Part III: Duties and Obligations

In part one of this series I discussed how institutions possess etiological functions; they are selected for reproduction because often enough their ancestors produced some effect. More specifically, it is certain repeated behaviors by the members of those institutions that have produced the selected effect. These behaviors are the duties of one’s position in the institution. In part two, I discussed the necessity of an institution to prevent the problems that result from the production of children. In this part I will discuss the duties or obligations of that institution that produce the institutional effect.

As there are three kinds of problems that result from the production of a child, there are correspondingly three kinds of obligations that are taken on in marriages to prevent these problems. The first set of problems concern the welfare of the resulting child, such as the problems of finding sustenance and shelter, and the provision for the child’s emotional needs. And so the first of the obligations of the institution are the duties owed to the child that prevent these problems: the biological parents must not abandon their child to the streets or to be raised by others, must see to the child’s welfare, see to it that they are cared for to maturity, and treat them so as to prevent any psychological, cognitive, and emotional problems that may result from abandonment, abuse, or by being raised by a single parent.   If they fail in this duty it will necessitate the use of one of the various failsafe institutions which we have previously mentioned, such as adoption or an orphanage, or the problem will go untreated.

The second duty of this institution is an obligation the biological parents have to one another to not abandon their mate to raise the child alone, or have to attempt to find another adult willing to raise the child, and suffer any disadvantages therein. This will prevent the issues we saw that arise from a single parent raising the child alone. It will also prevent the need for the parent with custody rights to have to either search for, or, all too commonly, fail to find, another individual willing to commit to raising another’s child free of charge, or to have to commit resources to the paying of an individual to help with the raising of a child (a nanny or daycare). The main duty married couples have to each other is to make each other happy so that neither party will want to leave the marriage. This involves walking a fine line of giving your partner what makes them happy while not making oneself miserable. Today’s marriages are infected with the destructive idea that you should not have to do anything to please your spouse, that they should “love you for who you are” unconditionally. Probably the best way to motivate couples to make each other happy is to make it very hard if not impossible to get out of marriage so that couples will be forced to work together for their shared happiness.

Thirdly, this institution has the function of preventing societal problems such as the aforementioned problems involved with homeless children, orphanages, or anti-social behavior. The parents thus take on an obligation to society not to produce a child who will be a burden on that society, and to not pass off the obligations and costs for supporting and raising the child to others. Additionally, it is a duty of the parents to inculcate in their children a character such that they will themselves be good at meeting these obligations when they mature and might produce children. When all these obligations have been met, a far from universal occurrence, this institution has succeeded in its function.

The reproductively established behaviors in the form of the obligations of this institution are designed to prevent the problems we have named in its specific way. The vows of marriage are traditionally taken before sexual consummation because all too frequently, afterwards, one of the parents–usually the male–may fail to perform the duties of the institution. At this point it is often too late to avoid the non-performance of the institution and one of the failsafe institutions, or perhaps abortion, will either need to be invoked, or the remaining parent will end up raising the child alone with its attendant disadvantages. As we all too often see, these vows alone are frequently insufficient to bind the will of the parent to the performance of their duties. A social stigma attached to failure to perform this functional institution is a far more effective means of holding the parents to their obligations. Traditionally there was intense social stigma attached to failure, and this resulted in vastly more cases where the couple stayed together. The stigma itself was thus a functional mechanism which had the keeping of the couple together and the performance of their obligations as its function so as to prevent the externalization of costs and the attendant social problems that result from dissolution.

As with other functional items, social institutions can drift from their purpose. Sometimes this means that they have acquired a new function either in addition to, or replacing the original function. In the case of functional items such as hearts or human artifacts, this change in function is accomplished by a change in physical structure; the properties of the item will change as it is reproduced and selected for its ability to accomplish some new feat. In the case of human languages and institutions, the drift can often be difficult to discern because it occurs gradually and because there is not the obvious change in physical structure as there is in organs and artifacts (Millikan 1984: 32). In the case of institutions, changes will be accompanied by new behaviors, bureaucracies, obligations, and the like.

For example, imagine a police department which has become corrupt and no longer enforces the law. Instead, it just seeks to procure for its members certain benefits such as respect and financial rewards. Even though this police department no longer enforces the law, enforcement of the law remains its function, although the institution currently fails to perform it. It remains its function because the selection criterion for the possession of a function has not yet been met. If the community gets fed up with this corrupt police department and start up a new institution whose function it is to enforce the law, or a split occurs within the force whereby a faction returns to its original function, then the competition between the two institutions will result in a selection process in which one part of the split will cease to have law enforcement as its function and will now have the production of those benefits for it members as its function. The selection criterion for an etiological function has now been met and the other half of the split once again has the function to enforce the law. (Likewise, the other faction now has as its function the procurement of financial rewards for its members, but in this case I would expect this branch to quickly die out.)

Clearly, the problem with this corrupt police department, apart from the immorality of members of a police department using their positions for personal financial gain, is that there is a conflict between the behaviors that procure financial rewards and the duty to enforce the law; the pursuit of financial rewards interferes with the institution being able to perform its function of law enforcement. When the multiple ends of an institution create such conflicting duties, the performance of which impede the success of one or both of those ends, it is useful to split into separate institutions so that the ends of each may be better met. Something similar has occurred in recent decades as concerns marriage. This has occurred for various historical reasons too complex to discuss here. As happens when institutions drift away from their function, this change has occurred with the altering of the behaviors, obligations, and attitudes it traditionally displayed. The institution going by the name of marriage, like the police department in the preceding example, has drifted away from its function until it has none of the obligations designed to ensure the performance of the function of marriage. Instead, contemporary marriage contains but a single duty, a duty to oneself to maximize one’s happiness. (Some claim that there is a duty to remain monogamous, others deny even this.)

Whereas procreative marriage carries the obligation to one’s child to stay to raise them well, contemporary marriage entails no connection to the upbringing of children. Secondly, whereas procreative marriage contains an obligation to one’s spouse not to abandon them to raise any children alone, the contemporary version contains no such obligation to remain in it any longer than one desires. Thirdly, whereas procreative marriage entails an obligation to the community, and the community has an interest in the success or failure of the institution, the contemporary understanding holds that it is no one’s business but the couple involved. Finally, whereas procreative marriage is reproduced for its ability to prevent problems that result from the production of children, this new institution is reproduced solely to promote the happiness of the individual adults involved and may be ended when this happiness fades.

It is this modern arrangement that is the blueprint from which homosexual marriages seek to be reproduced. Homosexual unions are not reproduced from those instances that actually performed the function of preventing the problems that result from producing a child. Instead they are modeled on an institution that claims that marriage is a consensual agreement between two adults to further their individual happiness and share certain property rights and so on. In claiming that marriage has no connection to reproduction, the advocates of gay marriage make explicit the fact that the institution in which they are claiming a right to membership has a different function from an institution designed to prevent problems that result from reproduction.

In so doing they have forced a split in the institution such as described in the police department example above. Like the police department example, the conflict over the ends of the institution produces conflicting duties as the pursuit of one’s individual happiness often entails violating the duties of marriage understood as being preventative of the problems that result from the production of children. One often can not pursue the duty of personal of happiness maximization and at the same time perform the duties of procreative marriage, as the current high divorce rates and high rates of children born outside of wedlock attest. Ideally, living up to one’s obligations in marriage wouldn’t require sacrificing one’s personal happiness, and this wouldn’t be the case if the partners in a marriage were taking their duty to the happiness of one-another seriously. But since our culture tells us that our only duty in marriage is to our personal happiness maximization, and that any other duties are secondary, marriages are widely dysfunctional. One branch of this split now makes explicit that the function of the institution no longer has anything to do with reproduction, the other branch wishes to return the institution to performing its procreative function as the production of children has not ceased to cause social problems which need to be prevented by social institutions possessing this as its function.

This is not to say that the recurring problems of property disputes, hospital visitation rights, and so on might not need an institution designed to resolve these issues, only that–as its defenders do in fact claim–this new institution has a different function from one that has the prevention of the problems resulting from successful heterosexual intercourse as its function.

Continue to part 4.