First published in Between the Lines, January 11, 2006
Stanley Kurtz is at it again. In the cover story for the December 26th Weekly Standard—“Here Come the Brides: Plural Marriage is Waiting in the Wings”—Kurtz cites a recent Dutch “triple wedding” as further evidence for the slippery slope from gay marriage to polygamy. (The Netherlands legalized same-sex marriage in 2001.) In Kurtz’s ominous words:
It’s easy to imagine that, in a world where gay marriage was common and fully accepted, a serious campaign to legalize polyamorous unions would succeed…. For a second time, the fuzziness and imperfection found in every real-world social institution will be contorted into a rationale for reforming marriage out of existence.
I have argued here before that there is no essential connection between same-sex marriage and polygamy. But it’s worth pointing out several confusions in Kurtz’s current iteration of the slippery-slope argument.
Confusion #1: The “Dutch triple wedding” was not a marriage at all. It was a private cohabitation contract signed by a Dutch notary public. It is not registered with, or sanctioned by, the state. It is no more a legal plural marriage than, say, a lease signed by three roommates.
Of course, lease-signings are not usually followed by cake and champagne. But if the fact that this Dutch trio had a private ceremony means that they actually have a plural marriage, then plural marriages are already taking place—not just in the Netherlands but in the U.S. Any group of people can put on any ceremony they like. That doesn’t make it marriage.
Confusion #2: Kurtz obscures an important distinction between two understandings of the slippery-slope argument. One can understand the argument as a causal prediction: if gay marriage happens, plural marriage will follow. That doesn’t mean that it should follow, or that there’s any logical connection between the two.
Alternatively, one can understand the argument as a statement of principle: regardless of whether gay marriage leads to plural marriage in the actual world, there is a logical connection between the rationale for one and the rationale for the other, one might argue.
Kurtz, like many same-sex marriage opponents, seems to switch back and forth between these two versions of the argument. The distinction is subtle but important. By itself, the causal-prediction version is weak, for two reasons:
1. Because there may be a good principled case for gay marriage despite some adverse consequences. Same-sex marriage might lead to any number of things, some good, some bad. It might lead to higher revenues for the catering industry. It might lead to increased gay-bashings. Neither of these causal predictions affects the validity of the case for same-sex marriage, which ought to be evaluated on its own merits.
This is not to say that consequences are irrelevant in determining public policy—far from it. But that point leads us to the second weakness of the causal-prediction form of the slippery-slope argument:
2. The prediction seems unlikely. Plural marriage won’t ever have widespread appeal in this country, as long as sexism and religious extremism are kept in check.
Polygamy typically flourishes only in societies with rigid gender-hierarchies. In egalitarian societies, most people find it challenging enough to maintain a long-term relationship with a single partner. (Indeed, insofar as gay marriage undermines gender hierarchies, same-sex marriage may make plural marriage less likely.) It’s also worth noting that many prominent same-sex marriage opponents—including Maggie Gallagher and Hadley Arkes—find the causal-prediction version of the slippery-slope argument unconvincing.
So that brings us to the other version, which asserts a logical connection between same-sex marriage and group marriage. Allow gays to marry, the argument goes, and there’s no principled reason for forbidding polygamy.
Why would anyone think this? After all, polygamy can be heterosexual (for example, with a husband having one-to-one relationships with several wives), homosexual, or bisexual. What does one thing have to do with the other?
The answer reveals the third confusion in Kurtz’s current argument:
Confusion #3: The myth that gay marriage rests on the claim that people should be allowed to marry “anyone they love.” Although careless gay activists occasionally make this claim, it is foolish and easily refutable. Consider the absurd entailments: if I love my sister, I should be allowed to marry my sister. If I love my Ronco Electric Food Dehydrator, I should be allowed to marry my Ronco Electric Food Dehydrator. (Do you know how much beef jerky costs in the store?)
No, the case for gay marriage is not (or not merely) about whom people love. It’s about whether these marriages are good for individuals and society. Increasingly, the evidence suggests that they are.
Whether plural marriages are good for society is quite a different question. Switching the focus to that question may be a good debate tactic, but it’s hardly an argument against gay marriage, much less a new one.