Thursday, 19 April 2007


Miranda Devine's ability to spoil an argument never ceases to amaze me.

In an op-ed article in today's SMH she mounts a critique of "try before you buy" cohabitation, hanging it on the Windsor-Middleton breakup the way one hangs a coat on a peg. One first has to wade through a page of tut-tutting at British snobbery: all very entertaining, but surely it's absurd if egalitarian sentiment becomes an excuse for feeling superior to the upper class?

She eventually makes a good point, if scarcely a new one: cohabitation, considered from the outside, seems scarcely in women's interest and "gives all the advantages to men". Very well, but what follows from this?

According to Ms Devine, it follows that If Middleton had really wanted to marry William she never should have set up house with him. Smart girls don't give away marital perks free. Really? Smart girls? Marital perks?

A critique of an institution is, by itself, no guide to individual behaviour. Ms Middleton is no more able to single-handedly change her social environment than any of us, but must act in the place and time she is given.

The naff reference to "smart girls" casts this as a matter of calculation, so let's be calculating. KM may have been trying out some merchandise of her own. Fancy being married to the heir to the throne, ladies? Not sure? Then perhaps you might want to try the role on for size, without making an irreversible commitment. It might be a way of finding out if you really do want to marry the guy, with all that implies. And at the risk of an obvious statement, KM may have been unenthusiastic about living through her twenties in celibacy. Is there anyone who doesn't feel some sympathy on that score? Anyone?

So perhaps the "New Rules" rhetoric is just a wrapper, and MD's real goal is a moral one, seeking to tie sex and commitment closer together. As a Christian, of course I sympathise. But one needs a fairly broad vision of the problem for this to make sense. If one is merely acting in a market, and the market is unchanged, then principles slow you down. There is such a thing as lonely virtue.

The problem is that many people don't feel ready to marry in their twenties, or would not feel supported in such a choice. This is almost certainly a criticism of our society; it may well (say it in a small voice!) be a criticism of ourselves. One is still left with the question of what to do. Marriage (and cohabitation for that matter) is a social phenomenon and I would have thought it an excellent start to broaden the frame of reference. Perhaps we can act differently as families, or groups of friends, or subcultures, or workplaces (!), and provide a milieu where an older-fashioned choice makes sense.

But to jump straight to how-the-individual-should-act is to claim that it is never prudent, or wise, or good, or even the lesser of two evils, to compromise with a flawed institution. This is ethical nonsense, and that makes it bad advice.


Eb said...

An interesting article. I think at some point you need to ask the question "Why marry at all? What's it all about?"

I think her comment on "one foot out the door" is an important part of this, but I doubt that most people see it this way. Whether or not you call it a "marriage", do people value the idea that their partner is committed to the relationship, and that this commitment extends to putting effort into the relationship both now and for the long term? I suspect at some level this is desirable. (I know I value this.)

Would you co-habit with someone with no assurance that the person wouldn't grow tired of you tomorrow morning? Esp. if it meant you might need to move house at short notice! The horror! :-)

Bruce Yabsley said...

Well I do hate moving house, as you know.

I certainly agree that one has to ask what marriage (or even cohabitation) is about, and why one participates in it. MD's article took an external view, with such questions entirely bracketed out, and male and female interests taken for granted --- this is not invalid on its own terms, but it's not much use if one wants to make decisions for oneself, or to enquire into what someone else is thinking. If one looks at another couple from the outside, and identifies what is in it for him and for her, this is merely realistic, and a necessary part of moral evaluation; but if this is the only way one thinks about one's own relationships, it is heartless calculation. I've met people like this (maybe you have too) and they give me the creeps.

(I have no objection to being able to see what one's relationships look like from the outside: this is necessary if one is to think ethically. The problem is if the view is restricted to this.)

do people value the idea that their partner is committed to the relationship, and that this commitment extends to putting effort into the relationship both now and for the long term?

Yes. And yes.

But does one ask for this up-front? Women through the ages have found that getting their man to commit during the relationship can be a better strategy than holding out for a full commitment at the start. This is not an attractive phenomenon, but given the way things are between men and women it is not irrational. This is part of my problem with MD's article: she talks as if mere calculation will yield the "traditional" order, with courtship, then marriage, and only then cohabitation. Manifestly, it will yield nothing of the sort. The actual tradition includes many other, less attractive phenomena, as your grandmother (and all stories) will tell you.

Would you co-habit with someone with no assurance that the person wouldn't grow tired of you tomorrow morning?

I would hope not. Because, well, yuck. But there is a particular absurdity to taking a hard line on this, as a man, if one is more conservative than the woman-in-question when it comes to these matters. This is another point that MD left completely unexplored ...

Bruce Yabsley said...

Following MD's article, there's a wide set of points of view on marriage (and especially when is "too young to tie the knot") on the dreaded Sam and the City blog on the Herald site.

(Style warning: If you are allergic to cliché, stay away.)

editor said...

Personally, the whole concept of marriage has no appeal: if it were just a public affirmation of committment that would be fine, but it's now been politicised in a way I find repugnant, and I've never understood why one specific form of relationship committment should be given special legal standing.

Bruce Yabsley said...

<snark>Call me editor. Some years ago ---never mind how long precisely --- having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore ...</snark>

I can certainly agree that this has become a politicised matter, and that some of the rhetoric surrounding it is smelly. But in MD's defence --- and believe me, I take no pleasure in defending her --- it doesn't seem to me that this enters especially into her article. She rather takes it for granted that some people, in particular some women, ultimately want to get married; or, that this is one of the things they come to want or to value.

Empirically I think this is correct, and I don't think one has to agree with the institution or with the contemporary legal situation to see that. And once that's granted, I think her article makes sense.

I still think she makes a bad argument from that basis, and (as discussed with Eb) there's something very odd about taking "marriage", whatever that means, as a given in the midst of all of this worldly-wise calculation. Because as an institution it's neither obvious nor uniform nor uncontested.

What the legal position should or shouldn't be seems to me a separate question again ...