A Philosopher's Blog

Civil Rights & Same-Sex Marriage

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Race, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on August 15, 2012
Civil Rights March on Washington, leaders marc...

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After President Obama made his support of same-sex marriage clear, he received criticism from what some might regard as a surprising direction. To be specific, some leaders in the black community have spoken out against Obama’s position.  For example, Reverend William Owens, the president of the Coalition of African-American Pastors said that “by embracing gay marriage, President Obama is leading the country down an immoral path.”

Owens based his position on his view that same-sex marriage is “simply wrong” and that it is a mistake to consider same-sex marriage as a civil right. He also claims that the Black Church must oppose it because “the Black Church has always been the conscience of America.” Because of this view, he called upon black pastors and Christians to cease supporting Obama for as long as the President accepts same-sex marriage. Owens seems to claim that the President has taken this  stance in favor of same-sex marriage in order to get the support (and money) of the “Hollywood folks.” Clearly, this matter raises some interesting philosophical points.

Not surprisingly, those in favor of same-sex marriage often draw an analogy between the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the present day movement to ensure equal rights for homosexuals. More specifically, it is common for supporters of same-sex marriage to draw a comparison between same-sex marriage and mixed-race marriages. In the United States, it was not until the case of Loving v. Virginia in 1967 that laws against inter-racial marriages were deemed unconstitutional. Even now, some people still oppose mixed race marriage because they regard it as immoral and unnatural.

On the face of it, mixed-race and same-sex marriages seem morally analogous. After all, in both cases people are denied the right to marry based on the person they want to marry being the “wrong” sort of person: either the wrong race or the wrong sex. Those who favor allowing mixed-race marriages contend that race should not be a relevant factor in determining who one should be allowed to marry. In the case of those who favor same-sex marriage, it is contended that a person’s sex should not be a relevant factor in determining who one should be allowed to marry.

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 26:  Marchers hold signs t...

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Given the apparent similarity between the two situations, it is tempting to think that those who supported the civil rights movement and support (or at least tolerate) mixed-race marriage should also, on the basis of consistency, support the same-sex marriage movement.

However, as noted above, this is not always the case and some people (such as Owens) who clearly support civil rights just as clearly oppose same-sex marriage. There is, of course, a reasonable question as to whether or not this difference is morally justified.

Owens, as noted above, takes the strategy of claiming that same-sex marriage is immoral and hence should not be supported. Given his remarks about civil rights, he presumably believes that the civil rights movement was morally good. As such, grounds are needed for distinguishing between the goodness of the civil rights movement and the alleged evil of same-sex marriage.

One stock approach is to use the religious argument against same-sex marriage. Among Christian thinkers, the basis for the religious objection is typically and famously found in Leviticus. Naturally, there must also be a mixing of norms (see my Moral Methods book) from the religious claim that homosexuality is an abomination to the moral claim that homosexuality (and thus same-sex marriage) is morally wrong. Since I argue about this general point at length in my book For Better or Worse Reasoning, I will focus on three specific points here.

The first is that basing the opposition to same sex-marriage on religious grounds runs into the problem that the same text used to attack same-sex marriage also contains passages that seem to support slavery and inequality, something that would be rather inimical to the views of those who support the equality of the civil rights movement.

The second, which is a related point, is that if same-sex marriage is opposed on religious grounds, then consistency requires that the other religious rules be applied to require or forbid as appropriate. This is an instance of a rather general problem of using religion as the basis for ethics, namely the problem that when people use religion to justify or condemn one practice, they selectively ignore parts of the text that condemn or justify other practices.

For example, consider the commandment that requires keeping the Sabbath. This, unlike the short line in Leviticus, is one of the ten major rules. However, this commandment is routinely and regularly ignored by the same people who oppose same-sex marriage, as are many other rules (such as those regarding usury and the stoning of disobedient children).If it is argued that these other rules should be ignored because of changing times or on some other grounds, the same sorts of reasons can presumably be given in regards to Leviticus and thus the religious foundation of the argument against same-sex marriage can be undercut. Of course, it could be argued that Leviticus should be honored while other rules can be ignored, but the challenge lies in doing this selective ignoring in a principled manner rather than merely on the basis of prejudice and convenience.

A third point is that religious arguments were used in support of slavery, against the civil rights movement and against mixed-race marriages. As such, those who would use religious arguments against same-sex marriage while wanting to hold to civil rights will need to be careful to show that their religious arguments against same-sex marriage are legitimate while the religious based opposition to civil rights was in error and, of course, that the religious based support of civil rights was in the right. This could be done, but the burden of proof would seem to rest on those who want to support civil rights while also opposing same-sex marriage.

In light of the above, the religious based approach does not seem to be a particularly viable means of condemning same-sex marriage while at the same time supporting civil rights.

A second common way to argue against same-sex marriage is to make an appeal to tradition. That is, what is claimed to be traditional marriage is good and right because it is (allegedly) traditional. One obvious problem with this approach is that an appeal to tradition is a fallacy. Another problem with this, at least for those who oppose same-sex marriage while favoring civil rights is that the civil rights movement was opposed on the grounds of tradition and it, obviously enough, involved a clear break with the traditions of racism and unequal rights. As such, appealing to tradition is hardly a viable option for those who want to oppose same-sex marriage while supporting civil rights. The same sort of problem arises with appealing to common practice and appealing to belief. Both of these are logical fallacies and both were employed to argue against civil rights. As such, these do not serve as viable ways to argue against same-sex marriage while supporting civil rights.

Naturally, these approaches are not the only avenues to arguing that same-sex marriage is morally wrong. However, these other arguments also certainly seem to fail, as I argue in my For Better or Worse Reasoning. Unlike some opponents of same-sex marriage, those who support civil rights face the added burden of reconciling their arguments against same-sex marriage with their support of civil rights. For example, if someone argues in favor of civil rights on the basis of the principle of equality, s/he would need to argue why this principle applies to civil rights but does not apply to same-sex marriage. While I will not claim that this is impossible, the burden of proof would seem to rest on those who wish to support civil rights but also wish to oppose same-sex marriage.

Another possible approach is to argue that there is an important relevant difference between the civil rights movement and the matter of same-sex marriage. One plausible way to do this is to note that civil rights should be seen as relating to factors like race while same-sex marriage is (obviously) a matter of sexual orientation. One stock argument is that race is not a matter of choice and hence discrimination against people based on race is wrong. Since the traditional civil rights focus on race, supporting these civil rights would thus seem right. In contrast, it could be argued that sexual orientation is a matter of choice and hence a person could chose to be straight and thus be able to marry someone of the opposite sex. In contrast, a person cannot elect to not be black and hence it makes sense to have civil rights extend to people regardless of race. In contrast, there is no such obligation to people who elect to be gay. There is also the point that while people cannot, in general, easily hide their race, they can easily hide their sexual orientation. Hence, features that cannot be hidden should be protected, while those that can need not be protected.

One obvious objection to this approach is that that being gay is no more a matter of choice than is being black or being a woman. As such, the choice argument would not hold. Another obvious objection is that the mere fact that a person can conceal something about themselves hardly seems to justify not extending rights to them. After all, just because some black people can “pass” for white does not entail that they are not entitled to equal civil rights. After all, they would still need the protection of those rights if they were outed as black. Likewise, the fact that a gay person can pass as straight does not mean that they do not need their rights protected. After all, they can be outed.

Another approach is to argue that while being of a certain race or sex (male or female) is not immoral, being gay is. This would thus provide the needed relevant difference to allow a person to support civil rights while still opposing same-sex marriage.

One obvious concern with this approach is that those who oppose civil rights for minorities or women would argue that minorities or women are inferior to, for example, white men and are not entitled to the same rights. In the case of same-sex marriage, the idea is that people who are gay are morally inferior to straight people and thus not entitled to the same rights, most especially marriage rights. As such, those who support minorities or women having civil rights while opposing the extension of marriage rights to same-sex couples need to show that there is a difference between homosexuals and other people that warrants the difference in treatment.

In the case of people who otherwise support civil rights, such as Owens, the burden of proof would appear to be on them to show that while certain people should have full civil rights other people should be denied the right to marry.

There is, of course, also the issue of whether or not marriage rights should be denied to people who are immoral. Interestingly enough, other civil rights do not seem to rest on the person being moral. As I have argued in Better or Worse Reasoning, there is not a general moral requirement for marriage, So, for example, a serial killer can legally marry a murderer, provided that they are different sexes. As such, there seems to be no general grounds for denying marriage rights to same-sex couples, even if it is assumed that being gay in and of itself makes a person morally evil.

It could be argued that marriage rights are, in fact, denied to people who are immoral (or who want to engage in immoral activities). Pedophiles are denied the right to marry underage children, people who are fond of animals are denied the right to marry animals, close relatives are denied the right to marry, necrophiliacs are denied the right to marry corpses and so on. However, this point can easily be countered and I do so in my For Better or Worse Reasoning. After all, there are good moral arguments against marrying children, corpses and animals, mainly based on the obvious notion that they cannot provide consent. The same arguments do not, however, hold against same-sex couples.

On the face of it, it seems rather challenging for a person to consistently support civil rights while at the same time opposing same-sex marriage rights. While clearly not impossible, it is clear that the burden of proof rests on those who wish to defend civil rights for themselves while not extending those rights to others they regard as immoral or inferior.

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  1. Worthwhile reading | Civil Commotion said, on August 15, 2012 at 7:15 am

    […] Michael LaBossiere parses the arguments surrounding same-sex marriage, identifying what needs to be shown in order to uphold any of the several commonplace objections. It’s a good roadmap to the reasoning pro and con. […]

  2. Former Corner said, on August 15, 2012 at 3:36 pm

    Hi teacher,
    I’m not clear about one specific point, where you say “being gay is no more a matter of choice than is being black or being a woman”. I know several people who changed their sexual orientation from straight to gay/lesbian (at an already adult age). Since they were able to do that, it appears to me that being gay *is* a matter of choice. Am I missing something?

    No polemic intended, I’m not especially interested in same-sex marriage as a topic for discussion (and I haven’t read your work on that). I am interested in choice though. 🙂

    All the best.

    • magus71 said, on August 15, 2012 at 5:11 pm

      The Dr. is saying that could be an argument, not that is necessarily the correct one.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 15, 2012 at 5:30 pm

      Some people do claim that it is not a choice-whether it is or not is a matter of debate. As you point out, people do claim to change their sexual orientation. If so, then it would be a matter of choice (at least for them). However, many folks claim that it is not a matter of choice.

      My view is that behavior is clearly a matter of choice (so people can chose to “act” gay or straight or bi or whatever). However, whether orientation is something that can be shifted by choice seems to be unclear. As other folks have said, I don’t recall choosing to be straight or even selecting my preferred types of women. Of course, this does not prove that some people do chose.

      • Former Corner said, on August 16, 2012 at 7:02 am

        @ magus, and teacher,
        thanks for clarifying that. The word “obvious” in “One obvious objection to this […]” (instead of possible/frequent/common/…) led me to think it was also the writer’s opinion. I got it wrong.

        @ T.J.
        I agree completely. Short and sweet.

        @ teacher,
        sure enough, none of this *proves* anything, but sometimes I’m content with good arguments. 🙂

        1) I don’t recall choosing to be straight either. But then I don’t quite recall choosing which kinds of food I like to eat, which were my favorite subjects at school, which sports I like to watch, or choosing to love (or to stop loving) a certain specific person. I remember some (most?) instances of each type, but not all instances. Still I think it’s reasonable to assume that I did choose even foods, subjects or people I don’t remember choosing. Could this be a valid analogy?

        2) Ok, so we distinguish between two different things: sexual behavior and sexual orientation. My first reaction was “of course, everyone knows it”. Then it occurred to me that behavior can actually be observed (though it might be impolite to do so…), it can be changed and is obviously a matter of choice (we agree on that), while orientation can be (and is) only claimed, but definitely not observed, and we don’t know for sure if it can be chosen or changed. Now, I am NOT a fan of that Occam’s razor and I don’t like using it, honest. But. :-/

        I suspect I’m drifting off topic. If so, I apologize.
        Anyway, thanks for your hospitality.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 16, 2012 at 5:17 pm

          Those are good analogies. After all, they are all “orientations” that seem like they might or might not be chosen. For example, I am a runner and I don’t like football. A case could be made that I chose to be a runner (which seems reasonable) and also chose to dislike football. But, it might also be that I have orientations that led me to run and away from football.

          How much of our choices are us and how much are not is a rather important and interesting matter-especially when it comes to food. I like to say that I cannot help my love of bacon-I was born that way. 🙂

          Good points about behavior and orientation. As you say, we can observe behavior, but we have to infer orientation from behavior. If people chose their behavior (which I think people do, at least in many cases) than this would lead us to infer that they also chose their orientation. Aristotle argued that we become what we do, so perhaps people can become straight or gay by their actions. Or perhaps not.

          Like rafting, some of the fun of philosophy is just drifting. 🙂

  3. T. J. Babson said, on August 15, 2012 at 8:27 pm

    The solution is more separation between church and state. Let the government perform “civil unions” between any two citizens. These “civil unions” will be legal contracts, but will have no religious significance. If the couple wants a church wedding, it can happen after the legal niceties are taken care of.

    Once the religious dimension is separated from the civil rights issues, the issue should be settled.

    • Anonymous said, on August 16, 2012 at 9:38 am

      Now you are attacking Christianity by suggesting that marriage is “nothing” and that means you are an anti-american, leftist, socialist since America is *obviously* a christian nation.

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 16, 2012 at 5:19 pm

        Marriage could still be something and even very meaningful. For example, a religious person could regard true marriage as that which is sanctioned by God and regard the legal contracting as not marriage, but a mere secular process without a true connection to marriage.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 16, 2012 at 5:11 pm

      I agree. This allows people in a religion to exercise their faith without being able to impose on the liberties/rights of others while also allowing consenting adults to engage in legal contracts.

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