Elizabeth Brake and Simon May

Elizabeth Brake (left) and Simon May (right) on marriage.

As same-sex marriage gains acceptance, a greater number of caring relationships enjoy legal recognition. But what about polygamous and polyamorous relationships? What about non-romantic relationships, such as friendships? In this episode, Brake and May discuss Brake’s controversial view that individuals should be allowed to assign the rights and privileges of marriage to whomever they want, so long as the purpose is to support a caring relationship. They also discuss the case for same-sex marriage (4:30), whether legal marriage should be abolished (33:48), caring relationships as Rawlsian primary goods (45:40), and May’s objection to polygamy (54:49).

Read an excerpt from Brake’s forthcoming book, Minimizing Marriage: Morality, Marriage, and the Law.

Announcement: Jeremy Garrett, Elizabeth Brake, Martha Fineman, and Simon May will participate in a group session entitled “After Marriage” at the Eastern APA meeting, Group Session XIII, Fri., Dec. 30, 1:30pm.

Related works

by Brake:
Minimizing Marriage: Morality, Marriage, and the Law (forthcoming)
Minimal Marriage: What Political Liberalism Implies for Marriage Law” (2010)

by May:
Liberal Feminism and the Ethics of Polygamy” (forthcoming)
Religious Democracy and the Liberal Principle of Legitimacy” (2009)

See also:
PEA Soup: Discussion of “Minimal Marriage,” with commentary by Cheshire Calhoun



Filed under Applied Ethics, Political Philosophy, Value Theory

8 Responses to Elizabeth Brake and Simon May

  1. Sarah

    Are videos password protected now or is this one in some way exceptional?

  2. M

    I was disappointed that Blake did not press May on the question of gender-neutral polyamory toward the end. Poly relationships do not require something like “men may have multiple wives” or “women may have multiple husbands.”

    We could simply remove the existing restrictions of “two people” in a marriage and “one marriage at a time.”

    After all, there are possibilities beyond the polygyny that May seems to be stuck on: marriage between three men; or one man’s marriages with two different men; or the same sorts of relationships with women; or non-dyad relationships between people who do not identify with the gender binary. None of these would seem to identify different values of persons by gender. Why are these not legally acceptable to May?

  3. Simon

    Hi M

    First of all, the question at the end does not concern the legal institution of marriage. Instead, the specific question I address in my paper concerns the evaluation of cultural practices of (opposite-sex) polygamy from the point of view of feminist social ethics. So I don’t regard President Zuma’s polygamy as morally unproblematic, but I don’t therefore think that polygamy should not be included within the legal institution of marriage in South Africa. (In fact, I tend to think it probably should be included). Questions about what the state should do are very important, of course, but they are not the only questions raised by issues of gender equality and cultural/ethical diversity.

    Second, polygamy involves an asymmetric marital form in which one person alone is married to more than one person. Polyamory is a different type of relationship: it is very often non-marital and need not be asymmetric. I don’t say anything in the paper regarding the moral evaluation of polyamorous practices. As it happens, I don’t see anything inherently objectionable about them, which is why they are not the subject of my paper. I do not believe that only dyadic sexual/romantic/intimate relationships (whether same-sex or opposite-sex) are morally unproblematic.

    Third, I should also stress that my concern is with *cultural practices* of polygamy, and not simply instances of asymmetric marital relationships. The latter lacks the normative element that specifically identifies this particular form of marriage as a fitting and proper kind of relationship. It’s this normative dimension that I find problematic, because it seems to presuppose fundamentally distinct gender roles: just why is it fitting and proper for there to be a *different* number of men and women in a marriage? The same argument does not work against cultural practices of monogamous marriage as such. The upshot is that the two kinds of marital practice are not in principle equivalent.

    I hope this helps to clarify my view a bit.


    • M

      That does help, yes. I apologize, as I seem to have misinterpreted the frame of reference of that section of discussion in the video.

  4. I’m interested in Brake’s claim that caring relationships are Rawlsian primary goods (hence presumably subject to the considerations of distributive justice). But I wish Brake would have talked further about how such relationships are to be distributed. She says something like such goods can only be distributed indirectly through making just distributions of the “social basis” for caring relationships. But what are these social basis and how can these be so distributed?

  5. James A.Moran

    I think there needs to be further analysis of the exact dimensions of
    liberal neutrality.The mention of
    “primary goods” as central to liberalism seems to open the door to something less than neutrality. This, of course, has been part of a number of critiques of liberalism Joel Feinberg’s excellent four volume “The Limits Of Criminal Law” details many
    of the difficult challenges of maintaining moral neutrality in the laws of liberal democracies.This does not mean that what was affirmed about marriage laws was incorrect.

  6. Alisabeth Ayars

    Perhaps caring relationships are a primary good, but our ability to form caring relationships is not dependent on state allocation of specific marriage benefits. Blake needs to provide a justification of why these particular benefits secure the bases for caring relationships, and do not simply “reward” people in caring relationships. Would caring relationships be difficult or impossible to attain without these benefits? Would less people enter into caring relationships without the incentive of state-allocated benefits? I think not. The goods that the state allocates to married people are not the “social bases of caring relationships” or the caring relationships themselves, they are economic and social rewards, plain and simple. Economic and social rewards should not be allocated based on entrance into a particular relationship.

    Overall, this was a great, lively discussion! Both participants made thought-provoking arguments.