Teaching on Same-Sex Marriage


Most colleges offer lower-level philosophy courses on contemporary moral problems, one of the aims of which is to teach students how to think philosophically about assorted social and political issues. There are more of these kinds of issues than could be covered adequately in a semester, so the instructor must select which to include, and there may be some difficult choices.

I teach this course fairly often, and as I look over the previous term’s syllabus to see how I’d update it, I face the question of whether to keep homosexual sex and same-sex marriage on the syllabus. The topics seem, to me, settled, and the controversies over them frankly silly. As far as I can tell, there are zero plausible arguments for opposing homosexual sex and zero plausible arguments for a state offering different kinds of marriage rights to homosexual and heterosexual couples. Additionally, the public opinion of the students seems to be heavily in agreement, with around three-quarters of young people in the U.S. supporting same-sex marriage (note: I take this data about public opinion to be relevant only in conjunction with the “zero plausible arguments” claim). Same sex marriage is now legal even here in South Carolina.

So far, I have kept the topics on the syllabus. In part this is because I think that some of the arguments that have been used to critique homosexual sex and same-sex marriage are highly problematic yet deployed unreflectively in various other contexts. I use these topics as excuses to discuss arguments based on the moral significance of “natural” and “unnatural” (e.g., Corvino on homosexual sex), and arguments about how the state should respond to topics over which its subjects disagree (e.g., Boonin on same-sex marriage). But at some point the topics will no longer count as “contemporary moral problems,” and they, like legal slavery, will be controversies of the past. (Does anyone teach a “historical moral problems” course? Sounds like it could be really interesting.)

Recently, a philosophy graduate student and instructor at a midwestern university confronted the question of whether to discuss same-sex marriage in class. Details are murky, based entirely on an undergraduate’s testimony, and have been reported solely in religious or right-wing news outlets which are very clearly trying to make a point rather than merely report the news, so I am refraining from linking to them. According to these reports, the instructor raised a different objection to teaching about same sex-marriage, declining to do so when it came up in passing during class. The instructor’s objection was that opposition to gay marriage is on par with racist and sexist opinions, and that, just as the expression of racist and sexist opinions would be objectionably offensive to racial minorities and women in the classroom, so, too, would the expression of anti-gay opinions be offensive to homosexual students there.*

I am curious to get others’ opinions on this. If you teach on ethical issues, do you cover these topics? Why or why not? Does potential offensiveness play a role in your decision?

*UPDATE (1/23/15): Please see this post, which corrects and expands upon the above, inaccurate description of what happened in the case of the philosophy graduate student instructor.

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