Last time, I offered several arguments against allowing same-sex couples to get married. In the interest of fairness, I now want to offer a couple of arguments in favor of allowing same-sex marriage, to see if they survive a similar level of scrutiny.
One might wonder why we should bother with such an activity, since we already found there to be no good arguments against same-sex marriage. But it doesn’t follow from this that same-sex marriage should be permitted–perhaps there are no good arguments on that side of the issue either. Thus, we shouldn’t take weakness on one side of an issue to carry the day, since we may find the same lack of support on the other side.
I think there are at least two compelling arguments for permitting same-sex marriage, and both of them have their roots in the philosophy of John Stuart Mill. Mill’s Harm Principle states, roughly, that the only legitimate reason for restricting a person’s freedom is to prevent harm to others. From this, we get a fairly compelling argument for permitting same-sex marriage.
1. We ought not prohibit an activity that does not harm other people.
2. Same-sex marriage does not harm other people.
3. Therefore, we ought not prohibit same-sex marriage.
This is a valid argument, and rejecting the first premise requires that we adopt a position that is contrary to some of the most fundamental values of liberal democracy. I don’t think opponents of gay marriage are prepared to do that, so we should probably focus on whether the second premise is true. This is an empirical claim, and we don’t have a lot of evidence that it’s true, in part because same-sex marriages are a relatively new phenomenon.
If we follow the Millean line of thinking through its influence on the philosophy of Gerald Dworkin, however, we find a way of dealing with this lack of empirical data. Dworkin claims that the burden of proof is on the state to demonstrate that the activity prohibited really would cause serious harm. Dworkin says this about paternalistic interferences, but it applies nicely to restrictions on liberty in general.
If we adopt this principle, in addition to the Harm Principle, it looks like the lack of evidence of harm caused by same-sex marriage implies that we ought not prohibit it, since the state cannot currently prove that same-sex marriages do harm others. .
There is another, similarly Millean line that we might take in arguing for allowing same-sex marriages. One might appeal to the principle of utility, which says, again roughly, that we ought to adopt whatever course of action will lead to the largest net balance of enjoyment over suffering, for all involved. This gives rise to the following argument.
1. We ought to permit whatever will lead to the greatest net balance of enjoyment over suffering, for everyone, whenever we can.
2. Allowing same-sex marriages will lead to the greatest net balance of enjoyment over suffering.
3. Therefore, we ought to allow same-sex marriages.
This argument has the advantage of not merely challenging a prohibition on same-sex marriage, but implying that we should explicitly allow such arrangements to occur. Both of the premises here, however, are somewhat dubious. The first premise is an approximate statement of act-utilitarianism, which has notoriously troubling implications. In short, the principle of utility is a useful tool, but few people are willing to adopt it as their sole means of moral decision-making, because this requires that we endorse courses of action that seem morally reprehensible.
The second premise is yet another empirical claim that lacks support. However, unlike previous empirical claims that we’ve been discussing, it’s possible to explain how this one could be true. Clearly, same-sex couples will be better off by being allowed to get married, insofar as people in general are better off when they are allowed to do the things they want to do and marry the people they want to marry.
The question, then, is whether this benefit outweighs any bad consequences of permitting same-sex marriage. As I’ve already mentioned, it’s not obvious what those bad consequences would be. So it’s at least plausible to think that it will be better for everyone, overall, if we allow same-sex marriages.
I think we can conclude two things from our overall discussion of same-sex marriages. First, there aren’t really any good arguments against it, and there’s a fairly compelling argument against prohibiting it. This latter argument is based on the Harm Principle, something that people from a variety of political and social backgrounds accept. So there’s a very strong basis for at least not prohibiting same-sex marriages.
There is also a pretty good argument for permitting same-sex marriages, based on an appeal to the principle of utility. That argument has the advantage of being based on a highly plausible empirical claim about harms and benefits of same-sex marriages. Unfortunately, it is also rooted in an ethical principle that few people regard as an overriding consideration. For most people, utility is one of many considerations that should be factored into one’s moral and political decision-making.
This argument, I think, gives us a reason to permit same-sex marriage, but the door remains open for a stronger reason to override it. The burden of proof, at least for now, lies squarely with those who wish to prohibit same-sex marriages.
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.