Those who argue against same-sex marriage often contend that allowing it will do harm to society. This is, of course, a critical argument. After all, if same-sex marriage caused no harm to others, then it would be all the more difficult to argue that it should not be allowed or even explicitly banned by law.
One of the ablest (and calmest) opponents of same-sex marriage is Rian Brown. I recently read an article in Newsweek about him. The article presented his case for the claim that same-sex marriage will harm others:
“Marriage is a public good. If you change the definition of marriage, you don’t just change it for the gay married couple down the street, you change it for everyone,” he says. If gay marriage is allowed, “then the state is essentially saying that my views on marriage, and the majority of Americans’ views on marriage, are equivalent to discrimination…It profoundly affects me if my children are taught in the schools that my views on marriage are bigoted. It profoundly affects me if the church that I’m part of is treated in the law as bigoted. And, ultimately, same-sex marriage is not true.”*
Brown’s argument seems to be the following. He begins by claiming that if the state legalize same sex marriage, then this would be tantamount to the state condemning opposition to same sex marriage as discrimination. This, he claims, would harm him in two ways. First, it would harm him if his kids are taught that opposition to same sex marriage is bigoted. Second, it would harm him if his church was regarded as bigoted by the law.
His overall reasoning would thus seem to be as follows: If I am regarded as being a bigot, then this would hurt me. This sort of law would make me appear to be a bigot. Thus, this sort of law would hurt me. If a law would hurt me, then it should not be based. Since this law would harm me, it should not be passed.
One stock counter to this sort of argument is to apply this same sort of reasoning in other situations that seem to be relevantly similar. One common approach is to use mixed race marriages. Here is Brown’s argument, with “mixed race in place” of “gay”:
Marriage is a public good. If you change the definition of marriage, you don’t just change it for the mixed race married couple down the street, you change it for everyone,” he says. If mixed marriage is allowed, “then the state is essentially saying that my views on marriage, and the majority of Americans’ views on marriage, are equivalent to discrimination…It profoundly affects me if my children are taught in the schools that my views on marriage are bigoted. It profoundly affects me if the church that I’m part of is treated in the law as bigoted. And, ultimately, mixed race marriage is not true.
This, obviously enough, exactly matches Brown’s logic. However, this would seem to reduce his argument to absurdity. After all, it would have to be concluded that mixed race marriage should be outlawed because those who oppose it would be hurt by being accused of being bigots.
Naturally, some folks might reply by saying that mixed-race marriage is not like same-sex marriage and thus question my argument. However, let us consider the general principle that Brown’s argument rests upon.
The general principle underlying Brown’s argument seems to be that passing a law against something regarded as discrimination makes people who endorse that alleged discrimination appear as bigots, so the law should not be passed. If this principle were correct, then it could be employed against any law against discrimination. For example, it could be argued that the laws against discrimination in hiring should be removed because the people who oppose equal hiring would be hurt on the grounds that they would be regarded as bigots because, for example, they only wanted to hire white men and not women or Mexicans. This, obviously enough, seems to be absurd. As such, Brown’s argument seems to rest on a flawed principle and hence is itself flawed.
As a final point, suppose that his argument were granted for the sake of the discussion. That is, that he would be harmed if a law passed that would seem to imply that his views on marriage are bigoted. One obvious concern is the extent of that harm relative to the harm that same sex couples suffer from not being permitted to marry. After all, if this is a matter of harms, then one obvious way to decide the matter is by considering which parties are harmed the most.
On the face of it, the same sex couples would seem to be harmed more. After all, they are denied all the rights of marriage. In contrast, it would seem that all Brown would have to endure is the pain that the law allows something he opposes. Nothing is taken away from him (his marriage remains as it was) nor would he be forced to do anything (like get married to a man). He could keep opposing same sex marriage and could work to change the law. This hardly seems like it would be much hurt at all.