I was alarmed this past week to read that two highly regarded conservative columnists in The Australian would be voting “Yes” in the postal survey on same-sex marriage. I refer to Janet Albrechtsen, who invoked libertarian philosopher John Stuart Mill, and Greg Sheridan, who invoked medieval theologian St Thomas Aquinas, to support their arguments.
Voting Yes to same-sex marriage recognises that institutions evolve, social mores change and laws ultimately reflect those changes… When the word ‘marriage’ was inserted into the Constitution in 1901, there was only one meaning imaginable, but not any more.
Albrechtsen may not realise it, but on this basis a “yes” vote will set up a sliding scale on the meaning of marriage for future generations of Australians. It is not too hard to imagine a time when the definition of marriage could include polygamous relationships, even incestuous ones.
But let’s leave that aside.
How about Ms Albrechtsen’s appeal to John Stuart Mill’s essay On Liberty? Yes, Mill did write that the individual should be “sovereign” over his own mind and body, and that “the only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others.” However, even the most libertarian of conservatives in the Liberal Party have not adopted Mill’s ‘anything goes’ approach. For example, there are few Liberals in state and federal parliaments prepared to argue that we should legalise marijuana, let alone harder drugs, based on Mill’s philosophy that each man should be master of his own destiny. And the possible introduction of laws making euthanasia possible continue to be debated in parliaments around the country because of the wider legal and social implications.
These issues come down to arguments around the rights of the individual versus the common good. Drug-taking and euthanasia continue to be frowned upon, not only because of the harm they do to individuals but also because of their social impact. For the same reason, all Australian states require the wearing of seat belts in cars and helmets for motorcyclists and cyclists. We also place limits on the sale and advertising of tobacco products. The ‘common good’ issues in these instances are about the drain on the health and welfare systems from the possible harm caused in motor vehicle accidents where seat belts and helmets are not worn, and diseases associated with the use of tobacco.
Marriage equality needs to also be seen in the context of the social harm that may ensue. At what point do we say enough is enough? If Mill’s essay justifies gay marriage, it can also be deployed to justify polygamous, polyandrous, and polyamorous marriages so long as the individuals in those arrangements are consenting adults.
And why not also allow incest, and give such couples legal standing? In this day of very effective contraceptive drugs and devices, and abortion on demand, shouldn’t the right to cohabit be left to the consenting individuals even if they happen to be brother and sister? The ‘ick’ factor aside, what possible reason does the state have to not legalise incest? If you think this is unlikely in modern Western societies consider that the German Ethics Council recently recommended that incest, including between siblings, be legalised.
Have no doubt that once gay marriage is legalised a Pandora’s Box will be opened. If the only argument we have for voting “Yes” on same-sex marriage is to grant validation to the love individuals in a homosexual relationships have for each other, we are standing on very shaky philosophical grounds. Love blesses all marital arrangements. If you love your sister, marry her! If you love your horse – marry it! But, marriage is, and always has been, across all societies and cultures, about much more than love.
This brings us to Greg Sheridan’s nonsensical appeal to the Angelic Doctor, the premier theologian of the Catholic Church, Thomas Aquinas. Sheridan notes that he “was surprised to learn recently that [Aquinas] held the view that prostitution should not be illegal.” He then uses Aquinas’ argument that human law cannot “exact perfect virtue from man, for such virtue belongs to few and cannot be found in so great a number of people as human law has to direct.” Sheridan makes Aquinas sound as utilitarian as Mill.
Sheridan can be forgiven if he has not read all three parts of the Summa Theoligica. Unfortunately, with his mind on higher things, Aquinas neglected to write a treatise on prostitution. His ideas are coherent, but scattered throughout the 3,500 pages of the Summa.
Aquinas’ views on “legalising” prostitution need to be read in the light of his discussion of lust, natural law, and human sexuality. He lists four types of lust: simple fornication, adultery, incest and rape. They all vary in degrees of the wrong committed against God and man (society, as well as the individuals concerned). Aquinas parks prostitution under fornication, which is the least serious of the four. To Aquinas, the others are more serious because they cause greater harm to other individuals (e.g., the betrayed spouse or a woman assaulted and raped) or society (e.g., the breaking of family bonds in the case of incest).
So why does Aquinas not call for laws against prostitution? First, he sees the social harm as less than in the cases of the other types of lust. But secondly, he understands the limitations of civil authority. To Aquinas, civil law could not be used to punish every moral wrong. Such resources are limited, he reasoned, and must be used to combat greater threats to the social order.
Aquinas may well have supported the decriminalisation of homosexual acts. In his thinking, homosexuality was mere fornication – the least harmful of the sins of lust, as the social harm was limited, provided, of course, that the actions remained private and between consenting parties.
On the other hand, Aquinas would have had reservations about Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras because it actually promotes homosexual activity. This is an important point: Aquinas said the elimination of prostitution from the statues was acceptable because it meant toleration of an evil by civil authorities but not endorsement of the evil.
So what might Aquinas think about gay marriage?
Sheridan and others would do well to remember that Aquinas was a natural-law philosopher. Indeed, in his discussion of lust in the Summa, Aquinas talks about marriage, about it being between and man and a woman, about married heterosexual couples having children and nurturing them. It need hardly be said that he doesn’t use the language of the current debate because in his day the very idea of gay marriage was inconceivable.
But Aquinas’ view is clear: Marriage is about having and rearing children. As only one party can be the legitimate parent of any offspring in the case of a homosexual union, it is conceivable that the natural-law thinker would have had considerable reservations about the legalisation of homosexual marriage and its implications for the rights of children being raised by a gay couple. Most likely, Aquinas would have argued for the right of the children to enjoy the benefits of having both a mother and a father; indeed, he used enormous quantities of ink talking about the upbringing of children and the proper function of marriage in his discussion of lust. Aquinas would also have had considerable reservations about surrogate pregnancies, let alone commercial surrogacy, from the perspective of natural law.
Sheridan’s invocation of Aquinas is therefore mistaken and misleading.
The final issue that needs to be addressed is Sheridan’s claim that we are better off having gay marriage laws passed under a Coalition government than under a Labor one. I am not convinced.
We do not know what legislation will go before the federal parliament, which is reason in itself to vote ‘No’. Will it ensure freedom of religion? Will the right of parents to educate their children be respected? Will people be able to critique same-sex marriage without fear of being hauled before a tribunal? The Devil really is in the detail of the legislation, yet the postal survey will ask only if Australians of the same sex should be allowed to wed.
John Howard is right to argue that we should vote “No” unless and until we are presented with the legislation that will ultimately go before parliament. As he says, we wouldn’t elect a political party without knowing the details of its tax or energy policies.
Scratch the emotionalism and the only possible conclusion is that it would be imprudent to support the same-sex marriage proposition without knowing exactly how our rights to freedom of religion and freedom of speech will be protected in this brave new world.
Alistair Nicholas is a Sydney-based public affairs executive and conservative writer