Sunday, April 24, 2005

READER RESPONSE -- Will gay marriage lead to polygamy?

Posted by Craig Westover | 10:48 AM |  

Will gay marriage lead to polygamy?

That's the question posited in this post for discussion. The argument frequently made by same-sex marriage opponents. The case I made my Pioneer Press column was that same-sex marriage supporters tend to ignore addressing arguments that reflect concerns of the majority they are trying to win over in favor of pejorative castigations on their character and easy but weak arguments that ultimately have no impact in the court of public opinion.

On the other hand, posted at the Independent Gay Forum, is an excellent rebuttal to the slippery-slope polygamy argument by University of Minnesota law professor Dale Carpenter (funny hat tip to Eva Young). As challenging as the David Frum article in the National Review and the Stanley Kurtz article in the Weekly Standard are to same-sex marriage supporters, Carpenter’s article is to same-sex marriage opponents.

While the polygamy argument has some superficial appeal, Carpenter writes, it ultimately doesn't work. In demonstrating why, he leaves us with more than just a same-sex marriage argument; he provides a principled framework for looking at slippery-slope arguments in general.
Slippery-slope arguments take the following form: “Proposal X contains within it a principle. That principle not only supports Proposal X but would also support Proposal Y. An honest person supporting Proposal X must therefore also support Proposal Y. While Proposal X may or may not be bad in itself, Proposal Y would surely be very bad. So to avoid adopting Proposal Y, we must not adopt Proposal X.”

Substitute “gay marriage” for Proposal X and “polygamous marriage” for Proposal Y and you have a slippery-slope argument against gay marriage.
There are three possible stock responses to a slippery-slope argument.

1) The destination(s) at the bottom of the slope aren’t so bad, so there’s no need to worry.

2) The slope slides both ways and the other side might be worse.

3) There is a principled stopping point that prevents us from reaching the feared bottom of the slope.

Carpenter writes that in the gay marriage debate, the first stock response would involve arguing that polygamy is unobjectionable, not an attractive position. The second stock response would involve claiming that if we repress gay marriage, there is nothing to stop us from prohibiting other marriages, like those involving people of different races or infertile people, an argument, he asserts, that is not likely to impress many people as a reason to support same-sex marriage (although I think it should).

It’s the third response -- that there is a principled stopping point preventing the slide toward polygamy — that according to Carpenter best refutes the slippery-slope argument.
The argument for gay marriage is indeed an argument for a liberalization of marriage rules. But it is not a call to open marriage to anyone and everyone, any more than the fight against anti-miscegenation laws was a call to open marriage to anyone and everyone.
Here’s where the idea of principle (not dogma) comes into play. It’s why I find this argument so convincing from a political and ethical perspective. Carpenter writes --
We should ask why the recognition of a new form of monogamous marriage would lead to the revival of polygamous marriage, which has been rejected in most societies that once practiced it? What is “the principle” supporting gay marriage that will lead us to accept multi-partner marriage?

One possible principle uniting the two is that gay marriage, like polygamous marriage, extends marriage beyond partners who may procreate as partners. But that doesn't work because procreation is already not a requirement of marriage. Sterile opposite-sex couples have already taken that step down the slope for us.

A second possible principle uniting gay marriage and polygamous marriage is that both exalt adult love and needs as the basis for marriage. Yet this step down the slope has also already been taken by straight couples. Marriage for the past century or so in the West has become companionate, based on love and commitment. Among straight (and gay) couples, children are a common but not necessary element of the arrangement. So even if gay marriage were justified solely by the love same-sex partners have for one another, recognizing such relationships would be more analogous to taking a step to one side on a slope already partially descended, not an additional step down the slope.

Still, how do we avoid polygamy? Here is where many advocates of gay marriage run into trouble. If we claim that gay couples must be allowed to marry simply because they love each other, there is indeed no principled reason to reject multi-partner marriages. Multiple partners in a relationship are capable of loving each other.
Here’s where Carpenter’s argument gets really interesting because in addressing the issue of principle, he allows neither side in the debate get away with declaring an unexamined statement to be a defining principle. He drives both sides back along the path to a first principle (which is a fundamental aspect of a conservative approach to political policy).
But satisfying individual needs is not “the principle” supporting gay marriage. Instead, gay-marriage advocates should argue that any proposal for the expansion of marriage must be good both (1) for the individuals involved and (2) for the society in which they live. Gay marriage meets both of these criteria. The case for polygamous marriage is distinguishable (and weaker) on both counts, especially the second.
Carpenter supports that argument here, and I strongly recommend both sides of the same-sex marriage debate take a look at it. This is the kind of focus the debate needs. It poses challenging questions that opponents of same-sex marriage out to be confronted with and that placards and personal attacks prevent from being raised.

Carpenter clearly defines the challenge to conservatives --
Perhaps none of these considerations is a decisive argument against polygamous marriages. But at the very least they suggest that gay marriage and polygamous marriage present very different issues. Each should be evaluated on its own merits, not treated as if one is a necessary extension of the other.