John Corvino on same sex marriage

You might have heard that Providence College, a Roman Catholic institution in Rhode Island, recently cancelled a talk defending same sex marriage by John Corvino, head of philosophy at Wayne State University.  Here’s a bit from New York Times on the matter (the whole article is here).

Providence College, a Roman Catholic school in Rhode Island, has canceled a lecture in support of same-sex marriage on Thursday by a gay philosophy professor, citing a church document that says that “Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles.”

The college apparently re-invited him, following loud objections, and Corvino’s reply is here.

The current issue of The Philosophers’ Magazine features a piece by Corvino on same sex marriage, and as his views are muffled elsewhere, it might be good for us to consider them here.  Here’s the article.  Please do say what you think.

What’s wrong with gay marriage?

The gay-marriage movement has lately made dizzying progress. In the UK, which currently allows ‘civil partnerships’, the British and Scottish parliaments are close to recognising same-sex marriage. Last November, voters in three US states (Maine, Maryland, and Washington) extended marriage rights to same-sex couples; this year, legislators in Rhode Island, Delaware, and Minnesota have done the same, while those in Illinois, Nevada, and New Mexico have taken steps in that direction. Uruguay, New Zealand and France now allow same-sex couples to marry. Even staunch opponents of homosexuality concede that the tide is mounting against them – and yet they continue to put up a vigorous fight.

Where are the philosophers amidst this clash? Perhaps surprisingly, they have remained largely silent. Many believe that the right of same-sex couples to marry is so obvious as to be unworthy of serious debate. On the opposing side, a small but prominent group of socially conservative academics contend that the first group is simply blind to objective moral reality. According to their view, same-sex ‘marriage’ isn’t just bad policy: it’s a conceptual confusion, fashionable only because the sexual revolution has so badly distorted the proper understanding of sex and marriage.

This objection is best expressed by self-styled ‘new natural lawyers’ such as John Finnis at Oxford and Notre Dame, Robert P George at Princeton, and others, although one can find shades of their position in common-variety conservative arguments as well. Indeed, their view can be understood as a sophisticated defence of the familiar slogan ‘Marriage = One Man + One Woman’, sometimes rendered in religious garb as ‘It’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve’.

The argument finds its fullest elaboration in a recent book by Sherif Girgis, Robert P George, and Ryan Anderson – What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense – and the basic idea is as follows. In order to decide whether same-sex couples should be allowed to marry, one must first ask What is marriage? But (the argument continues) the correct answer to that question shows that marriage is, by its very nature, a male-female union. So whatever it is that same-sex couples are asking for, it isn’t marriage. ‘Same-sex marriage’ is thus an oxymoron, like ‘married bachelor’ or ‘four-sided triangle’ or ‘deconstructionist theory’. Call this the Definitional Objection to same-sex marriage.

Examples of the Definitional Objection abound. Former US Senator Rick Santorum used it on the campaign trail in his 2012 Republican presidential primary bid. Waving a napkin in the air, he announced, ‘Marriage existed before governments existed. This is a napkin. I can call this napkin a paper towel. But it is a napkin. Why? Because it is what it is. Right? You can call it whatever you want, but it doesn’t change the character of what it is.’

In a similar vein, Dr John Sentamu, Archbishop of York and the second most senior cleric in the Church of England, argues that ‘Marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman. I don’t think it is the role of the state to define what marriage is. It is set in tradition and history and you can’t just [change it] overnight, no matter how powerful you are.’ He went on to compare the push for same-sex ‘marriage’ with the behaviour of dictators.

In a law review article, Alliance Defense Fund attorney Jeffery Ventrella contends that ‘to advocate same-sex “marriage” is logically equivalent to seeking to draw a “square circle”: One may passionately and sincerely persist in pining about square circles, but the fact of the matter is, one will never be able to actually draw one.’

There is something profoundly unsatisfying about the Definitional Objection, although it’s initially hard to put one’s finger on what. One might worry that it involves a kind of verbal trick. After all, same-sex relationships – unlike square circles – surely do exist, and some jurisdictions legally recognise them as marriages. So the dispute seems to be less about whether something exists and more about what to call it.

But this way of putting it actually misses the Definitional Objection’s underlying concern: What we call things – and in particular, how the law treats them – can have a profound effect. If we group items together under the same legal name, people may conclude that there are no important differences between them. Conversely, if we maintain a verbal and legal distinction, people may better notice any underlying ‘natural’ distinctions.

An example will help to illustrate this point. Suppose Kate and William are arguing about whether to serve champagne at their anniversary party: Kate says yes; William says no. Kate relents: ‘Fine, you handle the beverages!’

On the day of the party, Kate is delighted to see waiters passing out crystal flutes filled with bubbly liquid. ‘I thought we weren’t serving champagne,’ she says to William.

‘We’re not,’ he responds: ‘That’s prosecco.’

But Kate doesn’t normally distinguish between champagne – which technically must originate in the Champagne region of France – and other kinds of sparkling wine; to her it’s all just ‘champagne’.

So far, it appears that Kate and William had a mere verbal dispute: they meant different things by the word ‘champagne’, and their initial argument consisted in miscommunication.

But now (at the risk of spoiling their party) let us imagine the argument going further: ‘Silly William,’ Kate says, ‘”champagne”’ is a perfectly fine term for any sparkling wine.’

‘No, no, no!’ William retorts. ‘They’re very different! And if you start calling them all by the same name, people won’t appreciate that difference.’

Proponents of the Definitional Objection have a worry similar to William’s. (You could say that they’re the wine snobs of the marriage debate.) Heterosexual marriage and committed same-sex relationships are fundamentally different, they argue, and using the term ‘marriage’ for both confuses people not only about marriage’s distinctive nature, but also about its value – a moral good which (all sides agree) is far more important than the pleasures of wine.

But what is marriage’s distinctive nature, and why does it exclude same-sex couples? The new natural lawyers answer that marriage is a comprehensive union: a union of both mind and body, exclusive and lifelong. As a comprehensive union, marriage must include bodily union. But the only way human beings achieve bodily union is in procreative-type acts – that is, in coitus: penis-in-vagina sex. Obviously, same-sex couples cannot perform coitus. Therefore, they cannot marry.

The usual response here invokes permanently infertile heterosexual couples: Why are they permitted to marry whereas same-sex couples are not? The new natural lawyers answer that the sterile heterosexual couple’s sex can still be ‘of the procreative type’. But this answer just stretches the meaning of words (ironic, for those offering a Definitional Objection): Sex in which procreation is known to be impossible seems to be precisely not of the ‘procreative type’.

Perhaps there is some looser sense in which coitus – even for permanently infertile couples – is ‘of the procreative type’ in a way that, say, oral or anal sex is not: It shares certain formal features with typical procreative sex. The real question is, what’s so special about that? More specifically, why is a necessary condition for marriage?

Girgis, George, and Anderson’s answer hearkens back to the notion of comprehensive union, which requires bodily union, which requires coitus: ‘In coitus, and there alone, a man and woman’s bodies participate by virtue of their sexual complementarity in a coordination that has the biological purpose of reproduction – a function that neither can perform alone.’ In effect, the two become one – indeed, elsewhere George has claimed that the act makes them ‘literally, not metaphorically, one organism.’

Put aside the biological strangeness of the ‘one organism’ claim. Suppose we accept, purely for the sake of argument, that marriage requires bodily union and that only coitus can achieve such union. Then the proper counterexample for the view is not infertile heterosexuals, but rather those who cannot achieve coitus.

Consider a hypothetical couple I’ll call Bob and Jane. Bob and Jane were high school sweethearts. Eventually, Bob proposed marriage, and Jane accepted. But prior to their wedding, tragedy struck: Bob was in a terrible car accident which paralyzed him from the waist down. As a result, he would never be capable of coitus. Bob offered to cancel the engagement, but Jane would have none of it: ‘You are the same person I have always loved,’ she declared. ‘We will make this work.’ So Bob and Jane legally wed, spent many years together, and eventually raised several adopted children. Although coitus was impossible, they engaged in other acts of sexual affection, which enhanced the special intimacy between them. For decades, until parted by death, they enjoyed each other and the happily family they jointly created.

Question: Were Bob and Jane married? They were certainly legally married, and also according to virtually everyone’s common-sense understanding of marriage. But not according to the new natural law view. On that view, Bob and Jane’s inability to engage in coitus prevented the bodily union necessary for the comprehensive union of marriage.

I’ve raised this objection to Girgis, George, and Anderson before, and they have responded – in an endnote buried in the next-to-last page of their book. (See what you miss by not reading endnotes?) There they bite the bullet and concede that the ‘strong’ version of their view entails that Bob and Jane were not really married. They quickly add that good marriage policy would continue recognising such marriages legally, however, since inquiring into their true status would be invasive. (Why it would be more invasive than, say, a blood test – required for marriage in many jurisdictions – they never explain.)

They also gesture at a ‘softer’ version of the view in which Bob and Jane’s relationship could be marital as long as coitus were possible ‘in principle’. It is not clear how this softer version gets off the ground, however. Any random male-female pair could engage in coitus in principle, But marriage does not consist in what people might do if the world were different; it consists in what they actually do. Suppose Bob were kidnapped before the wedding and never returned to Jane. In that case, they would (sadly) never marry, even though they could marry ‘in principle’ and even though their failure to do is fully involuntary.

The upshot is that the new natural law view avoids the infertile-couples objection only to get stuck with something worse: the paraplegic counterexample. By making coitus a necessary condition for marriage, the new natural lawyers must conclude that Bob and Jane’s ‘marriage’ is a counterfeit.

How did we end up in such a spot? Part of the problem is that ‘comprehensive union’ is a rather vague and slippery notion: suitable for greeting-card poetry, perhaps, but not the sort of thing on which to build a marriage theory. It is clear that comprehensive union doesn’t mean that spouses must do everything together: they may have independent friendships, professional collaborations, tennis partners and so on. It is also clear that sex is part of our usual understanding of marriage. But is it strictly necessary? And must it be coital?

Girgis, George and Anderson answer yes to both questions, because ‘your body is an essential part of you, not a vehicle driven by the real “you”, your mind; nor a mere costume you must don … Because of that embodiedness, an union of two people must include bodily union to be comprehensive. If it did not, it would leave out – it would fail to be extended along – a basic part of each person’s being.’

This is the sort of explanation that not only fails to make the case; it actually contradicts the point it’s intending to serve. Insofar as our bodies are an integral part of us, it follows that any union between two people must include bodily union. Disembodied minds do not form friendships, collaborate on professional projects, play tennis, and so forth. It thus remains unclear why ‘comprehensive union’ requires coitus any more than it requires professional collaboration. (This is not to deny that sex is an important feature of marriage – only that it doesn’t fall out of ‘comprehensive union’ in any clear and unproblematic way.)

So what’s the alternative? Proponents of the Definitional Objection, including Girgis, George, and Anderson, often complain that ‘revisionists’ like me offer no clear definition of marriage. They’re right if they mean that I don’t have a simple phrase like ‘comprehensive union’ which purportedly captures the necessary and sufficient conditions for marriage – conditions that all and only marriages will satisfy. But that’s because marriage, as a complex social institution, doesn’t lend itself to that sort of pithy definition. It’s not definable in the same way that, say, ‘bachelor’ or ‘triangle’ is. As Martha Nussbaum puts it, marriage ‘is plural in both content and meaning’ – involving a diverse cluster of goods and defining elements.

The best anyone can offer is a rough and qualified definition. Here’s mine: ‘Marriage is the social institution recognising committed adult unions which are presumptively sexual, exclusive, and lifelong; and which typically involve shared domestic life, mutual care and concern, and the begetting and rearing of children.’ The ‘presumptively’ and ‘typically’ are crucial: there will be exceptions, as well as ‘grey areas’. (Are ‘temporary marriages’ marriages? What about ‘marriages of convenience’?) Notice however, that loose edges are typical in definitions of social institutions. (Does secular humanism count as a religion? Do tribal councils count as governments?)

Bob and Jane exhibit enough of marriage’s defining features to count as married, even without coitus. But once we abandon the idea that coitus is strictly necessary for marriage, we eliminate the new natural lawyers’ bar to recognising same-sex unions as marriages – and thus the most powerful available version of the Definitional Objection.

Having argued that the new natural lawyers give the wrong answer to ‘What is marriage?’ I’d now like to argue that they’re asking the wrong question.

To see why, consider what I like to call the Marriage/Schmarriage Maneuver. Suppose I were wrong about what marriage is. And suppose that, realising my error, I approached the new natural lawyers and said:

‘You know what? You’re right! This thing I’ve been advocating isn’t marriage at all. It’s something else – let’s call it schmarriage. But schmarriage is better than marriage: it’s more inclusive, it helps gay people without harming straight people, etcetera. We’d all be better off if we replaced marriage with schmarriage. Now, it’s unlikely that the word “schmarriage” will catch on – and besides, it’s harder to say than “marriage”. So from now on, let’s have schmarriage – which includes both heterosexual and homosexual unions – but let’s just call it by the homonym “marriage”, as people currently do in Canada, Spain, Uruguay, South Africa and elsewhere. Okay?’

Their answer would surely be ‘Not okay!’ – but why? The reason is that they reject the idea that schmarriage is better than marriage. They maintain that marriage, traditionally understood, has a distinctive value, and they don’t want that value to get lost in a new, more inclusive terminology.

But if that’s the crux of the issue – marriage’s distinctive value – why not focus on that? After all, the marriage debate is primarily a moral debate, not a conceptual or metaphysical one. So instead of asking ‘What is marriage?’, shouldn’t we be asking why it’s morally important to maintain an exclusively heterosexual institution for recognising committed relationships?

Of course, many have asked the latter question, and the answers have been unsatisfying. For example, some argue that an exclusively heterosexual marital institution is important because children do best when raised by their own (biological) mothers and fathers. The problem with this argument – aside from its resting on dubious interpretations of existing data – is that it requires a blatant non-sequitur. Even if one grants that children do best with their own (biological) mother and father, it does not follow that same-sex marriage (or ‘schmarriage’) should be prohibited, because there is no reason to think that prohibiting it will result in more children getting their own (biological) mothers and fathers.

In fact, paradoxically, same-sex marriage may have the result that fewer same-sex couples raise children. Currently, the majority of same-sex couples with children have them not via adoption or artificial insemination, but rather through prior heterosexual relationships. In a world where same-sex relationships were more accepted – where gays and lesbians could aspire to ‘happily ever after’ in marriage just like their heterosexual counterparts – fewer would feel pressure to enter heterosexual relationships for which they are not suited, and thus fewer children would experience the breakup of such marriages. From the standpoint of child welfare, fewer divorces is surely a good thing.

Let me be clear: I fully grant that marriage, institutionally and individually, is important for child welfare. But it is also important for adults, including those who don’t want or can’t have children. Relationships are good for people in myriad ways. They are good not only for those in them, but also for those around them, because happy, stable partners make happy, stable neighbours, co-workers, family members and so on. At the same time, long-term romantic relationships are challenging, and they benefit from public commitment, legal protection, and social support – the very things that marriage provides. All of these reasons apply to gay people as well as heterosexual ones.

If the Definitional Objection appears unsatisfying, that is partly because it seeks to impose a tidy definition where such definitions are inapt. But it is mainly because appealing to definitions is generally unhelpful in this context. The marriage debate occurs precisely because of conflicting intuitions about what marriage is, or can become. Clever rhetoric about square circles gets us no further toward reconciling those intuitions; worse yet, it distracts us from the urgent moral question of how to treat gay and lesbian individuals, couples, and their families.

John Corvino is chair of the philosophy department at Wayne State University, the author of What’s Wrong with Homosexuality?, and the co-author (with Maggie Gallagher) of Debating Same-Sex Marriage. Read more at


Leave a comment ?


  1. Of course the definitional argument is flawed as stated. I will try to do the argument better justice.

    One performs the following analyses, not an arbitrary definition.
    1) what is the history of the institution – why did it arise, and what caused it to evolve?
    2) what properties does the institution of marriage have that are unique to the institution?
    3) of those properties, which are necessary and which are either optional or preferential?
    4) What are the incentives of the individuals who wish to be married?

    The purpose of marriage is to prevent violence over access to mates. Most violence in the world (statistically speaking) is mate, or mating related.

    When property rights were developed by indo europeans, the control of reproduction moved from the matrilineal line (exchange for sex) to the paternal line (exchange for access to resources.).

    When property became necessary under agrarianism, in effect, the marriage contract became a corporation for the control of physical assets and inheritance, not just for access to reproduction (sex).

    Under agrarianism and property the responsibility for the economic support and care for children became a family matter not a tribal matter. (something women are still trying to reverse.)

    Marriage represented both wealth and legitimacy, and evolved to become a status symbol as well as solve the problem of access to sex. Most cultures permit polygamy, however, in all cultures, very few men were, or are, wealthy enough to afford more than one wife. Monogamy solves the problem of the danger to every culture and civilization of single men – the source of all revolutions.

    Under Manorialism, marriage became more of a status symbol, because one could not only obtain access to reproduction, but could also gain access to land, and a household for farming. The family became both a reproductive and an economic unit.

    Legal institutions developed to resolve conflicts over property in the event of death – wills etc.

    When divorce became an option, the state intervened as the monopoly arbiter of conflict because there were disputes over the distribution of property during divorce as well as death.

    When the state became the provider of services, those services were provided to the ‘corporation’ we call a ‘marriage’ which is a union of assets for the purpose of self sustenance, and reproduction.

    It is unpleasant, but the relationship between property, marriage, mating is and reproduction is eternal. It is inescapable. Morality in EVERY culture is constructed by the relationship between the structure of the reproductive unit and the structure of the economic unit. While monogamous marriage is unnatural to man, almost all cultures, under agrarianism, adopted monogamous moral codes because it was such an economic and reproductive advantage to do so.

    We are leaving that era of agrarian monogamy behind and returning to serial monogamy which is the natural (as we understand it) behavior of mankind when given longer life spans.

    The reason homosexuals want access to the marital corporation is:
    a) Legitimacy and status to compensate for lower status of homosexuals in society.
    b) The ability to form a marital corporation for the pooling of assets.
    c) The ability to use the pooling of assets to place a greater burden on the dissolution of the relationship, and a greater reward for retaining it.
    d) The ability to obtain an open power of attorney on behalf of one another that comes with the marital corporation.

    That we express the EMOTIONAL RESULTS of doing these things says nothing about what it is that we do and why.

    The reason we rejected Homosexuality in the past is that it is innately distasteful – although the disgust reaction is higher in conservatives than progressives – much higher. The other is that we had wrongly assumed that it was a voluntary choice, and therefore homosexuals were hedonistically corrupting youth. Now that we understand that homosexuality is a combination of genetic and in-utero conditions that largely runs in families, and is essentially a ‘natural birth defect’ that causes no genetic harm to the body politic, then there remains no reason to eschew homosexuals other than some people’s innate distaste for visible displays of homosexual affection. And that is no reason to deny people property rights – access to the marital corporation.

    Given that the reason for marriage is the prevention of violence, the economic efficiency of marriage, the economic necessity of marriage for child rearing without borderline poverty, the status symbols associated with marriage, the career benefits that come from marriage, the value of having a partner with power of attorney to protect your interests, and the state’s use of marriage as a vehicle for redistribution, it is somewhat illogical to force people into economically disadvantageous circumstances by denying them access to legal corporations for the pooling of interest and assets.

    Now as a bit of humor, I suspect that when homosexuals decide to divorce in large numbers, there will no doubt come a day when they ask for special dispensation in the distribution of assets because of their homosexuality. But that will be a natural consequence of self interest. 🙂

    I am fairly sure the reason that the movement succeeded was the active suppression of the rather excessive public behavior of some members of the community. As such both sides have achieved their objectives.

    As far as I know, (and this is what I do) there is no better argument than this one -albeit for this blog I have used more brevity than is desirable.


    Curt Doolittle
    The Propertarian Institute, Kiev.

  2. Curt Doolittle:

    You claim that homosexuality is innately distasteful.

    That’s not true at all.

    First of all, if it were innately distasteful, it would be distasteful to everyone and that’s not the case. It’s not distasteful to me nor to my woman companion (I’m not gay) nor to my sister, those being the results of an instant informal poll.

    Second, some societies, such as ancient Greece, had a positive attitude towards homosexuality, within a complex code about male and female roles, etc. Homosexuality was not distasteful to Socrates nor to other participants in the dialogue, according to the Symposium.

    Now a psychoanalyst might claim that finding homosexuality distasteful indicates repressed homosexual urges, but of course Freudianism isn’t in fashion these days.

  3. “There is something profoundly unsatisfying about the Definitional Objection,”

    It’s idiotic…….profoundly idiotic.

    “although it’s initially hard to put one’s finger on what.”

    Yep, idiots have that way of having your reeling in confusion.

    Words are defined by their usage, not by central authorities. If the people want up to mean down, that is what they’ll get – and the dictionaries will correct themselves. And this is precisely what happened – in Old English down meant up, or Dune. Dune is still in common usage for hills made of sand. And Downs, is used in England to describe hilly areas.

    But what about some other words. What about, Wife. It’s an old Germanic word, and it simply meant woman. It did not mean the woman was married. It’s still in usage as Fishwife, and Midwife.

    The Fishwife is not married to her fish. But God knows, if we allow gay marriage, women will be marrying their fish.

    “But once we abandon the idea that coitus is strictly necessary for marriage,”

    The thing about the anti-gay-marriage brigade is they tend not to be the sharpest tools in the box.

    The principle of consummation, and the principles of annulment. Consummation is in lots of religions, but for example, in Catholicism. The wedding is performed in the church and registered. But the marriage must be consummated (this doesn’t happen in church). If the marriage is not consummated, the marriage is still valid, but should either party wish, they can petition for an annulment, on the grounds the marriage was never consummated. An annulment is not a divorce, an annulment means the marriage never happened – it’s retrospective. But it is only retrospective. If there is a health issue, sanity, ability to consummate, etc. These are only grounds for annulment if existing at the time of, but unknown to all parties at the point of the marriage ceremony.

    But if a couple cannot consummate their marriage, it’s still a valid marriage, should they not chose to annul, or be granted an annulment.

    If you use that argument, against same sex marriage, you can simply argue that since the marriage cannot be consummated (your definition of consummation is important) then a marriage is not possible.

    I’m not giving ammunition to the idiots – they’d just shoot themselves in the foot with it anyhow – and the war is over.

  4. The concept of marriage can be defined gender-neutrally, and it can be defined non-gender-neutrally. As a social institution or cultural construction, marriage lacks a natural, real essence, and so there are no discoverable objective, nonconventional facts about it that could settle the semantic dispute.
    My reaction to the Definitional Objection is to introduce and define an alternative concept, “narriage”, meaning “the homosexual equivalent of (heterosexual) marriage”. Then gays and lesbians can fight for their right to “narry”, and the Definitional Objection is thereby undermined.
    Let the heterosexuals have their marriages, and let the homosexuals have their narriages!

  5. I wrote: “Let the heterosexuals have their marriages, and let the homosexuals have their narriages!”

    There would and should be no legal or practical differences between marriages and narriages.

  6. There is no reason — except reasons based on human society and its mores — why any two (or more?) people should not be married.

    If we refer to a breeding partnership, then at least one man and one woman must be involved, but that’s not what we are discussing here, as I understand it.

    There is no war here, that I can see, nor even any possibility of significant disagreement. The only problem — like racists who deny their racism — is that homophobes invent objections to ‘gay marriage’ in a last-ditch attempt to preserve their own hateful attitude. 🙁

  7. “There is something profoundly unsatisfying about the Definitional Objection, although it’s initially hard to put one’s finger on what.”

    Personally I think it’s real easy. The definition of a name or label is what humans decide to define it as.

    So, yes, we could define a ‘married bachelor’ – how about a man who is separated but not yet divorced. Or a man who is married but plays around.

    How about a ‘square circle’?

    Well, the issue is really about how useful the definitions are. I gave it a little thought but couldn’t come up with a good example or a good reason for a ‘square circle’. And if I did it might have a certain anti-utility because we have very satisfactory definitions of circles and squares that have a use in maths and engineering. But, I’m open to suggestions.

    The ‘married bachelor’ examples don’t have quite the anti-utility that a ‘square circle’ does. As facetious definitions befitting of they might do quite well. And a ‘married bachelor’ would still be distinct from a ‘bachelor’.

    But ‘same-sex marriage’ seems just fine. And with time ‘marriage’ would come to mean either mixed or same sex marriage. I really can’t see the problem.

    Oh, my mistake. I can see the problem. The shockingly poor logic of presuppositional ‘theist’ that has the nerve to go by the label ‘philosopher’. Now there’s an ‘oxymoron’, or simply a ‘moron’.

    The Definitional Objection is a smoke screen. That’s nothing new for the religious. They may think they have something in it, but they don’t. But no matter, because that’s not the issue really. The issue is religious.

    Though they play with an odd mix of rhetoric and logic they do so in such a perverse way that it’s easy to see that something is wrong. It only takes a little easy effort to see what is wrong.

    We can start with ‘objective morality’. That is either a presupposition, with no supporting evidence; or it is a consequence of that other presupposition: God.

    Did these guys miss Philosophy 101. Or were they too busy with the theological stuff distorts their reasoning?

    They often present valid arguments. But their premises stink. They presuppose God, and stick that into all their arguments, and think they have a case, strutting around as if they have a locked down sound argument. It seems beyond them to ask why they presuppose God, or why they think they have any insight into the origins of the universe, let alone whether the origins were intentional or not, and then whether a potential intentional entity has any further consequences for its personal interest in us. They make stuff up and we’re supposed to buy it.

    Of course their presuppositions are coincident with their favourite religion – wow, who would have guessed that.

    OK, what about the non-religious opponents? That’s easy too. They are motivated by the passions, as Hume would have it, while all the time they fool themselves that it’s about reason.

    Human biology could be modelled by any number of normal distributions, each describing the distribution of some character trait, some biological morphology, some personal disposition. Most people will be in the middle of those distributions. Since we are a two-sex species it seems natural that most people in the distribution will prefer the opposite sex, with a bit of indecision and temptation toward the left. But just as you will get some at the left end that prefer the same sex you will get some at the right end that find same sex stuff distasteful. So, as natural as it is that there will be some homosexuals it is natural that there will be homophobes.

    Now, we’re not demanding homophobes engage in same sex marriage. All we’re asking is that in these enlightened times where we are supposed to be able to overcome some of our baser unsavoury instincts I think it reasonable that homosexuals have the same rights as heterosexuals: to marry who you please. What is wrong with personal self-determination for one’s life choices? What business is it of anyone else’s, as long as third parties are not being harmed (cue roll-out of the data on the harm to children in homosexual families, how the kids will be turned gay, how they will fail for lack of a father/mother figure, … ).

    The only restrictions should be ones that make sense. The age of consent being the main requirement. Legal contractual aspects. Monogamy if required – though I don’t really see a principled problem with three-way marriages, or more, if the details are worked out to everyone’s satisfaction.

    Incest isn’t a principled problem, only a pragmatic one when it comes to developmental problems for offspring’s. But we have surrogacy available already, so there really is nothing stopping the actual marriage of siblings except a tradition. I can see why it’s a problem for those presupposing religious types, but for a full-blooded atheist male? Well, the porn industry seems to do quite well with all sorts of incestuous stories – so I’m told, by a friend.

    The sun was that disc or orb that went around the earth. Until it wasn’t. Redefinition of the detail of what a name means has never been a problem. It’s mostly religious and homophobic busy-bodiness that’s preventing loving couples of the same sex having what the rest of us take for granted.

    “They also gesture at a ‘softer’ version of the view in which Bob and Jane’s relationship could be marital as long as coitus were possible ‘in principle’. ”

    Is it just me, or does that sound just like duplictous religious apologetics trying any rhetorical device they can find to twist the logic to their perpose. There’s nothing so dishonest than someone who finds the fact to suit what they believe.

    “If the Definitional Objection appears unsatisfying, that is partly because it seeks to impose a tidy definition where such definitions are inapt.”

    I rather think they use it in order to use definition fir exactly what they want it to fit. They have little concern for language and logic except to the extent they can fudge it to make their case.

    “The marriage debate occurs precisely because of conflicting intuitions about what marriage is, or can become.”

    Exactly. Intuitions that support their passions, which they may bolster with perverted logic or presuppositional theology, or both.

    “Clever rhetoric about square circles gets us no further toward reconciling those intuitions; worse yet, it distracts us from the urgent moral question of how to treat gay and lesbian individuals, couples, and their families.”

    Quite right; except the rhetoric is not only clever but dishonest. I would expect a ‘philosopher’ to be able to spot the feelings and biases at work. I expect no such effort from ‘theological philosophers’.

  8. Ron Murphy said “I expect no such effort from ‘theological philosophers’.”

    That’s disappointing. There’s a lot more to theism than the Abrahamic religions.

  9. Steve Merrick,

    I was referring to the combination of Western philosophy and theology that goes on with the likes of Plantinga.

    True there are others. But what more do they offer? In what way are they not presupposing stuff? Can you give any theological idea from any religion that is about a deity that is not presuppositional in that respect?

  10. @swallerstein
    “You claim that homosexuality is innately distasteful.”

    I didn’t claim that it’s universally distasteful. I didn’t claim that we can’t be educated out of it. But it’s just demonstrable that in all cultures it invokes the ‘disgust’ response. We know conservatives have a much higher disgust response (‘sensitivity to purity’). And lastly, none of us is much of a measure of anything. How you feel doesn’t tell us anything about how a distribution feels. 🙂 Common progressive logical failure is to take the solipsistic position that becomes he or she feels something that it is in fact a norm. Nothing could be further from the truth.


  11. ( Clarity: I work entirely by arguing with incentives. And I unload them as much as possible. We may not agree on the experience produced by any action, but the transfers produced by any action exist independently of how we react to them. And incentives are nothing more than values attached to transfers.)

  12. Curt Doolittle:

    The fact that in ancient Athens male homosexuality was seen favorably indicates that it does not invoke the distaste response in all cultures, as you claim. I pointed that out previously in my October 2 comment.

    It may well be that it is our distaste for homosexuality that is educated into us (by Christianity, Judaism, Islam and other homophobic religions) rather than that our lack of distaste being educated into us.

    It may well be that homosexuality is so innately tempting and seductive to most males that those tendencies are severely repressed by cultures which want to “order” our sexuality.

    Some research indicates that those who find homosexuals distaste repress their own homosexual desires:

    Some studies have shown that people who are homophobic are more likely to have repressed homosexual desires.[60] In 1996, a controlled study of 64 heterosexual men (half said they were homophobic by experience, with self-reported orientation) at the University of Georgia found that men who were found to be homophobic (as measured by the Index of Homophobia)[61] were considerably more likely to experience more erectile responses when exposed to homoerotic images than non-homophobic men.[62] Another study in 2012 arrived at similar results when researchers found that students who came from “the most rigid anti-gay homes” were most likely to reveal repressed homosexual attraction.[63] The researchers noted that this explained why some religious leaders who denounce homosexuality are later revealed to have secret homosexual relations.[63] The researchers noted that “these people are at war with themselves and are turning this internal conflict outward

  13. @swallerstien.

    We are making similar arguments from different directions. It is not relevant WHY the behavior seems to be universally invoke the disgust response under agrarianism. It matters only that it does. The fact that GREATER disgust is displayed people who are suppressing something is just another example that all sensitivities to taboos produce such reactions. And that is again, as you suggest a reaction to person risk of breaking a taboo. The fact is that people who test conservative have a higher sensitivity to disgust and taboo. Or what Haidt calls the “purity” response.
    We can start producing evidence for both arguments, but I think the general consensus is emerging that nature nurture is at least a 60-40, if not 80-20 proposition. I tend to fall on the higher end of that spectrum.

    Now, again, in this context, we are talking about norms and incentives. So the fact that disgust is produced, whether 60 or 80 biologically and 40 or 20 percent environmentally, is not as material whatsoever, as has the fact that increases in the possession of property, supporting law, and the redistributive benefits of from intervention (or interference) by the state in the commercial cooperation produced by these institutions, have made the marital relationship primarily corporeal and financial, rather than one of prevention of violence.

    Simple people take single axis of causality to extremes. But human cooperation that consists in a causally dense play of biological biases, differences in ages and distributions, differences in family and reproductive structures, differences in structures of production, differences in the norms consisting of property rights, manners, ethics, and morals, and differences in civic and formal institutional structures. All of which allow us to cooperate rather than conflict, and as such, produce a division of labor that, despite our being no wealthier in physical abilities than cave men, we are able to organize, use, produce, distribute, and consume extraordinary numbers of calories.

    As an aside. I don’t think that your line of argument on ‘homophobia’ has much standing – because is non logical. It is an attempt at shaming, which in itself is an act attempting norm-creation. When in fact, if homosexuality is a choice, and youth can be swayed, it is in fact, immoral regardless of how we feel about it. But if homosexuality is not a choice, and we are born with it, and youth cannot be swayed, it is not immoral. This fact exists whether or not we are sensitive to it. Similarly, a vast number of us males do not in fact have a problem with murder, violence, rape and theft. In fact, especially in our teens and twenties, it might sound kind of fun really. Which is why it is so easy to collect men in toyota pickups to run around with AK47s whenever possible. But it’s still functionally immoral if it is not intuitively immoral. So we have developed formal institutions that preserve that moral intuition, or create that moral intuition, because morality is often independent of our intuitions. In particular, equalitarianism is a common intuition but we would never progress without the counter-intuitive process of market exchanges we call competition. So the innateness of one sentiment or another is secondary to the necessity that we have norms that suppress those biological intuitions.


    Curt Doolittle
    The Propertarian Institute, Kiev

  14. Curt Doolittle:

    What do you mean by the claim that “if homosexuality is a choice and youth can be swayed, it is in fact immoral regardless of how we feel about it”?

    Whether homosexuality is or is not a choice, I don’t see it as “immoral”. Maybe you are using the term “immoral” descriptively. If so, you should specify that.

    There seems to be quite a debate on the causes or cause of homosexuality, and there is no point in my giving my uninformed opinion on the subject, but by the way, the fact that something is caused by nuture, not nature, does not necessarily imply that it is a choice, since, for example, I did not choose my early education or my upbringing.

  15. @swallerstein.
    I meant, if we are ignorant, and assume that homosexuality is a choice or preference, and therefore children can be seduced into it, then that that is, I think, objectively against reproductive strategy and at least believably immoral. At this point it certainly appears to run in families, and be caused in utero, giving a distribution of preferences just like all other genetic phenomenon. At least, that is the science as it exists today. My point being that conservatives have no moral reason to object to it today (morality being involuntary transfer) even if they had an objection in the past. Hard to argue against it on hedonistic or immoral grounds if it’s just pretty much normal, and our erroneous senses and morals tell us to deprive people of happiness just because of an accident of birth, if it is no cost to them, or to others.

  16. Curt Doolittle:

    So you’re saying that to seduce people into homosexuality and thus, to deny them the possibility of reproducing could be seen as immoral by some.

    Interesting theory. I had never thought of that, because I don’t see having children as an unmixed blessing at all.

    However, it’s true that most people consider having children and a family to be the source of great satisfaction and happiness.

    In my experience, families can be hell or can be very satisfying human relationships. As in all relationships, it depends on the people and what they put into the relationships, but I don’t see having children or a family as necessarily producing more happiness than friendships or love affairs, etc.

    However, if I put myself in the shoes of most people, I can see how seducing someone so that they do not reproduce would be considered immoral and I’ll not argue with the majority verdict on this issue.

  17. Interestiing that Curt defines himself as a “propertarian” in contrast to libertarian. It appears he has a taken a cue from the more radical gay activists of the 90s who attempted to reclaim the epithet “queer” and subvert its negative meaning into a postive identity. I make this assumption because “propertarian” is used mainly as an insult by liberals and progressives to taunt libertarians – its meant to expose their hypocrisy about the way they reduce “freedom” to ownership rights. Libertarians usually chafe at this ploy and attempt to claim the high ground by elaborate arguments over the meaning of freedom. But Curt apparently doesn’t feel the need to make apologies for his beliefs and sees no need for obfuscation. Say what you will about the tenants of….nah, that was too easy 🙂

    PS – Like most gay people I know, I always thought the whole reclaiming queer strategy was idiotic. The along came Queer as Folk, which did more to popularize the word than Queer Nation ever could have. I still think its used mainly as a slur, except in academia.

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