Opponents of gay marriage often cite the “definition” of marriage in defense of their opposition. They state that “marriage” IS defined as being “between a man and a woman”, thus gay marriage is not “marriage”.
Recently, I heard someone offer the point (ostensibly in defense of the possibility of gay marriage) that just because the definition of marriage “is” between a man and a woman, does not mean that it “ought” to be so. Presumably, proponents of gay marriage may often use this type of argument to promote their position.
However, I find this argumentative tactic by gay marriage proponents (insofar as its used) to be highly problematic. First of all, the proponents, insofar as they rely on the above argument, find themselves on inhospitable ground. By invoking the Humean “is/ought” distinction, the gay marriage proponents thereby commit themselves to both an untenable and counterproductive vision of normativity (“ought”), i.e. a metaphysical one (it is possible that the invocation of the question could be designed to merely provoke a limited skeptical reaction in the listener). By invoking the possibility of speculating as to what “ought” to be the definition of marriage–as a question wholly distinct from the social-historical (empirical) question of how marriage “is” defined–the proponent has opened the door to a metaphysical conception of “ought”.
This is distinctly problematic in two ways. First, by considering “ought” as something distinct from necessarily normative descriptions of what “is” (a form of normativity that is empirically tenable), the proponent has taken normativity and placed it in the metaphysical domain (a form that is untenable). And, of course, such a move leads to the completely and necessarily unanswerable question of what “ought” anything to be or not (this isn’t the middle ages). Secondly, by moving the concept into that domain, the gay proponent has moved onto the familiar home terrain of his/her opponent–the cultural-religious traditionalist. The traditionalist has the resources of thousands of years of metaphysical blather (and the cultural capital it commands) on which to base his/her argument for why gay marriage “ought” to be prevented (whereas the proponent has relatively little in terms of volume and cultural capital by comparison).
By contrast, a more plausible conception of normativity recognizes a totally different characterization of the gay marriage argument vis-a-vis the definition of marriage. This conception initially involves the recognition that the definition of marriage as a description is a historically mediated form of empirically identifiable normativity, i.e. when one says the definition of marriage “is” such-and-such, such a statement necessarily means that it “ought” to be such-and-such (according to the speaker/writer). This is the only form of normativity that makes any sense, given that one disallows the tenability of (1) any wholly non-normative “pure” description and (2) any non-descriptive (i.e. metaphysical) form of normativity. Thus, in some sense (though they presumably do not mean it in this way), the gay marriage opponent is initially correct in citing the current definition of marriage (what it “is”) as a normative stance on the definition of marriage (what it “ought” to be). In other words, in the modern era, the only meaningful sense of the term “ought” is captured within our culturally/historically-mediated descriptions (“is”). To say that marriage “ought” to be defined as it “is” appears as a redundancy.
However, given this, the gay marriage proponent now has a relatively easy road. Once this version of normativity is accepted, the traditionalists position that marriage “ought” to be defined as such (which is accurate) becomes easily seen as a wholly arbitrary position contingent on particular historical developments in human society–as opposed to some richly metaphysical account (ordained by God, or “nature”, or whatever). And since the opponents’ success appears strongly correlative with the sustainability of these metaphysical accounts (in fairness, this obvious correlation may not turn out to be causally amenable to the recommendations herein), the loss of them would appear to severely weaken any impetus to prevent a particular group (gays) from obtaining privileges which generally do not practically impact those outside their group.