Friday, November 07, 2008

From the academic journals: "contingent" relationships, "essential" relationships, and why gay people would want to marry

A side-effect of my time at uni is that I see academic articles in the scholarly databases I can access which make me think: "hm, I can see how that's relevant to a public issue of the day". For instance, I found an article in the Canadian Journal of Political Science that clarifies a few issues about gay marriage. Well, about marriage, at any rate.

It's by P. Neal and D. Paris, from vol 23, issue 3 of that journal, published in 1990. Its title doesn't make it sound that relevant: "Liberalism and the Communitarian Critique:
A Guide for the Perplexed", but it is. The subject matter is concerned with elucidating an ongoing debate between, as it says, liberals and communitarians. Communitarians accuse liberals of having an understanding of the self that is unjustifiably "atomistic", ignoring the importance of social relationships and community in two ways: missing the importance of social relationships in people's construction of their own identity, and missing the general moral good in itself that comes from having a "community". Liberals for their part accuse communitarians of placing the values and rules of institutions and groups above the right of an individual to make their own individual choice for themselves.

The relevance of the debate to marriage comes from the two different understandings that the two groups have of what Neal and Paris call "shared relations": liberals emphasise the value of contingently shared relations, while communitarians emphasise essentially shared relations. Quoting Neal and Paris:
A contingently shared relation is a relationship between two or more antecedently defined separate selves which, however much it may affect their attitudes and behaviour, does not penetrate the identity of the separate selves to the point that the identity of each becomes partially or wholly constituted by the relation itself. An essentially shared relation penetrates this deeply; when two selves essentially share a relation, the identity of each self is partially or wholly constituted by the relation.

Neal and Paris make no value judgement on which view is superior, but they do point out which relationships conform to which model. Marriage, for examples, is generally an essentially shared relation:
marriage is or can be a relation whereby two separate selves become redefined in their identities as one through the relation with the relation (as union rather than contract) coming to constitute what were once separate selves as one shared self.

This is, I believe, what people who are pushing for gay marriage for themselves want. They value and want an essentially shared relationship with their would-be spouse that would subsume the identity of the participants: "let two become one", "'til death do us part", and so forth. I wonder if the people pushing gay marriage as an abstract matter of legal rights for others, and who personally think that the idea of getting married is stupid, understand that?

Neal and Paris mention that essentially shared relations can be poisonous to those involved: abusive relationships and divorce are both depressingly common occurrences. Yet, as they also say, it is not enough to discredit the very idea of essentially shared relationships based only on the existence of abusive cases; it would be just as easy to criticise liberal values of individual independence on that basis using those horror stories of people who die alone and whose bodies go undiscovered for months.

To date I don't think I've seen an argument against marriage that wasn't based on either pointing to the subsection of those marital relationships that are abusive and problematic, or else asserting freedom and a sense of self as values that shouldn't be given up to something like marriage. I think enough marriages are sufficiently unproblematic enough to view the institution itself as not inherently compromised, and I am unconvinced that a person who chooses to subsume their identity in marriage has made an inferior moral choice to someone who doesn't. Sure, it could be the wrong choice for some, and nobody should be forced to get married if they don't want to be, but for others, subsuming their identity in marriage may be the thing that makes them happiest.

I think this understanding of marriage as being an essentially shared relation is also why "civil unions and "domestic partnerships" are an inferior alternative to marriage. Do those legal constructions carry the same sense of two individuals giving themselves to a shared identity, incorporated from both of them, that marriage does? My impression is that they don't. In fact, I think placing gay unions in a separate legal category can encourage the view that such relationships are contingent. They're not really marriage, after all.

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