Monday, May 16, 2011

A functional account of marriage vows

What does a couple have to validly promise each other, explicitly or implicitly, in order for those promises, when appropriately ratified by authority, to give rise to a marriage?

This is a hard question as to the specifics. But we can at least give a start of a functional characterization:

  • Marriage vows are that complex of binding commitments that in fact makes it prima facie permissible for a couple to engage in intercourse.
One might want to add that the complex is natural, either in the David Lewis sense (in which case it is opposed to gerrymandered) or in the natural law sense (in which case it is that which is consonant with our nature).

Of course, this account can only have plausibility if uncommitted sex is wrong. I think that prior to the 20th century in the West, this functional characterization would have been seen as quite plausible, and I am still inclined to think it is correct.

A functional characterization is not, of course, a definition. Thus someone who disagrees with this characterization can still be talking about the very same thing when using the words "marriage vows" as someone who accepts this characterization.


David Balcarras said...

About the notion of uncommitted sex being wrong... do you think that there are non-marital commitments within which intercourse is permissible? Or would any commitments that make intercourse permissible just be marital, regardless of the social/ritual context?

Alexander R Pruss said...

I would say they would be marital if they made intercourse permissible.
There is a question whether it is possible to marry by private exchange of vows without involving ecclesiastical or civil authority.
The Catholic Church says that in principle yes, but by the power of binding and loosing requires that Catholics marry in front of a priest or deacon (and satisfying some other conditions) unless no priest or deacon is available (e.g., desert island).
Moreover, I would say that if one is in a situation where the civil community allows the marriage and won't prosecute you, a failure to involve to have a civilly binding marriage is probably a sign of lack of genuine commitment to the vows.