Why the argument for equal marriage undermines itself.

Introduction – the campaign for equal marriage

Last week a new campaign was launched in the Church of England to ‘enable same-gender couples to be married in Church of England parishes.’ The name of this campaign is ‘Equal’ and it describes itself as ‘The campaign for equal marriage in the Church of England.’[1]

The use of the term ‘equal marriage’ by this campaign is not a novelty. It is in fact merely echoing the language used by those who successfully campaigned for the introduction of civil same-sex marriage in England, Wales and Scotland and who are currently campaigning for its introduction in Northern Ireland.

The use of the term ‘equal marriage’ by both secular and religious campaigners for same-sex marriage reflects the force that arguments based on the principle of equality have in British society and across the Western world as a whole. The implicit argument evoked by the use of the word ‘equal’ by campaigners for same-sex marriage runs as follows:

  • Major premise – the principle of equality, enshrined in British law by the Equality Act of 2010, is a basic moral principle which all right thinking people should accept;
  • Minor premise – same-sex marriage is an example of equality;
  • Conclusion – same-sex marriage should be accepted by all right thinking people (including those in the Church of England).

In the remainder of this post I shall explain that this argument undermines itself because the very principle of equality to which it appeals leads to the conclusion that same-sex marriage should not be accepted.

What do we mean by the principle of equality?

As the American writer John Safranek explains, the principle of equality is derived from the basic philosophical principle of non-contradiction. In Safranek’s words, the principle of non-contradiction:

‘… asserts that something cannot be and not be at the same time and under same conditions. For example, a woman cannot be both pregnant and not pregnant at the same time, according to the common understanding of ‘pregnant.’ Similarly an individual cannot simultaneously be and not be in the United States. Although one might speak of the person ‘being’ in both the United States and a foreign country because his image is communicated from there, he is not capable of bilocation, and therefore we are not using ‘be’ in the same sense.’ [2]

Applied to ethics the principle of equality seeks to avoid falling foul of the principle of non-contradiction by treating equally two agents who are in equal situations. To quote Safranek again:

‘…. The principle of equality proscribes treating differently two agents similarly situated in regard to all relevant factors; to do so would be to contradict oneself. The contradiction is that one claiming to act in a principled way thinks agent x deserves z but agent y who is similarly situated does not. It is to treat as unequal two parties judged as relevantly equal.’ [3]

As a good example of what Safranek is talking about, imagine two students who both give equally good answers in an exam. The person marking the exam holds to the principle that students should get the marks their answers deserve. However, he gives student A 80% and student B 30%. By so doing he treats them unequally and therefore contradicts his avowed principle that students should get the marks their work deserves. The work of the two students is ‘relevantly equal’ and therefore the principle of equality holds that they should be treated equally by being given equal marks.

The need for a common standard to establish equality

As Safranek goes on to further explain, in order to decide whether two situations are in fact equal one has to have a common standard of measurement against which to assess them.

‘Equality consists of a triadic relationship. To compare two things as equal or unequal, one needs two objects that can be compared and a standard by which to compare them; to speak of equality in isolation from a common standard is meaningless. Is a paraplegic Caucasian male equal to a Hispanic female track star? The question is unanswerable because, although two objects are being compared, some standard must be offered to compare them. The question of equality cannot be answered until the standard of comparison is stipulated. They are unequal in weight, sex, skin colour, mobility, ability to bear children, and numerous other qualities, but they are equal in being mammalian, human, alive, rational, desirous, and possessing five senses. These two individuals are equal to a census taker, since each counts as one citizen, but unequal to a track coach. Is an acre of land in Paris equal to an acre of land in Detroit? It all depends on whether the metric is area, financial worth, or soil quality. Whether the two are equal depends on the relevant standard, and the relevant standard does not depend on equality, but on other criteria considered important to the one comparing. Once the standard or metric has been established, then equality can be determined.’[4]

The appropriate standard for assessing same-sex marriage

The claim that is made by those campaigning for the Church of England to permit same-sex marriages is that marriages between two people of the same sex are equal to marriages between two people of the opposite sex. Hence the principle of treating equal things equally means that the Church of England should permit both.

However, as we have just noted, in order to determine whether these two types of marriage are in fact ‘relevantly equal’ we have to have a common standard against which to compare them. Since the Church of England holds that marriage was established by God (‘instituted by God in the time of man’s innocency’ as the Book of Common Prayer puts it) it follows that the common standard has to be the form of marriage which God established.

We learn what form of marriage God established from the creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2 and from Jesus’ teaching about marriage in Matthew 19:2-6 and Mark 10:2-9 which refers back to these creation accounts.

What we learn from these sources is that God established marriage as a permanent and exclusive sexual (‘one flesh’) relationship between one man and one woman which is in principle open to the procreation of children as a fruit of that relationship. When judged by this metric same-sex marriages fall short in two basic respects. They are not a sexual relationship between a man and a woman and they are intrinsically closed to procreation. It follows that they do not conform to the form of marriage established by God and that they are therefore not equal to the traditional, opposite sex, form of marriage currently permitted by the Church of England since this does.

Why same-sex marriages should not be accepted

What this means is that the appeal to equality in support of same-sex marriage being permitted by the Church of England undermines itself. Same-sex marriage is not equal to the form of marriage established by God which the Church of England celebrates. Therefore it should not be treated as if it was, because just as the principle of equality says equal things should be treated equally so also unequal things should not be treated as if they were.

If same-sex marriages are not a form of marriage established by God then what are they? The answer is that they are what the New Testament calls porneia, extra-marital forms of sexual activity that are contrary to God’s will and in which God’s human creatures should therefore not engage. [5]

To re-run the argument set out at the beginning of this post we can therefore say

  • Major premise – the principle of equality, enshrined in British law by the Equality Act of 2010, is a basic moral principle which all right thinking people should accept;
  • Minor premise – same-sex marriage is not equal to traditional marriage and is contrary to God’s will;
  • Conclusion – same-sex marriage should not be accepted by all right thinking people (including those in the Church of England).

M B Davie 16.4.19

[1] For details see the campaign’s website at http://www.cofe-equal-marriage.org.uk .

[2] John Safranek, The Myth of Liberalism (Washington DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2015), pp.43-44.

[3] Safranek, pp.44-45.

[4] Safranek. pp.51-52.

[5] For justification for this point see Martin Davie, Glorify God in your Body (London: CEEC, 2019), ch.8.

Advertisements

5 thoughts on “Why the argument for equal marriage undermines itself.

  1. Pingback: Why the argument for equal marriage undermines itself – News That Matters Today
  2. Pingback: Why the argument for equal marriage undermines itself - Latest Christian News
  3. Pingback: Revue de presse du 16 avril 2019 – p@ternet
  4. “Minor premise – same-sex marriage is not equal to traditional marriage and is contrary to God’s will;”

    Fortunately, British law is not determined by whatever religious people might imagine to be the will of their gods, so such a premise has no legal relevance and was rightly not allowed to prevent men and women gaining identical marital rights.

  5. Yes, we also use the word ‘equal’ to ensure religionists have the equal right to express their opinions however poorly thought out.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s