As an academic and an educator, I am guided above all by Plutarch’s immortal words, ‘The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.’ This idea sits at the centre of my pedagogical approach. I have been blessed with opportunities to teach in many different settings. I have taught at Australian universities, comprehensive and selective high schools and private coaching collages. In each case my unum ago was never to teach students what to think but how to think. To achieve this goal (and I believe it to be a noble one) I endeavour to teach my students some basics in Western philosophy. In particular, I find it crucial that they understand the logical architecture of a formal argument and understand how it can be tested for fallacies.
Having taught and studied political philosophy for close to nine years, I see the ability to engage in rational discourse as a crucial life skill not a mere academic pursuit. The ability to use reason and logic to test the myriad claims that surround us at both a conscious and unconscious level is key to making informed decisions. This is why I teach philosophy to even my youngest students. At 13 and 14, students have the capacity to weigh claims and to develop critical and creative thinking skills. Many of my most enjoyable classes have involved teaching logical fallacies to young people and then watching them apply those skills to the world around them (California State University has a great summary of logical fallacies).
I recently discovered the blog site of Baptist minister and ethicist, Rod Benson, who, among other things, is Public Affairs Director for the NSW Council of Churches. Benson is generally left-leaning (by Christian standards) and is a noted activist for several laudable causes including ‘climate change action, justice for Palestinians, religious freedom, and gambling reform’. Despite this, he is a staunch opponent of marriage equality for homosexual couples. Benson has recently published an article listing his five ‘non-religious’ arguments against same-sex marriage . For a person in such a position of authority, with such influence and education, it is truly sad to see him put forward this impotent apologia for prejudice. Sadder still, the youngest of my students would be able to identify the blatant logical fallacies passed off as arguments.
1. We are told that marriage ‘is intended as the lifelong union of one man and one woman’ and that this is the ‘natural basis of the family’. This fallacy is known as the appeal to nature and it should set off alarm bells for two reasons. Firstly, Benson seemingly believes that monogamous, heterosexual relationships are always the case in nature. If we leave aside the animal and insect worlds which certainly have a different interpretation of natural, Benson’s false premise can quickly be revealed if he flips through his Bible where polygamy and concubines are the order of the day. Benson is trying to suggest that Victorian era concepts of marriage are natural while (ironically) Biblical ones are not. The second inherent fallacy in the appeal to nature is that it presumes that natural must be better. This is clearly not the case. Hospitals regularly keep people alive with pig’s arteries, pacemakers and a litany of very unnatural devices. This is not an argument.
2. Benson tells us that marriage is ‘deeply embedded in human history and culture’ and that ‘those who oppose same-sex marriage do so because they respect the wisdom of hundreds of generations of human tradition’. This fallacy is called argumentum ad antiquitatem (the argument to antiquity or tradition). I’ve already mentioned that Benson is guilty of historical anachronism when he suggests monogamous, heterosexual marriage has always been normative. King David had at least eight wives and ten concubines (2 Samuel 3:2-5), however, his son King Solomon took polygamy to the extreme with over a thousand wives and concubines (1 Kings 11:1-3). It was not just kings, though, polygamy was acceptable for any man who could afford to care for more than one wife. Leaving that aside, the appeal to tradition is about as weak as arguments can be. Slavery was condoned by hundreds of generations of human tradition also. The oppression of women has also been around for centuries. One might expect that an ethicist such as Benson would know that an injustice with great longevity remains an injustice.
3. Next, Benson looks into his crystal ball and tells us with unnerving certainty that ‘once the law is changed there will be calls for group marriage and other variations devaluing the meaning of marriage’. Really? What possible evidence is there to support this? Leave aside the stinging irony that so many of Benson’s Biblical heroes where quite the fans of group marriage, is there a lobby group for group marriage or have any of the same-sex rights activists ever indicated this is on the agenda? This logical fallacy is worst of the lot. It is called a non sequitur (does not follow) and means the conclusion does not follow the evidence. This is bottom of the barrel stuff. No attempt is made to explain how or why a heterosexual marriage will be devalued if loving homosexual couples are afforded equal rights and no attempt is made to justify the claim that this will inevitably lead to a push for group marriage or anything else. In the absence of a single logical argument, the strategy is to spread fear that the sky will fall in if homosexual couples are afforded the same rights heterosexual couples have always enjoyed.
4. We are told that ‘in the absence of children conceived and born through natural means, same-sex couples may resort to IVF or surrogacy to procure children’. Benson immediately stumbles into his own contradictions here and makes no attempt to explain why it is ethically fine for a heterosexual couple to explore these ‘unnatural’ avenues but not for homosexual couples. We are left with nothing but a value statement and a false, prejudicial binary. Heterosexual couples will be loving, nurturing carers of children. Homosexuals will not. Benson claims to worry only about the wellbeing of the children, noting the possible commodification of babies and human rights abuses in other countries. The most petty and cruel of his non-arguments is that IVF or surrogacy for same-sex couples would involve ‘the allocation of scarce medical resources’. Would he dare to tell a heterosexual couple using IVF that they are wasting scarce medical resources? The argument is completely invalid as Benson makes no attempt whatsoever to justify his premise.
5. Despite the promise, Benson does not have a fifth argument. Having exhausted his ideas he embarks on a short tirade against those who compare the struggle for marriage equality to the fight for civil rights in the 1960s. It is curious to note that the same logical fallacies, the appeal to nature, tradition and the ‘opening the door to other evils’ argument were all used by conservatives as they fought against racial equality. Desperate to avoid sounding like a bigot, Benson closes his article declaring, ‘to hold that marriage is the exclusive union of a man and a woman is neither discriminatory nor unjust, but common sense’. The article finishes as it began, with a logical fallacy, in this case argumentum ad populum (appeal to popularism). Just because something appears to be common sense and a large number of people agree does not make it true.
We were promised five but Benson has failed to present one single logical argument against same-sex marriage. His blog promises that he will soon present five religious reasons to oppose marriage equality. This is telling and I suspect he will feel on much safer ground if he can appeal to the Bible rather than logic. The argument against same-sex marriage is not rational or logical, it is grounded in bigotry and Christianity, sadly, has been partly guilty in spreading and perpetuating this needless prejudice. There is a large and growing wing of Christianity which is able to see this discrimination for what it is. I truly hope that Rod Benson, who fights for so many wonderful causes, will eventually reconsider his position on this one. The psychological trauma this draconian attitude causes for same-sex couples, especially Christian same-sex couples, is enormous. If you do believe in a creator God, then God made homosexuals that way and He doesn’t make mistakes. I would encourage you to listen to Matthew Vines excellent response to years of institutionalised homophobia in the Church. When asked what was the greatest commandment, Jesus said simply ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and … Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself’ (Matthew 22:37-39). If more Christians were dedicated to loving their neigbour rather than judging their sexual preference, the world would be a better place.
Note to Rod: If you feel I have taken you out of context or if you would like to reply to this article I would be more than happy to publish your response in full on this site.