II. The Problem
This is the second post in my series on marriage.
The remainder of this article is concerned with a specific ubiquitous, important, and recurring social problem and the institutional solutions that deal with it in distinctive ways. This problem has its roots in the particularities of the nature of human reproduction. Understood biofunctionally, male and female are themselves functional categories; they are not a property of individuals, or the class consisting of individuals possessing a certain property or set of properties. In one’s sex one is assigned a function by nature just as the heart or kidney or liver is assigned a function by nature. The function of one’s sex is to combine with the other sex to produce offspring. As Godfrey-Smith (1994) puts it, “whole organisms, like people, have functions. Past tokens of people did things–survived and reproduced—that explain why current tokens are here. Hence, we have the function to survive and reproduce” (reprinted in Allen 1998: 459). In fact, male and female form two halves of a single functional device or system designed by nature with the function to produce offspring. Imagine the way that the two halves of a clay vase mold are one device with a single function. This functional unit, however, is not a functional institution such as we have been discussing as it is not taken on voluntarily the way one can choose to join or not join a social institution. Nor can society or the state assign or mandate the possession or dispossession of this function. One can choose to, or choose to not, perform the function of this unit, but one can not choose to not have this function. Even homosexuals have in their sex the function to combine with the opposite sex to produce offspring. But in their case their psychology is not aligned with their sex as is biologically normal.
In order to bring the two halves of this functional unit together, evolution has hit upon the strategy of producing a sexual desire in males for females, and females for males. Thus the etiological function of heterosexual attraction is to bring male and female together to produce offspring. As for whether homosexual attraction has a function, the origins of homosexual attraction are still unknown. One common theory is that homosexual attraction may be selected by natural selection so that one will not produce offspring to compete for resources with one’s sibling’s children. If so then whereas producing children is the function of heterosexual attraction, not producing children is the function of homosexual attraction. On the other hand, it is plausible that the mechanism by which the object of sexual attraction is determined has picked out an evolutionarily wrong object. It is likely that at some point after the sex of a fertilized egg is determined, evolution sees to it that a process kicks off to ensure that the object of sexual attraction is the opposite sex. Homosexuality would then be this process failing to perform its function as evolution has designed it. Or perhaps homosexuality is neither function nor malfunction and is a spandrel. A better understanding is needed of the way in which the object of sexual attraction is determined before an explanation is accepted. See The Myth of Sexual Orientation for details. The argument of the current article does not depend on which account is eventually accepted.
When all goes according to evolutionary design, which is a relatively rare occurrence as the vast majority of instances of heterosexual attraction fail to bring male and female together sexually, and many consummated instances of sexual attraction fail to result in fertilization, and many cases of fertilization still fail to result in a child coming to term, and some carried to term die in childbirth, nevertheless, when things happen in accord with the conditions under which they have historically been selected by natural selection, a child results. On these occasions when the child-making unit succeeds in the performance of its function, this produces a set of problems that need solutions in that human infants require a great deal of attention and support after birth as regards the nurturing, care, and upbringing of the resulting child. Every human society has a crucial need for institutions by which to address this most central of issues, and one would expect that the ways in which a society treats and prevents the problems that result from the production of children would stand out as one of the most prominent features of that society, and have a central place in the life of its people
There are three kinds of problems that may result from the production of children: problems the child itself may suffer, problems the parent or parents may suffer, and problems society as a whole may suffer. Although a complete inventory of the specific problems that may result from the production of a child is far beyond the scope of this paper, some examples help illustrate this point. Examples of the first sort of problem are the harm to a child’s physical and emotional health that may result in some situations. Most drastically, if a child is produced and left uncared for, he or she will almost certainly perish. And even when a child is not abandoned he or she requires an extraordinary amount of time, energy, and resources in order to reach maturity in possession of physical, moral, and emotional health. Examples of the second type of problem are the lack of time and resources that a single parent may face, or the emotional stress that may result from attempting to raise a child alone. An example of the third kind is the phenomenon of children abandoned to living on the streets. Societies both contemporary and historical have experienced this problem and suffered the attendant social ills this produces.
Society has produced several functional social institutions by which to address these problems. For example, an orphanage is an institution that is reproduced for its ability to provide care for children when no other means of support can be found. When no one else is able or willing to raise a child by adoption, orphanages are the last line of defense before abandoning the child to the streets. However, orphanages have their own problems which commonly result in being deemed less than optimal solutions. Some studies show that children raised in orphanages are susceptible to lower intellectual and emotional development as compared to those not raised in orphanages. (See for example, Carey, Benedict, “Study Quantifies Orphanage Link to I.Q.,” New York Times, December 21, 2007. Online at http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/21/us/21foster.html)
Furthermore, the need for an orphanage shifts the burdens and costs of rearing children onto society at large as orphanages require funding which is provided either voluntarily through charity, or involuntarily through taxation. Both of these solutions are less than ideal if a way could be found for others to raise the child voluntarily and without the need for external sources of funding.
Adoptions, the kibbutz, and different varieties of co- or communal parenting are examples of other functional institutions designed to prevent or cure the various problems that result from the production of children, and each has their own distinctive reproductively established character designed to achieve their particular institutional ends. But unlike the case where those responsible for the production of the child take responsibility for raising it, all of these are ways of treating problems that have been produced by the sexual activity of others. A longer treatise would discuss the distinct functions and obligations of each of these institutions and how they differ from one another. Here I will just survey some of the problems that are prevented by having the biological parents of a child take responsibility for the raising of the child.
–When the biological parents raise the child, there is no need to find, and perhaps fail to find, another individual or couple willing to raise the child.
–Children raised by adopted or foster parents are more likely to suffer abuse than when raised by biological parents.
–In addition, when the biological parents raise their child, the costs of raising the child are not externalized onto society at large in the form of orphanages or taxpayer provided child support.
–If a child is raised by one parent, often, but not always, there will be a lack of financial resources or time that a parent may dedicate to the child as compared to cases where a child has two (or more) adults caring for them. In order to receive equal resources to those cases where two parents raise the child, it is possible to invoke various other failsafe social institutions such as taxpayer funded child support, court mandated child-support from the missing parent, paid nannies, or voluntary aid from charity. Each of these institutions has their own distinctive functions.
–Another problem of single parents raising a child are various social and psychological problems that research shows children of single-parent families are more likely to suffer. For instance, teenage girls raised in a single-parent household are more likely to become pregnant as a teenager. Boys raised by single-parents are more likely to have problems with aggression, attention deficit disorder, delinquency, school suspensions, and are more likely to end up in prison.
–The behaviors that resulted in these school suspensions and incarceration are additional social costs borne by the victims of these anti-social behaviors.
It is the function of marriage to prevent the problems that result from the production of children by having those pairs with the function of producing children take on certain obligations designed to produce this preventative effect. (Different forms of marriage, i.e., monogamy or polygamy, have their own subsidiary functions, a topic for another time.) The common recurrence of these problems and their persistent need for a solution explains the ubiquity of marriage across human cultures and times. It explains why we find in every society a procreative relationship between men and women that involves taking obligations towards one another. It explains why it is so incredibly rare for a society to warrant pre-pubescent children marrying. It explains what keeps the institution alive and why it has not died out over the centuries and millennia. It explains why it is so incredibly uncommon for a society to practice same-sex marriage. It explains why these social problems increase where marriage is rare or dysfunctional. It explains the difference between marriage and “going steady” or merely caring for someone. It explains why marriage traditionally had the obligations it did.
Although I believe this account of the origin and reason-for-being of marriage is correct, as an argument based on inference to the best explanation it needs a far longer treatise to argue for the superiority of this explanation and the deficiencies of competing explanations. And so I will not offer it here. Instead I am going to pretend that I am the first one to realize that having male/female pairs take on certain obligations serves to prevent the above-mentioned problems that result from the production of children, and propose that we hereby create a “brand new” institution exploiting this arrangement’s beneficial effects and deploy it to this end in society.
The series continues in part 3.