The Right is Wrong About Gay Marriage

First published at on January 29, 2010

Opponents of marriage equality have recently been shifting somewhat away from the “bad for children” argument in favor of what we might call the “definitional” argument: same-sex “marriage” is not really marriage, and thus legalizing it would amount to a kind of lie or counterfeit.

As National Organization for Marriage (NOM) president Maggie Gallagher puts it: “Politicians can pass a bill saying a chicken is a duck and that doesn’t make it true. Truth matters.”

The definitional argument isn’t new, although its resurgence is telling. Unlike the “bad for children” argument, it’s immune from empirical testing: it’s a conceptual point, not an empirical one.

Suppose we grant for argument’s sake that marriage has been male-female pretty much forever. (For now, I’m putting aside anthropological evidence of same-sex unions in history, as well as the great diversity of marriage forms even within the male-female paradigm.) All that would follow is that this is how marriage HAS BEEN. It would not follow that marriage cannot become something else.

At this point opponents are likely to retort that changing marriage in this way would be bad because [insert parade of horrible consequences here]. But if they do, they’ve in effect conceded the impotence of the definitional argument. The definitional argument is supposed to be IN ADDITION TO the consequentialist arguments, not a proxy for them. Otherwise, we could just stay focused on the consequentialist arguments.

What Gallagher and her cohorts are contending is that EVEN IF we were to take the consequentialist arguments off the table, there will still be the problem that same-sex marriage promotes a lie, much like calling a chicken a duck.

Let’s pause to consider a seemingly silly question: apart from consequences, what’s the problem with calling a chicken a duck—or more precisely, with using the word “chicken” to refer to both chickens and ducks?

If I go to the grocer and ask for a chicken and unwittingly come home with a (fattier and less healthful) duck, that’s a problem. But (1) same-sex marriage poses no similar problem: no one worries about walking his bride down the aisle, lifting her veil, and discovering “Damn! You’re a dude!” And (2) such problems are still in the realm of consequences.

If there’s an inherent problem with using the word “chicken” to refer to both chickens and ducks, it’s that doing so would obscure a real difference in nature. Whatever we call them—indeed, whether we name them at all—chickens and ducks are distinct creatures.

Something similar would occur if we used the word “silver” to refer to both silver and platinum. Even if no one noticed and no one cared, the underlying realities would be different.

That might begin to get at what marriage-equality opponents mean when they claim that same sex marriage involves “a lie about human nature” (Gallagher’s words). But if it does, then their argument is weak on at least two counts.

First, one can acknowledge a difference between two things while still adopting a blanket term that covers them both. Both chickens and ducks are fowl; both silver and platinum are precious metals.

So even if same-sex and opposite-sex relationships differ in some fundamental way, there’s nothing to prevent us from using the term “marriage” to cover relationships of both sorts—especially if we have compelling reasons for doing so (for example, that marriage equality would make life better for millions of gay people and wouldn’t take anything away from straight people).

The second and deeper problem is that both the chicken/duck example and the silver/platinum example involve what philosophers call “natural kinds”—categories that “carve nature at the joints,” as it were. By contrast, marriage is quintessentially a social, or artifactual, kind: it’s something that humans create.

(One might retort that God created marriage. That rejoinder won’t help marriage-equality opponents attempting to provide a constitutionally valid reason against secular marriage equality. But it might help explain why they sometimes treat marriage as if it were a fixed object in nature.)

Like “baseball,” “art,” “war,” and “government”—to take a random list—and unlike “chicken” or “silver,” the word “marriage” refers to something that humans arrange and can rearrange. Indeed, they HAVE rearranged it. Polygamy was once the norm; wives were the legal property of their husbands; mutual romantic interest was the exception rather than the rule.

Of course it doesn’t follow that any and all rearrangements are advisable.

We could change baseball so that it has four outs per inning. Doing so might or might not improve the game. But saying “that’s not really baseball!” is hardly a compelling argument against the change (any more than it was against changing the designated-hitter rule).

So too with the claim “that’s not really marriage.” Maybe that’s not what marriage WAS. But should it be now?