Changing the definition of marriage

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It is often claimed by opponents of gay marriage that allowing individuals to marry others of the same sex would be somehow changing the definition of marriage and that this would be a bad thing due to the importance of marriage in our society and the way marriage works.

This argument is based on two ideas:

  1. The current definition of marriage is the only valid one.
  2. Changing it in any way would be harmful to society.


There are two main objections to this:

  1. Marriage has "traditionally" been defined in many different ways. This is true even if we look exclusively at Christian history.
  2. General understanding of the word "marriage" is broad enough to include many variants, even if one particular meaning is the most frequent usage.

an argument

Saying that gay marriage changes the definition of 'marriage' is like saying that self-driving cars will change the definition of 'car'.

If someone makes a different kind of car, that doesn't change the definition of your car any more than someone marrying differently from you affects your marriage.

"Same-sex marriage" (or "gay marriage"), like monogamous heterosexual marriage, is just a subset of the general concept to which the word "marriage" has always referred, regardless of what many current dictionaries might say. There's no widespread confusion about what "same-sex marriage" could possibly mean; everyone -- even those opposed to it -- understands where the two concepts overlap. If this wasn't true, you wouldn't hear its critics calling it "gay marriage"; they'd use some other term -- but they don't. They use the existing words because it's immediately obvious -- from their existing, unmodified definitions -- what it means.


Forms of marriage

Supporters of this argument often claim that the current definition of marriage has been the only one throughout all history.

This claim overlooks a number of things, including the fact that marriage has in fact had many different forms throughout history, even in Western culture, and only arrived at its present Western form (the nuclear family, marriage sanctioned by law, and other details) within the past century or so.

  • Dozens of societies across many centuries have recognized same-sex marriage. Some of these societies continue to do so.
  • Even more societies recognize other forms of marriage such as polygamy and polygyny.

see marriage/history

Harm from Changing of Definitions

Even if it were true that allowing "gay marriage" would represent a substantial change in the definition of the word "marriage", no good arguments have been offered for what the nature of this harm might be.

The arguments Issuepedia is currently aware of include:

  • changed words make older writings difficult for modern readers to understand
  • no society that has respected gay marriage has survived

The first claim seems like spitting in the wind; definitions change whether you want them to or not. It is also inconsistent to single out "marriage" for preservation when the meanings of many other words and phrases have been inexorably changing. If "changing definitions" are the real concern, shouldn't we be making laws requiring all official documents to use the Queen's English, or perhaps the English of Chaucer?

This argument also assumes that preservation of existing definitions is more important than increasing general happiness.

The second claim is simply false; there are a number of contemporary societies which have respected gay marriage for quite some time. Those societies which have more recently adopted gay marriage show no signs of crumbling, and there is no argument to suggest any mechanism whereby gay marriage might lead to social instability; quite the opposite, in fact.


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