Taking On the Slippery Slope

Here is the argument used by some to condemn the love between two men or two women: If we concede this is normal, don’t we have to recognize polygamists, pedophiles and those who engage in bestiality?

Consider the Republican candidate I worked so hard to disagree with but respect, Mike Huckabee. He said, “I think the radical view is to say that we’re going to change the definition of marriage so that it can mean two men, two women, a man and three women, a man and a child, a man and animal.”

A more thinly veiled argument comes from Justice Scalia who claimed in his dissent in Lawrence v. Texas that because the Supreme Court found no legitimate governmental interest in preventing homosexual sodomy, there would be no legitimate governmental interest in preventing “bigamy, same-sex marriage, adult incest, prostitution, masturbation, adultery, fornication, bestiality, and obscenity.”

Finally, here is something from reader David, (interestingly enough responding to the same post in which David from Chandler took me to task for not accepting polyamorous groups), “Homosexuality is just so unnatural. What is next – allowing people to have sex with their pets because they ‘love’ them and wish to express that love? How about adults who love children?”

The standard response from those who are not cultural conservatives is basically to not dignify this with a response. But that is not my style. I think it is a wide-spread feeling, and as such it should be addressed head on. So, here is the hypothetical.

Your 36-year-old son comes to you and says, although he rejects government involvement in such things, he would like you to give your blessing to his upcoming commitment ceremony with:
A. An 18-year-old woman
B. A 36-year-old woman who divorced her first husband because he beat her
C. A 36-year-old man
D. A 22-year-old woman and her 25-year-old sister
E. A 12-year-old girl
F. A 3-year-old sheep

My question is not which you would give your blessing to. My question is what is your rule to determine whether to give your blessing?

If your rule is what the Bible allows, then you must give your blessing to A., D. and probably E. If your rule is what sex would gross me out, then the answer depends on whether you’re gay or straight. Also, by the way, your rule has nothing to do with Christianity.

UPDATE 1/24 9:22 a.m.: Ug, last night I left out the gay marriage commitment which is the central discussion! It is fixed now.

14 replies on “Taking On the Slippery Slope”

I try my best limit the length of posts, but I wanted to play with the hypothetical a little more.

Note that if our standard is consent, that only clearly rules out E. It probably also rules out D, because can a 12-year-old consent to such a relationship?

In case some aren’t familiar, B. would be explicitly prohibited by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. And C. was implicitly acceptable given it was practiced by Jacob, a/k/a Israel.

My rule is to bless any relationship based on romantic love. Romantic love has the unique characteristic of sexual desire. But, I don’t think sexual desire is the most significant characteristic of romantic love. It also has to be shared between the parties.

My rule seems to solidly exclude E. & F. David from Chandler and I would disagree about whether it excludes D. and other David and I would disagree about whether it excludes C. But in any case, it seems to me that is the relevant consideration.

So, Matt, you would be okay if it was your kid entering into a relationship with two other consenting adults?

I put it in that context because I’m not interested in the legal question about what marriages the state should recognize. (Which I think may be none.) I’m asking the moral question.

Also, I appreciate your “whatever that means” re: the 12 year old and the sheep. But obviously, I’m hoping we can come to a careful articulation of that for people who would be similarly put off by a same-sex union.

Jim, your question of “would it be okay” will get us back to an earlier discussion we had about the age of consent.

I guess I just can’t get much interest up in trying to distinguish between an adult, consenting relationship between two people and one between three people.

Does it feel weird to me? Yes. I think that’s mostly because I have never run across this at all, but it doesn’t disgust me.

So, maybe I’m speaking to a level of consideration that you just don’t engage in. Evaluating the conduct of another that is not “would I do it?” but is also not “should it be illegal for them to do it?”. I guess I’m asking if you think “should they do it?” and perhaps that is a question that you’re not interested in.

And that itself is interesting.

Should is an interesting concept.

Should a person kill another for a soft drink? No, not legally, not morally.

Should a person smoke crack? No, not legally, and not for their own good. Morally? Meh. Not that interesting a question for me.

So… Shold three people get married? Legally, no, but why not? Morally? I don’t see how it’s a moral question. For their own good? If they are adults, of sound mind, and consenting, I am unconvinced that one could construct an argument to persuade me that it hurts them or others.

Matt hit the nail on the head with consent. I completely agree with his analysis. (Wow. How often do I say that?)

And on the polyamory question, so long as the consent is valid (a critical question the way it is practiced), why would there be a problem with it? It’s unfamiliar, more complex, and ultimately I find it creepy, but there are a lot of things I might find gross or creepy that I can accept in a “Hey, whatever floats your boat” manner.

Ditto with incest.

Your “should” focus here is interesting. I don’t really get the criteria you would use to define the morality of the “should they do it.” Romantic love — is that the sole criteria? Why should it be? My sole criteria would be autonomy (of which consent is a component). Obviously, non-malfeasance is necessary. But Love? I dunno. I’ve seen folks have more or less loveless relationships where they were both content and satisfied. So good for them. And the focus on Romantic Love as a necessity for an “approved” relationship implies that, by its absence, committed singles are somehow lacking. If you choose to be alone, is that an inferior state?

So any relationship which is freely chosen by the individual/s in it and is found to be mutually satisfying by the participant/s should pass muster.

As Matt noted, that would exclude pedophilia and the goat. Baa.

First a note on the meta-conversation. Determining what we should do is, what, 90% of the decisions we make in life? I suppose I think about what is legal sometimes, but mostly I think about what choice will lead to the good life. Maybe it is nonsensical to consider general rules for this level of decision making. I don’t think so. I think it helps us make these kinds of decisions to have rules and to talk to others about their rules.

Now, to support my silly, little love song. Travel with me to the year 2025. Little Shadowfax comes home and says, “Pop, I’ve found someone to marry. The relationship is entirely consensual.” Is that the end of the inquiry? Are you satisfied Little Shadowfax is taking a step towards a satisfying and fulfilling life?

I think consent is a fine legal rule. But I think it lacks as a moral rule. It is not a sufficient guide, no matter how attractive it is for its easy application. I stand by my notion that a marriage, or similar committed relationships, should be based on romantic love.

Another small point. Liam, wrote, And the focus on Romantic Love as a necessity for an “approved” relationship implies that, by its absence, committed singles are somehow lacking. I’m not saying one needs to enter committed relationships at all. I’m talking about what criteria should underlie committed relationships. Furthermore, I’m not saying committed relationship is the only response to Romantic Love. I actually feel very strongly that it is wrong to expect/pressure people to find a partner if they are not inclined to do so. I don’t think it follows logically from what I said, either, and would just let it go, except my feelings on the matter are pretty strong.

I struggle with this issue of “okayness”. Would I be okay with my son coming home wanting to marry two other men…?

Again, I just have to break that down. I think t he government should never get into marriage. I think they should allow a secular union which establishes rights like joint property, medical power of attorney, inheritance, etc. But anything that can be described as having a sanctity is none of the government’s business.

I don’t have any moral qualms at all (again, assuming the consent thing, which as Liam points out you can split hairs about, but this is not the discussion). I don’t think there is an objective morality, or at least I don’t think it applies in cases like this. It’s part of not believing in a god.

Would I be happy about the fact? No. I wouldn’t love him less, but I’d be worried and all that. But mostly, when I examine the feeling, it is an extreme case of the minorly bummed feeling I’d have if he ends up really disliking baseball. In that case, there’d the tiny death of a nice shared experience I have been anticipating we will have for a lifetime. In the case of his marrying two men, we would have a large proportion of our experience that we would not share, that I had sort of happily expected us to share — and that may be what it’s about.


I’m pretty much where Matt began. “Consent” for me means adult consent which, as you anticipated for me, excludes only E (child) and F (animals) on your list. What consent means is fairly non-controversial in our jurisprudence (except in emerging areas such as minor emancipation and access to abortion, areas which stretch my own comfort level). So when it comes to the matter of what should be legal I think this is the proper course for our society.

There are though more thoughtful critiques from religious conservatives than the clumsy one with which you began your piece, such as the one cited here. These arguments raise some of the same issues that your concern about “romantic love” raises when it comes to what a religious community finds important about marriage. I think this argument points out that marriage as a religious institution has already been debased in non-trivial ways by heterosexuals.

But I don’t believe issues of the “sacredness” or “romantic-ness” of marriage are proper concerns for the state and therefore for jurisprudence. At the end of the day I believe the only interest the state has in marriage is in protecting the well-being of children who might result from such a union. Thus, when it comes to state recognition of marriage I believe the only proper role for the state is when children are present, or may end up being present. That draws, unfortunately, a non-trivial distinction between heterosexual couples (or bi-sexual groups) and homosexual couples (or groups) unless the homosexual couple or group has also begun legal adoption efforts. Ultimately though, my view is that any group of people–and only those people–who are jointly responsible for minor children should be recognized by the state as “married.”

(Part of the problem here is that there are still elements in current marriage law which reflect other interests, largely concerning the anachronistic and historically paternalistic view of women, which provide certain economic benefits to spouses. These are often overstated though by gay rights advocates. Being a single person I have taken the appropriate legal steps to ensure that people who are not my spouse nor my immediate family members can make medical and financial decisions for me in the event of my incapacitation as well as efforts to ensure that my financial resources are disbursed as I wish upon my death. I’ve done all of this in states which are quite hostile to the idea of gay marriage.)

Kudos to you for being willing to grasp the nettle in beginning this discussion!

Be well,

David Johnson
Chandler, Arizona


You obviated a comment I wanted to make about sexual orientation affecting the discussion. But there are a lot of things that the state’s legal sanction of marriage produces beyond the few things you brought up. My wife is covered by my health insurance. If I had a gay partner, he would be covered, but that is because my employer agreed to it, Motorola is not legally obligated to extend that coverage, whereas they are in the case of my wife. The *only* distinction for that is her gender.


“But there are a lot of things that the state’s legal sanction of marriage produces beyond the few things you brought up.”

No, I don’t believe it’s true that there are “a lot things” besides those I mentioned. Yes, there are a variety of benefits that employers and other private sector entities attach to legally married people. Most of these–like the spousal health benefits–are similarly relics of the paternalistic origins of marriage. More importantly, these are the products of consensual decision-making in the market place. If your employer doesn’t want to provide health and survivor benefits for your three spouses you are free to seek employment elsewhere–just as you are if your employer refuses to provide a fee gym membership or parental leave. I don’t see an appropriate role for government regulation there.

Furthermore, I think efforts aimed at implementing such regulations ultimately are doomed to failure. If the government one day says that the only basis for legal marriage should be adult consent and then mandates that employer-provided benefits must be tied to marriage what happens when a “married” threesome shows up in court one day complaining about the failure of the law to treat each member of that union equally under the law? (For surely if the courts find that there is nothing “special” about marriage between “a man and a woman” they will also one day conclude that there is nothing “special” about marriage between just two people.)

For economic reasons, employers in such circumstances will take the only course available to them that does not discriminate against people who have chosen to “couple” as opposed to people who’ve chosen multiple spouses: to not provide any benefits to spouses at all. That will be the only policy that will stand up to constitutional decisions that can find no reason to prejudice couple unions over unions of multiple partners.

Be well,

David Johnson
Chandler, Arizona

David writes, “I think this argument points out that marriage as a religious institution has already been debased in non-trivial ways by heterosexuals.” Indeed. And I actually put a little nugget in the hypothetical to discuss this. Choice A. is an 18-year-old female. The age of two people is not a conclusive factor on their emotional/spiritual compatability. But, it is a factor. I think the institution of marriage could benefit from some soul-searching.

He also writes, “But I don’t believe issues of the ‘sacredness’ or ‘romantic-ness’ of marriage are proper concerns for the state and therefore for jurisprudence.”

Of course they aren’t. It is an entirely different issue about what should be legal. Indeed, even if we agree that only consent should drive the legal issues, we still have to figure out if the answer is to expand marriage to make it available for all, or dramatically contract marriage treating it more like the formation of a corporation.

The legality aspect of marriage is another rich area of discussion.

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