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December 1, 2004

What's Missing from Barry's Argument

The lyrics to Billy Joel's "Only the Good Die Young" provide a near-perfect phrasing of a deeply flawed line of thought:

I'd rather laugh with the sinners
Than cry with the saints

The presentation of that choice is hardly unique to Joel — in fact, it's a cliché — but its history doesn't of itself grant legitimacy. Back in my disbeliever days, however, I took it for granted. Hell's rockin'; Heaven's a cloud-lounge. Now that I've grown up some, spiritually and intellectually, the obvious reply is, well, obvious: the narrator hasn't apparently met any of the right saints, and it would seem that he only knows sinners for whom the bill has not come due. Personally, I'd rather cry with saints if the other option were, say, writhing in agony with the sinners, but that might just be me.

I bring up this topic of falsely limited choices because a post by Barry Deutsch (on the title of which I based my own) relies heavily on a series of them. The first comes with the first paragraph of argument:

As for gender neutral marriage, we've been moving in that direction for quite a long time; more wives and mothers work, stay-at-home-Dads are increasing (although still a small group), and coverture laws are an archaism. I'm curious to know if Elizabeth would like to undo any of the previous legal steps towards gender-neutral marriage, and if so, which ones.

Choice: either marriage involves the classic male-breadwinner-dominated structure (boo, hiss), or it is on its way toward gender neutrality. Put aside that the aforementioned Elizabeth gave delimited context for her usage of gender neutrality — "marriage and family law" — and that the more powerful of Barry's examples are cultural, not legal. The larger problem with his point — which would be an offensive one, if it were intentional — is that he conflates gender and households' division of labor.

For the past two days, I took my turn watching the children while my wife worked; does that make me less masculine? My wife less feminine? If so, perhaps we are redeemed by the fact that I've spent a good portion of last week working with ladders, hooks, wires, and fuses putting up Christmas lights and my wife just came home from work and baked cookies. Christie Brinkley was a working wife and mother when she and Billy were still married; was she a gender-neutral spouse?

Folks on the other end of this debate from me might feel the urge to quip that, for my pro-marriage rhetoric, I've cited a famous divorced couple. If you sympathize with that urge, go ahead and indulge; it will only lead us to another problematic area in Barry's post. About midway through, he offers a table of potential actions that he believes SSM opponents — or at least Elizabeth — will agree that the government may and may not do in order to "discourage unmarried bio-parents" (creepy term, that "bio-parents"). Honing in on those that are not of dubious relevance on the "MAY NOT do" list, every one presents a falsely limited choice.

  • "the government MAY NOT... refuse to recognize divorces." I can't speak for Elizabeth, but my agreement with this statement is contingent upon an implied "all." Ought the government be able to refuse to recognize instant, insufficiently justified divorces? Yes, and many opponents of SSM would like to see reform on that very matter.
  • "... refuse to recognize marriages of the infertile." It seems to me that Elizabeth's point about gender-neutral marriage law directly conflicts with this statement. The government may (and should) refuse to recognize marriages between people who are (together) infertile because their reproductive organs are of the same sort. (This has to do with the "meaning of marriage" area of debate.)
  • "... refuse to recognize second marriages which create stepparents (that is, non-biological parents)." Of course, second marriages, with or without children already extant, are just as potentially procreative as first marriages. Refer to the previous bullet for an argument about what sort of second marriages the government may refuse to recognize.
  • "... throw non-resident parents into prison." What an either/or! Surely there are more-moderate burdens that even Barry would place on non-resident parents (e.g., child support).

All of the above are put forward in the service of Barry's central point, which also presents his central false choice:

Here's how I'd sum up the argument in the above paragraph (Elizabeth was nice enough to confirm by email that my paraphrase is accurate):
  1. If SSM is allowed, society will be less able to affirm the importance of being raised by bio-parents.
  2. This will likely result in more heterosexual parents either never marrying, or marrying and then divorcing. (This is what Elizabeth means by "more [children] will grow up lacking that key security").
  3. Therefore, we should not allow SSM.

For the sake of this post, I'm going to ignore my disagreements with statements 1 and 2 (and trust me, they are legion). Instead, I want to point out that something's missing from Elizabeth's argument. 1 and 2 do not logically lead to 3. There's something missing - a step between 2 and 3 which justifies the conclusion in step 3.

For example, let's look at one possibility - let's call it 2.5.

2.5 Whatever leads to more bio-parents not marrying, or getting divorced, should not be legal.

Barry refers to his step 2.5 as merely an "example" — "one possibility" — but he proceeds to write as if his specific language captures the full range of possibilities. He asserts that Elizabeth "can't fill in the gap in her argument with statement 2.5, or anything like it," but there is something like it that fits the demands. Not surprisingly, it includes aspects of the debate that he — like many SSM proponents — leaves out of the discussion:

2.5 Whatever negates the possibility of marriage's use as an explicit mechanism for binding biological parents to their children should not become part of the definition of marriage.

That same-sex marriage is more unique in falling afoul of this rule 2.5 is indisputable. First, note the persistence with which its advocates declare that marriage isn't about linking biological parents (i.e., about procreation) as part of their rhetoric. (An aside: I'd suggest that infertile heterosexual marriages of various sorts have collected long histories of evidence that they do not negate the procreative meaning of marriage, and that if they ultimately do so, it looks likely to be only a function of their enlistment in the SSM cause.) Second, note offshoot arguments that question why the presumption of sexual attraction/activity within a relationship ought to be part of a new definition of marriage.

More significantly, note that negating a range of actions is different from "leading to" or encouraging a particular behavior (or lack thereof). Similarly, refusing to include something within a definition is different from making something illegal. Most of those who oppose SSM see our advocacy as stopping a cultural downslide, with a view toward climbing back up a ways. Various laws and restrictions pertinent to marriage must certainly be considered and perhaps reformed, but whether effective policy requires allowing or disallowing no-fault divorce, for example, or even infertile marriages is incidental. The definition of the institution — the types of people who may enter into marriage with each other — is fundamental.

(Via Marriage Debate Blog)

Posted by Justin Katz at December 1, 2004 8:10 PM
Marriage & Family

Can you please email me and tell me where you found the "anti-spam code" software you use? I'd love to have that on "alas."

You wrote: Barry refers to step 2.5 as merely an "example" — "one possibility" — but he proceeds to write as if it is the only option.

This is simply not true; even within my post, I provided a second option, that Elizabeth is using some catagorization scheme.

Posted by: Ampersand at December 1, 2004 8:38 PM


You're correct in that I didn't quite manage to say, in that paragraph, what I meant to say. I've spent a little more time editing to answer your justified complaint. (Although, for the record, I don't think that paragraph is anywhere near pivotal to my argument.)

Posted by: Justin Katz at December 1, 2004 9:11 PM