Unsettled Christianity

Gloria Dei homo vivens – St Irenaeus
July 7th, 2015 by Joel Watts

marriage — the end of the social contract

English: This is the title page of an early pi...

English: This is the title page of an early pirated edition of Rousseau’s Social Contract, probably printed in Germany. See R.A. Leigh, Unsolved Problems in the Bibliography of J.-J. Rousseau, Cambridge, 1990, plate 22. This image was incorrectly posted as the genuine first edition and I have replaced that image. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is for discussion only. This is not necessarily my view, nor are all the details covered. This is for discussion only. For discussion only. This has little or no references to religion and I hope religious views are not undergirding this. One of my hopes for the world is that people begin to think, logically. I don’t see that a lot. I hope this begins a discussion on marriage as a bedrock of our society.

With the recent ruling on marriage equality, we have seen the rise of other sections calling for “equality.” Equality is a legal concept and is meant only to be employed as a way to measure standing and access before the law. “Created equal” is not meant to be that all are equal in talents or tact, but that we have an equal right under the law. Marriage is a right granted under state governments and as such is secured for all by the 14th amendment to the Constitution of the United States.1

Recently, polyamory has risen as a concept some are seeing as a legitimate path forward while demanding some sort of equal representation of it before the government. Some have suggested the Church (the idealized notion of it) should recognize it as a moral and healthy choice by consenting adults. This brief essay does not attempt to answer the religious objections, only to tackle the social constructs around polyamory and monogamy. In other words, I intend to stand against polyamory as a matter of social stability rather than as a matter of religious belief.2

This is not about religious objections, but about social constructs and social contracts. 

A social contract is, I argue, a theory underlying much of current Western society. It is not merely about political legitimacy, but the very basis of society, that we each have an unwritten responsibility to society as a whole. Hobbes, one of the more modern social contract theorists, started off with the self-interested human who was rational. They would choose to live in a society that offered mutual benefits. The other State, that of Nature, was brutal because it allowed for everyone to remain equal and with limited resources. Therefore, the strongest survived. Because of this, the State is formed to protect the weakest and is a stabilizing influence. What is necessary is for rationality to be the founding principle of the individual who then forgoes certain rights to the whole so that they are protected.

Rousseau is another social contract theorist. In Book I, he writes,

The passage from the state of nature to the civil state produces a very remarkable change in man, by substituting justice for instinct in his conduct, and giving his actions the morality they had formerly lacked. Then only, when the voice of duty takes the place of physical impulses and right of appetite, does man, who so far had considered only himself, find that he is forced to act on different principles, and to consult his reason before listening to his inclinations. Although, in this state, he deprives himself of some advantages which he got from nature, he gains in return others so great, his faculties are so stimulated and developed, his ideas so extended, his feelings so ennobled, and his whole soul so uplifted, that, did not the abuses of this new condition often degrade him below that which he left, he would be bound to bless continually the happy moment which took him from it for ever, and, instead of a stupid and unimaginative animal, made him an intelligent being and a man.

Before I expound, let me also give you what he said regarding marriage:

Marriage, for instance, being a civil contract, has civil effects without which society cannot even subsist.3

Rousseau’s statement above fits well with marriage as a social contract. Marriage is part of the social contract, and I would argue the first part of the social contract. When we exist in the State of Nature (individual, single) we exist as a solitary creature with many benefits as well as obstacles in our path. Marriage, then, becomes the first rational choice in building a society because it first requires each party to submit some of their freedoms to the other as well as to guarantee protection over the other. Marriage, as a social contract, is essential in stabilizing society. It is not required for all individuals in the society, as each society must be flexible enough to allow that, simply, some do not wish to participate in it but by doing so, they are actually enjoined into the social contract because they 1.) recognize marriage as a social contract and 2.) recognize their innate freedom not to participate in it. This notion that single people do not contribute is counter to the numerous examples in our society that we have. However, if marriage was to ever break down, then society would be next (under social contract theory).

That marriage is a social contract is known. That it is a needed part of Western society is more often disputed. I maintain that marriage, as a social contract, is needed to promote, secure, and stabilize society as well as instructing us in what society is. With polyamory, however, what we see is a destabilization of society as the root level.

Recently, Sara Burrows wrote as to why her choice is not marriage, but polyamory. In coming to this conclusion, she began with Ron Paul and explored libertarianism.4 I believe she is experiencing libertarianism at its logical conclusions, that the only being in existence is the individual and to place any restrictions on the individual is to remove said individual from the State of Nature and thus, push the individual into (structural) slavery.5

Marriage equality, or “gay marriage” as some are still prone to call it, does the exact opposite of what many say it does. Rather than destabilizing society, it may serve as a way to stabilize society. The arguments are sound, that marriage is a contract by consenting adults that should be open to all. The one lone exception is that, like Burrows above, the arguments revolve around the nature of love and sex. As a social contract, marriage should be divorced from love and sex, except when the two parties agree to maintain that as part of their social microcosm.  Marriage equality would actually promote a more stabilizing influence as two partners unite in a contract that is mutually beneficial, establishing financial security, individual loyalty, as well as contractual expectations (support, protection, etc…). The marriage contract, in fact, teaches us what to expect from our government as well as what is required of us. Burrows’ libertarianism would continue to require nothing from anyone, but simply use what is available in order to make her, temporarily, feel euphoric (or disappointed). If taken higher, polyamory would further separate (in our society) the role of the governed and the governors, making for a terrible end to our tenuous Republic.

This is not to mean that polyamory, as a moral choice, will beg the wrath of a heavenly sovereign, only that once our views of social contracts are diminished, we will forget the greater contract — between each other other and between the (elected) sovereigns and the electors. Thus, we should incentivise marriage as a way to promote stability in our society.

As a side note, let me briefly mention polygamy. Unlike polyamory, which has no legal contracts between the temporary partners, polygamy does require them, with the goal that the partnerships are lifelong, if not eternal. Polygamy is part of American history. Whether it was on the frontier in Tennessee or along the colonial frontier, polygamy was used to create a society where there was none. In several instances along the American colonial frontier, polygamy was discovered to have happened after the husband was killed with the wife (and usually children) unable to return to home (further east). The social contract was extended over the widow (and children) and a new society developed. Polygamy in times of crisis creates a society from individuals whereas polyamory creates an individual where there is society.

To summarize, polyamory is a destabilizing social tendency. While it fits with other patterns of libertarianism, it does not have a socially healthy future and in fact is destructive to the common order. If marriage is a social contract, and part of the larger social contract as proposed by such theorists, then polyamory is not the continued fight for equality (unlike gay marriage) but is in fact just the opposite. The social contract has been expanded by the Supreme Court and will now normalize homosexuality. This deradicalization will take marriage equality and use it to aid in the stability of society as a whole. Polyamory would destroy it.

  1. Currently, there is a discussion regarding the construct of marriage. Is a marriage governed by a religious body or the legal body? For these purposes, a loosely defined concept of marriage will be employed, meaning that “marriage” is a life-long (in goal) partnership between two people, even if it is not formalized by a political State.
  2. Allan Bevere has a post up examining the separation of marriage (Church) and civil union (State). Bevere would make an interesting dialogue partner, given his work in the Politics of Witness. I believe he would be against seeing marriage, separated from religious institutions, used as a way to stabilize society.
  3. Please read the entire footnote.
  4. Libertarianism is not monolithic with many branching off before reaching the end. This is in no way a slight to all libertarians.
  5. I could pick apart her story, showing the inconsistencies of it, as well as the failures along the way, but it should stand as legitimate example of libertarian views of the social contract.
Joel Watts
Watts holds a MA in Theological Studies from United Theological Seminary. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians, as well as seeking an MA in Clinical Mental Health at Adams State University. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).


4 Responses to “marriage — the end of the social contract”
  1. My contention is actually the opposite of Alan’s. Marriage has to do with property inheritance, child custody, medical proxies, etc. It is the state’s business. Marriage is found in societies with all types of religious convictions and in officially atheist societies. Same sex marriage confers the benefits the state affords to married couples to same sex couples.

  2. Know More Than I Should says

    A marriage only fits the traditional social contract model if it is dominated by one of the partners.

    Somewhat oversimplified, the basic premise of a social contract is that citizens agree to play by the rules in exchange for protection. It’s really just about that simple.

    • I disagree with “Know More Than I Should”. What you are talking about is a protection racket, which is most known to people in the form of a mafia or the state (which is just a really big mafia). While the Master/Slave relationship is one type of social contract, it is not the only type.

      Social contracts (as opposed to economic markets) are lasting agreements between two agents with different capabilities and needs but a shared interest. For marriage, this has typically meant a man and a woman, who have different biological capacities but who share an interest in passing on their genes to offspring through sexual reproduction. Because people gotta eat, the desire to reproduce inevitably brings in the economic sphere. The sociologist Talcott Parsons theorized that the Bredwinner/Homemaker model was the ideal arrangement for raising the next generation of workers. In theory, either party (man or woman) could take on either role, but since only women can carry and nurse the child, it is most efficient to socialize women as homemakers and men as breadwinners and then let men and women match up and form households (kind of similar to the idea of ‘interchangeable parts’ on an assembly line).

      You are right to assert that slave relationships are social contracts, but they can and often are engaged in by agents who are each others’ equal. What people call ‘friendship’ is a social contract. Fair trade agreements (where consumers commit to paying a living wage to those producing the goods they buy, rather than choosing the lowest price available) are a social contract. All social contracts involve difference, but not all social contracts are unequal.

      I highly recommend picking up Judith Blau’s book “Social Contracts and Economic Markets”. It covers theory going back to Rousseau and, though it glosses over the darker side of social contracts, it is very enlightening and informative.

      • Know More Than I Should says

        And, I would suggest you peruse Hobbes and Locke, as well as Rousseau. When finished with those, you might consider becoming acquainted with Grotius, Pufendorf, and Kant.

Leave a Reply, Please!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: