Gay Marriage and other lighthearted topics

Honestly. It feels like the news has gone a bit crazy recently, what with the ASA ruling that God cannot heal people, then the whole fracas about ‘militant secularism’, and now this: people going a bit crazy over whether the definition of marriage should be changed to include same-sex marriages.

It seemed to kick off a few days ago when Keith O’Brien wrote an article entitled, “We cannot afford to defend this madness“. After that, the atheist brigade on Twitter seemed to go mad; I saw a number of comments along the lines of “he believes in <x> (e.g. sky fairies) and yet he doesn’t believe in gay marriage”, etc. Most of what I saw written went way beyond what he actually said and ended up in ad hominem attacks or more general attacks on Christianity.

I don’t want to defend O’Brien’s piece because I don’t agree with all of it; although I do agree that redefining marriage would be a bad thing: the idea that marriage is between one man and one woman is an orthodox Christian belief.

That said, I do want to make a couple of points about people’s responses, one of which will seem oddly familiar if you’ve been reading my blog of late.

Firstly, the people who seem to be most vocal in their criticism of O’Brien (and the like) seem to be taking a ‘moral high ground’ position by claiming that it’s obviously right for marriage to be extended to homosexual couples. I would like to pose the challenge (similarly to my previous post on secularism): to what are you appealing when saying that one thing is more moral than another?

Secondly, I got thinking about marriage (as one does), and why it’s defined like it is. What is the point of marriage? Is it strictly a civil thing, or is there some deeper meaning to it? Why, indeed, does the government have to get involved in pronouncing people man and wife?

In fact, why should the government really be legislating on any kind of sexual activity (beyond, perhaps, sexual activity with minors and incest)? Come to think about it, why should polygamous marriages be disallowed?

It seems to me that the legal definition of marriage makes a few (generally Christian) assumptions about what is right and wrong in terms of sexual behaviour. If we start changing one of those assumptions, we may as well reconsider the others. Once again, it seems that secularism may well lead us down a path here where I don’t think we want to go.

Finally, Peter Ould has blogged some very good questions on “Gender Neutral Marriage” which I would recommend reading to get an idea of the scope of the issues.

This whole move by the government smacks of “Yes Prime Minister” – doing something to prove that the government is trendy and not the ‘old Tories’, rather than actually doing something because they’ve thought it through and believe in the principles.

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13 thoughts on “Gay Marriage and other lighthearted topics

  1. “to what are you appealing when saying that one thing is more moral than another?”

    Health, well-being and happiness.

    Great things to appeal to, I would say. And the best thing is, we can have evidence for all of them.

    “Come to think about it, why should polygamous marriages be disallowed?”

    They probably shouldn’t, provided everyone involved is of age and involved of their own free will.

    • “Health, well-being and happiness. Great things to appeal to, I would say. And the best thing is, we can have evidence for all of them.”

      I would dispute that, not on the grounds that they’re not good things to appeal to (because they are virtually by definition), but on the grounds that a naturalist / atheist would have logical grounds to claim them. See the comments discussion on my secular society blog post.

      “They probably shouldn’t, provided everyone involved is of age and involved of their own free will.”

      At least that’s consistent. Do you think the government’s bill should be amended to include polygamous marriages too?

      • “but on the grounds that a naturalist / atheist would have logical grounds to claim them.”

        What do you mean when you say ‘logical’? Because to me it seems perfectly logical to base things like morality on well-being…as the purpose of morality is to help humans live and interact with one another. Or at least that’s how I see it.

        “Do you think the government’s bill should be amended to include polygamous marriages too?”

        As I’m an American, I don’t really have a position (or a large familiarity) about what the UK should do with its laws.

        That being said, I could be convinced either way.

        I see no problem with legalizing polygamy, provided (as I said earlier) that all parties are of age and joining the marriage of their own free will.

        Then again, I’d be fine with the government of a country making a relatively arbitrary decision that legal marriages be limited to two people, purely for simplicity.

        • “What do you mean when you say ‘logical’? Because to me it seems perfectly logical to base things like morality on well-being…as the purpose of morality is to help humans live and interact with one another. Or at least that’s how I see it.”

          Your last sentence is the key. If you’re an atheist, how would you argue with someone who sees things differently? This is an example I’ve used before: let’s say in an Islamic country, a woman may be stoned if she is caught in adultery. Is that a moral or an immoral thing? Why or why not?

          Secondly, I think morality is more complex than helping us live with one another. To give one example, I posted up a few days ago an example of a logical argument for infanticide. Why should that be immoral? It’s nothing to do with helping us live with one another. In fact, Richard Dawkins has stated that he would be in favour of infanticide in certain circumstances.

          Thirdly, I think the existence of a moral code does not explain why people disregard it. I’m sure you break your own moral code sometimes; I can say this with confidence because we’re human. That’s what humans do. However, I think the atheist explanation for this is basically … well, there is none really. The Christian explanation for this is “men loved darkness rather than light” – in that, people have a natural predisposition to turn away from God, who is the source of all morality and goodness.

          In the London riots last year, the first two people who were convicted of looting were (if I recall correctly) a graphic designer and a primary school teacher. In other words, two people who should have known better. They didn’t need more education, they just thought they could get away with it.

          History is littered with examples like this, of ‘ordinary people’ doing extraordinarily bad things. And I don’t think atheism can provide any kind of coherent explanation for the fact that, whatever the moral codes say, people just do not live up to it.

  2. “This is an example I’ve used before: let’s say in an Islamic country, a woman may be stoned if she is caught in adultery. Is that a moral or an immoral thing? Why or why not?”

    Immoral.

    Because I am the arbiter of what I deem moral and immoral.

    Her culture might deem what is happening as moral. But I disagree. And by looking at things like reason, evidence, harm and benefit (which is what I base my morality on) I can feel justified in finding the stoning of a woman immoral.

    “in certain circumstances.”

    As morality is situational, I could potentially agree. I’m at work and can’t watch that video, so I can’t speak about what Richard Dawkins believes. Maybe I agree. Maybe I don’t. Depends on the situation.

    It works out just like killing, in my book. Killing another human being is immoral. However, depending on the situation, killing might be the moral (or least immoral) choice. Self defense and euthanasia both jumping to mind as potential possibilities.

    “I’m sure you break your own moral code sometimes; I can say this with confidence because we’re human.”

    I might. But my moral code is situational, and I strive to do the most moral thing I can in all situations. So it might be harder for me to break my moral code than a strictly religious person.

    “well, there is none really.”

    Sure there is.

    Some people are shortsighted. Some people are misinformed. Some people (a very small percentage) are born sociopaths.

    I don’t see why it needs any more explanation than that.

    “They didn’t need more education, they just thought they could get away with it. ”

    Sure they did. They needed more education about ethics.

    Being smart in one or a few subjects doesn’t make you smart in all of them. A person can be a teacher or a graphic designer and still be stupid in a lot of other ways.

    “whatever the moral codes say, people just do not live up to it.”

    Actually, history shows that whatever the moral code says, most people live up to it most of the time. We remember the times when people don’t, because who remembers that time George behaved himself and didn’t do anything out of the ordinary?

    • “Because I am the arbiter of what I deem moral and immoral.”

      Does that apply to other people too? Are they the arbiter of what is moral and immoral? If someone steals your car, is it OK because they’ve decided that it’s moral for them to do so?

      “And by looking at things like reason, evidence, harm and benefit (which is what I base my morality on) I can feel justified in finding the stoning of a woman immoral.”

      Reason is a tricky one, because two people can reason in very different ways. You can, for example, make a rational case for infanticide.

      I don’t know if you saw the paper, but the argument they were making is (even if it was just a thought experiment) – if you allow abortion, you might as well allow infanticide for babies under one year old. At that point they are still ‘potential’ persons, so it’s not murder.

      I’m also unconvinced that you base your ethics entirely on reason and evidence. Explain to me why hypocrisy and integrity are bad and good things respectively, for example. From your system I’d say unless they directly harmed people (which is unlikely), you should consider them good.

      “Sure they did. They needed more education about ethics.”

      So, ordinary people who have regular jobs need more education to know that looting is wrong? I very much doubt that.

      “Actually, history shows that whatever the moral code says, most people live up to it most of the time.”

      So, as you look round the world, all you see is people being nice or ‘moral’ to each other? I’m sorry if I don’t share your optimistic view of human nature, but from my perspective all it takes is a look around the world (even the world local to me) to know that people don’t always behave using even the ‘golden rule’ (do to others what you would have them do to you). And I include myself in that, first on the list.

      I’m guessing your beliefs are that naturalism is true, i.e. that nature is all there is and all that ever has existed? If so, there is no transcendent to appeal to. What is must be natural and right, because it is (I say ‘right’ – it cannot be ‘wrong’ because by definition of naturalism there is no ‘wrong’, there just is). There is no way that the world should be, because we just haven’t evolved like that. What makes you look round at the world and think, ‘the world should be a different place?’

      • “Are they the arbiter of what is moral and immoral?”

        For themselves, yes.

        Humans are quite similar, when it comes down to it.

        “If someone steals your car, is it OK because they’ve decided that it’s moral for them to do so?”

        No. To me it is immoral. And, luckily, I live in a society that also views thievery of that sort to be immoral.

        “From your system I’d say unless they directly harmed people (which is unlikely), you should consider them good.”

        Not necessarily. Firstly, morality isn’t binary. Things can be moral, immoral, more immoral or more moral than other things, or amoral.

        Thoughts, which I might file ‘integrity’ and ‘hypocrisy’ under, are amoral. Only actions (as far as I’m concerned) are moral or immoral. Generally speaking, integrity leads to moral actions, and hypocrisy leads to immoral ones. But not always…and the thoughts, the brain-states of integrity or hypocrisy, don’t hold a moral stance unless or until acted upon.

        “So, ordinary people who have regular jobs need more education to know that looting is wrong?”

        Yes. Because the ordinary person who sees a store with televisions in the window don’t think of the people who run/own that store and who would be harmed by their stealing from them. They need better ethics training to understand that.

        “So, as you look round the world, all you see is people being nice or ‘moral’ to each other?”

        No. Because, again, acting moral doesn’t make the news. It’s like saying ‘I look around and all I see is Christians protesting funerals with offensive signs’. That isn’t all Christians…that’s just the loud, newsworthy ones.

        “What makes you look round at the world and think, ‘the world should be a different place?’”

        I don’t.

        I look at people and the things that people do, and say ‘these actions would lead to better health and well-being’ and ‘these actions wouldn’t do that’, and I act accordingly.

        • “Thoughts, which I might file ‘integrity’ and ‘hypocrisy’ under, are amoral. Only actions (as far as I’m concerned) are moral or immoral. Generally speaking, integrity leads to moral actions, and hypocrisy leads to immoral ones.”

          Why does hypocrisy lead to immoral actions? Let’s say, for example, that the secretary of state for education (apologies for UK specific terms) – who was always advocating how good state schools were in public – was found to be sending her children to a private school. That would be an example of a double standard. But that wouldn’t really harm anyone – so by your standard it should be a moral thing, surely (or at worst, an amoral thing). And yet if you asked people, I think most would say it was immoral.

          “They need better ethics training to understand that.”

          I think that is an extremely naive statement. I watched a TV programme the other day about the London Underground. Every year they lose about £20m because of fare dodging. They interviewed a few of these people who dodge fares – some of them weren’t doing it because they had no money, they were doing it because they could get away with it. And they knew it was wrong. They felt guilty, they just did it anyway.

          Under your system, I can’t imagine why anyone would ever feel guilt because no-one would ever know what they were doing was wrong. The only other option is to say that someone was compelled to do something immoral by their circumstances, in which case it’s not their fault and they shouldn’t be punished for it.

          In other words, I still think you have a lot of explaining to do as to why, given the world that we have, people feel like they should behave in a certain way, even if they don’t. There’s a discrepancy there which I still feel is unaccounted for in your system.

          “I look at people and the things that people do, and say ‘these actions would lead to better health and well-being’ and ‘these actions wouldn’t do that’, and I act accordingly.”

          And you have the best idea of how to bring about health and well-being? The problem is, people will very much disagree on what that is.

          Explain to me, for example, why a society should not just terminate all disabled infants, and/or those with debilitating diseases, at birth. Wouldn’t that improve the health and well-being of a population over time?

          The ideas of ‘health’ and ‘well-being’ etc are terms which different people will define in different ways at different times. In other words, there is nothing transcendent about morality, what is wrong in one place and time may be right in another place and time. It’s pretty much a free for all, governed by society will bear at any point in time. There are no absolutes.

          Stalin probably thought committing genocide would ultimately bring about more health and well-being. After all, what are a few human lives when compared with what is coming? And I think the worrying thing about an atheist ethic like that is, there are no guarantees such a thing won’t happen again in our own countries.

          • “Why does hypocrisy lead to immoral actions?”

            Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. That’s why I wrote ‘in general’.

            “Under your system”

            What system? I’m discussing where morals seems to come from. Not advocating how a system of laws and rules should be run.

            “people feel like they should behave in a certain way, even if they don’t.”

            Nature and nurture. These things aren’t magical.

            “And you have the best idea of how to bring about health and well-being?”

            Not necessarily.

            But I know the best way that has been demonstrated to find out. The scientific method.

            “The ideas of ‘health’ and ‘well-being’ etc are terms which different people will define in different ways at different times.”

            People will. Science and evidence will not.

            “Stalin probably thought committing genocide would ultimately bring about more health and well-being. ”

            Maybe he did.

            He was wrong.

          • “Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. That’s why I wrote ‘in general’.”

            To me it looks like you’ve just dodged the question. Why does lead to immoral actions in general?

            “What system? I’m discussing where morals seems to come from. Not advocating how a system of laws and rules should be run.”

            Your system or standard of where morals come from. Maybe a poor choice of word on my part.

            “But I know the best way that has been demonstrated to find out. The scientific method.”

            I beg to differ on that point. The scientific method works for certain, well-defined things. Morality is not one of them.

            For example, the scientific method tells us that we evolved, and that the ‘fittest’ or best adapted species survive and adapt. It’s a continuous cycle. Certain theorists have proposed that morality is just a continuation of that, i.e. “if we live in a society we will better be able to protect ourselves from lions and tigers” etc.

            The thing is, that is not a scientifically testable statement in itself. Any theories about where morality come from cannot be tested scientifically. Secondly, how would you test morality scientifically?

            If science tells us that morality is here to help us reproduce better, then what all men should do is sleep with as many women as possible (which I’ve heard is an evolutionary ethic, by the way), and we should terminate anyone who would corrupts the gene pool, e.g. with disabilities etc.

            I just don’t get what Dawkins means when he says he’s a passionate Darwinian when it comes to science, but a passionate non-Darwinian when he comes to society. Why that disconnect? Where on earth has that come from? I can think of one place, and it isn’t science.

            “People will. Science and evidence will not.”

            Please define exactly how science would define morality in a way which is totally objective. Include, if you will, an explanation of why infanticide would be wrong – I mentioned this a while ago, but specifically this paper. What’s the flaw in their logic?

            “Maybe he did. He was wrong.”

            But if he sincerely believed it would improve things at the time, it’s not really immoral, is it? I mean, what’s a few million lives provided that it will provide a better ideology in the long run? He was a visionary who new that you’ve gotta break a few eggs to make a pancake, right?

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