Two very different ways of arguing for gay marriage

The Australian and The Age both ran opinion pieces yesterday favouring gay marriage, but the two articles were contrasts in tone and argument.

In The Age, Tim Wright preached to the converted. None of the concerns people might have about gay marriage were addressed. Rather, gays should be allowed to marry because it is a ‘basic human right’. Opposition to it comes from personal flaws: it is senseless, inhumane, mean-spirited, the product of fear, a cave-in to conservative lobbies.

In The Australian, Tim Wilson took a more conciliatory path. Picking up on Tony Abbott’s covenant marriage argument, he argued for pluralism in marriage contracts – letting gays marry and also letting religious people have stricter forms of marriage.

The Wilson approach seems much the better one. Opposition to gay marriage cannot be put down to the left’s standard cast of villains. While I personally think the case for gay marriage is strong, even from a secular conservative perspective, the arguments are counter-intuitive. People need to to be taken through them, not insulted.

Tim Wilson’s argument also highlights that gays and conservative Christians have more in common politically than either probably realise. They are both cultural minorities with the same threats from an homogenising state.

Wright’s article is an example of how an emphasis on rights damages democratic discourse. It encourages people just to assert entitlements, rather than to engage with other people’s views and perhaps reach a compromise on some evolutionary position. Winner-take all politics brings unnecessary rancour and division to civic life.

9 thoughts on “Two very different ways of arguing for gay marriage

  1. I like Tim Wilson’s argument.

    Most people think democracy is about opposing viewpoints trying to “win” and force their ideology on the “other”. But it needn’t be that way.

    Democracy should be a framework within which a range of societal norms are able to be appreciated rather than just the norms as seen by the majority.

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  2. There is a libertarian argument that argues that the state should not be in the marriage recognising business at all. But, there is a clear “transaction cost reducing” argument for a standard marriage contract, even leaving aside tax and welfare issues.

    Tim Wilson’s idea is an intriguing one, since it seems to retain most of the transaction cost reducing benefits while allowing various forms. One can see potential issues about defining the range of marriage contracts (polygamous ones being a potential “difficult boundary” case) but they do not strike me as disabling.

    In medieval Europe, the Church regulated marriage under canon law. It was the Reformation which saw the state take over. (It was only after the Council of Trent that the Catholic Church even required the attendance of a priest: marriage only clearly became a sacrament in the C12th and God was held to be the necessary third witness since the married couple themselves were deemed to enact the sacrament). Hence the notion that there can only be a single marriage contract.

    There has been a long struggle between the Church’s dogmatic notion of marriage and family life and a more popular view of marriage and family life as being based on consent. This is one more stage in that long-term fight.

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  3. Michael – I agree. While I have some sympathy for the libertarian argument, I have argued before that marriage law facilitates certain kinds of relationships beyond what normal contract law could do. I also think there is a strong case for legally protecting third parties – ie the children who usually don’t even exist when the marriage is made. But within this framework there is certainly scope for a variety of marriage types. This is however very much against the trend, which has been for the state to reduce the distinctions between relationship types. The homogenising state again.

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  4. Michael – that information about the history of marriage in the west is fascinating. Any tips on where I can read more about it?

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  5. I say get rid of the legal contract of marriage. Treat everyone as individuals before the law. Property law exists to deal with property, and family law deals with parents’ responsibilities to their children. We don’t need marriage to be defined by the state. People can choose a private civil demonstration of their committment if they choose.

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