Marriage as Contract

There is an essay by Jennifer Roback Morse called “Marriage and the Limits of Contract” at the Policy Review Online. The author and the journal have a libertarian perspective, a minimum-government perspective that is usually called conservative in the Canadian, American and British political traditions. I think her ideas are more based in natural law than in libertarian principles, which is why I like her analysis. I agree with her general perspective:

There is enormous room for debate, but there ultimately is no room for compromise. The legal institutions, social expectations and cultural norms will all reflect some view or other about the meaning of human sexuality. We will be happier if we try to discover the truth and accommodate ourselves to it, rather than try to recreate the world according to our wishes.


Her view of marriage is:

Marriage is an organic institution that emerges spontaneously from society. People of the opposite sex are naturally attracted to one another, couple with each other, co-create children, and raise those children. The little society of the family replenishes and sustains itself. Humanity’s natural sociability expresses itself most vibrantly within the family. A minimum-government libertarian can view this self-sustaining system with unadulterated awe.

Government does not create marriage any more than government creates jobs. Just as people have a natural “propensity to truck, barter and exchange one thing for another,��? in Adam Smith’s famous words from the second chapter of The Wealth of Nations, we likewise have a natural propensity to couple, procreate, and rear children. People instinctively create marriage, both as couples and as a culture, without any support from the government whatsoever.

The sexual urge is an engine of human sociability. Our desire for sexual satisfaction draws us out of our natural self-centeredness and into connection with other people. Just as the desire to make money induces business owners to try to please their customers, so too, the desire to copulate induces men to try to please women, and women to try to attract men. The attachment of mothers to their babies and women to their sex partners tends to keep this little society together. The man’s possessiveness of his sexual turf and of his offspring offsets his natural tendency toward promiscuity. These desires and attachments emerge naturally from the very biology of sexual complementarity with no assistance from the state.

I like her perspective on freedom and social norms of behaviour and a passage which says a lot about how people have become afraid to judgmental or critical:

The new idea about marriage claims that no structure should be privileged over any other. The supposedly libertarian subtext of this idea is that people should be as free as possible to make their personal choices. But the very nonlibertarian consequence of this new idea is that it creates a culture that obliterates the informal methods of enforcement. Parents can’t raise their eyebrows and expect children to conform to the socially accepted norms of behavior, because there are no socially accepted norms of behavior. Raised eyebrows and dirty looks no longer operate as sanctions on behavior slightly or even grossly outside the norm. The modern culture of sexual and parental tolerance ruthlessly enforces a code of silence, banishing anything remotely critical of personal choice. A parent, or even a peer, who tries to tell a young person that he or she is about to do something incredibly stupid runs into the brick wall of the non-judgmental social norm.

1 thought on “Marriage as Contract”

  1. garth danielson

    People should get back to being more responsible and less selfish, I wouldn’t hate them so much. Since I have been more responsible and been taking my medicine I have been feeling much more fiesty and critical, full of beans.
    I actually believe people should be allowed to make mistakes, they might learn from the experience and I might get a laugh. I’m not alone in this either, other people like hearing about other people’s mistakes so much more than me, they put them on tv. I don’t watch. Maybe people watching will learn something and save their lives. I already know most of those lessions.
    I don’t think people should be 100 percent good either, a few flaws can be good, make people more interesting. As long as they aren’t killing people for no good reason I can be pretty tolerant.
    I just heard a great joke from The Daily Show, there are so many fats kids in the US that bullies can’t find the time to beat all of them all up.
    I always thought a good sf plot would be the worst of the umpteenth generation of the most selfish humans going into space and meeting aliens. The humans would only have two choices, trade or war, nobody would like them. Could be funny. If they didn’t learn anything at the end of the book you could go along way on that premise, people like watching a train wreck.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *