Marriage: The natural type and the social institution

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Marriage is recognized (but not created) by human communities, and that recognition is near universal.
  3. 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.

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3 Responses to Marriage: The natural type and the social institution

  1. Fnord says:

    Number 1 is good. Number 2 is almost sort-of correct. The fact that it’s recognized near-universally is, as you say, an empirical fact. But the idea that it’s not created by communities seems to hinge on what exactly you mean by “community” and “created”. But that’s another story.

    Number 3 seems like it might have a problem with premises.

    The species metaphor proves the exact opposite of what Mr. Jaloway seems to think it does. Even if you leave aside the issue of individual variation within a population, take a moment to consider ideas like ring species, hybrid speciation, and other aspects of the species problem. You can and indeed must define “Ensatina eschscholtzii” and/or “Ensatina klauberi”, or any species that forms a ring, in more than one way.

    Of course, the species metaphor is hardly exact. Another metaphor I’d like to bring up is language, which is in many ways more similar to marriage. Like language, it is prior to but recognized by the state (it’s not connected to religion as often as marriage is, though it sometimes is). Language is universal to humanity, and indeed human communities without a language will rapidly create one. But the idea that all languages are the same is obviously wrong. Nor are the differences merely surface matters, conventional details: anyone who’s translated anything knows that there’s no such thing as a one-to-one correspondence and literal translation is impossible.

    Thus, there is no one thing that exists in all human cultures (either a language or a marriage). There are a set of things that are similar in broad outline, and have common features and common purposes. They are recognizably part of the same class of things. But they nevertheless differ in substantial details.

    You might be getting to the same idea with your point about drawing a distinction between the natural type and the social institutions. If that’s what you’re saying, I think it’s important to point out that the natural type is not near-universally recognized. On the contrary, almost every society either fails to recognize some marriages that fall within the natural type or recognizes some marriages that do not (or both).

  2. Gilbert says:

    There are no perfectly sperical objects either and sometimes we might debate if an object is spherical enough to count. But that doesn’t make them all totally different, they are still more or less good examples or implementations of sphericality. Likewise, I think the various social institiutions are all more or less good implementations of what I call the natural type.

    This is of course an example of a much more general question that won’t be solved in a combox.

    • Fnord says:

      The social institutions, the sets of rules that social groups use to recognize marriage, aren’t really implementations of the natural type in the same way as a spherical object in an implementation of sphericality. The actual implementation, in that sense, is a marriage itself, a union between people. The social institution is more like the rules that define a sphere: “the set of all points in 3 dimensional space a set distance from a center point” or similar, which is a description used to recognize or create spheres, not a sphere itself. While there aren’t perfect implementations of a sphere, there are rules that define a perfect sphere.

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