What Is Marriage?

Here’s how I see the arguments over marriage in our society taking shape. There are two questions up for debate:

  1. What is marriage?
  2. What role, if any, ought the State to play in recognizing, sponsoring, and/or supporting marriage?

To keep this post from getting too long, I’ll just address the first debate in this post. It’s the more important one, although it’s not the one most people are thinking about.

Many people believe strongly without a real foundation for doing so that marriage is only possible metaphysically between a man and a woman. The reason for their inconsistency is that they have adopted and internalized a modern view that marriage at its core is about personal fulfillment, companionship, and emotion. This is the Enlightenment “pursuit of happiness” dream.

Think of Elizabeth Bennet’s retort to Lady Catherine near the end of Pride and Prejudice, bearing in mind that the context is a conversation about marriage:

I am only resolved to act in that manner, which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to you, or to any other person so wholly unconnected with me.

If marriage is merely an avenue to one’s happiness, then opponents of same-sex marriage seem to have no philosophical leg to stand on. Religious people can appeal to scriptural condemnation of homosexual conduct, but that won’t go far in public debate in an increasingly secular society.

The marriage-as-route-to-happiness argument is simple enough to understand for 21st-century Westerners because most of us instinctively believe it, having been conditioned to do so in a million different ways throughout our lives. You meet someone, fall in love, and get married. That’s simply how it works! But happiness in a relationship may not last, so there has to be a provision for divorce if “things don’t work out.”

This way of looking at marriage seems so self-evident to many people that they literally cannot conceive of any other way of understanding this fundamental building block of society. However, this view of marriage developed relatively recently, and there are those who argue that it is not correct.

Enter Robert George, Sherif Girgis, and Ryan Anderson. Their recent book What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense is a carefully developed argument that the 21st-century West has forgotten what marriage really is. The authors originally published a shorter version in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy.

The biggest name here is George, who has taught at both Princeton and Harvard, where his seminars attract a great many students despite his conservative views. One Princeton alumnus writes on the Amazon.com review page, “Professor George is widely respected on campus, even by those who vehemently disagree with him, because he takes care to have a strong rational principles for his beliefs, because he takes care to address the criticisms of the other side, and because of his personal warmth.”

The argument of What Is Marriage turns on the idea that marriage is more than a consent-based contract, that it is a “comprehensive union” of both mind and body. The male and female reproductive organs are incomplete on their own; they must have the complementary organs of the opposite sex to fulfill their functions in the most complete way. Of course, this fulfilling of function very often (although not always) results in the generation of children, and so there has always been an important connection between marriage and children in societies worldwide.

This view of marriage is consistent with the idea of a man and woman falling in love and “tying the knot.” Unlike the marriage-for-happiness view, it is also consistent with the arranged marriages and strict divorce laws that have been so common throughout recorded history, not to mention the writings of just about every philosopher in the history of the world. However, it is not compatible with the position of same-sex marriage advocates.

Many readers of What Is Marriage? are not convinced by its arguments, but open-minded critics usually concede after reading it that it’s not motivated by bigotry or any sort of animus against homosexuals. That means Anthony Kennedy should probably take a look at it before the next same-sex marriage case comes before the Supreme Court.

If you are one of the many people who simply can’t think of a reason why anyone who’s not a bigot would have a problem with the idea of same-sex marriage, What Is Marriage? would probably help you see the issue from another perspective.

I’ll return to the question of the government’s involvement in marriage in an upcoming post.

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About Dr. J

I am an Associate Professor and head of the Department of Humanities at Faulkner University. I am also Associate Editor of the Journal of Faith and the Academy.
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2 Responses to What Is Marriage?

  1. I’ll be interested to see whether or not you agree with George that the state has an interest in promoting marriage as an essential institution for societal preservation (i.e. their claim is that the state has a “stake” in marriage that provides legitimate grounds for regulating the institution). I read this book a month or two back and was unpersuaded. In my view the fatal flaw is the presumption that same-sex marriage cannot be justified on the grounds of the conjugal view of marriage that they affirm. When I get past our current book project I may be turning my attention to this argument.

  2. Clark Wolf says:

    I am writing to express a divergent view on this matter, and to recommend yet another interesting and relevant source: George, Girgis, and Anderson also submitted an Amicus brief to the Supreme Court in support of Hollingsworth. It is available on the SCOTUSBlog site. I do not think that the brief expresses bigotry. On the other hand, the arguments seem quite poor, as does the argument concerning the complimentarity and needs of our sexual organs cited above in this blog. When intelligent people offer poor arguments (as these arguments seem to me) that one is justified to look for an alternative explanation– some reason to account for the fact that they were taken in by rhetoric or by unreasonable reasons. In this case, sadly, I must disagree, and with some reason: George’s earlier work does seem to me to express both shock and moral abhorrence of homosexuality. I do not think this shock is based on the reasons offered in the brief (I have not finished the book)– the reasons do not seem to me to withstand scrutiny. In this case, it seems more likely that the bad reasons offered were generated post hoc to justify the shock and abhorrence.

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