Promises of Marriage and the Self

If marriage is nothing more than love + commitment, it is inexplicable how our laws about marriage—and most importantly, our public ceremonies of marriage—ever came to pass.

The expectation that marriage is sexually exclusive and faithful, not to mention “until death do us part,” is utterly mysterious except under two suppositions:  sex is about children; and the love we speak of in marriage is more than a feeling that matters to the community at large.

Philip Turner has a marvelous analysis of what has gone awry here. It has to do with the relationship between promises and undertakings, and a relatively recent notion of the Self.

In the “traditional” understanding, there are in the world certain kinds of undertakings or projects, the nature of which are determined by the Creator (or, if you don’t take into account a Creator, at least are in accord with nature and reason). In other words, there is a nature to the human person and to his or her acts, and we need to respect that nature if we are to be fulfilled.

Promises and undertakings

As Turner puts it, promises, such as the promises we make in marriage, can only reasonably be made if they are in accord with the nature of the undertaking, such as the project of marriage.

Marriage and sexual relations, by their nature, involve intensive unity and procreation. If we choose to enter into this project, the nature of which exists already, we don’t get to make it up as we go. The promises we make match the project. Thus, a man and a woman promise to unite their sexually complementary lives and worldly goods, to stay with the undertaking until death, not to enter into another similar undertaking, and to care for each other. We’ll talk more about the nature of the undertaking of marriage later, but let’s be clear for now about this: The couple who enter into marriage subordinate themselves to the project.

The Self

The contemporary world makes some assumptions about the person—or better, the Self. According to Turner, the Self is a mysterious subject of various abilities and powers, of “inwardness” and “depth” different from other Selves. Satisfaction comes from exploring these depths.

Frequently in this view, sexual preference is taken to somehow define the Self. Therefore, since life is entirely about Selves exploring their own depths, we must each do this, and not prevent others from doing the same. In this view, to be stymied in one’s self-search is painful, cruel and unjust.

This view goes hand-in-hand with the contemporary view not only of sexual practice, but of all moral concerns: there is nothing in nature to which one must subordinate oneself. To subordinate my will to something other than myself risks cutting off opportunities of self-exploration, not to mention exposing myself to potentially painful vulnerability. The Self must control what the undertaking will be. If it is something the Self cannot do alone, the scope of the project will be set by all the parties involved.

Any promises made set the boundaries of the undertaking and are done to protect the parties involved. The promises of marriage—the level of commitment and care, of permanence and fidelity involved—are decided by the people making the promise. In this view, then, sex and marriage mean exactly what the two (or more) Selves involved decide they mean.

An inadequate interpretation

The inadequacy of this view is that this Self, unmoored from any idea of an undertaking which might put a moral limit on our acts, has no foundation upon which to make moral judgments about Its choices. To quote a very ancient philosopher, Protagoras: Man is the measure of all things. In such a view, marriage can be nothing more than love (how I feel at the moment) + commitment (to whatever extent I can agree to commit).

I will unpack a more adequate view of marriage next.

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