Friday, June 12, 2015

Towards True Marriage Equality

Like most progressive people, I'm in favour of a legal redefinition of marriage to make it fairer and more equal for as many people as possible. If for no other reason than the various legal perks and advantages that are given to married people in many countries, I think this is an issue that needs to be taken seriously.

What I want to talk about here is what a fair definition of marriage should be, and ask whether we as a society are actually ready to accept the repercussions of that definition. I see a lot of pro-gay-marriage people happily insult non-progressives as bigoted and homophobic, which is often quite justified, but I also see these same people displaying the bigoted behavior they condemn to other underrepresented minorities, without even appearing to realize that they're being the exact same kind of bigot that they rail against. Let me explain, and you can then decide if I'm full of crap or not!


The traditional definition of marriage is generally something of the form:

The legally or formally recognized union of a man and a woman as partners in a relationship.

The progressive definition I would argue for is something like this:

The legally or formally recognized union of consenting adults as partners in a relationship.

Think about this and decide if you agree that this is a reasonable definition. In arguments about marriage equality, progressives will typically focus on limiting marriage to being between a man and a woman as being unreasonably restrictive, and argue that any consenting adults should be able to form a legal union if they wish. I agree with this general principle, but it's important that we look at the cases that it does and doesn't cover, and see if we agree that we're on the right track.

What Marriage Wouldn't Cover

Opponents of gay marriage often bring up various cases and argue that redefining marriage will result in some kind of ridiculous slippery slope to absurdity, so let's look at those cases and see how they are handled by our progressive definition:

Marrying children.

Requiring marriage to be between consenting adults is important in order to exclude claims that someone would be able to marry a child. A child isn't sufficiently mentally developed to enter into a union of this kind, so this seems to be a reasonable restriction. And obviously marrying children isn't possible with our progressive definition, so this argument is invalid.

Marrying animals.

Another popular claim is that redefining marriage will result in bestiality and people wanting to marry their pets or other animals. Now, we can be explicit and say consenting adult humans if we really want to be pedantic, since that is our intention here, but the fact that animals do not have the ability to consent to marriage should already cover this.

Marrying inanimate objects.

Following on from the previous one, no one would be able to marry their car or their favourite sex doll or any other object, since like with animals, inanimate objects cannot consent to anything. 

What Marriage Would Cover

This is where things will get interesting for progressives. Remember again that if you want to argue that marriage should be between consenting adults in order to argue in favour of gay marriage, you need to accept the implications of this redefinition, or be guilty of hypocrisy.

Incestuous marriages.

If two consenting adults want to marry and they happen to be related to each other, what reasonable objection can we give to this? Whether it's two brothers, a brother and sister, a father and daughter, two cousins, or any other combination, they're consenting adults, and what justification do we have for stopping them?

Some people will just jump straight to the "incest is gross" line of reasoning and not even go any further than that. And this is understandable, since there is a strong inbuilt aversion in most humans to avoid sexual attraction to relatives, for good evolutionary reasons. But we're not talking about forcing anyone to do anything. The question is, if for whatever reason two related people are sexually attracted to each other and want to get married, do we have a reasonable objection to it?

We really need to keep in mind the principle that "just because I don't like something isn't good enough reason to stop others from doing that thing". This is one of the exact arguments that homophobic people use against gay marriage. Because they think homosexuality is disgusting, that should be enforced on everyone.

One argument that usually comes up with incestuous marriage is the one about higher risk of deformed children. This is undoubtedly a reality, but consider why this isn't an effective argument:
  • Related couples can have children without being married. Marriage isn't some kind of license that people require before they can procreate, so limiting it in this case makes no sense.
  • Marriage does not necessarily involve children. This is an argument that is often leveled against gay marriage, and the same answer applies. A couple can marry without having children, or they can adopt children if they want. It's important that an incestuous couple is aware of the risks, but that's not a reason to forbid marriage.

Polygamy and polyandry.

Do we have a good reason for limiting marriage to being specifically between two people? This is certainly what most people want, but just like gay or incestuous marriage, if multiple consenting adults want to have this kind of union, is there any good reason not to allow it?

I think the biggest legitimate concern would be if people abused this kind of marriage as a legal loophole, say by some cult having all members marry to take advantage of spousal property ownership transfer laws, or the board of directors of a corporation all marrying to take advantage of laws that protect a person from having speak against their spouse in a criminal case (where these laws exist).

But assuming we can deal with those legal issues, is there any reasonable moral objection that we can give? I can't see a good reason to limit marriage in this way, just like I can't see good reason to limit it to being between a man and a woman.

We should also be aware that there are two different cases here: A group of more than two people all being married to each other; and a person being married multiple times simultaneously, but those partners not being married to each other. I think both are legitimate cases.

Again, we need to remember the point that just because we don't like something or want to do something, that's not a good enough reason to deny it to others who do want that thing. There might be other reasons that could apply, but this isn't one in itself.


It's easy to think that laws should be based around what the majority wants, and ignore minorities. To some degree this is fair, since it's unlikely that you can make laws that will satisfy every member of society, so when you have to choose, going with what the majority wants is often the best trade off. Hell, that's what elections are!

But we do need to reconsider laws when we find that some minority is being unfairly treated and we don't have a sufficient justification for it. This has been the case for LGBT rights. Minorities generally can't get enough political will behind their agendas without some of the majority getting on board, and so as more people have decided that we can accommodate LGBT people in various ways without unreasonably affecting the majority, the momentum has gathered enough to bring about change.

As that change happens, we need to stay aware of other minorities that we can help in the process, and not treat them the exact same way the majority has treated the minority group we are focused on. It's far too easy for most people to dismiss people who are in incestuous or polygamous relationships as 'weirdos' or 'freaks' or 'abominations in the eyes of god' or other uncharitable things, but it's important to remember that they are consenting adults who aren't hurting anyone, and these are the exact labels that LGBT people have been fighting for years. We shouldn't just push the intolerance down onto the next minority group and consider it a victory.

If we really do care about marriage equality, and really do think that consenting adults should be free to marry, then we need to also accept all of the people that this redefinition affects, or we're just as bigoted as the homophobes and other non-progressives.

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