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Marriage and the Moral Bases of Personal Relationships

Marriage and the Moral Bases of Personal Relationships

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Published by: Estefanía Vela on Jan 14, 2014
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 ardiff University
Marriage and the Moral Bases of Personal RelationshipsAuthor(s): John Eekelaar and Mavis MacLeanSource:
Journal of Law and Society,
Vol. 31, No. 4 (Dec., 2004), pp. 510-538Published by:
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Marriage and the Moral Bases of Personal Relationships
JOHN EEKELAAR* AND MAVIS MACLEAN** Marriage is a legal institution. Current debates about whether it should be extended beyond its traditional heterosexual constitution, and whether many of its legal incidents should apply to couples who live together without marrying, and about the introduction of civil partnership (modelled closely on marriage) for same-sex couples, make an examination of its contemporary role particularly timely. This article is about the interplay between the institution of marriage and ideas of obligation within personal relationships. It takes as its starting point some commonly held opinions. First, that the sense of obligation which hitherto guided people's behaviour in their personal relationships has much diminished or even disappeared. Second, that this diminution is reflected in the decline in marriage. We will then examine what the evidence of an empirical study conducted by the Oxford Centre for Family Law and Policy reveals about the way people in married and unmarried relationships understand the nature of their personal obligations. In doing this it will be seen that the moral bases which underpin people's personal relationships is complex and does not correspond in a simple way with formal, external social categories. I. THE DECLINE OF OBLIGATION1 Prior to formulating an argument (to which we will return) hat the obligations created by marriage constitute a human good, Scott Fitzgibbon asserts that 'the twentieth century brought a crisis of obligation'.2 He cites little evidence for * Pembroke College, St Aldates, Oxford OX1 1DW, England ** Department of Social Policy and Social Work, University of Oxford, Barnett House, 32 Wellington Square, Oxford OX1 2ER, England
1 This has been covered at greater length in J. Eekelaar, 'Personal Obligations' in Family Law and Family Values, ed. M. Maclean (2003). 2 S. Fitzgibbon, 'Marriage and the Good of Obligation' (2002) 47 Am. J. of Jurisprudence 41-69, at 47. 510
? Blackwell Publishing Ltd 2004, 9600 Garsington oad, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Maiden, MA 02148, USA
This content downloaded from on Mon, 13 Jan 2014 21:11:18 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
this proposition,3 but the sentiment is common enough. Gilles Lipovetsky has referred o the alleged phenomenon as 'le crepuscule du devoir'4 and Zygmunt Bauman has described postmoder sociality as one which 'knows not and hears not of rights, obligations, contracts or legal entitlements'.5 The 'culprit' (if such there be) for this state of affairs is said to be the rise of 'individualism'. Thus, in 1985, Robert Bellah and colleagues6 identified 'individualism' as 'the first language in which Americans tend to think about their lives', leading them to value 'independence' and 'self-reliance' above all else.7 For these authors, individualism seems to denote a kind of self-centred indulgence, to be contrasted with a disposition towards 'commitment' and recognition of 'obligations'. But it is not so simple. Some writers have argued that the sense of obligation to others has been replaced by a sense of obligation to oneself to live a authentic life.8 In a more complex analysis, Giddens in 19929 and Beck and Beck-Gersheim in 1995,10 drawing on a wide range of contemporary literature in Giddens' case, especially psychoanalytical discourses), developed a more complex version. According to Giddens: Confluent love is not necessarily monogamous .. What holds the pure relationship ogether s the acceptance of each partner until further notice', that each gains sufficient benefit rom he relationship o make ts continuation worthwhile. 3 His cites only the rise n bankruptcy ilings by individuals nd amilies n the United States of America, an assertion by Allan Bloom that American tudents have impoverished deas of friendship A. Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (1987) 82-140), and the claim by Patrick Atiyah that respect for promises has declined n English ife, see P.S. Atiyah, The Rise and Fall of Freedom f Contract (1979) 649-59. 4 G. Lipovetsky, e Crepuscule u Devoir 1992). 5 Z. Bauman, ostmodern thics 1993) 130. 6 R.E. Bellah, R. Madsen, W.M. Sulian, A. Swindler, nd S.M. Tipton, Habits of the Heart: ndividualism nd Commitment n American ife (1985, updated 996). 7 id., p. viii. This was a very broad-brush nalysis. Much of the discussion n values n the private phere entres round our ndividuals hosen as paradigms, ho speak n very general erms about heir philosophies f life'. The authors ound hat hey had difficulty n 'justifying he goals of a morally ood life'; they were confused bout defining the nature of success, the meaning of freedom and the requirements f justice.' Since hese are ssues with which philosophers nd heologians ave wrestled for centuries, he problems f the respondents re very understandable. imilarly, their observation hat 'Americans re ... tom between ove as an expression f spontaneous nner reedom, deeply personal, ut necessarily omewhat rbitrary, choice, and the image of love as a firmly planted, permanent ommitment, embodying bligations' oes not do other han take up an age-old heme, whether expressed n terms of conflict between ndividual assion and obligations o wider family, country r spouse. 8 For an excellent discussion, ee H. Reece, Divorcing Responsibly 2003) 84-92. 9 A. Giddens, The Transformation f Intimacy: Sexuality, Love and Eroticism n Modern ocieties 1992). 10 U. Beck and E. Beck-Gemsheim, he Normal Chaos of Love (1995). 11 Giddens, p. cit., n. 9, p. 63. 511
? Blackwell Publishing Ltd 2004
This content downloaded from on Mon, 13 Jan 2014 21:11:18 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

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