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.


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.

Sexuality in the Bible

I have been part of discussion over same gender relationships and marriage equality for a number of years.  Below are two articles.

Sexuality in the Light of Christ is a publication that we make available at the church.

Asking the Right Questions was a longer piece I wrote as part of an inter-church dialogue on the issue.

I have observed over the years, since I was at University that the arguments have migrated regularly.  Some of what I wrote is thus dated, but the Biblical portions remain my view of the texts in question.

Finally, Biblical passages that pertain to Sexuality.