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Two Questions About the Nature of Marriage

Jonathan Rauch's rebuttal of a new book by David Blankenhorn opposing same-sex marriage opens with a conflation of two questions about the nature of marriage. Rauch writes (my italics):

By marriage, I mean not just a commitment that two people make to each other. Marriage is a commitment that the two spouses also make to their community. They promise to look after each other and their children so society won’t have to; in exchange, society deems them a family and provides an assortment of privileges, obligations, and caregiving tools. (Not, mostly, "benefits.") Marriage does much more than ratify relationships, I would tell audiences; it fortifies relationships by embedding them in a dense web of social expectations. That is why marriage, with or without children, is a win-win deal, strengthening individuals, families, and communities all at the same time. Gay marriage, I said, would be the same positive-sum transaction. The example gay couples set by marrying instead of shacking up might even strengthen marriage itself.

Audiences received my gay-marriage pitch in predictably varied ways. What consistently surprised me, however, was how few people thought of marriage as anything more than a private contract. Particularly among groups of younger people, the standard view was that marriage is just an individual lifestyle choice. If chosen, great. If not chosen, great. I would leave such encounters with a troubling thought: Perhaps straights were becoming receptive to gay marriage partly because they had devalued marriage itself.

There are really two differences between Rauch's view of marriage and those of the younger people he mentions. Because I agree with Rauch on one point and with the younger people on the other, Rauch's conflation of the two jumped out at me.

Rauch first asserts the social nature of marriage, and I agree with this point. Marriage is not just a private agreement between two people, it's an institution to which society is a party as well. Married people take on certain responsibilities for each other (and for each other's wider relationships and affairs) and recieve support from society in doing so. I'm skeptical of the ability of people living in long-term romantic relationships to maintain an adherence to the parameters of a purely private arrangement without sliding into a form of unofficial social-marriage. (Which is not to say that such individuals necessarily ought to get formally married.) Thus I would side with Rauch in finding the "get government out of the marriage business" argument unsatisfactory.

But in the passage I italicized, Rauch opposes the social conception of marriage to the idea of marriage as just one among many legitimate lifestyles. I would argue, however, that the social-private question and the one-many lifestyles question are analytically separate. It is quite possible to hold -- and I do hold -- that marriage is a social institution, but it's also a social institution that isn't for everyone. Social-marriage is a way of recognizing and formalizing a supportive environment for people who structure their lives around forming a household with a romantic partner, with the particular vulnerabilities and responsibilities that such an arrangement entails. It in no way follows from this that forming a household with a romantic partner is a privileged lifestyle. People may choose a different lifestyle, and -- if that lifestyle is not intrinsically unacceptable -- society ought to examine analogous ways of providing a supportive structure for it.

The young people that Rauch cites likely see a connection between private-marriage and lifestyle pluralism. I would hypothesize (contrary to the last line of Rauch's quote) that the connection begins with a recognition of lifestyle pluralism. The commitment to private-marriage follows not as a logical entailment but as a defensive strategy. Contractualism has a strong resonance in our society, particularly since it seems to impose less on others ("just leave me alone to do things my own way"). And the combination of contractualism with privileging a single lifestyle, while logically possible, is implausible and hence highly unstable. Thus adherence to private-marriage constitutes an outer defense line against threats to lifestyle pluralism.


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