Marriage IIa: Institutions and Values

In the coming month QL will finish its long-delayed discussion of marriage. Rather than delaying indefinitely I will post short sections of the essay as I complete them.

During the delay, more talented craftsmen than I have put their hands to the question of marriage: Jim discusses marriage and status, EvoX gives the teleofunctional perspective, Michael Perilloux offers practical advice, and Kristor puts the family in its proper place, at the center of all stable social cooperation. (Even if you are not on the market, Perilloux’s witty essay is enjoyable and incisive.)

The Locked-Door Principle

I do not have any special insight into marriage itself. I can only offer a simple insight into marriage as an institution. The insight is simple enough that I can compress it into an allegory. If you understand the parallel between the Locked-Door Principle and marriage, then you don’t really need to read the rest of the essay. (If you don’t like allegories, skip this section and read the rest of the essay.)

People lock their doors because they’re afraid of theft. If no one steals, no one is afraid of theft. But if theft is never easy, then no one will try to steal (it’s pointless), and therefore no one will steal. The easiest way to make theft universally difficult is for everyone to lock their doors; then no one will steal, so no one will have to be afraid of theft.

Locked doors are a terrible inconvenience, as anyone who has ever been fleeced by a locksmith can attest. If you live in a community where no one steals and no one expects thefts to occur, it seems like the natural next step would be to formalize the détente between would-be thieves and their potential victims. “Look,” the homeowners would say, “it’s easy for us to stop you. All we have to do is lock our doors. You thieves have lost; the jig is up. Now that we’ve demonstrated the defensive power of our locks, do we really need to go through the charade of actually locking the house which we know none of you thieves would be stupid enough to try to enter? The locks are a huge inconvenience for everyone. Let’s all agree that we’ve learned our lesson, and dispense with this superfluous locking.”

To a naive idealist, this probably seems entirely logical. Instead of (everyone locks, no one steals, no one is afraid of theft), we just nudge society over onto a new outcome, (no one locks, no one steals, no one is afraid of theft). This new outcome is strictly superior to the old one. It has all of the previous outcome’s security of property, without the pesky charade of actually locking the doors that no thief will try to open.

The problem, which my astute reader has no doubt noted, is that a would-be thief does not care about “the long-term success of theft as a social strategy” in some abstract sense. He only cares about what happens the next time he tries to open a stranger’s front door. If the door is certainly locked and he can’t possibly get anything other than police attention if he tries to open it, he won’t. If the door is certainly unlocked and he can probably get away with portable luxury goods without being noticed, he might. Perhaps after a single successful theft everyone will start locking their doors again and future thefts will be impossible — but who cares? Our thief only cares about one theft, the one he gets away with.

The (no one locks, no one steals, no one is afraid of theft) outcome is unsustainable. The absence of theft is an effect of deterrent measures, not an accident. Remove the “unnecessary” deterrent, and the thefts will immediately resume and gain momentum as successful thieves gain confidence. Fear of theft will then gradually return as well.

So it would be asinine for the homeowners to announce that they are no longer locking their doors, and that they expect the thieves to be gentlemen about it. They have every reason to instead publicize their door-locking routines and their intention to continue to lock their doors in perpetuity.

If the homeowners could stick to this simple resolution, all would be well. But where idealism and naïveté fail to destroy communal norms, beware of laziness and self-satisfaction! If everyone locks their door so there is no reason to try to steal from a house so there is no reason to fear theft, then there is no cost to leaving one’s own door unlocked. The idealist’s argument that door-locking was an unnecessary and pointless precaution, which failed at the community level, actually holds good when pared down to a cynical argument for selfish sloppiness.

Of course, it will never be the case that everyone in a community simultaneously recognizes that stealing is pointless, and that there is no reason to fear theft, and that there is no cost to leaving one’s door unlocked. After a crime-free period begins, different people hit the requisite level of confidence at different times. As more and more people are lulled into this (accurate but short-sighted) confidence, fewer and fewer will lock their doors. As careless homeowners provide more and more opportunities for mischief, more criminals find their way to this juicy, vulnerable community. As crime hits the community, fear of crime and door-locking quickly return.

The Locked-Door Principle dictates that expectations and norms are two sides of the same coin. You cannot expect a norm to change without expecting the expectations which motivate the norm, and which the norm itself motivates, to change as well.

Social standards give rise to norms of behavior. Normal behavior gives rise to expectations about how other people will act. Once people expect others to conform to norms, they can start to follow strategies which are narrowly adapted to exploit normal behavior. As the community reacts to defend itself against antisocial parasites and their exploitative strategies, it deviate from some of its established norms. The strategic conflict will give rise to new social standards, and the cycle will begin again.

The Locked-Door Principle is so illustrative of this standards > norms > expectations feedback loop precisely because it shows that there is no interest so important that people will not put it at risk for some trivial convenience, if they consider the risk to be sufficiently small. Crime is a weighty issue. Security of property is a weighty issue. The convenience of keeping one’s door unlocked is, by contrast, a minor issue. When a man is willing to endanger his property and to encourage crime in order to spare himself the hassle of getting into a locked house, that vividly demonstrates how confident he is in the safety of his community.

Nonetheless, this very lopsidedness which allows the Locked-Door Principle to illustrate the importance of expectations does misrepresent the dynamics of norms and expectations in one important way: normally, the “third value” which societies want to implement, and which exposes them to forms of insecurity which had previously been contained, is every bit as important as the first two. We can learn to live with the inconvenience of locked doors, but other values are not so easily forgotten.

Institutions and Values

I assume most of my readers agree that insane marital institutions will lead to the collapse of the family, and that if marital life degenerates across society, some progressive “reform” of the institutional framework of marriage is probably to blame.

That much is uncontroversial. But many of my readers may also believe that if any one of these progressive “reforms” can be undone, all of them can be, and that the regeneration of marital life will restore all traditional values to their proper places. This I deny.

Marital institutions embody social values. Collectively, the institutions which a society builds around marriage delineate that society’s specific conception of what marriage is. Unavoidable conflicts between values translate into unbridgeable chasms between alternative institutional embodiments that demand incompatible commitments from their participants.

I will treat the topics on which these claims touch in the following order:

  • a. “Values”
  • b. How institutions are good for participants and their communities in general
    • Good for individual participants
    • Good for their communities
  • c. The goods that marriage promotes
  • d. Marital values
  • e. Conflicts between marital institutions

To defend this conclusion (e), I need to be able to refer to concrete examples of the kind of “values” that marriage can promote or embody. In order to provide those examples (d), I need to outline the the set of the goods marriage can (and should) promote (c); this outline will clarify the sense in which those values are, well, valuable. But to understand the sense in which marriage promotes these goods, you must first understand how institutions in general promote goods (b); and to understand the distinction between the goods institutions promote and the “values” they “embody”, I will need to say a few words justifying this unfortunate choice of terminology (a).

The Ambiguity of Value

I don’t like the term “values” and will try to use it as little as possible. The basic problem with talk about someone’s values is that it is ambiguous between his goals and his principles. Goals are what he choose to strive for, principles are why he makes the choice. If I tell you that I value skirt steak, maybe that means that I hold myself to a certain standard of physical fitness, and that requires me to consume a certain amount of protein, and that commits me to diet rich in skirt steak. Or maybe it just means that I really love skirt steak, and organize my life around cooking and eating it. In the former case, my deepest ideals commit me to valuing skirt steak; in the latter case, my commitment to valuing skirt steak is itself one of my deepest ideals.

In Part I we saw that the concept of commitment has the same ambiguity: “commitment” can refer either to something someone is going to do, or to some preparatory step that provides reliable evidence that they really are going to do it. (I used the example of announcing that you’re going to parachute onto an island, and then subsequently jumping out of an airplane. Arriving on the island is what you’ve committed to do, but until you’ve jumped out of the airplane you can have second thoughts and renege. The leap is how you commit.)

When we are talking about a group’s values, this sort of ambiguity can be fruitful. When a group issues a manifesto listing its ideals, its principles, its aspirations, it is almost never clear whether the group plans to pursue these “ideals” (which are rarely clearly-defined to begin with!) for their own sake or for the sake of certain consequences. And beyond the coyness (not to say prevarication!) of the group’s propaganda, it will nearly always be difficult for outside observers to tell whether the group is pursuing its publicly-stated agenda honestly, for the officially stated reasons, or only because this agenda is profitable for the group, its leaders, and its members.

So the weasel-word value turns out to have some value after all! It’s perfect for describing the operating principles of groups which use certain slogans, symbols, and rules as focal points for internal disputes over the direction of the group and for external messaging. Within the group, a “value” needs to be positioned roughly symmetrically between factions with different interpretations of whether it is an absolute value or an instrumental value (or else it will cease to be relevant to the distinctions between the rival factions). Outside the group, observers must see the group advancing its stated values to some degree, or the credibility of the group’s messages (and its ability to “state” anything at all) disintegrates. But at the same time the observers must also see the group advancing its own interests, or else it will cease to act as a group.

Thus the messy equilibrium-conditions for group cohesion dictate the preservation of ambiguous moral formulae over the medium-term, and call for a messy word like “values” to reflect this. Up to this point, the term “values” is counterintuitive but useful as a description of the fuzzy goal/principles shared by groups of people. But unfortunately if you want to go beyond that sort of casual observation and description, if you want to go under the hood and talk about how the equilibrium is possible and which equilibria are consistent with each other, then talk of “values” is worthless. To analyze the equilibrium you have to tease apart all of the different elements that are preserved in indistinct ambiguity by the term value: matter and form, means and ends, symbolic validity and instrumental usefulness. Once you have teased these elements apart, it is awkward to continue to refer to them indifferently as “values”; but for lack of a better alternative I will occasionally be forced to do exactly that.


(Coming in Part IIb: Institutions and Institutional Goods)


4 thoughts on “Marriage IIa: Institutions and Values

  1. 1. A report from the olden days:

    “One of my earliest memories of reading the news in the mid-1960s is of all the articles warning citizens to start taking their car keys with them. But even when that lesson sunk in, many people still didn`t lock their cars. A common memory of my boyhood is my father and I seeing a parked car with its headlights left on, so he`d open the car door and switch them off before the battery drained down. In that trusting era, thieves merely had to hotwire the ignition.”

    2. I’m willing to bet that in Hayden, Idaho, there are a lot of unlocked doors.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes. My grandfather still kept a spare key wired to the undercarriage of the car. Old norms die hard! (It didn’t hurt that as they got older they moved from a very white area to an even whiter area.)


  2. […] Institutions need to be good for the individuals who participate in them: the little people. In fact, not only do they need to be good for individuals, they need to be good for individuals in two ways. On the one hand, an institution needs to lure individuals into participating with some attractive incentive. On the other hand, the institution has to find some way to meet its participants most important needs and promote their long-term flourishing to reinforce their participation. […]


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