Marriage is a relationship between persons, sometimes entered into voluntarily, but sometime not. But what is the relationship, exactly? What conditions must be met for two (or in some cases more than two) persons to be married? Who, for example, can be married? What are the moral consequences of being married? What obligations does one incur as the result of marrying? Are there prescribed roles for partners to a marriage? Can those be altered? Is marriage a valuable institution, or should it be abandoned, or at least not encouraged? If it is valuable, what is it about marriage that makes it so? For example, does the value of marriage have anything to do with parenthood? If so, what follows about marriages without children? What role does love play in marriage?
These, and many other questions arise in philosophical discussions, particularly in moral and political philosophy, and increasingly in discussions of gender and gender equality. These aren’t exclusively philosophical questions. They are investigated in the social sciences, including anthropology, sociology, history, and economics, as well as in political science and law. Philosophical investigation of marriage includes attempts to define what marriage is, to understand the concept of marriage and its scope and limits, and to provide arguments for or against the institution of marriage itself.
Most philosophers hold that marriage is a social institution that varies across time and place. That means that a particular challenge to meet is to make sense of marriage as something that changes, and that we have to be prepared to imagine how we would use the concept of marriage in circumstances different from the way we might currently use it. Making use of historical, legal, sociological, and economic data will inform our deliberations, but understanding how we have used and use the concept of marriage won’t necessarily tell us how we should use the concept in the imagined circumstances.
“Passage on the Lady Anne” doesn’t take use to distant planets, the future, the past, or any of the exotic scenes of the imagination often hypothesized in The Twilight Zone. It is placed in the present, that is, the early 1960s, where we are witness to a failing marriage, that of a young couple, Alan and Eileen Ransome. The episode provides evidence in support of Moller (2003), who presents a version of the so-called “Bachelor’s Argument” against marriage, based on the likelihood that a marriage will eventually lead to the unhappy situation of the kind faced by the Ransomes. But the episode also contains an impassioned defense of the institution of marriage.
What makes a marriage fail? What is the necessary ingredient that is missing from the Ransome’s union? Marriage, as it is portrayed here, requires mutual love, friendship, and shared interests on the part of the members of the union. These elements may have been present in the Ransome’s union in the past, but they no longer are. Eileen suggest they take a cruise where they will have the time to try to repair their relationship.
This is no ordinary cruise, of course. It is the final voyage of The Lady Anne, and its passengers are, except for the Ransomes, all elderly couples and a few widows and widowers, all celebrating the role that The Lady Anne played in their long-lasting marriages. It’s not clear how it happens, but by entering this special environment, the Ransomes come to rediscover their love, friendship, and shared interests, and in so doing save their marriage. It is not that the elderly couples provide an argument for marriage, or diagnose the problem with the Ransome’s relationship and offer a cure. Rather, they provide exemplars of what makes marriages good, and by interacting with couples who are happily married, Alan and Eileen come to see the value in their relationship. Moller may be right that many marriages fail, and that that fact may suggest that marriage itself is a problematic institution. But the passengers on The Lady Anne show that a rich, meaningful, relationship that extends to the end of life is not only possible, it is actual. In their final act, the elderly couples insist that the only difference between the Ransomes and themselves, is that the Ransomes are at the beginning of a life of devotion to one another, while they are at its end.
These considerations would not apply to marriages in the Europe of the Middle Ages, where love was not only not a necessary condition for a successful marriage, but was often seen as an obstacle to a successful union. In addition, the conventions governing marriage in the 1960s created obstacles and barriers to happy marriages that don’t speak to the conditions we face in many cultures today. Eileen appears to be a housewife, while Alan is the workaholic bread earner. Eileen is oppressed and marginalized. She feels excluded from Alan’s world. Today’s marriages are often, though not always, among individuals who are both expected to have the same engagement with the world, and the potential equality of power means that the kind of difficulties the Ransomes face may be less likely to occur. Marriages now are understood as relationships that don’t even require a gender difference, much less one where there is a difference in power.
Coontz, Stephanie, 2007, Marriage, A History, Viking Press.
Herman, Barbara, 1993, “Could it be worth thinking about Kant on sex and marriage?,” in A Mind of One’s Own, Louise Antony and Charlotte Witt (eds.), Oxford: Westview Press, pp. 49–67.
Landau, Iddo, 2004, “An Argument for Marriage,” Philosophy, 79: 475–481.
Dan Moller, Dan, 2003, “An Argument against Marriage” Philosophy, 78: 79-91.
Nussbaum Martha, 1999, Sex and Social Justice, Oxford: Oxford University Press.