Same-sex Marriage and the “Slippery Slope:” Yes, there is a slope, but it’s a short one, and the incline is very gradual.

The issue of same-sex marriage is at the center of public policy debates in the US and elsewhere. It has the attention of Congress and state legislatures. And the Supreme Court is considering two major cases involving the legal status of same-sex marriage. Indeed, the concept of marriage in our culture has been opened to question.

In the face of growing public support for same-sex marriage and the constant attention the subject has received in the media, conservative opponents have revived the litany of horrors they predict will follow from any departure from “traditional” marriage. They characterize same-sex marriage as the first step down the “slippery slope” of degradation that will lead to marriage between siblings, polygamy, group marriage, and, finally, marriages between humans and animals.

Liberals, predictably, reject any idea of a “slippery slope,” insisting that the issue is simply one of civil rights – extending to same-sex couples the same right to state-sanctioned marriage that exists for opposite-sex couples, under the same conditions and restrictions. However, despite the standard liberal riposte, “slippery slopes” exist. And a major change in the concept of marriage logically opens the door to rethinking the boundaries of the permissible legal arrangements that can included within the definition of marriage. It is altogether logical that marriage, as a legal status joining individuals into a conjoint social identity, need not be limited to two people with no presumed familial relationship to each other. To the extent that rights have been determined to reside in individual persons, the right of any individual to form a civil contract with any other individual or group of individuals implies that civil marriage (the only kind in which government has any legitimate interest) can include arrangements other than those involving dyads with no discernible genetic connections.

Clearly, the most absurd examples of the horrors to which a slide down the slope will lead can be rejected on grounds that are neither religious nor traditional, but simply logical. Humans cannot be legally married to animals. Animals, whatever their moral significance, are not persons. They cannot make legal arrangement, nor can they enter into contracts. They cannot be held morally liable for their actions and cannot be assessed legal penalties for acts against humans or other animals. Similar reasoning, at least in our society, prevents marriages to minors, who, although they are persons, cannot enter into a contractual relationship and lack the physical and emotional maturity required to consummate a marriage as an equal partner.

Marriage to siblings will never be approved; nor is it likely to be sought. The prohibition against incest is a powerful force in almost every culture. And while incest is no doubt secretly practiced by consenting individuals in our society, those who engage in incest go to great lengths to conceal their actions rather than seek legal sanction for them.

The idea that marriages will take place between close relations is generally an appeal to social stigmatization. The issue here is cousin marriage, which is associated in popular culture with ignorant and backward white inhabitants of the mountains and backwoods of the rural south. This is a statement of class status, using kinship marriage practices to define as inferior a group of people whose poverty and social isolation can be attributed to their backward – and implicitly immoral – lifestyle.

In reality, marriages between first and second cousins are historically as characteristic of the European nobility and upper classes as they are of the peasantry. In the Middle East such marriages are quite common today. The economic impetus to maintain wealth within the clan encourages marriages between cousins, as does the familiarity and affection of people who grow up together in a society that lacks the mobility and population density to which we are accustomed.

In fact, nineteen states and the District of Columbia permit (second and beyond) cousin marriage. Twenty-five states explicitly prohibit marriage to first cousins. Five states permit first cousins to marry under very strict conditions generally based on the spouses being beyond child-bearing age. The concern about first cousins producing children with genetic abnormalities is the stated cause for the prohibition. However, in recent years, there has been a small, quiet movement of persons advocating acceptance of marriage between first cousins. But this movement has not gathered sufficient critical mass and momentum to reach the threshold of public awareness and political advocacy.

Once we dismiss the extreme and unrealistic predictions about the consequences of redefining marriage, we might find that there are arrangements that are quite logical, and may, in time, become the subject of claims to legitimacy, claims that will be taken seriously. The first example is polygamy and its corollary, polyandry. Despite the claim that the natural form of marriage is one man and one woman, polygamy has been an accepted form of marriage in many cultures. It has been prevalent in nomadic and agricultural societies in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, in the past in even now. Polygamy had economic value and serves to indicate social status in the cultures in which it is practiced. And while there is biblical support for marriage between one man and one woman, the Bible also records many cases of polygamy, most notably among the patriarchs.

In the original Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) plural marriage was held to be a divine commandment. While political expediency led the LDS church to reject polygamy as heresy, fundamentalist Mormon groups continue the practice plural marriage in semi-secrecy. In the same way that Protestant Christian fundamentalists consider that any deviation from traditional marriage is a sin against God, Mormon fundamentalists believe that not practicing plural marriage is a sin against God. One popular idea of polygamist Mormons has been informed by the case of Warren Jeffs and images of women in frontier hairdos and frock dresses, living in primitive conditions, and bearing children for corrupt old men. However, a more humane picture has emerged through the television series “Big Love” and “Sister Wives.” These programs open up for consideration the possibility that adults who are as mature and rational as the rest of us can choose to enter into a polygamous marriage of their own accord. While it is unlikely that legislatures or courts will consider plural marriage to be legal any time soon, there is no compelling logic that requires that the rest of us reject it out of hand.

The even more extreme form of plural marriage is known as group marriage. The idea was en vogue among utopian idealists of the nineteenth century and in the era of hippy communes in the 1960s. Unlike polygamy (or polyandry) this arrangement entails multiple members of both sexes forming a family. Members of these groups have generally rejected the idea of traditional (state sanctioned) marriage, its relevance and legitimacy. The issue surrounding this arrangement is the legal creation of a corporate or collective identity that confers upon the members of the group the obligations and benefits that are established by law for married persons. Such an arrangement is necessarily cumbersome. But it is not beyond comprehension. The reasons for prohibiting such arrangements are rooted more in tradition than in logic.

Arguments for slippery slopes and domino effects are common. We support or reject these arguments based on our political preferences, moral beliefs, and emotional comfort. But often the predictions that are the subjects of these arguments are based on a logical appraisal of the facts at hand. Dominoes fall, and gravity pulls us down slopes. Any departure from what appears to be the norm has consequences, some of which can be foreseen and some of which cannot. Even when we can accurately predict the outcome of a change in policy or law, we cannot always anticipate its long term consequences. And for many people, the lack of historical perspective leads to the belief that any major cultural change will have calamitous results, with the most entrenched defenders of the status quo predicting devastating consequence for our society.

As Kant insisted, we cannot decide that a course of action is right simply by assessing its likely outcome. Instead we would do well to try to determine to the best of our ability if the action is reasonable and if it is just.

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