Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Islands in the wilderness: privatisation of marriage in New Hampshire

Temptations, temptations.  One of the many is to believe that we know better than our forebears.  But it ain't necessarily so.  Sometimes even new wineskins burst, and it's all the more a pity when they are filled with a sturdy vintage. 

A friend on Facebook recently posted that New Hampshire is considering a bill to privatize marriage. The state government would no longer issue marriage licenses; instead, it would grant domestic partnerships to any legally consenting individuals.  Well, almost any.  As long as there are only two of them, and they're not too closely related by blood. 

Yet if marriage is really just a private contract between individuals, presumably there should be nothing to stop multiple-partner, incestuous or even fixed-term 'marriages,' either.
I could ask by prospective partner for an 18-month contract with the possibility of an extension at the end, presumably with an initial low-rate tariff.  Some people may think this is fine, but it does rather ask what the term 'marriage' would continue to mean.

The main misunderstanding of marriage in secular western societies seems to me the idea that it is a matter for two private individuals, where in the Christian understanding from which it originated, it remains very much a public act of commitment not only to one another but to one's community and family.

The question is whether governments should be concerned to promote the communal vision of society that they used to take for granted, or whether they exist only to mediate between private individuals. The latter would imply a more reductive and individualistic notion of society than has ever been known. To me, the mantra that 'choice is all' seems rather too comfortably compatible with free-market capitalism and the polarisation of power that it implies.  Marriage becomes a commodity for sale.  In this instance, as with all important financial contracts, it particularly leaves room for those freely consenting adults who have not had the benefit of an education in commercial law to fall into one-sided and abusive arrangements.

New Hampshire seems to want to have it both ways: to make 'marriage' an entirely private and voluntary free contract without reference to religious mores, but still to exert control over certain aspects - such as ensuring it remains monogamous and non-incestuous. I wonder on what grounds it wishes to impose these restrictions?

In the case of New Hampshire, both are in origin Christian religious dictates. Of course, monogamous and non-incestuous marriage can be found in many (though not all) other societies. But it is through Christianity that they have been assimilated into European, and by extension, American culture. It is a matter of historical fact, not of faith, that our society and laws were founded on Christian assumptions, whether we like it or not.  Nonetheless, one can justify monogamy and the illegality of incest not only from a Christian perspective, but from that of other ideologies.

My point is that secular liberalism is not one of them.

If the basic grounding of society is individual autonomy, then the natural conclusion is surely that individuals should be free to associate in 'marriage' contracts exactly as they wish, including polygamous or incestuous arrangements. It's quite simply their own business to do as they will. This to me seems to be perfectly logical from a secular liberal perspective. After all, if the government's only job is to allow the greatest possible freedom to individuals, why should it stop them making contracts between any number? And since such a contract would not necessarily be consummated by sex, as Christian marriage necessarily is, why not an incestuous civil partnership between blood relations? Then, even if it were sexual but one partner was incapable of procreation, why on libertarian grounds should the state intervene?

The more I probe at secularist convictions, the more I believe that for all their talk of 'reason,' they are little more than an incoherent watering down of the Christian tenets which they affect to disown or despise.  In other words, I think that secular liberals are deceiving themselves when they try to make out that presuppositions inherited from the culturally specific Christian heritage that they disavow are in fact universal truths - such as the monogamous or non-incestuous nature of marriage, for example. These simply cannot be defended adequately on the premise of individualism.

So either the secular liberal needs to accept that marriage should be an entirely free contract between any number of free individuals whoever they may be, or to acknowledge the source of the prejudices which prevents them from doing so. I use the word 'prejudice' advisedly - for a Christian, it is not prejudice because it is rationally compatible with the Christian belief-system. The same might be said for a Jew or a political conservative or even some kinds of socialist, for example. But for the secular liberal, with whose beliefs it is rationally incompatible, it is nothing but a prejudice.

Freedom of the individual alone cannot offer a stable basis for society. This is not to say that the individual is unimportant or lacks freedom of will, but that the individual exists only within society, and that one person's freedoms impact upon another's. 'No man is an island,' and in the discussion of marriage, we would be well-minded to remember this, our society's older and better foundation.

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