Philosophy, Marriage, and Moral Grandstanding


In a discipline whose point is dispassionate reasoning and discourse, some would shut down debate and silence dissenters on a deep and complex moral-political issue. And the view they would anathematize, far from irrational, is more coherent and more compelling than their slippery and ill-defined 'default'.

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Earlier this summer, my fellow philosophy graduate student at Princeton University, Richard Chappell, criticized an article in which Robert P. George, Ryan T. Anderson, and I defend the conjugal view of marriage as the union of husband and wife. I’m grateful for his criticisms, which allow me to correct some misinterpretations and respond to unsuccessful objections. But like Chappell’s, my contribution to this debate begins with a comment about the debate.

Philosophy and Name-calling

No serious philosopher would deny, in so many words, that to demonize opponents is to betray the vocation of philosophy. Yet some academic philosophers are so bound to the cause of redefining civil marriage that they would marginalize dissenters with epithets and analyze them as specimens of psychological pathology. Chappell, though he goes on to ask serious questions, is at pains to deny that he deems our argument worth engaging. For him, it is, like misogyny, merely unreasonable, subrational, and bigoted. Linking to Chappell’s critique, Brian Leiter repeats the charge and presumes to diagnose us.

The fervent policing of this newfound academic consensus, with its chilling effect on discourse, might be defensible if proponents of the conjugal view were, like Nazis or cannibals, advocates of ideas and policies repugnant to deep, enduring principles of our civilization. Yet even within the small, unrepresentative society that is academic philosophy, the very idea of same-sex marriage would have seemed mostly baffling (perhaps even patriarchally motivated) less than a generation ago. One might see the striking subsequent development as an epiphany of timeless moral principle denied the human race (including the sexual-traditionalist Mahatma Gandhi and other partisans of cruel and complacent class ideologies) these several millennia; or one might judge the cause of redefining civil marriage to be a fashionable application of a perfectly disputable view of sex and human goods that has grown to dominate in the academy from its proximate roots in the ’50s and ’60s, in Sanger and Hefner, Kinsey and Reich.

I happen to think the latter a more reasonable interpretation. Human nature being what it is, there is a light burden of proof on anyone alleging insularity, and I happily accept that advantage; but it’s still worth exploring why anyone in the academy would bear the social and professional risks of a contrarian stance.

Clearly “homophobia” is not the only possible motivation for the conjugal thesis. According to that thesis, we can’t properly understand marriage apart from the procreative sort of bodily communion of spouses achieved in coitus. Some claim this is a gerrymandered definition built to exclude homosexually oriented people, but one might as well claim that Attic Greek grammar was designed to frustrate Victorian schoolboys. Before the 19th century, as far as we can tell, the very category of the "homosexual" had at best a sketchy existence. Homosexual acts were known and (for centuries in the West) widely condemned, along with analogous acts between a man and a woman, but there is little evidence that a category of people marked by exclusive and enduring homosexual orientation was recognized consistently or sharply enough to stir up group animus. To a man like Samuel Johnson, for example, though sodomy was immoral, “homosexuals” as an object of group hatred did not exist as “Frenchmen” or “Whigs” did, but at best as “drunkards” did, and yet the fundamentals of our marriage law, including the norm that a marriage could be consummated by no act other than coitus (when all the live but rejected alternatives were acts between a wedded man and woman), long predate Dr. Johnson. If this norm did not express belief in a deep link between marriage and the procreative sort of bodily union achieved in coitus, how can we explain it?

Nor can the conjugal view be “blamed” on religion, Brian Leiter’s preferred basis for dismissal and diagnosis. There is a 2,400-year-old philosophical tradition, originating independently of Judaeo-Christian influence, that distinguished the uniquely comprehensive and procreative sort of union consummated by coitus from all others, and affirmed its distinct personal and social value. This is the view to which Plato, Aristotle, Xenophanes, Musonius Rufus, and Plutarch adhere. Especially clear is Plutarch’s statement in Erotikos that marriage is a special kind of friendship uniquely embodied (“renewed”) in coitus (and not other climactic acts, which Plutarch regarded as intrinsically shameful).

These points are not meant as an argument from history and authority. They are meant to clear ground recently grown thick with sharp, venomous moralism, so that intelligent debate can thrive—including in academic philosophy, to which, after seven years of undergraduate and graduate study, I owe my intellectual formation.

The Argument

Before replying to Chappell’s critique, it is worth orienting the reader with a précis of my positive claims.

A marriage, like any other voluntary personal union (broadly, like any friendship), exists when persons commit to activity toward common ends, and is fostered by such activity. The particular union created by commitment to marriage, however, is uniquely comprehensive in (a) how it unites persons, (b) what it unites them with respect to, and (c) what kind of commitment it demands.

(a) Marriage unites persons both volitionally and bodily. (b) Spouses unite bodily only by coitus, which is ordered to bringing new human life into the world. New life, in a sense, is one human good among others, but in another sense, it transcends and includes other human goods. Thus, unlike other forms of community (e.g., universities or sports teams), marriage is ordered to realizing not just this or that human value (e.g., knowledge or play), but new loci of value—persons—and thus also the broad domestic sharing uniquely apt for their development. (c) Marriage inherently calls for permanence and exclusivity.

To expand on (a), the bodily union of two people is like the bodily union of organs in an individual. Just as one’s heart, lungs, and other organs form a unity by coordinating for a biological good of the whole (i.e., the organism’s life), so a man’s and woman’s bodies form a unity by mutual coordination (coitus) for a biological good (reproduction) of their union as a whole.

As for (b), there is a deep connection between this, the marital (conjugal) act and the core of a distinctively marital common life, also shaped by an orientation toward procreation, onto which cultures and couples graft other practices according to circumstance and taste: Having committed to sharing in the generative acts that unite them bodily, spouses cooperate in other areas of life (intellectual, recreational, etc.) in the domestic sharing uniquely apt for fostering children’s overall development. And of course they cooperate in the tasks of parenting where children do come. Ordinary friendships, however, the unions of hearts and minds embodied in conversations and various joint pursuits, can have more limited and variable scope.

Finally, (c): In view of its comprehensiveness and its orientation to children’s needs, only marriage inherently requires of its would-be participants pledged permanence and exclusivity; thus is marriage, again like the unions of organs into one healthy whole, properly total and lasting for the life of the parts. (Indeed, comprehensive union can be achieved only by two because no single act can organically unite three or more people bodily.) Thus, again, is marriage uniquely apt for the procreation and education of offspring, an inherently open-ended task calling for unconditioned commitment. However, friendships as such require no promise of permanence and are often enhanced, not betrayed, by openness to new members; hence, abandon the conjugal view for a view of marriage as romantic coupling, and you forfeit the basis of all of these other distinctively marital norms.

Now there are many points worth making in response to Chappell, but so as not to overwhelm the reader or lose a sense of relative importance, I will address just three major failures of his argument. First, he does not show that our definition of marriage is arbitrarily restrictive, which fairly clears us of the charge of injustice. Second, he does not show how his own preferred view is any less arbitrary than he considers ours to be. Third, his response to our (rather peripheral and painfully cautious) references to social science is willful and irrelevant. I will demonstrate each failure in turn.

Chappell’s Failure on Conjugal Union

Chappell seems to recognize that much in this debate hinges on whether there could be basic moral significance to coitus chosen as an embodiment of the uniquely comprehensive and, relatedly, procreative sort of union sketched above. Yet Chappell handles this issue with the timeless tactic of simply begging the central question.

We maintain that coitus, as the only human biological functioning chosen and performed in partnership, can unite bodies and therefore persons, in a real and important sense. (Bodies are aspects of us as persons, not just our costumes or vehicles; so in human beings, bodily union can be a real part of a personal union when integrated with a commitment.) So coitus alone can be the distinctive element in the mind-body union, oriented to the full sharing of family life, that we call marriage. Manifestly, two people of the same sex can’t unite this way (any more than three or more can), so they cannot together form a marriage. On Chappell’s view, however, the bodily union of coitus chosen as the completion of such multi-level union has no intrinsic worth, and he dismisses our contrary view as “biological fetishism.”

Is it "biological fetishism" for millions of spouses to find it beautiful and uniquely appropriate that their children are a mixture of their bodies? Or for couples to see their infertility as a tragic limitation even when they can adopt? Or for proud new parents to care which healthy child is handed to them in the maternity ward?

I see Chappell’s “biological fetishism” and raise him “Manichean dualism”; for dualism is what his breezy dismissal of the value of bodily union betrays. I can also point him to book-length arguments in defense of our view that the body is an intrinsic aspect, not an extrinsic instrument, of the human person. Here I can cite other moral conclusions that lend support to this view: What is peculiarly perverse about torture? That it uses one aspect of the person (his body and affects) against another aspect of his self (wishes, choices, commitments). Why is rape gravely wicked even when performed on someone in a coma who never finds out and sustains no physical or psychic injuries? It still involves misusing—abusing—a person, and not merely using and replacing intact his or her property. Why can you licitly relinquish all future rights over your possessions, but not over your body or its capacities for labor? Again, because your body is part of you, not just your property.

A positive implication of this fact is what Chappell denies: that bodily union is integral to comprehensive personal union. What Chappell is pleased to call fetishizing biological functions is our insistence that, in embodied animals, comprehensive union must include bodily union, which must mean joint biological functioning (chosen to embody the spouses’ commitment). There is no other candidate for this than coitus, so the requirement that a comprehensive union—i.e., marriage—be capable of coital consummation is hardly arbitrary. Chappell merely states the opposite and so proves nothing, and the position he so signally fails to justify would render the concepts of a distinctively marital act or form of common life senseless or superstitious.

As for the commenters on his critique, several have carelessly read us (if they indeed have read our paper) as arguing for the immorality of certain conduct based on an organ’s proper functioning; but our article draws no conclusions about the permissibility of non-coital sexual acts, and as it happens, we all reject ‘perverted faculty’ arguments as fallacious. (Perhaps the philosophically minded lose their usual diligence when blasting “bigotry.” Thus, my favorite of the comments on Chappell’s critique: “Thanks for posting this. I haven't had time to read the paper yet, but it looks like you've gotten to the heart of the problem.”)

Chappell’s Failure on an Alternative Conception of Marriage

Chappell also provides an alternative conception of marriage so vague that it forces this dismal choice on all who share his view: Either (i) marriage should be so open and flexible as to be unrecognizable and repugnant to the intuitions and settled beliefs of even most revisionists; or (ii) marriage law must be seen not as a matter of strict moral principle but as one contestable prudence, which deflates the arguments and obliterates the rhetoric of the movement to redefine civil marriage.

Imagine, for a minute, that there were no advocates of a coherent view of sexual complementarity in marriage, a view that has the support of the whole religious, legal, and cultural history of our species. We would still face the fact that marriage, if it is going to have meaningful public existence, must have some definition and some shaping norms. Such parameters risk excluding relationships that don’t meet the definition and stigmatizing people who reject (or for whatever reason don’t honor) the norms, so we had better have extremely good reasons for making them thus and not otherwise. So what does Chappell say? What is marriage?

He is not sure. In some sense, it is a comprehensive union of two persons, your number one relationship, so to speak, but it cannot really be limited, even by something as minimal as sexual exclusivity. He admits that on his view, sexual exclusivity must be a “contingent pragmatic/instrumental consideration (given the possible risk of sexual dalliances distracting or even drawing one away from one’s prior relationship), rather than anything essential to good marriages as such.” So a man who finds out that his wife regularly goes to the movies with another man, and who worries that she might start sleeping with him, has it backwards: He should worry that she’s sleeping with another man only if it means she might start going to the movies with him, and then buying ties for him, and then sampling specialty cheeses with him, and on and on, until the sickening crescendo—when he comes home early from work and finds them in the throes of chess on the marital kitchen table.

Even Chappell’s implausibly thin view is thicker than it has any right to be. For example, he seems to think marriage properly has some sexual component; but why, if sex is valuable only for its affective and expressive effects (which other activities can in principle provide) and not for uniquely making possible comprehensive union? Indeed, why should marriage be between two people? Why not share all your major life experiences and perhaps (but perhaps not) sexual activity with, say, three cohabiting (but why cohabiting?) lovers? Newsweek reports that the United States already has 500,000 polyamorous households. What possible objection could Chappell have to recognizing their relationships?

The problem is simple. Whatever he may say (and, I am sure, believe) about comprehensiveness and so on, Chappell, like most revisionists, can only conceive of marriage impressionistically, as some region to the far right of a spectrum of affective relations. This of course makes it hard to see why the state should care about marriage at all—any more than about baptisms, bar mitzvahs, or ordinary friendships. Exclusive coital relationships at least have a clear and intrinsic connection to children, but why should the state recognize tender relationships qua tender relationships? More devastatingly, this leaves Chappell no ground of principle—none whatsoever—for not including as marriages every relationship type describable in polite English: expressly temporary, multiple-partner, open, or even non-romantic relationships (e.g., between two loving sisters).

Nor is it simply the case that failing to recognize them would be awkward and faintly amusing, like the fact that you can go to war and die for the state before you can purchase alcohol. No, if revisionists are right to say that (a) marriage recognition, or at least equal treatment with respect to marriage recognition, is a basic human right and (b) arbitrariness about it is a grave injustice, then failure to recognize such unions on demand is a grave injustice, for which we shall have to answer to History, that dreaded deity (a liberal Democrat, it turns out) so often invoked against my coauthors and me.

As it happens the more consistent, or candid, revisionists have publicly reached conclusions that harmonize with mine. Five years ago, hundreds of scholars and activists—including Princeton’s Cornel West, Chicago’s Martha Nussbaum, and NYU’s Judith Stacey and Kenji Yoshino—argued that the state should equally recognize polyamorous and multiple-household sexual relationships, as well as a variety of non-sexual ones. These activists and I may well agree that abolishing the criterion of sexual complementarity would indeed ‘weaken’ marriage as the conjugal view’s supporters mean this: that it would leave no basis in principle for privileging (and so may well further erode in practice—cf. Andrew Cherlin’s The Marriage-Go-Round) its distinguishing norms. We only disagree on whether that would be bad, or in fact very good.

At this point in the debate conservative revisionists, alarmed by the prospect that has opened up before them, don the hat of the Pragmatic Man—and with it don his bluster, and his myopia. To his credit, Chappell himself doesn’t, but the move is so common that I should anticipate it. “What,” ask Pragmatic Men, “is all this talk of essences, definitions, and abstract rights and logical entailments? Like all social reality, marriage is a construct. What we owe people on equal terms is marriage as we understand it now. (The state should get involved in the first place because people would be very unhappy and perhaps generally more antisocial, if the state didn’t.) Now marriage, here and now, in the real world, means a sexually exclusive romance between two adults who more or less put each other first in life and have kids, or a dachshund, if they’re so inclined. That contingent notion includes same-sex romantic couples and excludes Laverne and Shirley. It’s as simple as that.”

This may at first sound very realistic and mature, but it is no help at all. First, its rejection of a deeper standard fails even to explain (if only then to reject) important legal and philosophical traditions. Again, these distinguished the class of comprehensive unions consummated by coitus, even when some such unions had no obvious social utility (e.g., the foreseeably and certainly infertile ones), and animus couldn’t have influenced the classifications. Second, the pragmatic aversion to objective standards is usually conveniently selective: many revisionists would accept that friendship, say, is (a) a fundamental human good, (b) distinct in principle from others (e.g., aesthetic experience), which (c) admits of cultural variation even as it (d) retains an objective core in the focal case: mutual and mutually acknowledged willing of the other’s good for the other’s sake. The status of marriage on the conjugal view is analogous in all four respects. If friendship, so understood, isn’t hopelessly mysterious, neither is marriage.

Third, even if there were no such bond objectively distinguishable in shape and value from the run of ordinary friendships, the pragmatic appeal to our current understandings would fail. In every one of the 31 states—including liberal ones like California, Wisconsin, and Maine—where the people have been allowed to vote, a solid majority has shown that their notion of marriage happens to include “intrinsically opposite-sex.” If there are no principled boundaries demarcating some intimate associations as marriages, then these majorities violate no principle in excluding same-sex partnerships. The merest (or, if sense can be made of such aggregations, a net) social benefit would suffice to justify traditional marriage law. Pro-gay-relationship liberals like David Blankenhorn have suggested such a basis for making sexual complementarity a condition for marriage. Have any compellingly argued the same of monogamy or exclusivity?

The real social fact of the matter seems to be that two rival models of marriage are currently in an open war (of doubtful issue). One model is the “romantic coupling” notion sketched by the pragmatists, and the other is the comprehensive procreation-oriented union for which we argue. The main prize in this war is, of course, the legal definition of marriage, which will give enormous social influence to one view or another. Pragmatic revisionists therefore simply ask their opponents to surrender on the grounds that they have already lost. If you find this kind of argument persuasive, I have some lovely Idaho oceanfront you might be interested in buying.

Chappell’s Failure on the Use of Social Science

Finally, Chappell objects to our citation of social science data to support privileging opposite-sex unions with respect to parenting. Of course, the normative issue of which arrangements our policies should privilege as generally ideal for procreation cannot be resolved by descriptive social-scientific studies alone, but such studies would contribute importantly relevant information. What we need, however, are studies that meet the acknowledged gold standard of social-scientific research, by drawing on large, random, and representative samples observed longitudinally. So far, however, as my coauthors and I elsewhere affirm and nowhere deny, none of the studies comparing children reared by same-sex couples in sexual partnerships to children reared by their married biological parents has these features, for reasons acknowledged in this literature review by a sociologist and Jonathan Rauch, a gay civil-marriage proponent.

Yet Chappell treats the issue as if it had been settled. He endorses the idea that it doesn’t matter, even as a rule, whether children are reared by a parent of each sex: “I think it's important (as a rule) that children be raised in a stable and loving environment. I do not think that the genitalia of the parents matters.”

I would not be so polemical as to suggest that nobody in his five wits could reduce gender to genitalia except under the influence of an ideology contemptuous of reality. Instead I will suggest that, if with imperfect knowledge we are to give the tentative advantage to one side or another, as my coauthors and I do, these facts seem more pertinent that Chappell’s opinion: Every parenting arrangement that has been examined in high-quality studies has consistently been shown less effective than parenting by married biological parents: this is true of single- and step-parenting as well as parenting by cohabiting couples. Moreover, and more relevantly here, studies also suggest that mothers and fathers foster—and their respective absences impede—children’s healthy development in different ways. So, as we tried to show, it would be surprising if same-sex and opposite-sex parenting were equally effective. But let the methodologically sound studies be done, and the chips fall where they may.

Whose Humanism?

This debate is often seen as a struggle between Bigots (me and my ilk) and Humanists (Chappell and his), but though I do not believe Chappell to be a bigot, I do think defenders of the conjugal view are the true humanists. The more the conjugal view prevails culturally, the easier it will be on the unmarried, who will be less susceptible to thinking that what they lack is the most valuable or only kind of deep communion.

There is plenty of evidence that our society would benefit from such an emotional liberation. For example, on his Atlantic blog a few months ago, Ta-Nehisi Coates admitted that his recent historical reading had “actually opened up some portion of my own imagination—the possibility of feeling passionate, but not sexual, about someone who I wasn’t related to.” He confessed: “‘Passion’ isn’t a word that often enters into the description [of] friendships these days. And yet [it’s] present in the writings of previous generations”—when people didn’t equate marriage with intimacy, and intimacy with marriage, but recognized it as the paradigm realization of one type of intimacy among others. The conjugal view, precisely in presenting marriage as oriented to procreation—mothering and fathering—and true bodily union, not just shared experience, keeps from making marriage totalizing. It alone makes clear which activities we owe our spouses in marital love; which we owe it to them not to share with others; and which we could share now with them, now with others, without any compromise of principle.

Chappell’s revisionism would have us blur these distinctions. If marriage differs only by degree (and not in kind) from other bonds, then non-marital relationships, as between sisters or close friends, are diminished, for marriage offers simply the most of what makes any union valuable: shared experience. Those who (for whatever reasons) do not marry just settle for less.

So it is that the contemporary thought police, in their zeal to expurgate and erect barriers against an ideological offense and its perpetrators, miss the richly populated horizon visible from the more traditional perspective, a horizon with space for many types of communion, each with its own depth, passion, and constancy of presence and care.

Sherif Girgis, a 2008 Rhodes Scholar, is a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at Princeton University and a law student at Yale Law School. He earned an A.B. in philosophy at Princeton and a B.Phil. in philosophy at Oxford.

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