A Secular Argument Against Same-Sex Civil Marriages

(by Mike)

I am a philosophy and ethics professor. I like to have my students vote to pick which specific ethical issues we will discuss. The last time I taught the course, gay marriage was one of the topics selected. I hadn’t done much research on the issue before that semester, but as I looked into the topic, I came across the editorial The Secular Case Against Gay Marriage by Adam Kolasinski in the Feb 17, 2004 issue of The Tech (the MIT university newspaper). I adapted and developed that argument for use in class—here it is, in a nutshell.

The Issue

The government confers costly benefits on married couples (tax breaks, the right to receive a deceased spouse’s social security payment, the right to be covered by a spouse’s health insurance policy, etc.). In effect married couples are subsidized by the rest of society. Why should this be so? (After all, we don’t subsidize, say, brothers who live together or roommates who share a home). A good reason to subsidize married couples has to do with procreation. The continued vitality of a society requires that new citizens (children) be generated and raised in a way that is conducive to their well-being. That is, society has a compelling interest in the generation and proper raising of new citizens. And this interest provides a reason to privilege certain relationships (those in which children are generated and raised in a way conducive to their well-being) with a special status (“civil marriage”) and the costly benefits that go along with that status.

The Argument

In philosophical circles it’s common to present arguments as a series of numbered propositions, for the sake of clarity. Here’s a way to lay out Kolasinski’s argument:

(1) The reason that society should confer the status of civil marriage (and the associated benefits)


a given relationship is that society has an interest in promoting the generation and proper raising of children.


So, (2) Only those relationships that are likely to result in the generation and proper raising of children

should be privileged with the status and benefits of civil marriage.

But (3) Homosexual relationships do not result in the generation of children.

So, (4) Homosexual relationships do not result in the generation and proper raising of children.

So, (5) Homosexual relationships should not be privileged with the status and benefits of marriage.


There are objections to this argument worth considering. Here are three particularly pressing ones.


Objection 1    What about homosexual couples who are raising children (adopted or generated through IVF technology)? Since they are raising children, the state should support them in the same way it supports married couples (with legal recognition/approval, tax benefits, etc.)

Reply    The same reasoning would deliver the conclusion that where any group of adults is raising a child (e.g. a widowed man and his mom raising his children), the relationship of that group of adults should be considered a civil marriage. (Other examples: one man and two girlfriends are raising children, or two heterosexual male friends want to raise a child together.) But that’s too broad. So the reasoning must be flawed.

Further, society stands to gain if it promotes in a special way (by socially approving through law) the sort of relationship that results in the generation and the proper raising of children. This is a reason not to privilege just any group of adults who wants to raise a child.


Objection 2     But some heterosexual couples are infertile. Wouldn’t the reasoning in the main argument above deliver the conclusion that infertile couples should not be granted civil marriage licenses?

Reply    It would. However, there is a clear pragmatic reason that makes the exclusion of sterile or infertile heterosexual couples from civil marriage unwise. Fertility tests are unreliable and costly. The gain to society by subsidizing only fertile married couples is far outweighed by the costs that would be associated with accurately testing all engaged couples for fertility. “Fertility tests are too expensive and burdensome to mandate.”[1]


Objection 3    Wouldn’t the reasoning in the main argument deliver the conclusion that elderly couples shouldn’t be allowed to marry.

Reply    The marriage of the elderly is so rare that restricting civil marriage in this way wouldn’t be worth the effort. Further, and this is the more important point, society gains by promoting heterosexual marriage in general. (Because that’s the relationship in which, in general, children are generated and raised.) By allowing any committed heterosexual couple to marry (elderly or not) we promote the institution in general.


A different reason to accept premise (4):

As I’ve set up the argument above, step (4) is supposed to follow from step (3). There is an additional, independent reason to accept (4), however. Namely, there is empirical evidence that children do best when raised by both a mother and a father. See, for example, David Poponoe’s Life Without Father (Boston: Harvard University Press, 1999).

[1] Kolasinksi.