Sunday, March 23, 2014

What we can learn from the acceptance of gay marriage

Image credit: Adam Jennings / AP

The acceptance of gay marriage seems to be almost a forgone conclusion in the United States. Many of its proponents argue it's just a matter of time before gay marriages are recognized across the union,  and decades of polling on the matter certainly support this view. Still, the US is but one (albeit influential) country, and there are many places in which this trend is not apparent. Rehearsing the arguments, then, is still of use. Even more importantly, as I will argue, understanding structure of the argument for gay marriage (and in general, equal treatment of individuals regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity) sheds light on broader moral principles.

Dialogues about gay marriage often take this form (A and B are two interlocutors):

(1) A: Gay couples deserve all the benefits and protections that straight couples get from having their marriage recognized by the state. There is no morally significant difference between gay couples and straight couples that justify the recognition of one kind of relationship but not the other.

(2) B: In fact, there is a morally significant difference between gay couples and straight couples. Straight partnerships are the only kind of union that can produce children, and the state has a special interest in protecting that union.

(3) A: It might be true that in some sense only "straight couples" can produce children, but gay people do have and produce children as well, albeit in somewhat different ways. And even more importantly, many straight couples are allowed to get married, but do not or cannot have children. If they can still enter into marriages, why can't gay couples?

(4) B: You misunderstand. It's not the "having" of children that marriage protects, but the special form of human relationship that is protected, which has the potential for procreative activity.

(5) A: But this is just begging the question. You're saying that this form of relationship is special and should be protected, but you're not showing any reason why this "special" kind of relationship merits these particular protections. The benefits of marriage are not solely designed for the protection of relationships that produce children, and even less so for the protection of the "form of relationship" that produces children. Since these protections would surely benefit gay couples, and it is incumbent that you show some good reason why denying them to gay people is justified. You have failed to do so.

I've never heard a good response to (5). Obviously people make some other claims to oppose gay marriage, most of them empirical or religious, but there's no reason to take these claims seriously. (One other argument worth taking seriously, though I don't have the space for it here, is a reductio ad absurdum that is usually mistaken for a slippery slope argument.)

I imagine most proponents of gay marriage would be happy with the dialogue as I've laid it out. If it's accurate and correct, it explains a lot. Obviously, it's a much simpler dialogue than nearly anyone will ever have on such an issue, but I think it somewhat represents the way the zeitgeist has moved on the issue.

What it shows is that the restriction of marriage rights to straight couples is the result of a bias against gays. This is why the only arguments against gay marriage that B can come up with beg the question. B assumes that only straight people deserve marriage rights, and tries to argue this point, but all their points just show that this is their base premise. And since this premise isn't obvious or shared, it cannot be defended.

Image credit: Sequoia Hughes / Flickr

Similarly, dialogues about animal rights often take this form:

(6) C: Sentient non-human animals deserve all the basic rights (right not to be killed, right not to be treated as property, etc.) that humans are afforded. There is no morally significant difference between animals and humans that justify recognizing the basic rights of humans but not the rights of the other animals.

(7) D: In fact, there is a morally significant difference between humans and the other animals. Only humans make laws, are self-aware, are creative, listen to opera, engage in moral behavior, and have all the capacities that make humans unique. It's these capacities that make us deserving of basic rights.

(8) C: It might be true that in some sense only humans can have all these capacities, but other animals have these and other capacities in a variety of degrees and to different extents. And even more importantly, many humans, such as babies and the mentally disabled, lack any or all of these capacities to certain extents. If we still protect the basic rights of these humans, why shouldn't we protect the basic rights of the other animals?

(9) D: You misunderstand. It's not the "having" of these capacities that warrants basic rights, but the special form of life that is humanity that is protected, which has the potential for these capacities.

(10) C: But this is just begging the question. You're saying that the human form of life is special and should be protected, but you're not showing any reason why this "special" kind of life merits these particular protections. The benefits of basic rights are not solely designed for the protection of human life, and even less so for the protection of the potential for the capacities of human life. Since these rights could surely protect animals, it is incumbent that you show some good reason why denying them to animals is justified. You have failed to do so.

I have never heard any good responses to (10). It might seem I crafted this parallel on my own for my own nefarious purposes, but I assure you the discovery was quite by accident. Obviously, I have emphasized the similarities here for effect. But part of my being convinced of (10) was the fact that I already accepted (5).

Just as before, the reason D cannot defend their position is that D is assuming from the outset that animals can't have rights. But this assumption belies an internal prejudice, which is not itself justified.

If we want to believe that the spread of gay marriage across the country is a good thing, and that it is moral progress in the right direction, we have reason to pause. To accept this means that there are better and worse ways of constructing society, ways that we ought to be treating others. And if the conclusions of (5) are correct and warranted, we should accept the power of reasoned argument to reach moral conclusions. If we don't accept in turn accept (10), we need a very good explanation of why these dialogues are disanalogous.

I have looked and I have never discovered such an explanation.

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