Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Defining marriage: description or prescription?

Marriage has never had a precise universal definition. It has never needed one. It has also never been possible to create one. This is because there is no such thing as a universal form or type of marriage. Marriage and people’s understanding of it changes across culture and across time. In its broadest sense, it is a social contract between people that establishes rights and obligations between them. Within such a broad definition it is almost unrecognisable, indistinct from any other social contract, yet attempts to narrow it to something we recognise as our own excludes partnerships which have historically and culturally been recognised as valid marriages, often within the pages of scripture itself.

Is marriage a ceremonial act? There have been common-law marriages that preclude ceremony. Is marriage between adults? The definition of ‘adult’ varies.  Is marriage about mutually consenting partners? Many marriages have been conducted without female consent. Is marriage the basis for a family? There have been marriages that have been infertile. Is marriage somehow about the legitimisation of sex? There have been many marriages with disabled or impotent partners which do not involve the sexual act. Is marriage between two people? Solomon had hundreds of spouses. Which one was his valid wife? Is marriage between a man and a woman? Again, we can easily find examples of marriages in other cultures that have not had this quality.

What then can we say about marriage universally? Almost nothing. Yet does that preclude us from saying what we can about our own society, our own cultural understanding of marriage? Of course not. But we have to recognise that we are not defining a universal object, but a cultural subject. Our dictionaries do not prescribe the definition of words, they look at how words are commonly used and describe them, as they are. The dictionary is updated regularly, because as society changes, our use of words changes.

Words are fluid, and so are other cultural concepts: our concept of ourselves, our values, our institutions, and our relationships with each other. We have to see what marriage is by looking at the social unions that exist in our own society. The government’s vote on gay marriage today is not an attempt to invent a new definition of marriage out of the air, but rather trying to describe what marriage is more accurately. By looking at all examples of social unions, not just a selected few. When a dictionary editor is sent a collection of examples of a word being used in a new way, he does not discard those meanings by claiming they are not valid. It is not the users of the word that are wrong but the dictionary. And so the editor revises his definition to more accurately reflect current usage.

But perhaps we do not wish our definition of marriage to be like the dictionary, describing accurately what we see. Perhaps we would prefer it to be like a law book, prescribing rules for living that we see as beneficial to society. Often society does not match up to those strict laws, and in such cases enforcement and punishment is needed to restrict choice and regulate freedom for the good of all. Many laws are indeed beneficial to society; restrictions on who can take what, and go where, protect private property, which is the basis for a functioning economy. Restrictions on acts of violence ensure personal safety, the basis for peaceful living. What could be more beneficial?

But when we allow the law to intrude into our social and romantic relationships with others, we must tread carefully. For the law is blind, and our society is founded on the concept of equality before it. If we ask the law to proscribe our neighbour’s relationship, we must also allow it to proscribe our own. Is that a power we wish to give to the courts and the government? Are we happy to be told who we are allowed to enter a social union with and who we are not allowed to? Are we happy to be punished under the law for transgressing those proscriptions?

Of course the law already prohibits some marriages and not others. It prohibits forced marriages, and underage marriages for instance. But it does so for specific, well defined reasons of public protection, not out of a high view of social engineering. That is the current measuring rod for prohibition. Does prohibiting this act protect the rights and safety of the individual from harm?

Without harm to the individual the law supposedly has no reason to speak or act. It is a low view of the sphere of influence of the law, but it is safer for all than higher views of its use. Previous cultures have held a higher view; they have used the law to try and make people better. To restrict their choices not just to protect them from harm, but to improve their personal morality.

Some cultures have gone so far as to either mandate, or prohibit religion in the view that this would make individuals, and by extension society, better. Do we hold this view of the law, that we want it to tell us how to be better people, or is this up to our personal consciences? Perhaps removing some kinds of relationship would be beneficial for society. Many people marry for the wrong reasons, many marriages fail, or are filled with unhappiness. Can the law prevent these ill-fated unions, should it try? Many people find comfort and deep meaning in the relationships and practices offered by Christianity; but many others report they have been psychologically harmed by their involvement. Should the law prevent this also, should it try?

In all of this we must be aware that we are not the ones making these laws. The people who do so are elected on a shifting platform of favour and fortune. They may pass laws prescribing practices and prohibiting others that tally with our own beliefs today, but what about tomorrow? Society also is fluid and shifting and what is today acceptable may soon be unacceptable to the majority. If we decide that the law has the power to make us better people, we cannot be assured that what is today considered ‘better’ may be the same as in a year or two. We must hold and defend a low view of the law; its purpose solely to protect individuals from harm, to prevent others, including the law, from infringing on our wellbeing and our rights. Individual freedom of conscience should be our watchword, for only under such a banner can we be assured of our own freedom of conscience.

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