Saturday, August 24, 2013

Nature and Essence, Applied To Marriage

To build on the last post- what is the nature and essence of marriage? It's a big question, and I'm not promising a complete answer in this little blog post, but I do have some ideas based on the ” universal/unique” qualifiers from the previous post.

First, to define nature- in this context, I'm not defining it as anything that comes naturally, anything that happens organically, intuitively, or with ease, or as a common characteristic. I'm using it synonymously with ”essence”- the defining characteristic of something, unique/universal predispositions- that sort of thing. Also by way of definition- I realize that marriage has not always been a single, uniform institution. When I reference marriage here, I am speaking of what would fall into legal/socially acceptable practice in America in the present day.

A brief re-cap- my perception of nature/essence is that, for an attribute to be a defining characteristic of an entity, that attribute must be both unique to that entity and universal in all like entities.

For example- a furry mane is part of the essence and nature of adult male lions, because a mane is both unique to adult male lions and universal among all adult male lions. In the same way, abstract thought is part of the essence of humanity, as it is unique, so far as  I know, to our species, and is universal among healthy, mature humans.

So- what things fall into to the "nature/essence of marriage" category?
1. Sex
I'd give this one a no, because sex is neither unique to marriage nor is it universal or requisite for marriage. Sex is a usual, common characteristic, but it does not meet my standards for essence. One could make the argument that sex would be a part of any healthy marriage of normal, healthy people, but even then, since sex is by no means limited to marriage, it fails the test.

2. Procreation/Co-parenting
No. Procreation, too, fails on both counts- it is not unique to marriage nor is it universal in all marriages.

3. Romantic Love
While it should be a characteristic of marriage, and I would hope would be universal within healthy marriages, it is not unique to marriage. It, too, fails.

4. Mutual Commitment based on an Ideal of Affection
While personal commitment can exist outside of marriage, long term legally and socially ratified commitment is both universal to marriages and unique to marriage. So, I would say that long term legal and social commitment is part of the essence of marriage.

5. Legal benefits/Tax status/next of kin rights/etc
Unique/universal? Yes. No other relationship or institution offers the same legal benefits in this country as does marriage.

6. Religious/Social benefits
Many religions offer benefits/considerations to married couples that they do not offer to the unmarried. Those benefits are universal to all married couples (such as allowing more public affection, endorsing sex and cohabitation, etc) and are uniquely offered to married couples. Here, again, I'd say yes, depending on the religious tradition. (Some treat married and unmarried people alike, but I think that that is not the norm) Likewise with various social groups.

7. Financial benefits (excluding taxes, which fall into number 5)
This would be a no, because cohabitation offers all of the same benefits as does marriage, outside of tax/legal benefits, for a reduction of expenses and the convenience of shared finances. (Unmarried people can share a home, bank accounts, etc)

8. Support of an equal partner/Independence mingled with deep community
While this should certainly be a part of any marriage, it is not unique to marriage

9. Friendship/Companionship
Universal, yes, unique, no.

10. Limited in number- only two people
Universal, yes, unique, no.

So..... it seems, outside of matrimony based on biblical dictates, that the defining characteristics of marriage are legal, socially recognized commitment, presumably springing from affection for the other party, various legal benefits, and various social/religious benefits. Additional characteristics which should be part of marriage but are not central to its definition include sex, financial benefits, friendship/companionship, romantic love, and the option of procreation/co-parenting. Thus, in our society, marriage is a legal, social, and if applicable religious contract/commitment, based on assumed romantic affection between two parties. This is what sets marriage apart from cohabitation or platonic friendship, and this is what we should focus on when we talk about what is or is not ok in the context of legalizing same-sex marriage, for example. With the definition above, gender and sexual orientation does not even play a role, outside of the religious aspect of the contract.

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