Contrasting Views of Marriage, Round Two: The Destructive Logic of Marriage Revisionism


Part four of a continuing exchange between Doig and George on the meaning and purpose of marriage.

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Dear Jim:

I have argued for the historic view of marriage as a conjugal union and made what I think are decisive objections to your view of marriage as committed sexual-romantic companionship or domestic partnership. You replied by restating your view and asserting that my objections don’t apply. But restating a view is no substitute for an argument in its support.

Historically, and, in my view, rightly, marriage has been understood as the distinctive and distinctively valuable form of human association that is oriented to procreation and would naturally be fulfilled by the spouses’ having and rearing children together. It is a comprehensive (and thus conjugal) bond inasmuch as it unites persons not merely at the level of hearts and minds, but in the bodily dimension of their being as well. In this way, it differs from ordinary friendships and other non-marital forms of companionship. And it requires commitments of exclusivity (“forsaking all others”) and permanence (“till death do us part”).

Bodily (“one-flesh”) union is possible in virtue of the sexual-reproductive complementarity of male and female. It does not consist, and has never been regarded as consisting, merely in the juxtaposition of flesh. It consists, rather, in the capacity to combine to form a reproductive unit. Thus, marriages are consummated (i.e., completed) by coitus; and marriage is inherently, and not merely incidentally, a sexual bond (and not just an emotional one). Sexual-reproductive union, as an integral aspect of the conjugal relationship, is—like the relationship itself in its totality—intrinsically and not merely instrumentally valuable. Although the marital bond is inherently oriented to procreation, it is not the case that procreation is an extrinsic end to which marriage or the marital embrace is valuable merely as a means. Rather, marriage is indeed a “one-flesh union.” And this explains why, in virtually all cultures throughout history, (a) marriage has been understood as a child-centered institution, yet (b) infertility has not been regarded as an impediment to marrying or a nullifier of existing marriages.

Moreover, marriage (again unlike ordinary friendships) is a matter of public concern and not merely of the private interests of spouses. That is because marriage brings together a man and woman as husband and wife to be father and mother to any children born of their union. The principal aim (and justifying point) of marriage as a social institution is to confer upon as many children as possible the inestimable gift of being reared in the loving bond of the mother and father whose conjugal partnership gave them life. The belief, entirely warranted in my judgment, is that maternal as well as paternal, and paternal as well as maternal, care and influence are valuable to children—little boys and little girls alike.

But this is a view you reject. Marriage, as you describe it, is a form of committed sexual-romantic companionship or domestic partnership. As such, the norm of sexual complementarity is pointless, and its inclusion in the legal definition of marriage constitutes an injustice to people who wish to have their same-sex partnerships legally recognized as marriages. Now, in my previous contribution to this exchange I had noted that if, as the revisionist position supposes, marriage is a sexual-romantic emotional bond and not a conjugal (comprehensive, “one-flesh”) union, then what sets marriage apart as a particular form of human association distinguishable from non-marital forms can only be intensity of feeling, or the priority that persons subjectively choose to assign it. But if this is what makes a form of association marital, then there is no more reason to limit marriage to two-person bonds than to opposite-sex ones. That’s an important challenge to your view. So I was very eager to hear your reply to the challenge. I’m sure that many of our readers were looking forward to it, too.

In fact, I had even provided links to the work of leading same-sex marriage scholars and activists who’ve defended the same point: if love, understood as intense emotional attachment, is what makes a marriage, then basic justice requires recognizing polyamorous, deliberately temporary, or sexually open bonds. But instead of replying with an argument to meet the challenge, you say: “I do not accept [their] different views, and I see no reason why I should. . . I am sure there are many other odd views about marriage . . . they are not mine.” This leaves the challenge not only unmet but also unaddressed.

I wasn’t asking whether their views were yours. That’s a mere biographical question. I was asking how—if at all—you propose to deal with what appear to be logical implications of your view of marriage. That challenge demands an answer.

It is no answer simply to declare that you happen to think that marriage is a union of two persons, not three or more. One doesn’t meet a logical challenge by reporting one’s opinions. You will, I believe, appreciate how disappointing this is to me if you simply consider how disappointed you would be if I were to respond to one of your challenges with a similar autobiographical report: “Well, I just think that marriage is a union of man and woman—I don’t see why I should think otherwise.” Such a report would not be an argument; it would be an evasion of your challenge.

For the benefit of our readers, let me succinctly restate the challenge: I asked you to identify a principle, consistent with your view of marriage as sexual-romantic companionship or domestic partnership (and your rejection of the historical conjugal understanding of marriage as the one-flesh union of husband and wife), to support the marital norms you wish to maintain—exclusivity, fidelity, permanence, a limit of two persons—while jettisoning the norm of sexual complementarity. Instead of identifying principles, you restated the norms. But, again, restating a norm simply does not qualify as providing a principle in its support.

So I must continue to point out that your view provides no principled ground for excluding from marriage law any form of human companionship, of any size or degree of commitment or affective shape or distribution of mutual duties. So it is, by its own lights, every bit as unjust as you consider my view to be: it limits marriage arbitrarily, based on nothing more than sentiment, personal taste, or subjective preference.

You assert, in passing, that the relationship of any “two individuals” can have a mark of marriage: namely, being the sort of bond that family life would fulfill. You don’t say what about a two-person bond gives it that feature. Is it just the partners’ choice to raise children together? But two brothers—or three—can choose the same; two women and a man can, too; so can three men or four. Why then should marriage be sexual, or a two-person bond? Dodging or declining to answer these questions will not make the challenge they represent go away.

That challenge is not merely theoretical. An example: Doll, Kitten, and Brynn Young are a polyamorous lesbian family living in Massachusetts. They recently united themselves in a commitment ceremony that they regard as a marriage. “In our eyes,” said Brynn, who is a professional computer programmer, “we are married.” Their fathers walked them down the aisle. Lacking legal recognition of their committed bond, they retained an attorney to create by contract what the law currently does not afford to them because their sexual partnership happens to involve three persons rather than the conventional two. One of the women is pregnant with the family’s first child (via sperm donation, as is typical with lesbian partners seeking children). They plan to have two more. The Youngs report that they sleep together in a common bed and “have sex as a threesome.” Brynn says,

The three of us have been brave enough to stand tall and go against what society calls normal. We are simply people trying to live the life that we feel is best for us and we deserve the rights afforded to others.

If marriage is not what I maintain it is (a conjugal union), and is rather what you believe it is (a form of committed sexual-romantic companionship or domestic partnership), then Brynn is right. In any event, the revisionist view you espouse provides no principled ground on which your view could be defended against her charge of injustice. Since she agrees with you about what marriage is—a committed emotional bond that provides a foundation for a family—Brynn would say that your insistence on restricting the number of marriage partners to two is arbitrary, that your conception of marriage is gerrymandered to exclude families like hers. And on the assumptions you share with her, she’s right.

PS: Since the topic of our exchanges is the proper understanding and definition of marriage, I do not comment here on abortion, sexual morality, and the legal regulation of sexual immorality, or the principles and practices of the Catholic Church. As you know, I have considered these matters in various other writings.

Robert P. George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University and co-author of the book What Is Marriage? (Encounter Books, 2012).


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