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Chapter One: Comprehensive Union
For all the difficulty and ambiguity of making value judgments, the broadest outlines of the good life are plain to most of us. One man has a healthy body and a happy family, an enriching complement of hobbies and a keen sense for Bob Dylan. By day he teaches high-school seniors to savor the rhythm and wit of Chaucer’s poetry; by night friends help him savor red Bordeaux. A second man is debilitated, depressed, desensitized and detached. It doesn’t take a poet or a saint to see who is better off.
It is equally clear that there is nothing special about Dylan, Chaucer, or Bordeaux that gives the first man his advantage. There is no single good life, but a range of good lives: countless ways of blending the basic ingredients of human thriving. But the ingredients themselvesthe most foundational ways in which we can thrive, what we call “basic human goods”are more limited. They include only those conditions or activities that make us better off in themselves, whether or not they bring us other goods. It makes sense for us to want these for their own sake. Health, knowledge, play and aesthetic delight are a few examples, and another is friendship.
Yet another basic human good, we think, is marriage. A critical point here is that marriage and ordinary friendship do not simply offer different degrees of the same type of human good, like two checks written in different amounts. Nor are they simply varieties of the same good, like the enjoyment of a Matisse and the enjoyment of a Van Gogh. Each is its own kind of good, a way of thriving that is different in kind from the other. Hence, while spouses should be friends, what it takes to be a good friend is not just the same as what it takes to be a good spouse.
What, then, is distinctive about marriage? All sorts of practices are grafted onto marriage by law and custom, but what kind of relationship must any two people have to enjoy the specific good of marriage? This framing of the question, though unusual, should not seem mysterious; we could ask it just as well of other basic human goods.