“Part of what it is to be courageous is to see reality accurately and to respond well in the face of it." ~ Jonathan Lear

21 May 2013

Gay Marriage and the Two Different Meanings of Right and Wrong



When someone tells you: “I am right, and you are wrong,” what are they talking about?

Do they mean that they are speaking truth while you are saying things that are not true? Or are they claiming they are doing the right thing while you are doing something wrong?

On one hand we have right and wrong as truth and untruth, for example: ‘Barack Obama is President of the United States’, or ‘The Labour Party forms the Government of the United Kingdom’.

On the other hand we have right and wrong as judgement. Whether moralistic or practical, this makes claims over what is good and bad; for example: ‘Immigration benefits Britain’ or ‘Gay marriage is wrong’.

Sometimes these two meanings overlap, but for the most part they are two completely different conceptions. However we tend to use them interchangeably, mixing them up and confusing them in the process.

Gay marriage and immigration are interesting topics on many levels, not least for the way that strongly-held views on them from many (especially older and more traditionally-minded) people are routinely derided as ‘wrong’ by a great swathe of liberal-left opinion.

But in what way are these people ‘wrong’? Does it make sense for them to be described this way? And does it make sense for those on the conservative side to talk about immigration and gay marriage as wrong?

What we can safely say is that people make these judgements of right and wrong all the time.

However I find it problematic when we attack those judgements and opinions from the other standpoint of right and wrong, as truth and untruth.

I have seen a lot of articles and comments from liberal-lefty types expressing incredulity at small ‘c’ conservative opinion on gay marriage and immigration for example, using statistical ‘evidence’ and 'logic' to back up their case. This is fine to an extent – but these arguments generally miss the main point by failing to engage with the importance of meaning.

Many of those opposing gay marriage, for example on religious grounds, see marriage as a union between man and woman. On what basis can we justifiably claim they are wrong to do that? By saying they are being illogical we are effectively saying that their core beliefs are illegitimate and making some rather authoritarian claims about the primacy of our own views and that logic itself  somehow justifies them.

Logic and evidence are not moral arbiters though. Deciding on moral issues remains a role for human beings.

The forthcoming changes are redefining the meaning of marriage, which is an important institution in our society. We may like that change, but we should accept and respect those for whom it is a troubling change to something they hold dear.

I myself do not hold a strong opinion on gay marriage, but I certainly have nothing against it and can see how it will bring great joy to many gay couples who wish to mark their love by getting married.

What I do hold a strong opinion on is the way that many proponents use it as a stick to beat those who are opposed (as indeed some who are opposed use it as a stick to beat the liberal-left).  I think doing this is wrong.

There is no ultimate reason or justification for gay couples being allowed to ‘marry’ each other. But then there is no ultimate reason why they shouldn’t.

What we are seeing with the legalisation of gay ‘marriage’ is a changing of meaning and through this a representation of how social power is shifting.  

Lately I have been reading the book On the Political by the left-leaning political theorist Chantal Mouffe. One of Mouffe’s many qualities is that she is willing to learn from and invoke the more acute among conservative writers.

 In On the Political she quotes Carl Schmitt, who wrote in 1988, 

“One of the most important manifestations of humanity’s legal and spiritual life is the fact that whoever has true power is able to determine the content of concepts and words.”

This is what has happened with the concept of marriage – the meaning and content of it is getting changed, reflecting the transfer of social power from old to new: a new hegemony of sorts.

It is precisely what the democratic system is for. As Mouffe explains, democracy is not ultimately about finding a ‘rational consensus’ of what is right and wrong, but about the people deciding what they want to do.

Bringing in gay marriage is what our elected representatives are doing on our behalf: it is democracy in action.

But let’s not go condemning those who are opposed by claiming that we are ultimately ‘right’. Gay marriage will soon be ‘right’ in the other sense, as truth, on account of democratic decision – and that is surely enough.

4 comments:

  1. An interesting take, and original. So tired of the 'religious wars' over this. As a Christian I am not fully convinced about redefining marriage to be between persons of the same gender but I cannot get all het up about it either. There do seem to be some questions that we haven't really thought through as a society - such as the desirability or not for a child to know its birth mother and to have parent figures of both genders, plus the role of biological mothers and others in gay couples. And infidelity within gay marriage - the lawyers don't seem to be able to pin that down. But I think the human rights wave is too strong for the churches to resist this in the long run. As ever, on the sharp end are Minsters who want to bless their gay couples within the church, and for C of E, at least, this is currently fraught. And a lot of people of faith who say 'hang on while we try to digest all this' and are seen as bigots. All very sad. All the more refreshing to read this!

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    1. Hi Claire, thanks for the thoughts and I'm glad you liked the article. Yes the overriding focus on 'equality' between gay and heterosexual couples has certainly dominated the debate from the liberal-left side, to the exclusion of other considerations.

      There has been rather too much unpleasantness from this side (which should be mine) for my liking. Respect for diversity is too often just skin deep and fails to respect traditions that aren't protected by being regarded as 'diverse'. I hope you and your colleagues manage to negotiate your way through the minefield without too much pain - sooner or later things will settle down, but it may be a while until suitable accommodations are reached.

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  2. Hi Ben would you agree that the huffing and puffing that came from LGBT Labour over the fact that Labour MP's were granted a free vote is pretty hypocritical given that they are distinctly silent over the issue of Labour MP's who speak and vote for gay rights yet share platforms with Islamists who call for LGBT people to be executed and said absolutely nothing when that "champion" of gay rights Ken Livingstone warmly embraced Yusuf Al Qaradawi despite the fact he called for the execution of homosexuals and didn't even have the guts to stand up for Peter Tatchell when he was falsely accused of Islamophobia for criticizing Ken's choice of company. Surely LGBT Labour need to start speaking out on these matters otherwise they have lost the right to claim the moral high ground.

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