Marriage Equality, Philosophically Speaking – Part 1

scribe.2This is the first part of an article on the Philosophy of Marriage Equality. 

On November 7, 2013, I attended a lecture at the University of Wisconsin where Philosophy Professor Russ Shaefer-Landau presented a philosophical justification for marriage equality.  He presented his own position as a Master Argument and then presented and answered what he considered to be the five most common reasons people oppose same sex marriage. The following traces the professor’s lecture and my initial evaluation.  (eventually a video of this presentation will be available at this website:

I. Master Argument.

  1. The government is morally required to provide all of its citizens with equal legal rights, unless there is a compelling reason for the government no to do so.
  2. There are no compelling reasons for the government to withhold equal marital rights to homosexuals and heterosexuals.
  3. Therefore the government is morally required to provide heterosexual and homosexuals with equal marital rights.

Additional Comments:

  • This is an argument from equality. Morally all are equal before the law.
  • There could be legitimate reasons to treat someone differently: e.g. denying 11 year olds the right to marry.
  • A moral principle is behind all laws on equality.
  • The issue with this argument is with #2, few would dispute #1.

Five Arguments against Same Sex marriage.

 I.  Homosexual conduct is immoral

  1. The government should not allow legal institutions that are designed to normalize and tolerate conduct that is, in fact, immoral.
  2. Same-sex marriage is an institution that is designed to normalize and tolerate intimate homosexual relations.
  3. Intimate homosexual relations are immoral.
  4. Therefore, the government should not allow same-sex marriage.

Additional comments: Four reasons homosexuality is called immoral

  • “What if everyone did that? We would have no population.” This proposes a theoretical disaster scenario.  This is an unreliable test because sometimes a “moral” choice would be banned by it: e.g. celibacy.
  • “Homosexuality is contrary to family values.”  This is rhetorical.  He states that gay couples can embody values such as love, honesty, devotion.  So you have to ask what values are intended.
  • “Homosexuality is unnatural.”  This is ambiguous: if only a few do it, that does not make something unnatural – e.g. left handedness. It means that sex is done contrary to purpose, there are more reasons for sex than procreation – i.e. pleasure.  Another example: eyes are created to see. What if I close my eyes?
  • “Homosexuality is wrong because God forbids it.”  To use this you would have to show the existence of God, of his commands, and that you have the true interpretation of authoritative texts.  There are only a few OT texts in Leviticus that pertain {Note he ignores any NT text such as Rom 1.]  It calls it a “tabu” or “abomination” because it is tied to religious practices of non-biblical people.  Further you would also have to enforce all the other Levitical laws, such as stoning adulterers.    The most literal reading is not the best, you have to consider the underlying moral precept – and the major commands of religion are to love, pursue justice and compassion – which would tend to permit not forbid.

II. The prospect of Same-sex marriage is deeply offensive to Many.

  1. The government should not authorize changes to social institutions if such change would offend a substantial number of citizens.
  2. Allowing same-sex marriage would offend a substantial number of U. S. citizens.
  3. Therefore, the U.S. government should not authorize same-sex marriage.

Additional comment: Causing offense is not sufficient basis for withholding rights. Consider the Civil Rights movement in the 60s.  Also, forbidding same sex marriage is offensive to others.

 III. Marriage is defined as a relation between a man and a woman

  1. If marriage is, by definition, a relation between a man and a woman, then a homosexual relationship can never qualify as a marriage.
  2. Marriage is, by definition, a relation between a man and a woman.
  3. Therefore a homosexual relationship can never qualify as a marriage.

Additional comment:  Parameters of a social institution are set by people. We can define this in any way we like.  Definitions do not determine the question: i.e. Man and Woman of one race was once the view of marriage.  The question of how we ought to define it is not determined by the past.

IV. Consistency requires that proponents of same-sex marriage favor polygamy.


  1. If same-sex marriage should be legalized, then we should also legalize polygamous marriages.
  2. We should not legalize polygamous marriages.
  3. Therefor we shouldn’t legalize same-sex marriage.

Additional comment:  Any position that results in an absurd conclusion is absurd.  We can accept 2 but not 1.

The “liberal principle” is that people should do whatever they want as long as they do not harm others.. There is a problem with the lp: cited a story of a person who volunteered to be cannibalized.  The “consistency” argument is based on the liberal principle.  There is a problem with polygamy, even if it is voluntary, because it has been long associated with the oppression of women.   The master argument is based on equality not on the liberal principle.

V.  Same-sex marriage is a threat to married couples and to marriage itself.


  1. If a proposed legal innovation poses a threat to innocent citizens and to a long-standing social institution, then it should not be enacted into law.
  2. Same-sex marriage poses a threat to innocent married couples
  3. Same-sex marriage poses a threat to the very institution of marriage.
  4. Therefore, we should not legalize same-sex marriage.

Additional comment: It is not clear what the threat is.  What kind of threat would warrant this?  No one’s rights are threatened.  Marriage is durable: it has survived divorce and other social changes; it will survive because it is flexible.

My Response: In thinking over Professor Russ Shaefer-Landau’s lecture, these were my initial responses.

  • He made the argument to be about Morality so it has more punch.  This is an interesting admission of the role of morality in these decisions.
  • He did not provide a firm basis for morality in his argument. He was basing it on general agreement.  But as he said, it was once the law that marriage could not be across races, by common agreement.
  • Same-sex relationships are not inherently equal to heterosexual relationships – he did not say why something different is something equal.
  • His attempt to defend same-sex while resisting polygamy seems weak:  just because it was associated with oppression does not determine as he argued that the past cannot determine what is correct; further if a form of Polygamous marriage was not oppressive, his argument fails.
  • The difference between the equality argument and the liberal principle seems a subtly that will be lost in the debate.
  • He did not reject a religious argument, but suggested an alternative interpretation of texts (ignoring others) and suggesting that the religious argument for love, compassion and justice is more compelling.  His biblical argument lacked any NT reference and any reference to Genesis 2:24 – he did not even negate all the negative passages.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s