Wednesday, October 19, 2011



A 2-Pager by Ajit Chaudhuri

Some of you may remember Art Buchwald’s column in the Washington Post. In one, he describes the basic difference between bachelors and married men as being that married men think that bachelors dine with fashion models (and get sex after that), and bachelors think that married men get a home cooked three-course dinner served with love and affection (and get sex after that) when in actuality both eat cold food in front of the TV every evening (and sleep after that) – it’s just that married men are more likely to use spoons.

Which brings me to some questions I occasionally ponder – is it correct for a man to expect a hot meal every evening, cooked by his wife’s own hands? Is a woman entitled to the expectation of ‘being provided for’ for life by virtue of getting married? Who decides these things? Do married people have a right to their respective expectations and a responsibility to fulfil their spouse’s? In an era wherein many marriages break up early because of mismatch of expectations and unwillingness to compromise, it may be useful to see what the great philosophers have to say on these mundane matters.

I recently read a fascinating paper outlining the disagreement between Kant and Hegel on the role of rights in marriage.
Kant saw marriage as a contract between two people for ‘lifelong reciprocal possession of their sexual facilities’ and said that, in sexual relations, one party in the contract uses the other as an object and vice versa. Now, using any human being to satisfy one’s desires is against basic laws of humanity (and renders the used as ‘irrational’, the ultimate crime). Marriage remedies this with the condition of reciprocity, wherein the used simultaneously uses the user and thus enables both parties to remain ‘rational’. Kant stressed the importance of equal and reciprocal rights and responsibilities in marriage so as to satisfy the fundamental test of respect for persons. Reciprocity requires monogamy, because polygamous systems of matrimony involve unequal amounts of giving and taking between parties.

Hegel adamantly repudiated the Kantian view of marriage as a purely contractual arrangement . Couples celebrate marriage not merely as a quid pro quo but in order to attain a union of desire, affection, interest and identity that goes beyond anything specified in a contract. He said that there is a world of difference between the Kantian ‘contract for reciprocal use’ and the ‘love, trust and common sharing of their existence as individuals’ that married couples commit themselves to. If marriage begins in an agreement, it is a contract to transcend the standpoint of contract.

After 19 years of marriage, I’m not sure which one I go with. But there is one aspect of Hegel’s critique of Kant that I would like to touch upon – that of reducing marriage into an array of legalistic rights and responsibilities. Hegel did not see a role for rights in marriage, saying that to stand on one’s rights is to distance oneself from those upon whom claims are made. It is to announce the opening of hostilities, and to acknowledge that warmer bonds of kinship, affection and intimacy can no longer hold. Conjugal rights, or the right to a partner’s fidelity, or to be freed from domestic chores, or to draw equally upon family income, or an equal right to pursue a career, are OK as expectations and as a natural outcome of mutual concern and respect. But to claim them as rights (that one party presses upon another) is a moral failing.

This broadens into a larger conflict between liberals and communitarians. Liberals see the bonds of social life as constituted primarily by the rights (and the rights-based relations) of individuals. Communitarians take their reference from the shared lives of people within the communities of which they are a part, and the informal and engaged (as opposed to impersonal and abstract) relationships between them. They take umbrage at liberal political philosophy for the way the desires and preferences of individuals have precedence over community, fraternity, and a shared social good. Liberals counter that communitarians dangerously underestimate the possibility of things going wrong between human beings, and the need for guarantees when they do.

Is this something that one needs an advanced degree in philosophy to understand, or do the concepts described apply easily to the real world? I am reminded, at this stage, of a visit to the state of Mizoram in the mid-1990s and a debate on whether Mizos (an indigenous community resident in the state) should revert to traditional tribal law. The move was opposed (and is still opposed) tooth and nail by the Mizo Women’s Association because traditional law sees women’s rights within an informal communitarian framework, without countervailing guarantees that could be relied upon when things went wrong. A formal system of marital rights that could be enforced in a court of law, they felt, is better for women. And Mizoram, don’t forget, is where 89.4 percent of the women (as per the 2011 census) are literate.

To conclude, we would all like that things in love, marriage, and relationships be perfect, and we also know that this is rarely the case. Some expectations are met, some are not, and one is expected to compromise! Beyond a point, one or both partners may choose to break the matrimonial bond and restructure their lives. There is nothing wrong in this! However, when this happens, community spirit and kinship ties may not be sufficient to provide continued care and security to partners and children. A formal legal framework that outlines rights and responsibilities, that partners know they can fall back upon if mutual affection fades, strengthens the institution of marriage. Put simply, there is nothing like having love, respect, and friendship within a marriage so that a mutual and fair understanding of who does what is achieved. And there is nothing like the cold language of rights and responsibilities to back this understanding up. The combination is a winner!

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