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.)