Gay marriage & polygamy
Dissecting the “sliperry slope” argument
Political candidate J.D. Hayworth stirred up some controversy earlier this week when he stated that gay marriage could eventually lead to people marrying horses. Even Hayworth recognized his comment was somewhat outlandish, but his basic line of reasoning is not uncommon. Many commentators believe that legalizing gay marriage will open the door for the recognition of other sorts of relationships such as polygamy. Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer, who interestingly is open to both the legalization of gay marriage and polygamy, argues just this:
I pointed out that it is utterly logical for polygamy rights to follow gay rights. After all, if traditional marriage is defined as the union of (1) two people of (2) opposite gender, and if, as advocates of gay marriage insist, the gender requirement is nothing but prejudice, exclusion and an arbitrary denial of one’s autonomous choices in love, then the first requirement — the number restriction (two and only two) — is a similarly arbitrary, discriminatory and indefensible denial of individual choice.
Krauthammer is correct that if we redraw the boundaries of marriage to include other relationships that haven’t been previously recognized we have to give valid reasons for why we are allowing one group into the fold but leaving others, such as polygamists, outside the marriage tent. However, this does not mean, as Krauthammer suggests, that defining marriage as “the union of two people” is “as similarly arbitrary” as defining marriage as between people of opposite sexes.
For instance, one could argue that while gay marraige promotes eqaulity polygamy ends up reinforcing archaic gender stereotypes in which women are seen more as property than as equal partners in a relationship. Indeed, the countries that still allow polygamy are, by and large, countries in which women’s rights movements are still in their infancy.
Journalist Jonathon Rauch adopts a somewhat similair line of reasoning in distinguishing between gay marriage and polygamy by suggesting the values they uphold are diametrically opposed:
Same-sex marriage stabilizes individuals, couples, communities, and society by extending marriage to many who now lack it. Polygamy destabilizes individuals, couples, communities, and society by withdrawing marriage from many who now have it.
The notion that legalizing that “gay marriage” creates a precedent that will open the door to the legal recognition of many other types of relationships cannot simply be dismissed out of hand. At the same time, it is unfair to invoke the “slippery slope” argument without engaging in meaningful discussion about the relevant differences between different sets of circumstances. After all, allowing women the right to vote certainly does not set a precedent for allowing horses to vote as well.