“That begs the question”, may be the most generally false assertion in English, at least among those statements that aren’t universally false. What people usually mean when they say it is that something raises a question. That’s a good thing to point out, of course, but it isn’t the same thing as begging the question.
Begging the question is a logical fallacy. It’s a form of circular argumentation in which one basically says that something is true because it is true. It supports the conclusion with the premise and the premise with the conclusion, and the question begged is, “But is it true?”
Katherine Kersten, conservative think tanker and contributor of venomous culture war opinion pieces for Minneapolis’s Star Tribune, has produced a masterwork in begging the question on the topic of marriage equality. It is truly worthy of being used to illustrate this fallacy for decades to come.
As people probably know by now, we have one of those discriminatory marriage amendments on our ballot in November. Kersten isn’t happy about having it described, accurately, as discriminatory. So she first starts by trying to distract us with a slippery-slope fallacy.
I’d guess, for example, that 95 percent of Minnesotans would oppose redefining our marriage laws to include temporary marriages, where the partners’ marriage certificate includes an end date; marriages of three or more people (say, two lesbians rearing their child with a gay male sperm donor), or marriages between siblings in a nonsexual relationship.
Yet how would such marriages hurt anyone else’s marriage? If the individuals in question love and care for each other, isn’t that all marriage is about? Doesn’t love make a family? Don’t people bound by affection deserve the benefits of marriage — and suffer stigma if these are withheld? If you disagree, aren’t you discriminating against others’ “fundamental right” to marry as they wish?
She’s right in that last paragraph, but the fact that people are uncomfortable with and have emotional reactions to the unfamiliar isn’t an argument. It’s a facet of our shared psychology that is only useful in certain environments.
Why do the marriage permutations they describe strike most of us as inappropriate, just as the marriage of two men or two women did until a few years ago? The reason is that marriage has a unique public purpose, which distinguishes it from all other human relationships, no matter how valuable they may be to the people involved.
Marriage has always and everywhere been a male/female institution because it is rooted in biology and human ecology. Across the globe and through the millennia, its public purpose has been the same: To connect men with their children and the mother who bore them, so that every child has a loving, committed mother and father.
Now, skipping over the rank ahistoricality, naturalistic fallacy, refusal to recognize something so basic as a step-family, and rather creepy assertion that men only relate to their children through their wives, what we have here is a simple assertion. Defining marriage as one man and one woman isn’t discriminatory because the definition of marriage excludes any arrangement but one man and one woman. That’s just the definition.
Did you know that it isn’t discriminatory to call women who speak out “whiny” or “shrill” because the words only apply to those with high-pitched voices? Did you know that it isn’t discriminatory to call a black person a “nigger” because the word only applies to people with dark skin? Did you know that it isn’t discriminatory to call someone poor ”trailer trash” because that phrase only applies to people who can’t afford to live in more permanent housing?
Katherine Kersten has just told us that she isn’t advocating marriage discrimination because the definition of marriage she’s advocating isn’t discriminatory. It’s just limited to one man and one woman based on the criteria she uses to define it.
Same-sex marriage supporters are wrong, then, to compare laws enshrining one-man/one-woman marriage to laws barring interracial marriage. Jim Crow-era laws did not challenge the nature or meaning of marriage. On the contrary, they sought to frustrate its natural goods by artificially keeping black and white men and women apart to perpetuate a racist legal order.
Do traditional marriage laws inappropriately discriminate against people who seek legal recognition for nonmarital, affection-based unions, which can take many forms? The answer is no. It is not “discrimination” to treat different things differently.
Jim Crow laws discriminated because they didn’t use the same definition of marriage she’s using to discriminate against same-sex couples, so she’s not discriminating but they were. The law isn’t discriminating inappropriately because it’s using the same discriminatory definition she says is appropriate. You can tell who’s doing it right because they’re doing what she’s telling you is right.
As long as you never, ever question whether she’s correct about what constitutes “doing it right”.
That, right there? That’s begging the question.