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Marriage, Morality, and Institutional Value


This paper develops a Kantian account of the moral assessment of institutions. The problem I address is this: while a deontological theory may find that some legal institutions are required by justice, it is not obvious how such a theory can assess institutions not strictly required (or prohibited) by justice. As a starting-point, I consider intuitions that in some cases it is desirable to attribute non-consequentialist moral value to institutions not required by justice. I will argue that neither consequentialist nor virtue-ethical accounts account for these intuitions, suggesting that a distinctive deontological account is needed. The account I give is drawn from Kant’s Metaphysics of Morals; I distinguish it from Kantian views of institutions developed by Barbara Herman and Onora O’Neill. Throughout, I use marriage as an example.

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  1. A phrase used in Kipnis 2003 and Kingston 2004.

  2. Due to space constraints, I do not discuss rule-utilitarianism here.

  3. I withhold objections here to the perfectionist view of political institutions as justifiable by their promotion of virtues.

  4. The page number after the backslash refers to Kant 1900-. See also Kant 1797, Introduction, xviii––xx.

  5. I find many problems here. Does marriage really promote ‘erotic love’? And presumably the importance of erotic love varies: Don Juan or Savonarola might flourish without it.

  6. Kant’s chief writings on sex and marriage can be found in the Metaphysics of Morals (1900-, 6:276–84, 358–61, 424–26, 469–73), the Lectures on Ethics (1900-, 27:48–52, 27:384–92), and Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View (1900-, 7:303–11).

  7. I criticize this view in Brake 2005.

  8. See Okin 1989 and Shanley 2004, 3–30.

  9. O’Neill 1985, 1989. Such reasoning is not uncommon among Kantians: for instance, Goldman 1976.

  10. O’Neill (1989, 123) suggests using “the results of social inquiry” to determine maxims, but I think this faces the same objections.

  11. A reviewer for the British Society for Ethical Theory conference suggested these responses.

  12. Similar problems arise for Kant (1797–1798 567/6:447) who held that “[t]he depths of the human heart are unfathomable.”

  13. “The great maxims of justice and charity,” O’Neill 1989, 219–233. Compare O’Neill 2000.

  14. Kant 1797–1798, 413/6:261; this is a hypothetical, not an actual, contract. Williams 1977 helpfully suggests understanding the ‘contract’ as a tacit underlying assumption.


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Thanks to audiences at the British Society for Ethical Theory, the Canadian Philosophical Association, and Carleton University, the University of Calgary Ethics Group, Ali Kazmi, Ann Levey, David Sobel, and an anonymous BSET reviewer for helpful comments, and to the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for funding.

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Correspondence to Elizabeth Brake.

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Brake, E. Marriage, Morality, and Institutional Value. Ethic Theory Moral Prac 10, 243–254 (2007).

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