Month: July 2013

Moral Relativism and the Hierarchy of Rights

There’s a certain amount of debate in human rights circles about whether, although all rights are supposedly equal, there is in fact a hierarchy of rights. And when people discuss this, they usually add “and the right to freedom of religion is at the bottom of it.” Or words to that effect.

So, according to the Human Rights Act 1998, what rights do we have?

  • Protection of property
  • Right to education
  • Right to free elections
  • Right to life
  • Prohibition of torture
  • Prohibition of slavery and forced labour
  • Right to liberty and security
  • Right to a fair trial
  • No punishment without law
  • Right to respect for private and family life
  • Freedom of thought, conscience and religion
  • Freedom of expression
  • Freedom of assembly and association
  • Right to marry
  • Prohibition of discrimination

Additionally, the Equality Act 2010 prohibits discrimination on grounds of age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation.

Looking at these rights, quite a lot of them are the kind of right that isn’t really vulnerable to conflict with people trying to exercise other rights. For instance, in order for there to be a conflict with the prohibition of slavery and forced labour, it would be necessary for someone else to argue that one of their rights included the right to enslave others or subject them to forced labour.

Some rights are capable of conflict, but only in rare circumstances. For instance, the right to life (of an unborn child) conflicts with a woman’s right to respect for private and family life, in the case of abortion. Different states have decided that the balance of rights falls in different places; in England, for example, the woman’s right to respect for private life is given priority over the foetus’s right to life – and, indeed, under English law the foetus is not legally a ‘person’ with rights at all, so technically there is no conflict. Personhood, in the eyes of the law, happens at birth.

In Ireland, the balance of rights is counted differently: the foetus’s right to life (and personhood begins at conception in this case) overrides the woman’s right to respect for private life, unless her life is also in danger – which, of course means that it is no longer a conflict between life and private life, but between two lives.

The right to freedom of religion or, more accurately, the right to manifest one’s religion, however, is a right that is much more prone to conflict with other people’s rights. One of the most glaring ways in which one person’s right to manifest their religion conflicts with the rights of another is in the matter of homosexuality. This has been recently demonstrated in the cases of Bull & Bull v Hall & Preddy 2012 and Black & Morgan v Wilkinson 2013. In both cases, the complainants were gay couples (one in a civil partnership, one not) refused bed and breakfast accommodation in a double room by the Christian proprietor of the B&B where they had booked. The proprietors’ arguments included that:

  • it wasn’t about homosexuality, it was about married-ness, and unmarried heterosexual couples were also refused rooms.
  • it wasn’t about homosexuality, it was about homosexual behaviour.
  • even if it was about homosexuality, it didn’t matter because

in all three cases, the discrimination (if it was discrimination) would be allowable because the B&B proprietors were simply exercising their right to manifest their religion, which included the belief that homosexuality was sinful. This being the case, they should not be expected to do violence to their beliefs by aiding and abetting homosexual acts under their roofs.

Other people have explained, and commented on, this much more elegantly elsewhere.

But to return to the conflict of rights, most rights are self-directed: the right to life is basically a right not to be killed. The right to education is a right to education for oneself. The right to a fair trial does not have implications for the fairness, or otherwise, of other people’s trials.

The right to freedom of religion, on the other hand, is not only self-directed (the right to believe, and the right to worship) but it is also other-directed, in that religions prescribe how adherents should treat others. And it is this which causes the conflict, because some of the major religions have important beliefs that require believers to discriminate against others on grounds of sexuality, gender, and/or marital status.

But when rights conflict, should there be a hierarchy? Are all rights equal – or not?

At this point, I think it’s necessary to step back from the letter of the law, and consider why the Human Rights Act was passed in the first place, and why rights exist.

The top and the bottom of it appears to be that rights exist to allow people to live their lives without undue interference from others (especially the state). So basically, it’s all about ‘do as you will, only harm none’ (with an obligation on the state to facilitate this, plus a reasonable standard of living).

This, I would suggest, is why religion frequently gets the short end of the stick: the gay couple on holiday just want a B&B room like any other couple; the Christian proprietor wants to treat them differently (worse) than non-gay couples. This is the right not to be discriminated against, going up against the right to discriminate.

But why should that be the case? If the Christian B&B proprietor truly believes that homosexuality is sinful, why should he, she, or they, not be allowed to act on that honest belief? This is, after all, a matter of morality. And where would we be without morals?

I would suggest that while this country would like to pretend that it has equal respect for everybody’s culture and everybody’s moral code, this is not, in fact, the case. The existence of the Equality Act itself proves that this country has a legally-enforceable moral code in certain areas, rendering conflicting moralities illegal.

Is this a bad thing?

Personally, no, I don’t think so. A country has to have some clearly defined rules about what is, or is not, morally-acceptable behaviour. Otherwise, for example, we might have the situation where it’s viewed as acceptable by some members of the community to kidnap young people for forced marriage, or to shoot young men for being the wrong race in the wrong place. True cultural moral relativism means that if someone says “in my culture, we believe it’s OK to shoot black people”, you pretty much have to nod and say “Well, I don’t agree with it, but each to his own” and then let them get on with it. Morality is dependent on the prevailing culture – which prevents a bit of a law-and-order problem in a multicultural society.

So we have to be morally absolutist about some things: it’s not OK to kill people because you don’t like the colour of their skin; it’s not OK to force a person into marriage; it’s not OK to steal other people’s property. And we have also decided, as a country, that homosexuality is not wrong, or immoral, and that people should not be disadvantaged because of their sexuality any more than they should be disadvantaged because of their gender or their race.

The Christian B&B vs Gay Couple cases, therefore, are not about a straightforward conflict of rights. They are about whether one section of the population (Christians) has a right to discriminate against another section of the population (homosexuals) either for simply being who they are, or for engaging in practices that are completely legal.

Or even, it’s about whether one section of the population (Christians) has a right to impose their own particular morality over the morality outlined by the laws of the country in which they live, and to unilaterally impose sanctions (such as refusal of services) on persons who are acting morally by the standards of the country.

A minority culture living within a country has, of course, the right to impose its own moral standards on its own members. If a Muslim woman wishes to wear a veil in the UK, then good luck to her, unless the practise has an adverse effect on others.

If I went to Saudia Arabia, I would expect to have to wear a veil, because that is dictated by the morality and laws of the country. I wouldn’t like it, and I don’t agree with it, but I accept that by visiting the country I would have to accept its laws.

But I would strongly protest against a minority culture expecting to be able to impose its own internal rules and morality on outsiders who are acting within the terms of the country’s legally outlined morality.* Any citizen of the country should be able to go about his or her life safe in the knowledge that law and morality are not mutable; if their actions are legal in one town, or in one business premises, then they are legal in all.

If we truly believe in equality – if we believe that nobody should be discriminated against on grounds of their sexuality – then that right is absolute. To say that some people are allowed to discriminate against people on grounds of sexuality is to say that actually, homosexuals aren’t truly equal – that the LGBT community can only expect to be treated equally as long as they take care to stay out of areas populated by people who don’t agree. That is effectively “You are equal until someone says you’re not.”

I hope, when the two cases above go to the Supreme Court in the autumn, the preceding judgements will be confirmed: that it is not legal to discriminate against homosexuals when providing services to the public. Otherwise, the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act 2013 – good news though it is – will be only false progress.

End rant.

*Note: if a person is a personal guest within a culture, then they tacitly accept ‘insider’ status for the duration of the visit.

Mind Candy

Mind Candy: a (usually sedentary) form of entertainment that is completely without social or intellectual merit, but is just good fun.

I generally think of mind candy in terms of books and films – usually books, because I’m a reader rather than a watcher. Mind candy are those books that just jog along nicely; you aren’t in any real doubt that the Goodies will win and the Baddies will get what’s coming to them. Nobody is going to die horribly (unless they deserve it) and you are not going to be put through the emotional wringer.

Mind candy is what you need after a hard day at work, when you’ve been doing so much thinking your brain hurts and the mere thought of tackling Great Literature makes you want to cry.

Mind candy is what you need when it’s time for bed but your brain is still buzzing and you just know that unless you do something about it, you’ll still be tossing and turning when it’s starting to get light…

Mind candy gets an unfairly bad press: light, bright and trite, they say. Waste of paper (or electrons, in the case of ebooks). The sort of book that ebook readers were made for, because nobody can tell whether you’re reading Anna Karenina or Mills & Boon.

Well, yes it is – but is that such a bad thing? Why do we have to be serious and intellectual all the time? Hasn’t anyone heard about work-life balance? Or All Work and No Play Makes Jack a Dull Boy? A person needs mental rest and relaxation, and mind candy performs that function very well.

So well done to the writers of bodice-ripper romances and shoot-’em-up thrillers; you are the sanity-savers of society. The providers of uncomplicated but necessary fun.

Mind candy. You know it makes sense.

Religion. How do you know when you’ve got it?

This is what the Supreme Court have been discussing (reported in the Guardian here), with reference to whether a Scientology church should be approved for religious marriage ceremonies.

The question is, is Scientology a religion or not?

We don’t know what the five judges (Lord Neuberger, Lord Clarke, Lord Wilson, Lord Reed and Lord Toulson) think yet, because they have reserved judgement. However, this is my take on the subject. I wonder if their lordships will agree with me? (Or, with slightly less hubris, if I will find that I have agreed with them.)

Firstly, a religion is a system of belief. If it was a system of fact, then it would be science. This is important, and it also includes atheism. Just as ‘proofs’ of the existence of God (or gods) cannot stand up to formal logical refutations, neither can the reverse: as stated by Terry Pratchett (in Feet of Clay) “atheism is also a religious position.”

Secondly, religion is a system set up to deal with the intangible, but important, questions of life, such as “where did we come from?”, “where do we go?” and “why are we here?” and “while we are here, what should we do?” These are questions that cannot be answered by reference to evidence, because there is none. Even the existence of evolution does not disprove the existence of a god, because how do you know that’s not how he did it? Even if the answers are, as with Humanism, “there is no soul”, “we didn’t come from anywhere”, “we cease to exist when we die” and “during life, we should do our best to treat our fellow humans, animals, and the environment well”, these are still answers to the ultimate questions. Humanism is the most tentative inclusion in the ‘religion’ group because a person can have humanist beliefs without identifying themselves with Humanists as a group. But Humanism does tick all the boxes – so people self-identifying with the organised Humanist movement should count as practitioners of the Humanist religion.

Thirdly, its practitioners should genuinely believe in its teachings. This differentiates ‘true’ religion from cynical attempts to circumvent laws by invoking religious freedom (like the Neo-American Church regarding which a judge decided that “one gains the inescapable impression that the membership is mocking established institutions, playing with words and totally irreverent in any sense of the term”) or satirical social protests against religious intolerance (like the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster).

So, Scientology? Is it a religion or not?

Well, they have a theory on how the universe came to be, and they have views on what is essentially the soul (thetans). They have a philosophy for life, and they believe that thetans are reborn over and over again into different bodies (reincarnation – corporeal life after death). And its adherents certainly seem to take it seriously as a religion.

So, yes. Scientology is a religion.

However strange a religion’s answers to the ultimate questions appear, we cannot use that as a means of deciding whether something is a religion or not. After all, every religion’s beliefs seem at the very least mistaken, and at worst wrong to the point of obscenity to non-believers. We must stick to the bare bones: is it a belief (rather than a fact) and does it deal with the ultimate questions?

If our objection to classifying Scientology as a religion is that we do not approve of what it teaches, or of its practices – either towards its own members or towards outsiders – then we need to say that for recognition by the state, a religion must not just exist (and be a real religion), but its aims, objectives and conduct must be such as can be respected in a democratic state.

Trying to argue that a belief system is not a religion simply because we don’t approve of it is only going to cause trouble later on, because if I can detect the logical difficulties in this kind of argument, it’s a safe bet that they won’t escape the kind of lawyers who will be fighting the case.

I’ve got a secret…

Well, doesn’t everyone?

Those of us who are professionals are often privy to other people’s secrets, though. In my training as a pharmacist, it was drummed into me that patient confidentiality is essential. How can your patient trust you with their secrets if they can’t be sure that you won’t blab them all over town?

As a professional, you have to accept that you will – especially if you live near where you work – come into possession of juicy bits of gossip about your neighbours, friends and colleagues. And you aren’t allowed to talk about it. Even if you’re absolutely bursting to share with your BFF the fact that you saw so-and-so going into the GUM clinic, or you dispensed abortion medication for whatshername, or antipsychotics for so-and-so-else, you have to keep your mouth shut. However frustrating it is that you are not allowed to capitalise on these pieces of social gold, you can’t do it. No matter how impressed that hot guy (or girl) would be, or what this would do to your street cred. Your patient has a right to have their privacy respected, and to know that whatever they have to worry about, having their healthcare team blab their secrets is not part of it.

The same is true of lawyers, only more so. I’ve read the Law Society’s practice note on Social Media for solicitors, which seems to take client confidentiality to a whole new level. One is left with the impression that the only way for a solicitor to maintain client confidentiality with respect to social media is to take a sledgehammer to his personal PC (and ensure its complete destruction), and then go and live on a moutaintop somewhere. Alone.

All the more surprising to find a solicitor gossiping about his famous client to his wife’s friends. Most breaches of confidentiality are accidental: a laptop is left on a bus, hard drives are not destroyed, patient notes are stolen from a car. But in this case, the lawyer involved deliberately shared a client’s secrets with an outsider. To me, there is a whole world of difference between sheer carelessness (even to the level of culpable idiocy) and deliberate action.

There is another level of difference between deliberate breaking of confidentiality for gain, and for momentary titillation and the ‘street cred’ of being ‘someone who knows’. I don’t know what it says about my ethics that I would have found it more forgivable if the solicitor had sold his client’s secret to a newspaper for a colossal sum of money in order to pay off mounting debts. As it is, he didn’t even have that excuse. He just couldn’t keep his mouth shut.

And how can you trust someone who will tell a juicy secret just because it is juicy? You can’t say “well, he’s perfectly trustworthy as long as he keeps away from the gee-gees”. The only way you can guarantee he’s not going to tell all is to only have boring secrets that aren’t worth telling.

And this leads into another interesting question. What if the client’s secret is so exciting that you just can’t keep your mouth shut; it’s like getting pocket money when you’re six: saving? What’s that? You can’t think of anything else until you’ve blown your five pence on sweets.

But then, as a professional, you’re not six years old any more. You’re supposed to have more control. And if you unburden yourself of the hot news to your trusted BFF, then aren’t you simply transferring the burden of secrecy to her? You have eased the pressure on yourself of being ‘big with news’ – but only to transfer it to another person, who will presumably also be consumed with the desire to pass on this delicious piece of goss. How on earth can you expect your BFF, a non-professional, under no duty to respect your client’s right to confidentiality (particularly since you’ve just trampled right over it) to keep her mouth shut if you couldn’t?

The Independent is quite sympathetic – comparatively speaking – to the lawyer. If J.K. Rowling had wanted to keep her pseudonym secret, they say, why didn’t she publish incognito? Personally, I think this misses a major point. Lawyer. Duty of confidentiality. Regardless. Duh.

Also, they say, pity the poor solicitor at the dinner party, with no exciting stories. Nobody likes to seem boring! After all, doctors tell gory stories, teachers talk about horrible kids. Why shouldn’t solicitors do the same and blab their clients’ secrets (but only the exciting ones, natch)?

Well, there is a major difference here. As a pharmacist, I’m quite entitled to chat to my husband about the ethical dilemma I had at work, which was remarkable in that it was almost exactly like the ones we keep getting given as stock examples during ethics workshops. You know, the kind of thing that you think never really happens. The thing is, I do it without mentioning any of the details that might enable my husband (or anyone he talks to) to identify any of the partcipants. Nobody’s right to confidentiality has been violated. Once I start mentioning names, or adding in details that might make any of the participants identifiable, then I’m breaking confidentiality.

The same applies to lawyers. Nobody says you can’t tell interesting stories (unless you really do have a boring job, in which case, make them up. Since you can’t give names, you won’t get found out – see, this confidentiality schtick isn’t all bad) – you just have to be careful which ones you tell.

And if you absolutely, positively, can’t bear to keep your mouth shut – well, lawyering probably isn’t the right job for you. According to The Independent, you might have more success as a journalist – they have a positive duty to gossip!

London’s sexiest barristers… only OK if they’re male?

Someone (well, technically more than one person) has decided to make a list of London’s hottest barristers. Not hottest as in most-likely-to-win-your-case, but hottest as in barristers-we’d-most-like-to-see-shirtless. The raters are probably female (or gay), and all the barristers on the list are male. The raters even suggest that each ‘set’s’ (barristers seem to come in sets, a bit like crockery) website ought to have at least two photographs of each barrister – one with a shirt, and one without.

This has made a bit of a stir in barristering circles in London, and prompted this article in The Lawyer. The interesting bit is the comments – and the first commenter wonders whether, if this had been a list of sexy female barristers put together by men, its reception would have been the same.

This is something that crosses my mind quite often. A man making sex- or appearance-related comments about a woman is being sexist, or committing sexual harassment. If a woman does it to a man, then she’s making a joke. A woman has the right to be upset or offended or even to feel threatened – but a man is supposed to be flattered when a complete stranger suggests that he be required to post a picture of himself shirtless on his workplace’s website. I wonder what the reaction would have been if a similar website rating female barristers had suggested that they pose topless, or even in a bikini?

If you read further down the comments, though, more facets to the situation become apparent.

Someone suggests that sexy female barristers are more common than sexy male barristers – well, personally I do think that unless a person is truly absolutely dead-centre bisexual and finds both genders equally sexually desirable, that person is not qualified to judge. Or is this an implication that women are more likely to be good-looking than men?

Someone else comments that if sexy female barristers are more common than sexy males, does this mean that women are more likely to be accepted as barrister pupils if they are good-looking?

Someone else implies that a list of sexy women in the legal industry in London will be composed of legal secretaries – clearly assuming either that a woman in the legal industry is a secretary, or women barristers are all ugly (unlike female secretaries).

An interesting look at the different ways something can be perceived, and the different meanings given to an action. It makes me think, how do I react to that list of hot male barristers?

Well, my first thought is that none of them are a fraction as handsome and sexy as my husband. Decorative, in some cases, but then so is Monet. And I can’t stand Monet.

Secondly, pity. These men, who have worked hard to get where they are, are suddenly reduced to the status of sex-symbol. They haven’t even been given the Miss World opportunity to state that their hobbies are working in a soup kitchen for the homeless and rescuing small puppies, and their dearest wish is for world peace. Their photographs – admittedly posted on their workplaces’ public websites – have been taken and used for a purpose for which they were not intended, and presumably without their knowledge or permission. Then they are written about in a profoundly disrespectful way that makes it clear that the raters are simply interested in looks rather than personality – or that they think a person’s personality can be known from their looks.

Of course, one could say that this happens to women all the time. However, this does not make it right. How can it be right to discriminate, or harass, one group and justify it by saying ‘they started it’? Especially if it wasn’t them, personally, but other members of their group (or gender). ‘They started it’ does not cut it as an excuse in an infant school playground, and should not be accepted as an excuse for adult conduct either. How can we ever achieve respectful equality if there’s a continual tit-for-tat war going on? Someone has to stop the cycle.

Or is it just a bit of fun? But then, where does fun stop and treating someone as a sex object start?

Then, of course, it’s necessary to consider what equality of treatment actually means. Does putting up a list of sexy male barristers have the same connotations as a list of sexy female barristers?

I don’t think it does.

Sexiness and desirability are not just based on looks. Read enough romances, and you find patterns in what society – as demonstrated by authors and agents, and the readers who buy the books and thus approve the content – considers to be sexy.

If you take the male lead, he is not just good looking, but he is also powerful, charismatic, and usually rich. Lately, he often has an intriguing vulnerability, but usually he’s the alpha male. He’s in control of his life, and he makes the choices.

The female lead, on the other hand, is often not in control of her life, or at least not happy. She is often lonely. She may have come out of an unsatisfactory (even abusive) relationship, may be left looking after a child, or may be long-term single. She is almost always in a position of weakness compared to the hero (boss/secretary, rich man/poor woman, rescuer/damsel-in-distress), and may have got into her current position due to poor judgement or bad luck. Then, of course, outside romances we have such societal tropes as the ‘dumb blonde’.

Desirability, therefore, appears – to me – to be constituted of different factors depending on whether we are talking about men or women. A desirable man is not only gorgeous-looking, but he’s also powerful and wealthy, likely to be a good provider. A desirable woman, on the other hand, is beautiful but not too bright, and is in need of male guidance. We have a societal convention of treating female beauty as incompatible with intelligence (admittedly, this is disappearing – but it certainly hasn’t gone).

So when we’re deciding whether a list of hot male barristers is as insulting as a list of hot female barristers, it’s necessary to consider what else we’re saying about those who make the grade.

Me? I think there is sound reason why we react more forcefully against a prospective list of hot female barristers than a list of hot male ones. But ‘less wrong’ is still not the same as ‘right’.

And here endeth the rant.

The meaning of marriage

Yesterday, the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill passed through the final parliamentary hurdle; all it needs is royal assent (which it will almost certainly get) and it will become law before the end of the week.

Finally!

The new law will allow gay and lesbian couples to marry, and for transsexuals to remain married after their sex change. Religious organisations will ‘opt-in’ if they wish to offer same-sex marriage, except for the Church of England and the Church in Wales, which are banned by law from marrying any but heterosexual couples.

Opponents of the bill have criticised it as devaluing the concept of marriage, and encouraging promiscuity and making a nonsense of faithfulness in marriage. Marriage, they say, is supposed to be between one man and one woman. Some also say that the purpose of marriage is for the procreation of children, and since homosexual couples cannot reproduce, this makes a nonsense of marriage. The bill has even been criticised as opening the door to polygamy.

I have to admit, I find the logic of these objections… difficult to understand.

Taking the reproduction argument first, yes, Christian marriage is “ordained for the procreation of children”. But logically speaking, this presents a problem for heterosexual as well as homosexual couples. Historically, it was reasonable to assume that any male-female pairing was potentially fertile, even between persons of mature years – the Book of Genesis has Sarah giving birth at the age of 90. However, science has moved on. We know that post-menopausal women are infertile; women who have had hysterectomies are infertile. And then there are all the other men and women who are infertile for a whole variety of other reasons. If marriage is for the procreation of children, then should infertile people be allowed to marry? Should fertility be tested before marriage, or marriages be annulled after one partner proves to be infertile? Should couples who choose not to have children be forced to reproduce or forfeit their marriage? If we are to deny marriage to homosexual couples on the grounds that their union will not produce offspring, then we logically cannot extend marriage to any infertile pairing.

The promiscuity/faithfulness argument is one that I just flat-out don’t understand. My understanding of promiscuity is ‘having sex with lots of people’. Sequentially, not necessarily simultaneously. My understanding of marriage is that it involves promising to only have sex henceforth with the person you are married to. If we take a legalistic view of sexual practices, gay people (laying aside civil partnerships) are currently free to be as promiscuous as they like and the concept of faithfulness to a partner doesn’t exist, because they have no means of making a binding promise to ‘cleave to their partner and no other’. With the introduction of marriage, same-sex partners now have the opportunity to make those promises. Surely this should reduce promiscuity? Getting married is certainly supposed to reduce promiscuity amongst the heterosexual population, so why should homosexuals be any different?

As for making a mockery of faithfulness within marriage, why should providing more people with the opportunity to be faithful within marriage make a mockery of it? Unless, of course, you believe that homosexual people are inherently promiscuous and incapable of faithfulness. I see the introduction of same-sex marriage as strengthening what marriage means, not weakening it: if you love your partner and want to be with them for the rest of your life, you marry. Marriage isn’t just some extra twiddle on a committed relationship that is only open to a certain class of people, it’s now going to be the natural way for any couple to express their love for and commitment to each other.

Those persons who are worried that this week it’s the gays, next week it’ll be the polygamists, have also likely got nothing to worry about. Unless, of course, their real objection is simply that they want marriage to be restricted to one man-one woman because that is the only form that their religion endorses. There are significant differences between same-sex marriage and polygamy. The major difference is that same-sex marriage is a difference in quality, and polygamous marriage is a difference in quantity. Restricting marriages to male-female pairings means that one sector of society (homosexuals) cannot marry at all. Allowing homosexual marriage extends the right and opportunity to have a legally-recognised lifetime loving partnership to every member of society, not just those in the majority. Polygamous marriages, on the other hand, do not extend the right to marry to anyone who did not already have it. In fact, one could say that male-female and same-sex paired marriages are more similar than polygamous marriages; the new law merely allows a different constitution of the pair. But it is still a marriage between only two people. Arguably, allowing polygamous marriages would be a greater change to the definition of marriage than allowing same-sex marriage, as it would obliterate the current definition of marriage as involving a promise to be faithful to one person (regardless of the gender of that person).

Another difference between same-sex and polygamous marriages are the known benefits, or harms, to the persons involved. We know that heterosexual paired marriage tends to have health benefits. There are also indications that the same is true for same-sex marriage. On the other hand, the reverse may be true for polygamous marriage, at least for polygynous marriages. So the public health implications of legalising polygamous marriage are exactly the opposite of those for legalising same-sex marriage.

Interestingly, there has been a less emotive suggestion for a new form of marriage that I think actually does threaten the nature of marriage as we know it. Currently, marriage is – let’s face it – about sex, and sexual fidelity. Human beings, like swans, naturally form pairs in which to engage in reproductive behaviour (even if that behaviour is obviously never going to result in actual reproduction), and these pairings tend to be long-term. This tendency has been legalised as marriage, and has become associated – as society has become more complex – with certain inheritance rights and tax benefits (I do not believe the same is true for swans, however). There has been a suggestion, in the wake of the same-sex marriage bill, to allow siblings who live together to marry, or carers to marry the person they care for, in order to secure the financial benefits accruing to married couples. To me, this does constitute a threat to the nature of marriage, because it turns marriage from an expression of (sexual) love and commitment to a procedure pragmatically decided upon in order to maximise one’s financial security.

I do think it is right that such long-term pairings as unmarried sisters (or brothers) living together, or carers and the cared-for, should have access to the financial advantages currently associated with marriage, if their level of commitment is the same. However, I don’t think that marriage is the way to do it – and neither does the government. I think this situation is to be considered at a later time, with a view to creating a new solution, and this, to me, is how it should be.

Marriage – whoever you are marrying – is about romance. As long as we keep romance at its heart, the meaning of marriage will stay constant. The minute we make it about money, that’s when it dies.

Where have I been?

Well… here, actually. Sitting at the same keyboard that is attached to the same internet where this blog lives. No excuses.

But I’ve been writing my MA dissertation, which is now grown to a decent size and is in need of trimming into a more pleasing shape, like the academic equivalent of topiary. For this sort of thing, I tend to be a collector of everything. I stick it all together into one big long document, and then chop the useless bits off. And hopefully, what’s left should look like a rooster, or maybe a squirrel.

But – World – Take heed! Today is the first day of the rest of this blog’s life. I promise to actually add things to it at regular intervals. Interesting things. But this blog is not topiary. I keep wondering whether it ought to be, but no – this blog’s mission in life is to be a monkey puzzle tree. It’s not just one thing (like a large privet teapot) – it’s a place where all sorts of branches go off in all directions.

So, there we are. A public promise. Got to do it now…