Misleading arguments against same sex marriage

Most people have probably heard that Rick Santorum was given a hard time by a group of college students in New Hampshire because of his opposition to same sex marriage, which resulted in him being booed and jeered at the end. You can see the video at the bottom of this news story. What people may not have been noticed is that this was a group of college Republicans, which shows how the younger generation across the political spectrum views giving gays equal rights much more favorably than the old. Homophobia is dying, and dying quickly.

In responding to the question of why he opposed same sex marriage, Santorum exploited a debating trick in which one shifts the point of discussion ever so slightly away from something that is hard to defend against to something else that is easier to defend. The students were not prepared for this and though they sensed that they were getting a non sequitur, they could not quite put their finger on the flaw at that moment. This is not a good thing for Santorum because the students will figure out later what he did and why he was wrong and it will make them angry that he tried to snooker them. I think the jeers at the end were from those who already realized what he was doing but did not get the chance to make their case.

As a former debater, I have learned that there are quite a few tricks that you can use to stymie an opponent and seemingly win a point in the short term but you have to be aware that when people figure out later that they have been tricked, that will backfire on you. So, as a public service, here is some information to anyone to counter the kinds of phony arguments that Santorum made.

What happened during the exchange was this. When a student asked why he opposed same sex marriage, Santorum correctly replied that the burden of the argument is on those who advocate a change in existing law and pressed the student for a reason that made same sex marriage necessary. Put on the spot, the student said (at 2:30) that without it, gay people do not have the right to visit their partners in hospital. Santorum responded (again correctly) that gay people could sign a contract that gave their partners this particular right, so marriage was not necessary to achieve that particular goal.

But this misses the point. It is true that one can sign contracts that enable one’s partner to have this or that specific right, but the fact is that when you get married you automatically get conferred on you a wide range of rights, only a few of which can be substituted contractually outside of marriage. If all the rights of marriage could be achieved by signing a single legal contract between two people, then the whole issue of same sex marriage would be moot since we would have the equivalent of civil unions and gay people could have such a legal ceremony and be done with it.

Santorum further said that if same sex marriage is allowed, then the rule that marriage is only between one man and one woman would no longer hold and one would have to allow polygamy as well. He wisely steered away from his earlier claim that allowing same sex marriage to be legal would mean that one would have to also allow marriage to animals and children. This association of homosexuality with bestiality and pedophilia was what resulted in his famous Google problem.

What Santorum was doing here was misleading the audience on the ways in which the rules for marriage can be expanded. In general, marriage has the following rules: (1) only human beings can get married; (2) the number of people who can be married is two; and (3) the two people must consist of one man and one woman. (There are other rules involving age, relationship, and so on that do not add anything to the point I am making here.) Hence when one broadens the definition of marriage, one can do it in at least three ways. One can expand it to include other species, one can increase the number of people involved, one can make more flexible the genders of the people involved, or some combination of all three. What should be obvious is that there is no logical reason why any one option would inevitably lead to any other. What supporters of same sex marriage are saying is that they have no problem with restricting marriage to human beings or that the number be two. It is that they want to relax only rule #3 and allow two people of any gender (male, female, transgender) to marry. The reason for urging this change is so that then there will be equality under the law and that people’s rights are not restricted because of their gender or sexual orientation. This is a reasonable, understandable, and to my mind compelling, argument.

So what about relaxing rule #2 and allowing polygamy or rule #1 and allowing bestiality? At present there is no significant constituency pressing for either and so they are moot and bringing them into this discussion is purely a diversionary tactic. It may happen that the day will come when (say) some Mormons and Muslims lead a campaign for relaxing rule #2 and that debate will come to the forefront. I for one would have no fundamental problem with the number of people who are allowed to marry being increased to three or four or to whatever number society deems most suitable. But for the same reasons as above, I would have a problem if they increased it to three and restricted it to (say) just one man and two women. If we are going to increase the number to three human beings then, invoking the same principle of equality, the persons that comprise those three should not be restricted by gender. You should also allow one woman and two men, or three men, or three women, or one woman and one man and one transgender, and so on.

What Santorum was doing was conflating something that is arbitrary (the number of people who can be married) with something that involves a fundamental principle of justice (equal treatment under the law). As an analogy, if one should be needed, it is like the speed limit on a road. People accept whatever number is posted. People also accept speed limit changes from 55 mph to 60 mph or 65 mph as involving merely numbers that are determined based on a variety of prosaic reasons. There is no fundamental principle involved. But everyone would agree that it would be wrong to have one speed limit for male drivers and another for female drivers.

One student during the exchange pointed this out, saying (at 5:40) that she personally did not care if polygamy was allowed but that this issue was irrelevant to the issue of same sex marriage. She was absolutely correct but her view did not get a proper response.

This was not a debating competition where the point is to win. As a lawyer, Santorum should have been aware of everything that I said above and in not acknowledging it, he was either being dishonest and trying to bamboozle the audience or is so homophobic that his reasoning skills completely desert him when it comes to anything involving homosexuality. It could be the latter. As comedian Gary Shandling says in a tweet, “Rick Santorum seems so homophobic that I’m surprised he even allows another man to vote for him.”

I think that the students sensed that Santorum was not discussing the issue honestly and was being patronizing and condescending and that was why he was roundly booed at the end. But thanks to the internet, people are going to wise up and the next time he, or anyone else, tries these debating tricks, I hope they get strong push back.


  1. Jared A says

    Good template for destroying Santorum’s argument.

    The problem as I see it with that particular discussion was that Santorum wanted to treat it like a debate, except for one where he gets all the speaking time and his opponent gets to answer yes or no questions.

  2. Jared A says

    The other hilarious thing this is that the students won the debate, but he doesn’t admit it. He gave an example counter proposal (marriage should be what you make of it) that would invalidate his argument (there is no cause to change marriage laws), his opponents accept, and he says “well that’s ok”. Then he hems and haws and tries to pull a switcheroo--you have to do this in the public square, the proper place--which doesn’t make sense because that was their initial proposal.

    So even in his twisted logic and non-sequitors he lost the argument.

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