Column | Oct. 22

A response to "What Is Marriage?"

Last Thursday evening, I found myself in McCosh 50 for a talk delivered by Ryan Anderson ’04, called “What Is Marriage?” The fact that it was sponsored by the Anscombe Society — a campus group dedicated to promoting traditional marriage roles, family and chastity — gave me a pretty strong inkling of what wouldn’t be included in his definition.

The gay marriage debate is ages old at this point. On a college campus, it’s pretty difficult to oppose same-sex marriage in peace. Especially in such a liberal part of the United States, being homophobic like that is just about equivalent to being racist. What interested me in Anderson’s talk, however, was that he claimed he would make a case for the “traditional definition” of marriage without calling upon religion reasoning, vague moral loftiness or historical precedent. He said he’d use purely “philosophical reasoning.”

It turns out that “philosophical reasoning” was just a generic slippery slope argument. If we change one variable in the supposedly very complicated definition of marriage (his, by the way, consisted of three parts: a man and a woman creating a nurturing environment for children, doing this with sexual exclusivity and doing this forever), it could lead to changing every variable. What’s to stop it from changing two people of any sex to three people of any sex? What’s to stop it from becoming four people of any sex? What’s to stop marriage from being a temporary “wed-lease” — no expectation of forever at all?

The main problem with the slippery slope argument is that marriage law has already changed tons of times, within the last hundred years alone. Fifty years ago, marriage law disallowed interracial unions. Even before that, it dictated that a woman, after marriage, would become the husband’s property. Clearly, we’ve amended the law several times already, and anarchy has not yet broken loose. Someone in the audience did mention interracial marriage in the Q&A session, and Anderson responded by saying that the old writings of Aristotle and Plato never indicated that marriage had to be between two people of the same race, so therefore it was okay. I found this response startling for several reasons. First of all, it broke the rule that Anderson set for himself that he wouldn’t call upon historical precedent. Second, if Aristotle and Plato had indeed had racist tendencies in their writings from thousands of years ago, would that make a solid case against interracial marriage now? Furthermore, what even makes them any sort of authority on the matter of marriage? Plato wasn’t even married, and Aristotle said in “Politics” that women were “subject to men, but higher than slaves.”

Anderson pointed to polyamory as the seemingly catch-all bleak dystopia that the world would be headed to once we legalize same-sex marriage. Many defenders of traditional marriage law seem to think this too. What’s surprising, though, is that even people who believe in marriage equality seem to agree that polygamy would be an unwanted consequence. The thing is, I don’t think polygamy and polyamory are huge deals either. It’s no one else’s business, certainly not the government’s, what a certain person’s definition of love is. What does matter is that the institution is offered to all members of society equally. The main argument against polygamy by skeptics is that it never works out, many citing Psychology Today’s claim that people are just fundamentally too jealous. However, with 50 percent of all weddings ending in divorce, it’s arguable that marriage in general just doesn’t work out. No one’s proposing to illegalize marriage because it doesn’t seem to work out. According to a recent study based on U.S. Census data, bartenders have one of the highest divorce rates among all professions, yet no one’s trying to make sure that they never get married.

Apart from his slippery slope argument, Anderson made the claim that marriages are all about children and that single-parent households and same-sex marriages produce the “worst environment” for children. He cited a few social science studies to back this up but was very unclear on what “worst environment” even means. Furthermore, as he conceded later in the Q&A session, social science studies are very difficult to control. Two studies about the same subjects can reach polar-opposite conclusions based only on the type of data they report. And if both single-parent households and same-sex households scored equally “bad” in terms of rearing children, what’s the legal justification for allowing one but banning the other?

I came to Anderson’s talk expecting a well-articulated argument with which I would have to respectfully disagree. I was a little sad that what I heard was a rather shoddy one. Slippery-slope arguments and poorly controlled social science experiments aren’t a proper platform on which to deny one-tenth of the American population equal rights.

Shruthi Deivasigamani is a sophomore from Cresskill, N.J. She can be reached at shruthid@princeton.edu.

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