Critical thinking is not about being the biggest, baddest arguer on the block. Critical thinking is actually about robustly attacking one’s own presumptions, more so than those of others. As part of that, critical thinking involves putting in the effort to strengthen those opinions you disagree with so that you’re not just preserving your opinion because your opponent made some silly mistake.
To give an example I like shopping at markets rather than supermarkets. If someone who disagrees with me says that they like supermarkets for their convenience of everything in one place I could point out that supermarkets are consciously designed to make you wander back and forth across the whole store finding three items (while rows of stuff is at grabbing height for children!). Across a large supermarket with the floor space of a small market your shopping items may be under one roof but are hardly in the one place. I may have won that argument however I haven’t done my own thinking a lot of favours. It would be better if I paused and thought is there any convenience benefit to shopping at a supermarket that does stand up (such as a single point of sale which is probably what was meant by “one place”). Then I could contend with such a benefit. That’s improving your opponents’ argument first.
In the spirit of critical thinking then I have been trying to ponder what would be a decent argument that access to the legal rite of marriage should remain restricted to heterosexual adult partnerships and continue to exclude homosexual adult partnerships.* This to me is the best way to write out the question posed by the “gay marriage debate”. The question isn’t whether or not gay people should be married. That could equally be answered by the statement that nobody should get married.
I haven’t come up with anything very solid at all. What I’ve been able to do is figure out what we can safely exclude when looking for such a decent argument. This post is a walkthrough those exclusions.
Firstly it doesn’t matter what homosexual people are generally like.
Sometimes you hear arguments against gay marriage which are really just a grab bag of insults against gay people. Certain images of gay culture are derogatorily referred to (like gay male bathhouse culture) to falsely insinuate that gay people are not the marrying kind anyway. This argument largely works because gay people and their supporters get so annoyed when they hear it that they lose their cool. That looks bad and thus reinforces that the speaker was right. “See, gay people get so easily offended by just straightforward facts about gayness how could they possibly make a go at marriage where such offence is par for the course.**”
If we can stay calm in the face of vitriol however this argument is a push over. Why? I know gay people for whom I have a far more sexually permissive history. But my legal access to marriage with my partner is clear. Meanwhile these gay friends of mine (guys and girls) are all about having a mom and mom or pop and pop apple pie relationship till death parts them, God bless their gay hearts. And they are the ones who want to get married.
It really doesn’t matter if the average or even most common homosexual is a hedonistic sensualist with a death wish, a porn addiction and a scatological fetish. It really doesn’t. Firstly, because they probably aren’t the ones who want to get married. Secondly, because even if marriage becomes available for homosexual couples we can still say that any homosexual couple who meets those descriptions oughtn’t get married. Same as we might for a straight couple who does. The argument of what gay people are generally like would only ever contribute anything if we were arguing whether or not all gay couples should get married (right now). But we are not arguing that, any more than the current situation is that all heterosexual couples ought to be married (including all the abusive ones for example). We are merely arguing whether or not it should be a legal option for both types of couples.
Restricting marriage to heterosexual couples does not even say people with a supposed range of character flaws can’t marry. It just says they can’t marry people of the same sex. We really have lost our original topic by this point, which may have been the intent of this kind of argument. Any argument based on an alleged nature of the average gay person is basically the rhetorical equivalent of throwing sand in the face of your opponent. It doesn’t stand up to scrutiny but as it evokes a hostile reaction it can sometimes look like a win.
Secondly we can’t argue from authority.
To “argue from authority” is (in rhetorical jargon) to make a case based on someone else saying our conclusion rather than any reasons for that conclusion. So for example an argument from authority would be to say that Albert Einstein (who we all might agree is a pretty smart guy) says that time travel is impossible (or possible, I’m not sure what he said actually).
In this particular debate two kinds of arguments from authority are brought into play. One is that a particular magic book supposedly says something that means marriage should be restricted to heterosexual couples. In this post I showed how arguments about the authority of magic books are generally fruitless. There’s never a test a magic book can fail that disproves its authority. This kind of argument can drag us into this fruitless territory.
However we don’t need to disprove the authority of a magic book (or argue that it doesn’t say what is being claimed) to show this type of argument is irrelevant. We only need to show that whatever the magic book says, it still needs to be argued that all the opinions of that magic book should be enshrined in law. Given that the basis for law in this country oughtn't be the opinions of any particular magic book that’s the end of that argument.
The second common argument from authority regarding this question is to say that so-and-so gay person doesn’t think we should allow gay marriage. If a gay person thinks so then it can’t be homophobic and if it isn’t homophobic it must be true, seems to be the logic. For that to be a valid argument we would have to accept that if a gay person thinks we should allow gay marriage that that is a compelling argument too. It’s nonsensical.
Arguments from authority are not decent arguments in any situation anyway. Even Einstein had to provide reasons for his opinions.
Thirdly it is not enough to argue that there is a purpose to marriage that only makes sense for heterosexual couples.
At first this can seem like a strange exclusion. Surely if marriage serves a purpose that only makes sense for heterosexual couples, then it makes sense to exclude homosexual couples from access to marriage?
However what we haven’t done with these kinds of arguments is to show how allowing homosexual couples to legally marry prevents or endangers the exclusive purposes it might serve for heterosexual couples.
For example I can think of a fairly obvious purpose for straight couples to marry that only applies to them. Straight couples can accidentally have kids when they have sex. Obliging straight couples to make a commitment to each other before they have sex consequently provides a means of preparing their relationship for those accidental kids. Gay relationships don’t produce accidental kids so this purpose of marriage doesn’t apply to them.
However if gay people get married to express a commitment to their relationship even though they won’t have accidental kids this doesn’t do anything at all to prevent or hinder straight people getting married to express a commitment to their relationship because they might have accidental kids. The former doesn’t preclude the latter at all.
For some people their marriage is a very religious affair. It is absolutely important to them that their legal marriage is also “in the eyes of their God”. It may even be a way of praising their God for them. It would be peculiar to suggest that in order to protect their ability to do this we have to prevent the legal marriages of people for whom this purpose doesn’t apply (non-theists and worshippers of other Gods). People currently are able to get married for all sorts of reasons, some of which are relevant to only some and not others.
Now having excluded the above three categories of argument I am at a loss to think of anything else that supports the restriction of access to legal marriage to only heterosexual couples. I can think of many reasons why the state shouldn’t get involved in marriage at all. I can think of arguments why marriage is all round not a good idea even. But I can’t think of a single decent argument that legal marriage ought to be restricted to heterosexual couples.
That surprises me. I am actually suspicious that my own opinion is preventing me from making the effort to come up with decent counter arguments. After all most opinions I have would be a consequence of my balance of for or against arguments. I can usually recognise a few good counter arguments to a even my strongly held views. In this case... perhaps someone else has some ideas?
* The members of the partnership can both be gay as but the partnership is still “heterosexual” if one is a woman and one is a man.
** If you marry Pat Robertson.