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Moral Moments

We Hold These Truths to be Self-Evident

by Joel Marks

This column is dedicated to rational discussion of moral and other issues. The underlying assumption is that claims need to be backed up by arguments. But every once in a while, a position seems so obviously true that, in effect, there is no issue at all. That is how I feel about homosexuality. Even to call it an ‘issue’ seems to me to be begging a very big question. Just what is supposed to be unclear: Whether gays and lesbians have a right to engage in sex? Whether their desires are deviant? Whether they are sinners? That’s all nonsense. These questions make no more sense than asking whether heterosexuals have a right to engage in sex, etc. The questions are, in fact, intrinsically bigoted, as if one were to ask whether blacks are intellectually or morally inferior to whites. These are simply not legitimate problems.

And yet I must admit that my meta-assertions sound suspect. Clearly all of these things are issues, in the sense that there are many people who hold the opposite positions from the ones I take to be self-evident; indeed, they often take theirs to be selfevident. Furthermore, my opponents are not all obviously ignorant or evil! And it just does seem to go against the grain of what I am all about – rational dialogue – to rule out any matter that somebody wants to discuss. There is no lack of examples in history of questions that were considered not questions: Does the earth move? Have humans evolved from nonhumans? Should women have the same legal rights as men? Really, the list is endless. Therefore for me to think that my own certainty counts for something seems a sheer logical mistake. Nothing – even in the moral realm – can be decided by fiat.

In this spirit, then – of giving the benefit of the doubt to doubt, as it were – I decided to host a debate at my university about same-sex marriage. This had become a hot issue in my state because the Connecticut legislature was considering a bill to legalize such unions. It has subsequently become a national issue because of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that homosexual activity per se cannot be considered a crime, since it is protected by a fundamental right of privacy. But this battle is far from won in my country, and I was, frankly, curious to hear what sorts of arguments the opponents could muster. I suspected they would turn out to be some hash of Biblical revelation, crackpot biology, and dubious social-scientific studies; and so, if nothing else, the debate would be an opportunity for proponents of marriage reform to debunk the supposed counter-evidence. But I also felt that the issue of same-sex marriage could be construed as not essentially about homosexuality but about the nature of marriage, which I do certainly believe is an interesting issue in its own right.

I invited two prominent local spokespersons to duke it out: a state legislator who had sponsored the same-sex bill, and a private citizen who had spearheaded a drive to petition the legislature for a ‘Defense of Marriage’ act that would define marriage as between a man and a woman. Both speakers turned out to be articulate, logical, persuasive and civil. I was also very proud of the large audience, who went into overtime with their questions and comments and really seemed to be listening respectfully to one another. I for one was particularly, if unexpectedly, impressed by the ‘antagonist’s’ arguments, for they struck me as the more philosophical of the two debaters’.

In a nutshell (via my recollection and interpretation), the pro case presented was that marriage should be decided by love, not sex or gender or ‘orientation.’ Marriage in our society is a legal institution that accords a host of privileges and responsibilities to the parties involved. To grant these to some people but not to others on the basis of an arbitrary distinction is a blatant denial of basic civil rights.

The con argument went right to the heart of the pro argument: If love alone is the criterion of marriage, then what is to prevent the legalization of polygamous marriages, or even of incestuous marriages? (But clearly that would be wrong; ergo ...) Therefore there must be additional constraints on marriage. Where can we discover these? Yes, religion is a source, but only as a special case of the more general idea that tradition is a good guide. And the latter has its authority because it is an indicator of natural law, which is the moral law that governs society, analogous to the ‘scientific’ laws that govern the physical universe. Natural law is revealed to us by the functioning of society, just as scientific laws are made manifest by the functioning of the physical universe. (And societies worldwide have never legitimized homosexual unions; ergo ...) And we do know that it is not only the physical operation of the universe that is lawfully governed, but also its moral functioning, since otherwise there would be no moral truths at all. (But clearly there are; ergo Q.E.D.)

Since I am definitely a fan of moral truth, I was appreciative of the con argument. There were times when the pro arguer seemed to be relying on his instincts as a politician rather than on any fundamental principle, as when he cited the growing liberal consensus in the United States in favor of legally legitimizing same-sex unions. (On the other hand, I do not want to deny that he is a person of conviction, as he represents a relatively conservative district.) However, the rest of the con argument left much to be desired. For example, the reference to polygamous and incestuous marriages can be countered as either gratuitous or question-begging. The samesex proponent again argued like a politician when he replied that there is no popular push to legalize polygamy or incest in the U.S., so it’s a red herring. But acknowledging the principled force of the con arguer’s objection, the pro-arguer was also courageous enough to point up the purely rhetorical nature of his opponent’s argument about polygamy and incest, since there may in fact be no good grounds to rule out such marriages in all cases.

Much more can be (and was) argued on these points, of course, but I feel I have performed my civic and philosophic duty to promote genuine dialogue and, therefore, am entitled to continue to hold the opinion I do on the matter, since I do so now in a more informed manner.


Joel Marks is Professor and Chair of Philosophy at the University of New Haven in West Haven, Connecticut. www.moralmoments.com He wishes to thank co-moderator Donna Decker Morris and debaters Michael Lawlor and Brian Brown.

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