Thursday, 3 March 2011

What kinds of Marriage should a liberal society allow?

In order to address this question of what kinds of marriage should a liberal society allow; I must focus on two main issues. Firstly, what is marriage? To investigate this subject I will consider what the legal status of marriage means as well as the social implications of marriage. The second issue that this question raises would be what is a liberal society? If a society is to be coined, ‘liberal’ then what must its agenda be in order to be considered for such a label.

Attempts to define marriage have been prominent within the field of anthropology for many years, and providing an exact definition which applies to all cultures has proved to be a very difficult task, due to the enormous amount of cultural differences in marriage across the world. For this reason my assessment of marriage will take what modern English society considers marriage to be. The reason that I will take the modern English perspective on this issue is primarily as an English citizen I have an advantageous position from which to assess the collective views on marriage and on what makes a liberal society. I have also chosen English society because it has been a place in which liberal ideas have been a prominent part of policy making for last 300 years of English history. Finally I am of the opinion that if I were to take the idea of a liberal society in an abstract manner and consider what the perfect liberal society might allow then I feel I will be missing out on the opportunity to address real issues surrounding marriage in an increasingly liberal world.

Marriage in the broadest terms is a social contract or union between people which creates kinship. However this serves little purpose as a definition and fails to provide insight as to what marriage means to us in English society. In order to understand what marriage is, I will initially look at how the institution of marriage works in English society. The legal status of marriage is an essential part of our understanding of the significance of the institution. Before looking closer at what exactly it means for people to be married in English society in legal terms, I will first consider the implications of marriage being a legal issue. The question that this raises is why people feel it is important to have their relationship regarded as official by their governing body. This has been a central issue of marriage throughout the histories of western society, for example in the early modern period marriage came under religious law, which at the time would have been considered the authoritative body on matters of matrimony. Today in our increasingly secular society in which the state is considered the only justified source of power marriage is therefore civil matter and so comes under civil law.

In order to understand why marriage works as a legal issue we have to consider the impact that it has on people’s lives and the why use of law can be necessary in establishing the legitimacy of the institution. The laws that dictate modern marriage have been implemented as a result of the importance of marriage to people in society, what I mean by this statement is that the civil laws which have been put in place which effect the institution of marriage have come about because of the importance of marriage to people within the society. So the social implications of this institution are such that it is recognised by the state. Furthermore the recognition of the state in these matters has value in itself. Being publically recognised as married and having this official status is an important factor in modern society and I believe is fundamental in our conception of marriage. Without this status there would be little need for the institution itself as the same rights and responsibilities which the law enforces could be achieved through private contracts.[1]

In this next section I shall analyse the social implications of marriage with the intent of developing a clear understanding of what marriage is, and why it is so important to people in English society. Marriage is necessarily a social institution and as such there is a web of common knowledge and assumptions about marriage that are shared throughout society.[2] One assumption that we see of marriage is the mutual intent at the time of getting married that married couples will share the necessities of life.[3] These necessities are things such as economic cooperation or the sharing of finances, sharing of housing and of taking care of the household and sharing of child rearing. While these examples are not a list of things which it is essential for married couples to do, it is some of the most important shared assumptions that make up the modern institution of marriage and without these shared assumptions there would be no notion of married life.

In English culture we place a heavy importance on the concept of love in marriage. However do we consider love to be an essential part of what makes marriage important. Love does not appear in any form in the legal side of marriage and there are many cases of marriage in which love plays no part. For example people will marry for financial security or social recognition and love can play no important role in the decision to get married. These are still however fully legitimate marriages. Raising children falls into a similar category as love, while it does serve as a fundamental reason for many couples to get married, it is not an essential feature of the institution of marriage itself; there are many married couples who have no intention of having children.

While love and child bearing are sufficient reasons why a couple may get married they are not necessary. The notion of consent however is an essential feature of marriage in English society. While this does raise the issue of arranged marriages which I shall discuss in more depth later on in this essay, arranged marriages still require consent from the families involved. A marriage in which one or more persons had not consented would not be considered valid both in the eyes of English law and of society as a whole.

Religion is another social issue which can affect marriage. While in modern society it would not be considered a necessary condition of marriage, it does still help to shape the way in which society views marriage. There is of course a problem with talking about religion as a single concept as it is home to many different and opposing views. The ways in which religion can affect the collective views of society are most prevalent in parts of American society, but do have an impact on English culture too. An argument from a conservative Christian perspective may regard homosexuality as immoral and it is believed that God created the institution of marriage for the purpose of child rearing. This short speech from Chief Justice Moore given at the Alabama Supreme Court shows the conviction to which these beliefs are held.

“Homosexual conduct is, and has been, considered abhorrent, immoral, detestable, a crime against nature, and a violation of the laws of nature and of nature's God upon which this Nation and our laws are predicated. Such conduct violates both the criminal and civil laws of this State and is destructive to a basic building block of society -- the family....It is an inherent evil against which children must be protected.”[4]

The views expressed here by Chief Justice Moore are by no means the view of the Christian faith as a whole but do however have a surprisingly strong impact on English marital law. This is evident in Gordon Brown’s response to the question of why he did not allow gay marriage, he said that he could not legalise it because it was "intimately bound up with questions of religious freedom"[5] This clearly shows a much more tolerant view of homosexuality but is clear in illustrating that religion is still a major concern for policy makers in England with regards to the institution of marriage.

What is clear from the previous paragraphs is that there is a multitude of different views as to what should and should not affect the institution of marriage. What also becomes evident is that the essential features of marriage come down to three main issues. (1) A cluster of legal rights and responsibilities, (2) that there is value in having a publically recognised status and (3) that the marriage is between consenting adults.

Now that I have explored what the concept of marriage is to English society, I will now look at English society itself and comment as to why I would describe it as a generally liberal society. Liberalism (from the Latin liberalis, "of freedom") is the belief in the importance of liberty and equal rights; these are two notions which are more prevalent now than ever before in our politics. English politics has been pursuing a liberal agenda in some form ever since the glorious revolution of 1688. Initially the notions of free speech and democracy were the goal of liberal politics and as time passed we see many examples of the belief in the importance of liberty and equal rights at the forefront in English policy making. Examples include, the introductory of compulsory education in 1880, women’s rights in 1918, the foundation of the National Health Service in 1946, signing the universal declaration of human rights in 1948 and rather more topically, the sexual offences act of 1967 which decriminalised homosexual acts and paved the way for the gay rights movement.

I believe that the time line presented by these policies illuminates a very important point that must be considered in order to understand a functional liberal society. All of the liberal policies mentioned were met with great resistance at the time that they were passed, and now as we look upon them with hindsight it seems preposterous that we would need to fight for such basic human rights. However, I believe that the most important thing theses examples show us is a brute fact of liberal politics; we need to fight for basic human rights.

With my focus on English society I can review what policies have followed the sexual offences act. In particular I want to focus on the civil partnership act of 2004. This was an act which would give same sex couples the equivalent rights and responsibilities that a civil marriage would give to heterosexual couples, but not have the label of marriage. Before I give my opinions on what a policy like this implies about the notion of equal rights, I will first assess why the English government would have thought it necessary to create such a concept as civil partnership rather than grant homosexuals with equal rights straight away.

The history of the gay rights movement has been, like many other civil rights movements, a long and hard fight to try and attain equality; or as Oscar Wilde put it: ‘Yes, we shall win in the end; but the road will be long and red with monstrous martyrdoms.’ The reasons for this are the general public’s fear of change and things which they are unable to relate to, such as homosexuals. This point was highlighted by Lord Arran in his speech at the House of Lords in 1967 when the sexual offences act was passed. “Let me remind them that no amount of legislation will prevent homosexuals from being the subject of dislike and derision, or at best of pity. We shall always, I fear, resent the odd man out.”[6]

A further reason for why the gay rights movement has had trouble is due to the strong influence of religious people in modern society. While the influence of religion and religious ideals has diminished greatly in English policy making over the past 300 years, there still remains strong views as to who should be allowed to marry. And these views are taken into consideration by a government who wants to try and please all of its constituents. The result of these considerations is a policy like the 2004 civil partnership act.

I believe that this provides an interesting piece of social commentary about the agenda of the English government. The issue of civil partnerships shows us the fundamental problem that democratic governments face when trying to pursue a liberal agenda. A government must weigh up the importance of giving the majority of people what they want (which could be understood in terms of gaining votes) against the values they wish to promote, for example equal rights and liberty. This problem that governing bodies face is a result of the democratic system itself, the reason for this is that if a government party wished to change anything and promote any values at all, it must first gain power. And the only way in which to do such a thing is to have the majority of people in the society voting for your party.

With this point in mind, I can now analyse the civil partnership act of 2004. I believe that fundamentally the civil partnership act serves as token gesture toward the homosexual community. Some may see this gesture as a patronising compromise which does not equate to what society views as marriage since it does not grant homosexuals with the value of the publically recognisable status of marriage. While I am sympathetic to this opinion I do believe that this policy is evidence of the liberal intent of the government. As previously stated civil rights movements are a long and difficult battle and so while the civil partnership act is not an outright victory for equal rights, it is positive progression and a step in right direction.

I would attribute this progression in policy making to an evolution in public opinion about homosexuality. Whereas previous generations considered being gay to be a choice and furthermore an immoral choice, causing a great amount of animosity in society towards homosexuals which resulted in them to being discriminated against and ostracised from their communities. This view has changed over time as the general population has come to understand that homosexuality is no more a choice then the colour of your eyes and the result of this is a much greater understanding and acceptance of homosexuals. This shift in public opinion towards a much more liberal point of view is what causes me to draw the conclusion that the legalisation of homosexual marriage is now only a matter time in England before it is brought before the House of Lords and the belief in the importance of equal rights will once again be affirmed by the English government.

Homosexual marriage is of course not the only type of marriage that ought to be called into question. I feel that the issue of arranged marriages needs to be discussed. How should a liberal government treat the issue of arranged marriage? I am of the opinion that if the spouses to be, consent to being involved in an arranged marriage then there can be no further issues which need to be dealt with. A problem occurs when children are arranged to be married and so can give no consent or indication as to what they want. This type of marriage is however very rare in English society and furthermore English law states that people must be at the age of 16 before they can get married thus preventing young children from being taken advantage of.

Finally I would like to make a case against the allowing of polygamy in a liberal society. Although it is true that certain people and religious groups do desire to partake in polygamous marriages the overall demand in modern society is not very high. While I am unable to give polygamy the attention of a full critical analysis I do believe that the notion of one man with many wives is questionable to the idea of equality. It may be true of some small communities that polygamy appears perfectly functional; however it is not clear that there are no harmful effects of such an institution, especially towards women.[7] For this reason I believe that it would be inappropriate for a liberal society to allow polygamy, and I believe it would only be worth reconsidering if a substantial amount of support were to arise for it much like the case for homosexual marriage.

In conclusion, I believe that a liberal society ought to pursue an agenda which promotes the ideas of liberty and equality. I believe that all members of society, regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation should be given the opportunity to partake in the institution of marriage, I would consider this a basic human right and believe that every argument which is contrary to this that I have discussed is fundamentally flawed and in no way is the reflection of the views and core beliefs of a liberal society.

[1] Leslie Green, The Authority of the State (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1990), p.206
[2] Ralph Wedgwood, ‘The Fundamental Argument for Same-Sex Marriage,’ The Journal of Political Philosophy 7(3) (1999) p229
[3] Richard Mohr, ‘the case for gay marriage’, Same-sex Marriage: The Moral and Legal Debate, ed. R. M. Baird and S. E. Rosembaum (Amherst, N.Y.:Prometheus Books, 1997), p91.
[4] Chief Justice Moore, "Supreme Court of Alabama, 1002045, Petition for Writ of Certiorari," at:
[5] Geen, Jessica (5 May 2010)
[6] The Earl of Arran, SEXUAL OFFENCES (No. 2) BILL HL Deb 21 July 1967 vol 285 cc523
[7] See Richard Posner, Sex and Reason (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992), pp253-60


  1. None at all. What about free love?

  2. I'm with baxxman.

    Marriage doesn't mean anything anymore, and frankly, it's completely pointless.