Our Opponents Do Not Understand Their Own Argument (and that’s how they like it)

Rob Tisinai

May 28th, 2013

I’m starting to think opponents of same-sex marriage talk to their followers and themselves the way I talk to my dogs.

Long ago I began saying to my Shepherd-mix Lucas, “Who is you? Who is you? You is you!” while roughly scratching his neck or flanks. It has no meaning but it doesn’t need one. The tone of voice is all that matters. It’s just a reassuring noise I make.

Maggie Gallagher offers much the same in the National Review, answering the question, “How does same-sex marriage affect marriage’s relationship to procreation, given infertile couples may marry?”

She begins with a pre-emptive warning:

I have made this argument repeatedly. I understand you either disagree with it or can’t hear it.

I see a third option right away: I can hear what she’s about to say, but I don’t disagree with it, because I don’t understand it. It has no meaning, and I’m no longer sure it’s meant to. I can’t say I disagree with something that’s no more than a meaningless reassuring noise.

Here it is:

Childless and older couples are part of the natural lifecycle of marriage. Their presence in the mix doesn’t imply anything about the relationship between marriage and procreation. They’ve always been there.

Let’s start with “the natural lifecycle of marriage.” What on earth does she mean? So many undefined terms: natural and lifecycle and even marriage — does she mean individual marriages or the institution itself? Alas, she merely drops this proposition as if it were self-evident when it’s really just opaque.

Perhaps (and this is the only sense I can make of it) she means it’s not unusual for specific married couples to go through periods of time in which they have no children, and then do have children, and then are too old to procreate. But of course that would have nothing to do with the question she claims to address, which concerns couples who are infertile or old for the entirety of their marriage, for whom these traits are not merely part of their marriage’s “lifecycle.”

And of those couples, can you truly say:

“Their presence in the mix doesn’t imply anything about the relationship between marriage and procreation.”

Of course not. Their presence “in the mix,” their eagerness to marry, the joy we feel for two 75 year-olds experiencing new love — all these things tell us that marriage is not solely about procreation, or even necessarily about procreation at all. Her statement to the contrary is so clearly false that it makes even less sense than me telling Lucas, “You is you!” which at least has the virtue of being true.

Finally, this:

They’ve always been there.

I have no idea what she means to establish. This is the part making me wonder if she’s referring not to individual marriages but to the institution itself, in which case…two things. First, she needs to back waaay up and explain what she means by the natural lifecycle of marriage as an institution. And second, she needs to recognize that if infertile and old couples have always been part of that institution, then procreation has never been a necessary part of the institution.

So her entire paragraph is meaningless. In her next paragraph, she goes further and establishes that even she doesn’t understand what she’s saying.

I went around saying for years “marriage matters because children need a mom and a dad” nobody ever said: that’s not true because infertile couples can marry. Never, not once. Sexual union of male and female who are co-parents in itself points to affirms, and regulates an ideal.

Of course no one has ever given Maggie that reply. It would make no sense. However…if Maggie were to say, “The only reason marriage matters is because children need a mom and dad,” it would be perfectly appropriate for us to answer, “That’s not true because infertile couples can marry.”*

And in fact, we do say such things to her. In fact, that’s the point of the question her whole argument is supposed to be answering.

And here’s where we get to Maggie’s fundamental flaw. She fails to see the enormous difference between these two statements:

  1. Responsible procreation is an important reason for marriage.
  2. Responsible procreation is the only important reason for marriage.

The first statement is true, but doesn’t rule out marriage for old, infertile, or same-sex couples.

The second statement might rule out such marriages (and if so, then all such marriages), but no one actually believes it — not even Maggie Gallagher.

Folks like Maggie, though, tend say #1 and then pretend they’ve established #2. It’s the only way they can make an argument people might agree with, might find plausible if they don’t look at it too closely, might endorse as long as it stays at the level of reassuring noise.

So I’m struck again by how Maggie opened her article:

I have made this argument repeatedly. I understand you either disagree with it or can’t hear it.

That’s ironic and appropriate. We’ve answered her argument repeatedly, but she literally cannot hear it. Why not? Because she does not understand her own argument, and until that’s fixed, she cannot possibly hear our reply.

*We might also point out the she’s never been able to prove or even offer evidence that children need a mom and dad. The closest she’s ever come is to show kids do best in a stable, loving home with two committed parents.

David in the O.C.

May 28th, 2013

Maggie’s argument is laughable. No one has EVER said that children shouldn’t be raised by their biological mom and dad (if at all possible). How those couples raising their own children translates into an argument against gay couples getting married remains to be seen. The “natural lifecycle of marriage” is just another (un)clever way of saying “tradition”. Since all men and women have the right to marry, it doesn’t really matter if some of them don’t have children. Except that it actually DOES, when people like Maggie use hypothetical children as a means to disenfranchise gay couples. Perhaps she can explain why those same hypothetical children can’t be used against non-procreative couples like Rush Limbaugh and his fourth wife? Let me guess… it has something to do with natural lifestyles!


May 28th, 2013

Maggie has been reduced to debating an unprovable philosophical point….That gay marriages will cause heterosexuals to view marriage has meaningless. Given that no heterosexual will ever say that or anything to that effect…she is left with debating a point that is so ephemeral it is very difficult to grasp and impossible to fully refute in our lifetime.

Patrick C

May 28th, 2013

Procreation is not a prerequisite or requirement for marriage.

Marriage is not a prerequisite or requirement for procreating.

Any argument that necessitates the two be connected has instantly failed.

Bill T.

May 28th, 2013

Maggie isn’t housebroken. Rub her nose in it.


May 28th, 2013

“The natural lifecycle of marriage” is, as far as I can see, a convenient way to shoehorn the word nature into the equation. Ms Gallagher doesn’t want to associate too closely to with reference to Natural Law because that will mean she’s seen to be making an ecclesiastical determination about a civic matter.

The reference she’s avoiding creates the nonsensical gap. How, indeed, might marriage be said to have a life cycle? Human beings have a reproductive life cycle and Thomas Aquinas made the case that all sexuality must conform to a generative order within marriage. This forms the basis for the Catholic doctrine known as Natural Law.

Seeing as Natural Law denies any kind of sex outside of the penis in vagina variety, even if it’s between one man and one woman, I can see why Ms Gallagher is wary of drawing too close an association between that doctrine and her own arguments.

But that avoidance just leaves her argument hanging in mid air, unattached to any context. I guess she’s hoping that using the phrase “natural lifecycle” will create a frisson of common sense agreement in the reader of traditional marriage = nature, therefore good and correct, without need of closer examination.


May 28th, 2013

@markanthony: I’ve noticed that Gallagher has a tendency to think in philosophical abstractions, and to prioritize the abstractions over empirical evidence. Kind of like a less extreme version of Robert Gagnon.

I believe she’s an intelligent person (who clings to her views out of bias and stubbornness, not stupidity), but she would do better in a different line of work.


May 29th, 2013

There is nothing natural about marriage. It’s an entirely artificial legal construct (and I refuse to call it an “institution”)


May 29th, 2013

I believe she’s not aiming at the argument that an elderly/infertile couple does not stand out as much as a gay couple, the former does not necessarily challenge or attempt to redefine traditional marriage.

I’m sure people don’t go out on the streets and start approaching every single straight couple and starts asking “do you have children?”, which would allow elderly/infertile couples to blend in with the others easily, yet for every gay couple they see, its pretty obvious that there isn’t going to be any baby-making going on.

bill johnson

May 29th, 2013

The “noticeability defense” that you cite above is what their entire attempt to distinguish between gay couples and elderly/infertile couples relies on. The central weakness of this argument is the simple fact that regardless of whether others know the couple isn’t going to be doing any procreating or not, the couple knows it and yet their marriage still serves an important purpose for them. So at an individual level we know that marriage can still serve an important purpose even when completely disconnected from procreation and thus their argument about noticeability really doesn’t matter because it only serves as a disguise for the facts, it doesn’t change them.

The other major weakness of the argument is that even if we can’t individually identify a couple as being infertile or can’t individually identify an elderly couple who married after they were too old to procreate we do know generally that both such couples exist so a lack of individual noticeability does not change the fact that on an institutional level we know such couples are included.

Timothy Kincaid

May 29th, 2013

I’m going to play Devil’s Advocate here. There’s one ever-unspoken piece that makes this make sense (if you accept their terms).

Marriage is – at the very core of their thinking – permission to have sex. All the rest, the talk about accidental pregnancy, children needing a mother and father, procreation, and on and on, boils down to this simple equation: marriage equals legitimate sex.

And historically, that actually wasn’t a completely bad equation. Fertile women – through much of history – needed assurances that when she got pregnant and could barely walk and when she had a toddler that monopolized her time, someone was responsible to feed, clothe, and shelter her. Voila, marriage: permission to have sex.

The problem is that in an age of contraception and less reliance on physical labor, that equation has less social and (outside religious circles) almost no literal application. So Maggie can’t come right out and say, “the meaning of marriage is permission for one man and one woman to have sex”. Everyone would laugh.

It is, nevertheless, the underlying objection to gay marriage. Sure it’s fine to allow hospital visitation and community pool discounts. But if society allows same sex couples to marry, it is giving them permission to have sex. OH NOES!!!

But consider her argument in those terms.

The “natural lifecycle of marriage” is related to the natural lifecycle of (heterosexual) people in a pre-contraception world. First you are born and grow up. At some point you marry and begin having sex. Along come children, which you raise and send out on their own (to marry, have sex, and have children of their own). Then you age and eventually die.

But the whole time you are modeling the role of ‘sex in marriage’. Even infertile people are modeling the role of ‘sex in marriage’.

And thus the “natural lifecycle of marriage”, the cycle that each marriage goes through, is this: The marriage is created, sex occurs, children are included in the family, the children are raised and go off, couples age, and eventually die.

And in that context this makes sense:

Childless and older couples are part of the natural lifecycle of marriage. Their presence in the mix doesn’t imply anything about the relationship between marriage and procreation. They’ve always been there.

Sure some will be childless (and isn’t that a tragedy every single time it happens) and of course there are older couples in almost every marriage (and isn’t it a tragedy when one dies too soon). So these couples are not contradictory to their premise.

Their problem isn’t necessarily illogic, rather it’s that while every single one of them knows what they are talking about by “children are the purpose of marriage”, they simply can’t sell the language of their real belief: “marriage is society’s permission to have sex”.

Patrick C

May 29th, 2013

The problem with this assessment is that in many cultures sex acceptably preceded marriage. In different South Pacific cultures, for example, it was seen as pointless to get married unless you already had children. In matrilineal societies there was a support system in place for the pregnant woman – her extended family. In many of these pre-Christian cultures even sex outside of your marriage was permissible in certain situations.

The point is there is no universal or “natural” pattern of marriage when looked at how it has been expressed worldwide. Maggie and company rely on a very narrow perspective that imposes a Western understanding of marriage onto how it “should” be.

Ben in Oakland

May 29th, 2013

Timothy, I think you make a good point, except that I would rephrase it. It’s not the “permission to have sex”, else there would never have been illegitimate babies in the past and the attendant hand-wringing, stigmatization, and shunning.

What it actually is? The approval of having sex.

But otherwise, I agree.

Timothy Kincaid

May 29th, 2013

Patrick, yes that is true.

But Maggie is speaking only in the context of Western (Christian) Civilization. I don’t think she means “natural as in nature”, but “natural as occurs spontaneously within the confines of specific cultural norms”.

Her focus is, as you said, a Western understanding. But she would likely point out that most non-Western nations also follow the ‘one man – one woman’ formula (while carefully ignoring that the ‘natural’ formula for marriage historically suggested that the ‘one man’ often had several of these ‘one man – one woman’ marriages occurring simultaneously). It’s a sort of “see, those other cultures validate my cultural perspective”.

Timothy Kincaid

May 29th, 2013


I do think that permission is a good term for certain times and classes of people. It was illegal in the cultures which Maggie most romanticized to engage in unmarried sex.

However, “approval” is perhaps a better word. It certainly is a bit more universal than “permission” and more reflects current thinking. Few of Maggie’s fellows would pick up boulders to stone the fornicators in their midst, but they would be likely to give them the Church Lady treatment.

Priya Lynn

May 29th, 2013

I’m with Steve. Marriage itself is unnatural therefore its nonsensical to talk about the “natural” life cycle of marriage.

bill johnson

May 29th, 2013


Yes, these people don’t just want to follow their sexual ethic but they also want it to be imposed on everyone so you are 100% correct, they do want marriage to serve as “permission to have sex” and if marriage includes gay couples it doesn’t serve that role for them anymore and they have to fall back to what their church considers marriage to be instead of using the state to legislate their standard.

However I do think that, at least for the Catholics, they do see the link between sex and procreation & procreation and marriage as a separate and valid argument. They condemn efforts of heterosexual couples to try to disconnect sex from the possibility of procreation through birth control or condoms and in their minds sex must be “open” to procreation to be morally acceptable. So on that front they do still face the problem of why they don’t treat gay couples like infertile or elderly heterosexual couples to which they answer with the abstraction, the heterosexual couples are still having the “procreative type” of sex, even if it can’t lead to procreation for them.

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