How Academic Philosophers Are Trying to End The Gay-Marriage Debate — And Getting It Wrong

(Chip Somodevilla/Getty)
Philosophers won’t tolerate some viewpoints, and they’re trying to make traditional marriage one of them.

Is there any point in continuing to debate same-sex marriage?

Despite their field’s reputation for interminable controversy, academic philosophers do consider some topics resolved — and a number now think the same-sex marriage debate is one of them.  The case in favor of same-sex marriage has been so firmly established, they believe, that further dialogue is at best a waste of time, and at worst an affirmation of bigotry.

“The topics seem, to me, settled, and the controversies over them frankly silly,” writes philosopher Justin Weinberg at his widely viewed philosophy blog, Daily Nous. “As far as I can tell, there are zero plausible arguments for opposing homosexual sex and zero plausible arguments for a state offering different kinds of marriage rights to homosexual and heterosexual couples.”

Weinberg plans to continue teaching same sex-marriage as a controversy in his contemporary-ethics course, but primarily in order to shed light on other issues and to expose the “highly problematic” arguments of those who oppose it. He mulls relegating the topic to a course on “historical moral problems,” where it can be discussed alongside slavery and other topics he considers settled.

As a graduate student in philosophy, I’ve heard other tenured philosophers say far less temperate things off the record. Some seem to think that treating same-sex marriage as a controversial subject at all is itself tantamount to legitimating bigotry. They look forward to the blessed day when skepticism of their enlightened views is no longer tolerated in any university classroom.

Granted, some Catholic philosophers — Robby George, for instance — are still vocal in their opposition to same-sex marriage. Some other thinkers, like self-described “Gay Moralist” John Corvino,  continue to respectfully debate conservative opponents.

Nevertheless, the recent political victories of the gay-rights movement seem to have tempted a growing minority to adopt a smug, and sloppy, intellectual intolerance.

Some philosophical conclusions really are uncontroversial, and for good reason. One could not question the immorality of the Rwandan genocide without showing callousness to the victims of its horrors.

To start, though, discussion of same-sex marriage doesn’t so obviously show callousness to homosexuals: Conservatives’ dispute with liberals is over the details of what a “right to marry” means, not whether some people have this right while others do not.

Philosophers have been thinking — and, it goes without saying, disagreeing — about marriage since the time of Plato. In Family Politics, Scott Yoner demonstrates that modern philosophers like Locke, Rousseau, Hegel, Mill, and others have developed sophisticated and wildly different accounts of marriage. That is enough to show, at least, that there are many unsettled philosophical questions about the nature of marriage.

Conservatives prefer to frame the same-sex marriage debate around questions such as, “What is marriage?,” “What role(s) does marriage play in society?,” and “What relationships should be eligible to count as marriages?”

Proponents of same-sex marriage generally decline to give answers to these questions, preferring instead to make their case on the alleged arbitrariness of the “one man, one woman” norm.

That argument may be effective, but it cannot settle the debate in the way the triumphalists claim it has been.

To resolve this question rigorously as a philosophical matter, proponents must also account for how the “one man, one woman” norm stacks up alongside the likely alternatives.

In saying this, I’m not appealing to any presumption in favor of tradition: Philosophers uninclined, or even disinclined, to tradition still sometimes find themselves stuck with views because the rivals seem even less palatable.

#page#Some think the obvious alternative to our current marriage regime is “any two consenting adults, regardless of sex.” But it’s unclear whether this really is less arbitrary than what we have now. Once we reject the two-sex norm the obsession with the number 2 (coincidentally, the number of humans required for reproduction) begins to look like an oppressive vestige, a barrier to even more expansive ways of defining marriage.

Some try to defend the two-person norm on the grounds that there is some unique moral worth in total devotion of one person to one — and only one — other. But having more than one child doesn’t adulterate parental love. And how shall we respond to the person who says that the total devotion of three or more partners to one another may be just as noble as monogamy — indeed, even nobler, as it is more inclusive?

The same-sex marriage proponent might also defend “any two” indirectly by arguing that normalization of polygamy would be socially harmful. We don’t want a dystopian future where the super-rich retreat to vast harems, leaving the disgruntled underclass without mates. Indeed, we have long-term, real-life evidence that polygamy causes real harm (we don’t yet for same-sex marriage). But the anti-polygamy arguments they advance tend to single out dangers specific to heterosexual polygamy, leaving homosexual polygamy an option, and an unexplored one.

Knowledge of these difficulties has led some on the left to dispense with defending the two-partner plan, as prominent LGBT philosopher Cheshire Calhoun does in her paper, “Who’s Afraid of Polygamous Marriage?” (Hint: not Calhoun). A thoroughgoing radical might say, “If you’re offended by marriages of eight women and three men which automatically expire after three weeks, then you don’t have to enter into one.”

But it’s unclear whether same-sex marriage proponents — who, after all, are committed to preserving some form of marriage — can consistently endorse such a regime. Thinkers can legitimately wonder whether anything worthy of the name “marriage” really would be preserved through such radical transformation.

When the conservative’s preferred place for drawing the line is compared side-by-side with the alternatives — and the sheer unknowns thereof — it’s nigh impossible to maintain that the arguments for moving that line are absolutely decisive.

In other words: a reasonable person might think the objections to the traditional standard are no more damning, or not much more damning, than the objections to the most defensible alternatives.

So long as this is true, same-sex-marriage proponents cannot justifiably pronounce the matter “settled” and demand that we draw the curtain on further debate. Why is this extremely modest point — that the pro-same-sex-marriage side has not, as a philosophical matter, yet managed to win the day — worth making? In part, because it has implications for how dissenters can expect to be treated on campus whether they will be regarded as respectable minorities or as vile hatemongers with views beyond the pale.

Moreover, the point is relevant to some of the means same-sex marriage proponents employ: denouncing opponents as bigots, boycotting punitively, and using the courts to overturn democratic legislation and referenda partly on the ground that traditionalist are motivated by animus of a morally suspect kind.

Our political system allows these harsh tactics, but they should only be used to advance a cause when the philosophical case is absolutely clear-cut.  Philosophers should know that the case for same-sex marriage admits of too much uncertainty to pass that high bar.

— Spencer Case is a philosophy graduate student at the University of Colorado. He is a U.S. Army veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan and an Egypt Fulbright alumnus.

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