April 27, 2014

A different slope

Last week I was drawn into a Facebook conversation with an English Evangelical. As always, I found it helpful and informative, not the least for confirming my sense that the general trend of my thinking is in the right direction.

The conversation arose in response to a recently publicized instance of polyamory — a trio of women whom the press said had “married.” This led to some “I told you so” fulfillment of the slippery slope: the promise that permission for same-sex marriage would open the floodgates to all sorts of other sexual variations. I’ve addressed this argument, and the logical fallacy of which it is an instance, elsewhere, and won’t repeat my comments here beyond the simple evidence that polyamory made its first appearance in the seventh generation from Adam, so blaming the gays seems an effort to close a barn door opened by someone else.

However, this was not the thesis that engendered the discussion. It was the more nuanced suggestion, “The arguments used in support of same-sex marriage can also be used to support polyamory.” This is a slope of a different slip, a logical fallacy so far as concerns addressing the validity of the arguments in question. That does not mean the phenomenon does not happen — a logical fallacy may still describe a true situation; but it remains a fallacy because it does not address the underlying argument.

As I noted on Facebook,

The thesis takes the form: Argument X in favor of Y is wrong because it can also be used in favor of Z. In the present instance, the claim is that arguments advanced in favor of same-sex marriage fail because those same arguments can be used to support, in this case, polygamy.
There are a number of problems with this thesis. Most importantly, it does not in fact disprove the validity of Argument X, but merely observes that the same argument may be employed in another case. Mere antipathy to that other case (which may reflect antipathy towards the first case) is in itself irrelevant. In reality, arguments that support things one holds to be good can also be used to support conclusions one feels are bad.

Let me raise a case where I think the thesis is true, even if fallacious. The libertarian argument in favor of same-sex marriage (or anything else, as it is less an argument than an ideology) takes the form, “People should be allowed to marry if they love each other and are doing no harm to others.” The same argument can be applied to polygamy, and very likely has been. But even though that is the case, it doesn’t actually prove the argument to be wrong, in either case. A whole separate debate on the virtues of libertarianism would need to be entered; and I think most people are neither fierce absolute libertarians nor equivalently doctrinaire authoritarians. In practical terms most people would, I think, given the popularity of another ideology, utilitarianism, home in on whatever alleged “harm to others” might result from any given action. (And however popular and common, a debate on the virtues of utilitarianism would also need take place!) So I concur that a libertarian argument may in fact have wider application than intended — but it may still apply in relation to the action and the harm that are the real subject of debate. If one wishes to debate the principle of liberty or utility themselves, that will have to be a separate discussion.

Getting back to arguments that I have actually encountered in the same-sex marriage debate, one of the principle arguments against it revolves around procreation. Again, I’ve dealt with the merits of that argument elsewhere at considerable length and won’t repeat it here except to note that the overlap between procreation and marriage is incomplete, on both sides.

But the proffered example of procreation can serve as a case in point in the larger question of arguments in favor of things one likes being used to support things one does not. For while procreation is cited as one of the “causes” for marriage, it can also be used as an argument in favor of polygamy.

This is not an abstract thought experiment, but a reality. Jewish law holds the command to “be fruitful and multiply” as binding on all men and women. This leads directly to polygamy in the case where a man’s wife cannot conceive (or has not conceived); Scripture provides case studies as with Elkanah, Peninnah and Hannah, and also that of Abraham (although Hagar remains a concubine rather than a formal wife). The necessity to procreate also leads to the Levirate law in which a childless widow is to be impregnated by her brother-in-law. This law figures in salvation history in the person of Ruth and Boaz; and when the question of the Levirate law is raised to Jesus by the Sadducees, he does not speak against it, in principle, though he does aver that marriage is a thing of this world. Closer to the Anglican homestead, observe the extent to which Henry Rex’s concern for the succession led him to employ, and then reject, the Levirate law; and even briefly, so it is said, to contemplate plural marriage — precisely what the pope accused him of undertaking when he married “Anne of a thousand days.”

On the other side, a negative argument involving procreation is often advanced against same-sex marriage, as a kind of Kantian categorical imperative: that if everyone practiced it the human race would cease to exist. However, the same argument can be advanced against celibacy. Again, this is not merely theoretical, but (in keeping with the understanding of the "first commandment" to multiplication of the human species) forms part of the groundwork for the opprobrium attached to celibacy in mainstream rabbinic Judaism.

Ultimately we owe to the scholastic church the fine argument that the command to procreation is addressed to the species as a whole, not to all individual members of it. This let the celibates off the hook, but the application to family planning has run aground on the shoals of natural law — another example of the fact that arguments can be applied to different concerns with very different results.

In summary, then, it would appear that arguments ought to be weighed on their own merits, not on ancillary or subsidiary possible circumstances. Those represent slopes down which it is not at all necessary to slip.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


thomas bushnell, bsg said...

Perhaps polyamory is also not such a horrific thought.

Recall that the prohibition on a bishop having more than one wife has always been taken to be about divorce...and we are presumably not talking about infidelity, which is a different matter...

So aside from the fact that the early church was in a Greco-Roman milieu, which for cultural reasons practiced monogamy, what exactly is the argument against polyamory supposed to be?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Well, I wasn't intending to get into a discussion of polygamy... I think you are partly correct that the pressure for monogamy has much to do with the Graeco-Roman milieu. But there is some contemporary idealism of monogamy in Jewish sectarian movements, which may be reflected in the teaching of Jesus. There's a passage in the Qumran Damascus Document that very nearly echoes Jesus' teaching against divorce but with the explicit call to monogamy. (That may be part of what Jesus was getting at as well.) This became rather fixed in the early church as a pressure towards strict monogamy, even in widowhood -- which may be what the pastoral epistles are really referring to in the case of clerical leaders. Again, it seems a matter of ideals not strict limits, except for the Roman legal restrictions.

As to actual arguments against polyamory, I raised a few in my book, but again I see these as idealisms, not a strict prohibition. Obviously, apart from the pastorals re clergy, there is no prohibition on polygamy in Scripture; but there is recognition of an ideal of monogamy, and the possible problems that arise when a duo becomes a trio. Obviously de facto polygamy is a lot more common than most people would like to admit, even among those who feel marriage needs to be "protected."

Deacon Charlie Perrin said...


I think we spend too much time on things other than murder, rape, assault and other true crimes and sins.

I am a firm believer that Sin carries its own punishment and requires no further action from other sinners. In the case of polygamy the sin is having more than one wife. The punishment is, well, having more than one wife.

We play with fire when we make our lives more complicated than they have to be.

Bottom line is that unless we see someone being actively harmed by the action or "sin" of another, it would be best that we mind our own sinfulness rather than attempting to punish the sins of others.

thomas bushnell, bsg said...

I suppose I've noticed a troubling dynamic, both in your book and elsewhere, in which pro-gay apologists invoke polyamory as the official thing they are against, in order to prove that they are still against something, and thus deflect the charge that being pro-gay has no limits.

But I think perhaps the limits remain where they should be: limits on abuse, limits on oppression, limits on deceit, limits on failure to keep one's commitments, and so forth.

Indeed, monogamy-as-ideal with toleration-of-polyamory is as troubling to me as heterosexuality-as-ideal with toleration-of-homosexuality, which was the norm about twenty years ago.

Can we not somehow move past the careful ranking of relationships as more or less ideal? Is it ever appropriate to evaluate relationships and identities against abstract ideals? Are we doomed to perpetually measure relationships only in terms of their symbolic value?

Are there "problems" with polyamory? The more I learn, the more I become convinced that the answer is "no". At least, we should acknowledge that the problems caused by the addition of a child to any relationship are vastly greater than the problems associated with polyamory, for those, at least, who are called to it.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Deacon Charlie and Brother Thomas, ultimately I agree with what both of you are saying here. I am perfectly happy to apply the moral principle laid out by Jesus ("do unto others as you would be done by") as the touchstone and let all the other chips fall where they may.

As I said in my first note, I am not the one who raised the issue of polygamy (in any form) nor is that the intended theme of this post. The theme is that this is an entirely unrelated question -- worthy of debate only to those who feel the need to debate it, which I do not. I have only addressed it to the extent that an assertion is made that it is somehow a logical consequence of the introduction of same-sex marriage. My argument is about the argument -- not the conclusion.

The problem is, as even this comment thread shows, one still gets drawn into a debate about the merits or faults of polyamory. I think it possible to have that discussion, but I emphatically reject the notion that it is about some sort of "ranking" of what is tolerable or not. My whole point is that all things need to be weighed on their own merits (or faults).

Furthermore, being at heart a nominalist, I would rather move away from the whole idea of "forms" being moral or not, and look to the actual instances to see how well the individuals involved are treating each other, in keeping with the moral touchstone I mentioned above. From a formal standpoint, I merely observe that polyamory is more complex than monogamy; as you rightly observe, Thomas, so is having a child. (Indeed, the playing off of the love of one parent against the other, or sibling rivalry, are notorious issues of stress in family life.)

But for this discussion I was really interested in looking to the meta-issue of the argument itself, and the fallacy of "if X for Y then X for Z = X is wrong."

thomas bushnell, bsg said...

So I definitely thank you for the post. I just couldn't resist, perhaps for the opposite reason as the folks you're complaining about.

However, it is true that from these premises:

X -> Z

you can conclude:

And they want to say:
X: your form of pro-gay argument;
Z: polyamory is ok.

And your point, I think, is that you do not assert merely:

X -> Y
where Y is "being gay is ok". Rather, you assert:

X, W, Q, R -> Y

And here you point out that the argument for polyamory is like this:

X, W, S, T -> Z

And if X, W, S, T -> Z, and ~Z, then we can conclude only:

~X | ~W | ~S | ~T

Which does not tell us that either X or W is false at all.

So you focus on the first of their premises, by showing that "X->Z" is not a fair statement of your argument. I'm focusing on the other, saying that ~Z is something everyone seems to want to assert as a kind of knee-jerk reaction, indeed, as an enthymeme to appeal to the crowd. And real people get ground under that wheel too, people who count too.

Indeed, I agree and am very grateful for yours and Charlie's way of putting it, by asking that perhaps we not fret about the forms and patterns, and instead ask about the actual facts of actual situations, which are neither cursed because of their lack of conformity to a given form, nor blessed because of conformity to it.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, Thomas. That is a good summary, though it took me a while to translate, as I wasn't familiar with the notation of the tilde meaning "not"! It is handy to have a good old ASCII character instead of having to resort to the higher realms of Unicode!

In the long run my point is that arguments (or theses) can lead to multiple conclusions. My long range goal is to demonstrate that the anti-SSM position doesn't really have an argument so much as a thesis. And it is true that their "thesis" if accepted does rule out polygamy, SSM, and all sorts of other things; but of course, this leads to the classic fallacy of petitio principii and is ultimately tautological. "Only a man and woman can marry because marrige is only possible for a mixed-sex couple" may be true, but its truth cannot be proven; or at least it hasn't been. Lurking under every supposed "argument" I've encountered against SSM there lies this base premise, unassailed by reason or Scripture.

For, in fact, for the Evangelicals in the house, one cannot prove that polygamy is "forbidden" by Scripture. (Even though monogamy is required for clergy, and given approbation, there is no definitive prohibition; and as I noted the drive to procreation even mandates it.) It cannot, therefore, be made an article of faith according to the Article on the relative authorities of Scripture and Church. Which, of course, is why I am bemused by the frequency with which it arises in these discussions.

And in the long run, it is quite beside the point in terms of SSM; and those who want to argue either for or against polyamory -- among whom I do not include myself -- will have to frame their arguments along some other line.

If, indeed, arguing about other people's lives is an activity that furthers the Gospel! As I observed in another FB thread, "the amazing thing to me is the extent to which moral busybodies who claim to be Evangelical appear to miss the dominical instruction to withhold judgment; to set up rules for others, rather than seeking their own salvation in fear and trembling. Making others fear and tremble is not the Gospel. (See Bonhoeffer's excellent reflection on the mindset of "The Pharisee"; good people gone bad...)"

Marshall Scott said...

And so critical in the discussions is not simply the logic of the arguments but claiming our own stakes or positions. Carter Heyward's work has been very important for me in reflecting on power in relationships. That said, when she argued for relationships with more than two participants my response was that her logic followed, but that my experience of humans left me to question whether within such a relationship all participants could be truly and equitable just to one another - still my personal reflection, but acknowledging Br. Thomas' point. And even in that I realize that how one understands the relationship changes that challenge. So, relationships of affection are different from formal arrangements of, say, political or economic marriages. "Just" is still the challenge, but "just" arguably has a different meaning and different standards.

And then there are those cases (and neither yours nor Thomas' points, really) when the frames only appear to be analogous. The law of motion "for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction" is really helpful in docking my boat. While I can point to events in relationships or in politics that appear analogous, the contexts are really too different for the application.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Indeed so, Marshall. Which is why I keep coming back to the particular and real and urging less stress on the general and ideal. There is, after all, no such thing as an "ideal" relationship. And the "relationship" any entity has to any other -- which is the force of analogy -- is fraught with a similar lack of cogent connection. We may all be "ships that pass in the night" but few of us possess sails!