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23.2.04

Bad Arguments For A Good Cause

I'm a staunch proponent of same-sex marriage, and I've made numerous posts arguing for it or demolishing arguments against it. However, there are some arguments made by my fellow proponents of same-sex marriage that I think are invalid. Perhaps they're efficacious in changing actual people's minds, but on a logical level I don't think they work, and I'd prefer if we stuck to our better arguments.

1. "The sanctity of marriage is already tarnished," or, "the Britney Spears argument." Since one of the main (and invalid) claims made by opponents of same-sex marriage is that it will damage the institution of marriage (both its structural strength and its sanctity), it's appealing to point out that marriage is not so strong and sacred even without homosexual couples. It's true that marriage today has deep problems. But that doesn't mean that if same-sex marriage is detrimental to marriage as a whole, there's no point in stopping it. Marriage is not a lost cause -- if it was, homosexuals wouldn't be so keen on getting in on it. It's theoretically possible that allowing same-sex marriage will make the situation worse, and if so there's nothing illogial about wanting to oppose that further deterioration. There are many intellectually consistent social conservatives who also oppose all the factors -- divorce, teen pregnancy, abusive relationships, and so forth -- that have weakened heterosexual marriage (and even if they didn't, the very existence of that possible stance is a rebuttal to the Britney Spears argument). They may not be so vocal about those other evils only because they're engaging in some triage and focusing for now on the battle they have a good shot at winning. Indeed, the very weakness of heterosexual marriage may be a reason to oppose homosexual marriage -- the latter could be shrugged off by a strong institution, but it could be the straw that breaks the camel's back today. The proper response to the sanctity of marriage argument is to take either my position that same-sex marriage will not damage marriage regardless of the state of that institution, or possibly the Volokh position that same-sex marriage will damage marriage but that it's a price we should be willing to pay.

2. "We'll regret this later," or, "the verdict of history argument." People claim that same-sex marriage will go the way of slavery or the divine right of kings -- an issue that, while heatedly debated in its day, is now a foregone conclusion. Opponents are asked whether they'd like to be remembered as the southern aristocrats trying to excuse an obvious injustice, or as the valiant abolitionists. This argument is appealing because it feeds the progressive notion that society is on a bumpy but long-term road to the left. I agree that chances are in 100 years society will accept homosexuality as a matter of course. However, I don't think that necessarily says anything about the rightness or wrongness of the practice. Why should we assume that society is becoming more morally astute as the years go by? I have no doubt that slavery is wrong, but for most of us our acceptance of that fact is out of cultural habit, just like acceptance of the reverse was cultural habit in the antebellum south. Also, on the empirical question, think about what happened when slavery was first instituted. The earliest societies had no slaves. At some point, the practice started up -- say 500 years ago for race-based slavery. At that time, proponents of slavery could made a verdict-of-history argument if they thought a few centuries into the future. Opponents could, if they were psychic, look to the turn of the millennium and make a verdict-of-history argument for their side. Perhaps proponents could see some time in our future when slavery becomes acceptable yet again. It's dangerous to assume that history will close any question for good.

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