Marriage, Freedom and Diversity

Some issues present particular challenges for ethicists because they appeal to diverging ethical principles. Forced marriage is a case in point. A forced marriage takes place when one or both participants are coerced against their will into a marriage. That coercion may involve psychological, emotional, or physical threats and / or abuse. A forced marriage can be contrasted with an arranged marriage in which both participants agree for the marriage to be set up with family relatives.

A forced marriage is ethically unacceptable because it involves unreasonable violence, threat of violence, or other form of force, and leaves the woman in particular, profoundly disadvantaged. She has little control over something that has a profound impact on her life. It violates human rights which state that marriage should be freely and consensually entered into, and undermines a woman’s right to choose her spouse. This is something central to her life, dignity and equality as a human being. Forced marriage contradicts the ideas of freedom, equality and dignity that underpin human rights. It causes great harm. This account comes from the website

“I’m from a Pakistani background where forced marriages are common… In Pakistan, when one of my sisters refused to marry, I saw my Dad put an axe to my sister’s throat. They had to go through with the marriages and today none of them has worked out… When I was 15, my Mum said: ‘We’re going to Pakistan and I want you to get married.’ I tried to get them to change their minds but they told me I had to go. My Dad threatened me by saying ‘If you run away, we’re going to kill you.’ I was so confused and angry about why my parents would want to do this. The most important decision you’ll ever make in your life is to marry someone and I was going to get married to someone I had never met. All I knew about this man was that he was 21.”

Forced marriage is a particular blight on the lives of women which comes about because of patriarchal power found in some cultural traditions. Patriarchy gives particular power to men over women and can be found expressed in ideas that place men at the head of a household, or make some roles and responsibilities only accessible to men. It can also be expressed through beliefs that women’s roles are completely defined by motherhood and domesticity. In other words children, care of the family and care of the husband fully define what it is to be a women. Patriarchy is the force which ensured for many centuries that women had no ability to take leadership roles in public life. Forced marriage remains a problem in Britain with over 1,000 cases reported in Britain each year (

Patriarchy is the kind of thing that the campaign for women’s rights, exemplified in the suffragette movement and the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft and John Stuart Mill’s essay On the subjugation of women. This movement is one of the social and philosophical and political movements that underpinned the twentieth century development of universal human rights. An issue like forced marriage is a straightforward ethical one.

However, human rights ethics become rather more complex in matters of cultural diversity. Charles Taylor, argues that cultural groups have rights of recognition. In other words there should be some cultural tolerance to diverse ways of living. This is justified by the claim that cultural groups explore different ways of working out the best way to live and that the human ‘experiment’ (the human forms of civilization that we have discovered) are test case ways of living. If some diversity of difference is not allowed then we may never find the best way to live. Human rights are a case in point. They have changed over time as new forms of suffering have been discovered and they sought to eliminate these forms. If no diversity is tolerated then systems of living and ways of life will no longer be tested and we may settle for a second best civilizational ethic.

We are left with an ethic that argues for the rights of recognition and an ethic that argues for universal human rights. How do we reconcile these two different principles in the case of forced marriages? Taylor is unlikely to ever want to defend forced marriages or, no doubt, a number of other practices that are immoral but persists because they are culturally embedded. While the rights of recognition allows for some tolerance of diversity it is not unlimited tolerance. There are some boundaries to what is acceptable. How can these boundaries be determined? Perhaps the boundaries can be established by thinking about the values that underpin human rights, rather than the rights themselves. In this case we have been thinking about the ideas of freedom, equality, and dignity. There are different arguments within culture and religion about degrees of personal freedom and equality of roles in life, but dignity, the idea that a human being has some degree of intrinsic worth because of what they are, not because of what they do or could do, is a powerful idea in many traditions. Within Christianity and Judaism it can be seen in the idea that human beings are made in the image of God and within Christianity it is also seen in the doctrines that human beings have within then a Divine spirit, an image of Christ. In Islam there is the idea that a human person is the vice regent of God, a being who acts for God on earth. There are other religious traditions that see in human beings a divine spirit or force. There are also philosophers who give human beings inherent worth, such as Kant who argues that human begins should never be treated only as a means to an end, but always as an end in itself because it has an inherent worth or dignity. This is quite different to ideas of dignity which suggest dignity is merely something that means we are doing the ‘proper’ or ‘socially acceptable’ thing. The kind of dignity we are talking about is more profound and fundamental.

An idea such as dignity, found across religions and philosophies, might provide a way of resolving the tension between the rights of recognition and universal human rights. It seems to be at the base of these two ethical ideas, a foundational value. Forced marriage seems to directly deny the dignity of the human person, because of what happens to them in the process. They seem to no longer be able to flourish, and their integrity as a human being with spiritual significance, seems not be recognized in forced marriage. In this case, the boundary of morally acceptable diversity is transgressed by forced marriage because human dignity is undermined. Human beings, especially women, are humiliated, and humiliation cannot be allowed under the terms of the rights of recognition.

Are there theoretical or practical weaknesses in this argument? If you are convinced by this argument, test the theory against other issues which are defined in terms of cultural difference vs universal human rights. Are the conclusions in these other cases equally convincing?

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