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.
I’m actually covering it today in a contemporary moral problems class, and I have the same reservations you have. We’re reading Jonathan Rauch’s “Who Needs Marriage”, but the usual course of this day in class leads to a meta-discussion of why a textbook selection on the ethics of sex inevitably covers just homosexuality, and not questions like what the boundaries of rape are, what the boundaries of cheating are (they usually have a vested interest in that one), etc., etc. I’m actually going to print out this little blog post and incorporate it into our meta-discussion.Report
I’ve wondered about this over the years myself. I can say that the classroom dynamics have changed a bit since I started teaching this material. At this point, most students are either okay with “homosexuality” (though they sometimes don’t quite understand what that means) or are sufficiently aware that one ought not say despicable things in public. I suspect that, moving forward, I’m more inclined to substitute a “structural violence” unit that covers material like racism, sexism, heterosexism, and ableism. (I guess this means that I would ratify the point made by the instructor in the penultimate paragraph of this blog post.)
The other alternative that I’ve toyed with (assuming that I’d be keeing in the broad category of desire) is substituting critiques of the institutional expectation of life-long, monogamous marriage.Report
I’m not sure that I agree with you about this; to say that all arguments in opposition of same-sex marriage and homosexual activity are deeply problematic I think is too strong. The problem is that many of the arguments—ones that I would consider good arguments—rest on premises that have been largely rejected by many academics over the course of the last century. Likewise, most college-educated Americans and Europeans have adopted an understanding of the concept of marriage that is really quite novel in Western History. It does follow from this new concept of marriage (“consent-based marriage,” to use Justice Alito’s phrase) that there is no reason to prevent homosexual couples from entering into it—but this is not to say that this new concept of marriage is right in the first place. It is the starting premises on which we disagree, and I find that many academics do just as poor of a job in examining the rational basis for these first principles as many undergraduates do.
Perhaps the best way to teach an issue like this is to show how our understanding of the concepts surrounding the issue have changed; after all, these changes have been historically interesting. The abolition of slavery took centuries; the curbing of racism is still an ongoing project. And yet the collective Western understanding of marriage and sexual ethics has completely reversed in the course of a few decades? I cannot help but treat such a sweeping change with philosophical suspicion before we herald it as the victory of enlightened thinking—it seems to be a great display of hubris to think that a certain tradition of marriage and sexual ethics that have existed for millennia have been sustained for so long with “zero plausible arguments” behind them.
But the point is this; it does not follow from the fact that many academics have rejected the starting premises upon which arguments against same-sex marriage and homosexual activity are built that such premises are unfounded or wrong (and I’m not talking about premises about the reality of divine commands, I mean certain premises concerning human nature and the nature of morality itself). To answer the questions raised above—perhaps a “history of ethics” class would be a more appropriate setting to deal with such an issue, a class which looked at the underlying presuppositions of a given moral tradition; I think many of our moral debates make little sense without such context, and it is unfair to our students to treat certain issues, the truth or falsity of which rests on the truth or falsity of that tradition’s first principles, as settled. Surely we have not established the truth of Utilitarianism, or Kantianism, or Natural Law Theory, or the presence or absence of natural teleology, etc.Report
Michael, you write: “it does not follow from the fact that many academics have rejected the starting premises upon which arguments against same-sex marriage and homosexual activity are built that such premises are unfounded or wrong.” That is correct, as far as it goes, but I don’t think it goes very far. I don’t take “the fact that many academics have rejected the starting premises” of such arguments as my reason for thinking that such premises are wrong (though that may count as fairly strong, if defeasible, evidence). Rather, I take the premises to be unfounded or wrong because, having looked at them, they seem to be unfounded or wrong. And for many of them, even if they were granted, the path from them to the wrongness of homosexual activity or marriage is full of giant leaps (so it is not necessarily the case that professors like me are treating “first principles… as settled”). But perhaps I have in mind different arguments than you do. Feel free to put up one of the “good arguments” you refer to.Report
I don’t have the expertise or standing to speak directly to this question. But a related, alternative topic to consider teaching is whether marriage should be a state institution at all.
Some think marriage is inherently discriminatory, a way of imposing unwarranted norms on relationships of sex, finance, cohabitation, child-rearing, love, etc. Is state-regulated marriage a way for the state to control, through normalization and privilege, which configurations of these separate dimensions must go together?
Much of the fight for same-sex marriage in the U.S. has been a fight to sanction previously prohibited configurations. The arguments have often been arguments that some of these dimensions are more independent than previously presumed. A natural next step in the dialectic is to examine the extent to which these separate dimensions should be treated independently in general. Which other prohibited configurations should not be prohibited, and is the whole enterprise misconceived from the get-go?
Michael Warner’s _The Trouble With Normal_ offers an accessible discussion of this topic, and of the historical debate within the gay rights movement over whether to fight for same-sex marriage, rather than against marriage altogether.Report
Last time I checked, abortion is legal, lots of people find the anti-abortion view objectionably sexist, and most academics are lefties who support abortion rights. Should we not teach abortion either? It’s true that in the general population there is more support for anti-abortion views than same sex marriage views. But these things shift.
I do think think that reasonable persons can disagree about what marriage is for, just as they can disagree about what sex is for. For instance, when I teach this topic I include arguments against same sex marriage from within the LGBT community (can we stop pretending these don’t exist?), and I always include Elizabeth Brake’s fascinating work. She is against same sex marriage in the sense that she thinks is very arbitrary to limit marriage to two persons (same sex or opposite sex), and she thinks that marriage should be “minimal” in her explicitly defined sense which has to do with rights exchanged, how, and why. For her, the current regime is still unjust. I think it is very strange to think that these arguments aren’t worth considering. I also usually teach the article “What is Marriage?” by George, Girgis, and Anderson, as it compliments the Brake nicely. Both the traditional and minimal marriage view see the current regime of two person, genderless marriage as incoherent (though for very different reasons). I think one of the reasons why the topic seems stale is that it is often framed as just the question of whether marriage is a gendered institution, and then tired, dated readings are drawn upon. But the debate is far more interesting than that.
None of these arguments I’ve cited rely on disparaging views about LGBT persons (the closest you get is the George, Girgis, and Anderson piece, which does rely on social science data at the end that purports to state that opposite sex parenting is superior along some dimensions; I usually skip that because I don’t think that social science should settle the issue and it doesn’t touch their central arguments). All of them trade on what marriage is and why society should go in for marriage at all. Given that “millenials” do not aspire to marriage in great numbers like previous generations, that seems like a conversation worth having.
I have found that my discussions of these topics have gone over really well. Having said that, it makes sense to me that people might choose other topics to discuss, and I could see this dropping off the syllabus every now and again in order to make space for something that is more relevant.Report
Just to be clear, I said, “zero plausible arguments for a state offering different kinds of marriage rights to homosexual and heterosexual couples. ” That is compatible with critiques of marriage as a social institution and as a personal choice.Report
Justin, to use a fairly uncontroversial case we can take the issue of marriage. If you begin with the assumption that marriage is simply a committed relationship between two consenting persons in some given social context, then something like “marriage equality” will follow. If you begin with the assumption that marriage is ordered towards the education of the new human lives produced by the union of the partners involved, then something like “traditional marriage” will follow. Perhaps I’m missing something, but I don’t see how we can settle which of these two concepts of marriage is “right.” (I should note, to avoid confusion, that I do believe that the immorality of homophobia is a different matter, something I think we can all agree on.)
One way of addressing this dilemma would be to make the underlying assumptions clear. e.g. “Given Mill’s harm principle…,” or “Given that we’re talking about policy within a liberal democratic state,” or “given this teleological understanding…” etc. So perhaps this is my own skepticism talking—except for the second of these, which has no moral weight, I don’t see any of these as “given.”
And when I said “good arguments,” I’m not talking about thoroughly convincing arguments—I simply mean valid arguments, the premises of which are at least somewhat plausible (and even then, perhaps plausible given certain presuppositions about human nature, the nature of morality, and so forth). My complaint was just that the best arguments that I’ve seen for both sides of this debate begin with such different presuppositions about the nature of morality, metaphysics, and meta-ethics that it would be difficult to present the matter as settled, especially since it is hard to deny that many of these presuppositions are historically contingent.Report
Michael writes: “If you begin with the assumption that marriage is ordered towards the education of the new human lives produced by the union of the partners involved, then something like “traditional marriage” will follow.” Two quick points. First, a definition of marriage is not a first principle or presupposition, but presumably justified on the basis of prior normative or other philosophical considerations, so it doesn’t quite have the feel of intractability that I think you mean for it to. In other words, no philosopher should start by *assuming* that “marriage is ordered towards the education of the new human lives produced by the union of the partners involved.” But second, even if we grant that assumption it is not clear how traditional marriage follows from that at all. Traditional marriage allows the infertile to wed. Or, to take the long view, it seems fairly plausible that human cloning or something like it is in our future, and at that point new human lives will be able to be produced by a union of same-sex partners.Report
I quit teaching the mainstream same-sex marriage debate several years ago. As the OP said, the main issues aren’t terribly compelling and the mainstream moral debate is long over. But the main reason I cut it out of the syllabus is that there was no real disagreement among my students. About 95% of them supported same-sex marriage, and the other 5% was either too bashful to speak up or knew their side was going to lose the policy debate. The students found the topic dull. If I were at a school where students are still interested, maybe I’d add it back to the syllabus.
The last couple of times I taught Intro to Ethics, I used articles from folks like Claudia Card to turn the debate into, “should we have a marriage system at all?” – as Jonathan Weisberg advised above.Report
I agree that there are zero plausible arguments against same sex marriage. But I think there are also zero plausible arguments for free will and for compatiblism, as well as zero plausible arguments for the existence of God. I’d happily stop teaching all of them. But I probably shouldn’t do so on those grounds.
The problem with a “zero plausible arguments” claim is that it is inevitably question-begging, it’s a measure not of argument quality but of consolidation of opinion–my own and its strength of reinforcement by others. I may be right, or I may just be emotionally incapable of seeing past what my views on these points. But since I see *zero* plausibility, I have no distance, no external vantage point from which to honestly assess the my own evaluation of plausibility. And public opinion doesn’t tell us what *ought* to be deemed plausible, Galileo.
One reason to continue teaching it, even if we’re right that it’s a finished debate, is the only Millsian routine about how learning false views help us understand why true ones are true. Another is that there are still many students not in that majority who might be better persuaded if there prior views are treated as worthy of rational debate, opening them up to arguments they wouldn’t have otherwise considered.
On the other hand, I think it’s perfectly possible that 1) public agreement may reach a point of such consensus that students on our side will be offended at there being a debate while students on the other will be so entrenched that the debate will only deepen their entrenchment and, more important, 2) it may be best on issues like this one for us to promote a *non-philosophical*, instinctive belief rather than a reasoned one: we really ought to by default thoughtlessly and immediately fail to discriminate against other human beings, rather than do so dutifully in accordance with thoughtfully reasoned arguments.Report
“The problem with a ‘zero plausible arguments’ claim is that it is inevitably question-begging.” I don’t understand why. I’ve considered the arguments. I have concluded, to the best of my ability, that they have zero plausibility. Mine is an informed, reasoned view that does not start with the premise that same-sex marriage, or any kind of marriage, should be permissible. Where is the question-begging?
That said, I agree with the Millian and pedagogical points you make.Report
I’ve only been teaching for a few years, so there’s no “still” for me, but I decided not to teach about same-sex marriage – and even took textbooks out of the running for including certain papers about it – for roughly the reasons suggested by this mystery instructor. In any given class, the odds are excellent that some of my students are LGBTQ+, and I don’t want to risk seeming to give credence to arguments that call for denying them their rights.
This may partly be a function of my teaching style – I try make the case for each argument as strongly as I can, and mostly leave the fault-finding to the students. While some classes readily spot the weaknesses in bad arguments, others don’t, and I don’t want to create an environment where students may be left thinking that I, or the institution of academic philosophy in general, may think it acceptable to deny them rights. (I suppose it may also depend on one’s student body. I would feel better about teaching this topic at the very queer-friendly SLAC I attended as an undergrad than I would at the midwestern state school I now teach at. The risk of exacerbating marginalization of students seems less in a place where LGBTQ+ are more accepted and where the students in general are more likely to see the faults in the arguments.)
I feel that there is a disanalogy between arguments on same-sex marriage and arguments on abortion, in that pro-life arguments for abortion do not generally rely on premises that explicitly undermine the rights of women. Implicitly, yeah, but The Main Arguments that show up in moral problems texts on the pro-life side are all about the fetus and its qualities; they don’t have premises that effectively say that women are worthless (they often ignore the woman entirely). By contrast, a significant portion of the papers against same-sex marriage that show up in these texts do rely on premises that amount to “homosexuality is bad.”
Maybe my classes would dig right in and find the problems with these arguments, but given that there is no shortage of other topics to discuss, I choose not to include this one.Report
SSL raises some interesting issues. In particular, I like the way SSL frames it as an issue about the impact of one’s syllabus choices (i.e. as potentially exacerbating marginalization), rather than whether people are offended. When I assign articles that critique marriage as an institution, some students are offended and I think that’s a good thing. A small selection of students across the political spectrum (e.g. both conservatives who want more traditional institutions and students who are very pro-same sex marriage) are offended, and utilized properly, being offended can motivate them to become very interested in the arguments. On the other hand, if the articles are contributing to marginalization, that’s a very bad thing I think we should avoid.Report
Discussing things like same-sex marriage can be beneficial insofar as it gets us thinking about marriage more generally. For a long time it was assumed that a union between one man and one woman is necessary for marriage. But not anymore. That raises an important question: what is, if anything, necessary for marriage? Two and only two people? No close family relations? Sex? As Prof. Frey mentioned above, Elizabeth Brake’s work challenges us to think through each of these things in a principled way, especially since we (vaguely) assume that the state has no right to legislate a comprehensive morality concerning the most personal and intimate relationships of its citizens (which raises another question: why should the state care about the marriages of its citizens?) I say this in light of experiencing good class discussion about these topics just this semester; I really thought it was going to be a waste of time, and it wasn’t.Report
Maybe question-begging wasn’t the best way to describe it. But it’s common in any philosophical debate that participants find the arguments on the other side implausible, so it seems that the “zero plausibility” rule would be too effective at disqualifying too many philosophical debates. I’m inclined to think that when philosophers admit the plausibility of their opponents’ arguments, this is usually false modesty, and even if not, it’s just a matter of degree, so I’m not sure how we decide when the degree reaches zero.
My sense is that there’s also a big difference between a carefully informed and reasoned opinions that an argument is false but plausible and that it’s completely implausible. My sense is that the latter is usually more emotionally invested and less reliable, since in the former case I probably have some sympathy with the view, and am able to take up a vantage point on my own view that is relatively external — giving me some distance and neutrality. Whereas when I find an argument absolutely implausible, I’m so emotionally unsympathetic to it that I lose any distance, and so I have more reason to distrust my self-assessment that my conclusion is rationally rather than emotionally motivated.
More simply put: I’m not sure I can have a reasoned view that something is *totally implausible*. Or, if I can, I’m not sure I can reasonably know when that is the case.
But in the end, I’d probably not teach it again, just because I don’t want to give students the false impression that I consider discriminatory views reasonable and because I worry there’s not enough benefit to outweigh the unfair feeling LGBT students may have of being in the position of defending themselves in a spotlight to the class or the teacher.Report
Justin, your comments are well-taken. So to make my concern more precise: take something like the inherent fecundity of heterosexual intercourse (I’m sure you’re familiar with such claims; they frequent the arguments you critique). The question is whether or not this plays some role in our normative or other philosophical considerations concerning marriage and sexual ethics. The real disagreement (in my experience) is not whether such claims are true or false (many seem to be truisms), but whether they are relevant to our discussions about sexual ethics and marriage in the first place.
Anyways, thanks for your feedback and keep up the good work with the site.Report
There is a consensus among academics that this matter is settled, but even here it isn’t as strong as most people would like to think (Full disclosure: I’m a philosopher who opposes same-sex marriage). Case in point: The 6th Circuit, which has jurisdiction over four states, recently upheld a gay marriage ban, creating a circuit split over the question. You also still have an entire political party whose platform includes opposition to same-sex marriage. The legal battle is far from over, even if given current trends it will be decided in favor of same-sex marriage. So among the general public, it’s still very much an open question.Report
What with it now being virtually impossible for students to openly oppose gay marriage, even where I live (suburban Dallas), I do think the instructor has to help the “anti” side articulate something half way coherent. The best I can do is offer the “anti” minority the idea that same-sex marriage will tend to normalize the ways that same-sex couples reproduce, when they wish to reproduce–i.e. with donor gametes and/or a gestational surrogate. Those methods are used by heterosexual couples too, but they are clearly regarded as second best in that context. In the context of same sex marriage, those methods become standard, par for the course. The “anti” argument then has to say something about why this is such a serious problem that same sex marriage shouldn’t be legal. I don’t think this is a good argument in the end, but I think it’s at least better than any of the following: simplistic appeals to naturalness, emotional reactions of disgust, the idea that gay marriages harm other marriages, the idea that marriage is just for procreation, the idea that same sex marriage opens the door to polygamy, and the ol’ “next thing they’ll be marrying their pets” argument. If there’s no argument against gay marriage worth thinking about for more than 3 minutes, then I do think the topic stops being worth teaching.Report
The last time I taught Intro to Ethics, I covered same-sex marriage, despite sharing the OP’s concerns, because it allowed me to further two of my course-wide goals–promoting philosophical discussion outside the classroom, and helping my students learn how to identify and evaluate arguments.
Since various court cases were in the news at the time, it seemed somewhat likely that students might discuss the topic amongst their peers, and perhaps with their families as well. Even though the arguments on the anti- side are not that great, these are the arguments that, say, one’s grandmother or uncle might give for why they oppose same-sex marriage. I think it’s good for students to understand why grandma or Uncle Joe’s argument isn’t good, and to be prepared to have a dialogue with them about why.
Further, I tend to agree with the OP that the arguments are not particularly good on the anti- side of the debate, but since they’re also not very complicated, they’re great fodder for students to practice formulating arguments and assessing them. I think it’s helpful for students to see WHY arguments against same-sex marriage are not very good, and even better, to be able to articulate this themselves.
So even if same-sex marriage seems like a debate that’s basically over, I think there’s still some value to be had in covering it in an ethics course. At some point, that will probably cease to be the case, but I’m not sure we’re quite there just yet.Report
“But these things shift.”
Actually, I still teach abortion precisely because it seems like that is an issue where, frankly, things haven’t shifted. Take a look at this Gallup study on historical trends in abortion stances (Gallup Study on Abortion) . Very little movement in the last 40 years.
Contrast that with the historical trends on gay and lesbian rights (Gallup Study on Gay/Lesbian Rights) . Here we see a huge uptick in support in the last 15 years.
So although it is correct that “these things shift” when applied to Gay/Lesbian rights, it seems wrong to say that about abortion (assuming these Gallup trends are even close to accurate). Rather, abortion has seemed to be pretty intractable in a way that it doesn’t seem Gay/Lesbian rights has been.
This just seems a relevant disanalogy to me, one that might justify teaching abortion over Gay/Lesbian rights.Report
I see (at least) two distinct questions here. The first is: are there anti- arguments that are philosophically “good enough” to be worth teaching in such courses? I guess I’m inclined to think that there are some, though I have some sympathy for the view that none of them ultimately meet that bar. But let’s suppose that some of them do. The second question is: are any of them so good that you can’t easily fill an entire semester with other arguments, about other topics, where the arguments are better / more worthwhile and the topics are more genuinely up for debate today and more likely to generate productive and engaged discussion among today’s college students? Here, I’m quite strongly inclined to think that the answer is no. It’s not so much that all of the anti- arguments are really so bad — though maybe they are. It’s mostly that there are so many other contemporary moral problems about which so much better has been written.Report
I teach the debate under the banner of the ethics of assimilation – and so with respect to gay marriage the question becomes whether there is any value in gay assimilation. Currently my anti-assimilation go to text is still Michael Warner (a chapter from The Trouble with Normal). I considered switching to Claudia Card, but I still like the Warner, even though it is very dated by now (he refers to gay marriage becoming legal as very unlikely).
Part of my reason for not teaching the “traditional” debate is because I like every text I assign to correlate with a potential paper topic, such that students can take up and defend the perspective of the author if they choose. I would never want to provide a platform for someone to argue in a paper that gay marriage is morally wrong, so I can’t assign any texts to that effect either, even if I only critique them.Report
“I would never want to provide a platform for someone to argue in a paper that gay marriage is morally wrong”
Am I reading this correctly – a student in your class is not permitted to defend a position contrary to yours? Or are you saying something else?Report
When I teach “Contemporary Moral Problems” type classes, I think it’s important to cover issues that are either ongoing controversies with tremendous staying power (abortion, capital punishment, gun control) or relatively recent controversies (SSM, drug war, surveillance state, GMO crops). Both sorts are _contemporary_ moral problems, as opposed to the way that no one actually advocates racial superiority or women’s suffrage. I would not teach those two in that kind of class.Report
I no longer teach this issue, but for a reason different than any I’ve seen given so far. I teach in the South, and many of my intro-ethics students come from religious backgrounds in which interpretive conventions lean toward reading Christian revelatory texts as forbidding homosexual marriage. I had three strategies for engaging these students, and they all failed to such an extent that I felt I could not have a good discussion without either turning the class in the direction of theological hermeneutics or else doing violence to my students’ religious identities.
Here were my strategies: 1-Talk about divine command theory, and familiar arguments against it. Failure here came from students advancing weaker or fuzzier versions of DCT, and not feeling the pull to have God’s commands cause morality as opposed to merely correlate with morality. 2-Distinguish between the issue of homosexual marriage and the issue of legalizing homosexual marriage (where scripture is less relevant). Failure here came from students being unable to sustain the distinction, and tendencies to read scripture as giving legal advice. 3- Request that students refrain from giving arguments based upon religious texts, on the grounds of my lacking a degree giving me expertise to assess those arguments. Failure here came from papers in which the students provide secular arguments they know are bad, followed by testimony about doubting whether we could find moral guidance apart from (their) religion.
Apart from these difficulties, I also became uncomfortable with the way class discussions tended to “other” the people most affected by legislation about marriage–and I guess I feel this way in general about many discussions on the ‘big’ social issues, and have struggled to figure out how to prevent this from happening. My general approach has been to avoid these hot-button macro-level ethical issues in favor of meso-level issues relevant to our local community–homeless people under our highway and their treatment by police, refusal of some realty agents to advertise housing in racially-mixed parts of town, decisions to choose a house based on school district when district correlates with race and economic class, widespread child poverty among elementary school students, and so on. But this is slow going, because the anthologies provide little to no guidance, and I am
not an ethicist by training.Report
To the extent that these courses deal with moral “problems” perhaps it doesn’t make sense to cover a topic that no longer qualifies as a controversy to be taken seriously. Nevertheless, I can see why a conservative religious philosopher might want to teach same-sex marriage as a moral problem in the same way that an economic liberal might want to teach economic inequality as a moral problem, viz., to draw attention to the fact that it is a problem (in the sense of being immoral, not in the sense of being a controversy). If same sex marriage is neither seriously controversial nor morally problematic, then perhaps time is better spent on other issues.Report
This post is scandalously risible. It is, after all, expected of those in academia to keep abreast of the strongest arguments for positions that they present in class. It’s curious, then, that you should fail to even be aware of the work of the most qualified defenders of the conjugal view of marriage, e.g. Dr. Robert P. George, Ryan T. Anderson, Sherif Girgis, Patrick Lee, etc., etc. And then there are all of the arguments that have been presented to the effect that sodomy is immoral, e.g. Edward Feser, George, Lee, St. Thomas Aquinas, et al. of which surely you are also not aware. Notice too the hubris with which you make these risible pronouncements that support for conjugal marriage is akin to slavery. The very thought that, for thousands of years and for virtually all civilizations until the 1990’s, marriage has been understood to be between a man and a woman in order to “stick it” to homosexuals is preposterously absurd and is comparable to the most far-fetched of conspiracy theories. This was even the case in societies wherein (i) homosexual actions we permitted, and (ii) wherein no concept of a “homosexual” identity existed. So how can this possibly be due to bigotry? The thought may evidently not have crossed your mind, but have you considered that perhaps male-female unions are radically different from male-male or female-female relationships, and that it is perfectly reasonable and just to treat different things differently? Isn’t it also curious that support for the something as absurd as same-sex “marriage” has come about after the production and mass-availability of contraception?Report
Carlos, I’m fairly sure that Justin has read all those arguments, else I doubt he would have written the post in the way he did.Report
I taught it for the first time this term (I teach queer issues, but this is the first time I did marriage equality). I was surprised by how much of a non-issue it was for most students. And yet I don’t think that’s good enough reason to stop teaching it. While for many of them, they’ve settled the question of gay marriage, they still aren’t generally well equipped with arguments to respond to the anti-marriage equality arguments. So I think it’s a useful exercise to work with them in class on handling the (admittedly terrible) arguments against marriage equality. It’s also useful to arm them with good counter-arguments to the most ‘popular’ arguments against marriage equality. We had a lot of fun, and I think they got a lot out of it. For reading, I used the Corvino/Gallagher book.Report
I don’t teach this (1) because it isn’t safe for me: (a) Antigay students will take it out on the student evaluations; (b) the faculty in my department includes anti-gay members (no I wouldn’t say that if it were merely a matter of opposition to marriage equality–I think that’s a heterosexist position, but it takes more than that to make one anti-gay); (c) It is increasingly the habit of the discriminatory to use student evaluations and otherwise unreliable and ambiguous feedback (or such as can be made to appear ambiguous) about teaching to try and stop promotions of faculty where such a case cannot be made on the basis of research. Every lbgt person reading this blog should be wary of such possibilities.
If this were a topic with substantive arguments on ‘the other side’–arguments that, for instance, were at least serious enough to not deserve the ridicule Richard Posner so rightly directed towards them in his 7th Circuit opinion, then I might take the risk anyway. If there were such arguments, I might encourage straight folks to do so. There are no such arguments. We signal in our choice controversies we teach what arguments are to be taken as serious contenders for our allegiance. Even if I were straight, and safe, I would no more teach the arguments ‘against’ marriage equality than I would teach young-earth theories. Less likely, because real people with real lives immediately at stake (the non-straight students in our classes) when one takes seriously that which does not deserve to be taken seriously in this arena.Report
What is the best (optimally non-question-begging) argument in favor of recognizing same-sex marriage, then? You all seem a bit too confident in your comments here. Please don’t respond with “love is love.” Please.Report
Carlos, are you asking for a knock-down argument, or for an argument in which all of the central terminology is well-understood (e.g., not metaphysically loaded) and all of the central claims are too (e.g., can be illustrated with obviously apt examples), or something elsewhere? And why ask for this, when the issue is whether there are any good arguments against recognizing same-sex marriage, rather than whether there are any good arguments in favor or whether there are any good arguments against the good arguments in favor?Report
Is it to be believed that a view that was Obama’s official position during his 2008 campaign (and was his official position until 2012) is now, two years later, so obviously without merit that it cannot even be fairly presented in a philosophy course?Report
Carlos Flores, there is quite a large literature there (particularly if we include the best arguments against those particular authors’ positions that you cite), so it’s difficult to know where to begin. But, if you are unfamiliar with arguments in favor of same-sex marriage beyond “love is love”, I would suggest starting with some of the basics, like John Corvino’s work on this topic.Report
love is love.Report
I had a very similar problem last week. The context was a little different however as I teach Contemporary Christian Ethics. My class are quite liberally minded and usually very respectful of the opinions of others, but last week I had a student who went a little off topic and claimed that he thought “most Christians are opposed to the idea transgender identity and notions of fluid sexuality because God created male and female strictly different”. I had great difficulty in knowing what a good response to this would be for a number of reasons:
1. Do I say, this comment is offensive and breaches a safe space policy in the classroom
2. Its bad academic practice to make sweeping generalisations with no evidence
3. That there may be a place for this argument to be made academically but its is currently off topic
4. That, theologically speaking, I think their argument is incorrect
Basically, do I make the comment acceptable to be replied to on an academic level, rather than condemning it outright as offensive? And if so, does this mean that there will never be an academic opportunity to reply to the student’s comments and challenge their view intellectually. In general I think I am in favour with the latter, but I do not think this conversation is appropriate in classroom with lots of others who might potentially feel victimised by the comment (that and I also wish to make it clear that even if there are none in the room who are offended, this and similar victimising comments are generally unacceptable). Any thoughts on this matter would be greatly appreciated as I am still trying to think of the correct response.
As it was, a fellow student continued the discussion in a more academic context, by pointing out that hermaphrodites occur naturally so the comment “God made male and female” became redundant and the discussion moved on. I feel however that I might have done a disservice to a silent minority in not stepping in to say something about this comment though…Report
I’m a little confused, ECJB; the statement “most Christians are opposed to the idea transgender identity and notions of fluid sexuality because God created male and female strictly different” seems neither offensive or untrue to me. I think that statement correctly identifies the view of most self-identified Christians.Report
“We signal in our choice controversies we teach what arguments are to be taken as serious contenders for our allegiance.”
I think you’re right that it depends on one’s employment situation and whether one is safe to broach such topics as someone who isn’t straight. But I work in a department at a College that explicitly includes sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression as protected employment classes. And many schools don’t have that much protection. I am queer, though, and I come out to my students on the first day that we start teaching about marriage equality. I do it because I want them to know where I’m coming from, and that I’m not ‘unbiased’ (but I explain why I don’t think that professors have a duty to be unbiased: we have a duty to respect most student opinions, and those are different things). I don’t think that my choosing to teach marriage equality shows that I give the anti marriage equality arguments any weight. They are not a serious contender for my allegiance. But they are a serious contender (indeed they are believed) by a very large proportion of our population, certainly orders of magnitude more than young earth creationists. I do it because I think we have to be able to respond to those arguments, and I want to show students how to best do that. And by using the Corvino/Gallagher book it’s made really transparent how terrible the anti gay marriage arguments really are.Report
One thing worth considering is that when we teach ethics, we shouldn’t be presenting issues in a simplistic pro/con sort of way, as if we were in a courtroom and all that mattered was the final verdict. Rather, the best ethics classes are ones that expand students’ minds, help them think more deeply and critically about issues, and recognize that when reasonable people disagree about a conclusion, there are still many things they might learn from each other. This shows students that we can do better than the polarizing and reductionistic ways that issues are “debated” in popular media. For all that we may disagree with the conclusions of arguments like George, Girgis, and Anderson on same-sex marriage, they appeal to ideals and values that are deeply rooted in our culture and which demand serious consideration, either as things we need to modify or abandon (and thus reconsider the other beliefs held on their basis), or as things we need to reconcile with this new commitment to marriage equality. This is the kind of deeper discussion that one can’t have if the question is simply “do you or don’t support same-sex marriage”, and supposing that we can stop talking about these things if that latter question is largely settled neglects that deeper discussion that needs to be had. And by the same token, I would hope that far from being offensive to GLBT students, it actually engages as an equal participant in that deeper re-thinking, rather than condescendingly suggesting that this is something that heterosexuals (and/or conservatives, religious believers, etc.) have to figure out amongst themselves in private.
In short, GGA and company do a thoughtful job of showing that there are tensions that arise when we have such a massive and rapid shift of opinion on an issue that has been rather consistent for pretty much all human history, and that demands a deeper, inclusive conversation about what that means. If I were in an ethics teacher in the period after the Civil War, you can bet I would continue to teach the issue of the ethics of slavery, including pro-slavery arguments, because I wouldn’t simply want people to oppose slavery, I would want them to do so in an informed way, understanding what they are opposing and why, especially while the issue was still fresh, latent values and assumptions of the kind that made slavery possible remained common, people wrestled with the question of how to re-think social and racial relations in light of these changes, etc. Indeed, when I teach this issue and present the challenges of people like GGA, the “yes-no” question regarding same-sex marriage is actually not really all that prevalent in the class discussions; the deeper questions are the ones that end up taking center stage.Report
I’m generally pretty sympathetic to the main claims of the argument, but think that it’s easy to over-state the support for SSM, and think it’s no longer interesting because of that. It’s still a minority legal position in the US, and it’s not at all clear, I think, that the Supreme Court is going to uphold the recent circuit court decisions. (I would give it more than 50% chance that the pro SSM decisions will be upheld, but a lot less than 75%, I think.) Not to mention, it’s a far from won position internationally. There has been big backlash not only in Russia and India, but also in places like France, including, a bit ironically, from many times married and notorious womanizing former president Nicolas Sarkozy. I wrote a review of the Corvino/Gallagher book that Rachel mentioned above, and it is downloaded from my Academia page all the time. I think this suggests that there is some significant interest in the arguments. (I agree w/ Rachel that the book does a fine job of showing how bad the “anti” arguments are, though this is unintentional on Gallager’s part. Corvino does a fine job showing problems with the supposed “better” arguments of Robbie George, et. al.) I can certainly understand thinking that other topics are more interesting or useful, but I think it’s too soon to say this one is no longer a “contemporary issue” or that the case is fully settled in the public mind.Report
I decided three years ago that Same-Sex Marriage was a topic that I could no longer in good conscience teach. I decided this for the following reasons:
1. “Marriage” here is referring to a legal recognition of status under the law, for legal purposes.
2. The question “should Bobby and Jim be permitted to legally marry?” is one that requires a legal justification. I would imagine folks have legal objections to such an arrangement. ,Some of those legal arguments arise from a set of beliefs about particular moral issues that lead to them supposing that “Gay Marriage” is morally wrong in a way that has meaningful legal implications, and thus it must be outlawed.
3. I do not teach courses in law (nor would I want to). But if it’s the case that the legal question becomes viable, at times, because of a moral concern, perhaps I ought t consider the moral question(s). What are those questions? Why would Gay Marriage be “wrong”?
4. Because: Gay People, by virtue of their “gayness,” pose a threat to society, because Gay People (they’re, like, super different ya know), are uniquely and all individually harmful to: children, schools, my dog, etc. , or because gayness is, just, um…., bad. Which gets us to the heart of the “moral” issue: gayness is morally bad.
5. I cannot think of any non-religiously motivated argument that can in ANY philosophically coherent way (to a 21st century philosopher of any major Western tradition), justify the claim that “gayness” is morally bad.
6. I can think of the absolute horror of sitting in a room of 20 – 200 other students, all of whom are debating whether you, a gay individual, are morally “bad” in virtue of your “gayness”. Are you, seriously, going to suggest that your intellectual “curiosity” and objective desire for “rigour” and “unbiased investigation” has the moral right to subject any individual to that kind of disrespectful denigration? To be clear, I am claiming that teaching Same-Sex Marriage in an applied ethics or contemporary moral problems class implies that gayness is immoral. I do not pull wings off of insects for the sake of intellectual curiosity, and I do not license the demeaning, humiliating, or disrespecting of students who identify as gay.
7. Further, teaching gay marriage as a topic of controversy in a philosophy class, as others have noted, encourages the belief that it is an open question whether gayness is, itself, immoral. This IS akin and analogous to asking whether being black makes you less human, or whether women are really worth as much as men.
That’s why I don’t teach Same-Sex Marriage in my Ethics class.Report
#2 is false, though. Am I wrong? The legislative branch can simply legislatively permit gay marriage if they want to. They’ve generally been loathe to take the lead and rather punted it to the courts. Creating law that permits gay marriage would surely pass constitutional muster, so it’s not actually a question that requires “legal justification” in the way I think you’re suggesting. This makes it about the moral arguments, since legislators are sometimes swayed by such arguments.Report
I’m not sure what “requires a legal justification” here means, but if, as Rachel suggests, it means that it would be wrong or unreasonable for a legislative body to just permit it on it’s own, then there is certainly no justification for that position in US law or, as far as I can tell, any legal system. What could the basis for that claim even be? Nothing in US law. Maybe the claim means something else, but it’s too obscurely put to know. (I’d tried to post a comment on this post before that, oddly, didn’t show up, suggesting that there may still be good reason to teach this topic, but I’ll leave that aside.)Report
“I am claiming that teaching Same-Sex Marriage in an applied ethics or contemporary moral problems class implies that gayness is immoral.” No. It might also imply that opposition to gayness is immoral. And indeed, this is how everything in Contemporary Moral Problems works – if you teach abortion, are you implying that abortion is immoral? Or are you implying that opposition to abortion is immoral? If you teach capital punishment, are you implying that it’s immoral to execute, or that it’s immoral not to? Teaching SSM is not implying anything. Students are supposed to learn how to make and analyze arguments about moral issues. If you skip it, the ones who come into the class homophobic will leave that way. If you cover SSM, maybe some of them will see that their arguments are unsound. It’s better that they actually see the unsoundness of their position than that they insincerely parrot back your views.Report
7 is missing the point of Contemporary Moral Problems type classes. Is abortion immoral? Is capital punishment immoral? Is euthanasia immoral? That these are controversial does not imply that showing students how to argue about them implies one position or the other.Report
Rachel – The legal arguments I was thinking of have to do with tax law changes, as well as arguments from folks who claim that allowing same-sex marriage leads to multiple-person marriages, which have further tax law implications. I don’t know about that sort of stuff, and though I think that all of these legal arguments are likely to be bizarre, I don’t know enough to say one way or another. But the reason why I object to the teaching of it in ethics class follows precisely your thinking here – its about the moral arguments. And offering a class the “opportunity” to engage the moral argument here, would be…immoral. The moral issue is “gayness”, and unlike euthanasia, gayness is part of persons. I don’t offer students the opportunity to decide whether it’s “moral” for someone to be black, a woman, or tall, for that matter, and I don’t offer them the opportunity to weigh in on whether it’s okay to be gay.Report
I’m not aware of anyone whose arguments against same-sex marriage would be read in a philosophy class who maintains that “gayness” is immoral in a way analogous to saying that being female or black is immoral. Most no doubt personally believe that homosexual sex is immoral, but would want to distinguish between an activity one chooses to do and a disposition, orientation, or however you want to categorize the “gayness” you are talking about, which most now agree isn’t a choice. But that’s all beside the point, because George, et. al., explicitly deny your claim that opposing same-sex marriage entails any judgment one way or other on the morality of homosexual activity, and that it rests on an argument that marriage has always had a certain essential structure and that same-sex couples cannot by definition be married. In principle one could certainly agree with that argument about the essential structure and definition of marriage but find nothing immoral about homosexual activity, as was almost certainly the case with the ancient Greeks, for instance. Those who find such arguments compelling would regard your claims as both straw man and ad hominem arguments, reinforcing their conviction that the opposition to same-sex marriage has rational superiority. At any rate, prominent advocates for same-sex marriage like Corvino and Koppelman, at least, respect those arguments and take them seriously, which I highly doubt they would do if they thought the arguments were ultimately just about the “morality of gayness”.Report
“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.”
“Recently, a philosophy graduate student and instructor at a midwestern university confronted the question of whether to discuss same-sex marriage in class.”
The university in question is Marquette University, which is a Catholic, Jesuit university. Per the American Catholic website, “The Catholic Church opposes gay marriage and the social acceptance of homosexuality and same-sex relationships, but teaches that homosexual persons deserve respect, justice and pastoral care.” It follows, therefore, that for a devout Catholic, the official position of his or her church is an entirely plausible argument against homosexual sex and a plausible argument for a state to offer different kinds of marriage rights to homosexual and heterosexual couples. The Southern Baptist Convention, the Church of the Latter Day Saints, Muslim-Americans, Orthodox Judaism, et all in addition to the Catholic Church, as organizations are also not about to change their stances on these questions any time soon. So, to assert these are settled moral questions at this moment in time seems counterintuitive, and more a personal “social justice” statement on your part.
For the record, I am not a professor, but rather a middle-aged student with a son who is more traditionally college-aged. I am not particularly religious, have no objections of any kind of LBGT lifestyle, or to same-sex marriages, and I confidently expect within a generation in the United States that the legal question will indeed be firmly settled on the side of full recognition in all 50 States.
That said, I fully expect reasonable people can and do hold legitimately-held moral beliefs in fundamental opposition to my own. My expectation about an “ethics” class that strives to teach me how to think “philosophically” about contemporary issues is not that we all march in lockstep in a given direction, but rather we are encouraged critically think about what we believe and why. In the various comment threads on this website I’ve perused, and in some of the classrooms I’ve recently been in, there unfortunately sometimes seems to be a somewhat dangerous conflation of “what” with “how” to think by instructors. I have also seen politically-motivated students attempt to hijack discussion groups, and bait and entrap instructors, so I do recognize it is a balancing act. The most effective instructors for me are the ones who make no “bones” about their personal opinions/beliefs, but unfailingly show genuine respect for students who don’t agree with them, even if those students are agenda-driven, and/or hostile, and/or overtly belligerent. Grace under pressure will always earn my respect.Report
I wrote: “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.”
Matt B. writes:
“Per the American Catholic website, “The Catholic Church opposes gay marriage and the social acceptance of homosexuality and same-sex relationships, but teaches that homosexual persons deserve respect, justice and pastoral care.” It follows, therefore, that for a devout Catholic, the official position of his or her church is an entirely plausible argument against homosexual sex and a plausible argument for a state to offer different kinds of marriage rights to homosexual and heterosexual couples. The Southern Baptist Convention, the Church of the Latter Day Saints, Muslim-Americans, Orthodox Judaism, et all in addition to the Catholic Church, as organizations are also not about to change their stances on these questions any time soon.”
Thanks for your comment. It is true that the Catholic Church and many religious organizations oppose the state offering equal marriage options for gay and straight couples. But that does not mean that these organizations have anything that looks like a plausible argument for that position. It is also true that some people think that “my religious authorities say X is true, therefore X is true” is a good argument. It isn’t.
More generally, I grant that some people disagree with the state offering equal marriage options for gay and straight couples. Where we differ is on what to infer from that disagreement.
My view is that a good heuristic is to approach those with whom you disagree over X as having a reasonable basis for their view. But that is just a heuristic; once you’ve looked into it and have concluded that there are no good arguments for their position, then their persistence in holding it-—and the resulting persistence of disagreement—ceases to tell us anything about its plausibility. After all, as we know, people cling to all sorts of stupid views about all sorts of things.
You add: “So, to assert these are settled moral questions at this moment in time seems counterintuitive, and more a personal “social justice” statement on your part.”
This post was not about making a social justice statement. It was my honest assessment of the state of the debate, coupled with an inquiry about whether and how to teach about it. If this is taking a side, so be it. The truth takes sides.Report
As a student, I certainly think it SHOULD be taught. I’m not so sure HOW, as I do get your point about plausibility and acceptability. I certainly don’t want “intelligent design,” for example, to be posited as the equally valid other side of any “debate” with evolution.
Well, you all certainly succeeded in something, which is to get this student’s brain moving on a slow Sunday morning. 🙂Report
Justin, just to clarify, why do you say that “my religious authorities say X is true, therefore X is true” is not (never?) a good argument? Let’s assume we’re only talking ethics…obviously that would be a very good argument if X was a claim about what one’s religion thinks. And of course one can get perfectly good testimonial knowledge about many things from religious authorities–many religious authorities teach classes on mathematics, and biology, etc. Anyway, I assume you meant the claim to be restricted to ethics, or to claims that only religious authorities say is true, or something like that.
In any case, the badness of that argument follows (given some not implausible auxiliary premises) if there are no religious bodies that can speak with true authority about ethics. And that may well be true! But to assume that is to assume (near enough) that there are no true religions. Which, again, might be true. But I wasn’t sure whether you meant your criticism of the “my religious authorities say X is true, therefore X is true” argument to rely on that premise. If not, I’d be interested in knowing what your criticism is.Report
What I mean is that a religious authority’s saying X does not make X true (except for certain self-referential propositions, I suppose). As you point out, though, a religious authority’s saying X may provide us with good evidence of X when X is a claim about the religion, or about the authority’s beliefs, or about the kind of thing for which most people’s say-so would be sufficient. But I take it that substantive matters of ethics and public policy are not among these claims.
None of this is to say that religious authorities cannot say true things about ethics and public policy. It is just that the truth of such claims would be independent of their say-so. Furthermore, nothing in what I have argued assumes there are no true religions. It doesn’t even necessarily assume that divine command theory is false, as one could argue that DCT is true but that there are insurmountable epistemic obstacles to knowing the divine commands which in turn undermines the reliability of the testimony of religious authorities.
If this hasn’t been adequately responsive to your question let me know.Report
No, no, definitely responsive! Thanks. Still, I don’t think I’m convinced. I agree that the religious authorities are not *making* the ethical claims true, but that’s a different matter isn’t it? The question is whether the testimony of a religious authority is a good reason to believe something. (Good arguments just have to provide good reasons to believe their conclusions, right?) Compare: “climate scientists say that the earth is dangerously warming due to avoidable human activity, therefore the earth is dangerously warming due to avoidable human activity”. That seems like a perfectly good argument. (Maybe I should have picked a less controversial one even–I mean, most of what we know we know by testimony.) Consider the following argument:
1. Hinduism is true. (Yes, I know I’m ignoring all sorts of subtitles, but…)
2. If Hinduism is true, then some Hindu authorities know that it is wrong to eat beef.
3. Therefore, some Hindu authorities (the Xs) know that it is wrong to eat beef.
4. Some such authorities tell Hindu “laity” (the Ys) that it is wrong to eat beef.
5. Some Ys (the YYs) recognize that some of the Xs (the XXs) are (true) authorities.
6. If an expert (true authority) about P-stuff who knows that P testifies that P is true, and the recipient of that testimony recognizes that the expert is an expert about P-stuff, then the recipient gains knowledge that P.
7. Therefore, the YYs know, on the basis of the testimony of the XXs, that it is wrong to eat beef.
Depending on your views about rational disagreement you might think that (2) or (5) is false, and depending on your views about testimony you might think (6) is false. But lots of philosophers accept claims like (2), (5), and (6), so I think the only reason to dismiss this argument would be if you thought (1) was (“dismissably”) false. Arguments of the above form (I mean, subbing out ‘Hinduism’ etc. with other claims) are the best arguments I could give for most of the things I believe. And I think they’re good arguments! In some cases–global warming and evolution are examples, I guess–there is a decent amount of controversy. But I still think I can know about global warming and evolution on the basis of expert testimony. Likewise, I suppose, if there is a true religion then adherents of that religion can know all sorts of stuff on the basis of expert testimony, despite the controversy. What do you think?Report
Premise 2 is false. It doesn’t follow from Hinduism being true that Hindu authorities know anything. We could change Premise 2 to read, instead: 2*”If Hindu authorities know that Hinduism is true, then Hindu authorities know that it is wrong to eat beef.” If we grant some unstated premises, then that seems true. But then we don’t get Premise 3 unless we change Premise 1 to 1*: “Hindu authorities know that Hinduism is true.” Of course, I don’t know why we would believe 1* or its equivalent for any religion. (And note that a denial of 1* is not thereby a denial of 1.)
Further, 6 seems overstated. Suppose we are talking about automotive expertise. Mike the mechanic is a car repair expert. I know that. He says, “I can fix your car.” Do I thereby know that he can fix my car? I don’t think so. At best, I seem to have a strong reason to believe that Mike can fix my car.
You might say that that is good enough: when the religious authority says, “the state should marry only heterosexual couples,” that gives members of the religion who recognize those authorities a strong reason to believe that the state should marry only heterosexual couples.
Note that these are strong reasons, if they are, only in the absence of competing reasons. If I had brought my car to 3 other experts before bringing it to Mike, each of whom said the same things as he does, and each of whom failed to fix the car, then my reason for believing that Mike can fix the car based on his saying so is a lot weaker. Similarly, in the face of opposing arguments, religious uncertainty, fairly good takedowns of religious arguments opposing marriage equality, an inability of religious authorities to convincingly explain their arguments, etc., the fact that a religious authority says “the state should marry only heterosexual couples” doesn’t give us a very strong reason to believe that the state should marry only heterosexual couples.
More generally, when expert testimony for X isn’t effectively contested and when it fits in well with the rest of what we believe, then indeed, we can plausibly say something like “We have really good reason to believe X and no reason not to.” That is why you can know about (or have all the reason in the world to believe) evolution on the basis of expert testimony. But when expert testimony for X is pretty well contested, or accepting X would require us to give up other things we have strong epistemic reasons to believe, then such testimony does not give us much of a reason to believe X.Report
What is the point of philosophy as an academic discipline in the first place? What role do you professional philosophers serve within the framework of what it means to be human? If it’s to move humanity as a collective whole towards a given moral position, then at least be honest about it. “Truth” does indeed take sides– the kicker is that side may not be yours. To assert otherwise about human behavior and how we collectively organize ourselves with our moral choices, is just as much as assertion of faith as anyone who believes in whatever divinely-ordered ethical schema.
Most humans are, and will for the forseeable future continue to be, informed by their faith traditions when it comes to making moral choices. I do say this respectfully, but IF it comes down to what a professor at the University of South Carolina asserts is implausible to the point of dismissal as “settled” compared to what almost every mainstream religious tradition has held for millennia, and continues to hold as fundamental truth, at the very least you can understand where the animus motivating the attacks by the fundamentalists are coming from.
No matter how you parse it, if you assert there are no reasonable arguments against homosexual lifestyles and same-sex marriages, that is a direct challenge to the fundamental sources of authority for any number of faith traditions.
For the genuinely faithful of those traditions, belief derived from the authority of their whatever given sacred source IS enough to win any moral argument. For them, there is NO need for any other proof. And to be fair, ethics is NOT empirical science.
As educators, it comes down to what you view the responsibility of your role as being. Teaching students how to responsibly think “philosophically” about moral issues is one thing, but pre-determining the intended outcome of that thought process for all your students is, to me, problematic.
Should your students come out of your contemporary ethics classes knowing absolutely where you stand on current issues and why?
Should students be able to argue the current moral issues as as coherently and cogently as possible?
The million dollar question for me is, as a student in your contemporary ethics class, will my grade depend on me agreeing with your moral position?Report
Matt B., you write: “No matter how you parse it, if you assert there are no reasonable arguments against homosexual lifestyles and same-sex marriages, that is a direct challenge to the fundamental sources of authority for any number of faith traditions.” I agree.
You write, “For the genuinely faithful of those traditions, belief derived from the authority of their whatever given sacred source IS enough to win any moral argument.” If by “win any moral argument” you mean “persuade them,” then I agree. If by “win any moral argument” you mean, “have the better argument, in terms of the truth of the premises and the logical moves based on them,” then I disagree, for the antecedent beliefs of the listener do not generally affect the truth of the premises or the validity of the argument made with them.
You write, “The million dollar question for me is, as a student in your contemporary ethics class, will my grade depend on me agreeing with your moral position?” Nope. Now I’ll look forward to receiving those million dollars. Thanks.Report
There’s no need to be snarky. Let’s get to the bottomline from a (“a”, one not ALL) student’s (not students’) concern:
Since you say I would not have to agree with you, could I argue against same-sex marriage in your class and receive an “A”?
If so, and especially since you have already asserted there are no arguments you accept as plausible, specifically in what concrete terms how?
I’m 44 years old, retired military, with multiple deployments all around the world. While I generally try not use my biography as any sort of source to authority to speak on things I don’t (or even feel I do) know about, I am not a kid and I would expect to be treated by (generic) you in your classes as a mature, thinking, adult.Report
Sorry Matt B., but giving out homework advice is beyond the scope of this blog. And so is defending my teaching.Report
And with this phrase– “homosexual lifestyle”– we now know pretty much all we need to know about where, in fact, Matt B is coming from. (in spite of his occasional pretense otherwise)
Now, I’m afraid, I must go engage in the aforementioned “lifestyle” , which today will include the world-shattering activities of endless stacks of grading (on material related to dead philosophers’ work not remotely in applied ethics), medicating my cats, trying to make a dent in enormous pile of reading, mass consumption of coffee, and possibly an episode of Buffy as a break. I’m sure the coffee consumption is somehow destroying my heterosexual neighbors’ respective marriages, but for the life of me, I cannot figure out how. Or perhaps its the Buffy episode? just don’t blame the cats…Report
I am not fishing for help on a homework assignment, nor am I attacking your teaching. My much younger college classmates I interact with are remarkably utilitarian. Even the socially conservative ones, unless politically active, will “write to the professor” more often than not, and make no bones about what they are doing. But then, they need to worry about getting jobs or into graduate school upon graduation. I am simply going to college for my own edification, because I have the GI Bill to pay for it, and to get out of my wife’s hair.
I honestly don’t have any particular “axe” to grind, but followed the various Internet threads about what happened at Marquette to arrive at your blog. I phrased what I wrote in the way I did in an attempt to make it clear I was only speaking for myself, and that I am simply trying to reconcile your two statements that:
a) There are no plausible supportable arguments against same-sex marriage and,
b) A person can disagree with your moral positions and still receive an “A” in a contemporary ethics class you teach.
I genuinely just don’t see how that’s possible, unless you remove the content of what is asserted from your grading criteria. But, and has been reflected the different approaches articulated in this thread that a given percentage of you do overtly intend social justice outcomes in your classes, but also understand that saying that out loud is highly problematic.
You will notice in my first post I tried to use the more appopriate “LBGT lifestyle.” I do recognize “homosexual lifestyle” has become pejorative in usage, and I apologize for using it in my haste this morning. While I am no liberal, I am not a social conservative. I take the more Libertarian view that to the extent possible people have the right to live their lives in any way they damned well choose.
Besides, my only current objection to the prospect of my gay son getting married is that at the moment he is too young. IF he ever chooses to get married at whatever point in the future, as long as it is to a man he genuinely loves and to someone who isn’t abusive, I will be a very proud papa.
I hope that clarifies things.
And I might regret adding this, because it might lead to an easy “out” for you all to simply dismiss what I am sincerely trying to say– along the lines of seriously anonymous’s snark– but if I am going to speak for my fellow military types, for better or worse, over the last generation we have been out there on the front lines of our society’s policies and actions.
The end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as far as I observed it was a collective yawn, even if we were subjected to endless briefings. Even when I first went into the military in the late 80s, we honestly didn’t give a shit if a given person was gay as long as he or she could do his or her job. It only became an issue *if* that person that person couldn’t perform his or her duties, and then it was simply the easier excuse. I know that wasn’t and isn’t true for every one in the military, and is/was almost entirely dependent on the “command” environment, but over the course of my entire career that “do the job” attitude seems to mostly have been the pragmatic outcome.
My son told me he was gay just after DADT was undone, I was an infantry platoon sergeant with three combat tours at that point. I had known many gay soldiers, and I never once initiated any disciplinary actions against any of them based on their sexuality. It hurt that my son had the default assumption I would reject him because of who he knew he is, instead of who he thought I wanted him to be.
As I said, I have no axe to grind, so with this response, I am going to bow out of this blog.Report
I think you’ve missed the point about “seriously anonymous”‘s comment: ‘LGBT lifestyle’ is no less offensive than ‘homosexual lifestyle.’ The offensiveness attaches to calling sexual orientation a ‘lifestyle.’ It’s not. Our lives are basically the same as het people’s lives…we just have romantic or sexual relationships in non-heterosexual ways. There’s nothing ‘lifestyle’ about that. Is there a ‘heterosexual lifestyle’? Is there just one? Of course not.Report
Thanks for the reply Justin, sorry to be lagging with a response. In any case, here it is. First, and most importantly, (2) is just a material conditional–I agree that it doesn’t *follow* from the truth of Hinduism that Hindu authorities know it is wrong to eat beef. But I still think (2) is true, in part because I think that (1) is true iff (1*) is. I mean–if some religion is true, then it seems quite likely that some people know it is true. After all, people report having all sorts of religious experiences. If some of those are veridical experiences of a transcendent reality, then I suppose that the people that have those experiences know all sorts of stuff on the basis of them, including that Hinduism is true (if it is a Hindu experience), that Christianity is true (if it is a Christian experience), that Islam is true (if it…etc.
In any case, *if* we assume that no one knows that their religion is true, then I agree it follows that all uses of arguments of the form “my religious authorities say X is true, therefore X is true” are flawed, inappropriate, not cogent, etc. But I think we only know that no one knows their religion is true if we also know that no religions are true. And I guess my worry is that, whether or not you or I do know that, it usually isn’t something we’d take for granted in dialectical contexts like this one. Furthermore, from this standpoint, I still don’t think there’s any problem with the argument *form* “my religious authorities say X is true, therefore X is true”. The problem is just that there are no actual religious authorities/experts, since all religions are false. (Compare: “scientific authorities about ethics say that X is true, therefore X is true”. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that argument form, it’s just that there aren’t any actual scientific authorities about ethics.)
As far as the other stuff goes, I’m just interested in defending the argument form, not the instance where X = same-sex couples marrying. You’re right, of course, that arguments of the form we’re talking about can be overridden by other evidence, but pretty much any form of evidence can be overridden by other evidence.Report
Would it be worthwhile to update the original post with a clarification a) that the instructor did not actually say this and b) what happened after?Report
Good idea, Zach. Thanks. I added an update.Report