Tuesday, March 24, 2015


A marriage forges the couple into something analogous to a new person. Divorce is intended to be destructive of that something analogous to a new person. Thus divorce is at least presumptively wrong.

Objection: What if a marriage fails to forge that something analogous to a new person?

Response: I think we should see persons as through and through normative beings. What makes the married couple be something analogous to a new person is not that they actually make decisions together, become aligned to one another's needs and so on, but that such joint decision-making, this kind of alignment to one another's needs and so on are normative for them—are what they should strive for. A ceremony that fails to make this normative reality come into existence is not a marriage. We have something analogous to a new person even in a bad marriage.


Angra Mainyu said...

Hi Alexander,

The response to the objection that married people [morally] should strive to make decisions jointly, be alligned to each other needs, etc. A response to that response would be:

'I don't see any good reason to believe that they have the moral obligation not to make the joint decision to end their marriage, or even make it unilaterally in many situations. In fact, I hold that they do not have such a moral obligation.
I think narried people do have some moral obligations (e.g., usually, they have an obligation not to have sex with other people without the consent of their spouse as long as the marriage lasts, though there are exceptions), but not all of the obligations you say they have.'

Sure, you can deny that, but then I could deny that, etc.

As to the claim that it's "analogous to a new person", I don't see how it's analogous in any relevant sense. Sure, people who agree to a marriage end up with some obligations (which depend on the case), but so do people who agree to be engaged, or to live together in an exclusive relationship for a while, or to work together creating a new company, and so on.

Alexander R Pruss said...

For the analogy, I am thinking of two intersecting lines of thought. My reflection on union as one body in my One Body book, and Nozick's discussion of two persons becoming a "we" in romantic love. I think these lines of thought taken together suggest that in marriage we have something like a new individual.

Angra Mainyu said...

A question would be why that similarily (if there is any) would be relevant. There are plenty of senses in which marriage is not at all like a new individual. For example, each spouse has her or his own memories, beliefs, goals, moral obligations, etc., each of them can act on their own, make contracts, and a very long list.
They might be similar in some senses, but I don't see any similarity that would imply divorce is always or usually or often immoral (then again, I don't think suicide is except to the extent it involves abandoning other people, either, but I don't see what one has to do with the other).

I've not read the book so I can't comment on the specifics, but generally my reaction to this argument (and many others) is to go in the other direction (one person's modus ponens...): given that divorce is not presumptively immoral, a proposed analogy with an individual that would imply so is mistaken.

Regarding the "we" issue, two people may be a "we" with respect to romantic love without being married - they may live together or not, etc. -, since that "we" means that they have romantic love for each other, and that's independent of marriage. On the other hand, two people may get married without feeling any romantic love for each other, or in cases in which only one of them feels romantic love. Or they may feel romantic love for each other at first, but that may end, etc. I don't see how this is connected to one single individual. Granted, they may properly use the word "we", but for that matter, two people who play tennis as a team can do that too - and in any case, the "we" with respect to romantic love does not depend on whether they get married; they can love each other romantically just as much without marriage.

Alexander R Pruss said...

While the romantic love is independent of marriage, it may well be a duty of marriage to foster that sort of romantic love.

The presumptive wrongness of divorce is also pretty clear from the standard forms of the marriage vows. :-)

Angra Mainyu said...

Regarding whether it's a duty of marriage to foster romantic love, I don't think that's always the case, but I do think it may well be sometimes the case. But for example, I reckon someone who is beaten by her spouse has no such obligation; neither is a person who properly reckons continuing the marriage will likely make life worse for them than a divorce, etc.
Also, that may also be so in the case of people who live together or otherwise in a committed relationship without getting married, or who are engaged but not yet married, etc. I think it depends on the case. In any event, my point was in response to the idea that they become a "we" in that regard.

As for the marriage vows, a reference to the death of one of the spouses is common in Christian marriages. But there are plenty of other marriages that do not meet that condition.

Moreover, even in the case of marriage vows that include "till death us do part", divorce would be presumptively immoral. I reckon it's not, and the language does not seem to suggest otherwise.
For that matter, if two people decide to make a company and work together for life, it's not generally immoral for both of them to agree to end their relationship and the company. More generally, usually two (or more) people who make an arrangement may then choose to end that arrangement, or to otherwise change the terms. As long as there is mutual (or unanimous) agreement to the change, that is not immoral regardless of the initial conditions of the agreement - again, usually; the morality of the matter depends on the specifics of the case of course.

While unilateral terminations of two-persons arrangements may be often immoral if the other party is doing as promised, they usually are not immoral if the other party did not comply with what they agreed to. Also, if a clause in an arrangement is that either party may end the arrangement by unilateral choice - perhaps, with some previous notice -, generally it's not immoral to make that choice.

Alexander R Pruss said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alexander R Pruss said...

There is a difference between promises and vows. Indeed, you can get out of a promise by mutual agreement and in some other cases. But vows are harder. They probably aren't made just to the other party. Maybe they are made to God, say.

Also, the possibility of permissibly getting out of something is compatible with its being *presumptively* wrong to get out of it.

If a couple doesn't see divorce as even presumptively problematic, I am far from sure that they are actually getting married.

Angra Mainyu said...

I agree of course that the possibility of permissibly getting out of something is compatible with its being *presumptively* wrong to get out of it. However, my point is that it's *generally* permissible to get out of two-person arrangements by means of mutual agreement or in case of [serious] failure to comply on someone's part, so the language of such agreements would not support the claim that it's *presumptively* wrong to get out of them. I was applying that to the case of some marriages - namely, the marriages that have the language in question.

With regard to the distinction you made between promises and vows, I think marriage vows are a kind of promise. But I don't see why the general rules would not apply.

In Re: God, as you know :), I don't think God exists, and I don't think a person who makes a promise (or vow, or whatever one calls it) to God actually has any obligation, at least as long as they later reckon that God does not exist. If they still believe that God exists, I guess it depends on the promise, but in any event, I don't think a promise made to a third party (God or not) to be married to a person for life carries much if any weight - and generally, getting out of it wouldn't be wrong.

Regarding whether they're getting married if they do not see divorce as presumptively problematic, the question is whether they see themselves as making a commitment not to ever divorce even if they both want to, or even if one of them seriously fails to comply with their own promises, etc. I don't see that they generally do, though some people probably do (if they do, though, I would say that the promise is invalid).
Maybe they do consider divorce as problematic in the sense that it would be the result of a failure of some of their projects, and that's a problem for them. But for that matter, a couple who live together without being married may well also see separation as problematic, and a couple of business partners who agree to start a company may well consider the possibility of having to end it as problematic. It doesn't suggest it's immoral, but a problem in the sense that some of their projects have failed.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I think a vow is more than a promise. I don't know if it's possible to give a non-theistic account of vows. (As a start one might try to talk of a vow as a promise not just to the other party but also to the community.) But since there is a God, I am not deeply bothered if there is no non-theistic account of vows.

Supposing that vows are significantly more than promises, it's an interesting question whether a marriage-like institution entered into by vow is the same institution as a marriage-like institution entered into by promise. Insofar as institutions are distinguished by significant normative differences, it seems that an institution entered into by the one and an institution entered into by the other would be significantly different. But that's compatible with them both being marriages, I guess.

Walter Van den Acker said...

Dr Pruss

It's not that there may be no non-theistic account of vows, it's that, in this case, there is no theistic account of vows. The vows your are talking of have only two relevant partners. So, the commitment is normative only in as much as both partners consider it normative.

Moreover, because persons evolve over time, the normative reality does not come into existence with the ceremony, it comes (or doesn't come) into existence over time. The 'persons' involved in the original ceremony are not necessarily the 'persons' who end up divorcing. And consequently, the 'new person' at the time of the vow is not necessarily the 'new person' in the case of a separation or a divorce.
So, it's not the separation or the divorce that is 'destructive' of the original new person, what is 'destructive' of this person is the evolution in this person.
And unfortunately, in some cases this person evolves into something bad and divorce may be the best, or even the only solution.

Mark Rogers said...

Hey Dr. Pruss!

Words over time can lose their meaning. Consider the phrase 'the quick and the dead'. Perhaps the Church needs a new word for marriage.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Mr. Van den Acker:

Why think that the two persons are the only relevant partners? One might think that when a relationship is normatively ordered to human reproduction, then the God in whose image all human beings are is also a relevant partner.

Mr. Rogers:

Well, we do have the longer phrase "the Sacrament of Matrimony". (But there are some technical issues here. Marriages between the non-baptized are still natural law marriages, but not sacraments. I think they still have a sacredness to them.)

Walter Van den Acker said...

Dr Pruss

"Why think that the two persons are the only relevant partners? One might think that when a relationship is normatively ordered to human reproduction, then the God in whose image all human beings are is also a relevant partner."

The two persons are the only relevant partners because they, and nobody else, constitute the new person.
In your original post there is no mention of human reproduction. You were merely talking about joint decision-making and allignment to each other's needs. If that is what constitutes a new person, then God is not relevant at all. And since God doesn't reproduce, al least not the way people do, his image is not relevant either.
The most you can say is that God somehow orders two people to strive to become a new person.
If two people succeed in doing so, they have a real marriage and they cannot divorce. but in such a case, nobody would want a divorce. Divorce is only relevant in situations where a marriage does not succeed and in those cases, your argument does not work, because there is no new person. And hence, in those cases, divorce is not presumptively wrong. One could go even further and say that in those cases in which the marriage doesn't succeed (in bringing about a new person), divorce is the only right thing because it offers both partners the opportunity to really become a new person together with another partner.

Alexander R Pruss said...

But their constituting the new quasi-person might itself be due to the fact that they have a normative directedness to new life. At least that's the story in my One Body book. :-)

I don't actually think it's the mutual support _per se_ that constitutes them into a new quasi-person. I think it's the normative directedness at the mutual support. Think about the human organism. What makes my kidney be a part of me isn't that my kidney is actually supporting my life. My kidney might be defective and harming me. Rather, what makes my kidney be a part of me is the normative fact that it's supposed to be supporting my life.

I didn't see this normative dimension so clearly at the beginning of this thread. Thanks for leading me to it.

Walter Van den Acker said...

Dr Pruss

Personhood or quasi-personhood requires personality. Personality is not something that can be directed normatively.
But even if what you say is true, that directedness to new life is what consitutes a new quasi-person, it is still a fact that some couples do not manage to really become one new quasi person and that in such case, divorce is the best solution.

BTW, if one of my kidneys were defective and harming me, I would want to divorce.

Unknown said...

Married couples are more of a socio-economical unit, the same way that families are. Yet even then, families don't always stay together. There are various reasons, but all of those stem from the reality that a unit is comprised of individual players, and sometimes those players don't see eye to eye. Everything else is culture, really, but what's certain is that the rights of either must be looked out for and upheld. In any way, thanks for sharing that, Alexander! All the best to you!

Joanne Krueger @ Kurtz & Blum

Alexander R Pruss said...

Actually, I think personhood is precisely a normative quality. That's why a fetus or someone suffering from severe brain damage can be a person even if she doesn't have much of a personality. What makes her a person is that she is an entity for which a personality is normative. (This is Mike Gorman's account of persons.)

Some parts an entity can survive without and others it can't. We can't survive without our heads. It wouldn't make sense to get rid of our heads if our heads were damaging the rest of our bodies--that would just be suicide. If Jim and Betty are a married couple, then that couple cannot survive the loss of Jim and it cannot survive the loss of Betty. Thus, both parties are to the couple like the head is to us.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Ms. Krueger:

I can't tell if your comment is spam or not given the business link, but I'll err on the side of not squelching conversation and leave it in place.

But I disagree that a married couple is essentially a socioeconomic unit. Two people could be married without any economic commonality.

Walter Van den Acker said...

Dr Pruss

I am willing to concede for the sake of the argument that someone who doesn't have much of a personality can be a person, but I do not accept the claim that someone who doesn't have any personality can be a person in any meaningful way.

Anyway, if Jim and Betty are a married couple and they have become 'Jimbetty', the new quesi-person, then there is no need for divorce. The problem arises when Jom and Betty despite making strong effeorts, do not manage to actually become Jimbetty. In that case, divorce is the only option because only after divorce it will be possible for Jim to actually become Jimjenny (and for Betty to become Johnbetty).

If we look at it this way, not only is divorce permissible, it is even compulsory in some cases.
It is not a matter of Jimbetty not surviving the loss of Betty (or Jim), it is that there never was a Jimbetty in the first place, although both Jim and Betty were trying their best.
Saying that Jim and Betty should form a Jimbetty-union does not mean they automatically become Jimbetty.

So, to summarize: I think you have just presented one of the most powerful arguments for divorce I have ever seen.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I think this disagreement depends on whether one sees the fundamental unity as primarily normatively constituted or as constituted by actual relations.

I take it to be normatively constituted. The analogy of body parts seems strong to me. A major part of what makes my kidney a part of me isn't that it's furthering the goals of the whole, but that it is something that *should* be furthering the goals of the whole. A malfunctioning kidney, one that is not furthering the goals of the whole, is still a kidney (otherwise one couldn't say it's *malfunctioning*), and still a part of the person.

What makes me be a member of my Department? It's not that I actually cooperate with my colleagues for the benefit of our shared goals. I might be a (bad) member of the department who does nothing. What makes me be a member is that I have committed myself to certain duties of cooperation with my colleagues, and the department or university has committed itself to other duties with respect to me. It is the normative that constitutes the group in this case. (But it would be a sad situation if the union was merely normative--namely, if each member of the department was shirking the duties they committed themselves to.)

Walter Van den Acker said...

Dr Pruss

I see the marriage ceremony as the beginning of a process towards unity, and you seem to view the ceremony as some sort of end product that guarantees a unity.
But since human beings aren't omniscient, there simply cannot be such guarantee. Hence, sometimes this unity is reached, in which case divorce is not only wrong but actually impossible and sometimes it isn't reached, in which case it may be better to strive for another unity that willl hopefully be successful.

In any case I think marriage is too complex for a black and white view.

Mark Rogers said...

Hi Dr. Pruss!

You have said:

'Marriages between the non-baptized are still natural law marriages, but not sacraments. I think they still have a sacredness to them.'

I do not believe it is necessary that God sanctify every marriage. If God does not sanctify a marriage I do not think it would have any inherent sacredness above any certain level of general sanctity we would expect anywhere in this world.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Mr. Van den Acken:

I see it as a start of a process towards integration, but I think there is already unity early on. Think of a baby. It already has all of its parts, and they really are united in a single organism. But the parts aren't integrated into working together. That takes years. (For some of us who are more awkward than others it takes decades. :-) )

Walter Van den Acker said...

Dr Pruss

I think it is quite obvious that a marriage ends in divorce because there is no true unity, and not the other way round. But you see it differently. No problem, I think it's time to agree to disagree on this.

Thank you for the interesting discusiion.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Thanks for a helpful discussion!