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Should Marriage Be Abolished, Minimized, or Left Alone?

A philosopher explains the moral value of all caring relationships

For those who love to think broadly, romping across many disciplinary terrains, the study of singlehood and marriage is exhilarating. Researching Singled Out, and continuing my writing subsequently, has been joyful in part because I got to read from so many different fields of study.

I read a bit of philosophy, but I must confess, I have no expertise and no confidence. What a delight it was, then, to discover Elizabeth Brake’s new book, Minimizing marriage: Marriage, morality, and the law.

Professor Brake is a philosopher. In Minimizing Marriage, she takes on the prevailing mythologies about marriage in a way I never could — by subjecting them to rigorous philosophical analysis. If you have as little background in philosophy as I do, then Minimizing Marriage will probably not be a quick read. It will, though, be an intellectually rewarding one.

When I mock popular beliefs that marriage somehow magically transforms inferior single people into superior marital beings, I do it with social science data — surveys, experiments, interviews, and systematic observations. Professor Brake does it with thoughtful and incisive arguments.

Morally, Brake argues, marriage is not all that it’s cracked up to be. The special privileges showered on married people amount to more than just unfair favoritism — they end up hurting other people with other values and relationship priorities. Marriage law needs to be revolutionized.

Okay, so those were my words. Here is Brake’s more precise description of the three main theses of her book:

  • “…marriage should be de-moralized…it does not have a sui generis moral status or a transformative moral power.
  • “…the great social and legal importance accorded marriage and marriage-like relationships is unjustified and…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 the solitudinous, and the polyamorous.
  • “…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.”

In popular discussions of marriage (and sometimes even in more formal ones), there is a lot of blather about how special marriage is with regard to some of our most valuable human offerings, such as commitment and caring. In one chapter after another, Professor Brake takes apart these presumptions, addressing all of the objections you are probably already formulating as you read this.

The too-brief version of some of these arguments is as follows:

“…morally salient features commonly attributed to marriage [include] promise, commitment, basic human goods, virtues, and care.” But marriage should be de-moralized: “Marriage is neither necessary nor sufficient for the goods often associated with it, it creates no sui generis moral status, and it produces harms and injustices that must be weighed against its goods. While there may be special goods in caring relationships, they do not depend on marriage — and indeed, the special value attributed to marriage has penalized caring relationships that fail to meet the marital norm.”

Today’s New Word and Important Concept: Amatonormativity

My favorite chapter, Chapter 4, is titled, “Special treatment for lovers: Marriage, care, and amatonormativity.” Amato-what? Amatonormativity is

“the assumption that a central, exclusive, amorous relationship is normal for humans, in that it is a universally shared goal, and that such a relationship is normative, in the sense that it should be aimed at in preference to other relationship types.”

That’s not what Professor Brake believes — it is what she is critiquing. Amatonormativity, she argues, results in “the sacrifice of other relationships to romantic love and marriage and relegates friendship and solitudinousness to cultural invisibility.”

To which I reply, Let’s all be amatonormativity busters! Brake even offers a few examples of violations of amatonormativity: “dining alone by choice, putting friendship above romance, bringing a friend to a formal event or attending alone, cohabiting with friends, or not searching for romance.”

Need I even say it? You can be an amatonormativity-buster by declaring your single-at-heart status!

Elizabeth Brake’s Proposal: Minimizing Marriage

One of the real strengths of Brake’s thesis is her philosophically-grounded respect for all sorts of caring relationships, not just marital ones. So I was a bit wary of her term, “minimizing marriage.” It makes her proposal sound less sweeping than it is in fact. She addresses that concern, though, so I’ll move on to her explanation of what “minimizing marriage” means:

“Minimal marriage allows individuals to select from the rights and responsibilities exchanged within marriage and exchange them with whomever they want, rather than exchanging a predefined bundle of rights and responsibilities with only one amatory partner…

“The central idea is that individuals can have legal marital relationships with more than one person, reciprocally or asymmetrically, themselves determining the sex and number of parties, the type of relationship involved, and which rights and responsibilities to exchange with each.”

There is so much more to Elizabeth Brake’s book, but I hope this gives you some sense of what you can learn from it. Maybe I will write about it again sometime in the future. In the meantime, you can find a podcast here.

[Notes: Over at another blog, I have been discussing the stories in the New York Times about the difficulties of making friends once you are beyond your twenties and about singles in Iran, among other topics. You can find other hot topics among singles bloggers at Single with Attitude.]

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