Same-Sex Marriage and “Spousal Equality”

Same sex marriage is here, but its effect on the future of marriage is unclear. Proponents of same-sex marriage presented their cause primarily as a matter of gay rights rather than a theory of marriage. This feature made debates over SSM often frustrating and unproductive, since SSM’s critics had a view of marriage than a view about homosexuality.

However, the success of SSM means taking stock of what marriage means now. The dominant view on the left and right is that SSM will relax further aspects of marriage such as numerosity or consanguinity. However, another view holds that SSM actually embodies a distinct, stable conception of marriage that Stephen Macedo calls “spousal equality.” Under, “spousal equality,” marriage is “the legally recognized commitment of two co-equal spouses to care for one another through all of life’s trials.” Macedo notes that this conception of marriage is uniquely suited for monogamous same-sex couples.

Is the “spousal equality” view of marriage coherent? I’d like to think it is. Here are a few reasons, taking plural marriage as an alternative:

1. Opportunity for extended, romantic partnerships. Plural marriage, unlike spousal equality, is likely inconsistent with a sufficient opportunity for an indefinite, intimate relationship, especially for men. While this form is often bad for women, its victims are also the men who are denied the opportunity for a long-term romantic partner.

2. Social stability. Insufficient opportunity for an extended romantic partnership is not only a significant harm to individual men, but it may also be socially dangerous. Societies with large numbers of unmarried, young men have often been unstable and violent (contemporary Chinese demographics bear witness to this tendency). Monogamy under the spousal equality model appears to be in the interests of long-term social stability.

3. Sexual equality. Proponents of plural marriage restrict their defense to “sex-equal” plural marriage. While it may be true that historically polygyny (many wives) has been far more widespread than polyandry (many husbands), that in no way denies the desirability of a plural marriage institution where both men and women can have multiple wives and husbands. Almost every society with plural marriage takes a predominantly polygynous form. The foreseeable consequence of legalizing plural marriage is that polygyny will dominate polyandry: the foreseeable effect of legalizing plural marriage is the sexual subordination of women, not the sexual equality of women. Even if the likely sexual inequality accompanying polygamy is “only contingent,” it is still a truth about plural marriage.

4. Rules vs. cases. Chris Freiman notes that many of the worries about plural marriage do not work as reasons to deny particular people the right to get married. For example, even if we have reason to believe that children of a particular couple would grow up under dysfunctional circumstances, that is not a good reason to deny a marriage to a couple. I think these examples elide an important distinction between rules and cases. For example, it seems unfair to deny a license on an ad hoc basis to this couple (why? because our judgments are generally unreliable about particular cases? but what if we were really sure?). But if their license is denied on the basis of a rule–e.g. a brother and sister from the Smith family want to get married–the concern appears to disappear. The relevant question isn’t whether particular cases of plural marriage would be workable or desirable, but whether a rule permitting plural marriage would lead to good results.

This is all not to say that spousal equality is an appropriate conception of marriage for all future time. Rather, it presents a stable and desirable equilibrium for the foreseeable future. We should be open to alternatives and assess their benefits and costs in proportion to the evidence.

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Why not status?

I’ve been thinking recently about the problem of “meaningless work”, which refers to repetitive, low-skilled work that require little initiative by the worker. The problem has both Marxian and a Rawlsian flavors, but basically the problem is that meaningless jobs inhibit workers’ autonomy or create feelings of low status. Instead, the workplace should be democratically organized to give workers opportunities for autonomy on the job and raise the social status of workers.

The argument notes that one source of meaning for workers is the respect or status their work affords. However, something that’s always troubled me is the assumption that low-skilled work must be low-status. Why must that be so? There’s certainly nothing necessary about a connection between low-status and low-skilled work. Noah Smith wrote a very good post several years ago noting that societies may be highly egalitarian in terms of status while remaining highly unequal in terms of wealth or income. Smith noted that Japanese culture refers even rote line cooks with honorific titles and generally shames those who flaunt their wealth. Status does not track wealth.

If the connection between low-skilled work and low-status is a cultural artifact, then some of the wind goes out of the workplace democrats’ scales. As far as status goes, we don’t have to redistribute responsibility in the workplace–we might want to redistribute status to these workers.

My bourgeois sentiments find this ideal deeply attractive. One of the advantages of redistributing status is that it is comparatively cheap relative to redistributing wealth. A world with high levels of wealth inequality but low levels of status inequality has the material benefits of an unequal economy but the norms and customs of a much more egalitarian one. Adam Smith may have had something like this culture in mind when he celebrates the material improvements brought about by the desire for wealth, even when the wealthy often suffer from self-deception and vain-glory.

High-material inequality/low-status inequality has its challenges, of course. In another sense, status is much harder to re-distribute than wealth since there’s no obvious policy lever. It also requires a certain degree of cognitive dissonance, since material ambition must remain a somewhat respectable pursuit to drive economic growth.

Still, why not try? It certainly seems like an ideal worth endorsing.