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The Thoroughly Modern Marriage?

4:51 PM, Mar 4, 2014 • By PETER AUGUSTINE LAWLER
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Richard V. Reeves has written in The Atlantic a confident and illuminating account of the state of marriage in America today.  College-educated American men and women “are reinventing marriage as a child-rearing machine for a post-feminist society and a knowledge economy.”  On this front, the Americans have once again shown their superiority to the Europeans, who, in their socially self-destructive way, remain ambivalent at best about the value of being married.  But a European might respond that only an American could be content with such a self-consciously mechanical view of a relational institution.  It’s easy to hear the French man Alexis de Tocqueville laughing between the lines of his deadpan description of American men describing marriage in terms of “self-interest rightly understood.”


People used to think, Reeves reports, that marriage was about sex or religion or money. But today’s women can readily find sexual enjoyment without being married, and they no longer need men to prosper. Women these days earn their own money, and they are, in fact, soaring ahead of men on that front. And religion is no longer an important determinant of sophisticated personal behavior. 

What’s left?  Well, someone might say love!  But Reeves seems to agree with the philosopher Nietzsche that any modern experiment to ground a social institution on something as whimsical as love alone is doomed to fail.  Reeves explains that “romantic marriage” is typically irresponsible, because the focus is on the passionate, basically hedonic relationship between parents, often at the expense of the unsexy, all-too-routine, and physically taxing relationship between parents and children.   “All you need is love” can’t, of course, be the slogan for facing the rigors on the knowledge economy in the 21st century competitive global marketplace. What we need—and what we’re getting from enlightened and high-achieving Americans—is the joint commitment of a man and a woman to “high-investment parenting.”  

Whether he knows it or not, Reeves is updating what can be called the “bourgeois” or “capitalist” view of marriage as described by John Locke. Locke tried to re-describe all human relationships in terms of contracts between free individuals serving their self-interests. Locke even understands the beginning of marriage that way; men and women consent to have the right to one another’s bodies. But marriage becomes an enduring contract only when it produces children, who become the “common concern” of both parties to what begins as a sexual deal and perhaps also an ephemeral antidote to “being alone.”

Marriage, for Locke, is the one example of a contact rooted in a common good that can’t be reduced to self-interest. That means the contract must include the duty to stay together until the children are raised. Locke doesn’t think that the Biblical “until death do you part” makes any contractual or biological sense. But the biological situation of members of our species does require that parents stay together and work together for the kids for a very long time.

A modern problem we free individuals have encountered, of course, is Locke’s defense of this obligation to children contradicts his general effort to base every human choice as strictly consensual or based on rights.  So our law today doesn’t make parents remain married and properly dutiful as parents until the kids are raised. Our “Lockeanism” has resulted in single moms and deadbeat dads (and occasionally vice-versa). Nobody much today would defend the restrictions on divorce Locke recommends. What was permissive for his time seems oppressive in ours. We haven’t been able to keep the Lockean spirit of contract and consent in the “Locke box” Locke himself put together for the good of our future as biological beings who are born to die.

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