Gay Rites – Debating the Moral Question: Pt 1

A few weeks ago, I participated in a debate on whether or not we should endorse gay marriage? That debate was an significant experience for me. My partner for that debate was one of my best friends, Ben Dyer. Ben graduated from Talbot School of Theology in 2003 with a degree in philosophy of religion and ethics. He’s a now graduate student at Bowling Green State. I asked him to give a sort of report from the front lines of that debate. The following is part 1 of that report.

The four of us share a car headed for a small community college extension campus in rural Ohio, and we don’t share much else. Mark and Jacob are going to defend their positive answer to the debate’s open question, “should we endorse gay marriage?” Jonathan and I will defend the view that we shouldn’t, and as we drive I’m wondering whether any of the great debaters (Fr. Copleston and Bertrand Russell, or G.K. Chesterton and George Bernard Shaw, for instance) ever shared a cab on the way to their storied debates.

We’re all friendly though, and that’s genuine because we all share something else as well, a commitment to good arguments as decisive in philosophical discourse. Whoever wins today will do so because they were careful about what they said and how much they said in support and defense of their side of the argument.

But that carefulness began long before the ride in the car. The language of the debate proposition was the subject of hours of conversation. Both sides decided to sidestep the rights questions in order to get to the thing we cared about most. Endorsing gay marriage is not about our relation to the state as citizens with certain rights, but the moral value of marriage as such.

Our test case was a recent New Jersey ballot initiative where voters shot down a proposal to make marriage a gender-neutral legal concept in New Jersey law. New Jersey already has a civil unions law, but, as one gay man I know once put it, “I want to get married, not ‘civil unioned.’” So as we drive further into rural Ohio, we’re all aware that we’re heading for a clash on the moral value of a universal human institution.

We’re warmly received by the campus organizers when we get there at lunch time, and because we’re being paid in lunch, we’re officially professionals. We eat in the space we’re about to use.

The room itself is a long rectangle, with two tables facing the crowd separated by a podium front and center. There’s seating for probably forty or so, and that only needs the front half of the room’s long space. Not bad, I’m thinking, this will be a nice intimate crowd for my first debate.

By the time we get started those seats are full, and more are being added in the back. I can see that the local LGBT alliance has set up a table with literature in the back of the room. My untrained eye puts the room’s number at upwards of eighty to a hundred people as we’re introduced by the organizers.

By nature I’m one of those that likes to walk before he runs, but as the room fills up, I’m starting to think God’s got other plans today. Somewhere in those last minutes I remember taking a moment to pray, and then all our preparation is complete. The debate begins.

As champion of the affirmative, that we should endorse gay marriage, Mark goes first. It’s clear that he’s nervous. He hasn’t had much time to rehearse. Mark was a late addition to the affirmative roster when another guy dropped out, and Mark’s only had about two days to get his arguments translated from skeletal syllogisms and basic inferences into a public statement that’s got to run the length of the affirmative fifteen minute opening statement.

He starts out well, making it clear that endorsement is about our moral attitudes rather than civil law. There are some stops and starts along the way, but he gets the affirmative side’s two big arguments out:

First, if we’re not prepared to make similar claims about not endorsing interracial marriage, then why make the negative side’s claim that we should not endorse gay marriage?

Second, we don’t distinguish between the value of male-female, male-male, or female-female friendships, so why make the negative side’s claim that we should not endorse gay marriage? Interracial marriage is valuable as marriage, and friendship does not gain or lose value as you change the pronouns. It doesn’t take Mark very long to get these points out, and after a pause while he consults the outline on his laptop screen, he decides to be done after spending a little more than ten of his allotted fifteen minutes.

It’s Jonathan’s turn. He and I have labored over this part in depth, refining it, reworking it, focusing it, and trying to make the best use of the uninterrupted constructive half of our time. Jonathan includes Mark’s point that we’re here to discuss the moral endorsement of marriage, and he takes pains to make clear that rejecting the disputed endorsement isn’t about hating gay couples or homosexuality. Nor is endorsing gay marriage a kind of tolerance or a “live and let live” approach. Endorsement is about what you personally believe about moral value.

Jon’s projecting his voice to find the people in the back of the room, and he’s driving home the point that the debate isn’t about hating versus tolerating, but about the value of marriage itself. I worry that the front of the room will think he’s yelling at them, but I remember that Jon’s got enough public speaking experience to find his own connection with the audience. He argues that just because one kind of union is valuable, it doesn’t follow that other kinds of union are also valuable, or that even if they are, the value is the same value in both cases.

Our negative case rests on our ability to prove that if gay unions are valuable in some way, it’s not merely in virtue of their resemblance to heterosexual unions. Stable monogamous cohabitation isn’t necessarily all that makes marriage valuable, and that means that it doesn’t follow from a moral endorsement of heterosexual unions that gay unions ought also to be endorsed with that term. Jonathan runs out of time, and ends his opening speech gracefully, but with some of our opening material left unsaid. The audience won’t know that, so we’re doing okay so far, and I can use it to build our case in the first rebuttal.

Then Jacob gets up to give the affirmative side’s first rebuttal. Jacob’s a smart guy, and he’s well prepared for this part because both sides exchanged their basic opening arguments two nights ago. So when he gets up to the podium, he promptly decimates our argument. . .


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