Marriage and MacIntyre

In my previous post, I insisted that marriage was an idea that deserved its own term: that is, among human relationships, there were certain relationships that could be distinguished as married, and I would like to think that I left the door open for any number of emotionally intimate or financially interdependent relationships to be recognized as good and valuable without calling them marriages.

It was perhaps not sufficiently clear that, although I am confident that marriage that marriage is a particular kind of  relationship, I am not at this point prepared to discuss what sorts of policies ought to be set up around the institution. Therefore, I cannot neither affirm nor deny most of what Rachel put forward in her comment on the last post. My argument was that “marriage” is the name we assign to a particular kind of human relationship, rather than the name we assign to the most emotionally validating and/or financially interdependent relationship which we may happen to have (or at least that the sort of relationship historically known as marriage is  differentiable-enough from the latter concept to warrant a unique term).

I can see no clear line from that assertion to the assertion that the government only has an interest in protecting the former category or the opposite assertion that government should get out of the marriage business altogether and leave religious matters to religious institutions. The former assertion doesn’t sufficiently examine the values of other relationships, and the latter wrongly treats marriage as a sectarian institution; although marriage is indeed counted among the Catholic Sacraments, it does not find its genesis (pun intended) in Catholic sacramental theology, and it is therefore possible to defend marriage as a public institution without making it explicitly sectarian. In short, I am not ready to  jump from the linguistic question to the legal one. This is a conversation that we have to walk through from start to finish rather than leaping from first premises to final conclusions.

One important step along this route is the recognition that marriage is not “just” a consensual and emotionally fulfilling relationship nor “just” a legal contract for the sharing of property; neither “relationship” nor “contract” seems to quite have the necessary scope to adequately describe marriage. It has too many explicit rules and expectations to be a casual relationship, and too many implicit expectations to be a contract. I think that it will be helpful to understand marriage as a “practice,” as famously defined by Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue:

“[a practice is] any coherent and complex form of socially-established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved, are systematically extended” (MacIntyre 187).

This does not directly answer the question of what role the government has in promoting or defending a given definition of marriage, but it does give us a better idea of what questions to ask: What are the goods internal to marriage as traditionally understood? What are the standards of excellence? How do the standards of excellence, both individually and in combination, contribute to the realization of those goods? To what extent can these goods be realized apart from the institution of marriage? Each of these questions must be answered in turn before we can ask what interest the state has, and the answers to these questions will (probably) be explored in an upcoming blog post.


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