I am a person suspicious by nature. When a person or group makes an especially big deal out of ceremonializing and “sanctifying” a life event, or legal contract, I ask myself, “What are they trying to hide by blowing all this smoke?”
Definition of terms: If you’re a moral absolutist, immoral is defined as an unfair or inequitable advantage taken or perpetrated by one party or group upon another. In other words, somebody gets screwed over. If you’re a moral relativist, then use this working definition from Webster’s: conforming to a standard of right behavior. Implies conformity to established sanctioned codes or accepted notions of right and wrong .
I will argue that marriage is immoral under either of these definitions. Please feel free to jump in with any arguments or observations supporting or contradicting this position. I am looking forward to hearing your opinions and arguments.
Marriage is a legally binding contract between two people. The contract, as written, entered into and agreed to, has no escape clause excepting the death of one of the participants. The contract represents an entrance into a state of mutual indenture of the two participants. No other contract of its kind is considered legal or binding in the free world. I cannot sell myself in an open-ended, unconditional contract to another person. A sibling cannot enter into any similar contract of indenture with its parents, in exchange for college tuition, for example. Such a contract is tantamount to slavery and would be considered immoral and immediately voidable. The reciprocal nature of the marriage contract does not negate these characteristics. For this reason, the contract has been legally modified to include an escape clause; divorce. Religious organizations might argue about the propriety or moral rectitude of divorce, but it is an absolutely necessary component of the marriage contract in order to maintain its legality in a modern society. There is then, a disparity between the legally recognized marriage contract and the ceremonial agreement entered into by most of the participants. Since there is no mention of, or agreement to, the escape clause (divorce), the contract is a material misrepresentation of the facts and is immediately void on those grounds. If said misrepresentation can be shown to be deliberate, the marriage contract is also immoral.
Why is this omission allowed to continue? The wedding vows can easily be modified. One could remove language like, “for as long as you both shall live?” One could modify “till death do you part” into “till death or mutual dissolution do you part”. For the most part, the parties entering into marriage know that divorce is an option. They know that people change, and people have emotional flaws that might make them dangerously incompatible with one another in the long run. They have seen other couples divorce to preserve life or sanity and know this option is available to them should they need it. In short, most couples taking the wedding vows know that what they are actually agreeing to is not the same as what they say that they are agreeing to in the ceremony. You might chalk this up to optimism or blind emotion. I contend that socio-religious/political authority has led may young couples into a situation where they knowingly swear a false oath, and this is immoral.
Marriage is ostensibly a system by which a safe, financially secure and stable environment is created in which to raise children. Marriage fails to achieve that goal at least as often as it succeeds. There are good parents, abusive parents, dangerously insane and homicidal parents, successful single parents, unsuccessful single parents, successful/unsuccessful same-sex couples raising children, parents that die, parents that go broke, etc. The only real achievement that the institution of marriage can claim for itself is that it succeeds in maintaining and perpetuating the status-quo. It creates victims, and those with the perception of victimhood within its ranks. These damaged citizens are useful to society in many ways. As a group, they can be counted on to consume alcohol, enlist in the armed services to escape abusive parents, create job opportunities in Law Enforcement, and generate large legal fees as participants finally seek divorce. Their children can be counted on to perpetuate the same behaviors in the next generation.
Who profits from this system and how do they do it? Marriage creates a system whereby those outside the contract are given the expectation of financial gain. Everyone from De Beers to the divorce lawyer will squire couples through the process, taking their cut along the way. Those that don’t follow all of the spending rituals for weddings are made to feel that they have missed out on something, or that they are inferior in some way. This most definitely includes those that do not marry at all. “Spinster”, “Old Maid”, “Odd Fellow”, “Odd Man Out”, and “Confirmed Bachelor” are the derogatory and prejudicial labels that come immediately to mind. Why should a person be described by their marital status, and what does that actually tell you about their character? Those who pair bond without the proper forms and rituals are “living in sin”, and are, in many cases, pressured to join the ranks of the married. Those who define their sexuality outside the marriage/family unit paradigm, those who take multiple partners, either concurrently or consecutively are also discriminated against. We have been carefully taught to use labels like “slut” or “horn dog”, or “pig” to describe those that do not conform to the ideal of marriage that has been constructed and sold to us.
The ideal of marriage, like the contract itself, is materially different from the reality. Anyone with reasonable powers of observation will have noticed that results vary, but still we are fed the ideal as if that was the only reality. Statistics also vary, but one prediction says that, in one out of two marriages, at least one spouse will seek sexual or emotional gratification outside the marriage. Oddly, this is only labeled as “cheating” if sex is involved. All manner of excuses are made for why a married relationship might fall short of filling emotional needs. In many authoritarian social groups, a partner is told that it’s their duty to stay with abusive, alcoholic, or emotionally disturbed spouses. The industry of Marriage Counseling exists solely to provide work-around solutions to basic human incompatibility. I have been unable to find exact figures for this branch of psychotherapy, but coupled with legal fees from divorce, it is safe to say that the recourses to a bad marriage represent a multi-billion dollar redistribution of wealth annually.
Marriage is a product that is misrepresented and sold to the general population. There is so much social pressure to conform to the marriage standard, that same-sex couples are seeking this status. The legal system and the Insurance industry have created incentives for people to marry. This is coercive, self-serving, and discriminatory. The institution of marriage contains archaic notions of ownership of one human being by another. The ideal of marriage is dogmatic, and as socially pervasive as any religious belief. Furthermore it is defended by use of emotional appeals and conformist arguments. As often as not, it puts one human being at an emotional, social, or financial disadvantage in respect to the other spouse. While marriage itself falls into the category of accepted norms and what is defined as right, normally occurring activities within the marriage do not measure up to the socially acceptable standard. For all of these reasons, the Institution of Marriage is unethical and immoral.