Marriage: Definitions and Social Construct

by Luke Muehlhauser on March 3, 2011 in Ethics,Guest Post

Today’s post on ethics is written by Alonzo Fyfe of Atheist Ethicist. (Keep in mind that questions of applied ethics are complicated and I do not necessarily agree with Fyfe’s moral calculations.)

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Last week, the Obama administration announced that it will no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act, the act that defined ‘marriage’ as between a man and a women in all federal laws. In the opinion of the Obama administration, the act is unconstitutional, and it refuses to say otherwise in court.

It’s a standard practice in law to define the terms within the context of the law, even if that definition should deviate from standard usage. A law that bars vehicles in a park might define a vehicle as any mechanical mode of transportation weighing more than 15 kilograms. This tells the court not to enforce the prohibition on kids on roller blades or pulling a wagon.

It is beyond the scope of this posting to discuss the constitutionality of a law. Though it is common practice for people to judge the constitutionality of a law according to whether they like or dislike the law, in fact it involves a different line of questioning. A constitutional law can still be immoral – as was the case with pro-slavery laws.

However, it is within the scope of this posting to discuss the moral implications of defining marriage as between a man and a woman.

I had a question from a member of the studio audience:

I’m a naturalist and I could not answer this objection to gay marriage. I think that marriage was a social construct, but he argued that since I believe that I can’t confidently define marriage one way as anyone could define it. And if I can’t define marriage I am not able to say there is any specific rights for it. Now, I still believe it to be a social construct, as that is obvious in itself. But how can I define it if it is one? How is my definition any more right than his?

Definitions do not matter in any sense that is relevant here.

Every definition within a language – without exception – gets its meaning as a product of social convention. There is no way to defend any definition of any term as ‘the correct definition’. The only thing you can do is argue whether a particular definition fits the way that people generally use the term.

This is true of ‘marriage’. It is also true of ‘god’, ‘atom’, ‘planet’, ‘malaria’, and ‘social construct’.

It is a common mistake to take what is true of language and claim it is true of what the word refers to (if anything).

There is no ‘correct’ definition of ‘planet’ – only the definition that a group of people decide to adopt. This does not imply that those huge rocks and gas balls flying through space are radically changing their properties each time astronomers change their definitions. Definitions concern what we are going to call things. It does not determine what they are.

Philosophers call this the ‘use-mention distinction.’ There is a difference between using a term the way some group of people have decided to use it, and talking about (mentioning) the term itself. Planets are big balls of rock or gas (or both) flying through space. ‘Planet’ is a six letter word starting with the letter ‘p’. Many of the things that are true of ‘planet’ are not true of planets, and many things that are true of planets are not true of the word ‘planet.’

Often, philosophers show the distinction (as I did above) by putting inverted commas around a term when it is mentioned, but not when it is used. So, we can write, there is a difference between planet and ‘planet’, and a corresponding difference between marriage and ‘marriage’.

Any talk of definitions is talk about the mention of a term, not its use. We can talk about the definition of ‘marriage’, or we can talk about marriage. Let us talk about marriage for a bit.

Marriage, as an institution, is a social invention. This means that it is a tool – like knives, computers, and cars – something that humans designed and built because it serves particular interests.

We can tell how good or bad a tool is by determining how efficiently it accomplishes the goals that were our reason for inventing it. A bread knife is a knife invented for the purpose of slicing bread. A good bread knife cuts bread cleanly without tearing and is large enough to cut a whole slice at a time.

With respect to knives, it turns out that knives are useful for a lot of things. A knife useful for slicing bread may not be useful for spreading jelly. It works, but a different design will work better. It’s also not useful for skinning a dear or for cutting tile. Slightly different designs are best for those purposes. The result is that we end up with different types of knives that serve different purposes.

It would be absurd for anybody to argue that the slicing of bread is the only legitimate use for a knife and that nobody shall be permitted to use a knife (or to invent a type of knife) that serves any purpose other than the slicing of bread. This argument can’t even get off the ground.

One could argue that knives are tools invented by humans to serve human purposes. However, this fact cannot in any way call into question the fact that different types of knives serve different human purposes, and that a knife well designed for one purpose may not fit the other purposes people might have for knives.

Now, somebody might say that the term ‘knife’ is still limited to that which has a blade. You wouldn’t call a hammer a ‘knife’ because it lacks those qualities that knives have.

This is true. At the same time, I have never heard anybody try to argue that the government should take a position opposed to the invention and use of hammers because they fail to meet the strict literal definition of ‘knife’. That type of argument does not even make sense.

The institution of marriage, like the knife, is a tool that humans invented to serve human purposes. The type of marriage that works well for one use might not work as well elsewhere. In this case, it makes sense to design new tools that work elsewhere.

We can then argue whether ‘marriage’ is between a man and a woman the way a ‘knife’ has an edge. We can debate whether the relationship between ‘gay marriage’ and ‘marriage’ is the same as that between ‘butter knife’ and ‘knife’ or if it is more like the difference between ‘hammer’ and ‘knife’.

But nothing we say in this debate is relevant to the question of whether gay marriage is a useful tool or whether it ought to be permitted or prohibited.

More importantly, that debate is already over. The term ‘gay marriage’ is already a part of our language. It has a definition. You can use the term in any number of places and people know what you mean.

Furthermore, that definition is clearly one that refers to a kind of marriage. Pointing to an example of same-sex marriage and saying, “That is a kind of marriage” is a lot more like pointing at a butter knife and saying ‘that is a type of knife’ then like pointing to a hammer and saying ‘that is a kind of knife.’ As a matter of fact, linguistically, ‘marriage’ simply is not a term that refers only to a relationship between a man and a woman.

Even people who are opposed to same-sex marriage know what the term means. They do not want it to be legally recognized, but they know what it is that they oppose. This alone makes it absurd to argue that ‘same-sex marriage’ violates the definition of marriage. It is as absurd as arguing that ‘butter knife’ is a violation of the meaning of the word ‘knife.’

So, the institution of marriage is a tool. Like every other tool, it can be designed well, or it can be designed poorly, or somewhere in-between. It can be improved upon by making changes that will allow it to serve more peaceful interests of those who would use it.

Our current institution of marriage – the socially constructed tool that it is – can be redesigned just a little and, thus, made a better tool than it is.

- Alonzo Fyfe

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{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

Reginald Selkirk March 3, 2011 at 7:05 am
Citizen Ghost March 3, 2011 at 9:32 am

Great post.

It seems to me that this post can be seen as a defense of nominalism. In other words, “marriage” is a name for something – a certain social convention. We have no good reason to suppose that “marriage” as an abstraction exists in some universal or ideal form.

And I realize that the intention of the post is not to weigh in on the legal or constitutional issues surrounding the gay marriage debate. But it does convincingly dismantle at least one of the arguments that opponents of gay marriage frequently raise. You hear it all the time: “We’re not against gay people and we’re not trying to impose biblical morality in our laws – it’s just that words do have meanings and so it’s important to preserve them.”

It’s as though they recognize the flimsiness of trying to defend the “institution” of marriage and so they instead claim to be defending the integrity of Webster’s Dictionary – as if that is the great cultural concern. This sort of argument has always struck me as sort of silly. What I appreciate about your post is that it gets to the heart of WHY it is silly.

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Drew March 3, 2011 at 9:38 am

This article is pointless. Of course gay marriage is a type of marriage. No one is arguing that. They’re saying it’s a type that should not be allowed. Like “pedophilic marriage” or “bestial marriage.”

No one is saying that the construct cannot be “redesigned” to include same sex unions. They’re saying it shouldn’t.

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Citizen Ghost March 3, 2011 at 9:52 am

Of course gay marriage is a type of marriage. No one is arguing that

On the contrary, they are arguing exactly that.

In fact, that was the entire point of the Defense of Marraige Act – to provide that as a matter of law, “the word ‘marriage’ means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife.”

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Drew March 3, 2011 at 10:11 am

On the contrary, they are arguing exactly that.In fact, that was the entire point of the Defense ofMarraige Act –to provide that as a matter of law, “the word ‘marriage’ means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife.”  

Right, the Act is setting forth a definition for legal purposes. Fyfe’s point is that it’s morally wrong to define the term that way, because it’s like saying gay marriage isn’t a type of marriage (which would be untrue and therefore, I guess he’s saying, wrong). But the Act isn’t saying that gay marriage, pedo marriage, bestial marriage etc aren’t types of marriage. The Act is saying that those types of marriages do not fall under the legal definition of marriage that the Act is setting forth.

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Alonzo Fyfe March 3, 2011 at 11:15 am

While the term has been used a lot, I would like to formally name this the “Whack-A-Mole Fallacy.”

One provides an objection to Argument A and response is, “That’s not my argument. It’s Argument B.”

One provides an objection to Argument B and the response is, “That’s not my argument. It’s Argument A.”

One decides to spend twice as much time whacking A and B and the response is, “Those aren’t my arguments. My argument is Argument C.”

I responded to an email from somebody who said that he had answers to all of the other objections to gay marriage other than the “social construct” argument. So, my answer focused on the “social construct” argument – in the hopes of providing the reader with what is now a complete set of responses to the objects he might encounter.

If the author of the email had written to say that he sought an answer to the “homosexuality is unnatural” argument, or the “purpose of sex is to procreate” argument, or the “permitting homosexuality will destroy the traditional family and thus bring about the end of civilization” argument or “permitting homosexuality causes earthquakes and hurricanes” argument, then that is the argument I would have addressed.

As it is, I responded to the “social construct” argument.

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Scott March 3, 2011 at 12:18 pm

Good write-up. I can’t wait for the day when same-sex marriage is a non-issue and we can focus on something important (before another petty wedge issue is created).

Alao, an interesting experiment would be a desirism analysis of Charlie Sheen and see how many eyeballs you can direct to the site.

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drj March 3, 2011 at 2:02 pm

Right, the Act is setting forth a definition for legal purposes.Fyfe’s point is that it’s morally wrong to define the term that way, because it’s like saying gay marriage isn’t a type of marriage (which would be untrue and therefore, I guess he’s saying, wrong).But the Act isn’t saying that gay marriage, pedo marriage, bestial marriage etc aren’t types of marriage.The Act is saying that those types of marriages do not fall under the legal definition of marriage that the Act is setting forth.  

I’ve debated the issue quite a bit – and THE most common ‘argument’ I hear is:

“Marriage is defined as one man, one woman!”
“Marriage IS between a man and a woman!”

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Drew March 3, 2011 at 2:08 pm

I’ve debated the issue quite a bit – and THE most common ‘argument’ I hear is:“Marriage is defined as one man, one woman!”
“Marriage IS between a man and a woman!”  

The implication being that it shouldn’t be between two men, two women, a man and a 5 year old boy, a man and a 5 year old girl, a man and a horse, etc…

Which of these would you argue is ok and why?

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Reginald Selkirk March 3, 2011 at 2:29 pm

Drew: Which of these would you argue is ok and why?

I would toss in a bit about “consenting adults.” Right away, that would get rid of your man and a horse scenario (with the addendum that “adult” refers to a human adult), your man and 5 year old child of either sex scenario, and the legitimization of forced marriage.

One might wonder why conservatives like Rick Santorum are so fixated on bestiality.

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Drew March 3, 2011 at 2:40 pm

Drew: Which of these would you argue is ok and why?I would toss in a bit about “consenting adults.” Right away, that would get rid of your man and a horse scenario (with the addendum that “adult” refers to a human adult), your man and 5 year old child of either sex scenario, and the legitimization of forced marriage.One might wonder why conservatives like Rick Santorum are so fixated on bestiality.  

Reginald,

In defining marriage this way (“two consenting adults”) you’ve done exactly what Fyfe is saying not to do. You’ve called certain types of marriage “not marriage.”

I’m not arguing about which types *should* be allowed. I’m just saying that Fyfe isn’t either…and so the article is pointless. By saying that it’s morally wrong to exclude types of marriage from our definition, he leaves it open for any inclusion one could dream up. If you don’t like the bestiality example, how about a man marrying his toaster?

-Drew

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Drew March 3, 2011 at 2:49 pm

Reginald,In defining marriage this way (“two consenting adults”) …

Incidentally, I didn’t mean to put words in your mouth, as you didn’t say anything about “two.” I didn’t mean to insinuate that you exclude marriages between 3+ consenting adults.

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Alonzo Fyfe March 3, 2011 at 2:59 pm

Drew

Which of these would you argue is ok and why?

If only all moral questions are this easy.

Marriage is a contract, so the rule for marriage should be the same as the rule for contracts generally.

Neither horses nor young children may be parties to a contract because neither are considered competent enough to sign a contract. A marraige contract involving a horse or a young child should be considered as invalid as any other contract involving a horse or young child.

However, any person that I may sign a legitimate and binding contract with is somebody I should be permitted to marry. And, whereas I am permitted to enter into any number of other types of contract with adults of the same gender, there is no reason to prohibit entering into a marriage contract with a person of the same gender.

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Drew March 3, 2011 at 3:06 pm

DrewWhich of these would you argue is ok and why?If only all moral questions are this easy.Marriage is a contract, so the rule for marriage should be the same as the rule for contracts generally.Neither horses nor young children may be parties to a contract because neither are considered competent enough to sign a contract. A marraige contract involving a horse or a young child should be considered as invalid as any other contract involving a horse or young child.However, any person that I may sign a legitimate and binding contract with is somebody I should be permitted to marry. And, whereas I am permitted to enter into any number of other types of contract with adults of the same gender, there is no reason to prohibit entering into a marriage contract with a person of the same gender.  

I don’t think you can say that without completely changing the construct. Almost like changing a knife into a hammer.

For instance, would you allow 3 consenting adults to marry? What about 12? If not, why not?

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Citizen Ghost March 3, 2011 at 4:10 pm

For instance, would you allow 3 consenting adults to marry? What about 12? If not, why not?

If marriage were ONLY a contract, then the answer would be easy. 3 consenting adults would be fine. So would 12 or 100.

But marriage isn’t ONLY a contract. It’s the endorsement by the State of a certain kind of relationship. (Now, one can argue that the State shouldn’t be in this business – but it is, so we ought to deal with that).

Personally, I think that polygamous relationships are emphatically different than bilateral relationships. For one thing, there’s good reason to conclude that polygomous relationships are not typically relationships between consenting adults but are more often, “women-as-chattel” types of arrangments.

And there’s a practical consideration. State involvement in this business of “marriage” is about defining the rights of the parties – a partnership that involves two adult individuals. So while multiple partners certainly CAN contract among one another, how exactly is the State supposed to do so? Where is the tradition of civil law dealing with things like child support and disposition of property if we’re talking about multiple partner marriage? How would it work?

We can’t pretend that tradition has NOTHING to do with the reason why marriage is a function of the state. But if we assume that the state has legitimate interests in recognizing some relationships as “marriages” but not others, there’s at least rational grounds for saying that the bilateral partnerships between consenting adults promote stability, citizenship & good enviroment for raising children (that would be the case for same-sex or opposite sex).

The case for polygamy is not nearly so convincing. I suspect that’s why it’s rarely raised – except as a rhetorical device for those looking to invent a “slippery slope” when none actually exists.

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Rob March 3, 2011 at 5:01 pm

Drew said:

Of course gay marriage is a type of marriage. No one is arguing that.

Oh how wrong you are. According to Catholic apologist Edward Feser, gay marriage is a “metaphysical absurdity”. According to Feser there can not be any such thing as a same sex marriage, just like you cannot have a square circle.

Now, it’s glaringly obvious that Feser is just confused about how language functions, but that is not my point. My point is that you are wrong: people do argue that gay marriage is not a type of marriage.

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Rob March 3, 2011 at 5:10 pm
Luke Muehlhauser March 3, 2011 at 7:32 pm

Rob,

LOL!!!

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Steven R. March 3, 2011 at 10:59 pm

Drew:

This article is pointless.Of course gay marriage is a type of marriage.No one is arguing that.They’re saying it’s a type that should not be allowed.Like “pedophilic marriage” or “bestial marriage.”No one is saying that the construct cannot be “redesigned” to include same sex unions.They’re saying it shouldn’t.  

Heh, I’ve come across plenty of people who have argued just that. I was actually going to compliment Alonzo for this well-written post that exposes the underlying fallacy behind such an argument. I had a very hard time doing it and here is Alonzo clearing up the matter quite neatly.

Alonzo, Luke, I’m really starting to like Desirism. I’m not sure if it holds up as an “objective” moral theory (really, I have the feeling we have different definitions) but this moral system actually makes sense and I can follow the arguments, which is more than I can say about Categorical Imperitives and other stuff.

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Steven R. March 3, 2011 at 11:17 pm

Reginald,In defining marriage this way (“two consenting adults”) you’ve done exactly what Fyfe is saying not to do.You’ve called certain types of marriage “not marriage.”

Not at all. He didn’t say that the definition of “marriage” IS between two consenting adults, he implicitly argued that the relevant forms of marriage would concern people who can consent to a legal contract, which makes absolute sense.

<blockquote cite="comment-99656"
I’m not arguing about which types *should* be allowed.I’m just saying that Fyfe isn’t either…and so the article is pointless.By saying that it’s morally wrong to exclude types of marriage from our definition, he leaves it open for any inclusion one could dream up.If you don’t like the bestiality example, how about a man marrying his toaster?-Drew  

Er…no, he is arguing against a common–and stupid–objection. Too often, a person says, “marriage is only between a man and a woman, therefore, by definition, same-sex couples cannot be married” or something like that.

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Polymeron March 4, 2011 at 12:05 am

Citizen Ghost,
You are right about one thing – my response is I don’t think the state should recognize marriage per se.

Marriage is a lot of things, by tradition and current application:
- A mutual property-ownership contract
- Recognized by society (and often the state) as the norm for purposes of child-raising ability and responsibility
- A publicly announced deep emotional bond
- A commitment by all parties not to engage in extramarital sex (and, in more constrained societies, necessary for sex between parties to be permissible)
- A religious institution with spiritual implications

You will notice right away that not all of these apply all the time. Some couples could go to swinger parties and not feel they’re “not married”. Some completely non-religious, non-spiritual people can still want to get married. Some people raise children without a spouse. Some married couples maintain separate property. Some people marry without loving each other.

So it seems to me that the term ‘marriage’ actually contains several independent clauses that are conflated with each other. Some of this conflation makes sense: If marriage functions as a family unit, then having joint property makes sense. None of this conflation is necessary, however.

So it seems to me that any number of contract-eligible parties should be able to take on as many of these aspects as they like. The question only arrives for items #1, #2 and #3: Whether the state should give any preference to married couples over others in terms of rights.

I think this can be solved exactly by breaking it into components. If the state recognizes familial raising of children (rather than, say, mandating that all children would be raised by a state-operated school with no parent intervention), then the state may give such families resources as they are needed for this purpose. And the state could have judgment over whether a particular kind of family cell is better or worse for that purpose. So if the state ruled that a 100-adults family unit was incapable of raising children, it could withhold recognition of it as such. This would have no impact on hospital visitation rights, however; making a rule on that would depend on other factors, because it stems from a different aspect of what we call marriage.

Under this breakdown, gay marriage is scarcely different than any other type of marriage. It does not meet the religious criterion in many cases, but this of course does not invalidate it where there is a separation of church and state. As for child-raising purposes, it is a longstanding observation that it has no significant impact on the raised children than “traditional” marriage.

Any other kind of proposed marriage type would need to stand up to the same scrutiny; and would need to be treated as any other institution that meets and fails the same criteria.

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Drew March 4, 2011 at 7:20 am

Steven R and others,

You seem intelligent enough and I won’t assume that you guys are just *trying* not to understand…so perhaps I haven’t been clear. I will spell it out even further.

1. Yes, people do say “marriage is defined as 1 man and 1 woman.”
2. They may think they mean that this is the only real definition of marriage, and they may argue thusly.
3. What they really mean is that this is not the only definition, but the only definition they think is right, true, traditional, correct, etc.

Rob, as you said, the Catholic dude was confused about the language. What he was really saying is that gay marriage makes no sense to him because gays can’t procreate.

It’s like you people expect everyone to talk like philosophers all the time. Or it’s more fun to pick apart what they say rather than try to figure out what they actually mean and then argue with that.

I really don’t know what else to say. That’s why I think this article, and these comments, are futile, boring, and pointless. Whether they contradict it with their words or not, everyone knows there *could* be other types of marriage. Why argue about that?

Argue instead that gay marriage is ok because even though we all know well and good that marriage has traditionally been understood as between a man and a woman, some other types of marriage (then state which) should be allowed as well. That’s how discussion works.

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Alonzo Fyfe March 4, 2011 at 7:31 am

Drew:

You have an interest in a post written on Topic A. You come across a post written on Topic B and you call it pointless and worthless for no reason other than that it is not on the topic you are interested in.

It’s like somebody who is interested in reading up on ancient Greece, comes across an article on the discovery of X-rays, and says, “This article is pointless and worthless because it does not discuss ancient Greece.”

Read, again, the question that I answered.

I answered the question that I asked.

You may assert, “But your answer has nothing to do with ancient Greece.” The answer is, “I wasn’t answered a question about ancient Greece.”

In this case, I was asked a question about the implications of the fact that definitions are arbitrary and that marriage is a social construct.

I answered a question about the implications of the fact that definitions are arbitrary and that marriage is a social construct.

Yes, it is true that the world ALSO contains DIFFERENT people who would have asked DIFFERENT questions, but my purpose was to answer the question I was asked as a matter of fact.

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Drew March 4, 2011 at 8:04 am

my purpose was to answer the question I was asked as a matter of fact. 

You stated explicitly that “it is within the scope of this posting to discuss the moral implications of defining marriage as between a man and a woman.”

Does it bother you that I disagree with some of your thoughts or do you just feel I should mind my own business?

PS – Incidentally, I agree with your answer to the silly question you were asked. “The only thing you can do is argue whether a particular definition fits the way that people generally use the term.” Tru dat.

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Rob March 4, 2011 at 8:36 am

everyone knows there *could* be other types of marriage. Why argue about that?

Drew,

Oh how wrong you are. For example, Edward Feser does not think there *could* be other types of marriage.

You keep making the same mistake over again.

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Drew March 4, 2011 at 8:45 am

Drew,Oh how wrong you are. For example, Edward Feser does not think there *could* be other types of marriage.
You keep making the same mistake over again.  

Rob, if that is true, then Mr. Fesser is being completely illogical, so you might as well stop arguing against him. I guess I should clarify — of course there may be some people who think marriage of a man and a man, or of a woman and a hamster CANNOT exist. These people are not merely wrong, they are mentally challenged or insane.

Obviously these things CAN exist. This is proven simply by the fact that they do. I assumed Mr. Fesser would assent to this. But you argue otherwise, so either you continue to misunderstand, or he is a lunatic.

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Rob March 4, 2011 at 9:22 am

Drew,

I think we are on the same page now. Natural law proponents are unhinged. Their argument seems to be that marriage exists as a natural part of the universe, in the same way a rock exists or a tree exits. The natural law advocate would say that a relationship between two men is not a marriage in the same way a rock is not a tree.

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Drew March 4, 2011 at 9:26 am

Drew,I think we are on the same page now. Natural law proponents are unhinged. Their argument seems to be that marriage exists as a natural part of the universe, in the same way a rock exists or a tree exits. The natural law advocate would say that a relationship between two men is not a marriage in the same way a rock is not a tree.  

Right. People that crazy can’t consider definitions of social constructs here with Mr. Fyfe, because they don’t believe in social constructs to begin with.

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drj March 4, 2011 at 12:32 pm

The implication being that it shouldn’t be between two men, two women, a man and a 5 year old boy, a man and a 5 year old girl, a man and a horse, etc…Which of these would you argue is ok and why?  

More often than not, in my experience, people do simply rest on the traditional definition of marriage, as if that’s an actual reason to oppose same-sex marriage, and often offer no other content to their arguments than that. And they do seem to think that this type of position IS meaningful… and its always very hard (for me) anyways to clearly articulate why these “by definition” arguments are just meaningless semantic tricks.

Of the forms of marriage you mention above, the same-sex marriage would be permissible, but the others would not be. Its the most like traditional marriage, apart from the genders, and there simply is no good reason to disallow it that I have ever encountered. As for the other forms you mention, well… relationships of those sorts aren’t even legal. Modifying the definition of marriage to accommodate same-sex couples cannot suddenly alter the moral or legal status of statutory rape or bestiality.

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drj March 4, 2011 at 1:14 pm

The tactic I have tried to use before in same-sex marriage debates when the ole slippery slope comes up, is to just play dumb for a second, and flat out ask the person why I [i]should[/i] be so opposed to polygamy or man-beast marriage.

Most will gladly oblige and list all kinds of reasons why those things are wrong and should be prohibited – including all kinds of social ills unique to each particular form of relationship (eg, in the case of polygamy, women become chattel, etc). Nine times out of ten, they don’t even bother to mention “because marriage is between a man and a woman” – because they don’t need to. I usually agree with them, then point out that all those reasons remain good reasons, whether we allow same-sex marriage or not. Sometimes it clicks for them, sometimes it doesn’t.

Its usually only with the absence of solid justification, come the “by definition” arguments.

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Bill Snedden March 4, 2011 at 3:17 pm

@Rob:

Natural law proponents are unhinged.

I think you should be careful with your generalizations. I am a natural law proponent and I am neither unhinged NOR do I agree with Dr. Feser.

Important distinction: Feser is a Thomist, I am an Aristotelian. Feser believes that “natural” is defined not only by nature, but also by the “divine ideal”, I do not. Thomists like Feser take the biological nature of Man, combine it with eisegetical scripture readings and an unhealthy dose of bias (“buttsecks is icky!”) and come up with their skewed “values”. Aristotelians, well myself at least, look at not only the biological nature of Man, but also at his metaphysical nature and have no problem with homosexuality or same-sex marriage.

We’re not all cut from the same cloth.

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Rob March 4, 2011 at 3:31 pm

Bill,

Thank you for setting me straight. I’m curious how one investigates the metaphysical nature of humans. I don’t know what that could mean really. I recall that Aristotle thought humans were essentially a rational animal. That notion seems obviously false, for many reasons.

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Stephen R. March 4, 2011 at 5:19 pm

(Heh, another Steven R.)

Drew:
With regards to polygamy, that would require completely retooling marriage so that the contract is no longer equal. Think of a medical emergency; Say hypothetically a woman is on life support and her husband and sister-wife have different feelings about what the woman would want. In normal situations, the spose would decide (which is proper IMO). However, if there are two spouses, issues get more complicated.

(There’s tons of other issues with polygamy legally that we can get into, if you want.)

—I think his post is on point. There are people who think of marriage as a sort of Platonic ideal. They think marriage “simply is” what it’s defined as. They argue that marriage just is a union between one man and one woman, and that’s the end of the argument. (Gay marriage can’t be marriage because it’s not by definition, following that reasoning.) It’s perfectly appropriate to tease out that marriage is a convention and that it’s definition legally ought to fit it’s purposes.

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Esteban R. (Formerly Steven R.) March 4, 2011 at 10:57 pm

Oh screw it, I knew it was only a matter of time before someone close to Steven R. would come by.
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Drew:

Steven R and others,You seem intelligent enough and I won’t assume that you guys are just *trying* not to understand…so perhaps I haven’t been clear.I will spell it out even further.1. Yes, people do say “marriage is defined as 1 man and 1 woman.”
2. They may think they mean that this is the only real definition of marriage, and they may argue thusly.
3. What they really mean is that this is not the only definition, but the only definition they think is right, true, traditional, correct, etc.

You’re being way too charitable with what people actually mean. Not only that, but look at the question Alonzo Fyfe was answering. That if no “real” definition of marriage could be reached, no rights could be given to it, which is obviously nonsense but, for those not acquainted with the philosophy of language, may be hard to express (boy, do I know from experience…). So, as he told you, you’re saying his post is pointless because it doesn’t answer the type of objection you would like, but it isn’t because he answers a very common objection, such as expressed by the person asking the question.

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drj:

The tactic I have tried to use before in same-sex marriage debates when the ole slippery slope comes up, is to just play dumb for a second, and flat out ask the person why I [i]should[/i] be so opposed to polygamy or man-beast marriage.Most will gladly oblige and list all kinds of reasons why those things are wrong and should be prohibited – including all kinds of social ills unique to each particular form of relationship (eg, in the case of polygamy, women become chattel, etc). Nine times out of ten, they don’t even bother to mention “because marriage is between a man and a woman” – because they don’t need to.I usually agree with them, then point out that all those reasons remain good reasons, whether we allow same-sex marriage or not. Sometimes it clicks for them, sometimes it doesn’t.Its usually only with the absence of solid justification, come the “by definition” arguments.  

I don’t have the patience for that, and the one time I tried it, the person actually did say “marriage is between one man and one woman”. Boy, I spent a whole day trying to figure out how to word what I wanted to express.

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Alonzo:

Once again, thanks for the article. Just today, some of the comments on the Sacramento Bee (the semi-local newspaper) concerned same-sex marriage and the same “definition of marriage” argument was used time and time again. I hope your insights (hey, I happily used your arguments :P) helped at least have some of the people there question the validity of their assessment against same-sex marriage.

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