Dissecting Gay Marriage

by Benjamin Studebaker

It was drawn to my attention today that the gay marriage issue is not merely a controversy among American social conservatives, but that the debate rages in other countries too–namely France, in which recently there have been mass protests against Francois Hollande’s plan to legalise homosexual marriage and adoption led by the French political right and various catholic organisations in France. The French left was characteristically flamboyant in its counter-demonstrations, but the point still hits–there are large numbers of people in the stereotypically progressive European countries who take issue with left leaning social reforms. This does raise a question that I think is worth answering. What are the arguments for and against gay marriage? Is there anything to either set?

If you have noticed, the debate over gay marriage is usually not really a debate at all. The tendency is for the pro-marriage movement to assert that gays have rights because, well, they do, and the tendency is for the anti-marriage crowd to assert that marriage is between a man and a woman because, well, it just is. An assertion against an assertion gets no one anywhere. So let’s dig a little deeper.

The first thing we need to do is identify the arguments that don’t work. Arguments that come back to assertions that are matters of arbitrary choice or appeal to traditional deontologies where the arguer claims that a thing is right or wrong just because it is or because the arguer’s god says so are not valid forms of argumentation in secular politics. So let’s find these bad arguments and look at why they’re individually unworkable.

Invalid Pro-Gay Marriage Argument:

“Gays deserve equal rights”

The trouble with this argument is that it is circular. The question being debated is one of whether or not gays deserve equal rights, the most prominent of which is presently marriage. One cannot win the argument for gay marriage by asserting the conclusion to the question, one must provide some reason for why the conclusion is true. This argument is equivalent to responding to the question “Should we kill people?” by responding “we shouldn’t kill people” and then claiming that your reason for this is “people have the right not to be killed”. Well, obviously, if people have the right not to be killed, that would exclude by definition their being killed. The question would not need to be debated if that proposition was already universally accepted. You cannot convince someone of your conclusion by claiming your conclusion is true because it is true when the individual in question does not accept the conclusion. The same can be said for gay marriage–clearly not everyone agrees that gays should have equal rights because they are presently being denied those rights, so the pro-marriage movement needs an argument as to why people should change their mind on the issue, and “they should because they should” is a meaningless claim.

Invalid Anti-Gay Marriage Argument:

“Marriage should be between a man and a woman”

Devoid of reasons this argument would be no better than the previous one, but the opponents of gay marriage do quite frequently give reasons to support this belief. What are these reasons?

  1. God says so
  2. Gays make bad parents
  3. The institution of marriage is undermined

Unfortunately for the opponents of gay marriage, all of these reasons are very bad. Let us consider each in turn:

“God says so”

This is a regression to religious deontology. In order for it to have moral force, we as a society would have to accept the following:

  1. There is a god, an unverifiable proposition.
  2. It is god’s will that gay marriage remain illegal, another unverifiable proposition.
  3. The will of god is accurate moral truth–it does not follow, necessarily, that because a thing is the will of a true deity that the thing in question is the morally correct thing to do. The moral goodness or badness of the deity is another unverifiable proposition.

Separation of church and state specifically prohibits the state from accepting any of these things, even if they were all known to be true. Even if we knew there was a god and we knew what that god wanted us to do (neither of which can be known with certainty by anyone, and certainly neither of which can be used by a secular state to justify legislation), we could not know that the god in question was a morally just god and should not accept that god’s moral authority on that basis alone. This argument is based on a series of logical steps none of which can be confirmed and all of which are constitutionally excluded from most western governments’ list of options when justifying policy.

“Gays make bad parents”

This is a factually unverified claim against which there is massive scientific evidence not merely against the notion that gays are bad parents, but even in favour of the notion that they perhaps are especially good at it. This can be rejected outright as fallacious and discarded.

“The institution of marriage is undermined”

This begs the question of how the institution of marriage is undermined, particularly considering that gay marriage means that a larger portion of the population will be married, which would seem to strengthen the institution’s influence and prevalence in society, not lessen it. I have not seen any rationales for this position that are coherent and differ significantly from what has been discussed already–if you have one, leave a comment.

A Good Argument:

So far, I have merely dismissed arguments without putting forward any good ones. Destruction is infinitely easier than construction. Here is the only good argument I can think of on the topic:

  1. Legalising gay marriage increases the liberty and life choices of homosexuals without diminishing the liberty and life choices of other people, and is consequently in compliance with Mill’s harm principle as a liberty the state ought to permit. Why should the state permit liberty where it can do so without creating social harms?
  2. Increasing the liberty and life choices of a given person or group of people tends toward that person or group of people’s desire satisfaction and raises that person or group’s quality of life.
  3. The state should, where possible, augment quality of life for its citizens in so far as doing so is a net positive overall and is not counterbalanced by social harms–even if there were identifiable harms produced by gay marriage, they would have to overcome the happiness gay marriage would produce in scope and impact.

In short, gay marriage makes gay people happy, does not materially damage the quality of life of anyone else, and is therefore not different from any legal behaviour that offends some people but harms no one and is enjoyed by a subset of the population. If you are an opponent of gay marriage, consider all of the other things people do legally that annoy or offend you but that they nonetheless enjoy the liberty to do. Making gay marriage illegal is only as justifiable as criminalising all of those other behaviours would be provided you could assemble a majority of offended people who cared to get the laws past. The argument against gay marriage consequently tends toward totalitarianism by the offended against those offending, and that’s not a feature of a good society that provides people with life choices and a high quality of life.