“The thing I hate about an argument is that it always interrupts a discussion” – G. K. Chesterton
A good friend recently asked me a question (or two) about the gay marriage debate and how one goes about addressing pro/con arguments. I won’t post the entire email, but will note that (a) my friend is a Christian and presumably “opposed” to gay marriage on some level (whether simply morally or from a public policy standpoint) and (b) the argument he most often hears in support of gay marriage is: “My ‘right’ to marry who I want doesn’t affect your life at all. You can still be free to disagree with us and nobody will stop you.”
(He also notes in the email that that last bit lingers ominously in the mind of the Christian … nobody will stop me from disagreeing with you … yet. Just like nobody will force me to provide services to a gay marriage ceremony if I don’t want to … oh, wait.)
Gay marriage is a subject we’ve touched on before, and many of the policy positions discussed here will be a rehash. But I think the argumentation that people use is interesting and worth further exploration.
Argue Where You Are Right …
The first note I’ll make is that we all have to approach an argument from the points where we are right. Let me offer an example from another contentious issue – abortion. The battle lines on this issue are drawn well with each side arguing where they are correct. The pro-choicers will argue for freedom and self-determination (my body, my decision) and the pro-lifers will argue for defense of human rights (i.e., life of the child). It would be silly for pro-choicers to argue against life, just as it is silly for pro-lifers to argue against freedom. (This doesn’t mean that each side doesn’t occasionally slip into the losing side of their respective arguments, but they do so at their own peril.) Each side attempts to hold the high ground by sticking to talking points that make clear their claim to be defenders of freedom and humanity. (I side with the pro-lifers of course.)
The argument put forth by gay marriage proponents does just this – it approaches the issue from the side of freedom and self-determination. Trying to diffuse the “my life decisions don’t affect you” argument with a frontal assault is fruitless. “You have to do the ‘right’ thing because I say so and I have enough votes to make it so” is a pretty bad place to be, from the standpoint of argumentation.
We Don’t Own God’s Wrath …
A number of Christians will also point to various “wrath of God” aspects of the gay marriage debate and moral decline. It goes something like this: “if the nation tolerates gay marriage, God will punish us – and I don’t want to get caught up in that punishment – so you can’t have gay marriage (for the good of everyone).”
Now, as a Bible-believing Christian, I certainly accept the wrath of God argumentation. Yes, I believe that God does pour out judgment of evil. Whether that judgment is “active” in an old testament sense or “passive” along the lines of the wise and foolish builders (Matt 7:24-27) is up for debate. The point is that if a society loses its moral bearing, bad things will happen.
While I fully accept these arguments, I find that they are not sufficient for public policy debates. I don’t own God’s wrath. One person may stand up and claim that the wrath of God will come on a nation that commits sin x, and another stands up to claim that the wrath of God will come on a nation that doesn’t. Can we, by majority rule (which is how a democracy works) decide such moral issues? Worse yet, can we decide by majority rule which prophet is correct? I suspect not.
Think back for a moment to the abortion issue above. I hold that the wrath of God argument is extremely pertinent – but it is not necessary to argue the pro-life point. We argue for defense of human life, not defense of the nation. Can we make the same argument in the gay marriage debate? I think not.
Your Choices Don’t Affect Me, But Your Rights Do …
Never fear, the argument is not over yet. Remember, the basis of the pro-gay-marriage argument presented here is “My ‘right’ to marry who I want doesn’t affect your life at all.” In a vacuum I’d argue this is true (leaving aside legitimate wrath of God arguments, which I hold aren’t sufficient for public policy debates). But we don’t live in a vacuum.
In this country the right to marry comes with a host of other rights as well, such as tax benefits and mandatory employer-funded benefits (in some cases). I will gladly argue that I don’t think any of these benefits should exist (in the larger context of my overall policy preference – more on this in a moment), but the fact is that they do exist.
The overall social-spending structure of the federal, state, and local governments is such that a certain burden is placed on the people. When one group gets a tax break (e.g., those who donate to charities) the burden is necessarily shifted to the rest of the population. The system is closed. There is no way around it. So, when a new group is given a benefit the burden of society is shifted to the rest of us. When a new class of people is allowed into the “marriage benefits club” the rest of us shoulder a greater portion of the burden.
One could easily argue that this shift is fair, but that is not the point. My point is only that the shift exists. Thus, one cannot claim that the “right” to marry doesn’t put any additional burden on the rest of us. It must, unless there is no benefit to marriage (which there is).
By the same token, mandatory acceptance of gay marriage in the public marketplace puts moral objectors at a disadvantage. Their freedom is infringed-upon by the new rights. Consider the case of the Christian employer who objects to gay marriage and doesn’t want to pay benefits for gay partners. This right to object, and to freely associate contracts, is lost once this new marriage definition is enforced.
These points should be sufficient to force the hand of the gay-marriage proponents. Things will definitely change with this policy change, so arguments like “it won’t affect your life” are lost. But this also opens an escape route – there is a way to alleviate these issues without banning gay marriage. Namely, we could rid ourselves (as a nation) of all marriage benefits (from a public policy standpoint) and put the issue to rest. This, of course, is my general position on the issue. If we eliminate all defined benefits of marriage then the government can remove itself from the marriage definition debate.
A Personal Contract or a Social Contract …
The above focuses on marriage as a personal contract, which I think it is (and, if I get to define it, a contract between one man and one woman). There is another argument out there for marriage as a social contract. It goes something like this: “Societies do not progress without continual repopulation. Procreation involves a man and a woman, and history shows rather clearly that the stable, nuclear family is the preferred mechanism for bringing children into the world and raising them to be productive members of society. Thus, marriage is elevated above other forms of personal contracts as necessary for a society to continue.”
The argument has merit. I tend not to lean this way in my policy preferences. I prefer individual rights and liberties over these social contract type of arguments. (It is the individual who is created in the image of God, not societies.) Still, I suspect one could get some mileage out of such an argument.
This is particularly so when one considers the whole of public policy. If one argues for mandatory social benefits (e.g., welfare or social security) then one has to view development of a viable workforce as a social good, and the means for producing it as worthy of privilege. If I weren’t a libertarian/voluntaryist/classic liberal (by Von Hayek’s definition), then I’d probably brow-beat people with the social contract argument. But I am, so I don’t.