Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Reasons of marriage

Suppose we take seriously the idea that when a couple marries, an entity with moral standing—the married couple—comes into existence. Then there might be cases where an action is good for the spouses but bad for the married couple, and the fact that it is bad for the married couple could provide a strong moral reason to refrain from an action even if the action is good for the spouses.

That said, I don't accept an ontology on which a new entity comes into existence when a couple marries. But something similar to the above could still be the case. There are two kinds of wellbeing: one may call them narrow and extended wellbeing. Extended wellbeing is flourishing you have in virtue things outside of you going right for you. For instance, when someone you love has a success, your extended wellbeing increases even before you find out about it. Likewise, our reputation is a matter of our extended wellbeing, though it also tends to instrumentally affect our narrow wellbeing.

It can be quite rational to engage in some actions that sacrifice narrow wellbeing for extended wellbeing (just as sometimes the opposite makes sense). Now, even if a new entity doesn't come into existence when a couple marries, the members of the couple acquire a new mode of extended wellbeing, a mode where they are well insofar as the marriage goes well and poorly insofar as the marriage goes poorly.

But this means that it could happen that it would be rational for the spouses to sacrifice the narrow wellbeing of both persons for the sake of the external wellbeing they have in virtue of their marriage. It could well be that destroying the marriage is on balance a harm to the spouses even if they no longer care about the marriage and its destruction makes them feel better, just as an action that destroys one's reputation may be a harm to one even if one no longer cares about one's reputation and enjoys ruining it.


Kara said...

Would be interested to know how you would factor children into this and whether once a couple has a child if the unit of couple would exist inside the unit of family (for reasoning purposes), or if the only reasoning would be about the wellbeing of the family and each individual within the family.

Also, what difference does the marriage commitment itself make to this idea of shared extended wellbeing (v. extended cohabitation for example)?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Great questions and I am not very confident about my answers.

In English one talks of a couple becoming a "family" when they have a child but I think this doesn't align with usage in some other languages. It might perhaps be better to say that when the couple marries, they immediately become a family, and then that family simply grows when a child comes.

But either way (whether one thinks the family comes into existence at marriage or when a child comes), I think one should think of the married couple as a distinct unit in the family. The couple is "one body", while the family is not. Moreover, it is normal for the couple to stay as the kind of unit they are for life and for the children--while always remaining the children of the parents--to go off and form their own families.

There is some extended wellbeing in any friendship (and more generally in any kind of love), including in friendships where the friends live together, whether sexually or not. And any in friendship it makes sense to sacrifice one's own narrow wellbeing for the sake of the friendship. But it is less clear whether in non-marital friendships it makes sense for the two to sacrifice both of their narrow wellbeings for the sake of the friendship. One might think that in cases where such a sacrifice would be needed for the continuation of the friendship, friendship instead calls on the two to go each other's way. And that would be a difference between friendship and marriage. In any case, even if it makes sense to make such a mutual sacrifice, in typical non-marital friendships, including sexual ones, there will be no duty to make such sacrifices, I suspect.

And even in marriage one shouldn't sacrifice one's own--and much less the other's--soul for the sake of the married life. If a married person finds that living together presents one with practically unresistable temptations to physical abuse, one should live one's marriage from a distance (i.e., be faithful, but perhaps spend no time together). But a cohabitation relationship by its nature presents very strong temptations to fornication. So that gives the couple strong reasons to stop living together.