Wednesday, April 29, 2015

"Delinking" Marriage from Procreation: Some Thoughts on Weasel Words

I had a professor in graduate school who had a problem with "weasel words." By this, he meant words that are so imprecise that they interfere with clear thinking. They lend themselves to equivocal reasoning: they shift meaning in a way that obscures the unsoundness of an argument.

Yesterday, as I listened to the NPR report on Supreme Court arguments on same-sex marriage, I found myself thinking about weasel words--because the lawyer defending discriminatory marriage laws, John Bursch, used a doozy of a weasel word in his arguments: "Delinking."

What Bursch argued is this: If we extend marriage to same-sex couples, we are "delinking" marriage from procreation. And if we delink marriage from procreation, then it's only "common sense" that we will see an increase in out-of-wedlock childbirth.

Got that? If not, here's the argument in a bit more detail: If our society recognizes same-sex marriage, we thereby indicate that procreative potential is not necessary for marriage. Thus, we "delink" marriage from procreation. But people who have babies out of wedlock are also "delinking" marriage from procreation--not in the same sense, but ignore that in favor of the fact that the word "delinking" is imprecise enough that it can be used in both cases. Isn't it perfectly reasonable to assume that if our society officially stands by delinking in the former sense, we should expect to see more delinking in the latter?

John Bursch seems to think so, which just goes to show that lawyers sometimes need refresher courses in basic critical thinking. In fact, I'm tempted to use this argument when I teach critical thinking in my classes.

Here's the thing. One thing, P, can be "linked" to another, Q, in all sorts of ways. For example, P might be a sufficient condition for Q, the way that being born in Oklahoma is a sufficient condition for being born in the US. Then again, P might be a necessary condition for Q, the way that being born on planet Earth is necessary for being born in the US.

Notice that things can be linked in one way but not linked in another. While being born in Oklahoma is a sufficient condition for being born in the US, it isn't a necessary condition. You could, like me, have been born in California. Or Texas. Or Rhode Island. (You get the idea). That being born in Oklahoma isn't necessary for being born in the US tells us nothing about whether it's sufficient.

Being born in one of the 50 states is a necessary and sufficient condition for being born in the US. But suppose we were to make Puerto Rico the 51st state of the union. Then, we would be "delinking" being born in the current 50 states from being born in the US--by making the former no longer necessary for the latter. But the two would remain linked in another way: being born in one of the current 50 states would still be sufficient for being born in the US. The one kind of "delinking" does not lead to the other.

Of course, whatever link there is between marriage and procreation is going to be different from what we find in the examples above. Infertile couples have been allowed to marry in this country for a long time. For even longer, unmarried people have been making babies. So if there is a link between the two, it isn't that one is necessary for the other. So what is it?

Maybe it's this: We think that a stable, long-term intimate partnership supported by society and the law provides the best environment for child-rearing (all else being equal). Hence, it is best if fertile heterosexual partners restrict sex to marriage, because this would ensure that children are consistently born into the best environment for child-rearing (all else being equal).

If this is the link, we might express it as follows: If you're going to make babies, it's best that you do it within a marriage. Let's call this a normative link: If P, then it's best that Q.

This is, for example, the sort of link many see between being a gun collector and having a gun safe in your home: If you're going to collect guns, then it's best to have an appropriately-sized safe in which you can store them.

But notice that if we allow people who don't collect guns to own large safes suitable for putting guns into, we have in no way severed this normative link. Letting a non-gun-collector own a gun safe--because, say, it's good for storing the person's priceless collection of ancient scepters--does not threaten in any way at all the link described above. It remains true that gun collectors would be well advised to have a gun safe even if we make gun safes available to people who don't collect guns.

Put simply, if you think that all gun collectors should own safes, you'd be pretty silly to believe that letting non-gun-collectors own safes too will threaten this principle and lead to fewer gun-collectors buying safes. It isn't remotely "common sense" that by "delinking" safe-ownership from gun-collecting in this way, you will end up with more gun collectors lacking safes in which to store their guns.

Likewise, it isn't remotely common sense that if you extend marriage to a new class of non-procreative pairs (we already extend it to non-procreative heterosexual pairs), you will have more out-of-wedlock childbirth. "Procreation should be restricted to within marriage" articulates a different kind of link between procreation and marriage than "Marriage should be restricted to couples who can procreate." If we reject the latter, that has no direct implications for the former.

The only way to make it seem as if it does is to use a weasel word like "delink." Reference two different kinds of connections with the same word, and you can proceed as if they were the same. By this reasoning, I hope to convince you to bury all your money by the edge of Stillwater Creek. I'll tell you where. Trust me, it'll be safe.


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