When this worthless value is the pre-eminent good, society suffers

The gay marriage debate rumbles on and on. It generates more heat than light, which is a pity, because there is need for a debate in this country about marriage. Just when same sex couples may get the right to marry, marriage itself is in serious trouble, as the recent census reveals. Marriage is now less popular than it has ever been, and the number of children growing up with a lone parent is increasing. This should come as no surprise to anyone, and no one seriously disputes the waning popularity of marriage, as far as I can see. Opinion divides as to whether the waning of traditional marriage is a good or a bad thing, or something that is to be greeted with indifference. If people choose not to get married, that is their choice, isn’t it, one can almost hear people say.

And here really is the nub of the question. Is choice really the most important thing? Is it the “fount of normativity”, as a theologian might say? Is it what determines whether something is right or wrong? If two people choose to get married, or to live together, or to adopt whatever arrangement suits them, does the exercise of choice make whatever they choose the right thing for them?

This sounds plausible, and God knows, we have heard something along these lines a long time now from all sides, but the overwhelming consensus about choice being the sole determinant of morality masks a failure to get to grips with the underlying questions.

First of all, all serious thinkers would have to admit, choice per se is valueless, unless it is a reasonable and deliberate choice. Every philosopher would agree with this, from Aquinas all the way through to Rawls (though I think Nietzsche might not). To ‘choose’ what is not reasonable has no value, indeed goes against every value. If someone chooses to gorge themselves on junk food, for example, and their health suffers as a result – well, no one could praise that or say that such a “right to choose” was good. But, of course, the junk food addict does not really exercise free choice or rational choice, but is in the grip of a compulsion. But the truth of the matter is that few of us ever exercise completely free choice, as few of our choices are made in ideal choosing conditions. We all act under a series of compulsions, strong or less strong. Anger is one compulsion that informs many contemporary choices. Prevailing opinion too sways the masses, as does advertising. We think we are free, but we are not entirely so.

The next thing we have to note is that choosing per se may be the sine qua non of morality, in that without choice there can be no moral merit in anything; but such moral value depends on the nature of what you choose. Choosing evil is a disaster, and no amount of talk about the value of choice is ever going to redeem the disaster. Suicide is always a bad thing, even if it is freely and deliberately chosen. That is a clear example. But consider this other example (which I may have used before.) You are put down in the featureless landscape of the Sahara desert and told you are free to go anywhere you choose. You will walk in a large circle until you drop. What good is that freedom to you? But if you are put down in the middle of the desert and told you are free and given a compass, then you can walk in a straight line and walk out of the desert eventually. Choice is valueless unless it is a choice oriented to the Good.

So where does this take us with regard to marriage? People who choose to get married today as the law stands do a good thing in so far are they freely choose to get married and in so far as they do so aiming to enjoy the goods of marriage which are the union of the couple and the procreation and upbringing of children. These two are what make marriage good and a worthy object of choice.

What we have heard in the same sex marriage debate generally goes along the lines of “If they want to do so, it is their choice, and they have a right to get married” – an argument about the primacy of choice. But we ought not to give way before all choices presented to us without those choices being backed by reason and without those choices having worthy objects. By reducing marriage to a pure matter of personal choice, long before the question of same sex marriage arose, we have effectively hollowed out the institution and made it meaningless. No wonder so few people nowadays want to get married.