate.

It’s easy to get emotional about issues like this. But conservatives are right to point out that gay marriage isn’t a no-brainer. More liberals should be prepared to explore the logic with them. They’ll find it a better strategy for swinging opponents around.

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