16th Graduate Conference in Political Philosophy – Abstract/Brown

Jennifer Brown, University College London.

Answering the Neutrality Objection to Marital Establishment


Marital establishment (ME), whereby the state supports, administers and even celebrates the institution of marriage, is commonplace in many states. In recent years, a number of liberal political theorists have challenged the normative justification of this practice. In this paper, I address the objections made against ME on the grounds of neutrality. Although ME forms a part of many people’s conception of the good life, it is not universally valued, so cannot be justified to those who do not subscribe to it, and is non-political, so support for it from all reasonable persons is not necessary.

There are four solutions to this problem. Solution (1) rejects neutrality and embraces perfectionism, whilst (2) argues that ME is a part of the political conception of justice, and can therefore be justified using public reason. (3) restricts the scope of neutrality and public reason to constitutional essentials and basic justice, and (4) gives an alternative account of neutrality that lets ME and certain other non-political commitments in and keeps others out, on non-perfectionist grounds.

In this paper I pursue a combination of (3) and (4). Those that reject the narrow scope of public reason in (3) should accept a different, less demanding standard of neutrality, (4), that applies outside of the scope of justice. Construing neutrality as an instrumental value, required to guarantee the equal liberty of citizens, I argue that non-neutral goods such as marriage could be established by the state without violating justice. The liberal state must show that ME is not harmful or discriminatory, but rather a thin, and multipurpose, ‘cultural good’. I postulate that cultural goods be figured in a contextual, practice-dependent manner, stemming from the reasonable wants, desires and interests of persons in a particular society.