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Same sex marriage: is public opinion a moral value?

By Max Atkinson - posted Monday, 6 December 2010

The media, for one reason or another, tend to reflect the Brandis assumption that community values are the same as popular opinions on moral issues.

While the views of Janet Albrechtsen, a well-known journalist who sat on the panel, are hard to fathom, anyone who reads the transcript might think her position is little better; this is an edited summary:

Albrechtsen: I don't have a problem with having a conscience vote at all on this issue …

Jones: What's your position? Are you happy to see limits on the rights of individuals because they happen to be gay?

Albrechtsen: I don't believe in gay marriage, no. No. No.

Randa Abdel-Fattah: I don't believe in gay marriage either, as a devout Muslim, but I think that in a secular, democratic society, I can't sustain that argument because my religious beliefs can't be imposed on others ….

Albrechtsen: But to me, Randa, it's - I'm not a Muslim and it's not a religious matter. It's not a religious matter for me.

Jones: What sort of matter is it?

Albrechtsen: I fundamentally believe that marriage is between a man and a woman and that you can have civil unions between lesbians or gay men. What is it about the word marriage that they need to have?

Jones: But you don't like the symbol of marriage?

Albrechtsen: Correct.

Jones: Okay. But you don't believe in religion either.

Albrechtsen: No. No. No.

Jones: It's not a religious issue.

Albrechtsen: I'm just saying I don't come to it, you know, from a religious point of view.


We still don't know how or why she came to it; but it is surprising to find a professional opinion writer unable to articulate reasons to impose her views about marriage on others. The best she can offer in support of the opinion is that it happens to be her own, and that it expresses a "fundamental" belief.

Since those who disagree can make the same claim, one might think there is no further point in debate - it would be like people arguing in different languages. In practice, however, no one sees this as a reason to abstain; they expect participants to defend and if necessary review even their fundamental beliefs. There is no barrier behind which one can stand and simply demand respect for an opinion, at least not if it affects the lives and interests of others. Moral fundamentalism of this kind is inherently irrational.

One can think of at least two reasons why Brandis and Shorten confuse opinions with values. The first is a sceptical view of the nature of values which is still in fashion, and which underlies the silly idea that we ought to respect the opinions of others simply because they hold them. The second is a belief that majority opinion is some kind of moral authority. This ignores the fact that democratic theory says only that the representatives of a majority have a better right to make the rules than anyone else; whether these rules are wise or just or humane must be judged by the values we profess to share.

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About the Author

Max Atkinson is a former senior lecturer of the Law School, University of Tasmania, with Interests in legal and moral philosophy, especially issues to do with rights, values, justice and punishment. He is an occasional contributor to the Tasmanian Times.

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