A Case against a Conservative Case against Gay Marriage, Pt. 1

I fail to get excited about most political issues for the simple reason that I recognize that there is almost always a good case to be made for the position I don't agree with - and if there isn't, this is often a matter of assumptions about empirical questions (such as whether minimum wages reduce the number of available low-income jobs). I've long seen the matter of gay marriage as an exception to this rule - how could you possibly be against it? I was thus delighted to find that the Gene Expression blog links to a post entitled "A Secular Case against Gay Marriage?" at a blog called Secular Right. The case consists of six points, I'll comment on the first two in this post.
(1) Anti-Minoritarianism. The majority has rights, too.
That's the first point in its entirety. The obvious answer is that no one that I know of proposes that hencetoforth heterosexual people should not be allowed to marry, but there seems to be more to the argument. From the link:
[T]ake the clamor for homosexual "marriage." Big majorities of Americans think this idea is shocking. Why should those people's feelings be outraged in order to add a slight, optional convenience to the lives of a minority? Why, to put it bluntly, should the 97 per cent of the population who are not homosexual permit themselves to be jerked around by three per cent who are? — Permit themselves to be insulted, to be told that their feelings, which are honestly held and harm no-one, are bigoted, reactionary and neanderthal? Why should an institution thousands of years old, and revered by tens of millions of people, be turned inside out to placate a few thousand — or even a few million — noisy activists?
Let's start with the minor points. Here we are going from "[b]ig majorities" of the American population who allegedly are not only against gay marriage, but think the idea is "shocking", to all nonhomosexuals who, suddenly, all oppose gay marriage, and, our author claims, feel "jerked around" and "insulted". Hardly. Also, it is true that the feelings of people who are against gay marriage don't hurt anyone. Neither did Hitler's.

But let's be generous: This can be interpreted as a standard utilitarian argument. The author might mean that gay marriage is wrong because its acceptance would cause more overall harm (felt by opponents) than good (felt, in the author's logic, only by homosexuals). This is a coherent argument. If you're willing to make it, however, feel prepared to defend the view that the problem with the Holocaust was that there weren't enough Nazis: If enough people would have taken delight in the suffering of the Jews to outweigh that suffering itself, it would have been a good thing.

This kind of problem goes away if you're willing to accept a version of utilitarian calculus in which you weigh the utility experienced by people according to your preferences. For example, if you think that Nazis taking delight in the suffering of others is a bad thing, then you'll multiply whatever utility value you assign to that delight by a negative number. I submit that many people already reason sort of like this most of the time.

But let's stick with the standard utilitarian assessment. In this case, it all becomes an empirical question: Does the disutility experienced by nongay opponents of gay marriage experienced when gays can get married outweigh the utility experienced by gays? Frankly, I doubt it.

And let's not forget the future. Bigots of the past experienced all kinds of disutility when women were first allowed to vote, interracial marriage was made legal, etc. These sentiments are now rare, the benefits are still around. Hence, even a standard utilitarian analysis comes out in favour of gay marriage.

(2) The social recognition of committed heterosexual bonding has been a constant for thousands of years. No-one of a conservative inclination wants to mess lightly with that. Counter-arguments like “so was slavery” are unconvincing, as the occasional slights suffered by homosexual couples are microscopic by comparison with the injustice of human beings buying and selling other human beings.
Huh? The "so was slavery" retort does not equate the suffering caused by slavery with the suffering exprerienced by gay people due to homophobia, but is meant to show the stupidity of your argument, and you've done nothing to counter it.

More fundamentally, this bit exemplifies what you might call The Basic Conservative Fallacy, namely to argue that just because Feature X has been around for long means that it is better than alternatives. This is nonsense. All it shows is that societies which exhibit Feature X can be able to survive for a nontrivial amount of time. That's it. The age of a feature says nothing about its quality. The changed or new feature may be worse. It may be better. We need to assess it on its own prospective merits, and the fact that there is a lot of uncertainty involved in so doing does nothing to counter these arguments.

The rest of point (2) reads as follows:
Gay marriage proponents make much of the cruelty and injustices of the past. I must say, though, being old enough to remember some of that past, I am unimpressed. I was in college in the early 1960s. There were homosexual students, and nobody minded them. They seemed perfectly happy. Certainly they were not ”beaten and brutalized”; and if they had been, I assume the ordinary laws of assault and battery would have come into play. I can recall even further back, known homosexual couples keeping house together in my provincial English home town in the 1950s. People made jokes about it, but nobody bothered them — though sodomy was illegal in England at the time! I don’t think private consensual acts should be illegal; but that aside, I don’t see much wrong with the mid-20th-century dispensation, based as it was on the great and splendid Anglo-Saxon principle of minding your own business.
I'm with you: Mind your own business!

To be continued.


John Althouse Cohen said...

From the Secular Right post:

The social recognition of committed heterosexual bonding has been a constant for thousands of years.That's very carefully choosing to focus on the benign part -- "heterosexual bonding." I notice that they don't focus on the ages of the people in all of those bonds, or how much coercion was involved. If they were honest and explicit about those factors, their argument would sudddenly sound a lot less appealing.

It's also misleading to characterize the issue as being about whether "homosexuals" can marry. If they want to argue about history, they should admit that historically, it's been entirely approved of for "homosexuals" to marry. It's just that historically, they haven't been allowed to marry the people they're attracted to. This leads to gays marrying people of the opposite sex to fit into the established norms and institutions. This increases the level of unhappiness and adultery in society.

Also, every time Gay Person marries Straight Person #1, it doesn't just interfere with Gay Person's happiness. It also precludes an alternate universe in which Straight Person #1 would be unencumbered by that sham marriage and would instead marry Straight Person #2. That alternate universe would be more fulfilling for the two straight people (aside from obviously better for the gay person). If you to look at this issue from a utilitarian perspective, you need to factor all of this into your calculus.

pj said...

I never understand why heterosexuals, religious people in particular, fail to understand that civil marriage is a legal convention (and that is why it is the realm of the state) - it has very little to do with religious marriage.

That has been the situation for much of modern history and is certainly the case in common law countries like the UK.

I cannot understand why religious people feel their religious institution of marriage is threatened by people choosing to enter into non-heterosexual marriage contracts outside of the church. My civil marriage is certainly no endorsement of religious marriage, even if it is heterosexual!

I think it just comes down to the knee jerk 'ick, I don't like gay people and all their doings, being so in your face with their existing and all that' attitude held by many heterosexual people - it isn't gay marriage that's a threat to their sensibilities, it is thinking at all.

LemmusLemmus said...

John: I had overlooked that aspect, instead rushing to the more general point. Agreed on all counts.

pj: I was and am going to say a few words about people feeling "their" institution is damaged when others are "allowed in" in the last post (though I don't have a super theory on this). As for religion in particular, in my view religions can discriminate against their members as much as they like as long as nobody's forced to be a member (which, given that parents have children, is not very realistic). (I know there are committed homosexuals in the catholic church. There are also committed women in the catholic church. I don't get it.)