Humanism, Arranged Marriages, and Reality TV

09 Jul

Sorry for the lack of content recently; I’ve been suffering from a nasty case of writer’s block and am struggling with a few half-finished pieces. Hopefully this will jog me back into things.

This appears to be somewhat old news, but I just saw this today (an older, more detailed post about it can be found here) about humanist chaplain Greg Epstein working in an advisory capacity on a reality television programme called Married at First Sight. This makes me deeply uncomfortable; I think it’s a terrible idea for lots of reasons, and I would be remiss if I didn’t say anything.

I’m disappointed in Epstein that he decided to get involved with something like this. The first thing I thought upon learning about it was that not all publicity is good publicity: if the idea here was that participating in something like this would increase visibility for atheists/humanists, then all I can say is that participating in something that looks clearly unethical and exploitative to me doesn’t seem like a good way to advocate for humanism. Humanism is an ethical position and participating in unethical behaviour while promoting humanism will only make us look like hypocrites.

Why do I say this is clearly unethical? First things first (from one of the linked posts by Hemant Mehta):

There are just a few moments you really want to see. Like when the contestants find out about the premise of the show…

In other words, there is no notion of informed consent here at all. None. Despite the fact Mehta describes the show in one of the linked posts as “couples agree to get married, sight-unseen”, if they didn’t know the premise of the show before agreeing to appear on it, they could not have given informed consent to this (and if they did express consent, the pressure of having had to agree to that impulsively after a surprise reveal means we cannot consider this consent in any kind of meaningful sense).

Mehta highlights quite a few other issues with it, and then encourages the viewer to just not think too hard about them. Um, no, let’s not do that. His list is also not exhaustive, and I’d like to mention a few more.

Firstly, I have to wonder at the motivations of the contestants on a show like this. Why would any person in their right mind agree to an arranged marriage with a person they’ve never met (especially when there is no cultural pressure to do so)? I can only think it must have something to do with the way modern Western culture elevates marriage and makes people consider it an essential step toward adulthood. I’ve often encountered the idea (usually implicit rather than explicit, though I’ve seen it made explicitly as well) that people aren’t truly adults until they are married, etc etc. (Another variant just focuses on being partnered as a similar thing.) When there are pressures such as this, it’s understandable why someone might be tempted by something like this, but shouldn’t we be able to acknowledge this is unhealthy and not encourage it? If we really want to deal with this problem, the solution is not “come up with ways for unmarried people to more easily acquire partners/marriages” but rather “change the culture so people aren’t shamed for not being partnered/married”.

Secondly: marriage is a legal contract with far-reaching effects, and marrying people in a situation like this (with a much higher chance it won’t work out and they’ll seek divorce) seems rife for legal problems. I should hope, at least, that the people running the show have some good lawyers available to write prenuptial agreements that ensure there aren’t issues with property becoming jointly owned, etc etc. I’ve no idea whether or not they have done anything like that, truthfully; they may well have done, because otherwise they could end up with a lot of really unpleasant situations and they have to have foreseen the likelihood these marriages wouldn’t last.

Thirdly: while I know nothing about the contestants, it would not surprise me if the sort of people who were interested in a marriage under these circumstances ended up being abusive and/or controlling partners, by dint of choosing to be married under circumstances in which the person they are marrying cannot say no. This is creepy.

It occurs to me that most of the ethical issues with the show are strictly related to the marriage gimmick, rather than anything else; if it were just setting up blind dates based on whatever pseudoscientific criteria they’re using, I don’t think I’d really object. But I suspect it’s also the marriage aspect specifically that they’re counting on for shock value to get viewers interested, and that without it there wouldn’t be any show at all.

In any case, I think this is a terrible and deeply problematic idea, and I’m disappointed that Greg Epstein (and, by extension, humanism) is involved with it. Epstein’s avowed reasons for participating don’t seem wholly bad, and if we assume the show was going to exist irrespective of his participation I do think he’s probably one of the best choices they could have made for the role they’ve placed him in. I’ll grant that much. That said, I still think he should have thought better of it.

And unless the advice he’s going to give is “don’t fucking get married and go home”, I have doubts about how consistent with humanism it is.


[Edit by Loten: the more I read about this the more sceptical I become. There’s just so much wrong with the basic premise of this show that I’m starting to think it’s faked and is designed purely as some sort of warped entertainment. That’s not a huge improvement, of course, it’s still pushing the tired old “marriage is the only possible means of vindicating your existence” message, but still. Of course this idea is probably just wishful thinking, but I just can’t see how this is legal, aside from all the other issues.]


Posted by on July 9, 2014 in mitchell


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3 responses to “Humanism, Arranged Marriages, and Reality TV

  1. eyeontheuniverse

    July 9, 2014 at 2:47 pm

    I suspect they would justify this based on the much lower divorce rates we actually see in arranged marriages. Of course, most of those marriages are in cultural groups with a hefty taboo against divorce, so the causality is hard to guess at. A 2012 study of Indian American marriages, however, did find the same happiness levels in arranged and chosen marriages (California State University), and I’ve seen similar stats elsewhere. I think you need strong evidence against these marriages rather than just a gut reaction against them (reality shows aside). People aren’t all that bright about picking their own mates either.

  2. Number27

    July 10, 2014 at 7:46 pm

    That is actually another layer of the fractal wrong that is this show. Arranged marriage, as it exists in the world today, functions in particular cultural contexts and social frameworks. There is (not universally, because people are not a monolith and abuse happens, but frequently and certainly in concept) a built in vetting process and an understanding among those involved such that meaningful consent can occur.

    By making this stupid grandstanding bullshit and claiming that it constitutes “arranged marriage” the show’s creators are appropriating and misrepresenting people and cultures that actually conduct arranged marriages.

  3. Ani J. Sharmin

    July 27, 2014 at 4:25 pm

    Reality shows that feature marriage/dating have always bothered me, as my family’s from a culture that does arranged marriages. After spending much of my life trying to make it clear that I don’t want an arranged marriage, wanting to break with that tradition (as some of my relatives have been able to do successfully) it bothers me that people would go on a show where they have to date/marry certain people.


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