The philosopher Robert Nozick once claimed that the most basic question of Political Philosophy is “Why not Anarchy?” Political philosophers pose this question often with the intent of demonstrating that there is indeed a good philosophical reason why governments should exist. Indeed, we often simply take for granted that the state and its vast coercive apparatus are morally justified. Similarly, we tend to think that anarchy is both a practically untenable and morally undesirable mode of social association.
But governments claim not only power but authority over their citizens. And a few moments of reflection on the idea of authority suffices to see how curious an idea it is. To have authority is to have a right to create moral obligations in others simply by issuing commands, and a corresponding right to coerce compliance when others fail to obey one’s commands. It seems a puzzling phenomenon: The government claim to be able to make it the case that you’re morally required to do something simply in virtue of the fact that it has told you to do it. And they claim the moral right to imprison you for failing to do what they say.
From the time we are children, we are encouraged to see our lives as in large measure aimed at finding a spouse. In popular media, the unmarried adult is seen as suspicious, unhealthy, and pitiable. At the same time, marriage is portrayed as necessary for healthy and flourishing adult life. And we often see the event of a wedding to have a morally transforming power over the individuals who get married. But with only a little bit of reflection, our popular conception of the meaning and significance of marriage begins to look problematic.
Is marriage really so different from other kinds of interpersonal relations that it should be accorded such a central place in our popular views about adulthood? Are those who happen to never fall in love and so never get married really doomed to an inferior or morally impoverished kind of life? And when one considers the significant social and legal benefits, rights, and privileges that accrue to individuals in virtue of their being married the standard picture seems all the more objectionable. These thoughts have led some to conclude that marriage should be disestablished as a civic status.
In Minimizing Marriage: Marriage, Morality, and the Law(Oxford University Press, 2012), Elizabeth Brake criticizes the popular view of marriage as intrinsically dyadic, heterosexual, and focused on romantic love and sexual exclusivity. She also rejects the idea that marriage is a unique kind of moral relation, one that differs in kind from friendships and other kinds of caring relationships. Brake also challenges the current political and legal significance that currently attaches to marriage. Yet she also rejects marriage disestablishment; employing arguments drawing from John Rawls’s later work, Brake opts instead for a conception of minimal marriage in which marriage is conceived as a relation between two or more people for purposes of mutual care.