Friday, June 20, 2008

Annulment and the Essence of Marriage

How curious:
A French court has overturned an order annulling the marriage of a French Muslim woman who is accused by her husband of lying about being a virgin... Under the French civil code, a marriage can be annulled if a spouse has lied about an "essential quality" of the relationship.

I guess that makes sense. But it raises an interesting philosophical question: what determines the 'essential qualities' of a relationship? It would seem to largely depend upon mutual expectations. Though that's not quite right: one might have bizarre and baseless expectations, after all, and it's at least conceivable that both partners might - by sheer coincidence - fall into the same delusion that some X was central to their relationship, even when there's not any reason why this would be so (they've never even discussed X, it's not a common norm in their culture, etc.). So X might thereby be a mutual expectation in some (purely descriptive) sense, even though there's no way it could really be a norm governing their relationship. So we should revise this account to instead say that the 'essential qualities' of the relationship are determined by what would be reasonable expectations for all involved -- and not just any old epistemic expectation, but a reasonable belief about the internal standards or norms of the relationship.

To bring out the intuition that annulment is appropriate in such a case, suppose one's fiance has deceived you about their sex. You get married, and only later discover - to your surprise - that yours was actually a gay marriage (supposing this is legal). This would seem reasonable grounds for annulment (at least against our cultural background -- you might imagine a society where this wouldn't be considered significant): the 'marriage' lacked informed consent in a relevant respect - this isn't the kind of relationship you thought it was - and so should be considered void.

Are there any constraints on the substantive content of such norms? I don't see why there should be. It's possible to have perverse relationships, governed by bad or inappropriate norms. (The conservative norm of virginity seems such an example. We may disapprove, but I don't think we can very well deny that virginity really was a precondition for the marital relationship as the man in this case understood it. We might similarly imagine a norm of 'blue blood' governing aristocratic marriages, such that faked royalty might be grounds for annulling a royal wedding. You might even have racist norms governing the relationships between KKK members, I suppose.)

A further interesting question is whether the relevant norms can be peculiar to the individual couple, or whether they must be based on broader cultural norms. Suppose that instead of virginity, the man confessed a comparably inane obsession, say with blonde hair. After the wedding, he learns that his bleached spouse had lied to him about being a natural blonde. Could that possibly be grounds for annulment? That seems weird. But maybe the problem is not so much the unshared nature of his peculiar obsession, but rather its free-floating status in his worldview. Perhaps if blondeness was tied to other peculiar beliefs and practices of his, so that investing it with such significance would be somewhat more comprehensible, then we would be more sympathetic.

Any thoughts?

P.S. The original article reports some bizarre objections to the original annulment ruling. Conservative politicians claimed the ruling was somehow "incompatible with France's secular principles" -- as if secularism meant you weren't allowed to recognize the different norms and values that define different people's relationships? Or, even weirder:
The Lille court's decision has also angered feminists who say it amounts to a fatwa against women's liberty... Feminist groups said they were ashamed to see the ruling adding it would allow men legally to reject women on the grounds they were not virgins.

Can anyone make sense of this? The freedom to deceive someone into marrying you under false pretenses is not, I would have thought, a principle of "women's liberty" worth defending.

1 comment:

  1. Prior to any agreement, the parties will make various statements to one another. Normally the fact that one of those statements turns out to be false will not make the entire agreement void. However, in agreements other than marriage, people get around this by putting into the agreement the factors that are truly essential.

    The problem here is that the marriage contract is regulated by law. What should happen is that people who wish it can enter a form of marriage where they guarantee virginity. If there is no such guarantee, then the agreement cannot be annulled if it turns out one of the partners was not a virgin.


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