Not all traditions are moral


Last weekend, President Obama made it clear that he would not move on the Defense of Marriage Act. There are several particular falsehoods often portrayed in this debate that should be brought to light that influence people, perhaps even President Obama.

Conservatives have a particular bite: tradition. According to their view, conserving traditions and their institutions must be preserved, including marriage. We need not change and expand government influence for every claim of injury from a group. In so doing, they claim, social cohesion and the very institution of marriage are undermined. These motivations may even have a theological basis as well, but not all social conservatives base their positions on religion.

Yet, there have been instances of preserving tradition that have morally harmed others. At our founding, we declared African-Americans to be 3/5ths a person to determine Congressional representation in the South, and we thought women shouldn’t vote. Yet, these are but two examples of how preserving tradition actually hurt others. We must ask ourselves if having a blanket reverence for tradition is the morally appropriate thing to do, and whether or not it is wise to follow the Framer’s intention of the Constitution.

Another conservative error holds that if we allow one deviation from traditional marriage, then chaos will follow. We will have incest, polygamy and bestiality. Yet, this doesn’t quite follow. It’s a slippery slope form of reasoning that if you permit one action, then metaphorically you will have some significant impact culminating in disaster. On the contrary, this type of talk ignores the possibility of a middle-ground, a moderately principled position that need not dissolve completely into the chaos such fallacious reasoning leads and the fear of re-defining marriage does not automatically mean that all forms of relationships are constitutionally mandated.

Mistaken view of history

Conservatives have a mistaken view of history when making appeals to tradition. For them, they think they can look at history as one might watch television, where the event is fully seen from the outside spectator looking down. On this level, conservatives think they discover history without thinking through what’s involved. Instead, we look to history in order to understand ourselves in the present. We interpret history with our need to understand the past for current self-understanding. This doesn’t make understanding history irrelevant, but limits the authority of conservative claims made on behalf of “tradition.” Thus, their arguments aren’t from tradition, but from their understanding and interpretation of tradition.

The law must mirror morality. Gay people are educated, psychologically healthy and typically affluent. They are contributing members of our communities, and the fact that a majority of Americans are against gay marriage does not rule in favor of its impermissibility. Consider the historical parallel with the majority of Southerners favoring segregation. Civil unions are for them, marriage is for us. Separate but equal never was equal for segregation or currently for gay marriage. Importantly, we must remember that we protect minorities from the majority even to the point where we revise our norms in order to do what is just, fair and right.

X Ed Hackett is from New Castle, Pa., and went to Slippery Rock University, receiving a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and political science. He also has a master’s degree in philosophy from Simon Fraser University and will be taking up a PhD at Southern Illinois University in the Fall of 2009. He specializes in ethics and 20th century European philosophy. His e-mail is