The Ethics Of… Gay Marriage

You know the funny thing is that I was never planning on doing this topic. Why? Well frankly I thought it would have been kind of redundant – after all the case for gay marriage has been so thoroughly covered in Australia and most developed nations, that going into the ethics of it would be like explaining the case for, I dunno, vaccinations or something.

But then this week Ireland goes and becomes the very first country in the world to legalise gay marriage by popular vote and once again I get sucked into a debate that I’m kind of depressed exists in the first place. I mean seriously, have we not already had this debate and come to a conclusion as a society? Gay marriage has had popular approval in Australia for years now for crying out loud; at this point it’s only the politicians dragging their feet for fear of pissing off their conservative members that’s holding us back from some of the most amazing wedding ceremonies of all time.

But hold up a second here; despite my frequent tangents into politics and sociology, this is an ethics blog I run here, and last time I check ‘popularity’ doesn’t have sweet bugger all to do with something being right or wrong. And despite the fact that many of us consider the case for gay marriage to be a clear and obvious one, it is a long-standing principle of debating that ‘the burden of proof always rests with the positive claim’, or to put it another way, “prove that I’m wrong” is a really stupid defense of an idea.

And who are we to argue with Hermione, hmm?

In other words, if we are going to argue that gay marriage should be made legal and the definition of marriage be altered accordingly, then it is on us to prove that case justified – not on the defenders of traditional marriage to defend their stance. This is part of what makes being a critic really quite easy compared to coming up with new ideas; all you need to do is sit back, poke holes and enjoy yourself while the ideas-men desperately scuttle about trying to address every problem you spot. This might sound cruel (and often is) but this sort of conservatism also serves the important purpose of screening out the good-sounding-by-actually-terrible ideas from the genuinely good ones.

Of course on paper the case for gay marriage is really quite simple: same-sex relationships, completely legal under Australian law and broadly understood as comparable to heterosexual relationships, should therefore be able to be formalised within marriage, both for the social significance and the legal rights the ceremony provides. But if you want to legalise gay marriage in this, or any other country it is nothing short of your duty to consider the arguments made against it, consider them honestly and fairly, and then defeat them with reason and evidence if you are able – and if you can’t? Then no gay marriage for you.

So what I have for you today dear audience, is a summary of the various arguments arrayed against gay marriage, a dissection of each and a comparison against both reason and evidence at hand. And I tell you what… this was a lot more entertaining than I thought it would be.

I’m going to enjoy this far more than I should.

Objection 1: Gay marriage is against my religion.

This is probably the most common objection out there and most definitely the loudest. In Australia at least the Australian Christian Association has been the leading voice in opposition to the gay marriage movement, on the basis that homosexuality is a sin within Christianity and should be opposed as an evil influence within society. Likely to their annoyance they have been joined by a number of Islamic leaders in this campaign, as well as the ever-looming Catholic church which has had a blanket ban on homosexuality ever since the 4th Century CE (why God chose this specific date to put his foot down is unclear).

Now the tempting thing to do here is to get stuck into a good old fashioned theological debate and argue that (in the case of Christianity for example) God also has serious objections to shrimp, clothing of mixed fibre, divorce and masturbation, none of which anyone seems to upset about these days. But frankly there’s a far simpler counter to the ‘homosexuality is sin’ objection and that is the separation of church and state. Keeping religion out of public policy has been common practice in developed nations for the last few hundred years, for the extremely good reason that God is not currently available for clarifications. Start trying to make modern public policy decision based on something people wrote down a couple thousand years ago and it will get really ugly, really fast. Not only are there a few hundred competing religions to choose from (all of which have precisely as much proof they speak for the creator as Christianity), there are also a good dozen different interpretations of each of these faiths, almost none of which agree with each other.

Pictured: Two religious governments resolving the question of who’s god is more just, loving and merciful.

More importantly for the topic of gay marriage, in modern times it is not exactly uncommon for the various religions to find themselves on the wrong side of observable facts (say hi Galileo!), which forces them to make a very important decision: should we push for a literal interpretation of our clearly incorrect scripture and look like idiots? Or should we go for the old ‘it’s a metaphor for faith’ explanation, adjust our teachings to a modern understanding of reality and just get on with things? Sometimes these religions make the smart choice, but in the case of gay marriage, they sadly have not.

Objection 2: Homosexuality is unnatural.

But arguing that ‘religions should accept the facts’ assumes that the evidence supports gay marriage, and surely it does not! Everyone knows homosexuality is unnatural and therefore we are right to oppose this perversion, let alone it being given the same legal status as our perfectly natural heterosexual relationships.

Well first of all, it turns out homosexuality is in fact extremely natural, if by natural you mean observed in nature. To date homosexual behaviour has been observed in over 500 species of animals in addition to our own. So, you know, case closed on that one.

But those are just animals, the tiny pawns of Satan! How could homosexuality be natural in humans? Surely it would be bred out of humanity almost immediately since they can’t have kids.

This is actually an intriguing point and the question of whether homosexuality is genetic or not is yet to be resolved, but the fact remains: we have a lot of gay people around and it’s the straight people that are giving birth to them. Go figure.

Either way the entire ‘unnatural’ argument should become redundant the second that you realise that you’re reading this on a god damn electronic device. You know what’s interesting about electronic devices, the internet, electricity, the building you’re currently sitting in and clothes (I assume) you are wearing? None of them are even close to even the broadest definition of the word ‘natural’. You know what definitely is natural? Ebola. Go have a try of that next time you feel like floating the ol’ naturalistic fallacy.

Objection 3: Gay couples can’t have kids

This is a hella weird one that surfaces occasionally, essentially arguing that since gay couples can’t have kids they have no business being married. Not sure how child-bearing became a criteria for marriage for some people, but the fact that even the wackiest religions (let alone a secular state) don’t require a fertility test before marriage should shoot this one down immediately.

Quite apart from anything else, what a horrible thing to say in light of all those happily married couples out there that simply can’t have kids! What sort of awful value system are you working off that would lead you to tell such couples that their relationships are unworthy all because of a terrible medical condition they had no hand in? Feel free to bellow this at the next person you hear make this stupid, stupid argument – I certainly plan to.

Objection 4: What’s next? Pedophilia? Bestiality? ROBOSEXUALS?

Occasionally the tabloids will print an article of letter from ‘Concerned citizen’ who argues that legalising gay marriage will set a dangerous precedent indeed!

“If we let the gays get married then what’s next? If we’re willing to violate the age-old standards of such a holy institution then what’s to stop pedophiles from demanding to be married next? Or people who want to get married to their dogs? Or those creepy Asians who marry their pillows, so I hear? The general moral decay of the youth today! Back in my day we’d never stand for it!”, and so forth.

I’d go on but I was starting to get far too into it. The ‘angry pensioner spiel’ is oddly addictive…

The fun thing about these sort of objections of course, is that you could make them about pretty much anything. Got a speeding fine? “They’ll be locking up the Jews next!” Spelling error in an email? “The death of human literacy is at hand!” Man with a beard wins Eurovision? “Soon they’ll be forcing us all to have sex changes!”. And just like all these wonderful examples, the horrible thing-that-will-happen-next has nothing to do with the issue at hand at all.

This is known as the ‘slippery slope fallacy’ and as should be pretty obvious by now, it’s pretty dumb. That said it can appear pretty compelling from time to time; after all if we’re legalising gay marriage (homosexuality having been considered quite evil, historically) then shouldn’t we also reconsider other taboo relationships like pedophilia, bestiality, etc? And the answer is that, yes, we absolutely should! In fact I already did a few months ago. And whereas a rational, evidence-based review of homosexual relationships find them to be exactly the same as heterosexual relationships (slightly more STDs, significantly fewer unplanned pregnancies), the same review of bestiality, pedophilia and other taboo relationships comes up extremely sketchy at best and outright unethical at worst. And so we are justified in legalising gay marriage but not these other relationships.

Objection 5: Why aren’t civil unions enough?

In the truest spirit of politics, the Australian federal government has tried to please everyone by offering gay couple the option of ‘civil unions’, which are like marriage, but aren’t marriage. These unions are like a second-class marriage which provides many of the legal benefits normal marriage does (but not all of them) and some of the social appeal normal marriage ceremonies do (but not really).

Naturally this managed to piss off just about everyone, since opponents didn’t see why gay relationships deserved any recognition thank-you-very-much, and gay couples naturally wondered why their relationships were second-class to everyone else’s. Nonetheless these civil unions have become the best option for gay couples looking to tie the knot in Australia, and recent efforts to push for full marriage for these couples has caused many to ask why gay couples can’t just be happy with the civil unions that they have? Why do homosexuals need to go that one step further and barge in on the traditional definition of marriage? Sure they might want to demonstrate their love for each other, but they already have civil unions for that – why do they insist on messing with our traditions, all for the sake of being able to use the same title?

I always find this defence of traditional marriage kind of entertaining, since it essentially boils down to ‘the only difference between civil unions and marriage is the name, so why does it matter’, which you’ll note, kind of trivialises the entire value of marriage as a whole. But hilarious self-defeat aside, why does it matter if gay people can get married if civil unions essentially provide the same service? Doesn’t this compromise give us the best of both worlds already – recognition for gay relationships while not threatening lovers of traditional marriage?

Long story short: no. The only possible reason to make a distinction between ‘traditional’ and ‘gay’ marriages is either because you think they are fundamentally different, or that one is clearly inferior to the other. And since the facts available to us show that homosexual relationships are identical to heterosexual marriages in every way that counts (see the above arguments, particularly numbers 2 and 3) then the only conceivable reason you’d demand traditional marriages be kept separate from gay ones is because you think they are inferior, and will somehow besmirch the entire concept of marriage if they are included.

In the light of the arguments above, this opinion is clearly false and therefore unworthy of our attention.

Objection 6: Churches will be forced to marry the gays!

For those who oppose homosexuality from a religious perspective, the imminent legalisation of gay marriage holds an extra terror; not only will society soon be lumping wantonly sinful behaviour in with good, wholesome heterosexual marriages, but surely this will also mean that our very places of worship will be taken from us and used in these unholy perversions of matrimony! Gay marriages in churches! Gay marriages in mosques! Gay marriages in synagogues! And anyone who objects gets thrown in the slammer for discrimination! Bad enough that something you consider a mortal evil be made legal; surely this will open up the door to the gays demanding to be married in churches like us god-fearing folk!

Ok I’m making fun here, but the essential point is pretty solid: weddings traditionally are religious affairs and take place in houses of worship. If we legalise gay marriage then what is stop homosexual couples from asking to be married in these same religious buildings – religions which ardently oppose their sexual orientation? This would be a terrible violation, no different than a priest insisting on preaching at a secular wedding and having the government back them up on the grounds of unfair discrimination.

What a relief then that this will never, ever happen. Remember that whole ‘separation of church and state’ thing I wrote about in Objection 1? That concept also protects religions from the state interfering with their worship or their private property. Sure businesses cannot refuse service based on protected classes, including sexual orientation, but since ‘religious values’ are also a protected class, nor can a church be forced to conduct a marriage ceremony for those who do not follow their faith. Seriously, try suing the Catholic Church for not hosting an Islamic wedding and see how that goes for you – straight or gay, this will not end well for you.

Of course this sort of special treatment for religions does kind of hinge on them being private property, which in turns brings up the question as to why they have tax exemption, but I’ll save ‘The Ethics Of… Organised Religion’ for when I’m in a particularly self-destructive mood.

Objection 7: Gay people make me uncomfortable.

Six serious objections reviewed against the evidence and dismissed in turn, and this is where we end up: ‘I don’t like it’. This might sound like a joke but it really isn’t; sit down and work through objections to a lot of common debates and this is generally the sort of answer you find yourself with: ‘I find the concept I oppose unpleasant/uncomfortable/scary’. Go deep enough and I’m quite confident that a large part of the opposition against gay marriage will boil down to ‘I don’t really know any gay people or understand their lifestyle, and I’m vaguely worried that I might be forced to participate in something that I wouldn’t like.’

Written down like that it sounds a bit silly, but I’m sure that if you were to heavily analyse some of your own opinions you’d find many similar cases. And this sort of aversion shouldn’t be dismissed lightly either as they tend to form the foundation for most of our more articulate beliefs and opinions – sometimes all it takes is one bad experience to sour us to an entire concept for life, especially if it’s something we don’t personally participate in or know much about. There’s nothing like ignorance to create fear and there’s nothing like fear to create opposition – a process you’ll note that at no point has any reference to ‘facts’.

But while these sorts of uncertainties and fears are a completely understandable reason to oppose gay marriage, they are in no way a justifiable basis to deny an entire group of people the equal right to marry the partner they love.

5 thoughts on “The Ethics Of… Gay Marriage

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