Same-sex marriage and the ethics of harm

Michael Cook
May 12, 2015
Reproduced with Permission

What else will change if same-sex marriage is legalized? This is the question which voters in the United States and Ireland should be asking themselves. In the US the Supreme Court is studying whether to declare that access to marriage is a constitutional right for same-sex couples and in Ireland a referendum on amending the constitution will be held on May 22.

The easy answer is, Not a bit. How could marriages between two gays or two lesbians possibly harm the marriages of straight couples? This glib response has been powerfully persuasive, even for many people who support traditional marriage. Why should some people be denied the joys of life-long intimacy and companionship, however unconventional, if it will harm no one?

But smuggled into this argument is an explosive assumption: that "harm" is the standard of morality. This will certainly become a bedrock principle of future marriage policy if same-sex marriage is legalized. We need to ponder its implications carefully - for they could create a revolution in law and public morality.

For instance, it's hard to think of an activity with stronger moral taboos than paedophilia. Seeking sexual intimacy with children is popularly regarded as one of the worst, if not the worst, possible crimes. Other sexual activities, including bondage or bestiality, provoke ribald jokes, but paedophilia is feared and loathed.

Notwithstanding, a Norwegian bioethicist has just published a call to reexamine the ethics of paedophilia and child pornography. "Pedophilia is bad only because, and only to the extent that, it causes harm to children, and that pedophilia itself, as well as pedophilic expressions and practices that do not cause harm to children, are morally all right," contends Ole Martin Moen in the latest issue of the Nordic Journal of Applied Ethics .

Are paedophilic feelings wrong? No, says Dr Moen. "Pedophiles do not choose their preferences, and that though their preferences might well be both unfortunate and pathological, the mere fact of having such preferences is neither moral nor immoral."

Let's look at his reasons. (For the record, Moen is by no means endorsing paedophilia. For him it is just a mare's nest of logical confusion to which he is bringing order and clarity.)

Why is adult-child sex wrong? For two reasons, says Moen. First, because there is a high risk that it could be psychologically, or even physically, harmful. Second, because children are not capable of consenting to something that might harm them. But the core reason is harm.

But what about paedophilic activity which does no harm to a child? Would there be anything wrong with that? Probably not, if we accept Moen's analysis, but he acknowledges that the risk of harm is far too high. However, pornography harms no one, so there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, "Granted our current knowledge, it ... seems that texts and computer-generated graphics with pedophilic content may result in less adult-child sex."

So, he concludes, "the enjoyment of fictional stories and computer-generated graphics with pedophilic content is, in and of itself, morally acceptable ... The production, distribution, and enjoyment of texts and computer-generated graphics with pedophilic content should almost certainly be made legal."

If you are repulsed by the thought of readily-available, legal child pornography, try to argue against it. If you accept the principle that the ultimate criterion of right and wrong is harm, what could possibly be wrong with it?

Furthermore, there are studies (there are studies to prove everything) which show, says Dr Moen, that "in exceptional cases, the child might not only fail to be harmed but might also, retrospectively, view the incident positively". A controversial 1998 meta-analysis in Psychological Bulletin, a publication of the American Psychological Association (APA), found that sexually abused children did not suffer usually suffer "pervasive" or "intense" psychological harm. One can reasonably expect more such studies if the legitimacy of "no harm" arguments is bolstered by social acceptance of same-sex marriage.

It's hard to foresee the future, but it's our duty to try. If same-sex marriage becomes the law of the land, will we be forced to accept other practices which we now find utterly repugnant?