JR'S Free Thought Pages
On Marriage – A. C. Grayling (1)
From Life, Sex and Ideas (2003)
Marriage is a public obsession rarely ever out of the news. The weddings of celebrities, and their divorces, are tabloid staples. Politicians and bishops urge it, supported by wider conservative and religious lobbies. The more that marriage seems to be in trouble as an institution, with smaller percentages entering and larger percentages leaving, the more intense becomes the brouhaha surrounding it.
It is regarded as a misfortune for an individual, especially for a woman, not to marry. Yet it is regarded as equally bad, if not worse, for an individual to indulge in too much marriage, whether in the form of repeated divorces and weddings, or bigamy. Failure to marry is punished in personal terms; excessive marriage is publicly punished in social, financial and even legal ways. This shows how entrenched is the traditional marital ideal of finding and faithfully adhering for life to one equally faithful member of the opposite sex.
These facts are illustrated by contemporary events. One is the conviction for bigamy of a Mormon in Utah, sentenced to years in prison because he has five wives and twenty-five children. Another is the difficulty experienced by a recent Irish Prime Minister who lived with a woman other than his wife.
When he gave an obligatory reception for a newly appointed Irish Cardinal, it proved a ticklish occasion. His partner’s name appeared on the invitation, so the Cardinal responded with an admonitory speech, saying that marriage is the ‘deep centre of human intimacy’ and that ‘the whole future of society depends’ on it. These overstatements come, note, from a professional bachelor officially ignorant about marital intimacy, who by his own definition therefore contributes nothing to society’s future.
In the US’s Bible Belt divorce and cohabitation rates rocketed by as much as 200 per cent in the last decade of the twentieth century. One sad tale explains: ‘In church they made me think the important thing was to get married and have children then Christ would come,’ said one escapee. ‘I said yes to the first man who asked.’
The debate about marriage rests on a fundamental confusion. The word ‘marriage’ has two quite different senses. One is the socio-legal institution which in effect amounts to a tripartite contract between a man, a woman, and the state. The other is the long-term committed relationship entered into voluntarily by people who, because of their affection for one another, wish to pool resources and share the joys and burdens of life. In this latter (relationship) sense, the number and sexes of the mutual parties is no part of the definition, which turns solely on concepts of affection, choice and sharing. In the former (socio-legal) sense, considerations of the number and sexes of the parties are crucial, because it permits only one rigidly narrow view of what is acceptable, based on ancient religious views which do not reflect much about human reality or need.
Most people who wish to marry in the second (relationship) sense assume they must do so by marrying in the first (socio-legal) sense. To this mistake they add ignorance of history. The roots of socio-legal marriage lie in a profoundly sexist financial arrangement. Its originating aim was to constrain women’s sexuality and fertility so that men could be sure they were bequeathing their property to their own offspring. In medieval Christianity a marriage of convenience existed between religious views about sex and social views about wealth. When poorer classes also began to acquire property, the requirements for premarital female chastity, and legal forms of marriage to make descent and property traceable, were extended to them too - notably in eighteenth century England, whose highly various marriage traditions were at last reduced by law to a single type.
These tendentious formalities are latecomers to the scene, but human intimacy is as ancient as life itself. Marriage as a mutuality of true minds and tender hearts, so long as it lasts, is the happiest of states, whatever the number and gender of the parties to it; and the only effect that marriage in the socio-legal sense has had on marriage in this deeper sense, is usually to spoil it.
From Life, Sex and Ideas (2003)
On Marriage – A C Grayling (2)
From The Heart of Things (2005)
When San Francisco's mayor permitted a spate of gay marriages he initiated a predictable chain of events: America's moral traditionalists had a hold on the political party then running Washington, and they used it to prompt the President of the republic himself to seek a constitutional amendment entrenching heterosexual monogamous marriage, which he hyperbolically described as 'the most fundamental institution of civilization'.
The source of the confusions that consequently multiplied in America's matrimonial debate was the conflation of two separate meanings of the word 'marriage'. The confusions are typically deepened by the usual lack of historical and cultural knowledge about the variety in humanity's domestic arrangements, even in the Western Judaeo-Christian tradition which moralists assume to be carved in stone, and which is not.
In its primary sense, marriage denotes a long-term committed relationship between people who pool their resources and endeavours and share the consequences, both good and bad. The arrangement turns on divisions of labour, and because children in most parts of the world and history are economic assets, it has centrally involved producing and raising as many as possible.
Again in most parts of the world and history, marriage in this sense has been based on utility, dynasty, and tribal or property considerations, and rarely on the untrustworthy basis of youthful emotions or passing fancies. Yet again, very few societies have restricted marriage to monogamy; there is even at least one where women take several husbands.
In this great sociological and historical bulk of marriage the central point has therefore always been on the commitment of people (two or more) to live together with a view to sharing life's demands and gifts, and producing and raising the next generation. This is marriage in the true sense, and it is focally about the nature of a relationship. In most societies such relationships receive social recognition and support, and are regulated by ceremony and tradition. The manner in which social recognition is accorded varies widely, but the point is the same.
The other sense of marriage is a three-way legal contract between two people and the state, giving the state a jurisdiction in the relationship when it goes wrong, which means a right to dispose of the joint obligations and property of the other two parties. Marriage as a legal institution has its present form in Western countries as a result of medieval concerns over property and inheritance rights. Its main point was control of women: female chastity and severe penalties for its absence ensured that men could be reasonably confident about leaving their property to their own offspring. (Only the wealthy, therefore, used to marry contractually.) In England the way this legal institution is put into effect has been regulated into a single form only since the eighteenth century, when general wealth had spread more widely and more people had property to pass to inheritors. Prior to that there were many ways to get married in the first sense, including the age-old one that held sway in the early Christian Church: simply by living together.
Everyone accepts that the mutual benefits of living in a committed relationship are great, and that human happiness and flourishing is best served by doing so. Whenever and wherever they occur, therefore, they are a cause of celebration. Or rather: except where narrow, ignorant and ungenerous views of what is acceptable in human relationships excludes all but monogamous heterosexuals from the great good that mutual affections and shared lives offer.
Gay couples in San Francisco flocked to get married in the second sense of the term (they were of course already married in the first sense) when the opportunity came, because they were hungry for the social recognition which they suppose that the second sense of marriage now represents. But this of course is what moral conservatives explicitly wish to deny them. To their chagrin, moral conservatives cannot prevent people loving each other, living together and helping and comforting each other in their daily lives; but they can mean-spiritedly withhold the blessing and support of the community for doing it.
Moral conservatives say that non-heterosexual relationships are 'unnatural' because they are not focused on producing children (which, some further add, is the only justification for sex). Thanks to the kindness of science, it is no longer true that same-sex couples cannot have children. What children need is love and nurture, not limitations on who is allowed to provide it; heterosexuality is not a necessity for parenthood.
Moreover, if having children is the centre piece in conservative views of marriage, polygamy is the logical choice wherever women outnumber men. Perhaps this is the constitutional amendment the US President should really have sought.
From The Heart of Things (2005)
A C Grayling is a Philosophy professor at the University of London and Oxford - and a first rate contemporary philosopher, writer and thinker. He has a personal web site at http://www.acgrayling.com
Link back to Grayling Essays