It is the general purpose of this website to look at various applications of the notion of "final causes" in science and society. In the past, final causes have usually been associated with the Aristotelian setting of the concept, in which, for example, a sculptor imagines what his sculpture is going to look like beforehand, and executes his work accordingly. We may say the same thing of an architect and his building design, an engineer and his bridge, or for that matter just about any kind of endeavor in which a prior vision is turned into a reality. (The situation is more difficult when we turn to the development of non-conscious systems, but even there most would admit that the final cause of the DNA in a fertilized egg is an adult form that serves an ecological function within the greater reality.)
Indeed, it is only common sense that people are confronted with an array of choices on all things, and what they choose to do in any instance is largely governed by what they expect to get out of the effort. Now sometimes the final cause is not realized, but that is not necessarily because it is not there to begin with; instead, other causes, perhaps temporary but nevertheless powerful, intervene before the envisioned result can be obtained.
But it is probably also true in many instances that we envision a final cause that cannot be achieved because, simply, the universe is incapable of providing any route to reach it. I am not of the school that believes that literally any goal imaginable can be reached by anyone desiring it. In some cases the goal is not obtainable because it involves physically impossible conditions--for example, a human body being shrunk down to the size of an atom. In other cases the goal is too complex, or unrealistic, or insensitive to the needs and wishes of other significant elements of the human population. In 1776 this country showed the British that they in fact had been laboring under a colonization model which in the case of our forefathers' wishes proved both insensitive and unrealistic.
On like grounds I should like to suggest that our current model of "marriage," or at least "being married," represents one of those false final causes whose conceptual basis is just not quite flexible enough to support the needs and wishes of all affected groups. I believe there is a way around this problem that is fair to all such groups, but it does require a slight re-visualization of the final causes involved.
Currently, marriage represents a state-endorsed and regulated union between consenting adults. The immediate purpose is to bestow a kind of "official propriety" to the affections of a couple, the longer term implications being the initiation of a home environment in which a mutually advantageous sort of maturing of the couple takes place, leading finally to the creation and raising of children. This is all well and good, but the problem is that some of this process is regulated by the government and part of it by the main actors involved, and we are unable to envision/create a process serving a logical final cause answering to all the needs of both personal and governmental interests. In consequence, we end up with all manners of arguments related to who should be married and who not (and ranging from universally agreed upon constraints to those based in greed, snobbery, or outright discrimination), and beyond this restrictions and complaints devolving from the inequitable government treatment of married and unmarried persons.
I suggest the following resetting of the basic final cause involved. First, simply let "marriage" be, for the sake of government, an institution centered on the raising of children. This would mean that, insofar as state controls would be concerned, a couple becomes "married" at the moment they either bring a child into the world, or adopt (or otherwise become official guardians of) a child. Once the child reaches the age of eighteen he/she becomes independent (if possible), and the parents are no longer "married" with respect to him/her.
Meanwhile, the social convention of marriage is no longer recognized in terms of governmental sanction (but see later discussion), but instead for what it actually is: a contract (implied or actual: witness pre-nuptial agreements) between individuals that is limited only by broadly applicable social laws, and respectful of individual religious and cultural traditions.
In a culturally and philosophically diverse society it is inevitable that some groups of people--especially the majorities--will want to try to dictate what others may have, or aspire to. We have seen this most plainly in recent years in the debate over gay marriage; some sectors seem to find the idea of "family" as connected with the gay lifestyle a non sequitur, and are dead set against it. Well I say, why shouldn't a well-meaning gay couple have the right to raise children as part of a loving family context? Until such time as studies show that children raised by gay couples regularly suffer severe consequences as compared with those raised in more conventional settings (a result I would be surprised to see), this perspective seems petty and niggling.
Now there is a flip side to this coin: those couples who remain childless will not be recognized as "married" by the State, and will not receive some of the kinds of compensation they currently receive on this basis--for example, in terms of income tax. Single persons as a group have been upset for many years that couples gain certain kinds of relief merely for being couples (that is, apart from any consideration of child support), an issue which has never been clearly resolved. This matter could be quickly resolved through the system I am suggesting; with the ending of such biased forms of relief, the money saved could then be put to work more fully supporting households with children (larger income tax deductions made for dependents, for example), or hunting down deadbeat parents. Childless couples already gain a great financial advantage from sharing a household (as compared with two single people, each living alone), and should not feel put upon by this revision.
A lot of possible changes can be imagined on the basis of such a revision of support, and most of these, at least, seem to be positive ones. One important one is that there is less incentive to marry simply for reasons of economic improvement: single persons will be relatively less taxed than before and childless couples more, but those intent on maintaining a classical "family" will have more support to help them do so. Overall, as well, the tax system will be simplified. And, of course, knowing the stricter enforcement laws on responsibility, men will be more likely to practice "safe sex" during intercourse.
Yes, there will be a good number of somewhat more technical issues to solve first, but most of these seem solvable. For example, every child will have to have an identified responsible mother and father (or institution, in the case of orphans), but as long as there is no issue over the matter (i.e., a given man accepts being the father, and no one else contends this) there will be no need for interference from the State (e.g., through DNA testing).
This is not to say that the State could not still impose basic a priori regulations designed to protect the health and status of the overall population: for example, nearness-of-relation and certain medical restrictions. But these are routinely ignored anyway, the result being common-law or single-parent situations that leave the resulting children less protected. Here, one could protect such children in the most basic fashion, while perhaps offering tax write-off incentives to those who show proof that contentious nearness-of-relation or medical standards have been conformed with. Minimum age of marriage could either be handled the same way, or perhaps better as a social-cultural responsibility of the parents to grant permission as they and their cultural group standards see fit (knowing nevertheless that they still remain official guardians of their children until the age of eighteen is reached). Those taking part in a wedding ceremony as officially sanctioned by their own particular religion or culture might also register this fact for the favor of a tax write-off (that is, once they have children).
Undoubtedly, contentious issues would arise in going this way, but on the whole it seems to provide a way of reducing government imposition while putting focus on the main societal function of "marriage": raising children. If the latter is indeed a final cause worthy of focus, we should be doing more to make it so.
Copyright 2007 by Charles H. Smith. All