December 29, 2014

“Marriage is between a man and a woman”

As in many countries before it, the Finnish parliament recently passed a law making same-sex marriage possible, based on a citizens’ initiative (this was the first time a citizens’ initiative succeeded in becoming law). The margins were narrow, there was serious opposition to the law in several parties, most of all among the Christian Democrats. (The law may yet be overturned by the next parliament).
A recurrent argument, or slogan, of the opponents of the reform, was “Marriage is between a man and a woman”.
            I find this an interesting formulation. It is hard to pin down how it is to be understood. Even so, I think it would be wrong to conclude that it is a meaningless claim, or to argue that it shows that opponents of the reform are thoughtless. This is so even though I do not agree with them (I was one of those who signed the initiative). In political debates one should resist the temptation to think that logic is on one’s side. Thinking that it is is (normally) an indication that one has misconstrued one’s opponents’ position.
            Clearly, the intended force of “Marriage is between a man and a woman” can’t be that of a definition. The fact that a linguistic convention exists does not preclude going against it. (Legal terminology, in particular, is not necessarily bound by common usage.) Furthermore, as a description of an existing linguistic convention the claim would not even be true. The word “marriage” has traditionally been employed in speaking about polygamous relations. In fact, one would be unable to explain what “polygamy” means without allowing for the conceptual possibility of a marriage involving something other than one man and one woman. And, of course, the word is now being employed in speaking about same-sex marriages with regard to all those countries in which the practice has been instituted.
            (Neither, of course, can the point simply be that of asserting a fact of history: “up until now, marriage in our culture has always been between a man and a woman.” Using that as an argument would entail that change in itself is a bad thing, which would of course be nonsense.)
            It may seem more plausible to interpret the claim as saying “Marriage ought only to be between a man and a woman”. But that reading would hardly satisfy those who advance the claim, since it would then reduce it to an expression of opinion. It would be a way of marking where the speaker stands, but that by itself entails acknowledging that other stands are possible. In other words, it would push the position out into the arena of argument and counter-argument, but I do not believe that is true to the intention of those who voice the claim: they wish to claim a sort of necessity for their position, they consider the supporters of same-sex marriage to be not so much mistaken as confused.
            It should be pointed out that opinions among the opponents to the law are quite varied. Some of them would grant the same legal rights to registered same-sex couples as to married couples; in effect, they simply want to reserve the word “marriage” for heterosexual couples. (This is not to say that the disagreement is simply verbal for them.) This is the position, for instance, of the Finnish president, Sauli Niinistö (who can voice his opinion but has no power over legislation).
            (At the same time Niinistö, like many others, does slip into argument, claiming that the reform should have been resisted because the idea of same-sex marriage offends people’s sensibilities. One should note, first of all, that this does not explain what is meant by the slogan “Marriage is between a man and a woman”. It is rather an argument for the position that marriage ought to be only for a man and a woman. One should also note that this argument has a false ring of neutrality about it. To say that a practice offends somebody’s sensibility is to bestow some degree of legitimacy on the reaction – as distinct from saying that a way of behaving irritates or angers or disgusts people – the latter would not be adduced as grounds for outlawing a practice. Again, most of us would frown upon someone who said, for instance, that interracial marriage might offend people’s sensibilities; we wouldn’t consider that an acceptable way of describing people’s resentment. Clearly those who invoke people’s sensibilities in connection with same-sex marriage consider the negative attitude acceptable, whether or not they share it. --- In some countries appeals are made to the Bible, but this would not carry much weight in most European countries. Aside from parties like the Christian Democrats in Finland, there is a large consensus that religion and public decision-making should be kept separate.)
            What makes the proposition “Marriage is between a man and a woman” philosophically interesting is that it shows that people may say things that do not fit into any of the standard categories philosophers commonly use in classifying utterances. It is neither the expression of a linguistic convention, nor a statement of empirical fact, nor a normative claim. One might say it is an attempt to express the essence of marriage, to say what a real marriage is. Some people will agree and others won’t. There seems not to be any argumentative “solution” to the disagreement.
            (In this respect I see an analogy here with the disagreement about capital punishment. Some people think, as I do, that it is a form of murder, others think of it as a form of punishment that may occasionally be justified. But I do not think there is anything that the latter have overlooked. They are not victims of sloppy thinking. They are simply wrong – that is my conviction.)


  1. Hello, and thank you for all the insightfull posts.

    I share your view on same-sex marriages, although regret to say that i was less active in this matter. I too, would be inclined to say that those who oppose are wrong, but whether it is because of sloppy thinking or not, i think can be a more complicated matter. It is good to remember that accusing someone for sloppy thinking is, of course, not an argument in itself (so banging someone in the head with a book on elementary logic, does not really help). However, showing that one has been sloppy in her thought and helping the other one realize this, is another thing. The person with the opposing opinion should, of course, try to do the same to you.

    My concern is with what seems to me to follow from what you say. I am concerned about what becomes of discussion, if we cannot in some sense assume that in a disagreement there is sloppy thinking involved. If everyone thinks perfectly reasonably, it seems that a discussion, for instance about same-sex marriages, becomes merely an excersise in power. There seems to be little reason to discuss, if there is no distinction between a reasonable argument and an unreasonable argument. (An often overlooked option in discussions is that the mistake in reasoning might be the assumption that two opinions are in conflict. However, I do not think this is the case about same-sex marriages that you discuss)

    I do however agree that one cannot say that the opponent has made a sort of illegal logical move, something that should be ruled out. First of all, from a purely practical stand point, this would most likely not persuade anybody (nor do i think it should). However, what i believe to be the point in a discussion which is based on reason is that one or the other willingly changes her understanding of the matter. For instance, if someone claims that "a marriage is between a man and a woman", it is perhaps not clear to the person herself what she is claiming. It is of course obvious that she is opposing same-sex marriages. However, she might in her life show other kinds of commitments which are in contradiction with that statement. For instance, she can otherwise be a firm believer of a life built on reasoning. If it could be shown to this person that this statement in fact is not really an argument, but rather just a repetition of the opinion that same-sex marriages should not be allowed, she might concider another argument. After a while, she might come to realize that her opinion was not based on anything but the distaste for same-sex marriages. This in itself might be enough to show that there was a problem in her opinion, not because of external criterias of reason, but based on criterias she herself has accepted within her own life (the criteria in this case was that she was committed to a life based on reason, not force). This, of course, presumes that she thought she had good reasons, but came to realize it was mere distaste against same-sex marriages.


    1. Thank you for your comment. You raise good questions.

      First about the idea of building one’s life on reason: having convictions that are not open to argument need not mean that one is not trying to be guided by reason. I think most people are convinced that a culprit’s family should not be punished for his/her crimes, that dogs and cats should not be subjected to needless suffering, and that people who kidnap women and sell them into prostitution are evil. Part of that conviction is that I would not be ready to entertain any argument in favour of such practices. Yet I do not think that by itself would make me an unreasonable or irrational person. Isn’t all our arguing and questioning characterized by the fact that there will be things we do not consider open to questioning and argument? Could it be any different? (As for what would make us consider a person unreasonable or irrational, that is a large question and I’d prefer to leave it for now.)

      Second, the fact that a matter is held to be outside the sphere of argument and counter-argument does not mean that communication must stop. For one thing, it is often valuable to learn more about one’s opponents, to try to get a wider picture of their outlook on life, to exchange viewpoints without attempting to change one’s interlocutor’s conviction.

      Besides, even if I do not see how my conviction could be subject to argument, circumstances may make me look at things in a different light. Thus, I might get to know a homosexual couple and come to see how love between two men or two women can be a beautiful thing. Reading a novel or taking part in conversation might bring about a similar insight. It might do so, as you suggest, by my coming to regard the sources of my conviction in a new light. (For an insightful discussion of these points, see Cora Diamond’s essay “Anything by argument” in her book The Realistic Spirit.)

      Thinking is a wider matter than argument.

      As for what constitutes “sloppy thinking”, I believe it is in the end a personal matter. You must get me to recognize that I have been saying things I really don’t want to say. Hitting me on the head with a logic book, on the other hand, is no use at all.

  2. Camilla Kronqvist31 December 2014 at 16:33

    Thank you for many helpful remarks! Here are some cursory remarks to your discussion, or mostly examples of other sentences that one can discuss in relation to it.

    1. I am also a bit hesitant to say that the opponents are "simply wrong", between being wrong does not appear to be such a simple thing, and a reason for saying this is that I in some way would say that in the marriage case there is still a disagreement in one's use of "marriage" or how one (says one) wants to use it. A problem for me is e.g. to see "marriage is between man and woman" as a central claim about marriage, whereas I do not have the same problem with, say, "marriage is union of love". And it seems a lot of the discussion revolves around what one should see as the defining feature of marriage, what makes a marriage a marriage, as it were. (And for me it is utterly difficult to see the "man and woman" as central in the way opponents of same-sex marriage argue it is.) Would it be helpful here to think of marriage, and love, as a "contested concept". And is what can be contested not only the application of the concept to a given case (which I think is Gallie's way of putting it), but also the "meaning of the concept". In other words, what descriptions of its use that serve to clarify its meaning.

    2. I think it is helpful to compare what is being done in saying "a union between two men isn't (or can never be) a (real) marriage" with saying to someone "what you feel isn't love" (my standard case the parent to a teenager "it's just an infatuation". And also be clear about how much criticism one can direct at another person's willingness to judge the love of other people. We can imagine someone defending the claim "marriage is for man an woman" by saying "a man can never love a man in the same way a man loves a woman" etc. But equally well one could of course say "a man can never love a woman in the way a woman loves a woman". I wouldn't say there is nothing that could make sense in either saying, compare also "you never love a two persons in the exact same way", but it should be clear that it is utterly unclear what the notion of "the same way" does here. (But that notion is of course at the root of many philosophical problems.)

    3. Although I agree with you that we cannot solve the issue with the help of logic, or hitting someone in the head, what is needed rather seems to some transformation in one's way of thinking about love and marriage in the context of different kinds of relationships, I wonder why you don't discuss it as a matter of grammar shifting (because I am of course inclined to think of it like that)?

    1. Thank you, Camilla. You bring up complex and important issues.

      I’m inclined to think that there’s a distinction between shifts in grammar and the types of disagreement that have been brought up here. Compare:

      (1) “I wouldn’t consider that a real marriage; A and B don’t love one another and never did.”

      (2) “I wouldn’t consider what A and B have a real marriage: they’re both men and a relation between two men is not a real marriage.”

      I might agree with (1) and wish to reject (2). (Of course, attitudes to (1) have varied greatly through history.) But both remarks have something in common. One could imagine both remarks being made in awareness of the fact that there are people who will refer to both unions as marriages, or propose to do so. Even someone who said (1) would probably do the same: say, she would introduce B as A’s wife, or refer to them as a married couple, etc. Someone who said (2) may or may not act analogously, for instance, once same-sex marriage is instituted.

      So it seems one might here distinguish the level of grammar (or convention?) from what could be called an existential level – call it the level of meaning. One should not suppose that the grammar of “x” governs the grammar of “a real x”, nor vice versa. To what extent one will let the latter dictate one’s relation to the former is an open question; one could think of it as a moral issue.

      Again, consider:

      (3) “Love between two men is not like love between a man and a woman.”

      (4) “What they have isn’t real love – they’re both only fourteen.”

      (3) might be uttered, as it were, transitively, in the sense that one would be prepared to specify what one thought were the characteristic differences between the two types of relation. (These specifications might be expressive of prejudice, but they might also be perceptive.) Someone else might respond by saying “You can’t generalize – *all* love relations are different.”

      But on the other hand it might express an attitude of meaning: love between two men will never amount to the same as love between a man and a woman, no matter what the relation is like in practice. Something similar might be true of (4): one might suspect that the relation doesn’t go deep, but then perhaps be prepared to recognize that it really does – or one might simply refuse to consider the possibility that it could.

      So we might say: in some contexts one may distinguish a level of meaning from questions about grammar (as in the first two examples) and from questions about facts (as in the other two). I admit that I am simplifying matters here. In practice, the levels will often merge and interact. (This is often the case in connection with racist and nationalist rhetoric, for instance. Raimond Gaita gets into these issues in *A Common Humanity*.)

  3. Dear Lars, I've posted a response to this of sorts. At least on what I take to be the issue. Regards, JZ

  4. Dear Professor Hertzberg I too wrote a response or rather listed a few queries regarding this post. At this blog
    Would be grateful for any comments.

    Regards, Bahram D