Marriage Equality, Philosophically Speaking – Part 2

scribe.2Part Two:  Counter Arguments  (See previous post for Part 1)

In his lecture, Professor Shaefer-Landau presented a structured argument advocating Marriage Equality.  His Master Argument is reproduced here:



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.

I thought it would be helpful to produce some counter arguments.  In his lecture Shaefer-Landau suggested that objections could come in the forms of a missing argument that he did not consider, or problems with his master argument.  I will start with two problems with his master argument and follow with a “Burkean” argument based on the idea of social complexity and unintended consequences.

In arguing in the public sphere, it seems to me to be more helpful to present an argument based on shared values.  Since this is an argument about the law of the nation, not the law of a faith community, I have chosen to answer in these ways.  There are any number of biblical or theological points that can be made within the church community.  I have been part of such dialogues in the past.

A book I found helpful in this is Engaging Unbelief by Curtis Chang (IVP, 2000).  Chang cites St. Augustine and St. Aquinas as two examples of Christian thinkers who entered the conceptual world of their opponents and worked to win in that realm and only then to bring the conversation back to a faith perspective.  For example, the first half of “City of God” engages the late ancient roman world. The second presents a Christian view of history.

I found that the professor’s arguments lacked philosophical foundation in two areas.  His appeals to Morality and Equality have a lot of punch.  These are the winning arguments in our culture as I write this piece.  But the arguments do not have a rigorous foundation that I would expect of a philosophical argument.

Morality Counter Argument

1.  A moral appeal is central to the Master Argument of Professor Shaefer-Landau.

2.  He supplies no moral argument or definition beyond the perceived existence of a consensus on equality.

3. Therefore the Master Argument’s moral appeal fails.


Equality Counter Argument

1.  Marriage equality is based on the premise that same-sex marriage and heterosexual marriage are in all significant ways equal.

2.  There are numerous significant ways in which we can distinguish between same-sex and heterosexual marriage.

3.  Differing relationships can be treated differently without being unjust.  Examples are not permitting marriage for those who are under aged or too closely related.

4. Professor Shaefer-Landau provided no reason to hold to the essential equality between same-sex and heterosexual marriage.

5.  Therefor the appeal to equality is invalid.


A Burkean Argument

This last argument is loosely based on the conservative tradition of Edmund Burke – the main ideas are that social constructs are complex. Change is often necessary but it is better to change within the existing structures of society than to overthrow them for simplified philosophical arguments.  The French Revolution ended badly with the rise to power of Napoleon.


1.  Marriage is a complex institution with a long history of development.

2.  No one can understand the full complexity of such an institution.

3.  Rapid change or change based on a simple rationale such as equality or fairness can have disruptive consequences.

4. Same-sex marriage is a recent development so there is comparatively little information about it.

5.  Therefore same-sex marriage should not receive all the benefits of heterosexual marriage in the singe act of declaring it equal to heterosexual marriage.  It should win its rights over time.


On further thought, It seemed to me that several of the presented arguments were insubstantial on other grounds.

Definitional Counter Argument

1.  Professor Shafer-Landau argues that marriage is defined by the people though the process of creating laws, and so they can be changed by the people.

2.  This is social contract theory.

3.  Various religious as well as natural law theories promote a permanent structure for issues such as gender and marriage.

4.  No argument was presented to defend social contract theory as definitive.

5.  Therefore this argument fails.


 Historical Counter Argument.

1.  Professor Shafer-Landau stated that the past should not determine what is right in the present.

2. He opposes polygamy because of its historical association with the oppression of women.

3.  No proof of an inherent association between polygamy and oppression was presented.

4.  Thus, the past is being used to determine that polygamy should not be legalized in violation of previous argumentation.


The No Sky is Falling Argument

1.  Professor Shafer-Landau in argument stated that same-sex marriage exists in without evidence of harm.  (“The sky has not fallen.”)

2. Marriages and families are institutions that have impacts across several generations.

3.  Laws permitting same-sex marriage have existed for too short of a time to produce long term results that can be studied.

4.  Therefore the argument that there is no threat in change lacks foundation.


I expect that few participates in this debate are concerned with rigorous philosophical consistency.  Neither are the opponents. However, this exercise is I think instructive to see how much the current debate is led by slogans such as “marriage equality.”

One value that does come from this exercise is to put the debate into terms of a debate.  Too often social debates are really slogans written by competing worldviews clashing on talk shows.  Perhaps with some philosophy we can have a conversation and not a food fight.



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