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Surapot Taweesak: Liberalism and ‘value neutrality’; the case of marriage equality

There has always been a question whether liberalism’s claim to be “value neutral” amid differences and the diversity of ideas, religious beliefs, non-religious beliefs, and various cultures in democratic society is a just claim or not. This article will try to raise the case “marriage equality” as an example of the debate.

1. Why does the state need to enact a law to guarantee marriage equality?

One answer of liberalism is that in a liberal democratic society where citizens are diverse in terms of thoughts and beliefs about what makes a good life in different religious and cultural worldviews, as well as non-religious beliefs or philosophies, the state must be “value neutral” or be neutral toward the different varieties of ideas and beliefs.

Marriage is a part of the belief about having a “good life” that is generally related to religious culture, since the major religions not only dictate the ideology and political order for governance but also for regulating people’s private lives, from diet, dress, marriage, death, and even as far as individuals’ sense of right and wrong or "conscience.”  A good life, in terms of marriage, is generally related to “patriarchal culture” or a culture of male dominance that has developed over a long time in both the eastern and western worlds.

However, in a modern democratic state or liberal democracy, the values of the good life in terms of married life is not determined by religious belief or the framework of values of only one culture.  This is because marriage is linked to other “public goods” such as rights, liberties, equal human dignity between women and men, gender diversity, and “justice” for all genders because gender diverse people work and pay the same taxes as women and men.

But why are they denied the rights and benefits that they should receive from the laws on registering marriages that women and men enjoy?

Claiming religious beliefs or using the logic of patriarchy to oppose passing a marriage equality law is clearly against these principles of public good and justice.  

Therefore, to protect the public good and justice for all citizens, the state has to enact a marriage equality law.

2. If the state enacts a marriage equality law, can it really be regarded as "value neutral"?

First, we must define “neutrality”. It means that the state ensures “the equal right of choice” of all citizens, regardless of gender, religious group, culture or non-religious group. A marriage equality law is a law that “ensures the right for everyone to choose equally” whether you marry the same sex or not.

If you think that same-sex marriage is against your religious beliefs, the culture you uphold, or any of your own values or ideals, you just do not marry someone of the same sex. And those who approve of same-sex marriage have the freedom to choose marriage with someone of the same sex and get the rights and privileges under the marriage law that are equal to those of men and women.

Argument 1: Some people argue that the state's acknowledgement of equal marriage rights is not truly "value neutral."

Since the state has chosen “liberal values”, that means they have chosen the values of rights, liberties, and gender equality in the liberal sense in drafting laws. Liberal values are already in conflict with other values, such as the values of religious beliefs that reject contraception, abortion, homosexuality, etc.

Nevertheless, the question for this kind of argument is: in a modern democratic state that consists of citizens with different and diverse opinions, beliefs, religions and cultures, together with many non-religious beliefs, how will the denial of a marriage equality law based on the beliefs of only one religion or culture be “justice” for people of other religions or cultures or people of no religion?

In other words, why should people who do not believe that same-sex marriage is immoral be deprived of their proper rights equal to those of women and men by the marriage law. Those arguing this still do not have a clear answer.

Argument 2: Some people argue that liberal neutrality is a hoax, and it is an authoritarian position.

Even though liberalism insists that marriage equality laws give an “equal right to choose” to “everyone” whether to marry the same sex or not, which seems “value neutral”, it is not really a neutral value, because the state has chosen liberal values for drafting laws, and there is a “hidden meaning” in the state choosing to be antagonistic towards religions that believe homosexuality to be immoral because passing equality laws implicitly says “homosexuality is not immoral,” and it is something that can be or should be done.

It is the equivalent of the state directing and opening the way to what are moral offences in some religions or cultures by legal legitimacy. This is a “standpoint” or “liberal authoritarian position” that limits, dominates, and violates the liberties of other cultures that are incompatible with liberal culture.

Liberalism would counter that a liberal democratic state is not a “paternalistic” state that is concerned with a morality based on personal beliefs. For example, marriage is part of private life that may be related to personal beliefs on religion, culture, etc., that without question are diverse. The state does not have a duty to decide which personal beliefs are right or wrong. It is an individual matter where people must decide by themselves whether or not they believe.

The state only has the duty to uphold “fundamental rules” or “core values”, which are the rules or values that must be enshrined in the Constitution and other laws under democratic rule to underpin the co-existence of various religious, cultural, and non-religious beliefs and philosophies in an environment of equality, respect, and tolerance. 

Thus, the acceptance of marriage equality is the upholding by the state of the fundamental rules/core values of democracy, i.e. the upholding of the rights, liberties, equality, and human dignity of all citizens, including “justice” and other benefits to which all citizens have an equal right regardless of gender, belief, religion, culture, ethnicity, or skin colour. Otherwise, if the state does not uphold these core values, there will be “discrimination” based on gender, religious, cultural, and other prejudices. And what could liberalism propose that was a better solution to solve the problem?

I have an additional remark that when “some” academics criticize liberalism for claiming universal values/truths, they in fact criticize from the perspective of cultural relativism and postmodernism. Sometimes, they have unconsciously turned these concepts into “objective reality” and made them “universal” instead of liberalism (based on the meaning that they criticized).

To claim that the cultural facts from different societies throughout the world are different and diverse is a "general truth" is to disprove that liberal truths and values are not universal. They also assert that the various truths and values in every culture have “equal status”, which is also an assertion as a “general principle” or universal in one sense.

In other words, when you assert that no perspective is more true and more valuable than any other, is it the same as asserting this “perspective” of yours is more true and more valuable or “should be more accepted” than the rest? Or, when you say that no liberal perspective or any other perspective is universal, are you asserting that your view that uses such general judgments is one that is more universal or more generally true?

Actually, the problems of liberalism are many. If you look at the criticism that attacks liberalism, there are more than 45 volumes of the Buddhist scriptures. Liberalism itself has many shades. Liberals also argue among themselves on basic issues, sometimes about who is a “true liberal” or a “fake liberal.” This is no different from Marxists who argue with each other and are criticized from other perspectives at the same time.

Similarly Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, and Muslims do not just argue among themselves and split into many different sects, but also wage wars, killing those of different sects and religions, causing thousands of deaths, as we know.

Some who romantically protect the current “religious identities” of Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam also pretend not to see how these major religions made it “heroic” to destroy the diversity of “polytheistic” religious identities during ancient times, in the middle ages, and in traditional societies.

Just because these major religions praise the supremacy of one god as the creator of humans, the world, the universe, the natural law controlling all things, the moral rules directing a person's life from birth to death, and political rules governing states, these religions view the worship of other gods as credulity, heresy, and an evil that must be eradicated, otherwise they assimilate the diversity of beliefs under their control.

So, what is a true religious identity that is homogeneous and unchanging?  What do religious identities like the ancient Hindus, those at the time of the Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad, really have in common, homogeneous and unchanging, with the present?

The answer to these questions is none. No religious/cultural identity is true, homogeneous, and unchanging. Everything changes according to an ever-changing social and world context.

Liberal and Marxist ideology, for example, were interpreted according to social, economic, political, and other contexts that have also changed through struggle and negotiation at the time or in the historical context of a particular society.

If I speak historically, the emergence of liberalism in one important aspect aims to find a solution for religious conflicts, or to find a way for religious and cultural differences in a democratic society to coexist equally with freedom, respect, and mutual tolerance without state discrimination against its citizens whether on the basis of prejudice or for reasons of belief, religion, non-religious belief or culture. 

Certainly, how closely can “practice” be in line with ideals, is another matter to consider, such as the issue of LGBTQ+ marriage equality. This is not an issue that classic liberalism has argued before. The first philosopher to propose that women should have the right to vote was John Stuart Mill, who did not speak of this issue and many of Mill’s ideas are outdated already.

Campaigning for equal rights for people of diverse gender and for marriage equality is one phenomenon among many in the long course of history which reflect the use of democracy to “struggle and negotiation” in interpreting/expanding the concepts of rights, liberties, equality, human dignity, public good, public justice (etc.) of liberalism for applying in “the world of reality” that is always changing.

This is not a dream world with a beautiful, never-changing original religious and cultural identity, not a world that only claims “morals, cultures, traditions” where those who make such claims act contrary to the virtues they claim, and not a world where “our beautiful land shall be regained,” as authoritarian dictatorships write in deceptive songs that conservative intellectuals have never think to unmask, but instead unmask liberalism which questions authoritarian dictatorships!

An opinion was originally published in Prachatai in Thai and translated into English by Prachatai English intern, Viyada Nokjaisua.

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