Tag Archives: marriage

Tom Stringham: “Beta marriage” and other bad ideas

Some neologisms are wed so effortlessly to the zeitgeist of their time that they are all but destined for linguistic immortality, even from the moment of their conception. One week ago, Time magazine acquainted the world with “beta marriage”, a conceptual try-and-buy marriage which can either be formalized or dissolved at the end of a two-year trial period. In a survey of American adults, 43% of the Millennial generation said they would be interested in this arrangement.

The theoretical appeal of beta marriage is simple. If, at the end of the trial period, a couple found they were not sufficiently satisfied with each other’s partnership, they could go separate ways without legal penalty. This is a horrifying idea to the older generation, but to Millennials it is nothing short of intoxicating.

Leaving aside my personal feelings on beta marriage, it’s clear that generation-specific assumptions about marriage separating Millennials from their grandparents are at the root of this discrepancy. The rising generation is the second (after their parents) to believe that marriage is in its essence a union of love and commitment, and that its defining good is mutual personal fulfillment. Previous generations, in contrast, saw marriage as the way that a couple started a family together—love and fulfillment certainly attended healthy marriages, but these things did not identify or consummate the union.

Millennials with the love-centric view find it difficult to make a philosophical criticism of a trial marriage institution—doesn’t love come and go? Can’t commitment mutually fade? In the conjugal view, however, permanence is imperative because the very appeal of marriage is that it binds a family, so that each child conceived will be born and raised by his or her mother and father.

Why are views of marriage changing so rapidly? The study’s author suggests it’s because Millennials are “nimble and open to change”. But regardless of my generation’s personality profile, it would be almost impossible for their views on marriage not to dissolve into near-meaninglessness given their institutional surroundings. The conjugal, child-centric view of marriage is definitionally offensive to an epicene marriage institution.

As the world watches Millennials ask ever more unsettling questions about marriage—why must marriage be permanent? Why must it be sexually exclusive? Why must it be restricted to two? Why must the government be involved in the first place?—some of us will remain entirely unsurprised. Watch for “beta marriage” to stick around in our lexicon, and for worse and more enterprising marital innovations to come.

The Hustings


Tom Stringham: What would a fully developed civil union for gay couples look like?

For a decade now, gay couples in Canada have had access to the institution of marriage and the legal rights that attend it. In the midst of the national debate that led to that social watershed, however, there was much ado about “civil unions”, a nebulous institution that would endow gay couples with all the rights of marriage except the claim to the word itself.

Last year, Jackson wrote an article, asking “what would have been so bad about civil unions?” He argued that the objection to civil unions by comparison to blacks who were “separate but equal” in the American South fails when examined closely, since blacks were physically separated from whites, whereas marriage versus union is a legal distinction.

Whether or not he’s correct, it might be worth asking more boldly, “could civil unions leave gay couples better off?” The question is strange, but the logistical differences between same- and opposite-sex couples could in fact enable an expanded set of rights for gay couples in civil unions–rights absent in the marriage institution.

For example, in Ontario and other provinces, a marriage may not be annulled if it has been consummated. Historically, this restriction has existed to prevent the easy dissolution of a marriage in which the couple may have conceived a child. For gay couples, however, the restriction seems unnecessary, as consummation of their union cannot lead to pregnancy. In a distinct gay civil union institution, the eligibility for annulment could be broadened.

The historical definition of marriage as between a man and a woman has engendered other restrictions: under Canadian law, sibling marriages are prohibited in order to prevent inbreeding and in accordance with religious moral views. However, two siblings of the same sex cannot procreate. A gay civil union institution would have no reason–apart from religious beliefs–to withhold the right of union to brothers or sisters. If recent history is an indication, millennia of religious tradition would not be an obstacle to the modern logic of human sexuality.

In addition to supplementary legal rights, a gay union distinct from marriage could take on a unique character as a social institution. In our marriage culture, opposite-sex couples are generally expected to have children and infertility is lamented. In a gay union culture, these traditions, and many others, could be abandoned as unnecessary. Marriage and gay unions could each have their own set of norms, the second not oriented toward procreation.

The gay marriage debate may be over in Canada, but a related debate never took place: with fully developed civil unions, would “separate” enhance “equal”?

The Hustings


Jackson Doughart: Response to PAS article critics, Part I

Note: I wrote a piece for the National Post website on June 3 about the suitability of the Supreme Court to determining the legality of physician-assisted suicide. I first argued that morally-fraught issues such as PAS should be left to representative bodies to decide, and then suggested that, given the nature of the questions that will face the court in a prospective constitutional challenge, the best outcome would be for the court to withhold judgment, even on the separation-of-powers question. This would establish by default the right of Quebec, and other provinces as well, to allow or disallow PAS without imposing a pro-legalization judgment on the whole country.

A couple of well-informed and philosophically-astute friends of mine have offered some critical comments and questions, which I thought would be fruitful to address in a series of posts here.

First, from Mike Evans:

I’m curious what you think about other instances of courts ruling on matters that may be considered to be “of deep moral conviction”, by which I take you to mean matters where there is deep moral disagreement between significant proportions of the population, such as the court decisions in 2003 which legalized same-sex marriage in eight out of the ten provinces and one territory before the Civil Marriage Act was passed. Do you think the courts should have stayed out of this issue too? Or is PAS issue different in a relevant way?

To answer the last question first: No, I don’t think the PAS issue is in a different category.

To the first question: Yes. I don’t believe that the various provincial courts were justified in any of their rulings vis-à-vis marriage laws. First, the question of whether there ought to be same-sex marriage is more complicated than simply determining that previous marriage laws excluded homosexual couples and were therefore discriminatory. Opponents of same-sex marriage would say: “Of course the law discriminates. That’s the point. We think marriage is distinctly heterosexual. Saying that it’s discriminatory—and that the argument is thereby instantly over—is a non-sequitur.”

There are other relevant considerations about what should constitute marriage: e.g., whether the incapability of a couple to procreate, whether the teachings of significantly-followed religions, and whether conceivable “slippery slope” arguments (about polygamy, for instance), impinge on the wisdom of adopting such a social change. Courts are not suited to considering these extra-legal possibilities, which may be just as important to think about as the narrow legal question of discrimination.

Second, the nature of the courts’ narrow legal focus in having to choose between only two options—upholding heterosexual-exclusive marriage or creating homosexual marriage—made them unable to institute potentially-reasonable compromises such as non-marital civil unions/domestic partnerships. Civil societies and their legislatures would, in light of the deeply-held moral views on both sides, been able to properly consider such possibilities.

Third, these rulings clearly went over the heads of the legislatures, which are ordinarily responsible for making, revising, and repealing statutes. Most laws related to marriage are provincial laws, which in concert with differing public views on the issue across provincial lines, makes the legislatures—as opposed to the federal Parliament—the best democratic bodies for determining the validity of same-sex marriage in toto. (If this were so, the role of Parliament would be to adapt federal laws relating to marriage in light of there being differing laws in the provinces.) As it actually happened, the only recourse for opponents of same-sex marriage in these provinces would have been to lobby their legislatures to invoke the Notwithstanding Clause, which in every province except Quebec is politically taboo regardless of the issue involved. It’s thus demonstrable that the court rulings encroached on the democratic rights of its residents.

The Hustings