Sunday, December 1, 2013

Marriage and social change

As progressive causes – like feminism and gay rights – progress, the victories often become less significant.

Why, for example, would a woman want to be a priest or a bishop? Why would anyone want to be a priest or a bishop?

Well, to be serious, I do understand why devout Catholics or Episcopalians (whether they be men or women and whatever their sexual orientation) might aspire to leadership roles within their respective churches, but the question of who gets to be priests etc. is (or should be) of concern only to the members of the churches involved. And, of course, that membership base is much depleted – and shrinking.

The issue of same-sex marriage, however, is both more complicated and more significant. You could ask similar questions to the questions I asked above, but the parallel with ordination breaks down. It's readily understandable and widely understood that – and why – (many) couples want to wed. The cynical take on marriage [cue Eddie Cantor routine (see below)] is – as it always was – a minority position.

However, I think it's fair to say that a personal or theoretical lack of commitment to the institution of marriage in general does not necessarily entail either sexism or cynicism. But I'll save my arguments on this for another day and make do with an anecdote.

A lawyer who lived with and had children with and eventually married (a non-event in the scheme of things) a favorite cousin of mine used to say to her, "Let's not bring the law into our relationship." (He also used to say, "The law is an ass." But I won't go there...)

Clearly, she wanted more security. And he had been through a very messy (and I suspect expensive) divorce as a younger man. Anyway, they stayed together, if you want to know, even after my cousin was struck down with a terrible illness. Faithfulness (or the lack of it) is what defines a relationship in the end.

The only other comment I want to make on this issue is that allowing same-sex couples to marry (which I am not arguing against) does change the meaning of the institution of marriage. This is an obvious fact which some advocates of reform don't seem to acknowledge. Exactly how it changes it is difficult to define precisely. But, clearly, it would make the institution less appealing to those with conservative views.

It is quite possible that many non-religious conservatives who might under the old system have quite liked the idea of marrying their girlfriend (I can only really speak from a male point of view here) may henceforth be put off the idea because marriage no longer sends the same (mildly socially conservative) signal it once did.

Some may detect homophobia in this general line of thought – along the lines that gays and lesbians have somehow contaminated the institution. But this would be stretching the concept of homophobia much too far and distorting some relatively simple semantic and social truths.

In fact, one would have to say that anyone who could interpret a man's choosing not to marry his female partner as a sign of homophobia is living in a quite different linguistic universe from the rest of us.

I am reluctant to talk about liberty or freedom in a political sense, as such talk often rings hollow to me. But, for what it's worth, I do discern within myself a deep psychological – and, perhaps, ideological – commitment to personal freedom. Freedom to love or not to love. Freedom to devise and live by one's own values, whether they be progressive or conservative or something altogether different.

The problem and the paradox of such a view is that we can fully realize these freedoms only in the context of a society in which our particular personal values find widespread expression.


  1. "....commitment to personal freedom. Freedom to love or not to love. Freedom to devise and live by one's own values, whether they be progressive or conservative or something altogether different."
    ---I totally feel the same way. Personal freedom is the most noble thing of our human affairs. I am quite indifferent to all institutional business, marriage in any forms. However I understand, the personal freedom we enjoy now essentially depends on countless personal sacrifices, in other words, collective efforts we humans made in past. So I admire those who fought for rights. But still, as long as one had a taste of personal freedom, she/he would not willing to sacrifice it for anything else.

    1. It's always nice to hear from you, Yun Yi, and gratifying that you find things to agree with in what I say.

      On the question of freedom, I would want to emphasize two points. That individual freedom is ultimately (and paradoxically) defined in terms of social context – it's always limited in other words. Also it seems clear that some people have a greater need for personal freedom than others.

  2. What's fascinating to me is that same sex couples, historically speaking "non-traditional" (at the least), want to participate in the tradition of marriage while heterosexual ("traditional") couples participate less and less. It's ironic also that the traditional world always maintained that "love and commitment" are the basis for marriage (purportedly marriage not all about sex) but objections to same-sex marriage (though it's rarely spoken) are objections to sexual practices, such that for a same-sex couple, love can't get you into the institution, but sex can keep you out -- so it's apparently all about sex after all. "Live and let live" is the only logical answer to this problem. I personally find homosexuality unatrractive (even comical at some moments, and I apologize in advance for that) but as long as nobody consummates in my living room, I'm OK.

    1. Seems to me that discretion and privacy always have a role to play in matters of sex, and much of what is going on involves changes not so much in how people live as in how their life choices are to be presented to a wider public. How much of this is driven by genuine specific needs and how much by broader political and cultural agendas (or the media for that matter) I am not sure.

  3. A confession: My own views on this topic are under review. You are right that changing the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples does change the meaning of the institution. The judiciary in the U.S. has overridden the democratic will of the people, though to be sure the people are changing their views and we now have several states that allow SSM. The dangers of this experiment are unknown, but largely I have believed they would be in the form of political solvents to dissolve whatever is left of the fundamental institution of western civilization. Recently, though, I have begun to suspect that our traditional institutions are losing their value all around, as our changed technological circumstances invalidate historical models. This is all very preliminary, but to the extent history is less valid as a guide for what we can expect, then to that same extent historically important institutions may also diminish in value.

    1. "Recently ... I have begun to suspect that our traditional institutions are losing their value all around, as our changed technological circumstances invalidate historical models."

      Something like this does seem to be occurring. The traditional family (which is, of course, at the heart of traditional conservatism) is utterly undermined by the existence of alternative reproductive technologies. Aldous Huxley saw this clearly a long time ago.

  4. I don't agree that accepting SSM changes the meaning of marriage. The invention of mobile phones did not change the meaning of phone, and that was a massive change in the technology. Likewise with digital books -- they are still books. In any case, the general acceptance of easy and unilateral divorce or separation (and repartnering) is a far bigger change than SSM. I don't think that even those quite extreme changes changed the meaning of marriage. A second or third marriage is as much a marriage as a lifelong first marriage.

    Not that I am persuaded by the usual "equality" argument for SSM. The refutation of that argument by Richard McDonough seems to me successful in its own terms: that is, SSM is not an equal rights issue because, where same-sex marriage is illegal, heterosexuals and homosexuals have the exact same right to marry. Neither has the right to marry a member of the same sex, but both have the right to marry a member of the opposite sex.

    I'd prefer to start the debate from the main, but not only, point of marriage, which I think is the raising of children in a stable family. It's mainly about children's rights, I think. Which is not by itself an argument against SSM.

    1. If the legal definition of marriage changes as it is being changed in many places – quite dramatically – then it is plausible to believe that the institution itself and its significance and the way it is perceived will also change. I certainly see marriage differently now from how I saw it a few years ago. Am I mistaken to do so?

      On children, you have a point. Also, many marriages in the past were entered into so that a child would not be 'illegitimate'.

      But the many married couples who either can't have or don't want children can't be ignored as an integral part of the traditional marriage landscape. Their married status was, in my experience, never questioned. They were always (and are) considered just as married as anyone else, and any understanding of the institution of marriage needs, I think, to take these facts fully into account.

    2. Suppose you live somewhere where SSM has been legalised. And suppose you are thinking of marrying your opposite sex girlfriend or boyfriend. In what way does SSM make any difference to your decision?

      (Likewise the existence of Kindle books makes no difference to my ability to read paper books.)

      I agree that child-free marriages are marriages quite as much as child-burdened marriages are marriages. I'm just observing that we should not forget children in the discussion of SSM.

    3. "Suppose you live somewhere where SSM has been legalised. And suppose you are thinking of marrying your opposite sex girlfriend or boyfriend. In what way does SSM make any difference to your decision ?"

      My point is that someone with generally secular and conservative views would be likely to find the new version of marriage (encompassing same sex relationships) less appealing than the old version, and so would be less likely to avail himself/herself of it. It is all about sending social signals.

      The comparison with books is not very helpful. A book is an object as well as an institution. Marriage is an institution only. And for non-religious people it is entirely defined by the law and its application at any given point in time. So – change the definition, change (the meaning of) the institution. This seems obvious to me.

      If you want to read an extended text you need to access a book (or an e-book or a printout or whatever). But if you want to live with someone in an intimate and sexual relationship you don't need to get married.

      A hundred (or even sixty) years ago people used to get married, I would say, mainly because non-married couples (and their offspring) were not approved of in most social contexts, but also for other reasons, practical and romantic.

      There are very few practical advantages to marriage these days, and so it is all about what signals it sends.

      And surely in a society where marriage has been redefined, traditional marriage in effect having been replaced by a broadened version encompassing same sex relationships, the signals it sends have changed.

      In particular (and this is where the conservatism comes in) the continuity of the institution and its links with the past – with what marriage was in the past – have been weakened.

  5. The public image of marriage has indeed plummeted in the last 50 years. It is now at rock bottom. We agree on that.

    The public benefits (legal and financial) are also close to zero, in modern societies. We agree on that.

    However, the personal benefits of marriage are very considerable. This is well known to researchers, though not well known in the wider culture. (For a summary, see Waite and Gallagher, The Case for Marriage.) The benefits extend to the children of married couples. I'm not sure whether you agree about this. Your discussion seems to overlook it.

    Is marriage all about sending social signals? Yes and no. It sends out a strong signal of commitment to each other. Does it send other signals? If so, with what content? Is it in some way a cultural statement? I don't think so, but I'm willing to be persuaded.

    Is marriage entirely defined by the law? Emphatically no. The law formalises a social institution. It deals only with the outer edges of the institution. The inner life is where marriage is really operative. I thought conservatives agreed on this. (MacIntyre's distinction between a social practice and an institution is very much to the point here.)

    1. Marriage can been seen in broad or narrow terms. I am talking about the secular, legal arrangement voluntarily and specifically entered into by some couples and not by others to formalize their status. And the nature of that arrangement is "entirely defined by the law and its application at any given point in time" – isn't it?

      People without religious affiliations normally have a free choice as to whether to 'get married' in this way or not. It's this particular choice I'm talking about.

      However, the significance of choosing such an arrangement will clearly depend not only upon the specific details of the law but also on how such details relate to actual practices as well as general beliefs and values about these practices.

      It would be virtually impossible to specify this significance (or the social signals involved) in general terms. That's why I made only a limited and specific claim.

      I haven't yet looked at the research regarding the personal benefits of marriage, but let me just make a couple of off-the-cuff comments.

      The correlations between socio-economic status and general and psychological health are, of course, well-known but I would have thought that isolating particular causes would be tricky. And even if the researchers have satisfactorily shown that married couples are materially better off because they are married (rather than married because they are better off), they would still be dealing with marriage in a much broader sense than I am – encompassing religious and associated moral factors, for example.

  6. It seems to me you are still missing the central point. Marriage is a commitment between two people to care for each other and any children they may have. It is a commitment made to each other before their family and friends. Once that is done it is registered legally. People who don't marry don't make that sort of public commitment.

    The law does very little to define or enforce that commitment. It deals only with the extremities of the case -- how to divide property and protect children after marital breakdown. It outlaws bigamy but not adultery. Etc.

    Apologies if I am stating the blooming obvious and/or missing your point.

  7. I see that Eddie Cantor has a more expansive role for the law than I suggested.

  8. Alan, you say that people who don't marry don't make the public commitments you describe. But people who live together in a sexual relationship without being married (with or without children) do make all sorts of implicit and explicit commitments to one another (and to any children involved). And – unless its nature is being concealed – any such relationship also inevitably has a public dimension.

    Your description of marriage goes well beyond the legal institution (which was my focus). It could also be seen to be slightly idealized, and doesn't fit all cases.

    I may have watched too many old movies, but what about Gretna Green or the American equivalent (in Nevada, was it?), and those registry office marriages where they drag someone in from the street to be a witness?

    Two former colleagues, divorced from their previous partners, were known to be living together. One weekend they flew to another city to get away from friends and family for a couple of days – and to quietly get married.

    And here is another example. A friend of mine (a woman with a male partner and with two small boys) claimed she wasn't sure whether she was married or not. They were thinking about formalizing it at one point, but she wasn't quite sure if they had. She might have been kidding – or she might not. But she was making a serious point about (her attitude to) marriage laws etc.. And, by the way, she wasn't into drugs or a bohemian lifestyle or anything like that – was abstemious and rather conservative, in fact.

  9. I don't see much problem with these cases. Some non-marriage relationships are very marriage-like. Some are merely legal. Some are borderline cases. Some are cases where people would like to have a "proper" marriage but their families won't allow it. All fine by me.

    I'm curious about where your "conservatism" comes into this? You seem to want to water down or over-formalise the idea of marriage. That strikes me as a bit incongruous. I like this quote from Oakeshott: "To be conservative ... is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss." Marriage, with all its pluses and minuses, seems to me a very grounded social practice.

  10. "I'm curious about where your 'conservatism' comes into this? You seem to want to water down or over-formalise the idea of marriage. That strikes me as a bit incongruous."

    I am not setting out to give a full-blooded conservative view, just a personal view (which happens to incorporate some conservative elements). So I don't see any incongruity here.

    Regarding Oakeshott: I once read a lot of his work, but found I couldn't accept his idealism (which was associated as I recall with a complete lack of interest in science).