Same-Sex Marriage & Sophistries

appeal to natureOne of the most quickly progressing social issues in America today is same-sex marriage. Societal attitudes toward the practice are shifting dramatically, and this change has helped contribute to the legalization of same-sex marriage in 19 states. This is, I think, a step in the right direction, and I hope it continues to the point where same-sex marriage is legal in every state. That said, I do have some reservations about this growing support. While I am a proponent of same-sex marriage, I am more of a proponent of being right for good reasons—sloppy reasoning, as seductive as it might be, should never be a shortcut to moral progress. Sadly, I see very poor arguments being championed by either those for or against same-sex marriage. It’s time to nudge the discourse in a more productive direction. First, let us explore some numbers.

According to a Gallup poll, 50% of the US population was in support of same-sex marriage in 2011. From 2011 to 2014, support has continued to increase to the point where it has become the majority opinion (55%)—the South’s 48% being the exception within the poll. For comparison, the percentage of citizens who approved of same-sex marriage in 1996 was 27%. Along with the general population, we have also witnessed many big name corporations lending support to same-sex marriage. (Call me cynical, but I’m convinced many corporations’ newfound support for same-sex marriage is more greed oriented rather than ethically motivated. Really, I think it is quite unethical to profit in some way on a controversial social issue by siding with the majority opinion only once it has been established.)

These numbers, while interesting, pale in comparison to the change undergoing the 18-29 year old demographic. Increasing from 41% in 1996 to 70% in 2013 to 78% in 2014, the youngest generation has consistently edged out the older generations in terms of both rate of development and holding the highest percentage. It is good to know (for supporters, that is) that an overwhelming majority of today’s youth and tomorrow’s policy makers are in favor of same-sex marriage. Unfortunately, I fear that many of those who fall within this majority may have the right conclusion yet use poor reasoning to support it. To quote philosopher Matthew Carey Jordan’s article Liberal and Conservative Views of Marriage, “there are many liberals who are uninformed and uninterested in thinking with any care at all about marriage. They are persons who naturally follow the path of least resistance and would go along with virtually any direction in which the cultural winds happened to be blowing.”

Perhaps the most common debate that plagues the issue is whether homosexuality is natural or not. I wish I could find a study that quantifies the amount of people who gladly use this argument. To my dismay, however, I can only provide anecdotal evidence. Quite often I’ve both engaged and witnessed this debate with people who belong to the 18-29 year old demographic, and trust me: appealing to nature is all too common. It’s a flimsy argument that those against same-sex marriage should avoid making. Yet as flimsy as it is, proponents of same-sex marriage also bungle it up. The argument is a perennial quagmire.

First, the terms “natural” and “unnatural” are far too ambiguous. If they go unquestioned, then this can lead to a lot of presumptions and talking past one another. Unnatural in what way, exactly? It is not biologically determined? It does not occur in the animal kingdom? It goes against the norm? It uses the body and its parts in ways that defy their supposed function? Most importantly, are these questions of naturalness even relevant to the discussion of same-sex marriage?

Proponents of same-sex marriage could come up with evidence and counterexamples to show that homosexuality is far from being unnatural and is, depending on the definition, quite natural. It should be noted, however, that while the discussion of whether homosexuality is natural or unnatural is interesting and worth talking about, it has virtually no impact on whether or not we should legalize same-sex marriage. We do not legalize something because it is natural (marijuana advocates, take notice and do not commit the same mistake), and we do not make things illegal if they are unnatural. To argue same-sex marriage should be legal or remain against the law because homosexuality is natural or unnatural is a pointless exercise. We would not argue to legalize murder if it were natural, and we would not argue to make altruism illegal if it were unnatural. Appeals to nature result in arguments as shaky as a cobbled together twig structure.

The second and rather common strategy that each side is guilty of amounts to no more than name-calling and knee-jerk emotional reactions, which both stifle any sort of reasonable discussion. Yes, this is a contentious issue that will bring about high emotions and people are likely to say things they will later regret, but to opt to silence any dissenting opinion with charges of bigotry or bias is problematic—for each side of the debate.

Supporters of a cause must be wary of fellow supporters lending a hand to a detrimental caricature. Being an impassioned advocate is one thing, devolving a discussion into a one-sided shouting match is another. Not only does a caricature serve as an easy target for the opposing side to attack, but it also runs the risk of leading to generalizations, indignation, the strengthening of previous convictions, and outright dismissal of a view and its arguments. This is how progress is hampered.

Intellectually, it is problematic due to humanity’s propensity for flawed thinking. We feel quite confident we’re right on a variety of matters. Likewise, we feel confident that those who we find ourselves in disagreement with are wrong. Confirmation bias is a dastardly devil, and it’s prevalent in human thinking. It allows us to all too eagerly nod our heads in agreement with information and arguments that confirm what we believe. On the flip side, it makes us prone to dismiss, ignore, or reinterpret anything that goes against our beliefs. Shutting down opposing viewpoints in an irrational manner is an embodiment of confirmation bias, so let’s not further feed the cognitive bias beast.