Internet discussions about controversial issues often quickly degenerate into rather unpleasant shouting matches. While this problem has some sources outside of itself, it is also self-reinforcing. If the discussion is dominated by people who enjoy shouting matches, even slightly nonstandard points will have trouble getting a hearing. And if nonstandard points don’t get a hearing, the people who like to make them get frustrated, leaving the field to the people who prefer shouting matches. One partial solution is for people who make interesting points to seek each other out for discussions outside of the most popular fora. In that vain I’m pleased that Brandon Jaloway wrote in to ask my opinion on some of his thoughts on the definition of marriage. Specifically on his comments in two of the occasional marriage debates over at Unequally Yoked.
To summarize, he has three main points:
- Looking at marriage as an institution either of the state or of religion is wrong, because it is actually prior to both, making it a natural or human institution.
- Marriage is recognized (but not created) by human communities, and that recognition is near universal.
- Given that marriage is natural, there can’t be competing definitions for it like there can’t be competing definitions for other objective categories of nature like biological species.
I completely agree on points 1 and 2, but only partially on point 3.
Number 2 is simply an empirical fact. Number 1 is basically a point of natural law, but someone not on board with that could easily interpret it as marriage being part of the extended phenotype of humanity. So I don’t think there is much room for doubt 0n those two.
Number 3 is more complicated, because as a matter of fact where religion and civil law haven’t been united there have normally been competing definitions of marriage. That’s because most communities regulate marriage beyond its intrinsic limits and sometimes those regulations can conflict. For example, Catholicism doesn’t recognize divorces between two baptized people. There are good arguments that divorces are immoral as a matter of natural law, but their sometimes being impossible is clearly a Christian add-on even though it’s one God himself established. So even if we had civil marriage laws simply protecting natural marriage without revealed restrictions, that alone would suffice to make some people married to different partners religiously and civilly. One of those marriages has an ontological dimension the other one lacks, but as a sociological fact two different institutions are recognized by overlapping communities. And the overlap is not even necessary. For example, I could imagine two stone-age communities imposing different age-limits on marriage, which would mean some traveling couples would not be recognized as married in their guest communities. Also, though it probably violates natural law, many communities recognize polygamous marriages and some of them have been stable for centuries, so marriage as a social institution is often different from marriage in natural law.
Basically I think we need to distinguish marriage as a natural type and as a social institution. The natural type consists in humans depending on the social institution for flourishing. It also includes some constraints on how it must be organized. A wrongly organized social institution will diminish that flourishing, sometimes so extremely that social order can’t be maintained in the long run. So the type clearly constrains the institution, but that doesn’t mean they’re identical. And that, in turn, means there can be competing definitions of the social institution.