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Debating Same-Sex MarriageReview - Debating Same-Sex Marriage
by John Corvino and Maggie Gallagher
Oxford University Press, 2012
Review by Robert Scott Stewart, Ph.D.
Sep 4th 2012 (Volume 16, Issue 36)

John Corvino and Maggie Gallagher are well known with respect to the debate surrounding same-sex marriage, or the "marriage equality" issue as it is often referred to. Corvino, a philosophy professor from Wayne State University, was a regular columnist for the now defunct, writing as "The Gay Moralist," and has published widely on LBGT issues. Maggie Gallagher is also a nationally syndicated columnist and was co-founder of the National Organization for Marriage, which has been a leading voice in the argument to retain marriage as an institution between one man and one woman. While hoping to convince readers of the correctness of their respective positions, the authors do so in a "civil and productive" (3) manner in an effort to at least "achieve disagreement" defined as "the process whereby both sides understand the other's arguments and understand why they disagree" (91). I think they have been mostly successful in this endeavour. As my review will makes clear, though, I believe Corvino clearly has stronger arguments and my ability to understand Gallagher's position does not make her arguments any more convincing.

Very briefly, Gallagher presents arguments that fall into two broad camps: definitional, a priori arguments and consequentialist, a posterior ones.  The "Definitional Argument" asserts that "treating same-sex unions as marriages ... is not true" (98). Just as 'giving birth to a child' is necessary for someone to be classified as a mother,  to use Gallagher's example (103ff), so 'union between a man and woman' is necessary for a couple to be classified as married. The reason for this, in turn, is that only a union of opposite sex couples can produce children. Hence, even if same sex unions can be everything else a marriage can be -- though Gallagher clearly doesn't believe this given some of her consequentialist arguments, which are discussed below  -- they are definitionally excluded from being "marriages."

In order for Gallagher's argument to work, "marriage" must be a special kind of definition. In particular, it can't simply pick out the legal and/or social meaning of a term for these nominal types of definition are subject to change. For example, to use another of Gallagher's examples, a "corporation," though "real," does not refer to anything "in nature." It refers rather to something constructed (in this case, via the law) and its meaning can be changed simply by changing the law. "Marriage" and "mother," however, "refer to a natural phenomenon that the law does not create or control" (103). Marriage and mother, then, refer to "natural kinds" in Gallagher's opinion.  

This doesn't seem right, however, as Corvino argues in various places (21-44 and 180-185). We often refer to a woman who has adopted a child as a "mother" even if she has no biological children, as Gallagher herself admits (103). So the analogy here does not establish its point and we are left asking the question why marriage must necessarily refer to a biological fact and not a legal/customary one.  Historically, arguments of this sort have fallen into the natural law tradition, which seeks some essential teleological function. The "new-natural-law theorists" do this by claiming that marriage is a "comprehensive union which includes the biological union of coitus" (188). The problem here is that married heterosexual couples who are incapable of having children are not prevented from marrying, nor does Gallagher think they should be (cf. 185-187).

Gallagher's consequentialist arguments take a number of forms, the most important of which focus on the harms she believes will befall children if we allow same-sex marriages. Here, Gallagher moves from the claim that children typically do best when they are raised by their own married biological parents to the conclusion that we shouldn't therefore allow same-sex couples to marry. There isn't space here to discuss the several forms of this argument in detail. There are, as Corvino points out, several problems with the argument whichever form it takes. Briefly, while there is evidence that children do in fact do better when they are raised in stable families with their 'biological' parents -- as opposed to being raised, e.g., in single parent families or families with one biological parents and one step-parent -- these studies include adoptive parents in the category, "biological" parents (46 ff.). Moreover, there is lots of evidence that concludes that children of same-sex couples do just as well as children raised in opposite-sex couples. Indeed, some studies indicate that children do best when raised by two lesbian parents (56).  Finally, we must be wary of moves from claims about an ideal to what is necessary or mandatory. Lots of children raised in non-ideal settings do perfectly well. Moreover, there is little doubt that making the lives of all children better would concentrate on efforts to ensure they are free from abuse,  housed safely, fed adequately, and educated well; not on the issue of same-sex couples.

Another alleged negative consequence of allowing same-sex marriage is that it will lead to marriage being extended to other forms as well, such as polygamous marriages. Certainly many contemporary polygynous marriages (one husband, many wives) have been morally problematic, but we must be careful not to assume that all polygamous marriages are so. We would simply have to investigate the issue in its own terms. The real point here, though, is whether there is any causal or logical connection (i.e., "slippery slope") between same-sex marriage and polygamy: Corvino argues convincingly that there is not (64-75).

The argument by Gallagher that strikes me as her weakest is that allowing same-sex marriages will somehow negatively affect religious liberty and even lead to persecution of those who support traditional marriage. She cites as examples  a British social worker not allowing a couple to adopt unless they were willing to tell their 5-8 year old child that homosexuality is okay, and the US government not allowing Catholic charities to engage in foster care and adoption services if they refuse to do same-sex placements  (e.g., 215 ff.). Going through socio-cultural changes is, of course, difficult, but that doesn't justify clinging to unjust and unfair beliefs. To see this, simply think of the above examples slightly changed to ones involving racist or sexist beliefs.

Though I have been critical of the arguments presented by Gallagher in this book, I actually think that the book in general is actually an excellent one.  It lays out the arguments on both sides of this issue clearly and concisely. Hence, Debating Same-Sex Marriage is an outstanding book not only for the general reader who wants to know more about this debate; it would also be perfect for a university course examining this issue.


© 2012 Robert Scott Stewart


Robert Scott Stewart, Ph.D., is a Professor of Philosophy and Chair of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Cape Breton University in Sydney, NS, Canada. He recently published a co-edited book with Sue Korol, Food For Thought: A Multidisciplinary Discussion, with CBU Press and is currently editing another book for that press:  Let's Talk About Sex: A Multidisciplinary Discussion. He is also co-writing a textbook with Laurie Shrage, Philosophizing About Sex, for Broadview Press.


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