Contrasting Views of Marriage (Part 2): The Need for a Defining Principle

This is the first in a five-part debate series on same-sex marriage between James W. Doig and Robert P. George. It originally appeared on The Witherspoon Institute's Public Discourse. You can read Part One here.

Dear Jim:

Thanks for agreeing to this exchange about the nature and meaning of marriage. My experience with exercises like this one, conducted in a spirit of friendship and goodwill, is that they lead to deeper understanding, even if the interlocutors do not achieve agreement.

You characterize ours as a debate about how "marriage" should be defined. But that question cannot be answered until we engage a prior one: What is marriage-considered not just as a word or legal status, but as a form of relationship with a distinctive value and set of shaping norms, which law has reason to facilitate and even promote? After all, to know whether marriage policies violate equality-whether they fail to treat like relationships alike-we must know what makes a type of bond a marriage and distinguishes marriages from other types of companionship or relationship.

On that question, I have (1) stated a position, (2) defended it by argument, and (3) offered criticisms of the leading alternatives. As far as I can tell, you have not stated, much less defended, your own general account of what marriage is and what sets it apart from other forms of relationship. So far, I and other readers can be certain only that you reject the norm of sexual-reproductive complementarity so central to the conceptions of marriage known to history.

I will defend that norm in a moment, but first let me comment on the challenge to it you present by way of the case of Ann and Ellen, who share a bed and a home and rear children together. Every word of what you say about the two women could also be said of the committed multiple-partner sexual relationship of a college chum of mine (with whom I have a valued friendship, as I do with you, despite our moral and political differences of opinion). He and his three partners have two children, now grown and seemingly well adjusted, and they want their foursome to be recognized legally. The logic of my position says that it should not be; the logic of yours, it seems to me, says that it should be.

What is your view?

Indeed, consider a few twists on the story. Imagine elderly sisters sharing a home and caring for each other and perhaps bringing up an orphaned nephew; or nuns caring for orphaned children together. Or suppose a couple invite into their lives a third romantic partner, Jennifer. If Ann and Ellen's partnership should be recognized as a marriage-because it is a committed domestic bond in which children are or may be present-why not these others? In all cases, consenting adults share hopes and dreams, the burdens and benefits of home life, a desire for social legitimacy for themselves and their children. Why, on your view, is it not "shading into hostility," or unfair to their children, to deny them recognition and benefits? Or do you think it is?

The judgment that marriage is the committed sexual union of man and woman, sealed in coitus and inherently oriented to procreation and domestic life, is shared by the common and civil law traditions as well as the Jewish and Christian faiths (among other religious and philosophical traditions). Its core is found in the teaching of philosophers ranging from Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Xenophanes, Musonius Rufus, and Plutarch in antiquity to Kant, Anscombe, and Gandhi in the modern period. That does not prove that the post-sexual revolution, revisionist view of marriage as a form of romantic-domestic companionship is certainly wrong, but it does show that the historic ("conjugal") view did not originate in the book of Genesis, and is not rooted in animus. Indeed, the idea of marriage as a conjugal union (and of marital consummation) arose centuries before the concept of homosexual identity, when the only other sexual acts being considered (and rejected) as capable of consummating were ones between a lawfully wed man and woman. Even cultures favorable to homoerotic relationships have enshrined something like the conjugal view and never entertained the idea of same-sex marriage.

In What Is Marriage?, my coauthors and I try to present these traditions' central insight in the thesis that what makes a marriage (and provides the intelligible grounds of its structuring norms) is comprehensive union. We begin by noting that any voluntary bond is created by common action-by cooperative activity, defined by common goods, in the context of commitment. The activities and goods build up the bond and determine the commitment it requires. Then we argue that the kind of union created by marriage is comprehensive in just these ways: in (a) how it unites persons, (b) what it unites them with respect to, and (c) how extensive a commitment it demands. That is, it unites two people (a) in their most basic dimensions, in mind and body; (b) with respect to procreation, family life, and its broad domestic sharing; and (c) permanently and exclusively.

You contend that same-sex partners could be united in just these ways. But clarifying each will show that they cannot be-unless we so stretch the criteria as to erase any principled difference between marriage and companionship.

Examining the Criteria for Marriage

As to (a), the union of mind and body: What bodily (biologically) unites two people is much like what unites the parts of an individual. One's organs form a unity by coordinating for the biological good of the whole (one's bodily life). Likewise, a male and female form a biological unity by mating-that is, by coordinated activity of the type that causes reproduction when its nonbehavioral conditions obtain. This understanding accounts for the historic legal norm of consummation of marriage by coition-a norm developed entirely apart from any questions regarding same-sex or multiple partner bonds. (Of course, it presupposes-rightly in my view-that our bodies are part of our personal reality as human beings, not subpersonal extrinsic instruments at the service of the conscious and desiring aspect of the self-a point that I suspect is at the foundation of our disagreement.)

While other sexual acts may be regarded by those desiring them as fostering emotional attachment, so can many non-sexual activities, which clearly involve nothing like the sort of bodily union integral to marriage (not only in my personal view, but across time and diverse cultures). So if-contrary to the historic understanding-sex acts of any type can seal a marriage, there is no reason of principle that marriage should be a sexual relationship at all.

As to (b), marriage's inherent orientation to procreation, family life, and thus a comprehensive range of goods: what explains this is the fact that the act that makes marital love is also the kind of act that makes new life. So marriage, the bond so embodied, would be fulfilled by family life, and is always fulfilled by the all-around domestic sharing uniquely apt for it.

If it is rather the choice to adopt that makes a bond oriented to family life, and hence marital, then any group of individuals can form one-romantic partners, to be sure, but also two sisters in a platonic partnership which no one considers inherently oriented to procreation, as marriage is.

As to (c), the fact that marriage calls for total commitment: because marriage is comprehensive in senses (a) and (b), it inherently calls for a commitment that is comprehensive, through time (permanent) and at each time (exclusive).

In other bonds, there is no basis for such norms, apart from partners' subjective preferences. Of course, two men or two women can choose sexual exclusivity, but if emotional intimacy is what makes a marriage, there is no reason of principle that they should not practice sexual openness (if they happen to prefer that) or forgo a pledge of permanence.

Finally, if emotional bonding is what makes a marriage, why can't three people form a marriage, as poly activists argue? And why, if marriage is fundamentally about intimacy, should the state recognize and regulate marriages at all?

Thus, the "comprehensive union" view of marriage can-but the "emotional union" view cannot-explain at the level of principle these critical features of marriage:

(1) Marriage is inherently a sexual partnership.
(2) Marriage inherently calls for a pledge of sexual exclusivity.
(3) Marriage calls for a pledge of permanence, not a term of years or "as long as love lasts."
(4) Marriage can unite only two persons, not multiple-partner groups (of whatever combination of sexes).
(5) Marriage should be legally recognized and regulated (unlike other friendships).