This is the second part of brief series of posts on the definitional objection to same-sex marriage. The series is working off the recently-published book Debating Same-Sex Marriage. The book is part of Oxford University Press’s point-counterpoint series and features contributions from John Corvino and Maggie Gallagher. Corvino is an ethical philosopher from Wayne State University; Gallagher is a conservative commenter and co-founder of the National Organization for Marriage. No prizes for guessing their respective points of view.
This series is focusing on a sub-section of Corvino’s contribution to the book, the sub-section that discusses the Definitional Objection. As noted in part one, this might be better termed the Ontological Objection since it relates to what marriage essentially is. The objection itself comes in three different forms. The first of those — the Argument from Tradition (AFT) — was covered in part one. This part looks at the second form, the Definitional Argument (DA).
The DA, unlike the AFT, actually does have something to do with how terms are defined for linguistic usage. However, it does so in a way that ultimately links definitions with the supposed ontology of marriage. This post breaks the discussion of the DA down into three sections. First, it presents the simplest, category-error or impossibility, form of the DA. Second, it tries to refine this version of DA and consider Corvino’s responses. Third, it closes by looking at at his consideration of the ‘civil unions’ vs. ‘marriage’ issue.
1. The Impossibility version of the DA
Perhaps the most obvious way in which to interpret the DA is as a kind of impossibility or category-error claim. In other words, to construe proponents of the DA as claiming that it is an outright error to ascribe the label “marriage” to same-sex unions. To call such unions marriages is akin to referring to the existence of a “square ball” or calling a chicken a “duck”. Indeed, these are not just fanciful examples that I cooked up, they have been used by opponents of same-sex marriage. For example, here’s Maggie Gallagher (Corvino’s main foil in this book) on the chicken/duck example:
Politicians can pass a bill saying a chicken is a duck and that doesn’t make it true. Truth matters.
That’s all well and good, but what kind of argument can be mustered up in defence of such a category-error claim? Here’s an initial suggestion:
- (1) “Marriage” is exclusively, necessarily and essentially defined as “a union between one man and one woman”.
- (2) Same-sex unions are not unions between one man and one woman.
- (3) Therefore, same sex unions cannot be called “marriages”.
Just a couple of quick words about premise (1) here. In saying that marriage is “exclusively” defined as a union between one man and one woman, I’m not suggesting that other things cannot be added to the definition. For instance, it may be that marriage is more-properly defined as a “loving union between one man and one woman”. Indeed, there could well be some opponents of same-sex marriage that feel lovingness is an essential part of marriage. That’s fine, I have no wish to exclude those kinds of additional features. The exclusivity clause that I added to the premise was merely intended to exclude the application of the “marriage” label to unions that are not between one man and one woman. Presumably, that’s the kind of exclusivity that proponents of the DA want since that’s what supports their category error claim.
So much for the clarification, what about the argument itself? Well, the obvious thing to note is that it has very little normative power. It merely says that we cannot call same-sex unions “marriages”, but it does not deny the reality of morally valuable same-sex relationships. This would give us some space to create separate labels that can then be used to afford legal recognition and protection to such unions. This is possibility that has been adopted in some jurisdictions and its merits will be considered in the final section of this post.
Acknowledging that possibility, there is still the fact that the exclusive use of the label has some normative significance. In fact, that’s why proponents of the DA make that argument in the first place. So we need to probe a little deeper and consider why labels can have such normative weight and what implications this has for same-sex marriage.
2. The Normative Weight of Labels
An easy response to the DA would be to argue that labels are arbitrary. Whether we call a table a “table” or a “schmable” is of no great matter. It is purely a question of aesthetic, not moral, preference. Given this arbitrary nature, it does not much matter whether we choose to extend the label of “marriage” to cover same-sex unions or not. What’s all the fuss about really? The more sophisticated proponents of the DA have a response to this.
Corvino singles out one such respondent for special consideration. His name is Robert H. Knight and he is a conservative writer. Knight notes that labels are not purely arbitrary. If we apply a label to an entity or state of affairs that we care about, then we would be well-advised not to extend its application in such a way that it applies to qualitatively different entities or states of affairs. To emphasise this point, Knight uses the example of the Maui Onion:
”Maui Onion”: The Maui onion is a particular breed of sweet onion that is only grown on the island of Maui. It has certain properties that make it more desirable (in certain contexts) than other onions. In particular, it is sweeter and less pungent than the typical onion. In other words, the label “Maui Onion” is used to pick out a distinctive kind of entity that we might care about (depending on the flavours we are looking for). Thus, if the label “Maui Onion” were extended to cover all onions grown in Hawaii, that would be wrong (or, at a minimum, unfortunate).
The example is superficially pleasing, and one can sort of imagine how it might be used to make an analogical argument against same-sex “marriage” (I won’t set out that analogical argument here). But the details of this are questionable. Corvino detects at least three flaws.
First, the pleasingness of the example is largely attributable to the fact that extending the “Maui Onion” label to cover all onions frustrates reasonable human purposes. If you or I go into a store to buy an onion, and we ask specifically for a “Maui Onion”, but because of definitional changes we end-up getting an ordinary, pungent non-sweet onion, we would be justifiably disappointed. We wanted to cook a dish with a particular matrix of flavours, but we are no longer able to do this because of the mix-up. Indeed, we would probably have to invent a new label to pick out the particular onion we wanted. The problem is that no equivalent frustration of reasonable purposes takes place in the marital context. Same-sex partners will know who they are getting married to and will understand the type of union they are entering into, they won’t be deceived as in the case of the Maui Onion. Nor will heterosexual couples suddenly be frustrated in their desire to marry people of the opposite sex.
Second, in considering the extension of the label to all onions grown in Hawaii, the example ignores hard cases. Consider, the following variation (Corvino’s):
Kauai Onion: Suppose that scientists/horticulturalists manage to create an onion that is genetically identical to the Maui Onion. This onion is then taken to the island of Kauai and grown in very similar conditions to those found on Maui. The end result is an onion that tastes and smells the same as a Maui Onion. Does this new onion deserve the label “Maui Onion”?
This case is much more difficult than the original one. True; there are some differences between the original Maui onions and the new Kauai ones, but they seem relatively trivial (really only a change in geographical location). Since what we care about is taste and aroma, and since the new onion is practically identical in these respects, it would seem churlish to refuse to apply the label to it. But then why couldn’t the same be true of the label “marriage”? Couldn’t it be that same-sex unions share a sufficient number of structural similarities with heterosexual unions such that denying the label “marriage” to those unions would be like denying the label “Maui Onion” to the genetically identical ones grown on Kauai?
Opponents will no doubt balk at this suggestion, arguing that is misses what is morally important about marriage. But this objection itself misses the point. The DA is supposed to derive its strength from the power of existing definitions and labes, it’s not supposed to get us into a debate about the morally desirable features of marriage. It’s a conceptual, category-error style argument, not a purely moral one. We can have those arguments about the morally desirable features of marriage if we like — indeed, we will have them — but they will be structurally different from the DA.
This brings us to the third and last of Corvino’s responses to the Maui Onion example. It is this: proponents of the DA sometimes confuse a conceptual-definitional objection to same-sex marriage with a consequentialist one. In other words, critics often oppose the application of the “marriage” label to same-sex unions on the grounds that this would have disastrous consequences for traditional marriages (e.g. by distracting from the child-centred focus of marriage). But in doing this they step outside the bounds of a purely definitional argument. Corvino is willing to debate them on the consequences of recognising same-sex marriages, but only after showing that the DA itself doesn't work.
3. Civil Unions vs. Marriages
Many countries and (some) US states have introduced legislation that provides for the legal recognition of same-sex “civil unions” but not same-sex “marriages”. Sometimes, these legal frameworks are said to introduce same-sex marriage in all but name. Assuming that the two institutions are legally and socially equivalent, what would a proponent of same-sex marriage have to complain about? Corvino ends his discussion of the DA with a couple of quick comments about this (with particular references to the experiences in the state of Vermont).
The first is that, in many instances, civil unions are not legally and socially equivalent to marriages. Oftentimes, partners in civil unions are denied access to the full range of legal rights and responsibilities associated with marriage. Other times, even if equality is provided for in law, the difference in labels leads to differences in social treatment. Such as when a hospital administrator, either through ignorance or prejudice, does not allow full access rights for civil partners. So it’s not clear that difference in labels is truly meaningless in this context.
The second comment is that legal and social equivalence would probably only be sustainable if people didn’t pay too much attention to the difference in labels. In other words, it would be sustainable only if people effectively read “spouse” every time they saw the term “civil partner”, and viewed civil partnerships under the same conceptual frame as they viewed married couples. But if that is what people would have to do to sustain equivalence, then it would probably just make more sense to change the labels so that civil unions were called “marriages” (or maybe vice versa). This, he suggests, is effectively what happened in states like Vermont and Connecticut, which experimented with “civil unions” for a while before eventually granting marriage licences to same-sex couples.
To sum up, the DA tries to object to same-sex marriages on the grounds that it is wrong — tantamount to a category error — to apply the label “marriage” to same sex unions. But for the argument to work, there has to be some reason for thinking that definitional labels are normatively significant, not arbitrary. Although there may be occasional reasons for thinking this (e.g. as in the Maui Onion case), those reasons do not seem to apply to the same-sex marriage case. Furthermore, we must be careful to separate the DA from arguments that focus on the morally desirable features of interpersonal relationships, and moral consequences of recognising same-sex marriage. The DA is about the moral weight of our labels and definitions, not about the moral structure of the world outside those labels (at least, that’s how I read Corvino’s criticisms here).
That’s not to say that the moral structure of the external world is unimportant in this debate — of course it is — but it will be treated separately. Indeed, we’ll start treating it in the next post by looking at the New Natural Law Argument against same-sex marriage. This argument proposes that the marital union is essentially constituted by ongoing reproductive type acts between spouses, and that this essential constitution is morally valuable. We’ll see what we can make of this the next day.