© 2008 F. Roger Devlin. This page © 2008
All rights reserved.
Consequences of "unlimited choice";
reasons for considering marriage an irreversible covenant
By F. ROGER DEVLIN
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Most leftist utopias involve enjoying all the benefits of tightly knit communities while paying none of the costs in individual freedom such communities demand. Thus, feminists propose to liberate women from "domestic drudgery" and replace it with unrestricted personal choice. Yet the drudgery of marriage and its duties are, quite obviously, the indispensable basis of the family, the model and source for all real community.
It is true that there is a measure of free choice even in marriage: a woman
may choose whether, and to a certain extent whom, she will marry. But once
a woman makes her choice by taking the vow and entering into the covenant,
Ultimately, the fantasies of feminism and sexual liberation rest upon a metaphysical confusion that might be called the absolutizing of choice. The illusion is that society could somehow be ordered to allow women to choose without thereby diminishing their future options. Birth control, abortion, the destigmatizing of fornication and lesbianism, the "right" to a career, arbitrary and unilateral divorce all these have been pitched to women as ways of expanding their choices.
Now, I am in favor of giving women all the choice they can stand. (At present, I think they have rather more than that.) But a careful analysis will reveal that the term has distinct and partly contradictory senses that may not be equally applicable in all contexts. Choice is not a single thing that can be expanded indefinitely at no cost, and a specious appearance of more of it in one area can be shown to entail reducing one's possibilities in another.
One perfectly legitimate sense of choosing is doing as one desires. When we are asked, for example, to choose a flavor of ice cream, all that is meant is a decision as to which would be the most pleasing to us at the moment. That is because the alternative of chocolate or strawberry involves no deep, long-term consequences. But not all choices can be like that.
Consider, for example, a young man's choice of vocation. One of the charms of youth is that it is a time when possibility overshadows actuality. One might become a brain surgeon, or a mountain climber, or a poet, or a statesman, or a monk. It is natural and good for boys to dream about all the various things they might become, but such daydreams can breed a dangerous illusion: that, where anything is still possible, everything will be possible. That is true only in the case of trivial and inconsequential matters. It is possible to sample all of Baskin-Robbins's 31 flavors on 31 successive days. But it is not possible to become a brain surgeon and a mountain climber and a poet and a statesman and a monk. A man who tries to do so will only fail in all his endeavors. The reason, of course, is that important enterprises demand large amounts of time and dedication, but the men who undertake them are mortal.
For every possibility we realize, there will be a hundred we must leave
forever unrealized; for every path we choose to take, there will be a hundred
we must forever renounce. The need for choice in this sense is what
gives human life much of its seriousness and much of its poignancy. Those
who drift from one thing to another, unable to make up their minds or finish
anything they have begun, reveal thereby that they do not grasp an essential
truth about the human condition. They are like children who do not wish to
A woman's sexual choices are analogous to a man's in regard to his calling. Inherently, they cannot be made as easy and reversible as choosing flavors of ice cream. But making them so is what feminism and sexual liberation attempt to do. The underlying motive seems to be precisely a fear of difficult choices and a desire to eliminate the need for them. For example, a woman does not have to think about a man's qualifications to be a father to her children if a pill or a routine medical procedure can remove that possibility. There is no reason to consider carefully the alternative between career and marriage if motherhood can be safely postponed until the age of 40 (as large numbers of women now apparently believe). What we have here is not a clear gain in the amount of choice, but a shift from one sense of the word to another from serious, reflective commitment to merely doing as one desires at any given time. Like the dilettante who dabbles in five professions without finally pursuing any, the liberated woman wants to keep all her options open forever: she wants eternal youth.
The attempt to realize a utopia of limitless choice in the real world has certain predictable negative consequences: notably, it makes women's experience of love one of repeated failure. The liberated woman who rejects both committed marriage and committed celibacy drifts into and out of a series of what are called "relationships," either abandoning or being abandoned by her man (in her mind, it is his fault in both cases). A popular German novel satirizing this pattern of behavior is titled With the Next Man Everything Will Be Different. 
The lesson inevitably taught by such experiences is that love does not last, that people are not reliable, that in the end one has only oneself to fall back on, that prudence dictates always looking out for number one. And that in turn destroys the generosity, loyalty, and trust that are indispensable if love is to succeed and endure.
The women who have obeyed the new commandment to follow all of their heart's desire do not appear to me to be reveling in a garden of earthly delights. Instead I am reminded of the sad characters from the pages of Chekhov: sleepwalking through life, forever hoping that tomorrow things will somehow be changed for the better as they blindly allow opportunities for lasting happiness to slip through their fingers. But this is merely the natural outcome of conceiving of a human life as a series of revocable and inconsequential choices. We are, indeed, protected from certain risks, but we have correspondingly little to gain; we have fewer worries but no great aspirations. The price we pay for eliminating the dangers of intimacy is eliminating its seriousness. 
In place of family formation, we find a "dating scene" without any clear goal, in which men and women are both consumed with the effort to get the other party to close options ("commit") while keeping their own open. There is a hectic and never-ending jockeying for position: fighting off the competition on the one hand, keeping an eye out for a better deal elsewhere on the other. The latest "singles" fad is something called speed dating, where men and women interact for three minutes, then go on to someone else in response to the sound of a bell.
But the real nec plus ultra of current tendencies can be seen in certain
college "harassment" policies that warn that a "sexual contact" (as it is
exquisitely termed) creates no presumption that there will be further
"contacts." Apparently, you are guilty of harassing your "sex partner" if you
presume otherwise. Committees are being set up to enforce this stuff. It
would appear to be based upon the practice in homosexual bathhouses, but it
is now being forced upon young men and women as the normative ideal to
replace marriage. We behold the self-centered pursuit of short-term pleasure
claiming the moral high ground against self-control and lifelong devotion to
family. As usual, those unable to govern their own desires have the
greatest will to tyrannize over others.
Sex belongs to one transient phase of human life, viz., early adulthood. It is futile to attempt to abstract it from its natural and limited place in the life cycle and make it an end in itself. Sustainable civilization requires that more important long-term desires be given preference over short-term wishes that conflict with them, such as the impulse to commit fornication.
The purpose of marriage is not to place shackles upon people or reduce their options, but to enable them to achieve something that most are simply too weak to achieve without the aid of such an institution. Certain valuable things require time to ripen, and you cannot discover them unless you are patient and faithful to your task. Marriage is what tells people to stick to it long enough to find out what happens. Struggling with such difficulties and even periods of outright discouragement is part of what allows the desires of men and women to mature and come into focus. Older couples who have successfully raised children together, and are rewarded by seeing them marry and produce children of their own, are unlikely to view their honeymoon as the most important event of their marriage.
People cannot know what they want when they are young. A young man may imagine happiness to consist in living on Calypso's Island, giving himself over to sexual pleasure without ever incurring family obligations; but, like Ulysses, he would eventually find such a life unsatisfying.
Such confusion about one's desires is probably greater in the female, however. For that reason, it is misleading to speak, as old-fashioned men like to do, of young women "wanting marriage." A young woman leafing through the pages of Modern Bride does not yet know what marriage is; all she wants is to have her wedding day and live happily ever after. She may well not have the slightest notion of the duties she will be taking on.
Marriage is often said to exist for the protection of women, and certainly the male protective instinct is much in evidence in most male criticism of the sexual revolution. Principally, however, what they need protecting from is not men intent upon one-night stands it is their own irrationality, irresponsibility, immaturity, and short-sightedness. One might even legitimately speak of a need to protect women from the delusions of feminism and liberation.
Motherhood is what really forces young women to grow up; I have heard women themselves remark upon this. Scatterbrained dopes whose biggest concern used to be which new hairstyle to try next find themselves keeping accurate financial records and planning their actions, suddenly aware that they have a genuinely important task to perform and surprised to find themselves equal to it.
But without the understanding that marriage is an inherently irreversible covenant, both men and women succumb to the illusion that divorce will solve the "problem" of dissatisfaction in marriage. They behave like the farmer who clears, plows, and plants a field only to throw up his hands on the first really hot and sweaty day of work, exclaiming: "Farming is no fun! I'm going to do something else!" And like that farmer, they have no one to blame but themselves when they fail to harvest any crop.
Understanding the marriage bond as an irreversible covenant similarly
influences the way economic activity and property are understood. Rather
than being a series of short-term responses to circumstance, labor and
investment become an aspect of family life transcending the natural
August 26, 2008
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© 2008 F. Roger Devlin. This page © 2008 WTM Enterprises. All rights reserved.
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