Risks of consequentialist thinking

A RECENT article in a leading Sydney newspaper made the claim that, "Supporters of same sex marriage must recognise they face a serious moral dilemma. Cheap wombs might bring gay men the happiness of being a father of their own child. But the cost of that happiness is often borne by poor and uneducated women."

This claim neatly ties together gay marriage and surrogacy as one moral dilemma, but is this actually true? Gay marriage is about the principle of equality and specifically whether or not people should be discriminated against because of their sexual preference. Looking back through history one can see that in the '60s the civil rights movement fought for the rights of black people to be treated equally to white people. In the '70s the women's movement fought for women to be treated equally to men. The rationale of the above claim is that negative consequences can be used as an argument against taking a stand on moral principles. By extension one could link such things as the increased male unemployment rate with more women entering the workforce - or even more tenuously, the increased divorce rate with the rise of female equality and opportunity.

Consequentialist type thinking can distract us from fundamental moral principles by luring us into a fear-based approach to moral reasoning. Revolutionary type change has in contrast occurred when courageous leaders have been brave enough to stand up for what they believe in regardless of the threatened consequences - witness Martin Luther King Jnr, Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi.

At the centre of the issue of same-sex marriage is the principle of equality. Do all people really have equal rights? And if so, how are these rights translated into rules and laws that provide for all of us to live in a modern democratic and free society? On this basis, same-sex marriage is ethical and denying people the ability to marry because of their sexual preference would be a denial of their fundamental right to equality.

The issue of surrogacy, by contrast, deals with the right of freedom to choose. Specifically, does a woman have the right to use her body as an incubator? In many countries around the world the answer to this question is yes. The further issue raised in the article, that of 'cheap wombs' relates to the treatment of women in poorer countries and their risk of exploitation. Here the principles are respect and honour. Are the people running the surrogacy clinics treating the women with respect? The author suggests that they are not and that in fact they are exploiting these women because they are poor. Using the lure of the dollar to entice them to do something they would not normally do.

So, is gay marriage and surrogacy linked as an ethical issue? No. Gay marriage is about equality. Surrogacy is about freedom to choose. Exploitation of the poor is about respect.

As a society we should be standing up for all of those fundamental principles - equality, freedom and respect. We should not fail to fight for one right for the fear of the consequences, rather we should ensure that our moral foundations remain firm even when challenged by the enticement of money. A value is not a value unless we are willing to pay a price to uphold it. If a same sex couple wanting a surrogate child faces a moral dilemma it is that they should ensure that the rights of the mother are upheld regardless of the cost. Opponents to same-sex marriage face the moral dilemma of failing to support the principle of equality and no amount of spurious linking of consequences excuses that.

A.C. Ping is an internationally published author who teaches Applied Ethics and Sustainability at Southern Cross University.

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