Monday, March 26, 2012

Elizabeth Brake's "Minimizing Marriage"

Elizabeth Brake was educated at The Universities of Oxford (B.A.) and St. Andrews (M. Litt., PhD). Since 2000 she has taught in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Calgary, Canada; in 2011-2012 she is a Visiting Associate Professor at Arizona State University.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Minimizing Marriage: Marriage, Morality, and the Law, and reported the following:
Turning to page 99, one finds a central theme of the book: preferential treatment for romantic couples is a form of unjustified discrimination (I call this “amatonormativity”). In Chapter 4, “Special Treatment for Lovers,” I argue that friendships, and overlapping networks of friends and sexual partners, have just as much ethical value as romantic love relationships. Friendships and groups provide just as much opportunity for reciprocal care and can be just as fulfilling to their members. Yet socially those outside romantic love relationships face stereotyping, various forms of social discrimination, and legal discrimination. On page 99, I address the objection that the romantic love drive is biologically rooted and so we really are better off satisfying that drive in romantic love relationships – and that that can justify discrimination! On page 99 (actually I'm cheating – the first sentence begins on page 98!) I'm discussing Helen Fisher's view in Anatomy of Love:
Dyadic pair-bonding, with its characteristic stages of limerence (“being in love”) and attachment, on her view, has a neurochemical basis. It is a drive analogous to hunger, thirst, sleep, the maternal instinct, and sex. This suggests a rationale for preferential treatment of amorous dyads. ... We might go further and argue that amatonormative social pressures are beneficial because they guide us to satisfy this drive.

But even if we accept Fisher’s controversial view, it would not justify amatonormativity. Fisher argues that humans are instinctually serial monogamists—her research suggests that the natural duration of a romantic love cycle is four years, corresponding to the normal gap between pregnancies in conditions without contraception and when women breastfeed. Moreover, she holds that extramarital sex has a physiological basis. Her account could not support the amatonormative preference for exclusive and enduring relationships. In fact, marriage and the amatonormative ideal would themselves frustrate the drives for serial monogamy and sexual variety. Furthermore, Fisher suggests that polygamy also has a physiological basis; while she sees it as a “secondary” strategy, she acknowledges that this is controversial—some anthropologists suggest that it is a dominant human urge. Finally, Fisher recognizes the emergence of a new family form, which she calls an “association”—“a brand-new web of kin based on friendship instead of blood.” [Footnote: Fisher, Anatomy of Love, p. 305] This suggests that her view does allow some plasticity in the drive for companionship.

But let us imagine that society and policy develop “serial-amatonormativity,” privileging, and pressuring people into and out of, four-year pair-bonding relationships. Marriage could have a four-year limit, and family and friends could express concern and disapproval when relationships lasted too long. Such discrimination would still be morally unjustified. There is ample evidence, already noted, of sexual minorities; privileging serial male-female monogamy would impose costs on these people unnecessarily. There is no need to privilege serial monogamy in order to remove barriers to it....
I go on, in the second part of the book, to argue for a new form of legal marriage, “minimal marriage,” which could support friendships and care networks and so does not discriminate unjustly against those outside of romantic love relationships.

So does page 99 reflect the quality of the whole? To a certain extent – it defends one of the book's central themes, it engages in measured argument, and it is 'transdisciplinary', bringing biological and anthropological research to bear on moral philosophical questions. I like to think the book contains more original argument than discussion of others' views, however, and page 99 does focus mainly on Fisher! Beyond that, I must let the reader judge.
Learn more about Minimizing Marriage at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue