Wednesday, 19 August 2015

More Thoughts on Marriage

This Ashley Madison nonsense has got me thinking about marriage and the role it plays in our society. Is it still relevant? Do we still need it? Will it actually survive? Marriage is in decline, and has been for many years. Over two out of five marriages now end in divorce. If the current trend continues it is not difficult to foresee a future where it becomes a thing of the past.

What is Marriage?
There are many forms of marriage throughout various societies in the world, ranging from monogamous marriage, polygyny (with more than one wife) polyandry (with more than one husband), polyamory (with any number of husbands and/or wives) and of course same-sex marriage (although this overlaps with the definition of monogamous marriage). Before we can properly define what marriage currently is, we need to look at what it was, at least in the context of Western society.

A Brief History of Marriage
Marriage goes back to the very dawn of civilization - it is, in all likelihood, one of the behaviours which began to define humans as a civilization, distinct from other animals.

Consider the fact that most mammals exhibit some form of herd behaviour. These herds tend to follow a similar hierarchical structure, with an Alpha Male at the top, who generally has exclusive or at least priority breeding rights with the Alpha Females immediately below him. The Alpha Male is generally expected to be the primary provider for the herd. On the outskirts of the herd would be the Betas - males and females both, but generally in a state of subservience to the Alphas. This is, in effect, a loose form of polygyny.

Economically, this is extremely inefficient. Whilst males tend to be stronger than females, and thus able to provide more (especially in a pre-automation environment, where all work was pretty much hard labour), the difference is rarely sufficient to be able to provide for a significant number of females and their offspring, or at least to provide for anything beyond subsistence. Thousands of years ago, humans recognised this, and came up with a solution: monogamous marriage.

Instead of an Alpha Male dominating a herd, with all or at least a majority of females being subservient to him, the Beta Males were brought in as competition. Of course, they couldn't compete with the Alpha Male directly - he was generally bigger and stronger than them. But they could compete economically. Even an Alpha was hard-pressed to care for a multitude of females, but one Beta Male could easily manage a female and a few offspring.

Thus, marriage was born. Female sexual rights were exchanged for the safety and security provided by a Beta male. This was of critical importance to both: human females had high reproductive overheads, in terms of having to care for comparatively helpless young, not to mention high risk of maternal and infant mortality in pregnancy and childbirth. They needed a surplus of labour, which Beta males were happy to provide in exchange for reproductive rights.

This brings us onto the crucial earliest definition of marriage: a contract, a bargain, an exchange. A woman's sexual rights exchanged for a man's labour. This definition has echoed down the ages ever since, and goes a long way to explaining historical attitudes towards women:
  • Societies in Classical Antiquity, such as the Greeks, Romans and Egyptians, generally considered adultery to be a worse crime than rape. If a man raped someone else's wife, that was merely theft. If the woman consented, than she was actively defrauding her husband;
  • Medieval societies considered that a marriage must be consummated in order to be valid, i.e. that the woman had kept her part of the bargain. It was not unusual for bedsheets would be inspected for blood to demonstrate both consummation and the bride's virginity;
  • Divorces, especially ones where the husband was to blame, have traditionally involved the payment of alimony of maintenance from the husband to the ex-wife, as the courts held that he was still responsible for her provision;
  • Even until 1991, it was considered impossible in law for a husband to rape his wife. The issue of consent did not enter the equation - her sexual rights had been assigned to him upon marriage, and he had the right to enjoy them at any time.
Marriage continued pretty much unaltered in concept for thousands of years, as men continued to dominate economically. Prior to the Modern Age, pretty much all work that needed doing was hard labour, typically agrarian and therefore men held the advantage, being physically stronger and more capable in this regard. But some significant cultural and technological developments over the last few hundred years have significantly altered the dynamic between men and women in their marital context.

1. Technology
Over the last 200 years, human society has seen a massive change in the form of technological development. We have witnessed industrialisation, mechanisation and now emerging automation in terms of how we work. Machines - some now even autonomous - do the work in hours that once took legions of men weeks or even years to do. Humanity has benefited hugely from this massive increase in productivity, but the value of an individual man's labour - his bargaining chip in marriage - has diminished considerably. Women no longer need men as much, because men no longer have a monopoly on the back-breaking work required just to survive.

2. Transition to a Service Economy
The basic premise of trade has been around for almost as long as marriage, but was effectively limited by technology. Agrarian goods of one type could be exchanged for agrarian goods of another type. The range of goods that could be traded was effectively limited, and many people were still reliant on agrarian subsistence, limiting their participation in a wider economy.

Industrialisation produced an explosion in the number of goods that could be traded, and in the means to transport them. It also provided huge opportunities for women to become more involved in work, due to the increasing emergence and eventual dominance of service-oriented, rather than goods-oriented work. Service work, unlike mining or manufacturing, does not require any of the physical advantages which men possess over women. Women are capable of doing them just as well as men. This opened up men's diminished labour to further competition, reducing its value further.

3. The Welfare State
Wives were often completely beholden to and reliant upon their husbands for support. A divorced woman - especially where the divorce was perceived to be of her own doing - was effectively destitute, with no real means of providing for herself, other than by agreeing to marry again, exchanging her sexual rights once more for security.

The rise of the welfare state has rendered marriage less necessary. No one faces destitution any more - indeed, the State will give you additional money based on the number of children you have, regardless of who fathered (or mothered) them. How is the welfare state funded? Through tax revenue of course, which is taken off men more than it is women. Men's surplus of labour is taxed, and then distributed without needing the marital contract.

4. Contraception
Until the 1950s, women were also beholden to their own reproductive systems. Risk of pregnancy - and therefore approx. 10 years of financial dependence on someone else (assuming the child survived infancy) - was great. Women's choices of men was therefore informed by this risk - they would tend to go for the men who were most likely to provide for them in such a circumstance, and try wherever possible to tie them into a contractual obligation to do so, i.e. marriage.

However, the advent of the contraceptive pill meant that women were no longer beholden to these reproductive risks. The chances of them becoming dependant reduced significantly, and so their economic need for marriage also reduced. It's fair to say that it's also influenced their selection criteria for men - modern Beta males find it increasingly difficult to form relationships as women hold out for Alphas.

5. Equality
Finally, driven by the culmination of all of the above is the political movement which has historically aimed to achieve equality in legal, political and civil rights. Feminism in particular has played a hugely important part in the history of the 20th Century, but forms only one part of the equality agenda, which has achieved:
  • The extension of the vote to women;
  • Equal pay for equal work;
  • The establishment of the concept of consent in sexual relations, whether married or not;
  • Abolition of the ban on homosexual marriages.

All of these have had a profound effect on marriage. Which brings us back to the original question: what is marriage?

Historically, marriage was a contract between a man and woman whereby obligations of economic support were exchanged for exclusive sexual rights. The economic support and sexual rights were in effect the consideration, the proposal and engagement the offer and acceptance, and the whole setup was enforceable by law. In a modern context, this definition is obsolete, for several reasons:
  • Changes in law and society have established that women have agency, and therefore cannot assign their sexual rights to another individual. They are an inherent part of personhood, which is inviolable in law;
  • Changes in society and the economy mean that men do not have a surplus of labour compared to women in equal standing any more. Where there is a differential, the welfare state redistributes this surplus without the need for a contract;
  • This contract is therefore based on premises which are now false, tenets which are unenforceable in law and customs and principles which served a society very different to the one we now inhabit. It is therefore invalid.
So the modern definition of marriage is necessarily fuzzy: it is a social and legal institution which recognises the interpersonal relationship (usually sexual) between two consenting adults. It can't be defined as a contract, because there isn't a consideration, and it isn't enforceable. Marriage is therefore, in its modern context, legally weak, especially in its lack of enforceability, and it is therefore no real surprise that it is diminishing in popularity.

Do we still need marriage?
Arguably, yes. Children from broken homes are more likely to suffer from psychological problems, less likely to succeed academically and more likely to become involved in crime as a consequence. Married couples tend to experience lower mortality and morbidity rates compared to unmarried couples.

Whilst there is some argument that strict monogamy is not a natural state for humans, rates of extramarital infidelity tend to be fairly low - it is difficult to get exact figures due to the social and cultural taboo, but they are generally thought to rest around the 25% mark. This suggests that humans are generally quite happy being monogamous.

I would argue that, based on the advantages that marriage brings (stability, security, improved emotional and physical health, generally better outcomes for children) it is definitely something that we should want to keep and preserve as a part of our society.

Will marriage survive?
This is the existential question. Marriage is in crisis - and I'm not talking about same-sex marriage here. The whole institution is endangered by its diminishing popularity, and that is driven primarily by the changing social and power dynamic between men and women, which have stressed the historical concept of marriage to destruction. Note that I don't disagree with that changing dynamic - the ascribing of basic personal rights to women is long overdue, and whilst the value of an individual man's labour has been diminished as a consequence of the issues described above, humanity has benefited immeasurably from the vast increase in productivity that has ensued.

In my opinion, the only way that marriage can survive is through a fundamental change in the way that we view it, interact within it and how it is treated by the law.

What can we do?
My proposed plan to re-define marriage and its relationship with us all is as follows:
  1. Re-establish it as a legal, ethical and social contract, enforceable by law. There is the possibility of doing this, even with no formal consideration:
    1. The proposal and engagement are the offer and acceptance - this is in effect unchanged since ancient times;
    2. The consideration, rather than being the assignation of sexual rights and/or economic support, should take the form of the marriage vows. In law, this would be promissory estoppel - an undertaking by both parties to behave in a certain way, on which the other party is entitled to rely;
    3. Enforceability in law - this is the most important factor. Many people put off getting married because they feel that their rights are curtailed in the event of divorce, particularly men's parental rights. Parental rights should be equalised by statute, the concept of maintenance/alimony abolished (except in respect of wilful negligence of parental obligations) and procedures for divorce settlements to recognise fault-based petitions;
  2. Recognise both pre-nuptial and post-nuptial agreements, allowing people to make provision for their own divorce as a contingency. We allow people to make provision for the division of assets at death, so why not at divorce?
  3. Finally, and most importantly - it must be a relationship between equals and based on mutual consent.
These changes would, I think, reinforce confidence in the institution of marriage, and make it viable again. Without them, I think that it's quite likely that it will rapidly become a thing of the past, which would be a retrograde step.