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Marriage equality is not a slippery slope

The absence of some fixed standard does not mean we will descend unimpeded into moral chaos; it means we must work to identify which standards are most reasonable.

“Next you’ll be for people marrying and screwing animals. It’s called the decline of society. It will never end.” — St. Cloud Times commenter, Sept. 14,  2012

Jeffery L. Bineham
Jeffery L. Bineham

Perhaps the fallacy most used to oppose marriage equality is the slippery slope: the argument that to make one decision necessarily leads to other decisions, each one with more egregious consequences. This argument’s most absurd version claims that if we allow same-gender people to marry, our decision will require that we sanction relationships between humans and beasts, and soon our children will wed their pets and farm animals and, to repeat Pat Robertson’s preposterous prediction, we’ll all be having sex with ducks.

Robertson got the response he deserved. This slippery slope is countered easily, because marriage is a contract and non-human animals cannot sign contracts. But numerous versions of this argument exist. A Star Tribune columnist stated that marriage equality would jeopardize our ability to prohibit marriage to one’s sibling or father or to a 12-year-old. A  Community Voices essay in MinnPost predicted that marriage equality would lead to bigamy, polygamy, and group marriage, and would eliminate any legal limitations whatsoever because we “would have to accommodate everyone’s varying definitions of marriage.”

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I have written elsewhere that some slippery-slope arguments are based on an understandable premise: If we eliminate traditional standards for evaluating human action, won’t that leave us without any standards by which to govern behavior and society? But the absence of some fixed standard does not mean we will descend unimpeded into moral chaos; it means we must work to identify which standards are most reasonable given the conditions that characterize a given issue at a given time.

And while the belief in a permanent moral arbiter does make it easier to render judgments about human conduct, it also makes us less likely to consider how we might modify those judgments because of changes in knowledge and context.

They’re not analogous

The slippery slope arguments against marriage equality make sense only if gay and lesbian marriages are analogous to bigamy, polygamy, incest, and bestiality. They are not. Same-sex marriage differs from the other forms of marriage some people fear, and those other forms of marriage differ from one another. So the question of whether to allow marriages irrespective of age, family status or number of partners involves issues different from the question of whether to allow same-sex marriage, and an argument in favor of the latter is not an argument in favor of any of the former.

The historical record bears this out. Countries and states that have legalized same sex-marriage have not subsequently legalized polygamy, bigamy or sibling marriages.

Why is that? Polygamy provides an illustration. One can make numerous arguments against polygamy that have no connection to arguments about same-sex marriage. A society might determine, for example, that polygamy should be illegal because it is tied to abuse of women, statutory rape and incest, and that same sex-marriage should be legal because it confers none of these problems and a host of benefits.

Even if one makes arguments for polygamy that are related to arguments about same-sex marriage, that does not condemn us to a slippery slope. A society might determine, for example, that anti-polygamy laws disfavor one particular family structure and thus cause unfair treatment of those within that structure. This logic might lead to acceptance of polygamy, but that will not happen because we have legalized gay marriage; it will happen if we decide the logic applies to marriages with multiple partners. Polygamy and same-sex marriage are independent issues.

Slope could go in different direction

To affirm marriage equality does entail rejection of a traditional standard that some perceive to be absolute. But rejection of that standard does not mean we “would have to accommodate everyone’s varying definitions of marriage.” If we’re going to presume a slippery slope, we might presume it slides in the other direction: If we continue to allow our government to prohibit gay and lesbian people from marriage, why could it not prohibit marriage between people with sexually transmitted diseases or people with mental illnesses or people of different races?

Tennessee’s Supreme Court ruled in one marriage-equality case that to alter the definition of marriage would engage the slippery slope: “we might have in Tennessee the father living with his daughter, the son with the mother, the brother with the sister, in lawful wedlock, because they had formed such relations in a State or country where they were not prohibited. [A man] with his numerous wives, may establish [residency in Tennessee], and we are without remedy. Yet none of these are more revolting, more to be avoided, or more unnatural than the case before us.”

That case, in 1872, involved an interracial couple who wanted the right to wed. The slope hasn’t slipped since 1967, when that right was finally granted; no reason exists to presume it will slip when we finally grant marriage equality to same-sex couples who want and deserve the legal protections straight couples enjoy.

Jeffery L. Bineham is a professor of rhetoric in the Department of Communication Studies at St. Cloud State University.


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