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What it means to vote 'No'

By Mitchell Barrington - posted Tuesday, 31 October 2017


Much ink has been spilt over the topic of marriage equality recently. However, the commonly purported arguments, while often persuasive, fail to communicate exactly what it means for one group – even the majority in a democratic society – to make decisions that govern the private lives of others.

This article is not intended to defend homosexuals’ right to matrimony; I write this with the sole intent to illustrate in what one must acquiesce to justify a ‘no’ response to the survey.

Christian literature often reflects sorrowfully on the practices of countries that subvert competing religions. Egyptian author Mark A. Gabriel has a harrowing story of his Muslim father trying to gun him down after learning of his conversion to Christianity. We think to ourselves “how awful” and pray that these practices will come to an end, that the authorities in these countries will come to their senses and realise that people’s private beliefs and practices shouldn’t be dictated by authority.

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Yet many of us simultaneously hold beliefs about how others’ private lives ought to conform to our standards. Such a sentiment is not even peculiar to those of the religious temperament; many secular people consider adult consensual incest to be wrong, despite not really being able to answer the question “why on earth do you care what we do?”

Christians are at least consistent in their belief that the right thing to do is to prevent same-sex couples from getting married: if you believe the Christian god exists and He doesn’t want homosexuals to marry, then clearly voting ‘no’ is the right thing to do. After all, if the author of morality commanded a given state of affairs, it is surely wrong to vote against it.

The question, however, is not purely an ethical one, but a political one.

When a group of people come together to live in a society, they construct a social contract. The basis of any social contract is that individuals have all rights except those which they don’t want others to have. For example, I have the right to eat an apple because I am happy for others to eat apples. But I don’t have the right to your possessions because I don’t want you to take mine. Such a sentiment may be more crudely paraphrased as “your right to swing your arm ends where my nose begins”.

We, under the social contract of Australian Law, have the opportunity to voice our opinions on what rights citizens ought to have by virtue of this postal survey. Specifically, we are being asked whether same-sex marriage is more analogous to eating an apple or to stealing someone’s property.

When we ask ourselves only “what is the right thing to do?”, the conservative Christian answers that same-sex marriages should not be recognised, the Muslim extremist answers that ownership of the Bible should be punishable by death, and the white slave-owner answers that other races should be subjugated.

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We all have different beliefs which contribute to our conception of a just society.

The Christian must ask themselves if they would equally defend the rights of a majority who want to take their right to marry away; the Muslim extremist must ask themselves if they would acquiesce to being killed for owning the Qur’an; and the slave-owner must ask themselves if they would think it fair for them to be in chains.

The question of “what is the right thing to do?” is not sufficient; the question must be “what liberties am I willing to forego to cast this vote?”

Heterosexuals who want the right to marry but not for homosexuals to have the same right must ask themselves if they would be happy to have their liberties restricted because of the beliefs of others.

It is not about “God wants something, so I will vote for it”. It is about “I don’t want others to restrict my liberty for the sake of their personal beliefs, so I will not do the same to those who don’t share mine”.

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About the Author

Mitchell Barrington is a philosophy student at the University of Western Australia.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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