Salus populi suprema lex
To recapitulate the previous installment: Institutions need to be individually good for their primary participants and they need to be collectively good for the societies who enforce them. On the individual level, institutions need to lure their primary participants with a short-term reward that motivates them, and they also need to provide some long-term reward that strengthens them and improves their lives. On the collective level, the net effects of an institution must be good for the set of people who make sacrifices, large or small, to perpetuate the institution.
This account gives some sense of what is meant by “the common good”. Many different people have many different goods. Of these many goods, some of them are good for only one person (or most commonly, primarily good for one person) but others are good for an entire group of people. When Johnny wins a baseball game, that good is a matter of indifference to most of humanity, and even a source of bitterness to a few, but it is also a good which has been pursued by each of Johnny’s teammates.
Arbitrarily many groups could be defined by going through an arbitrarily long list of goods and looking to see who would benefit from each of them. If the city shut down traffic on the streets around my home tomorrow, some residents would be overjoyed while others would be furious. Further, goods can be interconnected as the effects of one cause: as when military spending has a set of defensive benefits for all citizens, a set of economic benefits for the firms that get defense contracts and the families that live around military bases, and a set of professional benefits for the generals who will command the new toys.
A good that is common to some group becomes the common good of that group by a process of legitimation, normalization, and sublimation. Many other goods that are common to that entire group will be instead identified as being primarily good for some smaller subgroup which receives more concentrated benefits from it, or for some larger supergroup which receives more diffuse but ultimately larger benefits. Conversely, many goods that are common to other groups which overlap with the original group will be ignored due to the perception that the group in question is incoherent or haphazard, and thus is not a collective subject, cannot “have” anything, let alone a common good.
Legitimation is the symbolic articulation of a group and of its greatest goods. The repeated symbolic affirmation of a certain limit settles ambiguity about who is and is not salient as a member of a community, and which interests are and are not salient to its health, thus circumscribing both populus and salus and producing a salus populi.
Words and symbols alone are not sufficient to produce a common good, of course. In general talk is cheap, but the rhetoric of legitimation must not be arbitrary. The good which is to be understood as part of the common good must be normalized within the group so that the symbolic presentation of “the community” matches the experiences of its members. Members who are indifferent to the good must be expelled or suppressed. The good must be achievable; the members of the community must expect to bask in success, at least from time to time. And the conditions which make the good achievable must be safeguarded, including (again) by disciplining or expelling members whose undesirable qualities frustrate its achievement.
When a good is legitimized and normalized as the health of the community, it becomes incorporated into the self-conception of the guardians of the community. This is not necessarily a part of the ethos of every newly-planted colony; the spirit of pioneer life tends to be blunter and cruder, in proportion to the straightforwardness of the tasks pioneers face. But as a community matures its internal actions must become more complicated and its guardians, if they are to safeguard it rather than to leech off it, must develop an aristocratic ethos through which the gravity of their task is mediated to their consciousness.
Here I have perhaps daunted my readers. We do not need to regenerate a reactionary ethos to salvage the institution of marriage. But the grace, elegance and nobility with which an aristocrat upholds the traditions of his ancestors should indicate to you the relationship between “values” and the salus populi. Moreover, that different aristocracies distinguish noble traditions from undignified, unworthy nonsense in different ways should help you understand the gulf between the different (yet valid) conceptions of marriage in different traditions.
Now we are ready to ask the key question: how might marriage promote the common good? Let me organize the possibilities under three headings: posterity, prosperity, and peace.
These goods, by the way, are potential elements of the common good, tout court. In the close analysis of these goods that follows, the heaviest emphasis falls upon the goods most related to marriage, and in some cases I make specific comments on different ways the marriage-institution can promote different goods. But this is not a list of the benefits of marriage! This is a list of goods which can be the common good of a community; a fortiori, it is an outline of the ways marriage might possibly be judged to serve the common good.
Some readers may have found the discussion of institutions in IIb abstract or vague. What follows is intended especially for these readers. A firm grasp of the many ways in which an institution can serve the common good is necessary before the essay can return, in its conclusion, to the main argument about marital values and commitment.
Readers who can, with a quick glance at this outline, immediately grasp the elements of the common good it references; who already have a vivid sense of how each good can be accomplished by certain institutional forms and frustrated by others; these readers are already prepared for the next installment. If you can intuit the rest of what I am going say, feel free to skim this post, or skip ahead directly to the next post.
Posterity: children and self-perpetuation
A community needs new members or it will disappear. The break-even point is slightly over two children surviving to adulthood, on average, per adult woman. But even to reach this steady-state average, some women must have far more than two children survive to adulthood to counter-balance the infertile and the abnormal, and the average number of births will be need to exceed the average number of adult children in proportion to child mortality and morbidity.
Further, a community needs to grow faster than this steady-state equilibrium to have the option to sacrifice some of its members before they raise families, or to devote them to a cloistered life. And it must grow steadily in favorable circumstances in order to have a robust population base going into disasters which decimate it. (That is to say, a population which never grows will nonetheless occasionally shrink due to epidemics, wars, floods, and so on, and so it will inevitably dwindle to nothing.)
Beyond these conservative measures of the well-being of a population, it is straightforward common sense that, all else equal, a larger population multiplies the force of its members and so, if the community remains cohesive, it will be better able to achieve common ends, protect itself from dangers, and otherwise master its world. (Whether all else remains equal, of course, is a problem that cuts to the heart of statecraft.) Ultimately the growth of populations justifies the forefathers who cherish dreams of great posterity, rather than vice-versa; the very existence of actual populations is explained by the past expansion of founder-populations, which eclipsed and exterminated counterparts who took little interest in the peopling of their lands.
Posterity, then, is the final cause of all common good. And thus for a community to flourish, most women must be mothers, most men must be supporting children, and most men must be using most of their resources to support children. Marriage must bring this about.
For marriages to produce many children, first, the spouses must be attracted to one another. This chemical attraction not only leads to frequent mating, but bespeaks a compatibility between two lovers’ immune systems which makes conception more likely. Marriages also promote frequent mating by giving sexual authority to the husband and reducing uncertainty about who is to couple with whom. Marriage at a young age (particularly for women) lengthens the window in which children will arrives.
(The institutional infrastructure’s contribution to total fertility intersects with marital institutions at several other points. The esteem in which large families are held, and the practical risks of remaining childless, may determine whether a husband can renounce a barren wife. The law of inheritance reflects degrees of affinity to legitimate heirs, defined with respect to marriage. The regulation of contraception and unnatural vices will have implications for the relationship between courtship, engagement, marriage, and the arrival of children.)
The quality of children is governed by a number of complicated factors. The number of children each mother can bear is roughly inelastic, although of course it is desirable for excellent young women to have many more children than deformed young women. The real question concerns men’s highly elastic ability to bear children. Any man could hypothetically sire arbitrarily many children or none at all. This means that communities can skew the paternity of its children towards the most suitable potential fathers to an arbitrary degree.
One way to accomplish this is polygamy, allowing men who are exceptional in some respect (whether in the eyes of potential brides, the brides’ families, or the community more broadly) to take multiple wives. More broadly, marital systems must either be hypergamous or hypogamous. A system which caters to female hypergamy, a woman’s natural attraction to men of higher status, must either countenance polygamy for high-ranking men or celibacy for high-ranking women. But monogamy can also contribute to the quality of the children, to the extent that each family’s size is proportioned to the merits of its parents, and men with undesirable qualities are excluded from marriage entirely or at least prevented from acquiring harems.
Monogamous marriage has another potential benefit for child-quality. Generally speaking, polygamous marriage allows men to acquire additional wives over time. This is true by definition for serial polygamy but is effectively inevitable wherever a man may take as many wives as his property can support. Even monogamy, where the competition for wives is steep, can see most men delaying marriage until later in life.
The problem is that old men, while still capable of siring children, accumulate genetic defects in their germ line over time; their children have more defects and more latent mutations which will spread in the population and burden it. (Greg Cochrane writes on this topic often, if you would like to read more.) Thus we can also draw a distinction between gerontocratic marital institution, which distribute women disproportionately to older men, and ephebocratic institutions which distribute them disproportionately to young men with flawless germ lines.
There is one further distinction we can make, with respect to the quality of children: upward mobility and downward mobility. Any given father dreams of raising his own status or the status of his children; for a clan to be upwardly mobile over successive generations is a great testimony to the virtue and energy of its members. But what is flourishing in a family is fatal in a nation; if all families are on average upwardly mobile over time, that can only mean that the upper classes are continually dying off and the lower classes are continually multiplying to replace them. Unless the traits of the upper classes are contemptible and the traits of the lower classes are robust and admirable, this will result in degeneration.
Downward mobility, conversely, though disappointing to the déclassé, is a sign that the virtues of the ruling elite are becoming the virtues of an entire race. Whether marriage promotes downward mobility or upward mobility will be connected to its approach to hypergamy, and to the inheritance-system and other norms which enframe it.
In addition to the quantity and quality of the children born, a society wants to make sure that these children are well-provided for and well-socialized.
Children are provided for to the extent that their parents, their kin, and their communities mobilize resources to satisfy their wants. Different patterns of marriage can encourage or discourage this mobilization in different ways.
Socialization of children reflects, in part, the extent to which their families can provide them with an education and initiation in to their native culture, in addition to food and shelter, but also the extent to which the children have traits which make it possible to socialize them. So socialization also depends on a special aspect of child-quality: traits which are neither simply valuable nor simply harmful, but which are well-suited to the norms and practices of the population into which they are born.
Some of these special “sociability” traits will reflect the peculiar style and character of the population. Others will be eucivic traits which determine an individual’s approach to cooperation and conflict. Some distribution of eucivic traits might be valuable for the community in the abstract, but at the margin each individual will be most sociable when his cooperation-style meshes with the approach his existing neighbors take. (So a pathological altruist will cause havoc in a clannish society, and a clannish bigot in an altruistic society, regardless of what mix of altruism and clannishness best serves the common good.)
Finally, some of these civic virtues and peculiarities will relate to the role of a particular family within a broader society. This set of role-relative traits will harmonize internally but will complement the virtues of the family’s neighbors, rather than mirroring them.
Every biological population faces a trade-off between inbreeding depression and outbreeding depression, between incest and mongrels. Similarity between mates increases the sympathy between them and the compatibility between the biological designs their genomes encode, but in extreme cases weakens the offspring’s immune system and yields homozygous-recessive deformities. Dissimilarity, conversely, leads to friction between mismatched mates and dysfunction in the incompatible chromosomes of their children.
A community’s marital institutions will govern its tendency towards consanguinity simply in terms of the quality of the inbred or outbred offspring it permits, but it will govern its sociability even more strongly.
- An outbred population will be more evenly related to other members of the community, and so will gradually become more altruistic, whereas an inbred population will gradually become more clannish (in the sense of assabiyya).
- A community which becomes outbred at the population level will lose its special peculiarities; as the unique coordination-benefits of adopting the native style disappear, these traits will disappear entirely.
- A community whose subdivisions become outbred (in the sense that it loses its population structure) will lose the specialization of virtues which had allowed various families to play certain roles, hold certain ranks, and occupy a certain status in a larger social order.
The bottom line is that for a community to survive, it needs a population, and it needs a strong population, but it also needs its own population. Societies can adapt and evolve, but a community which fails to transmit its own culture to the next generation ceases to exist.
Prosperity: happiness and fulfillment
The happiness of a society corresponds to the flourishing of its members. As we have already mentioned, to the extent that an institution debilitates its participants and ruins those who uphold it, it will be a sickly, failing institution. More generally, whatever goal a society sets itself, it will accomplish it more easily to the extent that the needs of its members are met and they are generally satisfied, healthy, energetic, and confident. (And needless to say, a prosperous population can more easily raise and socialize the young.)
Included among the goods that constitute to prosperity are the management of households, the division of labor across specialized roles, and the energy with which individuals are able to pursue their ends.
Households have work to do: work oriented outward, to producing the necessities of life, and work oriented inward, to consumption and enjoyment. Well-run households (oikonomos) make good decisions about production and consumption, and the nature of marriage determines who makes those decisions, and how.
Marriage also promotes efficient forms of the division of labor between husband and wife. This corresponds in most cases to the special proficiencies and interests of men and women, but sometimes also to structural divisions between work in the home and work outside of the home, or short-term and long-term decisions, or different spheres of social relationships for which one or the other spouse should take responsibility.
(Marriage also promotes efficient division of labor between generations within a family and different branches of a clan, but to fully elaborate on how these relate to marriage would carry us too far afield.)
Last but certainly not least, the greatest pleasures that human seek — love, security, and sex — are associated with romantic satisfaction especially. As the first installment of this series explains, lovers’ rival interests gives rise a strategic conflict between them, and marriage is above all the specific form that the cooperative resolution of this conflict takes.
Peace: harmony and order.
A community is not a list of names. Nor is it an association, born by unanimous consent and expanded by a voluntary admission-process. A community can only exist where there is proximity and interaction. No group has the potential for community unless it also has the potential for anarchy and slaughter. A community coexists, and coexistence implies a space where cooperation and conflict will be possible.
With the possibility of strategic interaction come strategic tactics: pleas, promises, bargains, threats, declarations, reactions, reprisals, and preemptive strikes. No community can eliminate antagonism, but every community redirects it into certain pre-established channels, imposes limits on it, and guarantees that it will intervene to defend certain claims.
But communities establish peace in two ways. On the one hand, they forbid war; this is the realm of political order. (As formalists know, the sovereign is responsible for enforcing peace within his state. But not all communities are states, and not all rulers are sovereigns! Degenerate societies treat anarchy as a form of peace, whereas primitive societies treat order as form of war.) On the other hand, they remove casus belli; this is the realm of institutional order.
In any anarchic strategic conflict, the natural course of things is for one party to interpret the other’s retaliation as a new defection, reply with its own retaliation, and thus initiate a spiral of reprisal and revenge. To head off such “miscommunication”, each party may try to deter defection by stating clearly up front what will provoke retaliation; but even if each side considers its own warnings as simple statements of obvious expectations, they may interpret the other’s warnings as aggressive new demands backed by insolent threats, provoking a spiral of posturing and insults. Menaced by threats, each side can attempt to preempt further deterrence attempts by committing itself irreversibly to an uncooperative approach as early as possible, inspiring yet another race to the bottom.
As the interaction turns hostile, each side grabs at whatever kind of leverage it can prepare. The means to enact one’s own preferred outcome unilaterally would be ideal, but any power to punish the belligerent counter-party is nearly as good; there is no need to overcome the adversary if instead you can make opposition too painful to contemplate. As alliances and factions form that will band together against the personal enemies of each individual member, irrelevant disputes are bundled together into larger feuds, and a single quarrel can plunge arbitrarily many people into a state of war.
(All strategic rivalries ultimately take the form of the prisoner’s dilemma, in the absence of external constraint, precisely because it is cheaper to inflict new suffering than to alleviate existing suffering. The arms-race to coerce and injure is a purely negative-sum game imposed on the original interaction.)
Romance creates social friction in at least three different ways. First, the strategic interactions between partners (and their allies) can spiral into spiteful retaliation and mutual mistrust. Potential partners, meanwhile, can defect before they have even met by pre-committing to an aggressively selfish lifestyle.
Second, romantic rivals can engage in useless signaling spirals in an attempt to impress the object of their affection. They can also attempt to injure or humiliate the rival to handicap him (or her), or simply deter his (or her) courtship attempts by force majeure. (Fitness-signaling spirals, in fact, tend to escalate into these nastier demonstrations of ingenuity.) At the extreme, these aggressive forms of courtship pass over into rape, bride-capture, and shotgun marriage.
Third, the difficulty or impossibility of achieving one’s romantic aims by legitimate, conventional means can drive the young to desperate measures. Men rape and seduce, women fornicate, cheat, and prostitute themselves. Those who are too noble or too cautious to steal what they want directly may nonetheless be reduced to theft, fraud, or other petty crimes to succeed in the marriage market. Those who refrain from crime entirely nonetheless are manpower for that great, resentful mob which longs for chaos, for upheaval… in short, for whatever catastrophe might overthrow the status hierarchy and salvage their hopeless existence.
So marital institutions promote consensus and eliminate social friction, at the most general level, by eliminating uncertainty and ambiguity and bolstering the level of romantic cooperation; but more specifically, by limiting the forms and costs of romantic conflict; and in particular by minimizing the threat of desperation, whether by ensuring many people enter into (happy) marriages or by neutralizing those who do not.
To the extent that there are (and must be) arms races between strategic rivals competing for scarce goods, social institutions can either compress the scale of the arms race, lowering its cost, or divert it into some arena where the side effects of the zero-sum primary rivalry benefit the rest of society, or at least the rivals themselves. (Remember the example of institutionalized athletics. The discipline and grit with which all varsity teams pursue the state championship is zero-sum, but only with respect to the pride and status of the contenders. The costs of athletic training are more than recouped in physical fitness.)
Finally, marital system must be compatible with all of the other interests and commitments of the spouses and their families. That is to say, a harmonious society cannot resolve its romantic conflicts in a way that only embitters all of the other rivalries that arise in other spheres of human life.
Assume a community has a property system which regulates how families acquire and protect wealth, a ranking of social orders which regulates how families earn and retain honors and privileges, and a status-culture which regulates how families gain respect and avoid contempt. Families will pursue property, rank, status, and favorable marriages for their children, all at the same time. If the institutional forms which safeguard marriage upset other pursuits, then all of the participants will go to great length to pervert the spirit of the institution and avoid the costs it imposes.
(For example, in medieval France, Burgundy, and Flanders, feudal lords had the power to impose marriages on commoners. They often used this power to reward faithful but impoverished retainers with the unmarried daughters of wealthy bourgeois. This was in effect a wealth transfer, from the burgher to the retainer; but unlike an honest tax, this policy seems to have been the spur to a cycle of younger and younger marriages contracted to preserve bourgeois fortunes.)
The main problems of compatibility come at the intersection of hypergamy and polygamy with the rest of the social order. A woman wishes to become the wife, or one of the wives, of a powerful man so that her children can have a share in his wealth, rank, and power, as well as in all of the desirable traits that made him powerful to begin with. But a powerful family has absolutely no interest in sharing its hard-earned status with every Raggedy Ann who catches the eyes of its scions. Conversely, if a less-powerful family is expected to see its daughters used and discarded by the powerful, that becomes an endless source of grievances.
There are a few basic approaches to the compatibility problem.
Morganatic marriages are legally valid in some senses, but not in others; most importantly, the fruit of a morganatic union are legitimate children of their parents, but are ineligible to inherit the rank and title of their father (or mother, in the exceptional case of hypogamy).
Roman marriage offered several different tools, which I imagine are independent of each other (although I am no expert in Roman law). First, there were multiple forms of marriage and multiple corresponding degrees of legitimacy. A child could only be borne into a certain social order if his parents were both eligible to participate in a marriage unavailable to lower orders. Second, a man’s wife and all his children were in patria potestas, and he had effectively arbitrary discretion over how they were treated and who would inherit what. Third, slavery and concubinage were routine and offered a route for Roman citizens to support children without acknowledging them.
Egalitarian marriage, the form with which we are most familiar in TCY, may be contracted between any two adults from anywhere in the social order, and pools the spouses’ assets and obligations into a joint family property, giving any child a claim to its parents’ support equal to any other child. — But of course an even more egalitarian social form is to give any child, simply, equal claim to its father’s support, whether or not the child is legitimate. And more egalitarian still is to give every child an equal claim to the support of all men, with no questions asked about paternity.
We have finished our overview of marriage and the common good. The series will conclude with an application of this analysis to the mutually exclusive forms that marriage can take, and the different values that are central to each institutional vision of the ideal marriage.