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On Why Modern Marriage isn't Always Moral

by Michael Pontinen

is the current institute of marriage morally right? I will answer this question by challenging the "rightness" of our modern conception of marriage through examination of the destructive restrictions placed upon partners and discuss why marriage belongs in the private rather than public sphere. Significant problems lie in how marriage is defined in society. The institute of marriage, as it stands today, is both overly restrictive and fundamentally flawed. Some of the premises behind marriage are sound but the implementation of the institution is seriously out of date and has not kept pace with social change. As such, the institution of marriage requires a serious overhaul in order to continue to be a constructive rather than increasingly destructive force in society. The primary goal of this argument is to redefine and apply a more useful and flexible understanding of marriage and to prove that such a redefinition is both moral and justified.

Before marriage may be judged, it must first be defined. For the purpose of this argument, the baseline concept of marriage will be defined as a monogamous, sexually exclusive union between members of the opposite sex. According to Anglo-American custom and law, marriage is the bringing into existence of a social and legal status by means of a civil contract. Marriage allows our peers, family, community, religious institution, and the state to recognize this union.

As such, marriage occupies three primary functions in our Western, predominantly Christian society. First, it recognizes the union of two partners, both in the eyes of the church and of society. Under Christian morality, children born of unwed parents are considered illegitimate and suffer significant penalties within that community. Society as a whole recognizes the couple as united and as a result, a variety of social rules and expectations are applied. Second, marriage recognizes the couple under the law as a joined unit. Spouses are included in tax returns, property ownership is defined in prenuptial agreements, and the guardianship rights over children are defined, among a multitude of other legal agreements. Third, marriage recognizes the rights of partners over one another. This usually includes sexual and emotional exclusivity as well as the formation of a symbolic union between two partners. Thus, marriage is primarily about recognition; social, religious, legal and personal bonds are created that are designed to legitimize the partners both internally as a couple and externally within society.

While the notions of bonding and union do serve positive purposes, the form taken by the modern marriage is, in many cases, particularly destructive and limiting. This is not to say that the concept of marriage is wrong, just that the means by which it is implemented and defined is becoming increasingly destructive. As Lyla H. O'Driscoll states, "Individuals on both sides of the marriage controversy largely agree that a society will (and perhaps even should) have an institution or institutions to perform these functions."1 One significant problem with marriage is the emphasis on a partner's obligation. While commitment between two partners is of great importance, in many ways marriage does not guide but rather restrains two partners. First, and most obvious, is the restriction upon sexual and emotional intimacy. While this notion appears prima facie positive, a closer examination reveals that the limits placed on the couple may or may not be just that. How does the restriction of one partner benefit a couple? In many cases, it appears that the spouse satisfies most needs. But, would not the fulfillment of all needs be even more desirable? The fulfillment of a partner's needs would appear to be the primary goal of any healthy relationship. But can any one partner provide for every need of the other? The answer is, of course, not necessarily. O'Driscoll points out, for example, that:

Marriage expressive of friendship can be heterosexual, homosexual, multilateral, polygynous, or polyandrous. Thus, this account of the nature and possible value of marriage for spouses is compatible with the conceivability of a variety of forms of marriage.2
In those cases where one partner simply cannot provide for all the needs of another, why not add another partner? Reason tells us that there is nothing wrong with this notion but the moral judgment of the predominantly Christian morality disputes this inclination. I would therefore suggest that logic and rationality rather than theological "reasoning" be applied to the problem at hand. Lawrence Casler's suggests a system of "permissive matrimony" whereby "…individuals can choose, within very broad limits, the types of human relationships they wish to experience. All individuals would be permitted to choose freely…."3 The emphasis is therefore placed on individual choice rather than those defined by state, church and society.

One critical element in this reform is the shifting of the institute of marriage out of the public sphere and into that of the private domain. There is too much emphasis on ring fingers, mister and missus, the taking of last names, rights and obligations, ownership and duties. There is not enough emphasis on making a relationship work by whatever means necessary. Therein, I suggest, lies the morality of marriage. If a man needs another man to be fulfilled and happy, so be it. If a woman requires two men and a woman to satisfy her emotional requirements, so be it. The fulfillment of these needs by other means is increasingly revealed by the rise in extramarital relationships. Clearly, a more constructive solution to the problem at hand would be to accommodate those needs by means of legitimate methods. The restrictions on a monogamous, same-sex pairing are merely superficial; they are remnants of a morality based in theology and not rationality. The true key to a successful marriage lies in accommodation, flexibility and acceptance. Only when the state and society accommodate all forms of union, in a flexible manner through a process of law that accepts all unions equally, will marriage be given the chance to be truly successful. More importantly, though, is the point that society need not accept it for it to be so. This is why the transition of the institute of marriage from the public to private sphere is so crucial. In this sense, the union of marriage may be accomplished outside of convention, tradition, and status quo and may be customized to the individual or group.

In conclusion, while the concept behind Western marriage is an admirable one, the modern notion is inherently flawed – so much so, in fact, that it has ceased to be moral. The union of individuals in the formation of a greater partnership, the dedication of hearts, minds and bodies to one another, among many other things all work toward positive goals. The rigidity, restriction and narrow-mindedness of the modern Western form of achieving these goals, seeped in tradition and theology as it is, is increasingly destructive. As society evolves and requires new institutions to accommodate those changes, the institute of marriage must be altered with it. Is marriage moral? For some the answer may be yes while for other it is clearly not so. For the gay or lesbian couple seeking a formal recognition of their union, it is not. For the couple seeking open sexual relations with those other than their partner, it is not. For the group that seeks a polygamous union, it is not. The freedom to chose the form of union and customize its obligations and restrictions may utterly destroy the concept of "marriage," but in the end, a greater morality will be achieved – the fulfillment of the needs of those people involved. Ultimately, the fulfillment of the needs of the partners (not society, the state, or the church) is the primary concern. This shift of the institute of marriage from the public to the private domain would better reflect that reality. Let us all, as Gerhard Neubeck so aptly put it, shout, "Hurrah for building a history together. Hurrah for an institution that gives us that opportunity." 4 In short, let us build a better, more moral institution of marriage.


1 Lyla H. O'Driscoll, On the Nature and Value of Marriage, in Philosophy of Sex and Love: A Reader, edited by Robert Trevas, Arthur Zucker, and Donald Borchert (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1997), 133.

2O'Driscoll, On the Nature and Value of Marriage, 136.

3Lawrence Casler, Permissive Matrimony: Proposals for the Future, in Philosophy of Sex and Love: A Reader, edited by Robert Trevas, Arthur Zucker, and Donald Borchert (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1997), 160.

4Gerhard Neubeck, In Praise of Marriage, in Philosophy of Sex and Love: A Reader, edited by Robert Trevas, Arthur Zucker, and Donald Borchert (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1997), 167.

Michael Pontinen is a B.C. based college student and computer consultant.
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