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Three Fallacies in the Gay Marriage Debate (Part I)

The debate over gay marriage has heated up in the past few months as it has come to the foreground of domestic politics. Iowa, Vermont, and Maine have joined Connecticut and Massachusetts in legalizing same-sex marriage. Washington, D.C. legislators voted almost unanimously to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states within the district. Meanwhile, the California Supreme Court upheld the result of its state’s voters’ decision to ban gay marriage. As gay marriage spreads throughout the union, both proponents of marriage equality and defenders of traditional marriage are fighting hard for their respective positions.

In my next two posts, I will examine three common arguments made by the traditional marriage side. While some readers may find this approach unbalanced, I focus on arguments made by this group of rhetors (a term for anyone who makes an argument) because their arguments generally arise from religious convictions concerning the institution of marriage–and the focus of this blog is the intersection of rhetoric and religion. I want to be clear that this post is not intended to demean the religious convictions of any believer. Rather, when believers enter the public sphere, they make arguments to support their convictions, and it is those arguments that are under examination here, not their personal beliefs.

The three common arguments I will examine in this two-part series are 1) the existence of two genders shows that same sex relationships are unnatural, 2) same-sex marriage advocates want to force their definition of marriage on everyone, and 3) because male-female copulation is necessary for the survival of the species, it is a fundamental and necessary aspect of the family unit. I have chosen excerpts from texts from three separate pro-traditional marriage sources–Focus on the Family, the National Organization for Marriage, and the American Family Association–to illustrate each of these arguments.

I will then analyze these excerpts using Aristotle’s foundational text on rhetoric, Rhetorica.  Specifically I will use Chapter 24 of Book II, in which Aristotle lists nine fallacious topics or arguments, what he calls “apparent enthymemes.” Enthymemes are the rhetorical equivalent of syllogisms, which are the basic unit of deduction in logic. While these fallacious arguments may be persuasive, but they remain logically invalid.

In particular, we will see three fallacious topics in this two-part series, and they correspond to the three common pro-traditional marriage arguments listed above: 1) argument from a non-necessary sign, 2) argument from exaggeration, and 3) argument from the omission of when and how. I will explain each fallacy as we go along.

For today’s post, I will focus on argument and fallacy number one, and will examine the last two arguments and fallacies in my next post.

#1 Two genders as a sign that same-sex relationships are unnatural: argument from a non-necessary sign

This first excerpt comes from the website of Focus on the Family, a highly visible conservative Christian group, most closely associated with James Dobson, which has taken a strong stand against same sex marriage. FOF argues that marriage is an institution sanctioned by God and can only be between a man and woman. One page on its website called “Marriage and Family” includes the following statements:

“The existence of two distinct genders reveals God’s design for sexuality, relationships and family. Both reflect the image of God, and both male and female are necessary for procreation and the optimal family structure for parenting children.”

The argument presented in these sentences could restated like this: That there are two genders needed for procreation demonstrates that God intended marriage, sexuality, and romantic relationships to be exclusively between men and women. The argument form could be written as such: the existence of X proves Y.

This is what Aristotle calls an argument from a non-necessary sign. Aristotle gives this example: “…Dionysius is a thief; for he is wicked. This is certainly nonsyllogistic: not every wicked man is a thief, but every thief is wicked.” In the example Aristotle provides, the rhetor argues backwards, starting from the point that Dionysius is wicked, concluding that he therefore is a thief. But as Aristotle points out, while all thieves are wicked, not all wicked people are thieves. A wicked person could be a murderer, a liar, or a tyrant. The rhetor in this example mistakenly takes Dionysius’ wickedness as a sign that he is a thief. While wickedness indicates that a person might be a thief, it could not be shown that this is necessarily so, and thus, wickedness is a non-necessary sign of being a thief. A rhetor cannot start from the premise of wickedness and conclude that a person is a thief without other evidence.

In the same way, in the argument made by FOF, while it may hold that everything God has intentionally designed exists, the reverse could hardly be proven to be true: everything that exists was intentionally designed by God. This would require one to believe that God designed cancer to ravage people’s bodies. Therefore, it cannot be argued that two genders are proof that sexual and romantic relationships must be exclusively heterosexual, anymore than cancer is proof that God intended for people to die painful and torturous deaths. Thus, we must conclude that the existence of two genders is a non-necessary sign of the parameters of marriage. This is a fallacious line of argument, and the logic is invalid.

While this is a fallacious line of argument, it is a common argument made by rhetors defending traditional marriage. Yet it’s only through open and honest dialogue with integrity, on all sides, that understanding can be had concerning this schismatic issue.

In my next post, we will explore two more common arguments made by the traditional marriage side and see why they too are argumentatively fallacious.


14 thoughts on “Three Fallacies in the Gay Marriage Debate (Part I)

  1. Way to go Mr. Camper.

    I am gratified to see reason at work in your post. So frequently, for lack of the proper language or a way of expressing feeling that provides justification for belief, those who “argue” for same sex marriage fall back on emotional arguments that are weak or lacking in substance. They are convicted and passionate but what is required to persuade is missing.

    In this post (and the one’s to follow I hope)you give language and weight to these feelings.

    This is not only good exposition but provides those of us who have been arguing for years on behalf of same sex marriage a new tool in our tool box. I am always grateful to have a way to say old “things” newly but in this case you are giving me new ways to approach an old argument.

    If Yogi Berra were here he might even say “You can see a lot just by observing.”

    You have taken your observations and applied your craft to them very effectively. Good form.

    Posted by Mike F. | June 2, 2009, 1:36 pm
  2. Great to have you as part of CC Blogs. Look forward to reading your work. Welcome!

    Posted by D C Cramer | June 2, 2009, 2:10 pm
  3. Just wanted to welcome you to the CC Blogs fellowship. If this post is representative of your thoughts and other writing then I look forward to coming back often. The gay marriage debate is terribly fascinating and personal to me as an evangelical with a gay brother. I appreciate this post on another level as a student of rhetoric in my undergrad work. Thanks for sharing!

    Posted by rogueminister | June 2, 2009, 4:51 pm
  4. Your argument shows the Achilles heel in “Natural Law ethics” — trying to read norms out of Nature always depends on reading a certain normativity into a sign.

    Having done so, you’ve also blown a hole in a common pro-gay argument: I was born this way, so it must be morally OK. This also reads a particular sign (innateness) as evidence of normativity.


    Posted by Jeff Cagle | June 2, 2009, 9:48 pm
    • Ditto all the praise for Mr Camper!

      Jeff, I think you’re misreading the ‘born that way’ argument – as I understand it, it goes more like this: ‘I was born this way (or ‘a god made me this way’), therefore it is morally neutral’.

      Starting from this position, an attempt to declare homosexuality immoral would then founder on similar fallacies to those mentioned by Mr Camper.

      Posted by Pól Ó Cionnaith | June 3, 2009, 12:43 pm
      • Thanks, Pol.

        Your response raises two questions immediately:

        (1) Is it really the case that the argument runs, “I was born this way; therefore, it’s morally neutral”?

        I’ve never heard anyone argue for strict moral neutrality before. Rather, always it has been an argument from subjective validation: These are my feelings and sexual desires, and I am validated in expressing who I am.

        That appears (to me, at least) to be an argument from the nature of things — i.e., my desires — to the moral validity of my actions.

        Can you point me to a source who argues for moral neutrality?

        (2) How would such an argument run? Martin’s point is to demolish the notion that we can “read out” moral norms from nature.

        Assuming he has successfully done so, I can’t see how reading out moral neutrality could be any more successful than reading out moral reprobation.

        In short,

        “It’s against nature, so it’s wrong”

        is no more valid than

        “It’s within nature, so it’s permissible.”

        Posted by Jeff Cagle | June 17, 2009, 3:35 pm
    • Dear Mr. Cagle,

      You’re right to point out that both arguments–pro-gay and pro-traditional marriage–are arguments from non-necessary signs. We can use neither to arrive at a moral code for sexuality.

      Sometimes the pro-gay argument you mentioned is produced in response to charges that being gay is a choice or that only heterosexuality is natural. If the debate over the morality of homosexuality rests on it being a choice or innate, then this would be an appropriate argument.

      To be fair to the pro-traditional marriage argument, such an argument is sometimes supported with quotes from religious texts, as Jeremy mentions below, depending on the audience. However, it seems that an increasing number of people find the traditional interpretations of these verses insufficient reason to condemn homosexuality.

      Posted by K. M. Camper | June 5, 2009, 6:36 pm
  5. Hi Martin,

    I agree with your conclusion though don’t necessarily follow your reasoning in light of Leviticus 18:22 and elsewhere. For those who see the Bible as the literal word of God and marriage as a sacrament, Aristotelian logic won’t be instructive. For me, respect for the dignity and the subjectivity of the other and loving acceptance of difference trumps traditional morality; but not everyone sees it that way.


    Posted by Jeremy | June 3, 2009, 2:04 pm
    • Hi Jeremy,

      You make an great point and I actually don’t disagree. My intention with this post is not to dissuade those on the pro-traditional marriage side, but rather analysis. Within a religious setting, e.g. in the context of a sermon, verses suchas Leviticus 18:22 would likely be used as part of an argument against gay marriage or homosexuality.

      However, for a wider audience, rhetors tend to appeal to traditional morality or “common sense.” While Focus on the Family is a religious (Christian) organization, in its efforts to preserve the marriage status quo, it must persuade people who may not find Bible verses particularly convincing. To do so, FOF turns to arguments like the one mentioned in this post.

      Posted by K. M. Camper | June 5, 2009, 7:16 pm
  6. Martin,

    Thanks for a thoughtful blog post. I have quite a few thoughts in response and would like to wrestle with your arguments a bit here.

    Regarding your example of Dionysius, while I agree that Dionysius’s wickedness is not a sufficient explanation for his thievery, this nevertheless does not exclude wickedness from being a potential cause of his thievery. It is reasonable to suggest that a man’s lack of scruples may (perhaps in conjunction with other factors, such as apparent need and opportunity) be relevant to his criminal habit, regardless of its relevance to the particularities of its expression.

    In the same way, even though the existence of two sexes (and particularly the necessity of two sexes for procreation) is not alone sufficient to prove that heterosexuality is God’s design for humans, it cannot be altogether dismissed as irrelevant. The argument as FOF puts it may be invalid, but the non-necessary sign itself is not eliminated from still being potentially instructive.

    Also, if the presupposition at work in the FOF argument is “that everything that exists was intentionally designed by God” (you don’t directly say this, but I think it’s what you mean to say), your extrapolation of it in the cancer example seems logically unfounded. “That everything exists was intentionally designed by God” does not “require one to believe that God designed cancer to ravage people’s bodies.” It simply requires one to believe that God designed cancer (or designed a world in which cancer could be produced). Period.
    The fact of cancer’s existence and creation by God says nothing about potentially malicious reasons for it. At the very least, it says that God is a God who permits (and necessarily creates, even if indirectly) disease and suffering. Let’s not be hasty in bringing the conversation to theodicy before it’s fair game.

    At the end of the day, I think you are correct in saying that the existence of two sexes is regularly used to “prove” much more than it is logically capable of proving; that said, let’s not forget the empirical observations we’re working with when dismantle the arguments that are using them poorly.

    Forgive me for the length of this, and please feel free to correct any errors I might have made in this response. I’ll look forward to reading your future posts.

    Posted by Julie Draper | June 6, 2009, 1:49 pm
    • Dear Julie,

      Thanks for your thoughtful response to my post!

      In regards to the Dionysius example, neither Aristotle (I think) nor myself would argue that wickedness is not a cause for thievery. The point is that someone’s wickedness alone is not sufficient evidence to prove that he or she is a thief. It is a logical leap, and thus unfounded. In a court of law, such reasoning would not hold up. One would need physical evidence and eyewitness accounts to draw such a conclusion. And in a court of law, the particular expression of criminality makes all the difference: shall you sentence the accused to a year in prison or to death?

      If the existence of two genders is to be instructive in terms of sexual norms, or in the particular context of this post, the legal definition of marriage, then one must turn to other evidence, other lines of argument, more comprehensive ways of looking at the world, that would explain the existence of two genders, such that it would be instructive. Alone, the existence of two genders can tell us very little about sexuality and marriage.

      Let me be clear about the cancer example: I provided it for the purpose of analogy. It is the same argument to suggest that the existence of two genders proves that only men and women were designed to be in sexual, romantic, and marital union with one another, as it is to suggest that the existence of cancer means that dying a death from out of control cells was designed by God. Both arguments read intention into existence. But as you rightly point out, one need not believe that God intended for people to die from cancer. However, in the same light, the former argument is insufficient too. We need not see two genders as a prescription for sexuality and marriage.

      Posted by K. M. Camper | June 8, 2009, 5:34 pm


  1. Pingback: Three Fallacies in the Gay Marriage Debate (Part II) « Religious Rhetorics - June 16, 2009

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