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  • The most important community within a virtuous society is the family, and the core of a virtuous family is the institution of marriage. Tweet This
  • Traditional marriage is a social institution with moral obligations; it forms the core of families, promotes social stability, and endures, fluctuating emotions notwithstanding. Tweet This
Category: Marriage

The transition from a traditional to liberal society has been accompanied by a transformation in our understanding of marriage from an institutional model to a romantic model. While romantic love is a powerful motivator to form personal relationships, it often fades when those relationships become rocky. Traditional marriage is a social institution with moral obligations; it forms the core of families, promotes social stability, and endures, fluctuating emotions notwithstanding.

Traditional societies are not frozen in the past, but are characterized by accepting and building upon the wisdom of the ages that has been handed down from one generation to the next. Societies capable of standing the test of time are organized in conformity with our common human nature. We human beings naturally live, not as rugged individuals, but as members of communities. Within a true community, there exists a harmony of the good of the members and the good of the community as a whole—the common good. In traditional societies, ethics is primarily virtue ethics, where the virtues are the excellent characteristics of beings who share our human nature. The most important community within a virtuous society is the family, and the core of a virtuous family is the institution of marriage.

Liberal societies are characterized by individualism, liberty understood as freedom from authority, and conflicts of interests between individuals. Liberal society is artificial, not natural. Since one individual’s pursuit of self-interest frequently conflicts with other individuals’ pursuits of their self-defined interests, a social structure is necessary to adjudicate conflicts of interest. Within a liberal society, there is no common good, only the public interest, the aggregate of conflicting self-interests. In this society, marriage becomes a small-scale social contract and means whatever its individual parties define it to mean. For legal theorist and society scholar Martha Albertson Fineman, the possible meanings of marriage are legion:

Marriage, to those involved in one, can mean a legal tie, a symbol of commitment, a privileged sexual affiliation, a relationship of hierarchy and subordination, a means of self-fulfillment, a social construct, a cultural phenomenon, a religious mandate, an economic relationship, the preferred unit for reproduction, a way to ensure against poverty and dependence on the state, a way out of the birth family, the realization of a romantic ideal, a natural or divine connection, a commitment to traditional notions of morality, a desired status that communicates one’s sexual desirability to the world, or a purely contractual relationship in which each term is based on bargaining.1

A number of authors have pointed out the distinctions between traditional and liberal marriage. In their book Habits of the Heart, Robert N. Bellah and co-authors contrast “a traditional view of love and marriage as founded on obligation” with the “the therapeutic attitude,” which is “grounded in a conception of authentic self-knowledge.”2 Likewise, Julie Hanlon Rubio distinguishes marriage as a “personal-social reality” from “the more common private, romantic narrative.”3 And Elizabeth Freeman identifies the tension between understanding marriage as “a means of securing social stability or of realizing individual freedom and emotional satisfaction.”4 W. Bradford Wilcox of the Institute for Family Studies contrasts traditional marriage with the “soulmate model of marriage,” which assumes that “marriage’s primary function is to build and sustain an intense romantic or emotional connection that should last only as long as it remains happy, fulfilling, and lifegiving to the self.”5 Finally, in their Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy essay, Princeton’s Robert P. George and his co-authors contrast the “conjugal view” of marriage, which understands marriage as “the union of a man and a woman who make a permanent and exclusive commitment to each other of the type that is naturally (inherently) fulfilled by bearing and rearing children together,” with the “revisionist view,” which sees marriage as “essentially a union of hearts and minds, enhanced by whatever forms of sexual intimacy both partners find agreeable.”6 Although these authors use different terminology, they make essentially the same distinction between what I am calling the “institutional” and the “romantic” models of marriage.

Philosophy professor Elizabeth Brake shows us how the premises of political liberalism lead to the conclusion that she calls “minimal marriage,” according to which “individuals can have legal marital relationships with more than one person, reciprocally or asymmetrically, themselves determining the sex and number of parties, the type of relationship involved, and which rights and responsibilities to exchange with each.”7 Brake’s argument begins with the challenge of achieving political agreement in a society marked by profound ethical disagreements. Liberalism’s attempted solution is to make a distinction between comprehensive moral doctrines and public reason. The former category includes all normative ethical theories, religious and secular, that tell us how we should live our lives. Public reason, in contrast, attempts to be restricted to those ethical principles that everyone can accept, even though we endorse different comprehensive ethical doctrines. Brake’s position is that, within public reason, we can justify the existence of marriage but can say extremely little about what marriage is: “A liberal state can set no principled restrictions on the sex or number of spouses and the nature and purpose of their relationships, except that they be caring relationships.”8 Members of a liberal society must accept same-sex marriage, because “prescriptions about sexual behavior and the value of relationships are found in comprehensive, not political, doctrines.”9

The greatest problem with this rejection of marriage as a social institution grounded in a particular ethical tradition is the attempt to distinguish public reason from comprehensive ethical doctrines. Political liberalism is not ethically neutral. The principle that “public reason excludes reasons which depend entirely on comprehensive religious, moral, and philosophical doctrines”10 is itself part of one among many competing comprehensive doctrines.

Although liberalism tells us that those who are committed to comprehensive ethical doctrines are obligated not to oppose the liberal redefinition of marriage, no such ethical obligation exists. The traditional understanding of marriage as a social institution is a legacy that we should strive to preserve. This requires understanding love as both an emotion and a virtue: “Emotion alone is too unstable a base on which to build a permanent relationship.”11 With the romantic model, marriage lasts only until the love dies. A virtuous society requires an understanding of marriage as a social institution that perseveres, in bad times and in good.

David Lutz is Professor of Philosophy and Dean of Faculty at Holy Cross College, Notre Dame, Indiana. This is a condensed version of a longer essay, “The Institution of the Family and the Virtuous Society,” which appeared in the Journal of Dharma in the July-September 2020 issue. 

1. Martha Albertson Fineman. “The Meaning of Marriage.” In Marriage Proposals: Questioning a Legal Status. Edited by Anita Bernstein. (New York: NYU Press, 2006), 34.

2. Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M, Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven M. Tipton. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. (New York: Harper & Row, 1985), 93, 102.

3. Julie Hanlon Rubio. Family Ethics: Practices for Christians. (Washington: Georgetown University Press, 2010), 31.

4. Elizabeth Freeman. “Marriage.” In Keywords for American Cultural Studies. 2nd Edition. Edited by Bruce Burgett and Glenn Hendler. (New York: NYU Press, 2014), 162.

5. W. Bradford Wilcox. “Soulmate Marriage, R.I.P.” American Enterprise Institute. March 30, 2020. 

6. Sherif Girgis, Robert P. George, and Ryan T. Anderson. “What Is Marriage?” Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy 34.1 (2010), 246.

7. Elizabeth Brake. “Minimal Marriage: What Political Liberalism Implies for Marriage Law.” Ethics 120.2 (2010), 303.

8. Brake, 305.

9.Brake, 324.

10. Brake, 313.

11. Bellah et al., 94.