‘ Arguably the most significant conceptual obstacle within the current marriage debates is that of an institution. In informal dialogue with proponents of same-sex marriage over the last couple of years, it has been their failure to grasp what an institution implies, and to reflect upon the purposes of the institution of marriage that has most struck me. Although I am not usually wont to quote from such a source, the¬†Wikipedia definition of an institution¬†is quite helpful for our present discussion:

“An institution is any structure or mechanism of social order and cooperation governing the behavior of a set of individuals within a given human community. Institutions are identified with a social purpose and permanence, transcending individual human lives and intention by enforcing rules that govern cooperative human behaviour.”

One of the most consequential details of this definition is the distinction that it draws between the social purpose of an institution and the intentions of individual human lives. The purposes with which people enter into an institution should not be confused with the primary ends of the institution itself. Although institutions may be responsive and accommodating to the particular interests of those participating in them, and may even exist in large measure to serve such interests, their social purpose exceeds these interests and can never be reduced to them.The distinction between individual interests and the social purpose of institutions should be readily apparent to most. It is the difference between the purpose of the university and the intentions of the individual undergraduate. It is the difference between the purpose of the army and the purposes of the individual who volunteers for the forces.

The social purposes of these institutions take precedence over the private intentions of individuals. In order to be accepted within the army or university, you need to meet their requirements and submit to their norms and formative training. Were the army or the university to reorganize themselves around the most common individual ends of those entering into them and to prioritize these over any ends transcending them, they would in all likelihood become considerably less effective as unified, purposeful, and effective social institutions. In many cases, institutions ordered purely around the interests of the individuals within them could prove injurious to the wider society.’

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