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When Marriage is No Longer Understood as a Moral Act

Is marriage a moral act?

Not all acts are moral acts.   I am using the term ‘moral act’ not in the sense that it is moral rather than immoral but in the sense that it is subject to moral definitions and is not simply amoral.  The distinction is between amoral acts and moral acts.  For acts to be moral acts, whether immoral or moral, we have in view moral actions, the moral character of the actors, and the moral consequences.  We develop an entire ethic as a society that embraces views on actions, character, and consequences and which expresses them in its laws.  When, however, we remove the notion of an act being a moral act and still try to develop a morality around character and consequences, the results are very, very disturbing.  This is the case with Western society’s experiment with making marriage a mere act—an amoral act—while still holding to ethics of character and consequences around the issue of marriage.

Before examining this point in regard to marriage, let us take another example.  Say that, instead of using the word ‘killing’, we substituted in every instance the word ‘murder.’  In that case, we would make every act of killing a moral act of murder.  Soldiers would not be heroes but criminals, and those who killed in battle would be subject to trial. Judges who tried to distinguish between killing in self-defense and in cold-blooded murder would be removed. 

Yet, we do not do this, and various societies in various ways have found making distinctions between acts and moral acts to be essential.  We distinguish killing an animal from killing a person.  We distinguish killing someone by accident or in self-defense from killing someone intentionally or in war.  We make such distinctions because we do not equate killing with murder in every case but seek to articulate what is required for killing someone to be considered a moral act, murder.

Or, imagine that things went the other way.  Imagine that a society determined that no acts were moral acts.  When a society insists that a particular act is not a moral act but, nevertheless, retains a morality in regard to character and consequences, it develops a very disturbing morality.  In the case of murder, the redefinition that it is only an amoral act of killing might mean that the abattoir should be fined (or even put in prison) for refusing to kill on moral grounds.  A magistrate who claimed that some acts were moral acts might be dismissed from the bench.  He or she would be expected to apply the law as a rule book, not as a moral code and therefore without any moral considerations.

Society might invent new ways to describe certain killings so that no sense of morality is suggested.  Actually, we have done this in regard to killing with terms like ‘family planning,’ ‘termination of a pregnancy,’ ‘euthanasia,’ ‘mercy killing,’ etc.  In all but the last example, we avoid moral language—especially the heavily moral word ‘murder’.  Yet imagine if what we have all understood to be murder was no longer considered to be a moral act.  We might not simply be dismissive of people who commit ‘murder,’ we might even require certain people in society to perform certain kinds of killing.  We might, for example, require doctors to euthanize patients or perform abortions.  Of course, we no longer have to ‘imagine’ such a society.

To return to our original question, ‘Is marriage a moral act?,’ we should note, firstly, that all societies have understood marriage in moral terms even if some very odd views have been floated about marriage from time to time in various cultures and periods of time.  Marriage has, however, been framed by societies around a variety of moral questions, and sometimes these are quite standard even in vastly differing cultures.  The moral understanding of marriage is articulated in terms of character/s, actions, and consequences.

Who might marry?  Society has ruled out the marriage of siblings, or a parent and a child, or persons of the same sex, or a person already married.  Of course, there have been exceptions to such rules in some societies, such as the drive for same-sex ‘marriage’ in Western countries in very recent times.  Marriage is also described with regard to certain actions that are considered moral.  Societies have traditionally said that adultery is a criminal offense and immoral, although Western societies make this a matter of free choice (an ‘open marriage’) rather than part of the definition of marriage.  Most societies (except Western countries in very recent times) have considered pre-marital sex morally wrong and perhaps criminal.  Certainly, societies have considered rape to be immoral, even if some view it as far more serious than others.  Also, societies expect certain commitments other than sexual matters to apply to marriage: care for the spouse (‘till death us do part’) rather than abandonment, and love rather than abuse.  And, thirdly, societies have a variety of views and laws regarding the consequences of marriage and of not abiding by the commitments expected in marriage.  Traditionally, marriage meant society’s approval that this couple may live together and have sex.  Children were welcomed into this union, and a family was formed—and the parents and children were expected to relate to each other in certain ways (such as nurture or obedience).

Now, however, imagine not that we simply take different views on the morality of marriage but that we no longer consider marriage to be a moral act of moral characters with moral consequences at all.    ‘Marriage,’ whatever it might mean to someone, would be rather ill-defined and, in fact, a rather quaint artifact from earlier societies no longer relevant to the free actions of individuals or the controlling actions of society.  The raising of children would be disassociated from the concept of ‘family’ and all that that might entail.  Having children out of wedlock might become acceptable, or the state controlling the raising of children might replace the role of the parents.  Persons might form contracts or unions for whatever purposes—taxes? property rights? celebrations?—that could be annulled or reconstituted by magistrates.  Magistrates would be expected not to hold a moral view on ‘marriage’; they would rather be expected simply to apply the law as clerks of court as currently stated and practiced.  As a judge does not regard owning a car to be in itself a moral issue, even if it might be subject to laws, so, too, marriage might be considered merely from the standpoint of a contract and not an ethical act per se.

The progression from understanding marriage to be a moral act to it being a mere contract might go still further.  Having removed the moral definition of marriage, society might then develop a new morality around those who insist on treating the now amoral acts of its citizens as moral issues.  As in the example, above, of requiring persons in certain social roles to perform acts without interference by their consciences or moral convictions, so now persons associated with acts of marriage might be required to lay aside any moral convictions.  Moreover, if they do not, then society might consider their character, actions, and consequences to be immoral.  The morality of marriage, for instance, shifts from the discussion of marriage to one of how others engage in society with those who want to call their unions ‘marriage.’  The minister or magistrate who will not marry the couple because he or she has a moral view of marriage that will not allow it is now the subject of moral scrutiny, not the couple.  The fertility doctor who insists that his patient be married may lose his license.  The baker who refuses to bake a wedding cake to celebrate what he or she calls an ‘immoral ‘marriage’’ is now the immoral person in such a society.  The social worker or adoption agency or judge who considers it best for children to be raised in stable families headed by a father and mother who are married is now viewed as immoral.  By removing the description of marriage as a moral act, a new morality enters in that labels those with a moral view of marriage as ‘immoral’ and considers them subject to social stigmatization and legal penalties.

If, however, marriage is a moral act, then we must ask, ‘What is the basis for our morality?’  Modern and postmodern, Western society has been involved in a social experiment that prioritizes ‘freedom’ in particular in all moral matters.  This has led to a variety of moral conclusions—some good, some bad, in my view.  Yet, post-postmodern, Western society has progressed beyond deconstructing marriage as a moral act.  It has introduced the tribal idea that participation in society, not freedom to exercise one’s rights or conscience, is the locus of morality.  Freedom of speech is now curtailed in certain areas of society, and speech is regulated by rules about so-called ‘hate speech.’  Similarly, persons in certain social roles—bakers, magistrates, doctors, educators, etc.—are expected to support the new morality and, if they do not, they are the immoral agents who should be penalized and perhaps removed from society.

The consequences of removing a moral definition of marriage are only just being discovered in Western culture.  The implications are immense as society explores the implications for families, education, the workplace, counselling, medical practice, the legal system, etc.  What undergirds this experiment in the West is a strong, anti-naturalism perspective.  We have moved well beyond the scientific dominance of society in Modernity, let alone the religious traditions of most cultures and of Western culture before the Enlightenment era.  Notions of ‘created order’ and ‘nature’ are no longer a basis for morality.  Indeed, living against authority, including nature, might be considered a morally heroic act.  Thus, by linking sex to marriage, procreation and family have been replaced with amoral acts of sexual pleasure and impermanent unions and of romantic friendship.  Children are no longer the product of marriage but a possible adornment for an amoral union some choose to call ‘marriage.’  Those who do not applaud these acts but consider them immoral distortions of marriage are considered the immoral persons whose dangerous views and actions should be punished.