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Does state-sponsored marriage belong in the past?

College Fellow Dr Clare Chambers writes in the New Statesman that 'marriage is an unequal institution that belongs in the past'.

Discussing the imminent changes to civil partnerships in the UK, making them open to all couples, Dr Chambers writes: "Giving all couples the option to choose between registering their relationship as a civil partnership or a marriage is a great improvement on a regime that recognises only marriage. In my book Against Marriage: An Egalitarian Defence of the Marriage-Free State, I argue that it does not, however, go far enough, because the state should not recognise marriage at all."

Exploring the restricting effects of traditional marriages on a society that strives for equality, Dr Chambers argues that a state which does not actively promote marriage is one that can eliminate discrimination of those who are not married and their children. She highlights that the religious and cultural background of marriage is an uncomfortable one for atheists and members of the LGBTQ+ community. However, Dr Chambers does not oppose all intervention of the state in relationships. She has a constructive vision of a future where the state protects people from inequalities and issues that can arise in a relationship, without prioritising those who are married. 

Dr Chambers explored her arguments during last year's University of Cambridge Festival of Ideas, which you can watch again via the recorded livestream of the Against Marriage event hosted by the Intellectual Forum.

During the event, Dr Chambers argued that state-recognised marriage violates both equality and liberty, even when expanded to include same-sex couples. Instead she proposed the marriage-free state: an egalitarian state in which religious or secular marriages are permitted but have no legal status.

Questions from the audience included:

  • Could the proposals limit liberty because at present you can opt out of state intervention by not marrying?
  • Would the proposals create a bonanza for lawyers?
  • Why argue that marriage as it is now cannot be reformed?
  • Isn't marriage fundamentally about money and free labour? Would it be better to demand payment for childcare and housework to reform marriage?

Dr Clare Chambers is Reader in Political Philosophy at the University and a Fellow of Jesus College.

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