Why should anybody (secular) get married?

ban-marriage-bigOne of my final tasks for the year just ended was to write a test on the Civil Union Act, which regulates civil partnerships and marriages in South Africa. If I achieve over 80% on this test, an official-looking letter will arrive sometime in 2014, attesting to the fact that I am now a marriage officer, authorised to solemnise civil unions.

In light of deciding to take this test and become a marriage officer, I’d been planning to sketch an argument for why marriage is a reasonable state to enter into. That task has been made either slightly easier – or more difficult, perhaps – thanks to Tauriq Moosa having subsequently posted rebuttals to some common arguments for marriage at The Guardian‘s “Comment is Free” blog. Easier, in that half my job would be achieved through defeating his negative arguments, but also potentially more difficult in that if I can’t do so, my positive arguments would need to be all the stronger.

I’ll start with Tauriq’s post (the informality is explained by the fact that we know each other socially, and “Moosa” would thus be jarringly formal). To put it really crudely, I’m of the view that his post is open to charges of being somewhat disingenuous in how it represents marriage. I say this because while it purports to be a critical analysis of some alleged myths about marriage, the exploration of those myths seem to be little but a prologue to get to an expression of Tauriq’s own view, expressed in his conclusion as follows:

For myself, I can see no reason that sufficiently makes marriage, in general, a viable option worth wanting or supporting. I would much rather live in a society that had little interest in my relationship life, but protected me and everyone nevertheless. It’s not a black-and-white situation of total societal interest or disinterest. Keep marriage, if you so want, but it shouldn’t hamper or restrict others from benefits or equal treatment, especially when there appears so little reason for having it.

The reason why the “myths” are little but a prologue (in other words, serving little argumentative function) is because by Tauriq’s own evidence, they are no longer widely believed to be true. So, they are being trotted out as straw men, with Tauriq arguing against a minority position, in order that he can defeat those straw men on the way to (and as a motivation for) asserting his own view. Asserting your own view is of course the point (or part of the point) of an opinion column, but here, his view is granted extra (yet illusory) credence through the demolition of the straw man.

It’s an entirely separate issue whether the minority view in question is a good one or a bad one. The point I’m making so far is simply limited to the fact that my own view doesn’t get bolstered to any great extent through showing that a minority of people believe the opposite. Defeating a fringe position, in other words, is no cause for celebration.

I say that the myths no longer have any social currency, and that subscribing to the myths is a fringe position, because of exactly the evidence Tauriq himself cites – that increasingly, people aren’t bothering to get married. He cites data showing the US marriage rate to currently be at the lowest it has been in a century, with 31 marriages per 1,000 married women now, compared to 92.3/1000 in 1920.

The same decline in the rate of people getting married is evident across Europe (the graph below, note, is tabulated per 100 1000 people, not 1000 women)


You can see plenty more data like this (including on how many women are getting married, and at what ages) on Philip N. Cohen’s website, where the post containing the table above asserts that “marriage decline is both worldwide and real”. So it doesn’t seem, contra Tauriq, that “we should thoroughly reassess the importance of marriage” – it seems like we already have. So do we still need to explode the “myth” that marriage is useful, virtuous, necessary and so forth? Or, is going through the motions of doing so just a pretext to express a (supposedly) contrarian view (yet, one that seems fairly widely held in the end)?

Furthermore, contrary to the perception endorsed in Tauriq’s post, it’s not clear that those who do chose to get married also get divorced in higher proportions (at least, not in the UK and USA). In the UK, the Office for National Statistics does record a step-change in divorce rates in the early 1970s, but notes (pdf) that this “rise is often attributed to changing legislation (the Divorce Reform Act 1969 and Matrimonial Causes Act 1973) and changing attitudes in society”. Leaving aside this step-change, they report that long-term divorce rates seem to have remained stable. This is apparently also true in the USA, though the data are apparently incomplete. I’ll not pin anything on the existence of a trend one way or the other though, as doing so incompetently will no doubt incur the wrath of the guild of demographers.

I’ll move on to the four “myths” that Tauriq lists, as it is here where I’ll interject thoughts regarding the positive argument for marriage (whether or not we think of marriage as a religious institution).

“Myth” 1 – It’s tradition

Here, Tauriq rightly points out that none of “tradition, religion, family and/or culture” are sufficient to justify marriage (“or any activity”). Sure, but so what? It’s true, as he points out, that arrangements that depend solely on those sorts of (often coercive) factors would often involve moral wrongs or adherence to archaic norms, but this is little but another straw man. What if a) a couple want to be married; and b) it happens to be the “right thing to do” according to their tradition, culture, family or religion? Should they refuse, or quell their desire to be married, simply because other people only get married because of (b)? For people who meet criterion (a), (b) is not a problem – it would arguably only make their marriage more meaningful, both to themselves and to other members of that community/culture/religion/etc.

“Myth” 2 – It’s a public declaration of love

Tauriq argues that marriage is

about “showing” we’re settled, our partners are “off the market”, and we’re in a position to build a family. Most of this, however, is a display for others. Plenty of monogamous couples maintain stable, healthy relationships without rings or certificates to “prove” loyalty

Sure, many do, but it’s entirely unclear how this adds up to the public declaration of love being a myth, or inconsequential, for those of us who do appreciate tokens of commitment such as rings, and symbolic events for attesting to that commitment, such as weddings. The view here seems a fairly misanthropic one, which simply rules out the possibility of others having a more charitable disposition to these sorts of rituals. Of course it’s true that for some people, marriages can be nothing but meaningless theatre – but then one can argue against those sorts of marriages, rather than dismiss the possibility of marriage always being theatre.

The loss of objectivity (cf. the misanthropy mentioned above) is found in passages like

who are we trying to prove our love to? Our proof should be our treatment of each other: anything else is addition, not basis. There is more to be worried about if we need to “secure” someone, like a raging animal, with a ring or certificate or other public stamp.

To which one can only say “of course, and the caricature doesn’t help make the case”. I don’t know many married couples, to be sure, but I’ve never met one – or even heard of one – that disagrees with the relationship being the important thing in the marriage, with the ring, certificate and so forth being mere legal or symbolic devices that attest to that relationship (for whatever, and various, reasons). Tauriq then says:

Furthermore, as high divorce rates show, being tied to one person doesn’t work out for many, especially for the rest of our lives. Compromises can be made. Couples now swing, maintain open marriages, and so on. But this should only make us question why we’re still devoted to the “one true love” ideal in the first place.

As suggested above, the divorce claim might not be an easy one to substantiate. But the fact that fewer people are getting married – and that the ones who do get married are increasingly open to the sorts of compromises or arrangements he mentions – indicates that we’re (in the majority, I mean) no longer “devoted to the “one true love” ideal in the first place”. To borrow a phrase, this should only make us question why anyone is still saying that we are.

Myth 3 – Married couples make better parents

One one level, of course this is a myth – as Tauriq points out, it’s good parents who make good parents, and being good at that job has nothing to do with your legal standing in relation to a partner or partners (if there are any partners at all, seeing as a single parent can be just as “good”).

Having said that – from a purely pragmatic point of view – if it is the case that a child will accrue certain advantages (or rather, avoid disadvantageous treatment) though her parents being married, married couples would as a side-effect “make [for] better parents”. So, if you know that you are living in a society in which these prejudices exist – and that you have no ability to overturn them in your lifetime – this would be an entirely rational reason to get married.

Myth 4 – You get better legal and financial benefits

I see no reason to disagree with this, in general (and here, Tauriq doesn’t mean that it’s an actual myth, but rather that while true, it’s not a reason to get married but instead a reason to overturn the laws in question). It’s true that in many jurisdictions, married couples accrue certain advantages, and it’s also true that some relevant and archaic laws need revision here, such as in cases where same-sex marriages aren’t recognised. But as I note above, for some people this presents an entirely rational reason for getting married, unless of course we can all be persuaded to boycott the institution until the relevant laws are changed.

To conclude

Why should anyone have to pass a government’s arbitrary, and usually archaic, notion of what constitutes a stable relationship to obtain benefits? If much can be done from a legal and contractual side without marriage, then marriage loses all credibility.

For some people, a legal relationship is what marriage is, though – again, the straw man comes to the fore, where Tauriq seems to think that most people are still living out some sort of fairytale when getting married. Any contract requires a legal definition, and any legal relationship – whether you call it marriage or not – will not differ what what Tauriq is railing against, except it usually won’t be accompanied by a fun party.

Besides, you can play this game with anything, and I hope the reductio will help make the case that singling marriage out is itself somewhat arbitrary. Why should you have to conform to some arbitrary mark on a calendar to have a birthday party? Why can’t you just trust me when I say I’ll repay my home loan, instead of us having to sign this piece of paper? Why can’t I just go in there and help myself from the buffet, without paying for my meal?

Part of what gives a game significance is that there are rules, and that the rules are commonly understood by all the players. Yes, rules can be bad (prohibiting same-sex marriage, for example), and we need to change those bad rules. We are however doing so in much of the world, and our pace in doing so is improving all the time. When people get married – or do anything – for bad reasons, we can criticise their choice. This bears little relation to whether that choice, when properly understood, is a good one or not. A final quote, before I wrap this up:

My point isn’t eradication of marriage, but rethinking marriage’s importance and assumptions. This could help open all people up to different kinds of sexual and romantic interactions they might otherwise never experience – or, at the very least, increase tolerance, since society isn’t rewarding only one kind of relationship. It could help lessen stigma and actually treat all citizens – single, in relationships or otherwise – with respect. Marriage’s benefits, of stability, legal ease and economic pay offs can still be met, without institutionalisation.

To a large extent, the post reads as rethinking entirely constructed, stereotyped, and mostly, uncharitable assumptions regarding the importance of marriage. Some people inside marriages are themselves already open to many different kinds of interaction than they might have been in a marriage 50 years ago, and already be getting married for non-stereotypical reasons. I’m concerned that Tauriq might need to “open up” to the possibility of those kinds of marriage existing too. If he did, “it could help lessen stigma”, and help him treat all married couples “with respect”.

Marriage’s benefits – at least the legal ones, and some of the economic ones – cannot be met without “institutionalisation”, as they would require some form of legal contract, whatever you end up calling that contract. But that’s not the reason I got married, and I don’t think it’s the reason most people get married (though I have no data here).

The analogy I’m fond of in explaining why secular folk still see value in marriage comes from Scott Atran’s work in the evolution of religion, but in particular the insights he integrates via Richard Sosis and Candace Alcorta. Public signalling of a commitment – especially where that signalling is expensive (not only or even necessarily in terms of money, but in terms of consequences) – creates strong incentives to not cheat the co-operative system. It increases co-operation, because the demonstration that you’re playing the same game, by the same rules, has been witnessed by people whose judgements you value, who can do you reputational harm, and who can assist you where necessary also. All of these relationships increase in strength through shared involvement and commitment to rituals that are in essence (but not in effect) arbitrary.

This is the same principle as lies behind behavioural psychology experiments like StickK.com. I wrote about StickK 6 years ago, wondering how long it would survive, and I’m pleased to see that it’s still going strong. Basically, it’s a vehicle for putting your reputation, or your wallet, on the line – you might commit R5000 to a bigot like Errol Naidoo, for example, if you fail to lose 5kg by March (or whatever), and the website’s public record (and enforcement) of this tends to increase compliance. Because you really don’t want to give him your money, you lose the weight.

Reliable signals of commitment tend to be more costly. Sometimes, like in the case of weddings, this can mean “more extravagant”. (For related interesting reading, investigate the “handicap principle“.) And I know that part of Tauriq’s concern here is that he wants us to be better humans, and to not need these sorts of tricks to make us respect each other, or honour our commitments. And perhaps one day we won’t need them at all.

But perhaps, many of us already don’t need them, and instead just enjoy them. Perhaps the ritual, and the state of being married, can actually have significance for us, rather than simply being ceremonial or arbitrary. Yes, some people chose this form of commitment unthinkingly, and marriage as a social convention is often accompanied by wrongs such as paternalism.

It doesn’t need to be, though, and criticisms like the one I deal with above admits to very little nuance, instead succumbing to as crude a set of generalisations as those it purports to critique.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.