On Values: The Example of Marriage

I found our discussion on values and behavior (On Religion as an Individual Code of Behavior) particularly useful. Here I wish to summarize my conclusions and illustrate the arguments further with reference to the ongoing changes in attitude towards the institution of marriage.

The principal conclusions are the following:

  1. Moral values and related behaviors are not static. They can often change with surprising rapidity.
  2. The possibility of change can be triggered by any number of reasons – wars, famines, technology, etc.
  3. The changes are usually advocated by a small group of opinion leaders or role models and adopted by a small set of social rebels or dissidents.
  4. Wide adoption by people who may or may not have thought consciously about the values result in the changes being incorporated at the level of society.
  5. Variations in behavior become acceptable when social taboos erode and often a new consensus is not needed to replace the old one because the behavior becomes a private rather than a public matter.
  6. Communities can emerge around many alternative attributes reducing the need for regimented behavioral codes.

One of the most dramatic examples illustrating this process of change in recent times has been the transformation of values and attitudes towards the institution of marriage. For thousands of years, people could only live together within the institution of marriage, an institution that had very strong links with religious sanctity and with notions of moral propriety. Children were only legitimized within marriage and family values seemed as if encoded into the DNA of human beings.

All this was sundered by the invention of reliable contraceptive technology in the middle of the twentieth century. Opinion leaders like Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan, and Gloria Steinem consciously questioned the prevalent institutional values and advocated changes. A rebellious few from the celebrated ‘flower generation’ began to challenge the social taboos and risk the displeasure of the majority still wedded to the conventional moral codes.

Today, the institution of marriage is in decline in the West, its relation to religion is weakened considerably, and cohabitation has become the new norm. The link of marriage to procreation is no longer indissoluble and in many countries more children are being born to unmarried couples than to married ones. Pre-marital sex is socially accepted with the focus shifting to responsibility within relationships.

At the same time, the new norms have not led to a movement against marriage. Those who wish to marry are free to do so and they can choose to have a religious or a civil ceremony in accordance with their preferences. Thus there is space for much greater diversity without any tendency to replace an old orthodoxy with a new one. The fact that people no longer share a single moral code related to the institution of marriage does not make them feel isolated.  Communities still exist but they are aligned along many other attributes unrelated to moral values.

This example vividly illustrates the proposition that vales can change rapidly and highlights the importance of opinion leaders who point out what is anachronistic in the existing values and identify changes that could lead to a less repressive society.

For us in South Asia, it gives hope to those who believe that the existing values that engender mistrust and hostilities across communities can give way to those that engender a spirit of cooperation and friendship. It is up to us to keep questioning the values that have become dysfunctional and outdated and to keep striving for what would serve to improve the lot of our common humanity.


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34 Responses to “On Values: The Example of Marriage”

  1. Anil Kala Says:

    While I agree that changes occur periodically but I am unwilling to attribute these changes to free choice made by some individuals which appealed to others and they followed. The operating word to me seems to be compromises/adjustments rather than rationally though out free choice.

    The point is if equilibrium shifts to some other point all the forces have to readjust to new reality. Something happened in sixties, very dramatic! Every twenty odd years a new generation of young arrives, we don’t see anything dramatic happening in eighties or at the fold of millennium. The young simple came and went without anyone noticing them. I am not like you SA, analytical with facts. I am intuitive therefore can only hazard a guess. We have to look twenty years before for the unusual behavior of sixties young. They were born in bloodiest war humans have seen, traumatized and brutalized. They suddenly were exposed to a free world, like a compressed spring snapping free they went wild. Rest was merely adjustment to their revolt.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Anil: I have the following questions and observations:

      1. When people make compromises or adjustments do they make them without using rationality?
      2. Can an equilbrium shift to another point on its own?
      3. The sexual revolution took place in the US which was virtually unaffected by the war of the 1940s.
      4. The youth of the 1980s and 2000s were very different from those of the 1960s. While attitudes towards marriage changed for good, many other values were reversed. Americans talk a lot about the differences between Gen X and Gen Y.

      The point I want to make is that values can change rapidly and it is usually a snowball process with triggers (that we recognize with hindsight), leading ideas, early adopters, and mass followers. One could point to yet another example, this time in China. Compare the moral code of Chinese youth from the Mao era to the post-Deng era – there is no comparison yet the time period has hardly been 30 years. Recall the very conscious statement of Deng that legitimized this transformation: “It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice.”

      • Anil Kala Says:

        My only quarrel with you is that you are assigning a lot of weight to voluntary choice made by some folks snowballing into a movement for change in attitude of the people. I believe that, it may be true in rare cases but mostly such changes occur due to other reasons which cause people to ‘see’ the advantage in change, so they change.

        China’s example is unusual. The change was ushered in by one individual who had enormous power and it was just a lottery that it worked in china’s favor. If Deng Xia Ping wanted he could have worsened the situation. If you put yourself in his shoes actually you don’t see too many choices he had. He could have continued with old policies of command economy model or he could have liberalized it. He chose to liberalize economy in limited way. We don’ see such enormous concentration of power often.

        • SouthAsian Says:

          Anil: The key point is that values can change and they can change quite rapidly. It would be surprizing if there was only one way in which such a change could occur. Indeed, there have to be more and what I have described is just one of them. The point about China is not whether the change was good or bad or whether there were other options. Once again, the aspect of interest is that a huge change of values took place in a short period of time. Deng could not have coerced every single indiviual to follow his diktat. There were many who welcomed the change and when they prospered, others followed suit.

          • Anil Kala Says:

            “The key point is that values can change and they can change quite rapidly. It would be surprising if there was only one way in which such a change could occur. Indeed, there have to be more and what I have described is just one of them”


            “Deng could not have coerced every single individual to follow his diktat. ”

            Why not? Deng was state himself. He didn’t have to coerce anyone. Knowledge of his wish was enough for everyone to follow, the consequence of opposing was also obvious to everyone. Didn’t Mao coerced everyone in China.

          • SouthAsian Says:

            Anil: Could it be because the values that Mao imposed were contrary to how many people wanted to behave while the values that Deng promoted were in consonance? So, Deng didn’t need to coerce; he just opened the floodgates.

    • Vinod Says:

      SA, when people make compromises it is not really a rational process. They do not reflectively accept it. They resign to it It is an emotional process whereby they realize that the emotional cost of resisting the change is greater than the emotional cost of accepting it. In other words compromises are made only when the force of change becomes overwhelming. As long as it is only a minor social phenomenon the individuals living the change have to suffer a lot of alienation. As Arun said a lot of economic factors too have to fall into place before the change gets overwhelming force.

      • SouthAsian Says:

        Vinod: To me this comes across as a surprising claim. Any time one engages in a cost-benefit analysis and bases a decision on the calculus, it is a conscious, thought-through decsion which involves rationality. Whether one likes it or not is a separate issue. Your perspective would render irrational all compromises that result from arbitration. Similarly, politics which is called the art of compromise would also be classed as irrational. This would be an incorrect view because many compromises are the outcomes of rational decision making.

        I also find it difficult to agree with the assertion that compromises are made only when the force of change becomes overwhelming. Many people make compromises or adjustments in anticipation of change that other people don’t even see. Look at the transition from Persian to English in India. There were Indians who were clamoring for education in English even before the British made that the policy. There were others who persisted in the old ways till the force of change really became overwhelming. How would you explain the existence of these two very distinct behavioral adjustments?

      • Vinod Says:

        I think it is dominantly an irrational process that is at work when talking about changes in moral codes. I had this limited context in mind when I wrote the above comment

        • SouthAsian Says:

          Vinod: I feel some of the difference of opinion is emanating from an imprecise use of the word ‘irrational’. Could you elaborate on what you mean by an ‘irrational process’?

        • Vinod Says:

          By ‘Irrational’ I mean the reaction borne out of the need for emotional relief without any reflection about the source of the emotional strain and/or whether the emotional stress is worth tolerating for long term benefits. It is usually described as ‘coming to terms’ with something. For example if parents come to terms with the marriage of their daughter outside their caste they do so not because they think caste is irrelevant but because they see that their daughter is happy in the marriage and any further opposition to the marriage only makes them the cause of theie own and their daughter’s unhappiness. They don’t become individuals who see the irrelevance or anachronism of caste. They would still take pride in belonging to their caste. They would make an exception in tolerating their daughter without thinking about the implications of that exception to their view of caste and its signficance.

          I hope that made sense.

          • SouthAsian Says:

            Vinod: There are two issues here. First, I think you are conflating reluctance and dislike with irrationality. When parents go through the thought process of what is good or bad for their daughter’s happiness, they are engaging in an act of rational decisionmaking. They don’t like what they have to do, they accept it reluctantly, they come to terms with the situation – all that is correct but the action is rational because they have used reason and a weighing of costs and benefits in reaching it.

            Second, this is not the issue we are addressing because the parents have not changed their values, they have just acted contrary to them for pragmatic reasons. This is an inter-gerational issue. It is the daughter whose values have changed. Within a generation the parents would be no more and there would be a new generation with new values different from old values. What we are arguing is that some people change their values, for whatever reasons (say they want to be considered modern), and after some time these new values become the norm.

        • Vinod Says:

          In my mind pragmatic thinking is only a small part of rational thought. Complete rationality in thinking demands a coherent theory underpinning actions.

          • SouthAsian Says:

            Vinod: You are stretching the meaning of rationality beyond its accepted domain. When a decision is based on thinking through and weighing up the alternatives to come up with the most acceptable outcome, it would be considered to represent a process of decision-making characterized by rationality. In this context, utility maximization based on cost-benefit analysis can be considered a coherent theory underpinning the choice process. What would you consider to be a coherent theory?

          • Vinod Says:

            When parents make an exception to the intercaste marriage of their daughter and still insist on caste being a barrier to marriage when advising others, that compromise is not a rational compromise.

            When individuals can live and stay with members of other castes while in college hostels but somehow raise caste as a barrier in marriages, then the compromise made in choosing to stay with members of other castes is an irrational one.

          • SouthAsian Says:

            Vinod: This has become a definitional issue. Any decision that involves a process of reasoning is generically rational. This is not to say that the reasoning is necessarily sound or logical. When you say “that compromise is not a rational compromise” or is “irrational” what you are saying is that it is not an ‘honest’ compromise.

            My argument is different. For me the people you are describing have made a rational compromise, an exception for pragmatic reasons, but they have not changed their values. My interest is in those who change their values. The secondary interest is in determining what causes them to change their values. In this context, we can differentiate between leaders and followers who follow different processes.

          • Vinod Says:

            I guess then what I can say in your terms is that most people do not quite change their values. They simply make those compromises, which do not have much a full fledged rational basis. Then the next generation simply grows wiith the values that are dominantly around them. The older values simply dies with the older generation. And the newer values are simply there in the next generation. There is no real change of values going on within one generation itself.

          • SouthAsian Says:

            Vinod: My reaction is that this is too conservative a model. It also does not explain how the new values that are around the young generation take root. Take an example from technology innovation, e.g., the Green Revolution in Indian agriculture, an environment where people are considered the most attached to old values. The extension agents went out and convinced some early adopters. The early adopters benefited and very soon everyone else realized there was benefit is changing and within much less than a generation new ways of farming were the norm. Almost all technological innovations follow this pattern. Many social innovations follow the same pattern.

          • Vinod Says:

            SA, one needs to make a distinction between conservativeness in general (the reluctance to change) and the conservativeness to those norms that affect human relationships.

          • SouthAsian Says:

            Vinod: I agree that the latter is a special subset of the former. But the point of the post was to highlight the fact that sometimes even in the latter there can be a rapid change of values. What can affect human relationships more than marriage but witness the sea change of norms in the West over a relatively short period of time.

          • Vinod Says:

            SA, while that (the change in norms in marriage) can indeed be so I’m not so sure that it is because of the social mechanism you argued. It has more to do with the conglomeration of socio-economic factors (such as insurances, feminist movement, the availability of knowledge-based career options after industrialization etc) working together to empower a few individuals to tread an untaken path.

          • SouthAsian Says:

            Vinod: My emphasis is on one central point – that social values are not static and that often they can change quite rapidly. The precise causes to which any change is attributed will vary we will always find a set of causes with hindsight. But we know that all individuals in a given society will not change at the same time. There will be early adopters and there will be followers joining in over time.

            If we agree that social values are not static and that often they can change quite rapidly then we need not be pessimistic about South Asia. We can challenge the skeptics who resist every idea with the argument that social attitudes and values can never change or change too slowly to be meaningful. And, if we agree that the change process needs early adopters, we can focus our strategic interventions on the opinion leaders who might be willing to give a fair consideration to our ideas. We don’t need to convert all of society in one instant.

            The bottom line is that there is hope and there is a feasible strategy to realize that hope.

        • Vinod Says:

          We can agree on that theory. But converting it into practice is still something else. The complexity of the changes that brought about the change in values in the west were so much that they could only be half-seen a century after the fact. Can something as complex as that be devised, strategized and executed? I seriously doubt it.

          • SouthAsian Says:

            Vinod: The changes in the West we are talking about did not take a century to become visible. Even in the 1960s it was evident that cultural values had changed significantly as the student vanguard rebelled against the prevailing norms in the US and in Europe. The fall out also reached Goa pretty quickly (you will enjoy this video – Last Hippie Standing). Nobody actually devised, strategized or executed the change. The crucial thing was that ideas about change were circulating in the environment (in the post I had mentioned the names of Simone Beauvoir, Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan) and groups coalesced around these ideas as discontent arose with the available lifestyles. This highlights the central importance of ideas when the moment becomes ripe for change whatever the reason for the change might be.

          • Vinod Says:

            SA, I think the more crucial thing is that the people proposing alternative values must be able to engage in a critical dialogue with the established narrative about values.

          • SouthAsian Says:

            Vinod: I am not convinced that’s how it works. Everyone talks about dialogue but usually it is many monologues crossing each other. Is there really an example of new values emerging out of a dialogue? What happens more often is that there are contending ideas in the air and people who are in two minds, for whatever reason, adopt the ideas that suit their interests or inclinations better. What is important is to have the things you believe in circulating in the marketplace of ideas and available for public discourse.

          • Vinod Says:

            SA, I don’t know whether the hippie movement left any lasting impact on western culture. Did it change the direction on which western culture was moving? I saw the video and didn’t get any such impression. It seemed like a movement that took off rebelling western materialism and then fizzled out in a few decades without leaving much impact. When I talk to westerners, the word hippie is used derogatively.

          • SouthAsian Says:

            Vinod: There are two separate aspects to consider. First, whether the youth rebellion of the 1960s left any lasting impact. It seems reasonable to conclude that some things changed for good and others reverted back. For example, attitudes towards marriage, sex, gender, and racial discrimination have not gone back to those of the 1950s. Attitudes towards the rejection of materialism have faded away. One can argue that attitudes towards economic matters are much more affected by the prevalent conditions of the economy. Reading Steinbeck and Fitzgerald, for example, could give us a very good sense of that.

            The second aspect, and the one that I am primarily interested in, is that values can change rapidly. Some of them might revert back but this back and forth movement itself strengthens the argument that change is possible. A wave of prosperity in India (analogous to the 1960s in the West) could surprise people by the attitudinal changes that it triggers. When that process snowballs, the ideas that are part of the public discourse would matter a lot.

          • Vinod Says:

            SA, my doubts on whether the hippie movement did affect the mainstream american culture goes to the weakness in using that as evidence of rapid change in values as a result of the example of a few individuals.
            The change in values related to marriage in the west did indeed undergo a sea change by the hippie movement. The hippie movement though began after the immigration of German hippies into US. This had been going for decades before 1960s. The German hippie movement itself goes back to the times of Neitzche. I think the floodgates opened in the 1960s not so much because of what the individuals were doing but because of the publicity they managed to get by virtue of the communication technology at that time. My point of emphasis is that the role of the individuals is very small compared to the other factors in the context that precicipate the sea change in values advocated by these individuals into the mainstream. A lot more has to happen besides individuals leading lifestyle of alternate values for a rapid change of values to set in.

          • SouthAsian Says:

            Vinod: There is another way of looking at this. Individuals don’t operate in a vacuum. A lot has to happen; indeed a lot is happening all the time. But would anything behavioral change if some individuals do not take that first step?

  2. Vinod Says:

    Grandparents of children of immigrants in US vow never to visit their children in US when they come to know that the grandchildren are cohabitating. They usually keep their vows. That’s not quite ‘getting along’ when there is a clash in moral codes, is it?

    Parents advise their children not to mix too much with uncles and aunts who chose to remain single. They tolerate them, but do not quite embrace them. Again, not quite ‘getting along’, are they? The ostracized feel the alienation and the condemning eyes.

    In summary, on closer scrutiny the community, if there be any, is quite broken when individuals violate the old established moral codes.

    The fact that people no longer share a single moral code related to the institution of marriage does not make them feel isolated.

    Parents feel abandoned and children feel misunderstood and alienated. These are tears in the social fabric that don’t get remedied even if one is surrounded by friends and spouses. A part of the emotional being is indeed isolated.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Vinod: You misconstrued the example. My intention was to show how codes and behaviors can change rapidly and be accepted in society and the exmaple I used was the sexual revolution in the West. Clearly, a similar revolution has not occurred in South Asia leading to the frictions you have identified. If anything, a reverse revolution could be said to have taken place in South Asia where attitudes towards sex became very Victorian during the British. But this too militates against what we seem to believe are the never-changing nature of moral codes. We discussed the reverse revolution in the following post:


  3. SouthAsian Says:

    There is something here about changing values in India:

    Not so happily ever after:


  4. SouthAsian Says:

    There is a new book on the sexual revolution in the West that should be of great interest. It describes the tremendous change in values and argues how urbanization and literacy contributed to it sweeping aside centuries of religious doctrine.


    What does it portend for South Asia?

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