Posted by: N.S. Palmer | November 24, 2008

Gay Marriage Redux

By N.S. Palmer, Ph.D.

One of the advantages of having smart friends who disagree with you is that they make you work harder to prove what you say.

My recent blog opposing “gay marriage” produced just such a response. My correspondent thought that I was merely playing with words. In my blog article, I argued that “civil unions” should give gays all the same rights as heterosexual married couples. So why make such a fuss about denying the word “marriage” to gay unions? There are three main answers.

Words Have Power

First, words have power by their connection with the things they denote. To apply a word to something is to commit oneself to a particular way of acting and looking at the world. To apply the word “marriage” to gay unions is to admit gays to the “heterosexual club.” For the reasons I enumerated in my previous article, many people find that either illogical, uncomfortable, or outrageous.

Inflating Concepts Empties Them of Meaning

Second, concepts such as “marriage” have meaning both by inclusion and by exclusion. For example, to be Jewish means, positively, (a) to follow or at least know Jewish religious practices and traditions, (b) to have seen the inside of a synagogue at least a few times, and (c) either to have been born as part of the historic Jewish people or to have converted by an accepted Jewish ritual.

But to be Jewish also has a negative meaning. If you are a Jew, you are not (a) a believer in the Christian doctrines of the Trinity or the Incarnation; (b) a formal communicant of some other religion; or (c) completely indifferent to and unconnected with the Jewish people and Israel.

Suppose the government decreed that henceforth, everyone would be considered Jewish. Would Jews be indifferent to that? No. Such a decree, to the extent it was followed, would empty the concept of Jewishness of virtually all its meaning. The wider the application of a concept, the less meaning it has. A concept that excludes nothing, means nothing. (Interestingly, the French word “rien” and the Hebrew word “khloom” both can mean either “anything” or “nothing,” depending on the context.)

In a way, the process of “conceptual inflation” is similar to monetary inflation. If the government increases the money supply, then other things being equal, the value of each unit of money decreases. More dollars chasing the same quantity of goods means that each dollar is worth less. If you have $10 in your wallet and the government doubles the money supply, it has imposed a significant cost on you without ever touching you. It wasn’t necessary to mug you in an alley and take your wallet. All that was needed was to increase the social supply of what you already had. The $10 in your wallet is now worth much less than it was before.

Likewise, the more government inflates the concept of marriage to include people and practices that it has not traditionally included, the more it devalues the institution of marriage and empties it of meaning. That imposes a significant cost on heterosexual married couples and on society at large. Imposing that cost would only be reasonable to rectify a serious injustice that could not be rectified in a less disruptive way.

Settled Practices Should Not Be Changed Without a Compelling Reason

Third, gays are a minority: depending on whose statistics you believe, between one and 10 percent of the population. Gays who want to get married are a minority of that minority. Moreover, many gays (such as lesbian feminist author Camille Paglia) think that the “gay marriage” crusade is a bad idea.

Gays should get the same respect as heterosexuals, but that doesn’t mean that the heterosexual majority should always give way. The gay-marriage crusade asks us to redefine and devalue the institution of marriage in order to placate a minority of a minority. If there were no other way for gays to get equal legal rights, then fine. But there is another way. If civil unions aren’t currently good enough, then amend those laws. But let the heterosexual majority keep its institution of marriage.

Let’s try putting that into an informal argument:

  • Settled practices are part of the psychological identity and heritage of people in the societies where those practices exist.
  • Changing settled practices imposes a psychological cost on the people in the society where they exist.
  • The longer that practices have been settled, and the more widely they are followed, the higher is the psychological cost of changing them.
  • Therefore, the longer established and more widespread a practice is, the higher must be the burden of proof on anyone who wants to change it.
  • Therefore, one should not change settled social practices unless there are compelling reasons to do so.
  • Coercion and violence should be avoided whenever possible.
  • Therefore, if changing a settled practice requires coercion or violence (i.e., government fiat), then the burden of proof for changing it must be even higher.
  • Gays’ lack of access to the social institution of marriage does not impose a significant material burden on them because they can achieve the same material results via civil unions (perhaps requiring amendments of relevant laws).
  • The lack of access to marriage does impose a psychological burden on gays who want to marry and would not be satisfied by civil union.
  • The traditional family (father, mother, children) is a vital institution for preserving and continuing civilisation. Giving marriage a special status encourages people to create traditional families. Removing that special status would harm not only the majority, but society as a whole.
  • Gays are a minority of the population, somewhere between one percent and 10 percent of the population, depending on whom you believe (though none of the statistics are probably very reliable).
  • Gays who want to get married are a minority of the gay population: hence, they are a minority of a minority. I do not know of any statistics, reliable or otherwise, about the size of this sub-minority.
  • Changing the long-settled, nearly-universal practice of marriage to include gays would require coercion.
  • Changing the settled practice of marriage to include gays would impose a psychological cost on the majority in order to remove a psychological cost previously imposed on a minority of a minority.
  • It might be defensible to impose a psychological cost on the majority to remove a material cost on a minority because material costs often matter more than psychological costs.
  • It is not defensible to impose a psychological cost on everyone (or the majority) to remove a psychological cost on a minority of a minority when there is no material issue involved.
  • Therefore, gays should settle for the compromise of civil union — which, remember, is still opposed by many in the majority — and let heterosexuals keep the institution of marriage.

Addendum: The December 2008 issue of Chronicles Magazine has an article by Robert Peters about the use of civil unions as a “Trojan horse” to legalize gay marriage through the courts, bypassing the legislative process and the wishes of the majority. The strategy, according to Peters, has two stages. The first stage is to legalize civil unions through the legislative process. The second stage is to appeal to the courts, claiming that allowing only “civil union” instead of marriage violates gays’ right to equal protection of the law. The Connecticut Supreme Court recently legalized gay marriage on precisely that basis. However, the equal-protection argument is not conclusive. If the court believes that there is a compelling state interest in promoting traditional marriage and the traditional family, it can reject gay activists’ equal-protection argument and reserve marriage for male-female couples, especially if gays get equivalent legal rights from civil unions.

Copyright 2008 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as credit and URL ( are included.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: