morality in a governed society, emotional premises, and same-sex marriage

Government inherently imposes morality on its society.  Laws define what is morally acceptable and unacceptable, and the enforcement of those laws in turn constrains society to the particular aspects of morality manifest in said laws.

A democratic society should theoretically have laws that represent the morality of its population.  Things get a little trickier with representative democracies like the United States.  While the United States has a complicated and nuanced system of government, I think we all agree that its laws should be supported by a large portion, if not the majority of its population.

So, for the sake of simplicity, let's presume that this idea (that a democratic society should have laws that represent the morality of its population) holds for all democracies, direct or representative.  The people vote for laws and policies, or elect individuals to govern, such that the resulting government matches their own values as closely as possible.

To recap: anything relating to the governance of a society is a moral issue.  This includes the definition of rights.  The problem with moral issues is there is no right answer, except through consensus--that's just the way we work.  A philosophy is only as good as its strength in obtaining adherents.

You see, moral issues, while the can be argued logically, are predicated on some premises, which, when you get to the core of things, have an emotional basis.   A good debater can construct an argument to prove anything given the right set of premises.  That same debater can also dismantle any argument if allowed to disregard or redefine the premises.

So what does this all mean?  Let's consider an example: the laws and rights pertaining to marriage, which seems to be such a popular topic these days.  Some people have the emotional premise that marriage should only exists between and man and a woman.  Other people have different emotional premises that lead to the conclusions that marriage should be able to occur between any two willing adults.  There are also folks who think marriage shouldn't exist as a government construct, based on the premise that government should be minimal.  There are many more variations in opinion and other complicated aspects like rights outside of marriage, but I'll leave itemizing all the permutations and complexities to you.

How do we decide what to do as a society in the US? We vote, courts make decisions, laws are passed.  In the case of courts, judges have a set of legal premises in addition to their own options. Again, it's a complicated system, and in the case of same-sex marriage, there are strong opinions in either side.

I believe that same-sex marriage will be legalized eventually, since the primary purpose of modern marriage is individual fulfillment.  (There are more personal premises and opinions related to whether or not that should be the case.) The question is whether it will happen at the state level or the federal level.  In general, I'm more in favor of state level laws, but there are tricky questions regarding recognizing marriage from other states.

What I really wanted to drive home is that when people make arguments that seem totally illogical to you, it's probably because they have a different set of emotional premises.  (Though it's entirely possible that they have faulty logic.)  I've read many articles about how there are no good arguments against gay marriage.  Of course there aren't if you don't share your opponents' premises!  Opposing same-sex marriage is hard in particular because there is no argument: the opinion is the premise.  Proponents, on the other hand, can dig for deeper premises relating to equality, and thus make more compelling arguments.


dg said...

When people write that there are "no good arguments against gay marriage", I think they often mean "there are no good arguments that gay marriage harms anyone". If that's true, someone who nonetheless believes that the government should forbid gay marriage doesn't believe in individual liberty, or in equality under the law. Premises may be beyond the realm of argument; the incompatibilities among them are not.

Gay marriage opponents usually aren't willing to own inequality and oppression as premises, so the public debate revolves around harm instead. Fortunately, harm is also not beyond the realm of argument: we can assess it with reason and observation. In particular, from a decade of experience in Massachusetts, Americans can see that gay marriage benefits many people and harms no one.

As a footnote, I'd suggest that the benefits of same-sex marriage go beyond "individual fulfillment". It's also good for the community, good for the economy, and good for the children of gay parents. In short, it's as valuable as opposite-sex marriage, whether the purpose of marriage has changed over time or not.

ajbc said...

Re: "there are no good arguments that gay marriage harms anyone"
I think that the people that believe that gay marriage is bad usually believe that it is sinful and thus it hurts the individuals and the community by promoting, accepting, and living in sin. Think prohibition-era mentality. Individual liberty and equality don't even enter into the picture, as you pointed out. Observations would also do nothing against this stance, since "the world" is constantly trying to justify sin.

I agree that there are benefits of same-sex marriage that go beyond individual fulfillment, but I didn't want to get into them. I personally think that gay marriage should be legal, so the primary purpose of my writing this post was trying to understand the opposite perspective and promote a respectful dialogue between the two sides.

This approach was mostly inspired by another piece that did the same thing, arguing anti-same sex marriage while actually being in favor of it.
I'd be interested in your response to it:

dg said...

I think we're agreeing! On any topic, it's possible to declare a bastion of conviction that's immune to all argument. In this case, I'm just pointing out that the price in convictions one can't hold simultaneously is quite steep. Reasoned argument is holding same-sex marriage opponents to that price, and most Americans aren't willing to pay it.

As for that piece from 2005, I would summarize it in four unconvincing bullet points.

* Type I errors are bad. It doesn't matter how many Type II errors we make, so long as we avoid Type I errors.

* Divorce is pro-liberty and harmful. Therefore, we should suspect that marriage is also harmful, insofar as it is pro-liberty.

* We have no historical experience with same-sex marriage. (In 2005, this was at least a reasonable thing to point out. Today, it's no longer true.)

* We might learn things in the future that disprove the things we think we know today. Doesn't that make you uncomfortable? You shouldn't ask people to change their minds based on new information.

ajbc said...

I think we're agreeing as well. :) I also don't have anything else to add at to the discussion of my original post at this point, but I did want to follow up of the 2005 article.

1) I'm not sure what the Type I and Type II errors are, in the context of this article (it's been a while since I read it), but this statement could hold for some cases. For an obviously extreme example, Type I could be murder, and Type II could be not returning a library book. The types of errors are relevant.

2) Sentence one is an oversimlification that implies a direct correlation not in the original article. Per my recollection, sentence two is a blatantly wrong summary.

4) I like this summarization--it reveals a flaw in the argument.

dg said...

On (1), I meant "Type I and Type II errors" in the formal sense: The piece asserts as a "fact" that the status quo does not have to be defended; it's up to anyone who wants change to "prove that there will be no harm". In other words, Type I errors are infinitely preferable to Type II.

On (2), OK, I was being glib, but I don't think I'm blatantly wrong. The harms of divorce are absolutely a centerpiece of this argument against more marriage. (The audacity of it made me laugh out loud.) There are six paragraphs devoted to drawing the analogy. It boils down to this: same-sex marriage is like no-fault divorce because, in both cases, the supporters argue that people should be free to make themselves happy as long as others aren't harmed. No-fault divorce had bad results. Therefore, marriage (the gay kind) is likely to have bad results too.

ajbc said...

Haha! I should have caught onto the Type I and Type II errors, but I didn't have my stats hat on, apparently. Fair criticism.

Regarding (2), I agree that the divorce vs. more marriage comparisons are the centerpiece, but I do think that the core point is good: we should be careful in making huge non-reversible definitional changes because there can be unexpected consequences.

No-fault divorce started in California in 1970, and was enacted in all states by 1985. Same-sex marriage was first allowed in the US in 2003. I'd say same-sex marriage should take at least as long to legalize as no-fault divorce.

I still think gay marriage should and will be legalized, but I don't presume to know how that will change marriage as an institution or our society long-term. I guess I'd call that cautiously progressive...wanting change, but wanting it to come slowly enough that substantial thought can go into the changes. With gay marriage in particular, the US is now mostly ready, with everyone having thought about the consequences and witnessed the effects.