About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

On the gay marriage amendment

In the whole history of the United States, only once has a constitutional amendment been passed that was aimed at reducing, rather than expanding, civil liberties: the 1920 law that made it illegal to produce, distribute and sell alcoholic beverages. It was passed at the urging of conservatives and religious leaders, who naively thought that criminalizing alcohol would solve crime, poverty and other social maladies (a classic example of logical fallacy, where the symptom of a problem – alcoholism – is mistaken for a root cause). The amendment was repealed in 1933, the only addition to the American Constitution to ever be repealed.

This week, the Senate, encouraged by the self-righteousness and political desperation of George W. Bush, is considering a constitutional ban on gay marriage, which is supposed to protect the “integrity of the family,” as well as to solve a variety of social problems “obviously” caused by the widespread homosexuality that “plagues” our country. This amendment too will restrict civil liberties, and it too is being pushed by conservative and religious ideologues. The difference in this case is that it won't even be necessary to repeal it, because everyone agrees that it doesn't have the votes to pass in the Senate.

Why push it, then? Because it is really a political maneuver that Bush and the Republicans have already tried successfully in 2004. Remember Ohio, the state that tipped the balance in favor of Bush? It was one of the several states that had a gay marriage ban on the ballot during that election, and unscrupulous Republican politicians (that's not yet redundant phrasing, though it's getting there), beginning with Bush, made it a national issue because they knew it would energize their base. What was frustrating at the time was that Bush and Kerry had, in fact, the same position on the issue: they both opposed gay marriage but favored some kind of civil union for gay couples. But the notoriously fickle and unread American public didn't realize that the big issue was no issue at all, and voted in droves to elect Bush for the first true time.

Will the trick work again? Possibly, especially in states that are putting the measure on their ballots, like Alabama, South Dakota, Tennessee and Virginia (hmm, what do these have in common? Oh, right, most of 'em are below the Mason-Dixon line – and they say that the civil war is over, and that it was won by the North!). Then again, the president of the Pew Research Center (an independent public opinion poll organization) says that this time Americans seem to be more worried about the failures in Iraq and the fact that they have to fork $50 at the gas pump. Nothing like the death of your children and being hit in the pocketbook to make you realize how some so-called “moral” issues are anything but. Want to have a real moral issue to chew on? Go see Al Gore's “An Inconvenient Truth” about the scientific understanding and social consequences of global warming. If we don't do anything about that, we won't have time to squabble about minor issues such as the supposed ill effects of gay families on the equally imaginary moral fiber of this country.


  1. The beginning of your post is nonsense. The 13th amendment restricted the majority's right to own slaves for the sake of the minority's right to be free. That didn't "expand" civil rights.

    IOW, "expanding civil rights" is not a moral norm.

  2. By that reasoning, all constitutional amendments and laws are a restriction of rights. For example, one could argue that the first amendment restricts the rights of the majority from restricting the speach, religion or right to assemble of the minority. We could say that the Articles I, II, and II restrict our right to live in under a brutal dictatorship.

    I would say that's stretching the definition of "rights" to a meaningless level.

    Happy Satan Day!


  3. I'm not real sure what the Republicans get out of this.

    Gallup annouced their new poll on the issue and they have about 50% of Americans in favor of an amendment to 47% against, that's every bit of 50-50. Pretty much everyone agrees that this thing won't make it past the Senate. If anything, I think people are tired of republican fear mongering and are ready for a change. But I guess we'll see come November.

  4. The beginning of your post is nonsense. The 13th amendment restricted the majority's right to own slaves for the sake of the minority's right to be free. That didn't "expand" civil rights.

    Are you f@cking serious? Banning slave owning = restricting civil rights? You're sure that's what you mean to say?

  5. Previously in our history “the people”, if there had been a public vote, would have put slavery into our Constitution, would have put miscegenation laws and segregation laws into our Constitution, would have put male only voting into our Constitution.

    Fortunately we were blessed with founders of uncommon wisdom who saw both the tyranny of Kings and the tyranny of religions and even the tyranny of the majority and tempered our Constitution with a check and balance system.

  6. Ever wonder why so many of the ridiculous posts like the first one in this set are not signed - just anonymous? Guess I would be ashamed to sign my name to anything so twisted. Must be neo-conservatism showing its ugly head again.

    Actually Hume's Ghost said it all!

  7. Yeah, I was thinking about this yesterday or something like that, when I saw some headline mentioning W and the gay marriage issue. There we go again manipulate the stupidity of the masses... It might work again, as Massimo pointed out. I could also bet we'll be seeing more of those ridiculous, colorful "terror alerts", with bright colors, from now to November.

    Regarding that first post up there, I'm (truly) afraid that's just a reflection of the voice of the majority... Has anybody watched "American History X" here? Pretty good movie, IMHO.


  8. J,
    American History X is one of my favorite all time movies. Perhaps anonmymous needs to see it. I love the way the movie actually glorifies racism and then slowly turns the tide as the movie progresses to show the true nature of racism. I believe it won some awards for cinematography as well. It is a must see for anyone who hasn't.
    As far as on the gay marriage issue. My personal opinion is that there should not be any legistration at all on homosexuality, for or against. That is not an anti-gay statement whatsoever. So please don't take it that way. I just don't believe sexual preference has any place in government.

  9. I have two comments on this:

    First, marriage does not threaten marriage, divorce threatens marriage. But they can't go after that, can they? Perhaps they should. I can't tell you how many times I've had trouble with a student, and when I look up the number to call the parent, the parents have a different last name. Real problems caused by divorce far outnumber and outweigh the hypothetical problems caused by gay marriage.

    Second point, those criticizing gay marriage are always talking about "sanctity." Do they really want the government ruling on what is or is not "holy?" For instance, a traditional Catholic priest might not want to perform a marriage where one or both members of the couple are divorced. Shall the government force him to do so?

    My brother suggested what seems like the best solution: Let the government preside over the legal parts, and the churches preside over the spiritual part. If a couple wants to join their financial and personal lives together to get the benefit of the legal advantages of amrriage, why not? If a particular church says they can't participate in the religious part of that relationship, then they can seek out one that will let them.

    Massimo, don't they do it that way in Italy? Separate civil and religious celebrations?

  10. Don't yell at me here, but I've actually heard what sounds to me like a reasonable argument that has made me reconsider my support of gay marriage. Namely...do we really want to start tampering around with what "marriage" means? If we OK this, then on what basis can we deny the Muslims, the Hmong, and the fringe Mormons who want to practice legal polygamy? Legalizing those things would only end up hurting women in this country, ultimately. Maybe it is better to keep marriage intact and inviolable. I don't know.

  11. adrienne,

    I don't think anyone should yell at you for making that point. But here is my opinion on that.

    First off, it is something to consider. Although "slippery slope" is a logical fallacy, in law, we have a thing called "precedent." Precedent means that, at least when it comes to matters of law (including rights) there is such a thing as a "slippery slope" we approach every time we extend rights, privileges or exemptions to any particular social group.

    So the question is, on what basis should we apply a right (say, to marry) to a particular group.

    It's easy to deny marriage between adults and minors, or humans and animals while still defending marriage between members of the same gender. Here we're talking about a difference between consenting adults with the ability to reason, the responsibilies that come with being an adult human with rights, and those lacking the abilty to exersise rights in a responsible way.

    But when it comes to polygamy, we run into a problem. We can't say that we are talking about those lacking the ability to exercise their rights responsibly (at least in theory.) Therefor, our resistence to the rights of polygamists is as arbritrary and seeped in traditional thinking as the veiws of religious conservatives resisting gay marriage. I don't think womens rights is an issue there because it presupposes women wouldn't be protected under the law to make their own choices. We could say that some social situations make it harder for women in polygamist societies to make a free choice, but how is that any different than similler situations in monogamous communities. To put it another way, if we're going to keep polygamists from marrying based on the idea that women may be "forced" into it by their religious community, should we then outlaw marriage altogether because some women may be forced into "arranged marriages."

    For the record, not all polyamorous relationships are of the extreme religious type. There are quite a few in which the men and women have equal status. But that's another discussion.

    Now, personally, I think we can find a more practical reason to differentiate between monogomous gay marriage and polygomous relationships under the law.

    In a country that provides public services at the taxpayer expence, should we be encouraging relationships where so many children are born (I know, not all polymamous relationships end up with 50+ children, but for anyone looking for a reason to keep polygamy illeagal...) At least with homosexuals, your not as inclined to end up with alot of children.

    But even that argument takes us down a logical fallacy.

    Sorry for the length.


  12. Adrienne,

    That's why I support separating the "spiritual" part from the legal part. Let the laws define what kinds of legal relationships people can enter into, and the churches and such define "marriage" however they see fit.

    FWIW, Virginia tried to disallow the kinds of contracts that gay men tried to use to achieve the same rights as married couples, and found that the law would have banned any contraactual agreement between two men.

    "Judicial activism" apparently means that the legislators have not considered what they actually wrote. When the courts point out that equal rights means equal rights, they get accused of "judicial activism."

    Also, Noah, it is my understanding that the slippery slope is only a logical fallacy if it can't be shown that one event on the "slope" would not actually lead to the next. I'm certainly not a real philosopher, but that's what I read somewhere.

  13. j.k.,

    I'm no philosopher either and I may have mis-defined "slippery slope" in relation to law in my previous post.

    But it does seem to me that the "slippery slope" argument gets alot more leeway in matters of law than it would in philisophical discussion. This may have to do with the fact that laws can tend to be a little too general in how they are written so as to leave a wide berth for interpretation. Also, the stakes are a bit higher when it comes to matters of law than philosophy.

    Context is everything.


  14. >> Massimo, don't they do it that way in Italy? Separate civil and religious celebrations? <<

    Yup, and as far as I can tell, it works beautifully.

  15. By what I got from your posts, guys, to get married in the US requires a religious component?? Really? How does it work?

    For some reason (maybe because we have a (stupid) bias to consider the US generally more advanced) I assumed it was at least like in Brazil. There we have what we call the "civil" wedding, which is the only one valid legally (that's not even much of a ceremony, just a few witnesses and a state official), and then the religious wedding (the one everybody goes to, etc., like here in the US). Usually, the two weddings are in the same day, the state one in the morning, and the church one in the late afternoon - and then big party. Of course, you can just have the civil one and you'll be fine - except for your relatives bugging you for the rest of your life, I guess...

    Not that this separation gave the homosexuals any rights anyway...


  16. Now, regarding the restriction of rights discussion, I agree with what Noah said, if I got it all right. Logically, restricting polygamous marriage is as arbitrary and restrictive as restricting marriage as "woman + man" only (with all caveats Noah already mentioned, grown ups doing whatever they want and all that in a democracy where abuses could be, at least in thesis, remedied).

    I think it all comes down to the amount of big daddy government meddling in people's private lives that we're willing to have. Should I be allowed to spend all my money getting high on pot? Drinking whiskey until my liver is jello? Buying stupid shiny accessories for my car? What about eating fat until my arteries bust? Shouldn't I, as a grown up, choose not to wear a helmet or seatbelt? What if I want to drive talking on the cell phone too, who's to say I'm wrong? All these things have some social cost beyond the "perpetrator's" own interest, so where do we draw the line? And why?

    One could always define marriage as the legal union of two people, and then just hope the affected minorities are not too noisy. Just as we've been doing since... well, since this is democracy (the dictatorship of the majority... actually not even that).

    Land of the free my nose...

  17. "Shouldn't I, as a grown up, choose not to wear a helmet or seatbelt? What if I want to drive talking on the cell phone too.." I am not a "scholar", but I think some of these at least, pertain to the danger you pose to others or yourself, then others. Talking on a cell phone or putting on makeup even reading while you drive makes you and your vehicle a physical threat to others as well as yourself. I cant think of what physical threat to others or yourself that a gay relationship would have. I agree with J. Consenting, rational adults -- btw -- how come polygomist relationship is one man, many female?


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