An ethical case for marriage equality in Australia

Same sex marriage_APNMy cousin is getting ‘married’ next month – a joyous occasion. There’s just one catch: my cousin and her fiancee are both women. In Australia – in case you’ve missed it – two women can’t actually get married. I find it entirely illogical why, in this country, we still do not recognise a marriage between two people if those people are both of the same sex.

With this in mind I would like to ask a very simple question: are there any ethical reasons why we, as a society, should be opposed to marriage equality?

I have two very brief qualifiers for this discussion. First, I am talking about marriage equality. The term ‘gay marriage’, to me, doesn’t sit right. We don’t have gay breakfast, or go on a gay road trip in the same way we don’t play straight tennis or go sexually-diverse camping. It’s too much.

The position I want to argue for here is that marriage can, and should be, a loving and legal union between two people. I’m not alone in this. Recent reports indicate that even federal Liberal MPs are changing their tune.

Second, I am talking about a legal union. I’m not here to argue about religious belief, but about what we allow in our country’s law. Last time I checked, our government is not aligned to any particular religion. Australia is all about freedom of belief, right? So arguments against changing our construction of marriage based on religious doctrine should have no weight.

Ethical considerations can be discussed using one of several ethical frameworks that have been developed over the last 2,500 years. Without going into the nitty-gritty of each theory, I would like to present a quick analysis of marriage equality from three major ethical positions:

  • Utilitarianism
  • Deontology
  • Virtue Theory

A wildly gross generalisation of utilitarianism is that the ends justify the means. An action is deemed good if it leads to good consequences. The good is a measurement utilitarians use to decide if a some consequence is good or not. The good is generally something like the attainment of pleasure and avoidance of harm, happiness, well being; whatever you might think of as being part of the good life.

So for a utilitarian to decide if something is good or not, a simple equation is used to see what the consequences of an action might be: more bad than good and the action is bad, more good than bad and the action is good.

Marriage equality presents us with many factors to consider but we could condense them into one generalised equation. If our marriage act were to be extended, some people would be harmed in that their idea of what marriage is would change. That’s an indirect harm, as it does no direct damage to their life or the pursuit of their happiness. It does, however, harm their beliefs in some way.

On the other side of the equation we would have a group of people who would directly benefit. Same-sex couples gain a direct benefit from this in that they would now be eligible for an act that our community deems a good; the ability to marry their chosen partner. The group who are directly benefitting from is appear to outweigh those who are indirectly harmed. Utilitarians would surely approve of marriage equality.

Deontology is almost the exact opposite of utilitarianism. The wildly gross generalisation here is that the means justify the ends, or it is not the result of the action but the action itself that we ought to judge as to its goodness or badness. Deontology is a rule-bound ethics. Thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not eat a pizza with a knife and fork, thou shalt try thy dinner before putting salt on it.

The key with deontological ethics is its universalisability (yes, a real word). Rules need to be applicable to everyone, or everyone in a given situation. If it was OK to lie, say, our idea of the truth would become meaningless. The rule that lying is bad, and therefore wrong, protects our ability to tell the truth.

Given this, is the rite for two consenting adults to marry, regardless of sex or gender, universalisable? Definitely. In fact, I don’t think our current idea of marriage meets these requirements. Under a deontological analysis, our current marriage laws clearly do not apply to all consenting adults.

Virtue ethics
Virtue ethics aren’t concerned with actions or consequences, but with people. A virtuous person is a good person. Someone who embodies virtues such as love, respect, and generosity (among others) and rejects vices such as hatred, greed, and bad body-odour, are good.

Would the virtuous person accept or reject marriage equality? It seems to me that anything that allows two people who love each other to be recognised can only bring good into the world. The virtuous person would have an unwavering desire to promote love in all its forms throughout the world.

I have barely scratched the surface of these ethical frameworks, but I think you get the idea. Using just a little bit of our human reasoning skills I think it’s pretty plain that marriage equality is a positive force in the world. The institute of marriage can only be made stronger by recognising all marriages. Because, here’s the thing, my cousin and her fiancee are getting married next month. To family and friends, they will be married.

Our communities have overwhelmingly accepted the idea of same sex marriages. If our government is truly representative of our community, there should be no reason why we cannot expand the marriage laws across the country.

An ethical case for marriage equality in Australia
Liam Miller, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.