Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Controversy 2

I've been thinking about marriage. The point is this: in many aspects of entitlements for benefits, grants, support, care, etc. the government regards an unmarried couple in the same way as it would a married couple / civil partnership. There was a hot debate about whether there should be any recognition in the tax system that a couple are married. The point is often made that some non-married long-term partnerships are healthier relationships than many marriages. I agree - I've seen it in real life.

Increasingly, it begs the question as to what the point of marriage is to a secular society. Obviously for those with a specific religious motivation, a lifelong commitment before God is a hugely important thing to do. In England, that religious ceremony is fundamentally attached to the legal process - every C of E vicar is a Registrar.

The question for 'civil' society is whether it wants to acknowledge / value the civil aspects of a marriage contract in any tangible ways. After all, marriage gives an objective definition of who is connected to whom, how inheritance or other relationships might be defined and so on. But if our society wants to afford the same status to other kinds of partnerships ( and in my view it is perfectly entitled to do so, whatever my own choices ) then why give the concept of marriage any legal status at all - it could simply be what people of faith and others choose to do.

So I think the choice is either 1) given that marriage (and civil partnerships) are legal contracts, then it seems legitimate to give them other privileges because we know who is connected to whom. They give objective connectedness and order to society. They give clarity as to how relationships are ordered. Other relationship inevitably have a degree of subjectivity in their definition.

or 2) follow through the logic of what is already true in some areas. If non-contractual partnerships are regarded as equal in some parts of society, then shouldn't they be so in all? People who believe in marriage can still make their vows in church or in other appropriate ceremonies, but it would have no legal status in the civil sphere over and above self-declared relationships.

Are we inconsistent? Is that right?

What do you think?

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