Social Theory and Practice

Volume 47, Issue 4, October 2021

Alida Liberman
Pages 765-788

For Better or for Worse
When Are Uncertain Wedding Vows Permissible?

I answer two questions: (1) what are people doing when they exchange conventional wedding vows? and (2) under what circumstances are these things morally and rationally permissible to do? I propose that wedding pledges are public proclamations that are simultaneously both private vows and interpersonal promises, and that they are often subject to uncertainty. I argue that the permissibility of uncertain wedding promises depends on whether the uncertainty stems from doubts about one’s own internal weakness of will and susceptibility to temptation or from the expectation that external circumstances might change. I then explain why uncertainty is a prima facie challenge for unconditional wedding vows, and I offer a solution: rational wedding vows are unconditional in their content but implicitly conditional in their structure; the spouse pledges to act in certain ways unconditionally, so long as they remain in the spousal role. I respond to objections to my view (including Elizabeth Brake’s claim that the permissibility of unilateral divorce undermines an understanding of wedding vows as promises), and conclude with some suggestions about what marrying couples should do to ensure permissible pledges.