The Non-Religious Case Against Same-Sex Marriage

In the week before Easter, Ryan T. Anderson, of the Heritage Foundation and Princeton University, appeared on CNN's Piers Morgan Live. Through all of Morgan's hectoring, it was almost impossible for Anderson to explain his position on gay marriage. However, we need not look far to see why he defends traditional marriage so strongly.

Along with his co-authors Robert P. George and Sherif Girgis ("GGA"), Anderson has recently produced a book — What is Marriage? — that sets out his position. It is a valuable contribution to the gay marriage debate, one based in reason rather than scripture, or tradition. It shows that opposition to legalizing same-sex marriage can indeed be reasonable, and that those who do so need not be intimidated by false accusations of prejudice.

As GGA note, this debate is not in the first instance about homosexuality, but rather about the conflict between two different conceptions of marriage. First, what GGA call the conjugal conception, which is a "vision of marriage as a bodily as well as an emotional and spiritual bond" and which flows out "into the wide sharing of family life and ahead to lifelong fidelity."

Opposed to this is the "revisionist"

conception, which sees marriage as an emotional bond distinguished by intensity and perhaps accompanied and enhanced by sexual activity. GGA defend the conjugal conception (long enshrined in the tradition, law, and custom of various societies) against revisionism.

The authors start by laying out the fundamental challenge to the revisionist conception of marriage. Marriage, both sides will accept, is a relationship that is intrinsically good. But what makes it distinct from other forms of friendship, or other voluntary bonds?  GGA argue that the revisionist answer to this question fails to make sense of a true claim widely accepted on both sides of the marriage debate: namely, that the state has a special interest in regulating relationships that are sexual and monogamous, whereas it has no general interest in regulating other sorts of personal relationships. On the other hand, the conjugal conception explains precisely this and more.

The challenge for Anderson et al is to set out the parameters of the conjugal conception of marriage that they seek to defend. Marriage, like any voluntary relationship between individuals, exists when individuals consent to engage in certain activities aimed at certain shared goods. The distinctive activities and goods in question determine the type of relationship it is, as well as the commitment it requires. In order to describe the distinctive activities, goods, and commitments that make marriage what it is, GGA introduce the idea of "comprehensiveness." They argue that marriage comprehensively unites persons in three senses. First, it involves not only mental and emotional union but also bodily union — union in a basic dimension of our lives as embodied creatures. Bodily union is achieved through coitus, in which the spouses' bodies are coordinated towards a common biological end (i.e. reproduction). Here, GGA are careful to forestall the misunderstanding that the value of marriage is reducible to that of reproduction. Rather, their point is that coitus is a characteristic activity of marriage, and when freely and lovingly chosen, it seals and embodies this type of relationship.

Second, marriage is comprehensively unifying because it requires the spouses to share and coordinate their entire lives in a way that is suited to a characteristic good of the relationship: family life and the having and rearing of children. As GGA explain, this aptness is still present in the case of infertile couples that, despite experiencing a genuine loss, genuinely participate in the comprehensive and bodily union of marriage (GGA treat infertility at greater length in the book, when responding to objections).

The authors argue that, when taken together, these comprehensive activities and goods provide a rational justification for comprehensiveness of commitment: the permanence and exclusivity required by the type of relationship that we call marriage. For instance, the cooperation aimed at bodily union — which is part of comprehensive union — and its natural fulfillment in children makes sense of the norm of sexual exclusivity. Indeed, only the conjugal view can explain why marriage should be limited to two: no act is capable of bodily uniting three or more individuals. On the other hand, if marriage is merely an emotional bond (as revisionists claim) then there is no reason to think that it should not include polygamous or polyamorous unions, or "open relationships" of various kinds.

Why then, is the state interested in marriage? Just as the link with children provides a powerful argument for adopting the conjugal view of marriage, so too does it provide a reason for the state's interest in marriage, i.e. producing healthy, upright, productive members of society. Marriage is thus a common good, and its public functions (requiring and empowering parents to care for their children and each other) require society-wide coordination that can only be consistently achieved by the state. GGA then provide a wide-ranging analysis of the social benefits of a strong marriage culture, and the devastating social costs of the breakdown of families.

A final subsection deals with the arguments of those (call them constructivists) who think that marriage is wholly conventional and endlessly malleable and thus that the state should not favor any one conception over another. Against this, GGA point out that it is fallacious to infer to from a partially constructed social practice (take friendship for instance) that it is in fact wholly constructed and has no objective features. Furthermore, they show that constructivism in fact conflicts with the spirit of many revisionist arguments. It thus offers no help to many revisionists, who also think that marriage must have some necessary features. 

If GGA are right, then revisionism about marriage is false, both because the revisionist view is internally inconsistent, and because the conjugal view is true. But many who reject revisionism are not fully aware of the harm that will result from codifying the revisionist view in the law ("legalizing gay marriage") — they fail to understand the radical urgency of the present situation. GGA do not shy away from providing a realistic and judicious analysis of these harms. They include: making real marriage harder to realize (because the law shapes our beliefs about what marriage is), eroding marital norms by making marriage a union that is fundamentally about emotions, and abolishing the ideal that children be raised by a husband and wife.

Revisionism furthermore presents a serious threat to moral and religious freedom: the state can only endorse revisionism by claiming that conjugal marriage supporters make arbitrary distinctions and thus engage in invidious discrimination — akin to racists. If it endorses revisionism, it is rationally committed to treating the defenders of the conjugal view as it would treat racists. But if revisionism is false, or if there is a reasonable and plausible case to be made against revisionism (as this book demonstrates), then the state will have committed a grave injustice by curbing freedom of speech, of religion, and of conscience.

It is worth singling out for attention one harm discussed by GGA that is hugely under-appreciated by both sides of the debate: redefining marriage will undermine non-marital friendships. If marriage is an emotional union that is distinguished from other unions by its intensity, then deep friendship and emotional intimacy will come to lose their value outside a romantic and sexual context. By contrast, the conjugal view recognizes the value in distinct types of companionship and support, and clarifies what one owes to each.

What is marriage? ends with an examination of various objections to the conjugal view that invoke considerations of justice, equality, and protecting the interests and needs of those who are same-sex attracted. Much that is written here will be of interest to people on both sides of the debate, as GGA treat these topics with skill, sensitivity and compassion. Among other things, they discuss the difference between infertile couples and same-sex attracted couples, the comparison between "gay marriage" and interracial marriage, and recognizing the practical needs and dignity of those for whom marriage is (by its very nature) impossible.

This book will not move those who are wholeheartedly committed to the view that marriage is purely conventional and constructed, like the rules of a board game. But very many reasonable people on both sides of the debate disagree: they think that marriage has a distinct character which makes it different from other sorts of friendships; which grounds the norms of the relationship; and which rules out certain forms of bad behavior (e.g. polyamory, polygamy, infidelity, etc). This book is for them.