The recent remarks from federal Liberal senator Cory Bernardi linking same-sex marriage to bestiality sparked outrage, and received condemnation from across Australian society. Within days, Bernardi had resigned as Tony Abbott’s parliamentary secretary, replaced by NSW senator Arthur Sinodinos. I think it is important to get clear where Bernardi’s argument regarding same-sex marriage went wrong. Primarily, this is because we need to engage critically with the reasons and reasoning employed by our representatives, whatever the subject matter. It also enables us, however, to determine exactly why Bernardi’s claims were so offensive to the vast majority of Australians.
To begin with, it is worth quoting from Bernardi’s statement to the Senate at length:
If we are prepared to redefine marriage so that it suits the latest criterion that two people who love each other should be able to get married irrespective of their gender and/or if they are in a sexual relationship, then what is the next step? The next step, quite frankly, is having three people or four people that love each other being able to enter into a permanent union endorsed by society—or any other type of relationship. For those who say that I am being alarmist in this, there is the polyamory community who were very disappointed when the Greens had to distance themselves from their support for numerous people getting together and saying they want to enter into a permanent union. They were disappointed because they were misled that this was about marriage equality and opening up marriage to all people who love each other.
There are even some creepy people out there—and I say ‘creepy’—who are unfortunately afforded a great deal more respect than I believe they deserve. These creepy people say it is okay to have consensual sexual relations between humans and animals. Will that be a future step? In the future will we say, ‘These two creatures love each other and maybe they should be able to be joined in a union.’
Bernardi was criticised for committing the ‘slippery slope’ fallacy in the course of this argument. So, what exactly was his argument, and what was wrong with it?
Bernardi’s argument had the following structure:
P1 If we allow for marriages between two people of the same sex, then we will have to allow for marriages between more than two people.
P2 If we allow for marriages between more than two people, then we will have to allow for marriages between people and animals.
P3 We cannot allow for marriages between people and animals.
C We cannot allow for marriages between two people of the same sex.
What is so ‘slippery’ about this argument? Well, the first thing to note is that the argument is formally valid: if the premises are true, then the conclusion must be true. The problem with Bernardi’s argument isn’t its formal logical structure.
Instead, what undermines the argument is that each conditional actually needs to be established. For Bernardi’s conclusion to follow, he needs to provide support for the inferences drawn in P1 and P2. Why does it necessarily follow from the legalisation of same-sex marriage that we must also legalise polyamorous marriage? And why does human-animal marriage necessarily follow from polygamous marriage? Bernardi just assumes (without argument) that legalising same-sex marriage will entail these consequences: he thinks that the question “when will it end?” has no conclusive, reasonable answer.
If an argument of this sort provides support for the inferences it makes, it avoids the slippery slope fallacy. For example, advocates of gay marriage employ an argument with a similar structure to Bernardi’s:
P1 If we allow marriage between two people of opposite sexes, then we should allow marriage between two people of the same sex.
P2 We allow marriage between two people of opposite sexes.
C We should allow marriage between two people of the same sex.
Note that P1 could just slot right into the start of Bernardi’s argument. In fact, that’s the very accusation he is levelling at same-sex marriage advocates.
The difference in the argument for same-sex marriage, however, is that P1 is supported by robust reasons regarding the values constitutive of the institution of marriage. Marriage isn’t primarily about reproduction, or recognition under the eyes of God. It is about both the legal recognition conferred by the state, and the social recognition by the community of two individuals’ exclusive love for, and lasting commitment to, one another. Same-sex and heterosexual couples both have an equal interest in these values and the corresponding recognition. Therefore, if we are committed to treating people as equals, the institution of marriage should not be confined to heterosexual couples. If we allow heterosexual marriage, then the moral equality of persons dictates that we should allow same-sex marriage.
I think two final points need to be made. First, the flaw in Bernardi’s argument highlights precisely what was so offensive about his comments. Bernardi holds such a distorted view of same-sex relationships that he could not see the very relevant differences between same-sex relationships and human-animal relationships. It is these differences that explain precisely why the former does not entail the latter. For example, at the most basic level, those in same-sex relationships are both capable of legitimate consent, which patently does not apply to human-animal cases. The concepts involved in marriage, such as mutual commitment, love, and exclusivity, can be both understood by and meaningfully applied to gay and lesbian couples; this also does not hold for bestiality. In asserting that same-sex marriage entailed human-animal marriage, Bernardi ignored these fundamental differences. In effect, he denied that same-sex relationships were even capable of instantiating these values, values that we hold to be fundamental components of a meaningful heterosexual relationship.
Second, there is a lesson to be drawn from this faulty reasoning. The validity of the argument should give any advocate of same-sex marriage pause for thought. We need to think carefully about the grounds upon which we would refute the inferences presumed by Bernardi’s argument. Despite Bernardi’s lack of argument for his assumptions, we still need to be sure why these inferences do not follow.
For one, this enables us to smack down the offensive comparisons of same-sex relationships to bestiality in the way described above, without hesitation. But furthermore, it helps ensure that we are not committing an injustice against those engaged in polyamory. If we also want to refute the first premise of Bernardi’s argument, we need to understand the relevant differences between same-sex and polyamorous relationships that support this refutation. In my view, I lean towards the absence of exclusivity, or the exploitation and subordination of women characteristic of most real-world polyamorous relationships, as morally relevant differences. But my mind is yet to be fully made up. Another topic for another day.