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CHRISTOPHER BENNETT

LIBERALISM, AUTONOMY AND CONJUGAL LOVE 

ABSTRACT. This paper argues that a liberal state is justified in promoting relationships
of conjugal love the form of relationship that is the basis of the institution of marriage
on the grounds that they are essential to the development and maintenance of autonomy. A
deep human need is that the detail of our lives be recognised (accepted, affirmed, granted
importance) by others (or by an other). Autonomy can be compromised when this need is
not met. So a state concerned with autonomy ought to be concerned with relationships in
which people can be given recognition. This argument justifies support for friendship as
well as conjugal love; why is the latter particularly special? The answer is that in conjugal
love partners value each other exclusively (i.e., in a way they do not value anyone else).
Conjugal relations therefore recognise the uniqueness and individual value of a persons
life in a way that friendship does not.
KEY WORDS: friendship, liberalism, love, marriage, recognition

I NTRODUCTION : M ARRIAGE AND THE L IBERAL S TATE


Should the state support marriage? Traditionally it has been the conservative, with their unexplained notions of naturalness or the sacred, or
with an overriding concern for social stability, who has given an affirmative
answer to this question. It might be thought that insofar as the liberal can
support marriage, the relevant grounds would have to do with having a
family and bringing up children, rather than with marriage itself. For once
children are in the equation there is something for the harm principle to
bite on. But as regards those who have no intention of having children,
one might assume that a liberal ought to say nothing. The proper liberal
attitude, it might be said, is one of neutrality. The state ought not to dictate
how people are to live, whether they should marry, whether they should
aspire to find a life partner, as long as the effects of their decisions do not
harm others.
 An earlier version of this paper was presented to the Association for Legal and Social

Philosophys Virtues of Altruism conference at Royal Holloway, University of London. I


would like to thank those who made useful criticisms of it there, particularly David Miller
and Bob Brecher. I have also benefited from discussion with colleagues at Sheffield, in
particular Kathryn Wilkinson, Robert Stern and Vince East, and from the comments of the
editors and referees of this journal.
Res Publica 9: 285301, 2003.
2003 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.

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CHRISTOPHER BENNETT

In this paper I argue that this assumption about the liberal position is
mistaken. Of course, the state ought not to compel people into marriage,
but there are grounds for thinking that the liberal state is justified in
engaging in more subtle forms of support for the institution. For instance,
the state might afford a special legal status to married couples (as it does
at present) reinforcing that with forms of financial assistance such as tax
breaks. I do not go into any of the details of such support: my main point
here is that the liberal state is justified in giving support to the two-person
conjugal relationship over other sorts of intimate relationship.
I argue that the pro-marriage position does not have to conflict with
the liberal view that insists on the priority of individual choice. For if we
look at the preconditions of individual choice, we find that the relationship of conjugal love is of great importance in maintaining an individuals
ability to frame, revise and pursue their conception of the good. By the
phrase conjugal love I mean to capture that type of enduring, close and
to some extent exclusive reciprocal relationship between two adults, based
on mutual affection and esteem, which ideally speaking underlies
marriage (though it can equally well exist in the absence of the formal
marriage bond). I claim that one does not have to believe in anything more
than the value of individual autonomy in order to think that the relationship
of conjugal love is morally important and ought to be supported by the
state.
Some might be sceptical about this idea. Surely, a critic might say,
marriage is responsible for cutting down ones freedom rather than
increasing it. Once one has responsibilities, not just for oneself, but for
another as well, ones freedom to do as one likes is dramatically curtailed
so, for example, goes the stereotypical story about why men are unwilling
to commit. But this criticism rests on too simple a view of freedom.
The notion of autonomy that I have in mind cannot be measured simply
by the sheer numbers of options that are formally available to you. Also
important is ones ability to avail oneself of these options. Autonomy has
to do not simply with the external aspect of freedom, but with internal
factors as well. A person may be (externally) free to a very high extent,
but lonely and lacking in self-respect. As a result they may lose their sense
of the value of their own projects and their own enjoyments. The thought
pursued in this paper is that a sense of ones own worth (self-respect) is a
necessary condition of valuing ones projects and therefore of making use
of freedom. A person who lacks this can become psychologically unable to
avail themselves of the options open to them. On my view, then, autonomy
(the ability to frame, revise and rationally pursue a conception of the good)

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is a precondition of the value of freedom (having a large number of options


open).
In order to argue that the liberal should support the institution of
marriage, two things would have to be shown. First, that conjugal love
is a form of relationship that is more beneficial in terms of promoting
autonomy than its rivals; and second, that getting married itself protects
and promotes conjugal love. More argument than I provide here is necessary for the second point for instance, I would have to discount the
possibility that the institution of marriage actually corrupts and hastens
the end of conjugal love. For if that were true, the state ought to support
not marriage, but rather some different way of promoting conjugal love.
But I will assume that it is plausible that, because the legal entanglement
of two peoples affairs that is involved in marriage makes break-up such a
complicated option, participants have strong reason to work at their relationship. The institution of marriage is thus more likely than not to prevent
the breakdown of relationships, and thus to sustain the goods of conjugal
love.1 This is a purely instrumental argument for the existence of marriage
as a legal arrangement: it says that marriage is instrumentally valuable
in promoting and preserving conjugal love because it makes breaking up
harder to do. I invoke this argument here as a plausible consideration but
do not seek to defend it in any detail.
Another proviso concerns the status of the claims made here. What I
offer is a normative account of friendship and conjugal love. This means
that my defence of liberal support for marriage is somewhat qualified: it
says that there are circumstances in which liberal support for marriage is
justified. Hence my claim is not that the state should defend marriage as
such, but rather that it should defend marriage because and insofar as it
promotes conjugal love (which in turn preserves and promotes autonomy).
Thus the account offered here might in fact be used to criticise (at least
some) present-day marriage arrangements rather than confirming them.
My position need not be in disagreement, therefore, with some aspects
of feminist critiques of marriage. What I would wish to say, however, is
that a critique of present-day marriage requires some view of how human
relations ought to be to back it up: it has to rest on an account of a better
alternative. And when we look for better alternatives, we find that there
are good reasons for sticking to the model of the two-person relation1 I am not denying, of course, that the complexity of divorce proceedings can lock
people into unhappy relationships that they cannot or will not improve, thus preventing
them from starting afresh rather than encouraging them to work at their relationship. But
my argument has to claim only that on balance marriage is more instrumentally useful than
harmful in promoting conjugal love.

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ship rather than abandoning it for something more collectivist. (Though


nothing I say here implies that marriage must be between two persons of
the opposite sex: indeed my argument, if it works, provides good grounds
for state-recognised gay and lesbian marriage.)
The question, then, is how relationships of conjugal love can, ideally
speaking, contribute to autonomy. My answer will have a lot to do with
how friendship contributes to autonomy. To begin with I would like to
develop a thesis about what I will call intimate friendship. Conjugal love
differs from intimate friendship in the extent of its exclusivity. But intimate
friendship is not itself promiscuous. It is what we might hope to have with
a close circle of people. We will begin with a Hegelian insight about how
such friendships can contribute to the autonomy of their participants.

R ECOGNITION IN I NTIMATE F RIENDSHIP


For the Hegelian tradition, one of the crucial goods that we get from
social relationships is recognition. When another person recognises you,
they regard you as having a certain sort of importance, and they respond
appropriately to you in the light of it. Furthermore, the way in which they
recognise you conditions your own view of yourself. Being valued by
another can, under favourable conditions, lead to your valuing yourself.
Arguments about recognition, then, are arguments about what John Rawls
has called the social bases of self-respect.2 Intimate relationships, the
Hegelian thinks, provide a particular sort of recognition: through them one
is recognised as the particular individual one is. They provide a social
context in which the traits that make us unique, distinct from all others,
can be given due recognition. This is different from the environment of
work organisation or state in which what is valued might be our particular
talents, or our universal identity as a citizen.
Now this is not to say that our fellow citizens cannot recognise us as
being particular individuals as well as being fellow citizens. Even in an
impersonal context where we meet as two citizens we should recognise
each other as having a life, a perspective, an individuality of our own,
2 See for instance: [i]t is clearly rational for men to secure their self-respect. A sense
of their own worth is necessary if they are to pursue their conception of the good with
zest and to delight in its fulfilment. Self-respect is not so much a part of any rational plan
of life as the sense that ones plan is worth carrying out. Now our self-respect normally
depends upon the respect of others. Unless we feel that our endeavours are honoured by
them it is difficult if not impossible for us to maintain the conviction that our ends are worth
advancing. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972),
178.

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rather than just a universal shared identity. However, in these more impersonal contexts, one might think that it is the universal and shared identity of
citizen that is important rather than particularity: we recognise the person
as having a life, an individuality of their own, in the sense of formally
having the capacity for such a thing, but we do not actually grant recognition to the content of that life. It is this recognising, valuing, sharing
of the content of the others life that is special to intimate relationships.
In intimate friendship, as in conjugal love, we share to some extent
the content of our lives with other people. We can imagine a continuum
between the fully impersonal and the fully intimate relationship, where the
crucial varying factor is the degree to which the content of ones life is
shared with other people.
This is to say that, when you are in a (well-ordered) intimate relationship, another person takes you to be important as the particular person you
are (likes, loves, cares for you as that person) and thinks that the things
that make you that individual those things that make up the content of
your particular life are important in themselves. They value the things
that make you the particular person you are. This means that such a person
values a certain detailed knowledge of you, and acts on the basis of that
knowledge to care for you. The attitude that is demanded by this sort of
intimate relationship is not one that we can expect everyone to take up.
Thus we should not expect our colleagues at work or our fellow citizens to
value these details about us. But it is a form of recognition that we properly
seek in the intimate sphere.
Hegels insight is that through the fact that another person values these
details about us, we come to value them ourselves. The fullest account of
the points that interest us here is contained in his discussion of love, not in
the Philosophy of Right,3 but in a later set of lectures.4 There he says that
in love I gain myself in another person. Now this is a motto that could
stand for the whole idea of recognition. We become ourselves through the
image that we see reflected in the eyes of others, and in the context of structured interactions with others. There are different types of recognition, and
Hegel recognises that we find or develop different aspects of ourselves in
a wide range of contexts rather than in the context of a single relationship:
ultimately we need the three distinct forms of recognition that come from
family, civil society and state. Love therefore represents a particular form
of recognition. Hegel goes on:
3 Though see G. W. F. Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, trans. C. Diethe

(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), esp. 1619.


4 1824/5 lectures (Griesheim transcript), quoted in Robert R. Williams, Hegels Ethics
of Recognition (London: University of California Press, 1997), 212.

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In [my beloved] I have the intuition, the consciousness, that I count for something, in her I
have worth and validity. But it is not only I who counts, she also counts for me. This means
that each person has in the other the consciousness of the other and of the self, this unity.5

Hegel takes himself here to be talking about conjugal love, but something
like this could be said about intimate and reciprocal forms of love and
friendship more generally. Through friendship and love we gain a sense of
our own importance, and the importance of our choices and projects. I shall
argue that such recognition is essential to our autonomous functioning.
Essential to autonomy, the thesis goes, is a form of caring based on detailed
attention to the way ones life is going.
Now one thing missing from this sketch so far is an important proviso.
We cannot get the required recognition from just anyone. Detailed attention from someone with whom I have no wish to engage in such a
relationship gives me, not a sense of my own importance, but rather a
sense of being violated, being stalked, being a person whose subjectivity
is not fully their own. Undesired attention is disempowering rather than
empowering. Rather, for the detailed attention of another person to be a
source of recognition, that person has to be someone we like and want
to be involved with in such an intimate way. This suggests an important
kind of reciprocity to friendship. In order for us to gain a sense of our own
importance from it, the person who gives us this sense must be someone
we take to be important as well.
This reading of Hegel suggests the following view. A deep human need
is that aspects of our lives such as our personal history, our present projects,
our character, be accepted, affirmed, granted importance by others (or by
an other). When this need is not met, it can be difficult to maintain our
sense of the importance of what we are doing. Thus autonomy can be
compromised. One role for intimate human groupings based on mutual
affection is that they allow their members to satisfy this need through a
mutual, detailed, altruism.

T HE D ETAIL OF O UR L IVES
I shall briefly defend this view through a consideration of some of the
problems that we tend to face at some point in our lives. I shall call
these problems part of the detail of our lives. By this I mean that they
are part of the way our lives look when seen close up, as we ourselves
(the ones who are leading them) see them. These range from the relatively everyday to some which are larger and more metaphysical. I take
5 Hegel, quoted in Williams, ibid.

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it that, though these problems are often tremendously important to each


individual, and although each individual experiences them, they are not
(usually) important in any public sense. They are private problems of
each individual. I shall suggest that we do need to discuss these problems
with others; but that this cannot be done in a public way. Thus we need
an intimate grouping. For, as the preceding discussion indicates, it is in
intimate relationships that we can properly expect others to value the detail
of our lives.
One of the most obvious ways in which our autonomy can be undermined without intimate friends is connected with our need for reassurance
about our own value. Unless we are supremely self-confident or, what
might be a variety of the same thing, deadeningly thick-skinned, we need
reassurance in all sorts of ways. No one goes through life without experiencing bruising disagreement or disapproval, and when it concerns some
fundamental aspect of oneself rejection in love is one example a question arises almost inescapably about the validity of the criticism and of
what remains in the light of it. In the face of a bruising encounter with a
student who disagrees passionately about the low mark you have given her,
for instance, you may end up questioning not just your marking standards,
but your character. Are you too harsh, inflexible, lacking in compassion?
Are you negligent in marking, failing to see what was of value in the
students essay? Or are you simply dealing out justice in accordance with
your academic role?
Regardless of your eventual perception of the justice of the students
criticism, I suggest, it will be helpful to you to have a confidante from
whom reassurance about your own worth can be sought. For if you decide
that the student is wrong and that your mark was justified, you may still
seek a second opinion that is not just a professional opinion. For instance,
you may still want reassurance about the way you dealt with the student,
and the personal qualities that you displayed in a situation which can
hardly have left you feeling good about yourself, even if you think that
what you did was justified. And if, on the other hand, you think that you
were wrong in what you did, and that your treatment of her essay revealed
some failing in you, the question will be raised for you of what, given
this failing, there is still of value in you. Assuming that there can be an
affirmative answer to this question, the best way to assure yourself of it is
simply through contact with people who know you well enough to know
your failings but still think that you are worth being friends with. Without
such contact, the possibility arises that the insecurity about your own worth
cannot be expunged and will feed into an insecurity about the worth of your
projects or your deserving happiness, etc. Given the overwhelming likeli-

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hood of facing such problems, we should conclude that we need friends


who know and value the detail of our lives; who have a detailed knowledge
of who we are and still care about us.
Another way in which we need friendship to support our autonomy
concerns cases where one needs comfort in the face of something that
cannot be made better. Take rejection in love, or the death of a loved one,
or fears about ones own mortality as examples. It is often true that merely
talking about it or being comforted makes it seem possible to go on, or to
face people again, in a way that had previously seemed impossible. What
is needed in these situations is not answers, or reassurance for no such
thing is available. Rather, what is needed is someone who understands this
and is willing to listen, or sit with you, or just do with you whatever it is
that you want to do. The important thing in these situations is the comfort
that comes from a kind of sympathetic understanding. In these situations
you need someone who, though they cannot confront your trouble in the
same way that you have to, is nevertheless willing to go through it with
you. They are willing to let it become an important thing in their life; or,
perhaps, because it is happening to you, it already is an important thing
in their life. At any rate, in these situations of loss, we need someone for
whom our loss is important, not just in itself, but because it has happened
to us. We need someone who values our life in detail, so that our loss
is important to them. Without such comfort and support we might, at the
limit, lose the will to go on, become seriously depressed, or worse.
I shall take it that these two examples establish the importance for
autonomy of enduring and close emotional relationships. As such, it
provides an argument against what might be called serial monogamy, in
which a person may fairly regularly move from one exclusive relationship
to the next. It is only someone who knows something of your history, of
some of the important events in your life, and with whom you have shared
important experiences, who will have the standing to give you the kind
of support that we said was important. Serial monogamy is unsatisfactory
because it does not allow another person to develop that sort of detailed
knowledge of you that can come only with the long habit of intimate
interaction.
However, if we want to argue for marriage and the nuclear family then it
is important that the argument does not stop at friendship. For an argument
for the value of friendship understood in an undefined way is consistent,
in principle, with state support, not just for marriage, but for a variety of
forms of relationship that people may have, including intimate domestic
ones that do not fit my description of conjugal love. If the liberal wants
to argue for the importance of marriage in particular, it will have to be

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on the grounds that the two-person relationship of conjugal love, which


is a special case of friendship, is of particular importance to autonomy.
Here, surely, is an important source of scepticism about my project. Many
liberals will accept something like what I have said here as an argument
from the social bases of self-respect, but question whether we can really
say that marriage is a better source of self-respect than intimate friendship.
I argue, however, that there are two features that distinguish conjugal love
from intimate friendship which should make us think that it is.
D ISTINGUISHING C ONJUGAL L OVE FROM I NTIMATE F RIENDSHIP
We have already noticed that the participants in both intimate friendship
and conjugal love value the detail of each others lives. Furthermore, we
have noticed that both forms of relationship are reciprocal there is such
a thing as unrequited love or friendship and that they are voluntary the
parties come to the relationship as a matter of choice (because, perhaps,
they value the detail of the others life). The latter two features distinguish
these forms of relationship from parental love. Parental love is (more or
less) unconditional: it cannot be seen as embodying a judgement on the
worth of its object. Conjugal love and intimate friendship, on the other
hand, bestow a different sort of recognition on their objects. Because
we pick our friends and lovers, and our choosing them involves finding
them valuable, this is a way in which they can find themselves valuable.
We choose them because of something about them; parental love is not
like that. So the forms of relationship we are looking at are better suited
than is parental love to bolster a persons confidence in the worth of their
character, projects and achievements.
Of course, this is not to deny that parental love is important, and is
important even as an adult. But it is to say that it does not have the particular kind of importance that we are seeking to characterise here in relation
to recognition and autonomy. A similar point could be made in relation
to personal advisers, such as priests or counsellors, who may play a role
in ones life. Such people may be well placed to offer advice on how to
go on, or to provide one with an objective view of a situation one cannot
find ones way out of. But that is different from the support offered by
friends and lovers. The latter is characterised by their having chosen you,
their finding the detail of your life valuable and important. It is the fact that
the support offered by friends and lovers takes the form of this evaluation
of you that makes it a kind of recognition, rather than simply a source of
advice. And it is hard to imagine a person who could retain their sense of
their own worth through sessions with their priest or counsellor but in the
absence of the more direct support offered by the recognition of intimates.

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The argument so far should convince us that, though the liberal state
of course ought not to compel anyone to have friends, it is justified
in giving indirect support to forms of friendship. This might mean, for
instance, support for voluntary and non-purposive associations of civil
society; it might have consequences for the design and layout of residential neighbourhoods and the amenities provided or encouraged there;
it might militate against working practices which enforce geographical mobility or short-term contracts, thus disrupting the formation of
long-term relationships.
However, there are two features of conjugal love which distinguish
it from intimate friendship and which make the two-person relationship
particularly important in relation to the promotion and preservation of
autonomy. The first is something that distinguishes conjugal love from
friendship by degree: a lover is concerned with the whole of your life in
a way that a friend is not. The second is more like a difference in kind: a
lover has the type of concern they have for you only for you (conjugal love
is exclusive).
One thing underlying this exclusivity is surely the thought that the
parties to such a relationship grant each other a particular importance that
they do not grant to their other friends. Lovers can be tempted to express
this with melodramatic phrases like you are the most important thing in
the world to me, but I do not think that this is quite right. For there may
be many people who are important to you in different ways which are
impossible to quantify (parents, children, other friends, etc. how are they
to be ranked in importance?). Perhaps no one is more important to you
than your partner in conjugal love but it does not have to follow that there
are not people who are no less important. Rather it is the particular sort
of importance that you grant your partner that is the key issue, not their
relative ranking in your affections; it is the fact that, as I explain below,
you choose to take responsibility for them as a whole on the basis of the
value you attach to the detail of their life, a responsibility that you do not
assume for anyone else.
Now it may be objected that friendships as well as conjugal relationships can be to some extent exclusive. Friendships can be based around the
sharing of certain activities playing football, going for a drink together,
reading Kants Critique of Pure Reason, etc. And similar feelings of jealousy can be experienced when a friend starts to share these activities with
someone else as might be experienced as a result of the influence of an
outsider in the conjugal case. Thus friendships can be (often implicitly)
formed around a certain exclusivity. Still, this does not count against my
claim that conjugal partners have a concern for each other that they do not
have for anyone else.

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In order to distinguish conjugal love from exclusive forms of friendship


or from the other familial relations in which we might grant others an
unsurpassed degree of importance, we have to say something about the
particular kind of importance the partners grant each other in conjugal love,
and the nature of the exclusivity involved in it. We can usefully begin with
the thought that in conjugal love two people make a decision to share
a life. For instance, Hegel says that, in marriage, the two parties each
give up their existence as independent beings in order to constitute a joint
personality. However, we have to be careful not to over-emphasise this
point. Writers on this topic have made conjugal love sound unrealistic and
not necessarily attractive by over-emphasising its communal, self-denying
aspect.
Robert Solomon, for instance, argues that the root of what he calls
romantic love is shared identity.6 It has been an influential romantic motif
that two people who are really in love should wish to become one person.
This is a theme that goes back to the speech given to Aristophanes in
Platos Symposium, which introduces the idea that human beings as they
now exist are only half what they used to be, and that each person is
searching for their other half in order to be complete again.7 This
conceptualisation of love combines the idea that love involves a complete
merging of personalities with the equally suspect thought that for each
person there exists only one other whom they can truly love. But to many,
shared identity sounds claustrophobic, and the idea of love as unique
destiny unrealistic. Two conjugal partners may share a life, but this doesnt
mean that they share everything in their lives. A more attractive ideal (and
one that is arguably closer to Hegels intentions) would allow conjugal
partners an independent life outside the conjugal relationship: a work life,
their own friends, etc.
A better interpretation of the thought that, in conjugal love, two people
share a life would appeal to the thought that they share a concern for each
other as a whole in a way that even intimate friends do not. A relationship
is, amongst other things, a structure of responsibility. Through the relationships we participate in, whether formal or informal, we are assigned duties
to respect others, to look after others, to do things for others. Others have
a certain claim on us by virtue of our relationship with them. In a conjugal
relationship both parties to the relationship have a particular person to turn
to for support, someone who, by virtue of the sort of relationship that they
are having, is charged with their care and does not have anything more
6 R. Solomon, The Virtue of Love, in eds P. French, F. Uehling and H. Wettstein,

Midwest Studies in Philosophy XIII: Ethical Theory: Character and Virtue (1988), 1231,
267.
7 Plato, The Symposium, trans. W. Hamilton (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1951), 5865.

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important to do. Furthermore, in a conjugal relationship, as distinct from a


friendship, one assumes responsibility for the whole person, the whole life
of ones partner. Each has a generalised duty to support the other and see
them through any problems that they are having in any area of their life.
Ones activities are mediated by ones conjugal relationship in that one has
a specific person who is charged with helping one through those activities
(should one want or need that help) and with whose welfare one is charged
in exactly the same way.
The exclusive nature of the responsibility that conjugal love brings with
it explains why the particular sort of importance that you grant your partner
in conjugal love is one that you grant only to that person. I repeat that
this does not mean that you cannot hold that some other person is no less
important to you. But it does mean that the particular importance that the
person has for you is shared by no other. The type of reciprocated concern
that you have for this person is not something you share with anyone else.8
Your partner has a responsibility towards you regarding all areas of your
life in a way that your friends do not. This responsibility need not be a
heavy-handed, overbearing one; it just means that if you need support then
your partner is charged, as part of their role, with providing it. In conjugal
love each partner assumes responsibility for the whole of the other. This is
not complete, shared identity, but complete reciprocal responsibility.
This exclusiveness of concern is typically expressed in the exclusive
sharing of certain activities with that person. These activities might include
living together, making key life-decisions together, having sex together,
bringing up children together and so on. Whether there is a necessary
connection between any of these activities and the conjugal relationship
would require further investigation. For the moment I shall not specify that
any particular set of shared activities is essential to the relationship. So, for
instance, the relationship I have in mind does not necessarily imply sexual
exclusivity. I leave the question of the proper extent of exclusivity open
while insisting on exclusivity of concern.

T HE VALUE OF C ONJUGAL L OVE


But why does the relationship have to be exclusive in this way? Why is the
importance that your partner has for you and you for them not something
8 At least, not by the nature of the relationship. It may be that, as an adult only child,
when one of ones parents dies, one assumes an exclusive responsibility of care. But the
fact that you have this obligation is a contingent occurrence. It is not built into the nature
of the role in the way that it is in conjugal love.

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that can be spread more widely than a two-person group? One difference
between conjugal love and intimate friendship lies just in the degree to
which one is concerned for the detail of the life of ones beloved, how
detailed ones concern for them is. When one assumes responsibility for
the whole of the others life, one begins to learn about who the other is,
what it is like to be them, what their needs and desires are, etc., in much
greater detail than it is possible to learn about the lives of ones friends.
One thesis in favour of conjugal love might draw on this point to argue,
in effect, from the division of labour. If there were a situation in which
people have many friends who get more or less equal amounts of each
others attention, but where there is no further pairing up, then it may turn
out that no one is actually able to gain sufficiently detailed knowledge of
any other person. For it may turn out that people are spreading themselves
too thinly, given the inevitable pressures on the time we have in which
to get to know someone. So when, in extremis, a person needs someone
who has that knowledge of them, as we discussed above, they might be
unable to find someone in whom to confide. However, this argument is
not conclusive. For one thing, it makes the argument in favour of conjugal
love contingent on time pressures, suggesting that a leisure society might
transcend it. And for another, while it seems plausible that a group of ten
or twenty the members of which give each other roughly equal attention
might be spread too thinly, this does not seem so plausible with a mnage-trois.9 And the defender of marriage wants to rule out the mnage-trois just as much as the group of ten or twenty. So why is two the magic
number?
A better way to understand the importance of conjugal love focuses
instead on the importance of the particular sort of recognition gained by
participants in a relationship of conjugal love. In conjugal love a person
receives recognition of the very detail of their life, recognition of all
aspects of their individuality. Why is the recognition gained in conjugal
love different from that in intimate friendship? In conjugal love another
person chooses to assume responsibility for you as a whole, because they
value the detail of your life. They choose you. Furthermore, they choose
you and not anyone else. The evaluation of you that is expressed in the
choice, and in the very form of the relationship and its structures of
responsibility, singles you out. You have been chosen over everyone else.
This should not make you think that you are more special than everyone
else. But it does quite rightly back up your sense that you are special in
your own right. Being special for someone else affirms and recognises your
9 Cf. P. Gregory, Against Couples, Journal of Applied Philosophy 1 (1984), 26368,

p. 265.

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sense that the things that make you a particular individual are valuable,
because someone has chosen you for those things. This is different from
the recognition that one gets from ones intimate friends because they have
other friends. You share your intimate friends with others. They do not take
you to be special over and above their other intimate friends. So intimate
friendship cannot communicate quite the same recognition that you are
of special importance as an individual. To your intimate friends you do
not have the unique importance that you do to your lover. Thus intimate
friendship does not reinforce your sense of your importance qua unique
individual, the importance of the particular qualities that make you that
unique individual, in quite the same way.
Of course one large proviso to this is that, as noted above, to affirm
ones sense of ones valuable individuality, one cannot get recognition
from just anyone. If the wrong person offers you this kind of concern
it can be suffocating or intrusive. One seeks recognition from a person
whose recognition one can reciprocate. Thus the ideal of conjugal love
is a reciprocal relationship in which the partners choose each other over
everyone else, and regard each other as special.
If this is right then conjugal love has a special role in reinforcing ones
self-respect. If a condition of valuing ones projects, and thus being able
to pursue ones conception of the good, is that one value oneself; and if
one crucial way in which we value ourselves is through the recognition
we receive from others: then we need a form of recognition that values
us for ourselves, for the detail of our lives. This cannot just be granted
by a political arrangement that gives us rights: such rights may recognise
us as inviolable and irreplaceable, but that is a formal ascription; what we
want to know is that the way our lives are going, what has happened to us,
what we are engaged in, is valuable. Intimate friendship goes some of the
way in providing the sort of recognition we need. In intimate friendship a
person does have a particular concern for the detail of our lives, which they
value, and have chosen us as friends because they value it. But this concern
is partial, in that our friends are typically not concerned with the whole of
our lives, and not exclusively. It therefore cannot fully affirm our sense that
we are special and unique in and of ourselves. This is the role of conjugal
love. So conjugal love has a special role in preserving and promoting our
autonomy.
A L IBERAL P OLITICS OF C ONJUGAL L OVE
Thus, I conclude, conjugal love is a form of relationship which ideally
speaking can offer us a certain sort of recognition recognition of us

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as unique, of having a unique place in the life of another person that


intimate friendship does not. And since this recognition and the comfort
and support that one who recognises you in such a way gives through the
attention they pay you is important in sustaining our autonomous functioning, a liberal whose concern is with autonomy has grounds to endorse
conjugal love. This does not mean endorsing any particular conception
of the good, for the argument here has proceeded only on the grounds
that conjugal love provides pre-eminently one of the social bases of selfrespect that is necessary to our capacity to frame, pursue and rationally
revise our conception of the good. This argument has been concerned with
that higher-order capacity rather than with the content of any particular
conception of the good. Thus the liberal state should support relationships
of conjugal love, and if marriage is a good way of doing so, it ought to
support marriage.
A similar position has been taken by Will Kymlicka on liberal support
for cultural membership.10 Given that Kymlicka argues that the state
ought to intervene to sustain the viability of specific cultures, he may
appear to eschew the traditional liberal concern with neutrality. However,
Kymlickas point can be derived, not from the intrinsic value or correctness
of these ways of life, but rather from a traditional liberal concern with
the preconditions of leading the good life. For Kymlicka, autonomy is a
higher-order good, something we have reason to want regardless of what
our particular conception of the good is. Kymlicka claims that freedom
involves making choices amongst various options, and our societal culture
not only provides these options, but also makes them meaningful to us;11
and concludes that in order to have a capacity to frame, pursue and rationally revise ones conception of the good one needs a societal culture which
provides a meaningful set of options with which to begin.
Similarly, the argument of this paper ought to be attractive to that
variety of liberal who values autonomy as a thin or higher-order good and
thinks that the state is justified in promoting and defending autonomy on
something like Kymlickas sorts of ground. What I have argued here, effectively, is that conjugal support is very important to our capacity to frame,
pursue and rationally revise our conception of the good. We saw that, in
the absence of intimate friendship, that capacity could be undermined by
many sorts of situation with which we are inevitably confronted in the
course of our lives. And we presented grounds for thinking that the support
offered through a conjugal relationship could be importantly greater than
that offered by intimate friendship. If it is granted that it is the importance
10 W. Kymlicka, Multicultural Citizenship (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995).
11 Ibid., 83.

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CHRISTOPHER BENNETT

of people making their own choices about how to live that underpins the
liberal argument for neutrality, then we have the makings of an argument
for state support of that form of marriage based on two-person conjugal
love which does not conflict with liberal neutrality.
Before I conclude, let me briefly consider two criticisms that might be
made of the argument presented here. From the liberal who supports the
importance of autonomy, one criticism might be that, far from promoting
autonomy, the support that we get in conjugal love can merely sustain us
in false views, views that would otherwise be challenged. If substantive
autonomy is our goal that is the development of individuals who do not
merely hold their conception of the good as prejudice but have forged a
reasoned view through subjecting their opinions to the criticisms of others
then it might be said that the support we get from intimates particularly
if these intimates are like-minded can merely insulate us from the force of
criticisms that would otherwise persuade us away from our false opinions.
Now the introduction of this objection allows us to state an important
reservation about what is being claimed here. For the argument is not
meant to suggest that conjugal love will promote autonomy, as if by magic,
in the absence of other favourable social conditions such as an effective
education system, a flourishing and pluralistic civil society, and a healthy
tradition of democratic debate about the good life. All I claim here is that
there are grounds for thinking that conjugal love is one of the institutions
that should be on this list of important preconditions of autonomy that the
liberal state ought to encourage.
The above is an objection from a liberal who shares the concern with
autonomy that is assumed in this paper. It has become evident, however,
that one response to the liberal-communitarian debate is the attempt to
forge a different sort of liberalism, one whose commitment to neutrality
stems not from the supreme value of autonomy, but rather from the
perceived necessity of giving equal recognition to the different cultures
who reasonably aspire to membership of the state.12 One criticism of my
argument from this direction might be that, because it concludes that the
state is justified in offering support for two-person forms of marriage, it
discriminates against groups who hold to forms of marriage or domestic
arrangements that might be less exclusive.
Now insofar as these two strands of liberalism are distinct, it is not
clear that my argument here will convince the proponent of this latter
liberalism. For they presumably want to reject the claim that their position
is rooted in the concern for autonomy from which my argument proceeds.
12 See, e.g., Rawlss argument from the burdens of judgement: Rawls, Political

Liberalism (New York: University of Columbia Press, 1993), 5458.

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However, one strategy, which I cannot follow out fully here, would be to
query whether recognitional liberalism really does escape a commitment
to autonomy.13 For such a liberal has to have something to say about the
importance of people being allowed to express their own culture. And yet
this argument has to be made without a Kymlicka-style endorsement of
the higher-order good of being free to frame, pursue and rationally revise
ones conception of the good.
What is wrong with forcing people to accept an alien culture? Why
should they be given the political means to sustain their own culture?
Either the answers to these questions are given in terms of individuals
and their good, which leads us back towards freedom, or else we have
to renounce the assumption that the goods we should be concerned with
in politics are ultimately the goods of individuals14 and instead ascribe
intrinsic political importance to the cultures themselves. Here I simply
endorse the assumption that what is politically important is ultimately the
good of individuals.
In conclusion, what I have offered here is an argument in favour of the
two-person relationship which ideally underpins traditional Western marriage arrangements. I have argued that (supplemented, at any rate, by other
favourable social conditions) such a relationship is better for autonomy
than its rivals, and that the liberal state can endorse it without renouncing
its proper neutrality, given that such neutrality is rooted in a concern for
autonomy in the first place.
Department of Philosophy
University of Sheffield
Sheffield S10 2TN
UK
E-mail: c.bennett@shef.ac.uk

13 Such a point can, for example, be made against Rawls, whose position (in Political
Liberalism) rests fundamentally on the importance of the legitimacy of the state, that is,
that it should be justifiable to its citizens. Arguably, legitimacy has such fundamental
importance only if one regards citizens as autonomous and deserving of respect as such.
14 For this view, see for instance, C. Kukathas and P. Pettit, Rawls: A Theory of
Justice and its Critics (Oxford: Polity Press, 1990), 1116; C. Taylor, Cross-Purposes:
The Liberal-Communitarian Debate in his Philosophical Arguments (London: Harvard
University Press, 1995), 181203.