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Marriage has been the contested subject of a great deal of debate in the recent culture wars, which pits conservative, and often religious believers against progressive, and often liberal, egalitarian and feminist thinkers. Much of this debate recently has surrounded the issue of who should be allowed to marry with one side claiming that only the traditional view of marriage between one man and one woman should be allowed and recognized by the state. The other side claims, however, that we need to move toward some sort of 'marriage equality' and that the state should recognize a broader range of relationships under the rubric of marriages including those between same-sex couples.
In some ways, Chambers', Against Marriage, falls squarely within this debate as a proponent of more liberal and egalitarian views of marriage. While this is true, Chambers' position is quite distinct because she thinks that the state shouldn't recognize, and thereby privilege marriage at all. In arguing for this, Chambers' views are, in a sense, more radical those arguing for marriage to be more inclusive. It is no wonder, then, that she recognizes that her book is "not for the socially conservative who wish to retain a particular, heterosexist model of family life … [or] religious fundamentalists who wish not only to practise their own religion but to impose it coercively on others…" (1). But, she says, it is for those who are interested in liberty and equality, whether they are (happily or unhappily) single, married, or cohabitating. For those progressive thinkers who like the idea of marriage, it is important to note that while Chambers is opposed to state recognized (and privileged) marriage, she does not argue for a marriage-free society. Under certain restrictions, which she discusses at some length in Chapter 5, a marriage-free state would be open to non-state institutions (like churches) offering marriage services, which could be quite exclusive.
The book is divided into two parts: in Part I, Chambers presents her views against marriage focusing on the ways in which state recognized marriage violates either equality or liberty, and the ways in which traditional, liberal defences of state sanctioned marriages are ineffective and ought to be dismissed. In Part II, she explains what a marriage-free state would look like: how it differs from a purely contract view, what regulations ought to be in place to regulate non-state sanctioned 'marriages', and whether any practices, such as polygamy, or incestuous sexual relationships between adults would be tolerated.
Very briefly, Chambers argues that marriage typically violates equality. Feminists especially have charged that while marriage has undergone some improvements as of late, it continues to be both sexist and heterosexist. The sexism of marriage includes both the symbolic and the material. Symbolically, marriages have been sexist in a variety of ways. Consider, for example, the marriage ceremony itself where the bride wears a white 'virginal' dress, the father 'gives away' his daughter to her husband, and the minister (priest, etc.) tells the new husband that he can now kiss his bride as if she no longer has to consent to such things. Materially, marriages are problematic due, for example, to the issues such as the unequal division of labour within marriages, the difficulty for women to extricate themselves from abusive marriages, the continued financial imbalance between men and women, which is exacerbated in divorce settlements, and so on. Marriage is heterosexist because, in most jurisdictions, it only permits marriage between one man and one woman.
State recognized marriage is also illiberal, according to Chambers, because it limits individual's autonomy. It does so in part because it offers advantages to married couples not available to unmarried couples – such as tax breaks, pension/insurance benefits, and visitation rights. Hence, people might choose marriage not because they really want to, but in order to achieve benefits not otherwise available to them. This violates the liberal principle that the state ought to remain neutral between different conceptions of the good life. While liberals have responded to these, and other, charges against marriage, Chambers details in Chapter 3 how these arguments fail, in her view.
Part 2 begins with a consideration of the position that marriage ought to be replaced by relationship contracts. These could cover everything from a division of labour within the household to how assets and debts are to be divided during a breakup. According to their supporters, relationship contracts have a lot to be said for them. For example, they allow for more diversity than state sanctioned and privileged marriages, and they also allow women to negotiate their wants/needs in advance. Chambers argues, however, that the picture is much more complex – and indeed bleak – with respect to relationship contracts. For one, they will be practically unenforceable within a continuing marriage since marriage partners will be unlikely to take their partners to court. Moreover, if she lacks power, a woman could well be forced into agreeing to things in a contract that are unjust. Chambers suggests, then, that in order "to protect the vulnerable, to secure justice, to provide legal determinacy, to settle third-party rights and duties, and to appropriately direct state taxation and provision …., the state must regulate relationships" (143). Unlike present state sanctioned marriages, which are "holistic," Chambers proposes a "piecemeal" regulation of personal relationships. That is, current marriages come with a bundle of rights and obligations covering a variety of things. Piecemeal regulation, in contrast, recognizes that "individuals form relationships with different people for different functions… [and hence it] thus starts by working out what justice requires in any given area of human life, and secures that requirement for everyone" (147).
The final chapter is perhaps the most contentious for the liberal egalitarian audience Chambers seeks to address since, as she says, the arguments are "straightforwardly egalitarian, and will be most appealing to feminist and comprehensive liberals. Some of the arguments … may be incompatible with political liberalism. Insofar as they are incompatible, they demonstrate where I part company with the political liberal approach" (170). Chambers discusses three possible areas where problems could arise with respect to private marriages in the marriage-free state: over-inclusivity (polygamy, incest, or forced marriage), under-inclusivity (heterosexism and racism), and internal inequality (sexism). I found her discussion of the last category here particularly interesting – and potentially problematic for many kinds of liberal. Chambers uses a couple of examples here including the practice of the get (which is required for a divorce to be recognized and entirely under the control of the husband) within Orthodox and Conservative Jewish communities, and the prohibition against female priests in the Roman Catholic tradition.Chambers argues that these practices are so in-egalitarian that they ought to be disallowed in the marriage-free state even though they are only privately recognized and freely chosen by individuals.
Chambers' Against Marriage is a wonderful addition to a growing literature demanding that we think seriously about the institution of marriage and how it may have to be altered to meet the demands of justice and equity. While I can't say that Chambers has convinced me on all her points – but what books achieve that? – her articulate and thoughtful arguments have made me think more seriously about many issues involving marriage.
© 2018 Robert Scott Stewart
Robert Scott Stewart, Ph.D., is a Professor of Philosophy at Cape Breton University (Canada). His most recent work has mostly been in the area of the philosophy of sex including two books: R.S. Stewart, ed., Talk About Sex: A Multidisciplinary Discussion (CBU Press, 2013) and Laurie Shrage & R.S. Stewart, Philosophizing About Sex (Broadview Press, 2015).