June 07, 2010
Marriage and Sanctity
We imagine that there are areas of life beyond critical engagement. Stepping across boundaries of sanctity elicits outcries ‘in defence of custom’, as Tom Paine said. Drawing these lines, we imagine that no one would dare step across them to poke or prod with crude, manmade rationality at these things we view with sickly admiration. And it is sickly because often these things do not deserve admiration at all. The only explanation for this continuing admiration, I would venture, rests in our irrational adherence to tradition – that horrid notion that deserves to go the way of smallpox. Within the well-oiled machine of tradition, we find the family unit; each member a cog that is slotted in as soon as it exists; the machine rolls on, puffing and sprouting the smoke of diffusive uncritical activity. Many issues of current contention raging on the borderlands of sanctity, such as euthanasia and abortion, all find their irrational and dogmatic views birthed from this machine. I do not wish to sing the old, tired Orwellian yarn of breaking free from the tyranny of ‘the System’; but I do wish that we view our spheres of sanctity, maintained by mere assertion, with objective criticism. Not only do I see no axiomatic reason to adhere to ‘traditional family-values’ – marriage, monogamy, children, love – but once we do away with labelling these things ‘sacred’, we can progress in our discussions on them. At the moment we go in circles because many of us – including those who consider themselves liberal – refuse to see them as anything other than sacred and, therefore, good. Everything is sacred within the family: marriage is (a) sacred (duty), monogamy is sacred, children are sacred, love is sacred. When people say these things, they are not using ‘sacred’ as a synonym for ‘valuable’ or ‘admirable’; they appear to be taking the idea much further. And this, unfortunately, is not restricted to discussions on the family. The most hampering discussions are those working from the belief that life is sacred: not only do I think life is not sacred, according to what sacred actually means (as will be shown) but, once again, labelling it sacred causes numerous moral quandaries which increases suffering (for example, in viable cases of people wanting euthanasia, where their lives are unbearable). However the case for ‘unsanctifying’ life will not be the topic of this piece.
Defining sanctity is best done as reflecting off the object it is describing. For example, what do people mean when they say life is sacred? Stephen Holland says: ‘the sanctity of life doctrine … involves various ideas, such as that life deserves utmost respect, or protection, that it is inviolable, and that there’s a right to life. [T]he core of the sanctity doctrine [of life] is that killing or failing to preserve or lengthen life is morally wrong.’ We have seen that marriage is meant to be sacred in various ways: as a bond for life and so on. How does the inviolability of a life relate to life-long monogamy in a marriage? According to Britannica, ‘sacred’ is defined as ‘the power, being, or realm understood by religious persons to be at the core of existence and to have a transformative effect on their lives and destinies. Other terms, such as holy, divine, transcendent, ultimate being (or reality), mystery, and perfection (or purity) have been used for this domain.’ It is, as B. Hoose has said, an ‘essentially a religious concept’. Yet, even secular policies and decisions somehow orbit this religious notion. What links monogamy and inviolability appears to be the dogmatic assertion of instinctual, emotional reactions to instances which challenge a particular (usually patriarchal) power-structure, rooted in our ancestral past. Terrified of losing a mate, we made monogamy a pact between the Creator; horrified of replacing God as creator, delving into His secrets, rendering them mortally conceivable, we made life untouchable, always to be protected – even if that life was no longer worth living to the person. Shelley’s Frankenstein horrifies because man plays god, creates life. Our gut-reactions of being horrified at watching something sacred being defiled would be just that – i.e.: gut reactions – if not for the backing of holy words and Bible-thumping assertions: only god creates, marriage is a pact for life, and so on.
Fear seems a strong motivator for the proliferation of sanctity: the fear that we will be alone, the fear that we won’t be loved, the fear that our lives will be meaningless and forgotten, the fear that the world is harsh and horrible, the fear that ultimately our efforts, our trials, our struggles, amount to nothing after the sun’s heat death. Our thoughts run wild. In an effort to calm them, we place them behind fences and deem them sacred. Like horses, we break these wild fears in, keeping them behind the fences and borders of sanctity.
Sanctity most avidly rises to the surface of discussion when it has been violated: for example, when people commit adultery. The first reaction is to say it is immoral or breaks the sacred bonds subscribed in marriage. More importantly than that, one would think, is that an innocent person was deeply hurt. Instead, avid adherence to traditional nonsense would see us defend the institution of marriage, specifically from the Judeo-Christian perspectives – is there anything more nauseating than a Christian wedding and its continuing frailties? – instead of the spurned spouse.
Marriage & It’s Various Idiocies
Marriage is the most fruitful starting-point of an inquiry into sanctity. Why do people get married? Why is it not enough that two people are ‘in love’ or, at least, ‘in a relationship’? There are many economical benefits – not simply pecuniary – reasons to get married. Essentially, marriage is the result of two people, pooling resources, time, effort and experience in maintaining a domestic life, which serves as a bedrock from which to develop the other, less safe, areas of life. This appears to satisfy a non-sacred – or secular in this pejorative sense – view of marriage. There is nothing sacred about this reply; it makes sense on most levels. To have a friend, a lover, a companion, an admirer, an object of admiration, and so on, all in one person is of enormous benefit to any individual. The central problem of marriage, however, is the individual rather than the couple. As individuals grow, they push each other apart, like two giant flowers in the same pot, as their opinions, passions and hatreds alter.
Marriage is said to be a union between ‘souls’, a pact between god or/and the state, a lifelong bond that will last ‘until death do us part’, or, more insultingly, for the procreation of the species.
I have no use for ‘souls’, a most peculiar and vacuous notion that attempts to combine consciousness with morality in a web of slippery obscurantism. The soul, like the sacred, arises from similar religious sources and, too, is a property justified by mere assertion. The souls, the sacred, and god are quite similar: All three do not exist and if they did, would undermine many things we should value. These religious properties are not only nonexistent but I sincerely hope they remain so.
So much for souls, what about a pact between god and the state?
The most legitimate question here is to ask what involvement does god or the state have in a mutually beneficial relationship. God is merely an object of gratitude, serving no purpose besides. The state has a more legitimate claim on marriage, though even this we do not necessarily have to accept. Once again, just because it has been long accepted that marriage is a relationship involving the state, does not mean it is necessarily a good thing. This is, again, the argument from tradition, one of the foundations for maintaining sanctification.
We should care about the state’s involvement since this not only ‘legitimises’ the relationship but can add other benefits – for example tax, housing and other forms of financial security, like inheritance. Here the argument can rest in that marriage serves to ground individuals in not only having a companion of all stripes, serving sexual, friendship and most other needs, but by being with her we are granted recognition and benefits from the state. (Marriage is a strange creature to me, since the notion that two people can stand each other’s company for more than an hour surprises me, let alone a few decades.) However, there are few things to challenge the security – personal, sexual, and financial – that is gained from marriage. From a secular perspective, there is much to be admired about it. However, the problems rests in believing that individuals must then stay focused on each other completely and remain so for the rest of their lives. It is no surprise that monogamy and monotony are separated only by three letters. But beyond this mere huffing of banality is the fervour with which the ‘institution of marriage’ is defended by those rooted in tradition. It must be an institution, since only the insane are placed in it, but more importantly the arguments only lead to more suffering. The maintenance of this thing called the ‘institution of marriage’ is premised on false foundations by religious groups: that marriage is between a man and woman, that only within marriage is sex allowed, that sex is only for the creation of children. Indeed, Leviticus 20 and Deuteronomy 22 both indicate that adultery is punishable by death. And believing that your sexual organs are only the property of the ‘institution of marriage’ and not your own can lead some, like Norman Mailer, to say things like: ‘It's better to commit rape than masturbate’.
The media, specifically ‘gossip writers’, continue to indulge in this view by printing scandal stories, when celebrities fail to adhere to monogamy. Tiger Woods was the latest, as the press revealed he had numerous sexual partners. Fans demanded an apology. This assumes two things: what he was doing was wrong and, secondly, that his fans deserve emotional compensation. The only sort of immoral actions that deserve such public scrutiny are those related to criminal behaviour. But even then, celebrities do not deserve more scorn than other citizens who perform criminal acts. They may deserve it if they use their status or power to, for example, coerce fans into elicit sexual conduct; but even then, celebrities are not more deserving of scorn. We may simply view them as powerful individuals – no different from, say, employers or company owners – abusing their power. And having adult, mutual consensual sex under false pretences is not a crime, but probably just stupidity or gullibility. How people choose to conduct themselves in their relationships is none of our concern, unless we are close friends or devoted family members. I do not view family as automatically having privileged access to our lives. Blood does not automatically lead to love anymore than hands automatically lead to animosity.
It appears the furore that encompasses adulterous celebrities arises from the irrational view that we must defend the ‘institution of marriage’ more than the fulfilment of individuals. This does not mean, as I have said, that adultery is necessarily a good or bad thing (we will come to that later); the key should be that we care about the betrayed spouse. In other words – at the very least – we should convey sympathy for the scorned spouse and antagonism to the adulterer because of the other spouse’s hurt feelings. However, this is not what occurs: instead, random fans, who the celebrity has no immediate relationship with, demand compensation as if they were either the spouse herself or a close friend of the spouse. Fans, being neither family nor friends of the spurned spouse, therefore have no argument to make demanding compensation. They are not related to the situation in any way beyond being an admirer – along with perhaps millions of others – of the adulterous celebrity. We admire Tiger Woods, not because of his sexual prowess or gentlemanly conduct but his incredible golfing abilities. Similarly, rarely should we care about an actor’s personal life: we care about their ability to portray other lives as if they were those characters. The only people who should be involved in emotional ramifications of celebrities are those that are interested in the emotions of the spouse and who the spouse would actually engage with on emotional issues. No one else should be involved. Once again, this is the idolisation of the institution of marriage, ignoring that there are actual people involved and focused more on how marriage should be run, defending not only monogamy but extended consistent monogamy. These cretins and hooligans who scream and demand emotional compensation from a random celebrity, who they most likely will never meet, are upholding this sacred view for its own sake, for they are offended at seeing sanctity – i.e.: the institution of marriage – violated. After all, they certainly cannot actually care for the spouse, since caring for a specific individual involves, at the minimum, regular acquaintance and, hopefully, reciprocity. (The celebrity becomes a battering ram for fanatics to express their devotion to the sacred, whatever it may be: when celebrities are caught with prostitutes, doing drugs, or anything ‘wayward’, they become empty targets which are painted with scorn from these people.)
This fanatical adherence to the institution of marriage, as exemplified in celebrity fanbots demanding compensation, finds worse offshoots. Uncritical adherence to the Judeo-Christian form of marriage also leads to some states not recognising the legitimate love and devotion of homosexuals. Because marriage apparently must be between a man and woman, any two individuals of the same sex cannot be married.
This raises an interesting case in and of itself for the state. We have already seen that, in many ways, the state compensates a married couple. Not only that, but there is a feeling of legitimacy that arises once the state recognises your devotion to your partner. Professor Michael J. Sandel says: ‘it’s important to bear in mind that a state can take three possible policies toward [heterosexual and homosexual] marriage, not just two. It can adopt the traditional (!) policy and recognize only marriages between a man and a woman; or it can do what several states have done, and recognise same-sex marriage in the same way it recognizes marriage between a man and a woman; or it can decline to recognize marriage of any kind, and leave this role to private associations.’
The case against homosexual marriage is much rooted in the sacred or ‘traditional’ view: that marriage is between man and woman, for life and procreation. Though I am against procreation, homosexuals are able to acquire offspring. They may have offspring by donating and insemination, however; just because it is not ‘natural’ no more makes invalidates it than infertile couples using ‘unnatural’ but wonderful medical science to have children (a complete waste of medical resources and taxes, though). And, as many studies have shown, homosexual couples tend to have relationships of similar length and depth as heterosexual couples. The only thing homosexual marriage does not conform too is the differing of sexes. But there is no reason, other than – once again! – mere assertion from dogma that this is essential to a legitimate – i.e.: state sanctioned – marriage.
Many people are horrified by homosexuality in general merely because it upsets their Puritanical, narrow-minded worldview. But something ‘upsetting’ does not make it immoral, especially when such things only affect your feelings. Homosexual relationships are not premised on physically or mentally subjecting heterosexuals to their relationship. If anything, it is obnoxious, sexually-obsessed, neurotic, bigoted, heterosexuals who force their form of sexuality on homosexuals. They are at fault, not the homosexuals. Perhaps the main reason so many are upset rests in not only seeing homosexuals conduct themselves freely, but that your own state or country condones their relationship by equating it with the one you have with your spouse. But the only reason this is upsetting is, like many other things, a hangover of the Judaeo-Christian moralist mindset, which carved rules out of the rock of dogma and called them ‘morals’. This steadfast monument to our fearful past remains on the minds of most, especially as advancing scientific knowledge pushes the boundaries on what constitutes life, the universe and so on.
The point remains that maintaining marriage for the purposes of the institution, rather than for the fulfilment of individuals, creates numerous problems. The way you interact with your beloved should be dictated by no one, since, as we have seen in the case of celebrities, it is no one else’s business. This is why we must consider the third option that Sandel mentions: taking marriage out of the hands of the state (and churches). How that will work, I am uncertain, but perhaps this could aid us in unsanctifying the institution of marriage by not having it part of the state in which we are all, Puritanical and not, a part. Dictating who and how people, who are probably strangers, should be married is a hangover from times when parents made the choice of spouse for the child. (Arranged-marriages of course still occur, amidst mostly traditional religious family groups and cultures.)
This horrid adherence in maintaining this sanctified form of marriage is not merely philosophical. A string of recent homophobic attacks and laws have led many Africans into imprisonment. Homosexual relations are outlawed (section 153 (a) of the Malawian penal code reads: ‘Any persons who permits a male person to have carnal knowledge of him or her against the order of nature shall be guilty of felony and shall be liable to imprisonment for 14 years with or without corporal punishment.’), leading men and women to suffer greatly for pacifying the feelings of a Christian majority. Not only are their lives restricted, but their sexual lives are now dictated. They are forced into relations with people they are not attracted to on any level, beyond the dictates of their society. Homophobic attacks also become silently condoned, since, if homosexuality is outlawed in a country, the victims of homophobic attacks have little chance of making a case against their attackers. Tyrannical laws cage an individual’s desires, hopes and aspirations, aligning them as if on train-tracks to run parallel with everyone else. This need to conform all citizens to prescribed sets of ethical engagement has never worked, as history has shown, and will always be opposed by those who understand that freedom has nothing to do with pacifying feelings of the majority.
Many will think that cases like these do not affect the average person. But, as we have seen, the pernicious nature of the ‘sacred’ means it poisons many aspects of our thought. We imagine there are specific and sacred parts of marriage, which we might not speak about until they are suddenly violated. We have seen the problems with restricting it to heterosexuals; we have seen that being adulterous elicits strong reactions from moral watchdogs. We have also seen that people expect couples to stay together and remain monogamous. But why?
Monogamy appears safe. Despite STD’s, there is still a heartfelt adherence to monogamy, even amongst those who do not see a relationship being between god, the state and so on. People react to adultery, even between non-married couples, with scorn and outrage. We have seen why people’s reactions are unfounded in the case of celebrities but what about legitimate outrage from friends and family?
We assume that adultery calls for a dramatic reconsideration of the relationship. In many instances, adultery seems worthy of divorce, if the couple is married. This seems to be unfounded. Bertrand Russell famously – and perhaps hypocritically – made the case against adultery as marriage-breaker. In Marriage and Morals, he writes:
Unless people are restrained by inhibitions or strong moral scruples, it is very unlikely that they will go through life without occasionally having strong impulses to adultery. But such impulses do not by any means necessarily imply that the marriage no longer serves its purpose. There may still be ardent affection between husband and wife, and every desire that the marriage should continue. Suppose, for example, that a man has to be away from home on business for a number of months on end. If he is physically vigorous, he will find it difficult to remain continent throughout this time, however fond he may be of his wife. The same will apply to his wife, if she is not entirely convinced of the correctness of conventional morality. Infidelity in such circumstances ought to form no barrier whatever to subsequent happiness, and in fact it does not, where the husband and wife do not consider it necessary to indulge in melodramatic orgies of jealousy. We may go farther, and say that each party should be able to put up with such temporary fancies as are always liable to occur, provided the underlying affection remains intact.
With Russell, I see no reason why infidelity must necessarily be cloaked in lies. As Russell has stated, there is no reason why a couple cannot be open and, more importantly, accepting of their infidelities. Many thinkers, including Russell, found it absurd that we think we can cater to every aspect of another individual. As I said before, finding someone who accommodates every aspect – friend, lover, admirer, and so on – is a wonderful thing. But we know individuals grow, their tastes change, and not everyone is able to find someone who can do all this in the first place (even if this person does it just for a few years). And couples open about their infidelities are not some mythical beast, but might be more common than our sanctified view of marriage and relationships would like us to believe. Of course this brings up numerous problems – for example, if they want children with the mistresses or if they prefer other people more than the spouse or partner – but that is beyond the overarching point: monogamy is not automatically a good thing, or an indicator of a successful relationship. Maintaining monogamy beyond your own desires is to allow yourself to give into the sanctified view of marriage rather than what is meaningful to you, which we have noted is not a good thing. This is to give up your fulfilment for the maintenance of the monogamous institution of marriage.
Mere incredulity is not a case against Russell; that is, just because you cannot imagine being content with your lover’s infidelity, does not mean that Russell’s case is wrong, as psychologically implausible it might sound. However, many couples engage in ‘swinging’ or other forms of external sexual liaisons. Russell’s gives an example of this. Some might go their entire lives doing this, without the other knowing – keeping the marriage and the interaction alive, abating the monotony of monogamy. It seems both benefit: the adulterer who requires more sexual experimentation and diversity, and the non-adulterer, believing that the relationship is fine. The revelation of the adulterer’s actions would be the only time hurt feelings could arise. Of course this is premised on accepting a blatant lie, which, if we are focused on truth, cannot be accepted without holding double-standards. After all, our search for truth is the purpose of wielding reason as we attempt to scrutinise every aspect of our lives.
John McMurty believed that marriage often frustrates erotic love. We can also apply his views to long-term relationships in general: ‘Formal exclusion of all others from erotic contact with the marriage [or long-term relationship] partner systematically promotes conjugal insecurity, jealousy and alienation, [by creating] a literally totalitarian expectation of sexual confinement’. Mike Martin says that McMurty’s ‘totalitarian expectation’ ‘is bound to create anxiety about potential violations of the commitment to sexual exclusivity by either spouse. Spouses become fearful of losing their counterparts, jealous about attention paid to others, and emotionally distanced from each other. In any case, the confinement is impractical: Affairs occur, accompanied by deception and antagonism between partners.’ McMurty’s main thesis derives from individuals being reduced to properties, owned by their spouses. More importantly, their sexual freedom is caged by the other.
It seems though that McMurty has created a false dichotomy: either we are free and are able to indulge in multiple-relationships, or constricted and forced into monogamy. But this is need not be the case. Anecdotally and statistically, there are monogamous couples who are and have been happy, without indulging in infidelity. When couples become involved, we might view their sexual freedoms as being driven toward and by their partner. There is no reason this is a lesser freedom than one that involves multiple partners. We are always able to indulge in relationships outside of our current – if we are able to attract potential mates – but by choosing not to, we are affirming our sexual freedom. Freedom here is about choice and choice not to indulge is just as great a sign of our freedom as indulging. McMurty’s lack of appreciation for choice is perhaps tyrannical too since it says freedom is only what he believes, which is engaging in infidelity. But freedom is about choice: choosing monogamy or choosing infidelity. As long as we are not forced into either, our sexual freedom remains intact and, more importantly, ours.
What remains important though is that we are freely able to choose infidelity. Societal adherence to sanctified monogamy is restrictive, not necessarily monogamy in itself. Choosing monogamy must be our choice, not one adhered to under societal pressures. Whatever is chosen between the two partners remain their individual choices.
Thankfully, many people are able to indulge in infidelity – like ‘swingers’ – without prosecution in many countries. We have seen what happens when heterosexual, monogamous, long-term marriage is forced: via reactions to celebrities and homosexual marriages, for example. And now, even in liberated countries, we still have outrage over infidelities. What needs to be addressed is this: if a couple consensually agrees to having multiple partners (with the goal of maintaining the relationship, too), there is no reason for us to doubt the viability of the relationship. It might bring with it numerous problems, but what human relationship does not have problems? The point remains not that infidelity is better or worse than monogamy, but that there is no reason to think less of it merely because it upsets our sanctified view of human interaction. Monogamy is not purely based on nature, reason or the history of our species – if anything, the way we conduct relationships is relatively unique to our species and new to it, too. Polygamy and arranged-marriages, the latter often lacking romantic feelings, were the order the day for many centuries in our world. Freely-chosen, sexually spontaneous, cross-cultural and interracial relationships are a sign that we have morally progressed in our acceptance – by progressed, I mean that countries, like South Africa, have abolished laws marginalising races on sexual grounds.
Overall, this inquiry into marriage begins to open many doors. Some we have just touched on that require further elaboration, such as the morality of breeding, the significance of sex, and the various views of non-Western marriages, specifically the horrors of Islamic countries and their treatment of women. The indulgence in sanctity breeds much unreason, often embraced without critical engagement, even by those of us shed of religious beliefs. Sanctity, an essentially religious notion, imbues many topics, creating a wall that closes off discussions by mere assertion. It is difficult to locate it and my sincere hope is that I have not created merely a make-believe target in order to target something (a Straw Man). But the consistency and sheer magnitude of these recurring sacred claims on areas of life we believe should not be touched tell me otherwise.
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