When the Supreme Court discovered in the Constitution a right for same-sex couples to marry, I thought that the advocates of redefinition would stop shouting for “marriage equality.” I was wrong. The Republican candidates are against “marriage equality,” so we will have to endure more equality-talk.
This gives me an opportunity, however, to discuss the term. When advocates of same-sex marriage call for “marriage equality,” they are committing the fallacy of begging the question: they are assuming precisely what they seek to prove.
When two or more things are “equal,” they are equal in some respect. For example, “income equality” refers to (let’s say) each person having the same quantifiable income. In the category of “equal treatment,” equality is accomplished by each person receiving the same standard of treatment. For example, if we want “healthcare equality,” then we need to ensure that each person receives the same standard of medical care. “Equal protection under the law” is in the category of equal treatment. The law must be applied equally to each person.
So things being equal means being equal with respect to some term, standard, or definition. Whenever you hear “equality,” you must ask, “Equality in reference to what?”
Imagine a park that allows any dog with a leash to enter the park. “Park equality” for dogs is accomplished by ensuring that all dogs who meet the condition are allowed entrance. The rule is applied equally to each dog. The harmless chihuahua puppy without a leash must be denied entrance and the pitbull with a leash must be allowed in. Again, equal treatment is having the rule applied to each dog without discrimination. Equality does not mean allowing all dogs to enter without reference to the condition.
Now, what about marriage equality? The traditional standard to obtain a legally recognized marriage is…
Any two consenting adults of the opposite sex
Equal application of this definition means that each adult is afforded the right to marry a consenting person of the opposite sex. Advocating for the equal application of this standard is “marriage equality.” Polyamorous, polygamous, non-consensual, and homosexual couples, if allowed to marry, would violate the standard and constitute a misapplication of the standard. And denying any consensual heterosexual couple the right to marry would be marriage inequality. Equal treatment is simply that each person has the same opportunity to fulfill the definition, even if he or she has no interest in doing so.
The new definition of marriage is the following:
Any two consenting adults
Equal application of this means that each adult is afforded the right to marry any consenting adult. Polyamorous, polygamous, and non-consensual couples, if allowed to marry, would violate the standard and be a misapplication of the standard. Still, all polyamorous, polygamous, and non-consensual couples are treated equally when each of them is afforded the right to marry any one person, even if they want to marry more than one.
What we see is that “marriage equality” assumes already a definition of marriage. All people advocate “marriage equality” when they want their own definition of it applied to each person. Hence, when advocates for same-sex marriage claim to be for marriage equality and accuse their opponents of being against marriage equality, they are begging the question. Those who are against same-sex marraige can be accused of supporting marriage inequality only if they hold to the new definition and then decide to exclude homosexual couples. But, of course, they believe in the traditional definition and want an equal application of it. The typical use of the phrase “marriage equality” is question begging, because they use it to fault their opponents for failing to apply equally a definition of marriage their opponents don’t even believe in.
But the phrase is useful and effective. There is nothing worse in modern politics than to be effectively accused of supporting inequality. It is sad that a phrase and symbol ( = ), representing a fallacious argument, has been so powerful.