Jan 25, 2007

Is monogamy a sign of progress? [LINK]

Don't ask what I'm doing responding to a month-old post on gay marriage, but Cathy Young's concluding paragraph irked me:

A part of me, actually, thinks that maybe [the collapse of the traditional ideal of marriage] would be just fine, given how many mutations the family has survived over the course of civilization. A "traditional marriage" the way it existed in many cultures -- one man with several wives and concubines -- was surely no more different from the modern two-parent family than a two-mother, one-father household, or a household composed of two companions and partners in child-rearing who do not have sex with each other and date other people. The other part of me thinks that giving up on the nuclear family as the cultural ideal would be a highly damaging social experiment with the potential to leave a lot of damaged children in its wake.

Granted, this is an on-the-one-hand/on-the-other, but the logic of the on-the-one-hand doesn't hold up. It may be "just fine" if the current ideal of heterosexual two-parent marriage were to collapse, because the current set of alternatives don't contradict it any more than older conceptions of marriage based on polygamy. I agree that's the case, but it begs the question: isn't the current ideal manifestly better than the polygamous practices it replaced? I believe the answer is yes, for reasons I won't belabor here. And neither will I dwell on why the latest set of alternatives may be marginally inferior to the ideal, though not as bad as outright polygamy. The point is that while it's useful to give the question some measure of historical context, it means very little without considering whether that history has resulted in any progress. Otherwise you're left with relativism. A provocative counter-example: 150 years ago the slave trade was considered perfectly acceptable. You can propose any number of undesirable institutions that don't stray farther from the current ideal that slavery is bad.

I'll be sorry to be reading less of Cathy in the Globe following the latest set of layoffs, but I hope it represents an opportunity for her. In particular, I hope it'll result in longer essays, since op-eds can't examine most issues in any depth.

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