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Same sex marriage: is public opinion a moral value?

By Max Atkinson - posted Monday, 6 December 2010

One can learn a good deal about morality by looking, not at philosophical theories, but at commonplace arguments on moral issues, such as the issue of same sex marriage. A good example is the last episode of Tony Jones' Q&A, which shows what happens when important moral distinctions are ignored, in this case the distinction between opinions and values.

At the time of writing Labor opposes both reform of the Marriage Act and a conscience vote; it has, however, endorsed a Greens' policy that members consult with electorates to ascertain their views. No one has explained what this means, but it raises a fundamental question about the role of members viz. whether they are trustees to serve the interests of constituents, or delegates to reflect their views. As the Q&A debate suggests, this choice is likely to have profound implications for controversial issues.

When gay marriage was raised on this show, Senator George Brandis offered the following solution:


"I think there are two important principles … and neither can be looked at in isolation. The first principle is that people shouldn't be discriminated against because of their sexuality and I don't think any decent person would dispute that sexuality should not be a basis for discrimination ... On the other hand, I think that people who want to see the law change do need to accept that marriage is a unique institution. It has a deep cultural, and … religious significance and to change the definition of marriage in the Marriage Act is something that should not be done until there is a significant community consensus in favour of doing so. Now, where those two principles come into tension is the decision policy makers … have to grapple with ..." (emphasis added)

Bill Shorten, Minister for Financial Resources, agreed, using a less didactic, more blue collar explanation:

"… on one hand some people really do object to the idea of gay people getting married. On the other hand, a lot of people, including myself, think that why should someone be discriminated against because of their gender or sexuality. See, you've got these two issues ... I think a time will come where a whole lot of people will think, okay, what's the drama about changing the Marriage Act? I don't think the community is there yet to change the Marriage Act."

While both politicians claim to defend an ideal of fairness, each manages to ignore it. Brandis agrees with those who oppose gay marriage but for some reason wants to treat their opposition as if it were a moral value in itself. This fits his glib assumption that the art of politics is to balance competing principles. But in fact there is nothing to balance because there is really only one principle on the table; this is the duty of government to treat all citizens with equal concern and respect, arguably a foundation value for any political system.

On the other side are people who resent the idea of gay unions being granted the official recognition which they enjoy. Brandis is right in supposing his duty is to defend community values, but wrong to assume that this reaction expresses a principle he must defend, a point quickly spotted by an alert young woman in the audience:


"To me it seems that those two points completely contradict each other, because all of you seem to have agreed that religious ideologies should not be imposed on or should not dictate government policy but what you've just said there is that, oh, a lot of major religions, you know, dismiss or don't recognise the idea of the union of two people from the same sex. So why should that be applied to a government policy? I just don't understand … I just would like to hear a practical reason behind, rather than, 'Oh, I just have an aversion to it.' "

Bill Shorten's position is even more bizarre. He supports gay marriage and believes the opposition to reform has no rational basis, but he condones this prejudice simply because many in the community share it. But if Party leader Julia Gillard were to change her mind tomorrow, rather than in 12 months' time, it seems clear he would follow suit.

Sadly, what is missing in the Brandis/Shorten approach is any sense of concern for those who, regardless of the progress in removing material discrimination, are deprived of the rich moral and symbolic meaning which marriage bestows on the commitment to a loving union. Their detachment is a sure sign that something is wrong.

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About the Author

Max Atkinson is a former senior lecturer of the Law School, University of Tasmania, with Interests in legal and moral philosophy, especially issues to do with rights, values, justice and punishment. He is an occasional contributor to the Tasmanian Times.

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