North Carolina recently passed Amendment One, a constitutional prohibition on same-sex marriage. They are not the only state to seek legislative action to prevent same-sex marriages–in fact, 30 states currently have laws on the books prohibiting them. However, what is somewhat unique about North Carolina’s approach is the fact that they opted to amend their state constitution, effectively ending further debate about the issue.
Since this is a blog about ethics, I’m less interested in analyzing the politics of this event, and more concerned with the arguments that might be given against same-sex marriage. There are three lines of argument typically given against same-sex marriages. Two of them are simply bad arguments, while the third requires empirical support that is not immediately forthcoming. At best, we seem to have a very weak case for prohibiting same-sex marriages.
The Religious Argument
Many opponents of same-sex marriage argue for their position on religious grounds. An argument of this sort might look like the following:
1. We should legally prohibit scenarios which are likely to lead to acts that the Bible (or some other important religious text) deems morally wrong.
2. The Bible deems homosexual sex morally wrong.
3. Same-sex marriages are likely to lead to homosexual sex.
4. Therefore, we should prohibit same-sex marriages.
While this argument is valid, the first premise is clearly false. For example, property ownership and unequal distribution of wealth makes theft more likely, and the Bible clearly prohibits theft, but we do not think this means we should prohibit property ownership and redistribute wealth. Further, this is also an argument against homosexual relationships, and only the most ardent zealots argue for that. However, there is another way to formulate the religious argument.
1. We should prohibit social relationships structured in ways that differ from their structure as defined by the Bible.
2. The Bible defines marriage as a union of male and female.
3. Therefore, we should prohibit same-sex marriages.
There are two ways to respond to this argument. The first, which applies equally to the first version of the religious argument, is that a secular society should not base its legal standards on any particular religious text, because many of its own citizens do not subscribe to the tenets defined by that text. But the further issue is that, as with the first argument, the first premise is obviously false. The Bible endorses several kinds of social relationship that we now find deeply objectionable, including polygamy, slavery, and regarding one’s spouse and daughters as a kind of property that can be exchanged and traded. Clearly, we do not think that the Bible is the best guide for how social relationships should be defined in general, so it’s not clear why we should utilize a Biblical definition in this one case.
The Biological Argument
Many opponents of same-sex marriage, despite being motivated by their religious convictions, nonetheless recognize that they cannot base a legal opposition to same-sex marriage on religious commitments. One course of action is to retreat to a biological argument against same-sex marriage. That argument proceeds as follows:
1. We should prohibit marriages where the primary purpose of marriage cannot be satisfied.
2. The primary purpose of marriage is procreation.
3. Same-sex couples cannot procreate.
4. Therefore, we should prohibit same-sex marriages.
There are two concerns with this argument. First, the second premise is dubious at best. For many people, the purpose of marriage is multi-faceted, and not primarily a means to facilitate procreation. Ironically, this premise seems contrary to the alleged sanctity of marriage that same-sex couples supposedly infringe upon. What sanctity is to be found in a baby-making contract?
The other concern is that the first premise of this argument implies that people with fertility problems, as well as post-menopausal women, should not be allowed to get married, because they are incapable of procreation. But this is absurd. Clearly, we cannot base opposition to same-sex marriage on a biological argument.
The Harm to Children and Families Argument
Once religious and biological opposition to same-sex marriage is ruled out, there isn’t much left for the opponent of same-sex marriages to base their position on. This is a problem, because if we are to deny something as important as the ability to get married to the person one wishes, we ought to have a good reason for doing so. The burden of proof, I think, is on the opponent of same-sex marriage.
The last resort for the opponent of same-sex marriage is to argue that permitting same-sex marriages is harmful to both “traditional” families and the potential children of same-sex couples. The argument would be something like this:
1. We can prohibit certain social arrangements when allowing them would be more harmful, overall, than prohibiting them.
2. Allowing same-sex marriages would be more harmful, overall, than prohibiting them.
3. Therefore, we can prohibit same-sex marriages.
Formalizing this argument is a good idea, because only then does one see how many problems it has. First, the second premise is an empirical claim that requires support, and it is very difficult to find any reputable evidence that same-sex marriages harm, or are likely to harm, anyone. The children of same-sex couples appear to be socially well-adjusted, while it’s not clear how same-sex marriages would actually be harmful to more traditional families, in spite of claims to this effect. However, there is quite a bit of evidence that prohibiting same-sex marriages is harmful to same-sex couples. At best, we need more evidence in support of the second premise. At worst, we already know that it’s false.
Setting empirical worries aside, however, the first premise is clearly not something we should endorse. Although consequentialist reasoning appears in our policy-making habits quite often, we are not consequentialists all the way down. We tend to think that there are certain rights and goods which are so fundamentally important to people, that we should protect them, even if we would all be better off not protecting them. The first premise requires a commitment to consequentialist reasoning that few of us would accept.
Perhaps there are other arguments against same-sex marriage–if so, please share them in the comments so that we can talk about them too. But as it stands, we do not seem to have any compelling arguments against allowing same-sex marriages. Next time, I’ll consider some arguments for allowing same-sex marriages. But until then, we should pause to consider how deeply troubling it is that North Carolina, and thirty states altogether, have prohibited something for which we seem to have no good arguments for prohibiting.
About the Author
Elijah Weber is a graduate student at Bowling Green State University. He holds a Master's degree in philosophy from Colorado State University, and Bachelor’s degrees in sociology and philosophy from Chapman University. He currently lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife Laura, his son Brandon, and two cats.