The Meaning of Marriage 2

The value of marriage is not merely instrumental. Marriage is a basic human good -- an irreducible aspect of the well-being and fulfillment of a man and woman who unite themselves to each other as spouses.

"The value of marriage is not merely instrumental. Marriage is a basic human good -- an irreducible aspect of the well-being and fulfillment of a man and woman who unite themselves to each other as spouses."

When one understands marriage properly as the permanent and exclusive union of sexually complementary spouses whose comprehensive, loving and faithful sharing of life is founded upon their "one-flesh" bodily unity, one sees that marriage provides a reason for action whose intelligibility as a reason does not depend on further goals or objectives to which it is a mere means.

In uniting a man and a woman at every level of their being -- the biological, the emotional, the dispositional, the rational, the spiritual -- marriage is intelligibly choiceworthy as an end in itself.

Just as the most fundamental point of non-marital friendship is friendship itself, and not other ends to which friendships may be useful as means, the most fundamental point of marriage is marriage itself.

Confusion about Marriage Resulting from Hume's Position: Reason as Slave of Passions

Q: You note that much of the confusion about sex and marriage in our culture finds its roots in the thought of 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume. How is this so?

George: I don't want to place too much of the blame on poor old David Hume.

As I point out in my chapter of "The Meaning of Marriage," Hume himself held rather conservative views about marriage, recognizing it as a profoundly important social institution, one which needs and deserves support and protection by the formal institutions of society and by the customs and mores of the people.

The problem is not in what Hume taught about marriage; it is in what Hume taught about practical reason and moral truth.

"...marriage is the kind of good that can be participated in fully only by those who, however informally, understand it properly. Its capacity to enrich our lives as spouses -- and, where the marriage is blessed with children, as parents -- is significantly dependent on our understanding it and grasping its more-than-merely-instrumental value."

As I've observed, a sound understanding of marriage recognizes it as an intrinsic good, or what, following Germain Grisez, I have called a basic human good -- something persons have reason to choose precisely because they grasp its worth as an irreducible aspect of human well-being and fulfillment.

But Hume teaches that there are no basic human goods, no more-than-merely-instrumental reasons for choice and action. Rather, Hume supposes, all of our ends are given by subrational motivating factors, such as feeling, desire, emotion -- what Hume called "the passions."

Reason, then, is reduced to a purely instrumental role in the domain of deliberation, choice and action. Reason cannot identify what is intelligibly desirable and thus choiceworthy; its role, on the Humean account of the matter, is merely to identify efficient means by which we can achieve whatever ends we happen to desire.

As Hume summed up his position, "reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions, and may pretend to no other office than to serve and obey them."

To the extent that Hume's teaching has been accepted, whether formally or merely implicitly, by contemporary men and women, it has led them to adopt a form of subjectivism -- sometimes called "moral non-cognitivism" -- that undermines a sound understanding of marriage and other basic human goods.

"The intrinsic value of marriage, understood as a comprehensive, multilevel sharing of life founded upon the bodily communion of sexually complementary spouses and naturally ordered to procreation and the upbringing of children, can be grasped, and has been grasped, by people of different faiths and by those of no particular faith."

This is particularly damaging in the case of marriage, because marriage is the kind of good that can be participated in fully only by those who, however informally, understand it properly. Its capacity to enrich our lives as spouses -- and, where the marriage is blessed with children, as parents -- is significantly dependent on our understanding it and grasping its more-than-merely-instrumental value.

Intrinsic Value of Marriage Grasped by All People Regardless of Faith

Q: You describe the good of marriage as a "one-flesh communion of persons." Is that a distinctly religious concept?

George: No. The intrinsic value of marriage, understood as a comprehensive, multilevel sharing of life founded upon the bodily communion of sexually complementary spouses and naturally ordered to procreation and the upbringing of children, can be grasped, and has been grasped, by people of different faiths and by those of no particular faith.

The teachings of most, if not all, religions extend to marriage in one way or another, but the good of marriage can be known, and is known, by reason, even when unaided by revelation.

Even when it comes to providing a critical reflective account of marriage, John Finnis has made the point that the greatest philosophers of ancient Greece and jurists of pre-Christian Rome were able to articulate the foundations of a sound understanding of this great human good.

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