Stephen Macedo’s book Just Married: Same-Sex Couples, Monogamy, and the Future of Marriage (Princeton University Press) came out in 2015, just prior to the US Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges recognizing that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry. The first part of the book in effect provides a philosophical justification for the court’s decision. Macedo considers and responds to a number of conservative arguments against same-sex marriage, including New Natural Law arguments that same-sex marriage is a conceptual impossibility and consequentialist arguments that recognizing same-sex marriage will harm heterosexual married couples, the institution of marriage, and children. Macedo treats these conservative arguments with respect, but he ultimately concludes that none of them provide adequate public reasons to deny civil marriage to same-sex couples. Despite Obergefell, however, the debate between supporters of same-sex marriage and their conservative opponents continues. In this symposium, Patrick Lee reprises the New Natural Law against same-sex marriage, and Amy Wax raises questions about how confident we should be that same-sex marriage will not have negative effects on children. Both challenge Macedo to revisit and defend the arguments he makes in support of same-sex marriage.
While most people are by now familiar with conservative objections to same-sex marriage, it is less well known that same-sex marriage also has critics on the left. Some left-leaning critics share their conservative counterparts’ assumption that, as Shannon Gilreath puts it, marriage is a “thoroughly heterosexual institution.” The difference is that, for these critics, a strong association with heterosexuality is a reason for gays and lesbians to be skeptical of the institution of marriage rather than a praiseworthy feature of it. In his contribution to this symposium, Gilreath challenges Macedo to take a more critical perspective on the ways marriage promotes forms of gender inequality and hierarchy that gays and lesbians should be loath to perpetuate.
In the second part of his book, Macedo turns to a different set of concerns, namely whether civil marriage should continue to be a legally recognized as a “status relation” in American law. Critics from across the ideological spectrum have argued that marriage should be “disestablished” and left to private institutions in a way that mirrors the disestablishment of religion. While these critics often appeal to the idea that the state should be neutral between competing conceptions of the good life, Tamara Metz, in her contribution to this symposium, raises slightly different concerns. Metz argues that we shouldn’t allow the state to serve as an ethical authority with the power to determine or influence how we conduct our intimate lives. Marriage, she suggests, is too “special” to be placed in the hands of the state. In addition, Metz claims that the institution of civil marriage has a host of negative consequences such as promoting the idea that caring for the vulnerable should take place in the “gendered, privatized and sentimentalized family” rather than being a matter of public concern. She challenges Macedo to defend his claim that there are good liberal public reasons to retain the privileged status of marriage in the law.
The final part of Macedo’s book considers a topic that is now at the forefront of political and legal discussions after Obergefell: whether legal recognition of same-sex marriage should also lead to the legal recognition of polygamy or plural marriage. The fear that there is a slippery slope leading from same-sex marriage to polygamy has been a staple of conservative arguments for some time. What is new are the growing number of liberal and progressive thinkers who share the conservative view that same-sex marriage inevitably leads to recognizing plural marriage, but who welcome this result. Macedo, however, argues that the cases of same-sex marriage and polygamy are importantly different. While there are good public reasons for legally recognizing the former, these reasons do not extend to the latter. In addition, there is good evidence that polygamy, at least in the forms it most commonly assumes, has negative effects on the well-being of women, children, and society more generally. Therefore, there is no slippery slope from same-sex marriage to polygamy.
In her contribution to this symposium, Laurie Shrage questions these arguments, suggesting that just as there are better and worse forms of monogamous marriage, there are better and worse forms of plural marriage. Traditional polygamy may foster women’s inequality and produce other harmful effects, but there are new forms of “ethical polyamory” that lack these negative qualities and may deserve legal recognition. Amy Wax likewise questions whether Macedo has succeeded in justifying his firm opposition to legally recognizing polygamous unions, suggesting that he fails to distinguish between negative effects that are “inherent” in plural marriage and those that are only contingently associated with its current practice. More generally, she argues that while few Americans are likely to choose plural marriage, a successful case against it needs to invoke a more robust conception of the nature of marriage (of the kind provided by conservative moralists) than Macedo provides. Shrage and Wax thus challenge Macedo to give further defense to his claim that “the values of equal freedom that undergird gay rights support a wide variety of well-founded worries about polygamy as a social system” (148).
For those interested in contemporary debates over the future of marriage, Macedo’s Just Married is an essential starting point. He provides a comprehensive overview of all of the main debates and defends his own positions with arguments that eschew philosophical abstraction and are informed by a wealth of empirical data. Whether or not one agrees with him, the book rewards serious engagement, as this symposium will more than amply demonstrate.