First published in Between the Lines on March 23, 2006.
In his nationally syndicated column of March 17, Charles Krauthammer uses the HBO series “Big Love” (about a modern-day polygamist family in Utah) as a springboard to telling gay-rights advocates “I told you so.”
In an essay 10 years ago, I pointed out that it is utterly logical for polygamy rights to follow gay rights. After all, if traditional marriage is defined as the union of (1) two people of (2) opposite gender, and if, as advocates of gay marriage insist, the gender requirement is nothing but prejudice, exclusion and an arbitrary denial of one’s autonomous choices in love, then the first requirement—the number restriction (two and only two)—is a similarly arbitrary, discriminatory and indefensible denial of individual choice.
This is what we philosophy professors call a “non-sequitur,” which is a very fancy way of saying that the conclusion doesn’t follow, which is a moderately fancy way of saying “Not!”
To see why, suppose I were to define marriage as the union of (1) two people of (2) opposite gender of (3) the landowning upper class. And suppose you were to argue (correctly) that the third requirement is arbitrary. It would not follow that either of the other two requirements is similarly arbitrary. The moral of the story: each element of the legal definition of marriage must be judged on its own merits.
That fact hasn’t stopped otherwise intelligent people—including Krauthammer—from invoking the slippery-slope argument from gay marriage to polygamous marriage. If you advocate any change to our understanding of marriage, they warn, then there’s no principled reason for barring any other change.
This is nonsense of the first order. What’s worse, it’s old nonsense. The same argument has been trotted out every time the legal parameters of marriage have been changed: for example, when married women were finally allowed to own property, or when the ban on interracial marriage was lifted. Make any change, and soon the sky will fall.
Of course, the fact that the old arguments were needlessly panicky doesn’t entail that the current one is. After all, each change should be evaluated on its own merits.
Precisely. (Now write it down and memorize it, please. It’s going to be on the test.)
The trouble with the slippery-slope argument from gay marriage to polygamy is that it’s a nice sound-bite argument that doesn’t lend itself to a nice sound-bite response. “Show us why polygamy is wrong,” our opponents insist, as if that’s easy to do in 20 words or less. (Try it sometime.)
But here’s a little secret: they can’t do it either, because their favorite arguments against same-sex marriage are useless against polygamy. “It changes the very definition of marriage!” (No: marriage historically has been polygamous more often than monogamous.) “The Bible condemns it!” (Really? Ever heard of King Solomon?) “It’s not open to procreation!” (Watch “Big Love” and get back to me.)
If there’s a good argument against polygamy, it’s likely to be a fairly complex public-policy argument having to do with marriage patterns, sexism, economics, and the like. Such arguments are as available to gay-marriage advocates as to gay-marriage opponents. So when gay-rights opponents ask me to explain why polygamy is wrong, I say to them, “You first.”
Krauthammer seems to assume that those who advocate any change in the current marriage rules have a burden of proof to explain why we shouldn’t make any other possible change. But this requirement is clearly too strong. One might just as well argue that those who advocate allowing men in dining rooms without neckties have a burden to explain why they must nevertheless wear pants, or that those who advocate banning abortion have a burden to explain why we shouldn’t also ban contraception, interracial dating, and dancing (why not?).
While most of us would love to see our opponents spin their wheels on issues unrelated to the dispute at hand, such diversionary tactics hardly advance a debate.
But heck: what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Many of our opponents (including Krauthammer) have lamented the high rates of divorce in this country, and some have advocated the tightening of divorce laws and even the elimination of “no fault” divorce. Next time they do this, let’s ask them: why not ban interracial marriage? Why not prohibit married women from owning property? After all, those who advocate any change in the current marriage rules have a burden of proof to explain why we shouldn’t make any other possible change in those rules—don’t they? Don’t they?
Don’t hold your breath for a response.