Minimizing Marriage: Marriage, Morality, and the Law

Minimizing Marriage: Marriage, Morality, and the Law

Minimizing Marriage: Marriage, Morality, and the Law

Minimizing Marriage: Marriage, Morality, and the Law


Even in secular and civil contexts, marriage retains sacramental connotations. Yet what moral significance does it have? This book examines its morally salient features -- promise, commitment, care, and contract -- with surprising results. In Part One, "De-Moralizing Marriage," essays on promise and commitment argue that we cannot promise to love and so wedding vows are (mostly) failed promises, and that marriage may be a poor commitment strategy. The book contends with the most influential philosophical accounts of the moral value of marriage to argue that marriage has no inherent moral significance. Further, the special value accorded marriage sustains amatonormative discrimination - discrimination against non-amorous or non-exclusive caring relationships such as friendships, adult care networks, polyamorous groups, or urban tribes. The discussion raises issues of independent interest for the moral philosopher such as the possibilities and bounds of interpersonal moral obligations and the nature of commitment.

The central argument of Part Two, "Democratizing Marriage," is that liberal reasons for recognizing same-sex marriage also require recognition of groups, polyamorists, polygamists, friends, urban tribes, and adult care networks. Political liberalism requires the disestablishment of monogamous amatonormative marriage. Under the constraints of public reason, a liberal state must refrain from basing law solely on moral or religious doctrines; but only such doctrines could furnish reason for restricting marriage to male-female couples or romantic love dyads. Restrictions on marriage should thus be minimized. But public reason can provide a strong rationale for minimal marriage: care, and social supports for care, are a matter of fundamental justice. Part Two also responds to challenges posed by property division on divorce, polygyny, and supporting parenting, and builds on critiques of marriage drawn from feminism, queer theory, and race theory. It argues, using the example of minimal marriage, for the compatibility of liberalism and feminism.


Marriage is philosophically undertheorized. This is not because it lacks philosophical interest. For the moral philosopher, it raises key issues of the possibilities of interpersonal moral obligations and their bounds—not to mention the question of a good human life. Secular moralists often assume that marriage morally transforms a relationship, yet contemporary philosophers have paid little attention to the question of how such a transformation could be effected. For the political philosopher, the question of how—or whether—society and the state should organize sex, love, and intimacy is urgent, but recent attention has focused mainly on a set of narrow questions surrounding marriage law: same-sex marriage, or not; polygamy, or not, abolition, or not. A greater variety of reconfigurations should at least be contemplated.

This book attempts to shed some philosophical light on these questions. It has three main theses. The first is that marriage should be de-moralized—that it does not have a sui generis moral status or a transformative moral power. The second is that the great social and legal importance accorded marriage and marriage-like relationships is unjustified, and that this privilege harms, sometimes unjustly, those not oriented toward monogamous, central relationships. Those harmed include members of multiple significant overlapping friendships such as adult care networks or urban tribes, the asexual and solitudinous, and the polyamorous. The third thesis is that a truly politically liberal law of marriage would expand the legal category of marriage in surprising ways, minimizing special restrictions on entry, exit, and what transpires between.

These arguments target features of marriage seldom interrogated—its central and dyadic relationship, its association with romance, its one-size-fits-all legal structure. Marriage is so pervasive that many of its features are accepted without . . .

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