Monday, December 03, 2012

"If marriage is opened to anyone who wants what?"

A chilling exchange crossed the forums at ISCA recently.  A user posited the question "If we opened marriage up to everyone, so what?  What are the things that would go bad in society if this happened?"

These are not unreasonable questions.  Too often the most common argument made is the "appeal to squick," the notion that if something seems gross, there's something wrong with it.  True or not, it's a subjective and emotional standard that can't stand on its own.  It was the discussion that followed that was bothersome.  Paraphrased nuggets of wisdom from the "discussion:"

"Who cares?"  "Are we supposed to clutch our pearls and say 'land sakes, God a'mighty' while all these terrible things happen?"  "If there's some species-ending occurrence like not enough people preferring to couple with adult humans, instead preferring animals or machines or children, so what?"  "Only adults have legal standing and the ability to sign contracts, so the line is drawn at polygamy and gay marriage; anyone who thinks otherwise is an idiot."

It's these last two that bother me.  I don't know what kind of idiot it would take to realize that people are already pushing beyond plural and gay marriage, beyond the line Mark Shea describes as "consent as the sole criterion of the good."  Sure, statues and children and dolphins can't sign contracts legally, but children at least have the ability to do so, and machines could be programmed to do so, as long as we're maintaining the facade of mutual consent.

If you want to blur the line between what's accepted now and what you want accepted, start on the fuzzy cases:  machines programmed to do what you already want, children who might be precocious enough to be emancipated or who might just be brought before a judge more sympathetic to the head of the local chapter of NAMBLA than to the well-being of children.  If you can throw the matter of consent into question, you really don't have to stop there.

"Oh, but plural marriage isn't illegal--bigamy as an instance of fraud and adultery/cohabitation laws being excepted--it's just not legally recognized," it was said.  Um, no.  Legally recognizing these arrangements is the whole point.  There are already people who do these things and it is decreasingly held in check by the forces of shame and law.  If it weren't unhealthful we'd already have more than the alleged hundreds or thousands of people practicing these things successfully.

And if "species-ending occurrence" doesn't strike you as a bad thing, how can, or why should, anyone else explain that any of the problems that are less dire than suigenocide are both problems and real possibilities?  If you want to have a thorough discussion, more power to you, but do you honestly think the burden of proof is not on the people saying "What could it hurt?"  If you really want to be honest, you should be calling to heel your allies who are making bad arguments that you already understand well enough to counter on behalf of your rhetorical opponents.

"Well, even two-person marriages don't always last forever, so what's it matter if larger ones don't, either?"

The fact that polygamous arrangements are not more successful than normal marriages is beside the point.  The point is that they are less successful.  Between nuclear families and plural marriage you have millions of people who cheat in secret; or who start seeing someone new before breaking it off with the current significant other, because they know it's not going to last long if they're open and honest with everybody about it; or who do so with the knowledge and toleration of the other party because they have some other compelling reason to keep up appearances.

Again I am compelled to remind my reader of boiling a frog in a pot of water.  If all it takes for evil to succeed is good men doing nothing, then all it takes to get good men to do nothing is trick them to make a thousand trivial compromises while evil hides in plain sight.  We see it on TV, we see it in our communities, we see it at work:  something unpleasant happens, people shrug and say "Well, it's just the times we live in; who can mount a crusade against a swarm of gnats, let alone this?" and everyone gets used to things being worse than they should be, without quite being able to explain what's wrong.

ISCA seems, more than most places I've been on the Internet, intolerant of the slippery slope argument. I think it is because back in the heyday of BBSes, it was not uncommon to find debaters who committed the classical slippery slope fallacy.  Whether it is a fallacy, or a bad argument, in contemporary usage depends on the circumstances, much as the appeal to authority does:  while an appeal to authority is valid if one can accurately cite the position of a legitimate expert, the slippery slope is valid if one can demonstrate the progression from making the first trivial compromise to reaching the state that the debater warns against.  While one can still sometimes have interesting discussions there, this propensity for assuming that arguments they don't like are badly framed arguments really makes me question the value of coming there to mine for post fodder.  Maybe it's a good intellectual barometer for the state of society, but there's not much room these days for new or unpopular ideas.

I wonder if there's a good theology on tap that runs during the winter around here somewhere.

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