Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Forward Thinking/Society 2.0: What Is Marriage? (Part I)

Sometimes, there are such odd coincidences of timing that I sometimes wonder if the universe has a sense of humor. This is one of those times.

First, I got into a conversation on Facebook about what marriage was and what it should be: one of my friends probably heard someone say something to the effect of "if it can be man-on-man, why not brother-on-sister or man-on-dog*?" and essentially replied "Why not? Marriage is already more of a social institution used to allocate benefits that are more efficient if they can be allocated to permanent cohabitants than anything it may have been; why not extend the institution to any group that enters into a contract to live together?" (edited conversation reproduced with permission at bottom of page).

Then I saw this blog post on Brute Reason, about a person talking about the "threat" of "sham marriages".

Then, I saw this article in Libby Anne and Daniel Finke's Forward Thinking series less than a week later.

So what should marriage be?

The following material is flagged Red Level. It deals with the blogger's original ideas, personal beliefs, and delusions; and might not be believed by any expert in any field anywhere.

The institution that we call "marriage" is divided by some into "traditional marriages" and "modern marriages", with "traditional marriages" being "an unrelated man-woman pair" (sometimes with added constraints of "with the man making all decisions for the pair" or "with each of the two running a distinctly separate part of the couple's affairs") and "modern marriages" being everything else; but there really isn't such a thing as a "traditional marriage" anymore*, because the traditions have changed:
  • The current idea of marriage is that a couple marries for Love and that the Power of Their Love should be affirmed by society.
  • Before that, a marriage was a woman's father selling her to a husband, to provide him with sexual gratification and a continued family name and her with an income.
  • Before that, a marriage was a political union between two families, made to formalize an alliance or a partnership.
But really, when was the last time you heard about the last of those as something positive? Or the one before it, for that matter?
And why is Twu Wuv such an important feeling that the State should have an interest in affirming it, but only if it happens to fit a prescribed template (heterosexual, monogamous, prior to the 1960s same-race***, prior to the 1920s with the woman's father's permission***, for most of human history only if the woman was sexually inexperienced...***)?

My answer: It shouldn't. At the risk of borrowing an old joke, marriage should not have anything to do with love or sex.

Ideally, marriage should be nothing more than a contract to share certain resources with an option to nullify, and the interest of the State should be to allocate those resources efficiently. Other aspects of the relationship can certainly be connected to the contract (such as a "roommate agreement" that might or might not include provisions about sexual exclusivity or discussion about what to do with children born or adopted during that time), but these should be negotiated separately.

*The main difference between "man-on-woman, man-on-man, woman-on-woman, multiple partners, or brother-on-sister" and "man-on-dog or woman-on-turtle" is one of consent: nonhuman animals are generally assumed to have less mental capacity than human children, and human children are generally assumed to lack the mental capacity to meaningfully consent to a number of activities, contracts and sex among them. There's another point, too, that of autonomy: even if your dog were an uplift with human-level intelligence, it's still too dependent on you for basic needs (food, shelter, and so forth) for any agreement it gives to any activity to be considered freely given. This incidentally also applies to parent-on-child, boss-on-employee, doctor-on-patient, and teacher-on-student relationships.
**And there shouldn't be. See the examples listed.
***If you mention the Middle East in this discussion in the context of these points, I will delete your comments. You are derailing, and anyway there's people in the First World who think it should work that way.

With the recently increased attention on gay rights, I'd like to turn people's attention to a similar issue that, while not as trendy to talk about right now, is very closely analogous: the legal status of incest. Incest is illegal in some parts of the US. Think about that for a moment alongside the issue of homosexuality.

Compare our attitudes about incest today with our attitudes about homosexuality fifty years ago. Most people find the topic highly uncomfortable to talk about or condemn the practice outright. Many people who have such desires keep them private for fear of violating the taboo - to put it another way, they're closeted. Those who don't keep it private are often looked down upon, and in fact the practice is openly mocked in our culture.

Some people often argue that incest is bad because of inbreeding. I remind you that offspring are not a necessary result of a sexual relationship, and that people have similarly objected to homosexuality because such sex does not produce children at all. Others express personal revulsion at the idea or cite religious prohibitions of it. (I invite Christian, Jewish, and Muslim objectors to read the book of Genesis. Who bore Cain's children?)

Now, some people may think that there's nothing wrong with incest but not want to say so for fear that it would cause some kind of awkward tension in their families. "Why is So-and-so suddenly supporting the legalisation of incest? Does he himself have incestuous desires?" Think of how many more people would have supported gay rights in the 20th century if they hadn't felt that they would be suspected gay themselves.

If this doesn't sound to you a whole lot like mid-20th-century bigotry toward homosexuals, I don't know what would.

While people with incestuous desires may not be as loud a minority as homosexuals, I think they deserve not to have their love outlawed. I fully expect to be laughed at for this, just as I'm sure many people were laughed at for comparing the obscure issue of gay marriage to something more popular at the time like interracial marriage. The bottom line is that we shouldn't have laws that make stipulations about what mutually consenting people can and can't do when it doesn't affect others' freedoms. If people mutually consent, what does it matter to the rest of us if they make up their own language, or put the toilet paper roll on backwards, or inject each other's ear lobes with hair spray, or cohabit, or have sex, or get married.
Maybe I'm being too ambitious, expecting our culture of snail's-pace social progress to be ready to tear at the root of the problem rather than snipping off the branches one by one.

[discussion related to toilet paper edited out]

  •  Robert Gilmore Lol. See how uncomfortable the topic of incest is? The topic changed to toilet paper at the first opportunity.

    We're so uncomfortable with it that it got used as a topic for taboo night in the improv workshops. Remember that, John? That was your scene.
  • John F Hughes Haha, I still get teased about that I remember it well.
  • Robert Gilmore Just as I get poked fun at once in a while for kissing a guy in a play - by people who were in that play no less! I'm looking at you, [redacted]. I'll admit, though, that I handed that one to you.
    One interesting corollary to this is a parallel between a woman's right to have an abortion and an incestuous couple's right to have an inbred child. To what extent are those rights analogous?Personally, I'm for abortion and against inbreeding. I feel a deep conflict about those two opinions, though.
  • John F Hughes I'd say that's my main issue with incest. Gay marriage in itself causes no one true harm but incest runs the risk of reproducing babies with deleterious traits.
  • Robert Gilmore So does pregnancy past the age of 40, which is legal.
    And anyway, many forms of widely legal birth control exist, as well as abortion, which is becoming more legal.
  • John F Hughes Touché!..the issue of marriage is very complex. Sometimes it's hard not to bring religion as a moral guideline to who should marry who (at that I am totally for gay marriage even though I am Catholic). It's really hard to say what's exactly right...because as long as there are more than one person on this Earth there will be differences in opinions as to what's "right".
  • Robert Gilmore I just noticed that I made an analogy between abortion and inbreeding as rights and then proposed one as a preventative measure for the other.
    There are some really good, systematic ways to assess the ethicality of an act (source: a very interesting ethics class I took). Then again, there are multiple good, systematic ways, so they could still disagree even when they are well thought-out. Honestly, marriage seems like a silly idea to me. I don't know why we make our committed romantic relationships contractual. I remember some comedian saying something to the effect that he loved his wife with all his heart and they got along splendidly for years, but then they got married.
  • That said, if people want the right to shoot themselves in the proverbial feet, why deny it?
  • John F Hughes Very true words. It's interesting to view marriage like that. Never put that much thought into it haha
  • Robert Gilmore On the subject of ethics, if anyone is interested in a very thorough, science-minded rebuttal of ethical relativism, the book "The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values" is a good read. It was actually more interesting to me than my ethics class.
  • Joe Plock So you're against incest being legalized correct? But you're saying that it's in the same place that the gay marriage was 50 or so years back, and that even though it makes us uncomfortable, that will become an issue in a few years. Is that right?
  • Jenifer Krist

    List of states that allow cousin marriage. The list includes legal information for each state. 
    In 27 States You Can Marry Your Cousin — But Not Your Same-Sex Cousin | The New Civil Rights Movemen
    Today, in an easy-to-read graphic, we show you the 27 states in which you can marry your first cousin, unless you’re gay. 
    I think one of the reasons incest is so taboo is because when people think of incest they immediately think of non-consensual relationships. It's also a very broad term. Maybe someone could be all right with cousins marrying but not with siblings. Aunts and uncles fair game or not? Half-siblings? There's lots of different types of incest and so you could end up having tons of different factions of people supporting some but not all forms of incest. I'm gonna say that having a sexual relationship with your mother or father is probably where I draw the line. I think that no matter what age you are and your ability to consent I don't think that could ever be a healthy relationship and there is probably some kind of weird power dynamic involved in that relationship (but I suppose lots of relationships like teacher/student or countless others have odd power dynamics...but I think it's more like the dynamic of therapist/patient relationships where it is just considered wrong). But yeah overall I've kinda always had a thing for incest ever since I read a book with an incestuous relationship at a formative age. I've told people before half-jokingly that I always wished I had an attractive older brother......but I'm sure if I actually had a brother that I grew up with my whole life I would find the very idea gross. But I do love incest in books and movies and such. So anyways yeah go incest! 
    When I was 5 I wanted to marry my cousin . My mother made it a point to tell me that I definitely could if I wanted to because his mother (my aunt's daughter) was adopted so he wasn't really "blood related" (but I didn't realize at the time that even if he was blood related it didn't matter because marrying your second cousin is legal in all 50 states). So I used to go around telling everyone how I could totally marry my cousin if I wanted to and then explaining why. When I was older I asked my mother why she really made sure that even at age 5 I understood that I could marry him if I wanted to and she told me that she had had a cousin that she ALWAYS had a crush on when she was younger and was always disappointed that she couldn't act on that...but then later found out when she was a lot older that he was actually adopted or something like that and wished she had known that sooner. Haha.
  • Robert Gilmore Joe, no. You've misunderstood me. I am in favour of the freedom to have incestuous sex and marriages - I think that mutual consent and privacy should be the only legal requirements for sex and that consent should be the only legal requirement for marriage.

    I wonder whether we will ever seriously talk as a culture about incest. I'm attempting to initiate such a discussion, but I kind of picked this issue out of several. The bigger point is that we should be talking about why we culturally and legislatively meddle in private affairs in general instead of doing this demographic-by-demographic sequence. First it was non-property-owners' rights, then it was women's rights, then we looked at race, now sexual orientation, maybe incestuous desire next, and I can imagine places where we'd go that would be too controversial for me to even mention my opinions. Why don't we think about the general problem instead of the specific ones? We'd get it done faster and be able to spend our cultural energy doing things more interesting than inching our freedoms forward every half century.
  • Jenifer Krist Joe, just so you know the other opinions Rob is referring to: Robert is also for beastiality as long as the animal consents with a baaa or a neiigghhhh. You should also be able to marry your toaster. Cause I've always had a fondness for my toaster. Or any appliance or inanimate object as long as it gives consent.
  • Robert Gilmore Hey, if the toaster is cool with it.
    Heh. Toaster. Cool.
  • [NAME WITHHELD BY REQUEST] I basically just think the government and marriage should not be intertwined. Okay, marriage equality is important because marriage carries certain legal rights. So, let's tear into those laws. Why are they written? Let's just, to keep the conversation going, say that it is because we assume a married couple to be cohabiting, and, as such, make more efficient use of public services. By that I mean, instead of two single people each independently driving to the grocery store, causing twice as much wear and tear to the publicly funded roads, you've got one family unit, which makes one trip to the store, whether together or one of them individually. I'm probably oversimplifying this, but for brevity's sake, let's say the whole reason we grant legal benefits to marriage is because of the cohabitation aspect. So, the government deals in "Certification of Cohabitation" documents, in which it is ensured that enough of the bottom-line aspects of marriage are covered. As an inanimate object, I'm afraid are dearly beloved toaster would not count for this CoC document, but basically any set of people, whether it's the traditional nuclear family, lovers in a reasonably committed relationship, two platonic roommates, could count.
  • Robert Gilmore Ten roommates?
  • [NAME WITHHELD] Now then, I am in no way for the removal of marriage as a thing. If you want to have some kind of flowery event, go right ahead. I've seen them done if Firehalls before, we'll let the Justice of the Peace perform a ceremony between two consenting individuals, provided they pay enough money that it isn't a government subsidy, or, for the more traditionally minded, just find a church that agrees that your marriage is "acceptable". If you're gay and the Southern Baptist Convention doesn't support gay marriage, then you'll have to find someplace other than Southern Baptist Church to perform the ceremony. The Justice of the Peace is there in case you have something so unconventional, but legal, that you can't find any other place.
    As far as ten roommates goes, sure. Keeping to the oversimplified view of cohabitation as not wearing down the roads as much due to there being half as many cars going to grocery stores, then ten roommates ought to yield 1/10 as many cars.
    Of course, since I am using such an oversimplified view, there are bound to be holes in my idea. There's probably more to "marriage" than cohabitation. But, this is meant as nothing more than a baseline from which to solve the problem. The actual solution, as with anything involving sociology, is bound to be much more complex. 
    Relating this back to the cousins matter, there would be legally no difference from two cousins who have a platonic relationship and are living together to save housing costs, and two cousins who are lovers living together. They're both "cohabitants". If they want to be "married", then they can go to the Justice of the Peace or find another institution willing to perform the legally pointless ceremony. Marriage only remains for those who for sentimental or religious purposes find the same "declaration" that two college freshman living in an apartment could make insufficient. 
    [my comment removed because it's redundant with a footnote above]
  • Robert Gilmore My other comment didn't show up, I guess. I'll try again.

    The distinction between roommates and husbands is permanence. Marriage is a contractual agreement to cohabit permanently. The contract can be breached, of course, but that requires more paperwork and incurs penalties, as any divorcee will tell you. I think there is also a distinct legal state of separated marriage, which does not stipulate cohabitation. I'm not sure how that works.

    And, really, how do you define cohabitation? If I'm married and I decide to go and live in France and my wife doesn't follow, are we still cohabiting? Probably not. What if I change my mind and return the next day, never actually sleeping in France. What If I'm deployed on a military assignment for two years? What if I go to school for a few years in another state? I go away on a business trip for a few weeks? Days? Does sleeping in a different building constitute not cohabiting?

    This might sound ridiculous, but it strikes me as a very "hand-wavy" concept because I really have no idea of what US state I'm a legal resident and have no permanent address. I don't cohabit with either of my parents. People ask if I "go home" over breaks, but what is "home", exactly, if not my dormitory? That's where I sleep. That's the location of my one and only bed (or, right now, couch). Once, I lived in four different houses in one year, repeatedly moving between them from month to month. I once couch surfed for a few weeks - where was my home then? I currently don't have any idea where I'll live this May. Because of my frequent... uh... transhabitation, I am currently in a situation that leaves me with no state of residence. The candidates are New York, Oregon, and Texas, but I don't fit the residency requirements for any of them. So what the hell could "home", "residency", "cohabitation", or "permanent address" mean for me. You wouldn't think it, but I've become very familiar with the fact that the mechanisms of society, and government in particular, make the assumption that my "default" sleeping location does not change more than once per year.
    That sounded bitter. I'm not bitter about this. I like being a rolling stone. What I don't like is when bureaucracy makes bogus assumptions about the citizens that are obligated to use it, like the assumption that only pairs of people with certain demographic characteristics have reason to declare permanent cohabitation.
  • [NAME WITHHELD] Regarding the permanence, I've lived for as long as three years with the same roommate. There are a number of marriages that last shorter than that. Perhaps tack on some of those same penalties that divorce involves to prevent abuse of the system.
    As far as how I define cohabitation, well, that falls back to this being an oversimplification. You arguments in the second paragraph are fair ones, and ones that would have to be answered satisfactorily in the "final draft" of my idea. A quick elaboration, let's say that the Contract of Cohabitation specifies that you spend at least half of the days of the year with your contractual cohabitant. If you go away on a business trip for two months, you can still live with that person for 10 months. If you go away to school for two years, then you're effectively no longer cohabiting, and your "CoC" expires. Any type of "marriage" that you arranged through third parties is still valid, but you no longer qualify for the benefits, as you are no longer, in the oversimplified example, driving the same car to the grocery store. If you're on military assignment, the same argument could be made. Perhaps, if society still places the same stigma on letting a "CoC" expire as they do on divorce, we could make explicit riders so that we don't "punish" those serving our country or improving their education, both admirable goals.
    And, of course, that is all still based on the oversimplification that cohabitation is the only factor about present-day marriage that makes the government give legal benefits to it. I don't know all the benefits marriage gives legally, so I couldn't begin to compile a list of what about marriage makes a couple entitled to those benefits. Let's just say there's eight things, cohabitation being one of them. Maybe, by going overseas, you maintain the other seven aspects of "marriage", and therefore your "Contract of Cohabitation", which would of course have to be renamed to more accurately reflect the eight theoretical benefits, would not expire.
  • Robert Gilmore Lol. "My CoC expired. I need to get a new CoC document." I feel like a sixth grader laughing at that.
  • [NAME WITHHELD] I honestly cannot remember the last time I engaged in a facebook conversation about a "hot button issue" that did not devolve into personal attacks and ad hominem arguments. This is nice.
  • Robert Gilmore "[L]et's say that the Contract of Cohabitation specifies that you spend at least half of the days of the year with your contractual cohabitant."

    Okay, but what if you work night shifts on the east side of town, your cohabitant works day shifts on the west side of town, and you share an apartment downtown? This is a highly plausible situation in which they wouldn't be in physical proximity very often while sharing a residence. Again, what does it mean to live somewhere and what does it mean to live with someone? On my FAFSA, I'm required to list myself as a resident in at least one of my parents' houses despite the fact that since I was 17 I've only really visited and slept in each for stretches of maybe a week at a time and for maybe two weeks per year.

    I think that the reason this doesn't agree with my frame of mind is that this contract is a promise to perform an act that is poorly defined. To what degree must you share resources to be cohabiting and how do you quantify that sharing? Two cars and not sharing food? Most roommates likely wouldn't qualify.

    If it were better defined, I think I'd be able to grapple with it better. It's easy to discern when one breaches a contract that requires, say, that an employee spend a certain number of hours in a specified building and complete specified tasks that can be unquestionably shown to be complete or incomplete.

    Marriage is so vague as to be meaningless. To tie this back into the original post, why define this nebulous legal entity? Why regulate who can obtain it? Are we merely contractualising the use of a word? A husband by any other name would smell as sweet.
    Oh. Wait. That's not true. I spent a summer at my dad's house before my Freshman year.
  • [NAME WITHHELD] As I've said, I've oversimplified things. I'm an engineer, not a sociologist. Getting a bill ready to present to Congress is not within my ability. It's merely an idea.
    As to why to define it, if we're going to give legal benefits to it, we have to define it. Can I marry my wristwatch and pay less taxes because of it? An alternative, one which would not be very popular, is to completely remove any legal benefits of marriage. There is no jointly filing for taxes. Everyone pays their own taxes based on their own work. The entrepenur who brought $5 million to his stay at home wife pays the same amount that his household did before the change, while the wife, who doesn't work, pays nothing. Of course, if we start putting housewives of wealthy gentlemen on welfare, then that's taking away money from the people who ACTUALLY need welfare. Perhaps that's another "aspect" of marriage: pooling of resources. That's #2 of my theoretical 8, which could actually be as low as 2 or infinitely high.
    Basically, my core sentiments are this: you cannot give out legal rights based upon a matter of religion, and you can not legislate that a church be forced to perform marriages which violate the laws of that religion. So, figure out how to dole out the benefits without touching "marriage", and allow churches to perform marriages without any legal benefits.
  • Robert Gilmore I think that might be what a "civil union" is. I don't think homosexuals have ever been prohibited from doing that. It's somehow legally different from marriage.
  • [NAME WITHHELD] For some reason I've found people get hung up on arguments about how the current system is implemented whenever I use words such as "civil union", rather than accepting that I'm describing a new system, which is why I haven't been calling it that. But sure, if you prefer that vocabulary. Let civil unions be the defining factor. You want to go to a Catholic church and get married? Okay, you've fulfilled your religious obligations to not be "living in sin". But that provides no legal benefits. If you want those, enter a civil union. The two aren't mutually exclusive. If the church still wants to issue a "Matrimony License", they can. If they don't want to, I don't care. That piece of paper, in the eyes of the law, carries no more weight that the "Perfect Attendence" award your 1st grade teacher made in MSPaint. Matrimony is not a government affair, the only paperwork they need is the "Civil Union License".
  • Robert Gilmore Although, until 2005 or something, sodomy was illegal in Texas. That's kind of a big issue in all of this. The government is legislating sex. What a breach of privacy! I can't really imagine how the perpetrators would ever be caught, though, unless they were exhibitionists.
  • Jenifer Krist The problem with civil unions,I believe is that there were still legal benefits that were denied them (I know this from my gay uncles not from any real research on my part so I don't know all the specifics...just a little side story they've been married to each other several times now haha...first in Vermont I think and then California and then finally in New York). But yes you could keep that name as long as all the benefits were actually given to recipients of civil unions. Speaking of outdated laws and exhibitionists there was someone who was actually arrested for adultery near here in Batavia in 2010. But I think the main issue there was the fact that they were caught in the act by a mother and her children in a public that might have had something to do with it. I couldn't remember all the details so I looked it up and here is the article if your curiosity is piqued:
    A Batavia, New York woman who became on the 13th person in New York State histor...See
    But yeah adultery is still a crime in some states...just because I feel like they never bothered to get rid of it. Not something that usually gets any arrests or convictions. But then I think there are a lot of silly laws like that in some states that I recall hearing about at one time or another.
  • Robert Gilmore Yeah, like how stealing a horse can supposedly still technically get you hanged in Travis county, Texas.

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