Gay marriage is a topical and controversial issue, as evidenced by the subject's coverage in the media, presence on ballot initiatives and the high visibility of the controversy in general. There are a few different ethical issues where gay marriage is concerned. To opponents, the primary ethical issue relates to concepts such as the sanctity of marriage and the survival of the species. For proponents, the ethical issues are greater, relating to human freedom and the limits of government (and religion's) role in the lives of citizens. Gay marriage does not need to be controversial, however. Using classical ethical theories, it is easy to determine that gay marriage is not an unethical act or concept. The arguments against gay marriage become unwound quickly when examined rationally, as this paper intends to show.
The world of philosophy facilitates the analysis of complex issues from a number of different frameworks. These frameworks -- consequentialism/utilitarianism, deontology, virtue ethics -- are sometimes competing and sometime complementary to each other. They provide a means of analyzing complex issues with consistency, and this allows for conclusions to be drawn with a relatively high degree of objectivity. There is always the risk in using these ethical systems that the conclusions will be drawn a priori, but the use of multiple tools makes it more difficult to do so while maintaining a consistent and coherent argument.
Virtue ethics is arguably the oldest of the three major forms of normative ethics, dating to Plato and Aristotle. Virtue ethics emphasizes the "virtue, or moral character, in contrast to" deontology or consequentialism (Hursthouse, 2007). Virtue ethics is also the most difficult to apply to a single issue, because a person's virtue or moral character is dependent on multiple acts -- a virtue being a character trait is should be repeatable. This does, however, provide a framework to understanding the issue of gay marriage.
Virtue ethics when applied to a broad social issue such as gay marriage can be understood as the consistent application of a set of actions. Gay marriage, therefore, must be viewed as one issue, and its interpretation under virtue ethics must be just one interpretation of many, on a multitude of issues. The controversy surrounding the issue of gay marriage can be understood as a conflict of virtues. Modern Western society is, by and large, structured around liberal concepts. These concepts begin with private property rights and have been extended over time to incorporate a number of personal freedoms (Gaus & Courtland, 2010). Underlying this liberalism is the idea that all humans should be free to do as they please, within certain limits. Any limits to freedom that are imposed should to give legal weight behind the implied social contract that we have. Liberal humans are not to "presuppose any particular conception of the good," and from this it flows that each individual should have respect for all other individuals, and "refrain from imposing our view of the good life on them" (Ibid). The majority of Western society, even in the United States, subscribes to liberal ideals and this frames the notion of virtue. A moral person is one who upholds the principles of liberalism that guide our society. We are not to unduly interfere in the lives of others, imposing our views upon them, as per the social contract that we have with each other as members of this liberal society. Gay marriage, therefore, is not the business of anybody in our society but the individuals in question. Not only is gay marriage itself a perfectly ethical behavior, but the enactment of laws to ban or curtail this behavior is an unreasonable imposition of external values on individuals who do not share those values.
Opponents of gay marriage, however, do not have a liberalist outlook. They take their view of morality from their societal cues, from whatever interpretation of whatever holy book they prefer. The conflict between religion and gay marriage is, it should be pointed out, not a red herring. A comprehensive survey by the Pew Research Center (2003) concluded that "religiosity is a clear factor in the recent rise in opposition to gay marriage." Their outlook on morality, therefore, derives from an entirely different tradition. This allows opponents to view gay marriage as an affront to their religious beliefs. Because humans are intended to live under the laws of God, and their interpretation of these laws forbids homosexuality, then it is moral to oppose gay marriage. A moral individual is one who upholds the will of God and His rules governing human behavior. Therefore a moral individual is one who stands in opposition to gay marriage.
These two opposing interpretations of the correct moral opinion on gay marriage illustrate the dilemma. For both parties, the views of the other side are evidence of that side's virtue. The willingness to impose one's views on other people -- especially in a situation such as this where those views equate to doing harm -- is considered an act devoid of virtue, and morally wrong, by the majority of our population. Yet opponents feel just as strongly about their interpretation of virtue. Part of virtue is that the person must be consistent in applying his or her concept of a virtuous act. The dispute gains no particular resolution here. Ignoring anecdotal evidence of random individuals violating their own sense of virtue, in general both communities are guided by their virtue.
There is one difference, however, that should be noted. Many in the religious community subscribe to liberalist ideals outside of specific issues that are promoted as ethical issues within their community. These individuals hold many liberalist views in part because those views are those of the dominant society -- to be an American one is almost expected to hold generally liberalist views. For some who oppose gay marriage, their propensity to pick and choose among ethical dilemmas to apply liberalist or religious viewpoints is their logical undoing. A virtue is habitual, a person of one's personality. If the person is inconsistent in applying virtue, this reduces the strength of that virtue. Not all opposed to gay marriage are inconsistent, but some are, and the same cannot be said of those who support gay marriage. On balance, this undermines the case against gay marriage -- it is less a matter of virtue and morality as it is a matter of selective and arbitrary application of virtue and morality.
Whereas virtue ethics emphasizes moral character, deontology emphasizes rules as the basis of determining the ethical status of an act (Hurthouse, 2007). One of the reasons that gay marriage is an intense an ethical dilemma in our society is that there are no clear rules in most jurisdictions. In a few places, laws expressly allow it; and in some places laws expressly disallow it. As for most people in the West, allowed gay marriage would mean changing the laws, that implies that it would also change our understanding of right and wrong. There are few who approach the issue that way, but the tool is useful to study the issue. There are two ways to approach deontology -- agent-centered and patient-centered. Agent-centered situations require the agent to either do something or not do something (Alexander & Moore, 2007). While agent-centered theories only loosely apply to the gay marriage debate, the role of government comes into play here. For most Americans, there is no obligation to either do something or to do nothing -- the issue is not one where they must personally make a decision to take action or not. For the government, however, it is. The government, however, cannot choose on the basis of rules because it is being asked to make the rules. Opponents of gay marriage disagree, however, with this assessment, as many view those in government as being beholden to universal laws of their holy books. This gives rise to the argument that there is a moral right and wrong, and politicians within the government should act accordingly, and ban gay marriage.
A better deontological approach, however, is the patient-centered approach. This approach is premised on the right not to be used for others' benefit. The government would be used by the religious opposition to gay marriage to further their aims -- whatever they may be. By the same token, homosexuals in this situation are being used (they are suffering) for the benefit of those who oppose gay marriage. Making this issue perhaps a bit murkier is the unclear benefit of opponents -- they are causing the patient harm but to what end? Their view is that banning gay marriage and discouraging homosexuality will encourage traditional family units and increased population. There is little evidence outside of anecdotal stories of closeted men suffering in silence to support this theory. In addition, it should be noted that within scriptures of the major Abrahamic religions there are many different understandings of marriage, gender roles and coupling. Deontological law is not flexible -- for gay marriage…