State-sanctioned marriage has long been regarded as one of the bedrocks of a stable society. But in recent times, this venerable institution has become the focus of intense debate, as those long
Our topics this week: Should Marriage Be Abolished? That’s a pretty punchy and provocative way to ask the question, we’re trying to get at, but we need to be careful. Asking whether marriage should be “abolished” isn’t like asking whether slavery should be abolished. We don’t want to suggest that people should be forbidden from marrying.
Of course, some people are forbidden from marrying. In most places in the United States, gay couples are not legally allowed to marry. Once upon a time, interracial couples were not legally permitted to marry. So one question that we could be asking is whether the legal inequality between those who are permitted to marry and those who aren't, is morally and/or politically defensible.
Of course, that’s not at all the same as asking whether marriage should be totally abolished. So let’s try again to say just what the question is.
Now there are places where marriage is actually disappearing, on its own accord, without anybody actively trying to abolish it. In Sweden, for example, more and more couples simply cohabitate without bothering to get married, even when they have children. But our issue isn’t really whether Americans ought to become more like the Swedes – though if marriage were indeed “abolished” in the sense that we will be discussing, that might be one result of the abolition of marriage.
But let’s go back a step. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that the inequality between people who are allowed to marry and people who aren't is NOT morally… politically… or rationally defensible. What then? Now I grant that that is a contentious assumption. Many people are willing to go to the barricades to “defend” marriage as we currently know it, especially against the encroachment by gays and lesbians into that cherished institution. But humor me for moment. For the sake of argument, suppose we reject all the arguments offered up by people massing at the barricades to defend marriage. What then?
Well, I suggest that on that assumption – which I’m just entertaining for the sake of argument -- there’s no good reason why any two consenting adults -- regardless of their race or gender or whatever – should be legally forbidden from marrying. But, of course, our society, as currently constituted, is very far from agreeing with this quite obvious conclusion. Which raises a prior question: Why is marriage such a hot button issue in the first place? Why are so many people who were previously excluded from it, clamoring for the right to marry, while so many others are determined to deny them that right?
One response might be that marriage is a good thing. But apparently the Swedes don’t think so. And if you consider our rising divorce rates, apparently a lot of people who have experienced it don’t think so either.
But perhaps what is meant by calling marriage a good thing is that being married, legally married, married in the eyes of the state, brings in its wake all sorts of social benefits. Access to health insurance, hospital visitation rights, the right to file joint tax returns, property rights, inheritance rights, social status. Stuff like that. The
state showers those who marry with benefits that it doesn’t extend to those who don’t or can’t marry. But then it’s fair to ask why the state should be in the business of favoring the married over the non-married, in the first place?
One response might be that marriage is a good thing – this time in the sense that marriage makes for stable families and stable families make for stable communities and stable communities make for … You get the idea. Isn’t it just obvious that the state has an interest in promoting such stability?
That may well be true. But think of marriage as just one form of "intimate entanglement," to coin a phrase. There's also cohabitation, and deep, long-lasting, non-sexual friendships. Indeed, if you let your imagination run wild, I’m sure you can imagine many possible forms of intimate entanglement among consenting adults. What I’m suggesting is that it’s not marriage as such, but intimate entanglements, in a possibly wide variety of forms, that promote the kind of stability that the state has reason to favor. And if that’s right, then it’s far from clear why the state should single out marriage as a favored and privileged form of intimate entanglement. Why should it bother endowing this one particular form of entanglement with a special legal status? Which is another way of asking: Should marriage be abolished?
So now that we’re clear about the question, tune into the program this week to see if we achieve any clarity about the answer. Trying to help us achieve that clarity, will be Tamara Metz, author of Untying the Knot: Marriage, the State and the Case for Their Divorce.