Monday, May 08, 2006

Countering the Slippery Slope Nonsense: Why Gay Marriage Doesn't Lead to Box Turtle Nuptials

One of the standard arguments provided by the homophobic right against gay marriage is a form of what we call the domino fallacy or the slippery slope argument. The idea is that if you take that seemingly innocuous first step, it automatically leads to a second, which will force a third, and so on and so on until, next thing you know, there we are in Satan's own livingroom listening to Yanni on 8-track. In the case of marriage, the argument goes, if we open up the institution to same-sex couples, then we will be forced down the slippery slope to include all sorts of unusual couplings including cross-species arrangements. While Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania prefers to think about dogs in this way and John Cornyn of Texas is more fond of box turtles, James Dobson, in his book Marriage Under Fire, chooses to go down the donkey trail:

"Why will gay marriage set the table for polygamy? Because there's no place to stop once that Rubicon has been crossed. Historically, the definition of marriage has rested on a foundation of tradition, legal precedent, theology, and an overwhelming support of the people. After the introduction of marriage between homosexuals, however, it will be supported by nothing more substantial than the opinion of a single judge or by a black-robed panel of justices. After they have reached that dubious decision, the family will consist of little more than someone's interpretation of rights. Given that unstable legal climate, it is certain that some self-possessed judge somewhere will soon rule that three men, or three women, can marry. Or five men and two women. Or four and four. Who will be able to deny them that right? The guarantee is implied, we will be told, by the Constitution. Those who disagree will continue to be seen as hatemongers and bigots. Indeed, those charges are already being leveled against Christians who espouse biblical values. How about group marriage? Or marriage between daddies and little girls? Or marriage between a man and his donkey? Anything allegedly linked to civil rights will be doable, and the legal underpinnings for marriage will have been destroyed."
Marriage between a man and his donkey...adds a whole new layer to that "not coveting thy neighbor's ass" thing.

So what is wrong with this slippery slope argument? Why doesn't allowing gay marriage also force us to offer to marry polygamists? adults and children? humans and animals?

What marriage is and why opposing gay marriage is immoral

"Marriage" has several different meanings. It is a religious ritual, a social status, and most importantly for us, a legal status. Marriage is a contractual arrangement between two people to adopt a legal status which confers upon them certain legal rights. In fact, the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of the US Congress, issued a report in 2004 that stated that there are 1,138 such rights, privileges, and protections under the law afforded to married couples.

What is at issue in the gay marriage question is nothing but the legal status. The issue at hand is whether hospital visitation rights, inheritance rights, power of attorney, being able to file joint tax returns, and all of the other legal protections ought to be denied to people because some folks' religion doesn't like the way that these people -- many of whom are not in their religion -- make love.

Marriage exists to eliminate ambiguities in law that arise from the fact that we do tend to couple up. We arrange our lives in such a fashion that it makes it impossible under the social contract which organizes society to give rights and responsibilities to individuals whose lives are completely intertwined. There is not my money and my wife's money, there are our assets. There is not my house and my wife's house, there is our home. There are not my children and my wife's children, there is our family. When talking about tax liabilities, child welfare decisions, and life choices in general, the responsibilities and benefits are ours together. We are what Thomas Hobbes called an "artificial individual; it makes no sense to think of us as two completely different people in some legal circumstances because we decide and act as a single entity and the law must account for that. If one of us were in an accident that caused that person to be incapacitated, the decision making rights for that person immediately go to the other partner. If one should pass away, all assets and liabilities, all responsibility for the children immediately go to the survivor. Questions about these sorts of thing need to be completely unambiguous to avoid problems like the Terri Schaivo fiasco where different family members were trying to wrest control from each other to further their own agendas. Marriage exists to make perfectly clear who has what rights and responsibilities and who shares what rights and responsibilities.

This has nothing to do with churches, synagogues, mosques, or temples. If a religion wants or doesn't want to perform a ceremony binding any given couple together in they eyes of their god(s), they may choose to or not to at their own discretion. It's your club, run it how you will. But this is a question of whether we deny rights, privileges, and protections under the law to honest, tax-paying, law-abiding citizens.

To oppose this equal treatment under the law is nothing but bigotry. They may try to wrap that bigotry in the cloak of religious righteousness, they may try to argue that their immoral stance comes from family or other values, they may feign concern for the children, but these are all red herrings designed to pull your eye away from the fact that all they are really trying to do is deprive innocent citizens of rights because they find the way they have sex to be yucky. Gay and lesbian couples are every bit the same in terms of commitment and acting as a unit, and therefore, there is no reason to exclude them from the disambiguating legal status of being married.

But what about polygamy?

But doesn't this start us down the slippery slope to hell? No. Consider first the case of polygamy. People are capable and some desire lives intertwined with more than one person. Couldn't three people make decisions as a unit and wouldn't this argument require affording the legal status to all of them?

No. The purpose of civil marriage is to make sure that the location of rights and responsibilities is perfectly clear. Polygamy would not only not make these issues unambiguous, it would entrench further ambiguity into the law. It would do the opposite of what civil marriage is meant to do. When Groucho proposed marrying two women, one said to him, "But that is bigamy," to which Groucho retorted, "It's big of me, too. It's big of us all. Let's be big for a change. What do you say?" The problem with polygamy is that we cannot always count on everyone to be big. Squabbles will occur and the point of marriage is to make sure that there is a clear legal way to resolve them. If we allowed Terri Schaivo to have two husbands and they disagreed on her care, then who gets the final word? This is exactly the sort of question marriage exists to answer. Polygamy not only wouldn't answer it, it would make it unanswerable. Gay marriage does not entail the necessity to legalize polygamy any more than, say, interracial or interfaith marriages do, that is to say, not at all.

How about marrying children?

Dobson and the others argue that gay marriage requires being able to marry minors. No. The idea is to make clear where there are joint rights and responsibilities and where those rights and responsibilities lay when one partner is incapable of exercising them. Minors cannot possess all the rights and responsibilities of adults. Hence, they could not enter into relationships wherein they would be asked to fulfill obligations that they cannot have. Whether this should also hold for adults who act like children...we can consider that later.

Ok, but what about the dogs, box turtles, and donkeys?

Same line of reasoning, of course. Animals may or may not have moral rights, but under our social contract they do not have legal rights. Since animals cannot be held legally responsible and cannot participate in making decisions, they cannot be married. If children do not rise to the standard, then clearly neither do box turtles. As for Dobson's donkeys, I have known many people who married jackasses, but that is a different question.

One might object that Lassie was quite capable of making life or death decisions for little Timmy, so "shouldn't they be allowed to get married?" I don't think it is a real concern because while Lassie seemed gentle and caring on screen, everyone knows that off-camera she was just a little bitch.

Civil marriage is a legal status that has good reason to exist and there is no reason not to extend it to couples of the same sex. At the same time, the function of that status means that the slippery slope that the right claims to exist is complete and utter nonsense.