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Popping the larger question.

A Fortnightly Review of

What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: a Defense
Sherif Girgis, Robert P.George and Ryan Anderson,

Encounter Books, 2012 | pp x + 126 | $15.99 £10.99

By Anthony O’Hear.

'What Is Marriage?'‘WHAT YOU GET married for if you don’t want children?’ A good question, even if posed in rather sordid circumstances in the pub scene of ‘The Waste Land’, but it hit to the quick there. And perhaps it is a better question than that posed by Mr Girgis and his colleagues, for (as Karl Popper used to teach us), ‘What is?’ questions are notoriously slippery, particularly where what is at issue is not a natural kind, where some essence is given by nature, as when we say that water is H²0. So, having discovered its essence or nature, we can say what water is, and there’s an end of it. But marriage is not a natural kind.

It is a human institution – at least, disavowing religious underpinning in their argument, that is the starting point of Girgis, George and Anderson. Of course human institutions and words referring to them cannot be changed at will. But they can be changed, and they do evolve, as the understanding of marriage surely has over cultures and centuries. Moreover how we understand them can be ‘essentially contested’,   to use the useful phrase of the philosopher W.B.Gallie. Consider ‘education’, ‘democracy’, ‘human rights’, ‘the civil law’, and now, of course, ‘marriage’. And it is no use complaining that with marriage, this wasn’t the case 20 years ago (or whenever). It is now, and with a vengeance, and I doubt that anyone is going to be headed off with a pre-emptive definition, or anything that seems to be relying on a definition.

Actually, once they get down to it, our authors do something quite useful. They outline and analyse two contrasting conceptions of marriage, inviting us to choose between them. One is what they call ‘conjugal marriage’ – roughly the traditional conception, ‘a comprehensive union of purposes’, lifelong, exclusive, involving heterosexual sexual congress, as well as domesticity and union of mind, and in a broad sense directed to procreation.  On the other hand there is what Girgis, George and Anderson term (slightly pejoratively perhaps) the revisionist view, where marriage is seen as focusing on and fostering what they call ‘emotional union’. They do not deny that emotional union is or should be part of conjugal marriage, but the difference is that on the revisionist view emotional union is taken to be the essence of the relationship, and as such is far more likely to be seen as defeasible, shifting and temporary.

THE ARGUMENT OF the book is really about the role of the state in all this. In a sense anyone could set up a relationship with a suitable partner in which there was permanent, heterosexual, procreative bonding, or one in which the partners saw what they were doing in terms of close and strong emotional union, encompassing the possibility of homosexual or even a-sexual bonding. Should the state give legal backing to either or both or neither type of relationship under laws relating to what it would term ‘marriage’?

According to Girgis et al., the state should protect conjugal marriage and only conjugal marriage. This is largely because of its role in the production and nurturing of children, conferring on them the benefits of a stable upbringing, a two-parent household with each parent contributing a distinctive role, and protecting the rights of the child. Not only do the children do better in traditional marriages, as is shown by a large number of measures (which are referred to in the book and which of course underline the more general social benefits of marriage), but marriage benefits the parents too: ‘permanently committed to a relationship whose norms are shaped by its aptness for family life, husbands and wives gain insurance against life’s temporary setbacks… Dedicated to their children and to each other, they enjoy the benefits of a sharpened sense of purpose. More vigorously sowing in work, they reap more abundantly its fruits. So the state’s interest in productivity and social order creates an interest in marriage. ‘ And while much of this is conventional, traditional marriage is firmly rooted in the biology (and psychology) of sex, of procreation and of natural sexual complementarity.

By contrast purely emotional unions, as envisaged by civil partnerships and the like, are not rooted in biology, nor are they anchored in the procreation and upbringing of children, or in the social structures which support children. Because of their lack of biological and social underpinning they are in effect protean in nature, sustained only by the emotional bonds between, so to speak, consenting adults, bonds which may just as easily dissolve. Moreover, once marriage is seen primarily in terms of emotional union, it is very hard to put limits on the type of relationship it could encompass. Homosexual pairs, now, as well as heterosexual couples, but why not polyamorous groups of several loving co-habitees, a-sexual partnerships, pairs of widowed sisters or groups of co-habiting celibate monks? And if civil marriages were taken to encompass emotional unions, what interest would the state have in giving them special legal standing (when practically all the relevant benefits apart from state recognition could be secured by private agreements)?

Licensed connubiality.IT IS CLEAR the defence of marriage in the book is predicated on the intimate connection between marriage and natural procreation. So the authors have to deal with childless marriages, which they do largely by seeing the actual production of children as simply the end of a continuum presupposed in all marriages. Their difficulties here are analogous to those faced by the traditional Catholic objection to contraception. If the sexual act or, in this case, marriage, is inherently directed towards procreation, aren’t any marital set-ups where procreation is impossible or prevented questionable? Many infertile marriages are not intended as such, and can be seen as tragic for the married couple in question. But I do know of married people who have said that they never intend or have intended to have children. Is there something questionable about their marriages on the Girgis, George, Anderson view? Or should they just say that these relationships share enough of the characteristics of conjugal marriage to come in at the margin? I suppose that we might, like, the voices in Eliot’s pub, ask them what they wanted to get married for, for that question is very much in the spirit of Girgis, George and Anderson.

But what if people in the revisionist camp want to have children? More difficult for the conjugal marriage view than deliberately infertile heterosexual marriages is the fact that increasing numbers of homosexual couples are now taking steps to produce children, so quite a lot of the argument about the stability and strength provided by the joint upbringing of children would apply to them too. Is it enough? Is the evasion of the biological involved in such stratagems sufficiently ‘unnatural’ to prevent these arrangements being seen as types of conjugal marriage? As far as I can see, our authors touch on this question only in a footnote late in the book (on page 102), in which they appear to inveigh against any form of artificial reproduction, including presumably IVF for a traditionally married couple. I say appear to, because the discussion is too short to be clear here. At all events this is a serious gap in what is clearly intended to be a comprehensive review of all the arguments pro and con traditional marriage.

What Is Marriage? is indeed useful as a survey of the merits of conjugal marriage, and it certainly shows that the revisionist view can hardly stop at licensing homosexual couples. But there is a sense that at this stage it is all slightly beside the point. In Britain at least revisionism is currently going through on the nod, with barely any of the sort of discussion which has been happening in the USA, and I’m not clear how long resistance can be effective there either in the current political climate. In Britain anyway the homosexual lobby is so powerful in the worlds of politics and entertainment that the campaign is won almost without any effort on the part of that lobby, and they know it. Woe betide anyone who works in the media or local government and dares to appear as ‘homophobic’ (i.e. supporting a privileged position for conjugal marriage).

We can step back and lament (or applaud) the extraordinary transformation in law and opinion over the past two decades, but it has happened, and is happening. What those who value conjugal marriage need to do is not to attempt fruitlessly to turn back this tide; rational argument on their part, when it is even acknowledged,  will tend to provoke little more than shrill abuse. What they need to do is to think carefully not just about the merits of conjugal marriage, but about how in their own communities and groups it can be fostered without state support or backing.


Anthony O’Hear is director of the Royal Institute of Philosophy, professor of philosophy at the University of Buckingham, a co-editor of The Fortnightly Review, and the editor of Philosophy: The journal of the Royal Institute of Philosophy. He is the author of The Great Books: A Journey Through 2,500 Years of the West’s Classic Literature among many other books.

More: Mona Caird’s The Morality of Marriage, portions of which first appeared in the Fortnightly Review.

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