Better late than never, I’m responding to a pro-same-sex-marriage article that d has commended for our consideration. I’m afraid it’s not as strong as he thinks it is. Its “nurturance” view of marriage is incomplete as a model and inadequate for what it purports to explain.
The Nurturance Model of Marriage
Right off the bat, the definite article in his description catches my eye. The same word the is paralleled in the first sentence: “We often hear that children are the reason for marriage.” Maybe he has heard that. I never have. They’re one of many things that make marriage unique, and they are the primary reason that state has an interest in marriage, but that doesn’t make them “the reason for marriage.” There is no one reason, no the reason, for marriage. Still Kuznicki seems ready to hone in on one:
Marriage is about nurturing. That’s how we think of an ideal marriage. That’s how we, in our culture, judge marriages in the real world. A steady, profound, exclusive commitment to nurturing is what makes most people intuit the existence of a marriage, with or without state involvement, with or without children. With or without romance. Government may recognize either some, or all, or none of these nurturing relationships, but even unrecognized relationships may still be nurturing in this sense, and therefore be genuine marriages.
and at the end,
The goal of my post has simply been to show how “marriage is about kids,” “marriage is about love,” and “marriage is about rights” all fail to address some of the most important aspects of the institution, and how a new model — marriage as the total nurturing of one other person — explains the institution much better than any other. It’s on a model like this one that future discussion of same-sex marriage, or any other issue relating to marriage, should be discussed.
If his goal has been to refute any of those “marriage is about …” statements, he has succeeded in something impressively irrelevant. No one thinks marriage is about just one thing. No one, that is, except possibly Kuznicki, who seems to think marriage is about a uniquely two-person sort of mutual nurturance.
Incomplete as a Model
Let’s see how well his “model” defines marriage. I agree with him on a couple of points, though not on their implications.
First, we can agree there is nurturance in an ideal marriage. This is true, just as there may be eggs in some ideal cake recipe; but one ingredient does not define the whole, and just as eggs do not define cake, neither does nurturance define marriage. Nurturance may be necessary to an ideal marriage, but it’s not sufficient as a definition. It’s not a defining factor at all for less-than-ideal marriages, which most people still regard as actually being marriages.
Second, we agree there is (or should be) nurturance in childrearing. As he says,
We attach babies to marriage because we take it for granted that babies need this kind of nurturing too, given by two people who are habituated to it and already stable in the environment it provides. It does not denigrate childrearing to say that it should take place in a nurturing environment… does it?
This is all true, but the point of that last clause is unclear, and this is where his model begins to leak. I think he’s trying to jump from “babies need nurturing in a stable environment,” to “nurturing is the main thing, and if you thought it denigrates childrearing to say so, that’s really not the case.” You might find a different argument in there; as I said, it’s unclear to me what he’s trying to say.
I’ll go with my interpretation, it’s the only one I have to work with and the best I can do. Let’s agree that childrearing is not denigrated. That means its position is not deflated; and the logic applies no matter what model one views marriage by. I can only wonder why he felt it necessary to point that out.
To this he adds another truism:
But the great benefits that children get from marriage do not exhaust or interfere with the great benefits that adults may also derive from it. Who really wants to grow old alone? It is perhaps the bleakest question in all the modern world. Marriage answers it with the promise that no matter how ill or how deformed we may become in old age, someone will stand beside us until the end. Next to this, the thrill of having a new sex partner is negligible.
Somehow from all that he derives a “nurturing model of marriage” that “comports well not only with our common hopes for the institution, but also with Judeo-Christian ideas about love and charity.” I have no beef with the latter portion of that, but I am quite sure that he hasn’t come anywhere near to developing a coherent “nurturing model” of marriage. He’s established that it’s good for marriages to be nurturing. It’s an ingredient, a necessary condition for the best kind of marriage, and for childrearing as well. That’s hardly a sufficient condition, however for defining what marriage is, so as a model it’s woefully incomplete.
Inadequate As An Explanation
It also fails to explain what he intends it to. As he nears the end of his piece he bullet-lists five ways his “nurturing model” explains the state’s interest in marriage:
• The government has an obligation to *respect our determinations* about who should make medical, legal, and financial choices for us when we are incapacitated; about how we wish to dispose of our property on death; and about our decision to share childrearing responsibilities.
• The government ought not to compel the separation of nurturing partners merely because one is a foreign national; the citizen in the relationship must be expected to help the alien adapt to our culture. It is doubtful any other could be more competent here.
• The government ought not to demand testimony from one nurturing partner against another; having developed (or at least promised) the lifelong habit of supporting one’s partner, impartial testimony cannot be expected.
• The government ought to institute a formal process for registering a nurturing relationship, if only so that the above rights may be unambiguously secured. This should ideally be an act distinct from the various religious rites of marriage.
• The government ought to institute a formal process for ending a nurturing relationship; while marriage for life is generally recognized as the ideal, some mechanism should exist for those who have determined that they will never reach the ideal owing to insuperable obstacles.
All of this is arguable at best. The first bullet is a great libertarian/conservative point, but controversial in some quarters. The second is a statement of opinion followed by a reason that explains something other than the clause it’s apparently meant to explain. The third is weak: we admit biased testimony into evidence quite routinely. Judges and attorneys know how to handle it, and how to instruct juries to handle it. The fourth and fifth are only as strong as the first three.
A More Complete and Sufficient Model
The traditional view, in contrast, sees marriage as a comprehensive union which involves nurturance, shared lives, shared resources, shared physical intimacy, and childrearing. None of these is “the” model for marriage. They all come together to form a more complete model.
the state as providing the necessary legal structure for a man and woman to undertake a massive shared project of raising children together, an activity which by its very nature:
- Involves sharing of obligations, liabilities, authority, and financial resources
- Calls for a virtually lifelong commitment
- Requires governmental oversight to ensure that the married unit’s shared resources etc. are treated as such by others
- Requires governmental involvement if that married unit dissolves its sharing of resources, etc.
- Regards the couple as a joint decision-making unit, which naturally carries over into decision-making for each other if one is incapacitated
The constitutional prohibition against requiring spouses to testify against each other seems to makes sense only on the biblical “one flesh” view of marriage: that testifying against one’s spouse is tantamount to testifying against oneself.
In other words, the state’s role with respect to marriage makes much more sense if marriage is viewed as a relationship that involves childrearing than if it’s viewed on the so-called “nurturance model,” which as we’ve already seen is inadequate to count as a model anyway.
Just You ‘n Me, Babe
Finally, I find his view that marriage is the “nurturance of one other person” to be ethically stunted. It’s “just you ‘n me, babe,” which is a near neighbor to, “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” It’s an inward-looking model, unlike the traditional view, which looks outward from the couple to their children, involving the partners in one of the most self-sacrificial of all life activities, and orienting them even more externally as they work to build the community in which their kids will grow up. A “nurturance” relationship can live in a cocoon; not so a traditional marriage that involves children.
So even if Koznicki’s view held up as a model and as an explanation, I still wouldn’t think much of it for its ethical implications. It’s weak in multiple ways, and not worthy to be regarded as a real model for marriage.