The second installment in my “On the Morality Of” series will focus on another issue that has sharply divided society in recent years, the issue of whether gay couples should be legally permitted to obtain marriage. Although American polls consistently find that majorities are opposed to this idea, substantial minorities support it, and the opposition seems to be declining in strength year by year. Is the majority right in this case? If gays are not permitted to marry, should they receive at least some of the benefits of marriage under another name, such as civil unions? Or is this another insidious case of “separate but equal” discrimination?
Most divisive moral issues do not have simple resolutions, but in this case I feel there’s only one rational response. We should immediately grant gay couples the full and equal right to marry, the same as heterosexual couples receive. It’s an open question whether this institution should be called “marriage”, or whether the state should withdraw from the socially charged issue of how to define marriage and instead call all legally recognized partnerships civil unions. But in either case, there can be no rational justification for denying people the full protection of the laws based on their gender or sexual orientation.
We can arrive at this conclusion in a straightforward way by applying the principles of universal utilitarianism. Gay people, no less than straight people, have the ability to love and the desire to live together in peace and security with their partners. Denying them the same rights afforded to heterosexual couples – insurance and pension benefits, the right to make medical decisions, hospital visitation rights, inheritance rights, tax benefits, adoption benefits, and more – is unconscionable discrimination. Not only does it cause tremendous suffering to the gay couples who are actually harmed by this unequal treatment, it causes great potential suffering for gay couples who know that all they have could be taken from them in the case of a tragedy or emergency. It also causes suffering for the children of gay couples by denying them a stable and secure family.
By contrast, granting them these rights causes no harm to anyone. No church would be forbidden from voicing its own views on homosexuality; no heterosexual couple would be prevented from getting married and spending their own lives together just because gays can do it too. The only repercussion would be that people opposed to gay marriage would be upset that they did not get their own way, but this is not the kind of harm that is cognizable under universal utilitarianism. The best way to maximize the happiness of everyone is to give all people the freedom to live their own lives as they see fit, so long as they do not infringe on others’ equal right to do the same. Gay people seek the same freedom as everyone else; they do not seek to reach into heterosexuals’ lives to control them, to deny them equal protection or take away any freedom that they already have. The same cannot be said of the religious right.
Nor would gay marriage lead to an increase in STDs or other consequences of unsafe sex. As any rational person would recognize, it could only have the opposite effect. Ironically, many religious fundamentalists cite the supposed rampant promiscuity of gays as reason to oppose their goals, while at the same time they furiously resist the idea of giving gay people access to the one institution that would give them the greatest incentive towards monogamy!
The last fear cited by opponents of gay marriage is that it would put us on a slippery slope towards polygamy, incest, bestiality, and other aberrant sexual practices. But this claim is absurd. In essence, it’s saying that there is no better argument against incest or bestiality other than “We never used to do it that way”. These people are in effect saying that their rules are arbitrary and reasonless, and that if any one of them changes, there is no reason not to change all the others as well.
This position is ridiculous. Every moral issue should be decided on its own merits. If there are good, independent reasons not to permit these other practices, as I believe there are, then those reasons will remain good ones regardless of whether gay marriage is legalized. On the other hand, if there are no good reasons to outlaw a particular sexual practice, then why should it be outlawed?
Other posts in this series: