5
Dec

Fallacies of Same-Sex Marriage Polemics

   Posted by: Rob Bowman   in ethics, philosophy

In an essay on BeliefNet entitled “How I Went from There to Here: Same Sex Marriage Blogalogue,” Tony Jones explains why as a Christian (of an “emergent” point of view) he has come to defend publicly the rights of gay people to get married. There are several legitimate approaches from which one might critique Jones’s piece (biblical, theological, political, etc.), but I will focus in this post on the logical fallacies of his arguments. I am putting the focus on logic here because it turns out that these fallacies are extremely common in polemics defending same-sex relations in general and same-sex marriage in particular. I am also starting with a logical critique because, frankly, I am tired of defenders of same-sex marriage claiming that their opponents have no response other than to quote the same Bible verses over and over.

Early in his essay, Jones manages to commit three logical fallacies in one sentence (one of which is repeated twice in the following sentence). Jones reports his mother telling him when he was just seven or eight years old (emphasis in original):

I want you to know that your father and I will still love you no matter whom you love.  And you can always bring home, to our house, anyone you love.”

The first fallacy to note here is called the euphemism fallacy. It is a kind of rhetorical fallacy in which a euphemism is used in such a way as to confuse the issue. For those unfamiliar with the term, a euphemism is a more polite, circumspect, or roundabout expression for something often unmentioned in mixed company, typically having to do with bathroom functions (“visit the little girls’ room”), death (“he passed on”), or sex (“spent the night together”). There’s nothing wrong with using euphemisms, but their use as a rhetorical ploy to confuse the issue results in fallacious reasoning. Using the word love to refer to the sex act in this context does just that. Had Tony’s mother said, “…no matter with whom you choose to have sex,” or “no matter with whom you have a sexual relationship,” the meaning would have been plain but the desired rhetorical effect would have been lost. The use of the euphemism is fallacious because its purpose is to make the activity seem inoffensive and even laudable. The fallacy is ubiquitous in the abortion debate, especially when those who are “pro-choice” (Itself a euphemistic term) say that they are simply “defending a woman’s right to choose.” Who wants to oppose a woman’s right to “choose”? Likewise, who wants to reject someone because of the person he “loves”? But articulating the issue in this way confuses it. I encourage my daughter to make many choices for herself, but I do not want my daughter to “choose” to have her unborn child killed. I have “loved” plenty of women, and men, without having sexual contact or engaging in sexual activity with them.

Jones actually commits this fallacy twice in the second sentence. There is, of course, the repeated use of “love” to mean “have a sexual relationship with” in both sentences. The expression “bring home, to our house” is really another euphemism. In this context, the expression would seem to mean “have sleeping with you in our house” (and even here I am using “sleeping with you” as a more transparent euphemism for the sake of being polite).

The second fallacy illustrated in Jones’s first sentence is the fallacy known as equivocation. This is the fallacy of using a term with one apparent sense while smuggling in a second sense into the argument. The occurrence of the word love twice in the same sentence, yet with two different meanings, creates an equivocation. “Your father and I will still love you”—here “love” means to care for, to feel warmly toward, to accept and cherish. “No matter whom you love”—here “love,” as I have pointed out, means “have a sexual relationship with.” The sentence gains its apparent force as an argument for approving same-sex relationships from the equivocation in the use of the word love. Obviously, this equivocation works together with the use of the euphemism to create this rhetorical appeal.

In fairness, if Tony’s mother did say this to him when he was eight years old, we can well understand why she would choose to use euphemistic language. But Tony repeats the statement as a prelude to his argument for same-sex marriage. In that context, the use of this language beclouds the issue and is fallacious.

The third fallacy in the same sentence is a fallacy of relevance, difficult to identify any more precisely. It is an emotional appeal (similar to the classic fallacy of the appeal to pity) rather than a logical argument. One might classify this example as an instance of a non sequitur, in which a conclusion simply does not follow from the premise even though one might feel that it does. Here the premise is that a good parent will still love (care for, accept and cherish) his child even if he chooses to have a homosexual partner. The conclusion (toward which Jones is arguing) is that society ought to accept homosexual partnerships as genuine marriages. In a rhetorically slippery, emotionally charged appeal (Mom told me she would love me no matter whom I loved), the conclusion may seem to follow from the premise—but it does not. Were one of our grown children to announce that he or she had taken a same-sex partner, my wife and I would still love that child, but we would not approve of their getting married, and we certainly would not want our society to give such approval.

Another fallacy of relevance occurs in the following sentence (see if you can figure it out before reading further):

And yet, all the time I could feel myself drifting toward acceptance that gay persons are fully human persons and should be afforded all of the cultural and ecclesial benefits that I am

The fallacy of relevance here is known in logic as the straw-man fallacy. As the name indicates, it is the misstep of reasoning of caricaturing the opposing viewpoint as so flimsy or lacking in substance that it is all too easy to “knock down.” In this case, the straw-man fallacy is implicit in Jones’s statement that he was moving toward the view “that gay persons are fully human persons.” The implication here is that those who do not support gay marriage do not view gay people as fully human persons. Of course, while there may be extremists who hate all gays and view them as subhuman, such an attitude is atypical and is certainly not necessary to the view that gay marriage is unacceptable. I dare say that Jones himself thought of gays as “fully human persons” long before he decided that he was fully supportive of same-sex marriage. One need not view gays as anything less than fully human persons in order to oppose gay marriage. As a matter of fact, one may take the position (and many conservatives do) that gays should be accorded all civil rights but that no one has the right to marry a person of the same gender. Thus, opposition to gay marriage has absolutely nothing to do with the humanness of gays, and arguably nothing to do with civil rights.

In a subsequent post entitled “What Role Experience? Same Sex Marriage Blogalogue,” Jones offers the following analysis of the opposition to same-sex marriage:

The dream of modernity has died, and we need to be realistic and pragmatic as we plow into the future.  I guess I just find it strange that Douthat refers to liberals as utopians when I often find conservatives to be the uptopians [sic] — it’s just that conservatives are longing for a utopia of the past.

The above paragraph fairly screams what used to be called the appeal to modernity, though now ironically Jones and other postmodernists have one-upped the fallacy to what I suppose we will have to call the appeal to postmodernity. (Surely advocates of the traditional view of marriage as a union of a man and a woman will be surprised to learn that their view has something to do with modernity. News flash: this view antedates modernity by thousands of years!) C. S. Lewis’s more colorful expression turns out to cover both varieties of the fallacy; he referred to it as chronological snobbery. The problem with our opponents’ view, the argument goes, is that they wish to “turn back the clock” and return to a chimera golden age that never was as wonderful as they romanticize it to have been. But we can’t go back, they argue; anyone who wishes to be a grownup in our new world must accept the new truths, the new values. In short, the opponents’ view is dismissed on the grounds that it is old, tired, or stale—rather than by showing that the old view is actually false.

Please observe that it is not necessary for advocates of the traditional view of marriage to fall back on a kind of reverse chronological snobbery—what logicians call the appeal to antiquity. Jones, in effect, charges traditionalists with this very fallacy. There are two problems with this objection. First, many advocates of the traditional view base that view on something other than its antiquity—for example, on the teaching of Scripture, or on natural-law arguments. Second, the appeal to antiquity, though fallacious as a proof for one’s view, is not fallacious as the basis for assigning the burden of proof. One of the most common fallacies in reasoning is the fallacy of misplacing the burden of proof. This fallacy occurs when one side wrongly charges that the other side must bear the burden of proof in the debate. In this instance, advocates of same-sex marriage claim that opponents are wrong because there are ways around the arguments against same-sex marriage (e.g., alternate interpretations of the biblical prohibitions of homosexual conduct). Such an objection misses the point: It is really up to those who wish to overturn the traditional view of marriage to show that their position is right. That this traditional view held sway in almost all cultures and in all eras until the end of the twentieth century is a powerful argument for assigning the burden of proof to the advocates of same-sex marriage.

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This entry was posted on Friday, December 5th, 2008 at 3:29 pm and is filed under ethics, philosophy. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

10 comments so far

CT
 1 

Mr. Bowman, why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?

To suggest that Tony Jones must really have in mind loveless sex acts when he uses the term “love” seems rather biased. Though that may not be a logical fallacy on your part, it’s still dishonest, uncharitable, and intellectually irresponsible.

December 7th, 2008 at 2:33 pm
 2 

CT,

What “plank” is it that you think I need to remove?

Nowhere did I say, suggest, or imply that Jones had in mind “loveless sex acts” when he used the term “love.” Let’s stipulate that the sexual relationships to which he referred usually or even always are accompanied by loving feelings and intentions. My point still stands, namely, that using the term “love” confuses the issue. The problem is not that Bill “loves” (cares for) Bud; that’s fine. The problem is that Bill “loves” (has a sexual relationship with) Bud. The pro-homosexual polemic gets its rhetorical power by confusing the issue through its use of the word “love.” Pointing this out does not mean that gay people in sexual relationships don’t have loving feelings toward one another; they often do. But again, that isn’t the issue.

December 7th, 2008 at 6:56 pm
CT
 3 

I see. So it’d be fine to speak of gays loving each other if they only did so in a way that you approved. Are you aware that don’t own the word ‘love’?

Besides, if you were defending, let’s imagine, the permissibility of the particular sexual expressions of love between you and your wife, would you be inclined to use terms that captured the precise physical details? Let’s be honest.

December 7th, 2008 at 7:20 pm
 4 

My approval is not the issue here. My point is that reasoned discussion depends on clarity and forthrightness of expression.

To answer your second question, if the issue were the propriety of some specific form of sexual activity, we would have to refer to it in some clear way (though not necessarily in a crude or graphic manner) to have such a discussion. So yes, let’s indeed be honest.

December 7th, 2008 at 8:54 pm
CT
 5 

Mr. Bowman, what is your criteria for determining when the “euphemism fallacy” is committed, as opposed to an author’s reasonable hesitation to use language referring specifically to the sexual components of the love relationship? Remember that we are talking about rather personal and intimate issues here.

In order to later create an analogous situation that may shed some light on our present discussion, let me first ask you two questions. The details are essential. First, do you think that it is morally permissible for a husband to perform cunnilingus on his wife? Second, do you think that it is morally permissible for a husband and wife to copulate in any positions other than the classic “missionary position”?

December 7th, 2008 at 9:23 pm
 6 

CT,

Your first question is answered in my post: “It is a kind of rhetorical fallacy in which a euphemism is used in such a way as to confuse the issue.”

I do not think that your subsequent questions are relevant. If you will notice, while I criticized the misleading use of euphemisms to obscure the issues, I did not call for discussions of specific sexual acts in anatomical or graphic detail. If you proceed further down this road, I may have to censor your comments, and that would be unfortunate. If you think you can express whatever analogy you have in mind tastefully and show its relevance to my post, go ahead and try.

December 7th, 2008 at 10:32 pm
CT
 7 

Mr. Bowman, I am asking for your criteria for how you decide when “a euphemism is used in such a way as to confuse the issue” and when it is instead used quite reasonably to avoid reference to sexual components of the love relationship.

If a gay man describes his relationship with his partner as a “love” relationship, would you be tempted to accuse him of the “euphemism fallacy” if he fails to make explicit the sexual component of his love? At what point do you begin accusing him of “confusing the issue”?

The questions you refuse to answer are intended to help me test your position. You will notice that my word choice reflects an effort on my part to avoid crudeness without avoiding the specific detail, which, as I noted, is essential for use I intend make of your answers. You will also notice that all either question requires from you is a yes/no answer.

December 7th, 2008 at 11:11 pm
 8 

CT,

A gay man describing his relationship with his partner as a “love” relationship is not necessarily fallacious. The problem arises when the subject is the morality of a same-sex union and the subject is clouded by using the word “love” as a way of avoiding addressing the issue directly. Do you really not understand this?

Since you have not shown the relevance of your questions (merely stating that you are testing my position doesn’t do so), I choose not to open up another topic that could easily distract from the issue. Don’t assume by this that you know what my view is. You ought to be able to make your point without cross-examining me on my views on an unrelated subject.

December 7th, 2008 at 11:29 pm
CT
 9 

Mr. Bowman, you seem to be unaware of the possibility that you are requiring your interlocutor to walk an arbitrary line between your criticisms of the “euphemism fallacy” and your threat of censorship.

You continue to dance away from providing criteria for determining when a euphemism is used to cloud the subject, as opposed being used quite reasonably for dealing with intimate issues of a sexual nature.

December 8th, 2008 at 6:06 pm
 10 

CT,

You claimed you would not need to use crude or graphic language to make your point. I suggested you go ahead and try. It’s your move.

I utilized very specific criteria for determining when a euphemism clouds the subject. Here, I’ll state them for you more formally. (1) The euphemism is used in the context of a polemic. (2) The use of the euphemism creates a presumption in favor of a particular conclusion that would not exist if plainer language was used. Get it?

December 8th, 2008 at 10:57 pm

3 Trackbacks/Pings

  1. on Tony Jones and same sex marriage at Part of the Story    Dec 07 2008 / 8am:

    […] removing the Scripture from the conversation, Tony doesn’t make a very solid argument for why he or anyone else should change their mind on this […]

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    […] Jones’ Rhetoric Stripped Bare | Same Sex Debates Rob Bowman offers a penetrating critique of the rhetoric featured in Tony Jones’ recent posting about same-sex marriage, concluding […]

  3. Coffee Break « fresh expressions…    Dec 10 2008 / 12am:

    […] Bowman responds to Tony Jones logic in his arguments for gay marriage; “Fallacies of Same-Sex Marriage Polemics” (HT: […]

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