Too often, I have seen people make this kind of argument against gay marriage:
“Next thing you know they’ll be legalizing incest.”
“You want gay people to be married? What’s next, people marrying their dogs?”
I just this morning read another example. (If you don’t want to read it, it argues that the overturning of anti-sodomy laws in Lawrence v. Texas will lead to incest, particularly referencing Scalia’s dissent in that case; not specifically an anti-gay marriage argument, but along the same lines.) I know I’ve seen this kind of argument plenty, and I’m sure you have too, either as the crux of someone’s anti-gay marriage stance, or as a brief implication in some other discussion.
Well here’s what’s wrong with it.
The “gay marriage slippery slope” argument is based on the idea that the only thing justifying making incest, animal marriage, polygamy, etc., illegal is a commitment to traditional or moral values, and if we throw those out to allow gay people to marry, then on what grounds will we be able to argue against incest etc.?
What anyone is making this argument is missing is there are arguments against incest, etc. that do not apply to gay marriage.
There is not a slippery slope from gay marriage to incest. If you’ve already ascended and started heading down the hill of “gay people can marry because they’re people too, and damn the tradition” there is still another treacherous moral mountain you’d have to climb and overmount in order to start allowing incest.
It is most definitely not the case that we disallow incest just because it’s traditional to do so. While it is true that it is not traditional to allow it, it is also true that is not allowed because: 1) sexual union between close relatives produces dangerous genetic aberration, 2) incest, like statutory rape and certain kinds of workplace sexual harassment, too often by definition involves a perpetrator who holds authority and control over a victim who doesn’t have sufficient freedom or maturity to make a decision otherwise, and thus violates the requirement of consent (admittedly this is a limited argument, but a forceful one in the cases where it applies, i.e. child-parent incest) 3) there is an observed biological imperative against incest which suggests that we are backed up by natural law in censuring it. None of these arguments apply to gay marriage.
Similarly, it is most definitely not the case that we disallow animal marriage just because it’s traditional to do so. While it is true that it is not traditional to allow it, it is also true that is not allowed because: 1) animals cannot give consent, and… well, really that’s all the argument you need. But it’s also not allowed because 2) the rights, privileges and responsibilities that are the legal parcel of marriage cannot apply to animals – insurance coverage, custody, and so forth – and thus animal marriage would be legally incoherent, and 3) have I mentioned that they cannot consent, and consent is required to enter into a contract? Scientifically and legally, even if we could somehow communicate with dolphins or monkeys enough to get a definitive “yes” or a “no” out of them, we could not prove and know that they are capable of understanding what marriage is and what they’d be “consenting” to.
And it is most definitely not the case that we disallow polygamy just because it’s traditional to do so. While it is true that it is not traditional to allow it, it is also true that is not allowed because: 1) many of the rights, privileges and responsibilities that are the legal parcel of marriage cannot apply to a group of people without becoming incoherent (custody, life decision rights, insurance etc.), and really that should be enough of an argument; but, also 2) polygamy is traditionally sexist and unequal and involves subjugation and forced consent.
Marriage is both a religious and a legal institution in our society. The religious institution has nothing to do with arguments about whether it should be legal or not – separation of church and state and all that – and the government can’t force any church or religious institute to marry anyone or not marry anyone. I’m not talking about religious-type arguments about any kind of marriage here, because these slippery slope arguments are concerned with the legality of the type of marriage or sexual relation. When deciding what should be law, we have only to consider the legal definitions and ramifications. In the case of marriage, that means the actual laws and the package of rights, privileges and responsibilities that go with a civil marriage contract; being a contract, other laws concerning consent and the ability of the parties to enter into the contract also apply. In the case of sexual behavior, that means the question of whether an individual can be jailed, fined or otherwise censured for engaging in the activity in question.
Thus, any argument about gay marriage has to be concerned with one question: is there a civic or rational basis for allowing two same-sex individuals to sign a civil marriage contract giving them the set of rights etc. that the contract provides?
As stated above, there are arguments against allowing incestuous couples, human-animal couples, polygamous couples, etc. to have access to that marriage contract that do not apply to gay marriage.
What arguments can you come up for denying a gay couple access to a civil marriage contract that do not rely on appealing to base tradition or the slippery slope argument?
What arguments can you come up specifically against child marriage, slave marriage, mail-order marriage, and any other illegal sexual act or type of marriage that I didn’t directly address here that demonstrate that you can differentiate between them and gay marriage?
The article linked to above quotes Scalia discussing “the impossibility of distinguishing homosexuality from other traditional ‘morals’ offenses,” including prostitution, obscenity, adultery and more. I find it astounding that a Supreme Court Justice cannot identity anything but ‘morals’-based arguments for these kinds of laws. Surely he can recognize arguments in favor of outlawing prostitution, etc. that a lawmaking body can provide and the court can thus uphold, besides just “we think it’s wrong?” (Here’s two: anti-exploitation, public health.) Heck, you can even argue, if you are so inclined, that anti-obscenity laws can be upheld on the grounds of protecting against harassment and disturbing the peace, the same way that you can uphold laws against blaring loud music or indecent exposure.
If the only argument in support of any legal ban or restriction is “we think it’s wrong,” then it is legally indefensible. But it really shouldn’t be that hard in reasonable cases to come up with at least one measly sensible argument in favor.
I challenge anyone to come up with an argument against gay marriage (or gay sex) that doesn’t, when examined closely, devolve to “because we think it’s wrong.” (No, it doesn’t inherently spread disease. No, it doesn’t inherently lead to increased violence. Read the actual science.)
In summation: you can only argue “the slippery slope will lead to incest, animal marriage, polygamy and so forth!” against gay marriage if you are unable to come up with any arguments against incest, etc. that are unique. And something is probably wrong with you if you can’t come up with one single, supportable and standing argument against, say, animal marriage that applies specifically to it and not to gay marriage.
Thank you for reading.