According to the Epicurean view of justice, we need a ‘basic conception’ of justice, and we formulate justice in the course of agreements with one another not to cause or suffer harm. (These ideas have been discussed in a number of recent entries.)
This approach to justice provides a framework for examining a wide range of human relationships. It is in associating with one another that we find the need for mutual agreement. An agreement to be just must deliver justice; otherwise the terms of the agreement must be reconsidered.
Marriage as an agreement between two people clearly involves issues of justice. Concepts of marriage vary, but it is surely essential that each party to the marriage should not cause harm to the other party nor be harmed by the other party.
In fact, given the perverse nature of the human being, marriages often involve harm to one or both parties. This is a typical problem with human relationships generally, but is especially so in marriage and family settings where daily contact is constant and harmony is easily upset by the pressures and perplexities of life.
Customs have developed around marriage which influence people’s understanding of what marriage is and how married couples should co-operate. In the Western tradition, the development of institutional Christianity has led to a view that marriage should be solemnized in a church setting and agreed to in the light of church principles.
There is obviously room for controversy where the norms which a church requires in marriage come into conflict with belief and value systems in the community. This is not an unusual state of affairs: churches guard a tradition which they see as an important corrective to other views.
It is unavoidable that church beliefs and values should be scrutinized for their validity and for the extent to which they render justice. The need for scrutiny of ideas and ideals is a matter of constant concern from the philosophical point of view.
Philosophy takes a wider view than religion because it goes beyond the narrow and narrowing effects of tradition and dogma. Philosophy is open to subjecting its own methods and conclusions to thoroughgoing scrutiny, whereas religion typically closes in on preferred positions.
Recently in Australia, and perhaps further afield, controversy concerning marriage vows has been stirred up by reports of a proposed optional form of wording, to be considered at a synod of the Anglican Diocese of Sydney, which would have a bride promise to ‘submit’ to her husband. The concept of submission to one another, and in particular of a woman to her husband, is found in the New Testament Epistle to the Ephesians 5:21-24 (see also verse 33). Another relevant passage is 1 Peter 3:1-7.
Translations of these passages vary. The relevant word in Greek is found in the masculine (which can include male and female) in Ephesians 5:21 (ὑποτασσόμενοι; the word may be assumed in verse 22, though most witnesses repeat it in another grammatical form), and in the feminine in 1 Peter 3:1 (ὑποτασσόμεναι). English translations use a variety of expressions such as ‘submit’, ‘submitting’, ‘submissive’, ‘be subject to’, ‘accept the authority of’.
The idea that a woman should be submissive to her husband is found outside the New Testament as well, and was no doubt an expectation in the wider community at the time. In that respect it may be taken not as a church principle specifically or exclusively but as a traditional norm with which the church agreed and to which the church gave its own interpretation.
Against this historical and literary background, a modern bride-to-be would have to decide not only whether to accept a church-approved idea but whether the idea is in itself worthy of acceptance. Whether the idea is acceptable in itself is a question that calls for a clear definition of ‘submit’.
According to Ephesians 5:20, Christians should be ‘subject to one another out of reverence for Christ’ (RSV, NRSV). This presumably means that where both parties to a marriage are Christian the husband must recognize a duty to submit to the wife as well as vice versa. This responsibility is reinforced by the requirement that a husband should ‘love his wife as himself’ (5:33).
Problems could arise if the wife were Christian but the husband unsympathetic to the idea of behaving according to similar principles. This circumstance is addressed in 1 Peter 3:1, where wives are encouraged to be submissive to their husbands so that their husbands ‘may be won without a word’, that is persuaded to become Christians themselves.
From a philosophical point of view, the Bible cannot function as an ultimate guide to ethical norms because it does not investigate ethical questions in a systematic way or report the results of such an investigation. In general it could only be on the basis of human tradition that ideas in the Bible could be taken as normative. If there are ideas which have a more fundamental claim to acceptance, the concern must be to recognize these and to consider how relevant and just their implementation may be.
‘Basic conception’ of justice: see ‘Laws judged by their effectiveness and usefulness’. Kelly Burke, ‘To love and to submit: a marriage made in 2012’, Sydney Morning Herald 25/8/2012. Cf. Julia Baird, ‘No place for spirited women’, ibid. 27/8/2012. There have been many letters to the editor and online comments on the topic, and further reports and articles.