In an important and widely read Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy article, Sherif Girgis, Robert P. George, and Ryan T. Anderson argue in favor of the conjugal view of marriage against revisionism. The article evoked considerable commentary, with arguments circling around the problem indicated in the title—“What Is Marriage?” In the end, the issue boils down to whether marriage is simply a social convention or an intelligible human good. As the authors claim, “the debate over civil marriage’s definition is ultimately about what marriage is. …”

The arguments on this go back and forth, of course, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Here I’d like to suggest that the mere asking of the question, “What?” reveals that there will be very little fruitful debate without intellectual conversion, that is, grasping that objectivity in ethical debate entails understanding intelligible goods rather than mere examination of social conventions.

In the Posterior Analytics, Aristotle notes that all questions take one of four forms; we seek “the fact, the reason why, if it is, what it is.” These are fairly commonsense distinctions, basically outlining the difference between asking if something is and what/why it is. Questions about existence have a kind of priority, for we ask questions of why and what only if we think there is something to be asked about, and we tend to answer questions of existence by appeals to data, by looking around to see if unicorns or centaurs exist. Questions of what and why, on the other hand, go beyond data, looking for intelligibility or explanation.

The difference between data and intelligibility is an important distinction, for while having more and better data certainly helps in grasping causes, data alone are not sufficient for understanding. One has to grasp the pattern, understand the relation, or get the structure:  understanding occurs in intelligence rather than sensation. The evidence for this is quite simple; just examine the charts or graphs from a trade or discipline with which you are unfamiliar. You can see the graph, but with little comprehension. And comprehension will not occur by staring at the chart: you have to do something, you have to think. In grasping intelligibility, data are the sources from which we begin, but are not what we seek. We go beyond data, seeking intelligibility—what and why.

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While the distinction between seeing and understanding is not particularly complicated, maintaining the distinction in moral arguments is surprisingly difficult, especially keeping straight the standards of objectivity proper to each type of question.

Very often we collapse the distinction between the intelligible and the sensible, and instead conflate the objectivity of data with the objectivity of explanation, falling prey to what Bernard Lonergan calls the “cognitional myth” and its three errors: (1) thinking that knowing is somehow like taking a look, (2) thinking that objectivity is something like seeing what is there, and (3) thinking that the real is what is there to be looked at. Since the vast majority of our conscious life concerns the world of extroversion—where we parked the car, finding a sandwich, playing with the kids, reading the book—we very easily slip into the mode of extroversion and its data even when dealing with issues of understanding and intelligence. Lonergan suggests the need for intellectual conversion, whereby we overcome the cognitional myth and understand that knowing includes more than staring at data, and thus that objectively knowing the real includes grasping intelligibility.

In Fundamentals of Ethics, John Finnis suggests something very similar, arguing that everything in ethics “depends on the distinction between the good as experienced and the good as intelligible,” and that grasping the distinction “is as important as that ‘intellectual conversion’ by which we overcome empiricism in general philosophy.” Grasping intelligibility, moreover, is “not like opening one’s eyes or activating one’s other senses,” but is instead an insight into the data of one’s own “wanting, deciding and acting.” That is, an insight into the good—the for the sake of which—sought in intelligible action.

If one understands the objectivity proper to intelligible (rather than empirical) questioning, one can grasp, again as Finnis states it, that “in doing ethics, one does seek truth,” and does so in a way that the “judgment … can be objectively right (or wrong) and true (or false).” Naïve extroversion tends to think that because value has no directly observable data, that value judgments therefore express mere preference and prejudice. Value judgments are not considered objective. The data reveal only that different people think different things in different times and places. Reasonable debate is rendered all but impotent.

But this just simply is not what objectivity is in ethics. Value is not known by looking around in the world for value, or by examining our own satisfactions, or the satisfactions and preferences of all, or the majority, or an elite. Instead, objectivity is a reflection on the objectives of human acts, the reasons for which we act. We do not reflect, Finnis reminds us, with an “attempt to peer inside” ourselves, but by asking why we do what we do. This is a process of intelligence—“Why do we seek x? What is the purpose of wanting y? What would z provide that is lacking from fulfillment?” And when the question “What for?” is pushed until it no longer makes sense to ask any more, then one grasps the reason for action—the intelligible good—and can judge whether that reason makes sense, fits into a whole life, and so on.

The debate about marriage concerns the nature of marriage—“What is marriage?”—a question for intelligence, not empirical study, and answering the question requires asking “What is marriage for?” To ask that question anticipates that marriage is intelligible, knowable, and real. On the other hand, claiming that marriage is mere convention asks nothing about marriage, merely examining how people mate. Consequently, only those who ask about the nature of marriage intend intelligibility with their question, which Finnis explains is the condition of ethics. Those who do not ask about intelligibility thereby exclude themselves from a debate about ethics, choosing instead to debate the empirical. They lack intellectual conversion and so are not really doing ethics.

Take Kenji Yoshino for example, who responded to the conjugal view of marriage by claiming that marriage is unintelligible and unknowable in itself because empirically there are a variety of opinions on marriage:

But those who have propounded trans-historical, much less eternal, definitions of marriage have often been time’s fools. Fifty years from now, I expect new challenges will be made to the definition of marriage. … I do not purport to know where future challenges will arise, or how those challenges might require us to reassess the purposes of marriage. I refuse to answer the question ‘What is marriage?’ by saying ‘Marriage is one thing, always and everywhere, for all people.’ I regard that refusal as a strength, rather than as a weakness, of my position, as I do not think we stand at the end of history today.

This is a very odd account of objectivity, one that renders debate impossible. If definitions cannot reasonably be offered simply because there are those who object—even if in some distant future—then definitions are meaningless per se, and that is the end of the discussion. Marriage becomes unintelligible, unknowable, and unreal in itself, because of empirical disagreement. But just asking the question “What is marriage?” or “What is marriage for?” takes us beyond Yoshino’s inertia, putting us squarely back in the domain of the intelligible, where we reflect on purpose and cause, and so there is something to inquire and debate about; that is, asking these questions puts us back into a debate about ethics.

Note that I am not claiming that the defenders of the conjugal view necessarily win the debate; just that they are in it, while Yoshino and others with similar positions are not. They claim to be, of course, but unless they ask the “what” and “why,” they aren’t doing ethics, which requires intellectual conversion. Asking the what and why of marriage is to commit oneself to its intelligible reality, which is what Girgis, George, and Anderson have done.