Marriage (part 1)

In a few days my wife and I will celebrate our eighth wedding anniversary. This has got me thinking about marriage, and the conflicting views people have about which types of marriage are morally sound, which should be legally endorsed, etc.

The discussion isn’t made any easier by a lack of clear definitions and distinctions. So, in this first post on marriage, I’d like to unpack the concept a little.

Marriage, as it has commonly been practiced in modern western societies, has one or more of the following components:

1. Legal. A legal contract conferring certain benefits on two people.

2. Personal. A personal pact made between two people, usually to do with looking after each other’s wellbeing, and usually promising a monogamous sexual commitment.

3. Religious. A pact that two people make in front of their church and, so they believe, in front of God. It is therefore viewed by some as a divinely sanctioned bond.

People are free to make whatever personal pacts they wish. For instance, any two gay men are perfectly free to commit to a long-term monogamous relationship with all the trappings of a conventional marriage, even if such a partnership is not recognized, or rewarded, by the state or the church.

Of such personal commitments we can ask, in the interests of moral considerations, whether any harm (or benefit) is likely to come of them. (I won’t justify in this post the idea that morality is, at its core, about well-being – I have done that in my essay on morality.)

When it comes to the state-sanctioned aspect of marriage, there are several questions we can ask:

1. According to government, which practical characteristics of marriage make it deserving of legal benefits?

2. Which types of partnerships (e.g., which gender and number combinations) deserve legal benefits?

3. Which types of partnerships, if any, ought to be illegal? This is essentially a question about whether certain types of partnership are overwhelmingly likely to cause harm. It therefore relates to the moral question posed about the personal component of marriage.

Finally, there is the religious component of marriage. As you probably know, I never shy away from an opportunity to discuss religion, but in this case, I have little to say: as private organizations, churches are free to put their stamp of approval on whatever types of marriage they wish, no matter how arbitrary or discriminatory these decisions may be.

The problem, of course, is when legal aspects of marriage are tied closely to religious aspects of marriage. In this case, any unfair discrimination in religious practice maps to a de facto discrimination in state-sanctioned marriage. Suffice it to say, then, that I believe state-sanctioned marriage, and associated benefits, should not be tied to religious ideas in this way, for the simple reason that the state (in the case of the U.S. at least) is constitutionally forbidden to promote the ideas of the church.

In my next post on marriage, I’ll tackle the first question posed above: is there inherent harm in committed personal relationships involving certain combinations of gender and number of partners?

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