Should Marriage Be Abolished?

Sunday, March 3, 2013
First Aired: 
Sunday, May 1, 2011

What Is It

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 denied the right to marry clamor to be let in and those determined to keep marriage the way it's always been threaten to amend the constitution in “defense” of marriage.  In the heat of battle, few have stopped to ask whether the state should be in the marriage business in the first place – until now.  John and Ken welcome Tamara Metz from Reed College, author of Untying the Knot: Marriage, the State and the Case for Their Divorce.

Listening Notes

First, what do we even mean by the ‘abolishment’ of marriage? John points out that no one necessarily believes that marriage should be abolished in the same sense that slavery was abolished. Ken points out that the laws surrounding marriage are far from a new issue. After all, interracial marriage is only relatively recently legal. Indeed, some countries such as Sweden are slowly ‘abolishing’ marriage without even passing any laws. Simply put, the purpose of marriage, at least state-sanctioned marriage, has been put under increasing scrutiny. John argues that the state naturally supports marriage because intimate, caregiving relationships provide many benefits to society. But Ken counters that such ‘intimate entanglements,’ as he put it, do not necessarily precipitate the state’s acceptance of marriage, along with all of the attendant religious and cultural baggage. So really, what we’re asking on this episode can perhaps be more accurately rephrased: What role, if any, ought the state to play in the establishment of marriage (as opposed to other varieties of intimate relationships)?

Tamara Metz joins the conversation with an answer to our question—None! She argues that if we examine the liberal (classical, not ‘democrat’) tradition on which our country was founded, we would notice a strong commitment to a separation of church and state. This separation does not merely serve to preserve the freedom of the state from religious encroachment, but also to preserve the freedom of the religious to practice (within certain limits) as they see fit. The marriage debate, according to Tamara, has become, or perhaps always was, a deeply religious question. If we remove the state’s control over marriage, replacing the support of intimate relationships with some version of a civil union, then we will find that the debate can proceed to a practical discussion. Religious people may choose to recognize other people’s unions as marriage, or not, however they prefer. Ken wonders if this suggestion appears to be more of a semantic issue than a deep philosophical one. He points out that these supposed civil unions may have simply replaced the meaning of marriage in this case.

A caller, Brian, brings up a thorny issue for the abolisher of marriage. He points out that marriage provides a contract which can protect the parties of the contract on the occasion of death or divorce. For instance, if one partner is a caregiver while the other is a ‘breadwinner,’ then, if the two separate, the caregiver may be left in a financially dire situation with nothing concrete to show for their years of support. Tamara admits that there are many legitimate reasons for government involvement in intimate unions, but repeats that ‘marriage’ (as opposed to a civil union) is not directly relevant to the issue.

  • Roving Philosophical Reporter (seek to 5:30): Caitlin Esch interviews Oakland-based wedding planner Karen Hester, for whom business has been slow these days. Ever since California ‘delegalized’ homosexual marriage, Karen’s non-traditional wedding planning business has stalled. We hear how her clients feel about the abolishment of marriage and what marriage means to non-traditional couples.
  • 60-Second Philosopher (seek to 44:50): Ian Shoales reminds us that marriage has long been riddled with problems. Now, as over half of our marriages end in divorce, it may make more sense to privatize marriage, courtesy of Shoales Corporation, the company with a heart. Wait… nevermind the heart has now been outsourced.