What is Marriage?

I’ve just got round to reading the much talked about “What is Marriage?” by Girgis, George and Anderson. In it they put forward a non-religious argument for marriage being only between a man and a woman, and I must say, I think they do a tremendous job. OF great note is that this piece was published in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, one of the leading US journals dealing with issies of legislation.

Here are some extracts.

Consider two competing views:
Conjugal View: Marriage is the union of a man and a woman who make a permanent and exclusive commitment to each other of the type that is naturally (inherently) fulfilled by bearing and rearing children together. The spouses seal (consummate) and renew their union by conjugal acts—acts that constitute the behavioral part of the process of reproduction, thus uniting them as a reproductive unit. Marriage is valuable in itself, but its inherent orientation to the bearing and rearing of children contributes to its distinctive structure, including norms of monogamy and fidelity. This link to the welfare of children also helps explain why marriage is important to the common good and why the state should recognize and regulate it.

Revisionist View: Marriage is the union of two people (whether of the same sex or of opposite sexes) who commit to romantically loving and caring for each other and to sharing the burdens and benefits of domestic life. It is essentially a union of hearts and minds, enhanced by whatever forms of sexual intimacy both partners find agreeable. The state should recognize and regulate marriage because it has an interest in stable romantic partnerships and in the concrete needs of spouses and any children they may choose to rear.

Marriage is distinguished from every other form of friendship inasmuch as it is comprehensive. It involves a sharing of lives and resources, and a union of minds and wills—hence, among other things, the requirement of consent for forming a marriage. But on the conjugal view, it also includes organic bodily union. This is because the body is a real part of the person, not just his costume, vehicle, or property. Human beings are not properly understood as nonbodily persons—minds, ghosts, consciousnesses—that inhabit and use nonpersonal bodies. After all, if someone ruins your car, he vandalizes your property, but if he amputates your leg, he injures you. Because the body is an inherent part of the human person, there is a difference in kind between vandalism and violation; between destruction of property and mutilation of bodies. Likewise, because our bodies are truly aspects of us as persons, any union of two people that did not involve organic bodily union would not be comprehensive—it would leave out an important part of each person’s being. Because persons are body‐mind composites, a bodily union extends the relationship of two friends along an entirely new dimension of their being as persons. If two people want to unite in the comprehensive way proper to marriage, they must (among other things) unite organically—that is, in the bodily dimension of their being.

By extension, bodily union involves mutual coordination toward a bodily good—which is realized only through coitus. And this union occurs even when conception, the bodily good toward which sexual intercourse as a biological function is oriented, does not occur. In other words, organic bodily unity is achieved when a man and woman coordinate to perform an act of the kind that causes conception. This act is traditionally called the act of generation or the generative act; if (and only if) it is a free and loving expression of the spouses’ permanent and exclusive commitment, then it is also a marital act.
Because interpersonal unions are valuable in themselves, and not merely as means to other ends, a husband and wife’s loving bodily union in coitus and the special kind of relationship to which it is integral are valuable whether or not conception results and even when conception is not sought. But two men or two women cannot achieve organic bodily union since there is no bodily good or function toward which their bodies can coordinate, reproduction being the only candidate.16 This is a clear sense in which their union cannot be marital, if marital means comprehensive and comprehensive means, among other things, bodily.

Because bodies are integral parts of the personal reality of human beings, only coitus can truly unite persons organically and, thus, maritally. Hence, although the state can grant members of any household certain legal incidents, and should not prevent any from making certain private legal arrangements, it cannot give same‐sex unions what is truly distinctive of marriage—i.e., it cannot make them actually comprehensive, oriented by nature to children, or bound by the moral norms specific to marriage. At most the state can call such unions marital, but this would not— because, in moral truth, it cannot—make them so; and it would, to society’s detriment, obscure people’s understanding about what truly marital unions do involve. In this sense, it is not the state that keeps marriage from certain people, but their circumstances that unfortunately keep certain people from marriage (or at least make marrying much harder). This is so, not only for those with exclusively homosexual attractions, but also for people who cannot marry because of, for example, prior and pressing family obligations incompatible with marriage’s comprehensiveness and orientation to children, inability to find a mate, or any other cause.

Those who face such difficulties should in no way be marginalized or otherwise mistreated, and they deserve our support in the face of what are often considerable burdens. But none of this establishes the first mistaken assumption, that fulfillment is impossible without regular outlets for sexual release—an idea that devalues many people’s way of life. What we wish for people unable to marry because of a lack of any attraction to a member of the opposite sex is the same as what we wish for people who can not marry for any other reason: rich and fulfilling lives. In the splendor of human variety, these can take infinitely many forms. In any of them, energy that would otherwise go into marriage is channeled toward ennobling endeavors: deeper devotion to family or nation, service, adventure, art, or a thousand other things.

But most relevantly, this energy could be harnessed for deep friendship. Belief in the second hidden assumption, that meaningful intimacy is not possible without sex, may impoverish the friendships in which single people could find fulfillment— by making emotional, psychological, and dispositional intimacy seem inappropriate in nonsexual friendships. We must not conflate depth of friendship with the presence of sex. Doing so may stymie the connection between friends who feel that they must distance themselves from the possibility or appearance of a sexual relationship where none is wanted. By encouraging the myth that there can be no intimacy without romance, we deny people the wonder of knowing another as what Aristotle so aptly called a second self.

The third assumption is baffling (but not rare) to find in this context. Even granting the second point, legal recognition has nothing to do with whether homosexual acts should be banned or whether anyone should be prevented from living with anyone else. This debate is not about anyone’s private behavior. Instead, public recognition of certain relationships and the social effects of such recognition are at stake. Some have described the push for gay marriage as an effort to legalize or even to decriminalize such unions. But you can only decriminalize or legalize what has been banned, and these unions are not banned. (By contrast, bigamy really is banned; it is a crime.) Rather, same‐sex unions are simply not recognized as marriages or granted the benefits that we predicate on marriage. Indeed, recognizing same‐sex unions would limit freedom in an important sense: it would require everyone else to treat such unions as if they were marriages, which citizens and private institutions are free to do or not under traditional marriage laws. The fourth assumption draws an arbitrary distinction between homosexual and other sexual desires that do not call for the state’s specific attention and sanction. It often leads people to suppose that traditional morality unfairly singles out people who experience same‐sex attractions. Far from it. In everyone, traditional morality sees foremost a person of dignity whose welfare makes demands on every other being that can hear and answer them. In everyone, it sees some desires that cannot be integrated with the comprehensive union of marriage. In everyone, it sees the radical freedom to make choices that transcend those inclinations, heredity, and hormones; enabling men and women to become authors of their own character.

The whole thing is being made freely available and you can download a copy here. I would welcome a conversation on its merits (or otherwise) but can I please ask of you that if you want to comment on the quotes above that you first read the whole piece as the response to your comment may already be in the piece.

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