Normative Ethics, Cultural Relativism and Justice as Defense of Gay Marriage, Research Paper Example
Words: 2008Research Paper
Gay marriage is one of the most divisive social issues of the contemporary period: this is arguably the result of two main factors, on the one hand, the large amount of ethical perspectives that may be utilized to approach the topic, and on the other hand, the intimacy of the topic, which discusses what is clearly one of the foundational social organizations of our greater social structure, that is, the family. It is in this second sense that the debate becomes all the more heated: to those opposed to gay marriage, the issue seems to be a threat not only to the history of human social organizations and its primary unit of the family, but also a subversive anomaly in regards to this same history. The change, from this perspective, that gay marriage would create on a social level is simply put too radical, annihilating historical traditions and interrogating the very essence of what we mean by the “family”: our human relations are fundamentally challenged in light of any legalization of gay marriage. However, are these arguments from some historical stability of the family unit really robust enough to make a point against gay marriage? In this regard, the following paper will question gay marriage precisely from the perspective of a normative ethics and a concept of justice, so as to undermine the presupposition that our social normativities are in fact stable. Here, the argument in favor of “traditional” forms of family unit is opposed with a notion of the relativity of these same traditions. Furthermore, however, with the addition of a concept of justice to this account, the argument in favor of gay marriage will not only stop at an account of ethical relativism, but endeavor to show why the legalization of gay marriage also satisfies an ethically robust concept of justice.
In order to develop this position, it is once more prudent to consider precisely the foundations for the argument against gay marriage has been developed. In this regard, it is important to stress that opponents of gay marriage are often referring to a form of “historical tradition” as the basis for their argument. This historical tradition, often combines with a naturalism or a biologism, whereby the historical tradition is reflective of the biological reality of sexual difference. Hence, as Eskridge and Sperdale note, opponents of gay marriage such as the Roman Catholic Church “no longer rest their case against gay marriage on Scripture, church tradition, and religious precepts alone….they are now loading up on…”empirical” articles.” (227) Accordingly, this argumentative strategy can be broken down into two main steps, which are ultimately interrelated: there is a sense in which our ethical and social structures are reflections of nature, and the fact that they are reflections of nature are borne out historically, where there has been a traditional prohibition on same-sex marriage. Hence, in terms of ethical theory what is at stake here is an instance of our social normativities, and thus normative ethics, being the result of a biological, empirical and scientific construct: our norms in this sense are completely natural.
However, what is problematic about this account is that normative ethics can be read in a way that firstly, is incongruent with the claims of science, and, secondly, showing the relativity of normative ethics across not only cultures and societies, but also across time. As Barry notes, “normative ethics seeks prescriptions, that is, authoritative rules or directions for right action and good character. Its prescriptive interest distinguishes normative ethics from fields with merely a description or scientific interest in ethics.” (3) This repeats the two aspects of the argument against gay marriage: its scientific and historical-social-culture characters. Note, however, that normative ethics tends to seek a distinction between these two aspects, while, in contrast, those opposed to gay marriage, by arguing that the traditional historical normativities that have opposed gay marriage are essentially reflections of biological and natural realities, thereby conflate these two errors. To put it bluntly they wish to have the social and authoritative purely human and anthropological dimension of normative ethics as well as a scientific definition of ethics, such that normative ethics becomes a reflection of a true and objective reality.
The problem with such a claim is clear: this is reading into our ethical constructs the fact that they are direct and accurate reflections of nature. They are therefore reading human nature and ethical systems into the very structure of nature. This is a clear case of anthropocentrism: instead of such normativities reflecting nature, what is occurring in this argument is the exact opposite. Human social normativities are being read into the structure of nature itself, and using this illegitimate argument to “objective reality” to justify this claim.
It is precisely such an approach that normative ethics excludes. Referring back to Barry’s definition, normative ethics seeks rules or authoritative structures to understand how human behavior has been constrained: arguably what is crucial to normative ethics in this regard is that these authoritative structures are precisely the products of subjective decisions and the perpetuation of traditional powers of structures. Normative ethics tells us about how a particular culture or social group lives: it tells us why this group lives in this manner, in so far as it tells us about where power lies in the social structure. Hence, normative ethics based on the authority of the male may often subjugate the role of the female: this type of normative ethics tells us about the patriarchal structure of society. In the exact same sense, therefore, the attempt to forbid gay marriage can be viewed as a social structure in which a type of sexual relationship is given the status of a “norm”, as having authority, in this case the heterosexual relationship, whereas the homosexual relationship is construed as a transgression, as an anomaly, and therefore becomes forbidden. Essentially, such norms can be viewed as an egoism or subjectivism on a greater social level, whereby the utilitarian interests of a particular “caste” within society, because it holds power within society, is able to enforce its own normativities as normativities, that is to say, that its own moral decisions become law not because of some flawed biological reasoning, but simply because this is where hegemony in the social structure lies. Rather, arguments against gay marriage that refer to biology for example are attempts to illegitimately and objectively justify a subjective position based on a particular set of hegemonic normativities.
What is crucial to understand here is that if we develop our theories of normative ethics in a rigorous manner, we come close to a concept of cultural and ethical relativism. In so far as normative ethics are tied to issues of authority and tradition, when we understand that in particular cultures authority lies in different places, then we understand the relativity of norms. As Jhingran defines it, “cultural relativism and ethical relativism consists in this assertion that what is believed, affirmed, or sanctioned in a given society is true or morally justified for that society.” (14) From this perspective, therefore, two aspects are crucial to the position of cultural relativism and ethical relativism: across cultures, different ethical principles are advanced as reflective of “good” normativities. Therefore, there exists not on ethical homogeneity among humans, but rather that there exists an ethical heterogeneity among humans. Going from social group to social group, we will notice different conceptions of ethics. This ties into the second part of Jhingran’s definition: essentially, we cannot criticize these different types of ethical norms since they are true for their own paradigm. In this regard, for a heterosexually dominant society, therefore, its opposition to homosexuality is essentially justified, since this version of the sexual relationship is viewed as correct from this particular relativistic perspective.
This would seem to be merely an argument in favor of majority and traditional practice, which would therefore support the position against same-sex marriage from within a heterosexual and patriarchal society: however, what is arguably more crucial in this definition is to understand that ethics is here subject to change across cultures. An ethics is stable only insofar as the power structure or homogeneity of the culture is stable: the enforced opposition to homosexuality is therefore contingent upon the continued dominance of the heterosexual relationship and the view that the heterosexual relationship is the only valid relationship. What normative ethics teaches us, however, is that this is based precisely on authority and tradition; what ethical and cultural relativism tells us, in a deeper sense, is that these authorities themselves vary over cultural and historical time and space. Hence, the fact that gay marriage has been precluded is only a symptom of power: it does not mean that gay marriage, from these same ethical positions, can continue to be oppressed, since this oppression is simply a sign of who holds power in society, i.e., the patriarchy.
This is why the argument in favor of gay marriage can therefore be supplemented with a concept of justice that compliments the normative and ethical relative theories that we have cited: namely, an ethical concept of justice here would be founded on instances of identifying, within a given ethical discourse, practices of exclusion and oppression. To defend gay marriage therefore is also to defend the oppressed against their marginalization within society. From this ethical perspective, we do not need a positive definition of what justice means. Rather, we can instead understand justice in a certain negative sense, understanding that justice and therefore ethics does not exist when there are instances of clear oppression of another group and an exclusionary practice being performed by those that hold power in a given society. In other words, this concept of justice nears a concept of “social justice”, defined by Toporek as follows: social justice intends to “facilitate (the) ability to act in the face of oppression.” (19) Hence, the case for gay marriage is a clear example or appeal to social justice as well: it is to identify those types of social relationships that have been oppressed and question the sources of this oppression. Perhaps, in this sense, the case for gay marriage, in so far as it is a case of social justice, is ultimately a Kantian version of deontologistics and the categorical imperative: we have a greater duty to fight instances of social injustice, and therefore, the argument in favor of gay marriage is one of the manifestations of this greater ethical duty.
Accordingly, a combination of normative ethics, cultural and ethical relativism, and a concept of justice can provide a robust way in which to think gay marriage should be defended. Firstly, normative ethics shows us that ethical rules are often the results of authority and tradition alone. Those opposed to gay marriage make two mistakes from the normative perspective: 1) they refuse to see the traditional and historical exclusion of gay marriage as the product of the hegemony of a particular type of sexual relation. 2) they think this normative ethics has a foundation in nature, which normative ethics does not endorse. Secondly, cultural and ethical relativism helps us identify that the authority of norms is relative; thereby we do have a position of critique available to us by understanding that social and ethical arrangements may change: hence, there is nothing that excludes gay marriage from an ethical perspective a priori. Thirdly, by using a concept of justice and more specifically a concept of social justice, which almost mirrors a Kantian ethical commitment or duty, then we understand the need to identify and oppose instances of social oppression. In short, applying these three ethical horizons to the issue of gay marriage helps us understand the reasons why gay marriage has been opposed and why this should be reversed.
Barry, Vincent. Bioethics in a Cultural Context: Philosophy, Religion, History & Politics. Boston, MA: Wadsworth, 2012.
Eskridge, William N. & Spedale, Darren R. Gay Marriage: For Better or Worse? What We’ve Learned from the Evidence. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Jhingran, S. Ethical Relativism and Universalism. Delhi, India: Motilal Banarsidass, 2001.
Toporek, Rebecca. Handbook for Social Justice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2006.
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