Circular Reasoning?

I recently came across another ‘defence of traditional marriage’ on a blog called Square Post, and I’ve decided to respond to it briefly. It isn’t anything new, but the old points are formulated in slightly novel ways.

It opens with a quote from the Californian Constitution and then proceeds to argue that said constitution doesn’t support the right to marriage for same-sex couples. To me, any argument beginning from an ‘enslaved to the constitution’ stance has already failed, for the simple reason that we’re not enslaved to the constitution. Constitutions can be amended or changed, as the US constitution has been,  several times, in order to protect a minority’s rights.

But anyway:

Preamble:
We, the People of the State of California, grateful to Almighty God for our freedom, in order to secure and perpetuate its blessings, do establish this Constitution.

And the opening to Article 1:
All people are by nature free and independent and have inalienable rights. Among these are enjoying and defending life and liberty, acquiring, possessing, and protecting property, and pursuing and obtaining safety, happiness, and privacy.

To quote this as support of gay marriage, I argue, is the equivalent of the dog catching its tail, biting it, and continuing to eat it for several reasons. In Part I of this series I offer this reason: gay marriage does not perpetuate society and therefore should not have the blessing of the state.

The foundational assumption present in this Preamble is that the people of California want to perpetuate society and the blessings of God. Whether you take that as formalistic deism (doubtful based on the historical record) or true religiosity, the second part of the equation is the perpetuation of society. That can’t possibly happen under a gay marriage context. Now all the exceptionists will shoot down this reason, offering marriage among elderly man-woman couples, barren young couples, and the like as a reason not to provide an exclusive position for traditional marriage. But they forget that the burden is on the gay marriage folks to prove how their unions perpetuate society so much so that the state should redefine traditional marriage, a model which has stood since the beginning of recorded history. (Source)

I’ve got a few problems with this, and most of them are to do with the phrase ‘perpetuation of society’. This is probably taken to be synonymous with ‘having children’ (see the immediate mention of infertile and elderly couples), but you’ll notice that the Preamble is not specifically concerned with marriage or procreation. If it was restricted to such a narrow range of activities, then anything that failed to produce children would also have to fail to be ‘blessed by the state’, according to the original author’s own reasoning. And yet, we are told that infertile couples or couples composed of people disinterested in having children should be blessed by the state, with no real justification at all apart from a mild non-sequiter.

I’ll illustrate the problem a bit more forcefully by laying out the reasoning behind this:

  1. If something does not perpetuate society (produce children), it should not be blessed by the state.
  2. Same-sex couples do not perpetuate society.
  3. Therefore same-sex couples should not be blessed by the state.

And now the problem:

  1. If something does not perpetuate society (produce children), it should not be blessed by the state.
  2. Infertile heterosexual couples do not perpetuate society.
  3. Therefore  infertile heterosexual couples should not be blessed by the state.

Clearly, perpetuating society involves more than just producing children, or else the original poster would condemn infertile heterosexual couples as strongly as homosexual ones. And indeed, an infertile heterosexual couple deserves to have their relationship affirmed by the law because it represents a socially productive family unit. The fact that it does not (and cannot) include children which are biologically related to both parents is irrelevant. It should also be obvious that such a couple is perfectly capable of caring for adopted or fostered children, just as much as a couple which is biologically fertile.

One could also argue that producing children is not always to society’s benefit. If two people have more children than they can care for (or if they are simply unable to care for any children), those children will very often end up in care of the state, placing unnecessary pressure on the institutions in place to protect them. Conversely, an infertile or same-sex couple is completely incapable of burdening society in this way. I know people who work for the social services, and all of them will tell you that they never have enough resources to handle all of the cases that come their way. An infertile couple, whether heterosexual or homosexual, can provide an enormous service to society by helping to care for these children. Of course, if ‘perpetuating society’ only refers to biologically producing children then this is irrelevant and both groups should be denied the right to marry.

For some reason, many who are opposed to marriage equality speak as if altering the definition of marriage is some herculean task, one which should only be undertaken at (proverbial) gunpoint. I’d like to see some justification for this.

I’d also like to see some sort of justification for the ‘it’s always been this way, so we shouldn’t change it’ argument. I’ve heard honest-to-god philosophers use it, apparently forgetting that it’s generally looked down upon in most other contexts.

Two further points:

For example, the state carves out exceptions to this “inalienable right” all the time. Age (youth) is a limitation; consanguinity (blood relationship) is another limitation; still another is consent. And no right is being denied a man, or a woman, respectively, that is not denied all other men or women respectively—no man can marry another man and no woman may marry another woman, so all are protected or denied the same exact thing under the law.

Any limitation placed upon marriage must be a justifiable limitation. Age and blood relatedness are two sensible limitations (the latter somewhat less so, but that’s an issue for another day), while the race of the people involved is not, which is why that particular limitation was removed. Is it sensible to prohibit same-sex couples from marrying? Possibly, but I haven’t come across a good reason to do it just yet.

The second point of this paragraph, that all people are equally restricted in who they marry, is incredibly insubstantial. But I’ve written about it before, so I won’t repeat myself here.

Finally, I’m confused by how often those who are opposed to gay marriage argue that it should be banned because the traditional family unit is the best there is. Even if we grant that this is true, it does not follow that all alternatives should be banned. If it did, we would need to prohibit anyone from forming any family unit that wasn’t a traditional one. What people are actually saying with this is that same-sex families are bad or harmful in themselves, which is a different claim altogether. By praising traditional families rather than condemning non-traditional ones, they turn what would otherwise be a very negative statement into a superficially positive one.

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