Many people take marriage to be a meaningful event and condition. In his important paper, "An Argument against Marriage," philosopher Dan Moller argues that if we think about marriage clearly, we see that marrying is implausible. Moller builds upon and develops what has come to be called The Bachelor's Argument , which is the argument that bachelors sometimes present in order to explain why, although they love, they cannot in good conscience marry.
The argument proceeds as follows: When we marry, we promise to love till death do us part. But it is wrong to make a promise we know we may well not to be able to keep. For example, it is wrong to promise to return a loan we know we may well not be able to return.
But it is not only that we cannot honestly promise to love till death. We cannot promise to love beyond the present. Love is an emotion, and as such, the argument goes, uncontrollable: we cannot promise to continue to have a certain emotion in the future. In five years time we may love, but we may also not love, and it's not up to us. Indeed, experience shows that many people fall out of love. Hence, it seems, when we vow in the marriage ceremony to love, we are making a disingenuous promise—a promise that we may well not be able to fulfill. And if we realize this, making the marriage vows is, of course, wrong.
May we be promising in the marriage ceremony, then, something else? There are some alternatives, but they, too, are problematic. First, if we are not promising to stay in love, perhaps we should be understood as promising just to stay married for as long as we love.
But this interpretation of what we do when marrying doesn't make much sense either. For this purpose we do not need marriage, vows or commitment: we might plausibly be doing this anyway, i.e., staying together for as long as we love, and when we cease loving leave. This doesn't seem to be what we commit ourselves to when we marry since this is what we often do anyway without any commitment. If in marriage we commit ourselves to something, it is probably to something else.
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Maybe, then, what we do in marriage should be understood as promising to stay married even if we cease loving each other. But staying in a loveless marriage is probably not something that we or our would-be spouse want to promise. Further, if our marriage would turn out to be loveless, perhaps it is indeed better not to continue it.
So these are three possible understandings of what we do when marrying: (a) we commit ourselves to feeling love in the future; (b) we commit ourselves to staying together for as long as both of us feel like staying together; (c) we commit ourselves to staying together even if we stop loving each other. All three understandings of what we do in marrying render the act implausible. Perhaps, then, we should just forgo this practice. It doesn't make sense to marry. It seems empty and insincere.
Here, however, is a fourth way of understanding what we do when we marry. This interpretation, I suggest, renders the decision to marry and the act of marrying plausible.
In marrying we do two things. First, we make an assertion about our emotional state at the time we are marrying. We are saying that we feel great love. When marrying, we are making a public statement about our emotional state.
Second, we do make a promise. We promise to invest work in performing certain acts that are likely to sustain the love that we feel now, and to refrain from acts that will destroy it. While we cannot promise to have certain emotions, we can promise to engage in or refrain from certain behaviors that influence these emotions.
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Examples of love-sustaining behaviors include investing time and effort in what will support and strengthen our loved one; sharing with him or her a significant part of our thoughts, hopes, and feelings, including those we usually don't share with strangers; doing together various activities; creating circumstances that would allow us to experience things together; emphasizing to our loved one that she or he are special to us; and helping our loved one cope with physical and emotional difficulties. Examples of love-diminishing behaviors include marital infidelity; humiliating our spouse publicly or privately; and revealing private information about him or her to others.
How to Decide Whether to Marry
Contrary to a common view, most of us can (and do) significantly influence our emotions by opting for certain behaviors. The ability to influence emotions differs among people. But we often do try to influence our emotions, and in many cases we do so with significant success. For example, we decide not to talk with the neighbor right now in order not to get angry. We try not to sit beside a certain relative in a family gathering in order not to be bored. We try to sit beside another relative in order to feel liked. We go to a film in order to feel pleasure. We study hard in order to succeed in the exam and feel pride afterwards, or in order to avoid feeling guilt and shame. In fact, it is plausible to describe most of our waking hours as engaged in behaviors that aim to influence our emotions.
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True, we do not always succeed. Some people don't know how to influence their emotions—they just don't do the right things. Our emotions are also impacted by what other people do, luck, and other factors. Further, emotions sometimes do have their autonomous rhyme and reason, especially when they are intense. But the claim that we cannot influence our emotions is mistaken. Many of us can, and often do, influence our emotions to a very significant degree. We usually do not influence them directly; in most cases we cannot just decide to feel happy, sad, interested, or bored—although this too can happen. But the influence can be had by engaging in behaviors and creating conditions that impact our emotions.
What I have said here about emotions in general is true, of course, also of love. Here, too, we sometimes pick the wrong behaviors to sustain our love. Some of what affects our love, such as the behavior of our loved one, is not up to us. However, engaging in love-sustaining behaviors and avoiding love-diminishing ones do typically have a strong impact on maintaining, and even enhancing, the love we have.
What we do when marrying, then, is to declare that we feel strong love, that it is very important to us, and that we are ready to commit ourselves to work in ways that would maintain and enhance this love in the future. This is not so different from other examples of commitment in which we invest effort. For example, a person may commit herself to a certain career. She might decide that she wants to be a pianist or a runner. Hence, she commits herself to doing some things and refraining from others. She may commit to studying for many years, practicing regularly, eating some foods and avoiding others, etc.
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Thus, if what has been suggested above is correct, the decision to marry, and the act of marrying, can be sensible and plausible. According to this fourth interpretation, marriage does not involve a disingenuous, empty, or meaningless commitment. Quite the contrary.