The Traditionalist Case — The Definitional Argument Against Gay Marriage:

Having made the affirmative traditionalist case the past two days, today and tomorrow I’ll respond to some of the most common arguments against gay marriage.

One of the most common arguments against gay marriage is definitional. This definitional argument against gay marriage generally takes the following form: “Marriage just is the union of one man and one woman. What same-sex couples are asking for is not marriage. So same-sex couples cannot be married.” It offers no normative defense of the definition; it stops there.

A variation of the definitional argument involves some analogy to species-confusion. For example, this is a common variation: “Gay marriage is like trying to call a cat a dog. A cat will never be a dog no matter how much you try to call it a dog or treat it like a dog or pretend it’s a dog.” You can substitute an infinite variety of species combinations for “cat” and “dog” here and you have the same variation of the definitional argument. The species-confusion variation of the definitional argument is another way of saying that marriage is definitionally male-female. It is saying, without further argument, that same-sex couples cannot be married just as dogs cannot be cats.

Another variant of the definitional argument involves some analogy to a government-benefits program. For example: “Allowing gay marriage is like allowing non-veterans to get veterans benefits; non-veterans are not part of the veterans program, just like gay couples are not part of marriage. The marriage program is not for gay couples, just like the veterans program is not for non-veterans.” Or, as one commentator put it: “Two people of the same-sex cannot ‘marry’ any more than a man can claim a right to ‘maternity’ leave.” Stephen C. Whiting, “Gay Marriage” Is an Oxymoron, 19 Me. B. J. 79, 83 (2004). You can just as easily substitute young adults seeking retirement benefits from Social Security, or renters seeking a home-buyer’s mortgage-interest deduction from their taxes, or what have you. The variations are as numerous as the government-benefits programs that inspire them. This variation of the definitional argument, too, is another way of arguing that marriage is definitionally male-female. It is saying, without further argument, that same-sex couples simply cannot qualify for marriage just as non-veterans cannot qualify for veterans’ benefits.

There are other variations on this same definitional point (e.g., there’s one that objects to gay marriage on the grounds that two people of the same sex cannot “consummate” their relationship in the way that two people of the opposite sex can), but I hope this is enough to set the table for a response.

What’s distinctive about the definitional argument is that it makes no attempt to defend the male-female definition of marriage as a normative matter. The definition itself is asserted unadorned as an argument against gay marriage. As soon as a normative defense of the male-female definition is attached to the argument (for example, “the male-female definition of marriage is right because children need mothers and fathers”), the argument is no longer the pure definitional argument as I use that term here.

The obvious problem with the definitional argument is that it suffers a very serious logical flaw. It is circular and conclusory. In the gay-marriage debate, it’s the definition of marriage that’s being challenged. Gay-marriage advocates are saying, in effect, “The definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman is an unjustifiable limitation. The definition of marriage should be expanded to include couples of the same sex. And we have good reasons for this expansion of the definition of marriage. Let’s talk about them.”

Given this challenge to the definition of marriage, the definition alone cannot be offered in its own defense. It must be accompanied by reasons that show why the male-female definition is the right or best one. Unless the definition is defended with reasons that go beyond simply asserting the definition itself, the defense suffers a fatal circularity. It asserts the conclusion (the proper definition of marriage) as the argument. It’s the equivalent of saying, “I’m right because I say so.” That may work in the parent-child relationship, but it cannot suffice in public-policy debate.

Let’s apply this lesson to the species-confusion analogies so popular among gay-marriage opponents. Consider the dog-cat analogy introduced above. Gay-marriage opponents argue that gay marriage is like calling a “cat” a “dog,” and that simply can’t be, no matter how hard we try.

But this misses the point of the case for gay marriage, which is to argue that gay couples (for multiple reasons) sufficiently meet the purposes of marriage (properly understood) such that they should be permitted to marry. To use the analogy, gay-marriage advocates argue that gay marriage is indeed a dog that we have unfairly been calling a “cat,” refusing to recognize it as a species of dog. On this view, gay-marriage advocates are not trying to get the world to accept cats as dogs, but to accept dogs as dogs. It’s those who refuse to call this dog a dog who are in error.

A similar response applies to the various government-benefits analogies offered against gay marriage. Consider the analogy to veterans benefits, where gay-marriage opponents claim that gay couples are like non-veterans trying to get veterans benefits. Gay-marriage advocates are arguing that (for multiple reasons) gay couples are “veterans,” and that denying them veterans benefits is therefore wrong.

Maybe gay-marriage advocates are wrong on the substance: perhaps gay couples can’t meet the purposes of marriage (properly understood). But that conclusion has to be debated, with reasons offered for why gay couples can or can’t meet the properly understood purposes for marriage. The conclusion cannot simply be asserted once the existing definition is challenged.

In debates, one often hears the complaint from gay-marriage opponents that gays are “trying to change the definition of marriage.” Exactly so, but this is hardly a decisive objection, just as it would not be a decisive objection to any proposed change in existing practices or laws.

None of this is to argue that there should be no definition of marriage. There should be a definition of marriage. But given the powerful affirmative case for gay marriage, it must be debated. Perhaps the man-woman definition is the best one, but to reach that conclusion we need substantive arguments supporting the definition, not simply the definition itself.

Given how logically weak the bare definitional argument is, why does it persist?

The answer, I think, is that behind it is a powerful, unstated intuition that important social institutions ought to have stable attributes (meanings) over time. This is a deeply conservative instinct and I share it to a very large degree. I will address this Burkean argument, which I ultimately think is the best argument against gay marriage, later in the week.

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