Saturday, August 11, 2007

Why is Margaret Somerville so obsessed with attacking same-sex marriage?

Renowned McGill ethics professor and same-sex marriage opponent Margaret Somerville once again got an opportunity today to publish on the subject of same-sex marriage with her Globe & Mail column, "If same-sex marriage, why not polygamy?" Here's the link.

Now allow me the opportunity to respond to Somerville's flawed logic.

Somerville correctly states that both same-sex marriage and polygamy deviate significantly from the traditional, one-man-one-woman definition of marriage.

But they deviate in different ways. Same-sex marriage differs from traditional marriage based on the gender of the individuals involved.

Polygamy differs from traditional marriage based on the numbers of the individuals involved.

So yes, same-sex marriage and polygamy are different from traditional marriage, but different for very different reasons. Follow me?

But using Somerville's flawed reasoning, this means both same-sex marriage and polygamy are hopelessly wrong and must not be allowed (albeit, Somerville has used different reasons to reach these conclusions.)

This is phony reasoning. Our society has the right to change the definition of marriage to accommodate same sex couples and, in doing so, end the gender-specific requirements of the traditional definition.

This does not necessitate that we do away with the numerical requirements of the institution as well - namely allowing more than two people.

This may be the case in Somerville's mind, but in reality this is not true. It's sophistry.

It's like saying "All life is sacred, therefore all killing is wrong." But killing is an inevitable aspect of war, and most agree that sometimes war is necessary, therefore killing in war can be justified, unlike say killing for sadistic pleasure. But using Somerville's reasoning technique, both killing in war and killing for pleasure deviate from the original maxim that "All life is sacred". Both are equally wrong. We'd therefore have to conclude that killing in war is unacceptable. Any deviation from the original maxim cannot be tolerated regardless of the unique circumstances and reasons for the deviation.

In the past, Somerville has warned that same-sex marriage jeopardizes children's rights to be raised by and to know their biological parents. I've never been able to understand exactly how a same-sex couple's ability to marry somehow caused other children never to know their parents.

To understand where Somerville is coming from, it helps to understand that much of her work has been anchored in Catholic natural law tradition.

On this issue, she has always struck me as someone who established her conclusion first (same sex marriage is wrong based on my religious beliefs) and then went about creating arguments that backed up that conclusion.

Using the "children" argument, as she does, has a special amount of sentimentality as it tugs at the heartstrings of most parents. "Your children are threatened by homosexuals," is Somerville's basic message. Where have we heard that one before?

By disallowing same-sex marriage in law, the country was discriminating based on sexual orientation, which was banned under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

By disallowing polygamy, no one is facing discrimination, as far as I can tell. The ban applies to everyone.

There are some, including Somerville, who argue that the ban on polygamy could be a violation of the Charter's freedom of religion provisions. The only way to find out for sure is for individuals in polygamous marriages to take their cases to court and fight for their rights, just as gays and lesbians were forced to do.

After assessing the other crucial issues at stake, like the inherent oppression of women in polygamous marriages, intergenerational abuse, brainwashing, etc., would the Supreme Court rule that laws banning polygamy are a violation of freedom of religion and therefore must be struck down? We can only speculate. Based on previous Supreme Court rulings, I find it hard to believe they would rule in such a way. But of course that is an argument for another day.

Somerville has been on a mission for years arguing against equal marriage rights for gays and lesbians. She's travelled hundreds of miles to appear before numerous parliamentary committees, written countless papers and columns (and is still writing them), given speeches. All to argue that the rights of same-sex couples to equal marriage somehow violate a child's ability to know his or her parents.

Why is Somerville so obsessed with attacking same-sex marriage? Are there no other ethical issues that need attention? I guess only Somerville knows for sure.


Joanne (True Blue) said...

Try this.

Koby said...

"Your children are threatened by homosexuals," is Somerville's basic message.

Many Conservatives hit on that theme. Somerville, however, did not, at least not directly. Somerville, point was that by allowing people of the same sex to marry each other, marriage would go from being a child centered institution to something based on love and that change would have unarticulated negative societal repercussions. The problem is that she got things ass backwardness. It was because marriage is an institution based on romantic love that opened that door to people of the same sex being allowed to marry.

She is making the same mistake again. Believing that SSM is transformative change and not an outflow from what marriage has evolved into being, she mistaking believes that there is straight line from SSM to polygamy. As she sees it, if marriage is based on romantic love, as was established with the passage of C 38, there is nothing to say why one person, at least in principle, can not be married two or more people at the same time. What matters is that they love each other. The problem with such an argument is not only is historically wrong it skips over the central issue. Namely, what are the practical social consequences of allowing polygamy? There are many and you hit on some.

As for Somerville herself, perhaps it is because I am a consequentialist and so do not have the time of day for “natural law”, but I think the press is far too deferential and she a very average thinker.

Dr.Dawg said...

I would agree that Somerville is an average thinker--so average, in fact, that I find myself wondering at her free pass into newspaper op-ed pages. There's no there there. Her arguments are specious. But she's always on call, perhaps because she's an academic who writes without jargon. That she writes without reason as well seems to go write past op-ed editors.

Her notion, for example, that kids have some need to know their biological parents is based on some kind of unspoken metaphysics. I'm adopted, and my adopted parents were the only parents I had any desire to know. I realize that there's a neurotic movement on the part of some adoptees to find their "true" parents (and hence, themselves), but there's no mystic blood connection that drives us to seek for our male and female genetic donors.

Speaking of "neurotic," that adjective would seem to me to apply to what must by now be seen as Somerville's creepy obsessiveness on the same-sex marriage issue. Kudos to QL for uncovering the Catholic connection. Indeed, one might say that her arguments do tend to be jesuitical. :)

Joanne (True Blue) said...

The problem with such an argument is not only is historically wrong it skips over the central issue. Namely, what are the practical social consequences of allowing polygamy?

What about plural relationships in general? How about three gay guys wanting to live together in a loving, committed manner?

Would anyone have a problem with that?

Matt Guerin said...

If three gay men could live together in a healthy relationship like that for a long period of time, I'd be willing to give them an award. It's hard enough making a relationship between two people work, so to make one with three people work, wow! Of course such arrangements are rare and mostly temporary. Also one wonders if two of the three might like each other better than the third. Jealousies might be inevitable. To me, "marriage" is about committing oneself 100% to the other person for life. If there are two other people, how can you commit yourself 100% to two people - you can't. For me, none of this means we should expand the numbers of those allowed to enter into a civil marriage. Marriage is about love and committing oneself 100% to the other person for life. That basic definition of marriage hasn't changed. I would agree if we changed that aspect of marriage, suddenly the word marriage would be meaningless.

Joanne (True Blue) said...

To me, "marriage" is about committing oneself 100% to the other person for life.

I totally agree. But does anyone know if it is technically legal for three or more people to live together in a common-law type of relationship? I realize that there would be no legal benefits to all spouses from such an arrangement.

Also, what about polygamy as practiced by Muslims if it is done with the full consent of all parties?

Matt Guerin said...

I don't think we recognize anything other than common-law relationships and marriages in this manner. There has been talk about opening up spousal relationships to include other dependents, but I don't think much has happened on that file in Ontario or elsewhere. Your question about Muslims is very relevant - we know there are polygamous marriages throughout the Muslim world. Yet we here in the West don't recognize such things. This illustrates what's wrong with Margaret Somerville's whole Catholic, all-or-nothing approach. She assumes that Catholic natural law is the only way to look at the world, and yet most Muslims would disagree.

Joanne (True Blue) said...

Yes, the Muslim factor is what makes this about much more than just little Bountiful.

Simon said...

Good post Matt. It's important to point out the Catholic natural law connection.Because I went to McGill ...saw her up close...and believe me that's what she's ALL about. She's not an impartial expert anymore she's an advocate. And the darling of the SoCon circuit. What annoyed me for years was the way she managed to fly under the radar of the MSM who made her a media darling. For a while she almost lived at the CBC!!!The more people know where she's coming from the better...

ADHR said...

I'm not a big fan of Somerville. From what I've read of hers, I think she's not playing with a consistent ethic, let alone a metaethic. But, that said, I don't think your counter-arguments are very good, Matt.

(1) The difference between same-sex marriage and polygamy (gender vs. number) isn't obviously morally relevant. Not just any difference counts when we're trying to figure out what is and is not morally permissible. The better argument to make is that gender is not morally relevant. If gender is not morally relevant, then there is no moral difference between same-sex marriage and opposite-sex marriage. When it comes to marriage, not only would opponents of same-sex marriage have to show that gender is morally relevant, they'd also have to show that differing vs. identical gender is morally relevant. AFAIK, no one's managed to shoulder that burden of proof yet, at least in the popular discourse.

(2) Whether society has the right to alter the definition of marriage is not at issue. Somerville is arguing that same-sex marriage is morally wrong. That doesn't require she take a position on what society is allowed to do. Society may be allowed to permit things that people are obligated not to do. That's not incoherent, because, on one hand, we're talking about society's powers and, on the other, we're talking about the obligations on individual people's conduct.

(3) The killing in war example makes a common mistake. Something doesn't have to stop being wrong just because it becomes necessary, or because it becomes better than the alternatives. Stealing is wrong, even if I have to steal food in order to survive. My death is worse than stealing, but stealing doesn't magically become right just because I have to do it. So, you're allowed to deviate from maxims or rules when they're outweighed by other maxims or rules, without this in any way reducing the moral weight of any of the maxims or rules.

(4) The children's rights issue is a weird one. I suspect Somerville is taking up a claim common to right-leaning ethicists, that marriage is "supposed" to result in children. What this says about childless couples is never made completely clear. What's really weird is that the claim that marriage is supposed to result in offspring of the married couple is, all on its own, enough to rule out same-sex marriage (and childless opposite-sex marriage, too). This business about a child's right to be raised by his/her biological parents looks completely irrelevant. Dawg's right to note that it also kicks back in a weird way against adopting children. It also seems to kick back against taking children from abusive family situations, and against children being raised by, say, their grandparents. And so on and so forth.

(5) Raising the Charter is common in arguments about same-sex marriage, but it's completely beside Somerville's point. She's talking about the ethics of the practice, not the legality. As wonderful as the SCC may be, they're not the arbiters of morality -- they're only, at best, arbiters of law.

(6) As far as the consequences of polygamy, they all look contingent to me. It's important to keep that in mind, because it does open up the possibility that polygamy should be permitted, and the various other social rules that exist against things like abuse should be used to address the polygamous relationships that have these consequences.

(7) When it comes to natural law, I think it should be emphasized that she's not wrong in the consequences she traces from it. Once you accept the idea that nature comes imbued with purposes and plans, it's hard not to conclude that some things are just "naturally" wrong. The problem, of course, is that nature doesn't work quite like that; and dumping purposes and plans into nature is a quick way of avoiding having to defend them. The way she thinks the world should be structured may, in fact, turn out to be defensible (but I'm highly dubious, to say the least), but she owes us a defense. The really funny thing is that the originators of the tradition, going back to Aquinas and Aristotle, did try to defend these very points.

Generally, I think the best way to challenge people like this is to force them to defend the system of principles that's at work in the background. That is, force them off the applied/practical ethics turf and onto normative/substantive ethics or even metaethics. Once they lose on those terms, their practical ethical conclusions lose all force.