Thursday, July 16, 2009

Time Mostly Right on Marriage

Caitlin Flanagan has a sensible cover story in Time magazine about marriage. The moral pivot of her argument is this:
America's obsession with high-profile marriage flameouts — the Gosselins and the Sanfords and the Edwardses — reflects a collective ambivalence toward the institution: our wish that we could land ourselves in a lasting union, mixed with our feeling of vindication, or even relief, when a standard bearer for the "traditional family" fails to pull it off.
She goes on to argue, rightly, that marriage is not primarily about the adults' happiness, but about raising children.

I believe that Flanagan is right about the ambivalence that many people feel about marriage. I don't want to agree with her, but I have to admit that she is right. I don't want to agree because ambivalence kills.

So I see an additional conclusion to draw: people who promote marriage, like me, should school ourselves against feeling any sense of vindication when the marriages of family values hypocrites fail. It is just sad. These failures hurt the good cause. Feelings of Schadenfruede may be unavoidable, but we should not revel in it.


Black Sea said...

People are ambivalent about their relationship with their parents. They're ambivalent about their relationship with their siblings. They're ambivalent about their relationships with old friends, and with their kids. They're ambivalent about their relationships with their lovers, and after it's all over, with their ex-lovers. Why shouldn't they be ambivalent about marriage (the institution), or more particularly, their own marriage?

Generally, we are ambivalent about those relationships that shape our lives. And in the case of marriage, I can't see this as anything but unavoidable. At my uncle's funeral, his ex-wife, who'd insisted on divorcing him more than 20 years earlier, was distraught, weepingly distraught, far more distraught than my uncle's widow. People are a strange breed.

I do agree that marriage is ultimately about raising kids.

TallCoolOne said...

Gruntled's best philosophical defense for "ambivalence kills" seems to be: a squirrel caught in the middle of a road in front of an onrushing car will die if it doesn't make a choice about which side of the road to run toward.

As a philosophcal defense, it doesn't amount to much and would seem to reduce to: make a choice and accept the consequences. In itself, that might not be so bad, but there also seems to be an implication that choice itself, and the will which makes it, are the goods to be sought and preserved (respectively). That isn't a Christian notion, nor even a Jewish (or Muslim) one.

Which is odd, since the figure Gruntled constantly holds up as the great unambivalent one is none other than Joshua, conquerer of Canaan (at least according to one strand of Biblical material).

Avoiding Schadenfreude, though, is a noble and difficult position to adopt, and is philosophically defensible. (At least, I think it is.)

Gruntled said...

The feeling of ambivalence may be hard to avoid, but it is nothing to celebrate, or even to simply accept.

I don't understand the second point: are you saying that Joshua's position is unbiblical?

TallCoolOne said...

No, what I mean is that ambivalence emerges from a conflict of goods, and the virtues that arise from them, when choosing between them makes for genuine difficulty on the part of the subject. Rather than the "squirrel" image, it is better to ponder the "is it better to save my child and let ten perish, or save the ten and sacrifice my own" dilemma. The question then is seen as a test of the virtue of the subject, in terms of how habitual that virtue has become.

In the present instance, the problem is muddied by the fact that the competing goods are not commensurate in their magnitude in the first place, and also from the unwillingness/inability of subjects to recognize that. This might tend toward tragedy, were there anything like hubris, instead of mere moral torpor, actually involved.

The "squirrel" image reminds me of Nietzsche's assertion at the end of The Genealogy of Morals to the effect that humans -- and especially the late capitalist, bourgeois, "Christian" sort -- would rather will nothing than not will at all. That sounds a lot like Joshua to me, who was fine with commiting a kind of genocide on the basis of his will. Moral clarity is often bought with the blood of others/Others.

Gruntled said...

I don't read Joshua as simply enacting his own will.

percy said...

Yes TallCoolOne. but at least Joshua "Got along well with others".

TallCoolOne said...

Gruntled and Percy: speaking only for myself -- very little frightens me more than a monster who's right with his god. I don't think Joshua was a monster, but I do wonder if the presence of the book of Judges doesn't make a case for the problems with Joshua's execution of his campaign, exactly along the lines I was suggesting in my earlier posts.