This piece was published on Facebook on Sunday, November 4, 2012. It is reposted with permission from the author. My response is here.
There is a particular kind of violence in this world that has always bothered me. It hides itself in plain sight and has cloaked itself in numerous disguises: patriotism, faith, the common good, and many more. This violence is the imposition of ideas upon the individual by the community without his consent and without the justification of the community’s significant material interest in his thoughts, values, and actions. It is a violation of Mill’s Harm Principal (0) and it is responsible for numerous evils in our society today including the prosecution of victimless crimes, our concept of hate crimes as different from normal-crimes, and what is of interest to me today: the inability of same-sex couples to marry.
Several weeks ago a friend of mine, James Heaney, posted an article on his will written by one, Michael Blissenbach. The article is entitled “If we don’t settle the definition of marriage now, it’s at risk of being changed” (1). There are some arguments for positions which I disagree with that take me quite a long time to figure out how to respond to. For some, I even lack a response. When It comes to arguments against extending the right to marry to same-sex couples though, I typically find them to be so flawed, so full of premises that are both quite controversial and blatantly false, that It typically only takes a matter of seconds to recognize them as what they are: malarkey (to borrow a phrase from Mr. Biden). To me, Mr. Blissenbach’s article was no exception and so I promised a good and proper trouncing (2). To this end, I will make several responses to the two points Mr. Blissenbach’s article and then go on to briefly give a couple of reasons why same-sex marriage should be legalized.
(You should probably read the article before continuing. It’s here: http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2012/10/04/blissenbach/?fb_action_ids=361724260580238&fb_action_types=og.recommends&fb_source=aggregation&fb_aggregation_id=246965925417366)
Mr. Blissenbach’s article first observes that there is a serious risk that pro-same-sex marriage forces might be victorious and then explains why this would be a bad thing. A rough outline of his two main points, and their sub-points is as follows:
1) “Marriage is not just about love and commitment; it is also about the procreation and rearing of children.”
A) The government recognizes marriage between a man and a woman because they can produce children.
B) Children are best raised by a man and a woman and so only opposite-sex couples should be allowed to marry.
2) “Changing Minnesota’s legal definition of marriage would automatically change every law in our state that mentions marriage.”
A) This harms religious organizations.
B) This causes harm when children are taught in schools that same-sex marriage is marriage.
C) The sports reporter example
Each of these points is plainly false. None stands up to even a cursory examination. I will consider each in turn spending the most time on Mr. Blissenbach’s first major point consisting of sub points 1.A and 1.B.
Responses to 1.A:
Firstly, 1.A is justified using some very suspicious looking reasoning. It is first observed that a difference between the relationships that the government does and doesn’t recognize is the ability to procreate. It is then concluded that this ought to be the distinction; it is concluded that same-sex couples oughtn’t be allowed to marry. For this inference to work though, the status quo must be good. That is to say, for this inference to work it must be true that same-sex couples oughtn’t be allowed to marry. In order to reason to the conclusion of 1.A, we must already have assumed that the conclusion is true. 1.A clearly begs the question.
Further, (secondly) reproduction doesn’t seem like the reason why the state distinguishes between marriage and other relationships. Some people get married without the intent or the ability of having children. My objection is considered by Richard Berquiest (3) who seems to imply that the only reason such couples are allowed to marry is because enforcing mandatory desire to procreate as a prerequisite for marriage would be impractical and violate the couple’s privacy. At the very least though, it would still be true that this couple is doing something immoral. In the context of tax-breaks for married couples, their act would be analogous to the actions of those who game welfare programs. Firstly, it seems strange to feel wronged by the actions of this hypothetical couple. Secondly, married couples receive additional benefits beyond those that are useful for raising children and it seems both reasonable for this couple to desire these benefits and unreasonable for society to deny them in the name of also denying benefits that ought be used for raising children. If it were to be an objective truth about the universe that teens oughtn’t drive with other people in the car, you still wouldn’t ban their owning cars in the name of taking away the extra seating.
Thirdly, 1.A operates under the false assumption that society’s laws and institutions have intrinsic purposes. This is not the case. Though God’s institution of marriage might not be established by society, society’s institution of marriage is. If it can be said to have purposes at all, it only has those purposes that we give it. We can change the purposes of institutions because it is we who give them purpose and so this decision is morally evaluable. The anti same-sex marriage crowd often tells us that the purpose of marriage is to produce children. This obviously needn’t be the purpose, and, less trivially, this oughtn’t be the purpose because society gains so little, maybe nothing, from the withholding of marriage rights while others are made to suffer from this withholding.
Fourthly, 1.A is not robust to scientific progress. It’s quite likely that the day when same-sex couples can reproduce is fast approaching. We can already pull it off with mice (4). It doesn’t make sense to pass an amendment defining marriage as between only a man and a women because only a man and a woman can reproduce when this might not be the case a decade from now.
That’s just a small set of things wrong with point 1.A. I.B, that children are best raised by a man and a woman and so only opposite-sex couples should be allowed to marry, is just as false.
Responses to 1.B:
Firstly, the claim that children are better off when when raised by both a man and a woman rather than a man and a man or a woman and a woman is blatantly false. Instead it seems that children raised by same sex-couples do just as well as those raised by opposite sex couples (5), child abuse in lesbian households is non existent (6), and children raised by same-sex couples tend to do just as well in school as those raised by opposite-sex couples (7). This sentiment is echoed by the American Psychological Association which affirms that “There is no scientific evidence that parenting effectiveness is related to parental sexual orientation” (8).
Secondly, even if same-sex couples were statistically worse at raising children than opposite-sex couples, this would only reflect a difference between the mean parenting efficacy of both groups. It would not mean that all same-sex couples are less fit as parents than opposite-sex parents. Imagine for a second that women really were statistically worse at math then men (this is likely false). Some women would still have stronger math stills than some men and so it would be wrong to not hire a woman as a mathematician only on the grounds that she is female. Likewise statistical differences in parenting between same-sex and opposite-sex couples is a poor reason to withhold marriage rights.
Thirdly, even if same-sex couples were statically worse at raising children, there is insufficient information to conclude that this is an intrinsic difference. It could be that the greater adversity faced by same-sex couples (being in an often discriminated against class will do that to you after all) causes them to be less effective parents. This is one of many problems with a recent and very controversial study which found that same-sex couples tend to be less effective as parents (8.5).
Moving on to Mr. Blissenbach’s second major point, observe that much of its weight is removed if what I’ve written above is correct. If one is wrong to think that raising children is intrinsically the purpose of marriage and that children raised by same-sex couples are worse of, then it doesn’t seem so bad if society were to redefine marriage, allowing same-sex couples to adopt and diversity to be recognized in schools.
Response to 2.A:
2.A is somewhat factually incorrect. In Massachusetts, Catholic Charities wasn’t forced to abandon its adoption and foster care programs. It chose to. Specifically, Catholic Charities chose to end its adoption and foster care programs because it couldn’t both discriminate against same-sex couples and receive public funding (9). It’s important to point out that Catholic Charities was engaging in discriminatory practices. Just because Catholics don’t believe that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry doesn’t make it right. We would not hesitate to maintain recognition of mixed race marriage even if a religion existed that believed that God frowned on such behavior. Further, even if this religion was extremely engaged in the community, we still would choose to continue our recognition of mixed race marriage rather than give in to this religion’s inhumane discriminatory practices.
Still, It is true that society lost something when Catholic Charities closed its doors. We lost the value added by Catholic Charities beyond the benefits provided by public money. This value that was lost, though, can be seen as being strictly monetary, since with funding anyone, the state or another non-profit, could provide the same adoption services. Does this harm really outweigh extending the right to marry to same-sex couples? If an evil country decided to rob the United States every time a couple married would we blame the couple or the evil country?
Response to 2.B:
It’s not really clear what the ‘wrong’ committed here was. Mr. Blissenbach links to this article (10) which explains the example. Apparently some children were read a story by their teacher in which two princes fall in love and get married. There isn’t any explanation of why this was bad in the Christian Examiner article though; it’s taken for granted. Mr. Bliseenbach picks out two details from this incident which he presumably finds to be the most significant: 1) children were taught that “that same-sex unions were equivalent to marriages” and 2) this was done without the consent of their parents. #1 looks like a rather sketchy interpretation of the facts, but lets assume it’s true. Was this teacher’s actions wrong? Given that same-sex couples are allowed to marry in Massachusetts, I don’t think so as long as the teacher was talking about society’s institution of marriage and not religious marriage.
Consider A religion of racists. Does it really infringe upon their religious liberty if children are taught in school that black people’s owning property is equivalent to white people’s owning property? Would it be wrong to read children a story in which a black man signs a contract? Of course not. Even if it were true that in the eyes of God black people couldn’t own property, it would still be a fact that society grants them property rights. To teach children that society grants black people property rights is to teach them a fact about the world. This fact should not be kept from them just because their racist parents don’t like it. Likewise, to teach children that same-sex couples who are married are therefore married is to teach them a factual thing about the world. It’s nearly a tautology after all.
Response to 2.C
I think its sufficient here to point out that the firing of the sports reporter really didn’t have anything to do with legalizing same-sex marriage. That he was fired is just as right or wrong as it is for companies to fire someone for holding any other belief: for being liberal or conservative, for holding racist beliefs, for being pro/anti-NAMBLA. (I include extreme examples here because there are many who believe that it’s wrong to fire someone, regardless of their actions, for being of a certain party affiliation while simultaneously believing that its ok to fire someone, regardless of their actions, because they hold less savory beliefs. These people are hypocrites.)
Why should same-sex couples be allowed to marry?
To list just a few reasons:
1) Because society should establish institutions that facilitate the happiness of It’s citizens. I’ve shown above that the cons of same-sex marriage are minimal. The small problems that might be caused by legalizing same-sex marriage are far outweighed by the good of granting the right to marry to 4 million people (11).
2) Because they are just as capable parents as opposite-sex couples (See response to 2.B) and there are children who don’t have parents. To deny same-sex couples adoption rights is to harm both the couples and the children who they would have adopted. To deny a a child a loving family in the name of bronze-age superstitions is to commit an egregious wrong.
3) Because in general it’s wrong to discriminate against a group of people. There are exceptions to this principal. For example, it’s ok for hollywood to discriminate against white people when hiring an actor to play Martin Luther King. There is a reasonableness to this. The reasons given for for withholding marriage rights, however, lack this reasonableness. I’ll stop short of modeling this in terms of utility, the bargaining of perfectly rational individuals behind a veil of ignorance, natural law, duty, or any other theory of justice or ethics since this post has already gotten too long and what matters here is the intuition.
Minds are rarely changed. This is a most unfortunate aspect of the human condition. My hope is that even if pro-amendment readers have not been convinced that same-sex marriage ought be legal, they have been at least been made sufficiently suspicious of this belief that they will refrain from codifying this belief in a constitutional amendment. To do so is to risk closing the discussion prematurely. On Tuesday, vote no.
And that’s all she wrote. Sorry for the wall of text and thank you to anyone who actually made it this far. People tagged include those to whom this trouncing (2) was promised (Michael, James, and Joseph) as well as a small subset of those who, for better or worse, have been victims of my rantings and ravings.
(2) For those who don’t know, a trouncing is an act of extreme violence committed by one citizen of the Hundred Acre Wood, usually a heffalump or woozle, against another. Further, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CLnADKgurvc&noredirect=1