The fundamental question about marriage – What is it?

Little gets us riled up more than the feeling that our rights are being denied. From way back when we were little tykes and our brother got a bigger scoop of ice cream than we did, and we shouted for all the world to hear, “No fair!” To today, when the world is so much different than it was then, and homosexuals and their advocates take to the public square and look to the courts with charges of rights denied, shouting – and all the world is hearing – “No fair!”

So when we consider and debate the issue of same-sex marriage, it’s helpful to Saving-Your-Marriage-Smallallow for some frustration and anger felt by gays and their advocates because of their sense of being denied justice. That’s understandable. The heart of this debate is the question of justice – is it unfair to treat same-sex couples differently when it comes to marriage? And though many are answering that question, I suspect that relatively few are first asking another one: What is marriage?

The Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy published a paper in 2010 with that very title, What is Marriage? Co-written by Sherif Girgis and Robert George of Princeton University, Departments of Philosophy and Politics respectively, and Ryan T. Anderson of the University of Notre Dame Department of Political Science, the paper argues for a definition of marriage that is at once traditional and, curiously, radical. Traditional, because it suggests that inherent qualities have informed its understanding in virtually all cultures at all times, and radical because it presents a view that is necessarily oppositional to one that has become commonly accepted in this generation.

According to Girgis et al, marriage is not simply a union of hearts and minds, of lives and property, that is enhanced by sexual expression, in whatever form that may take. It is more than just the natural progression from romantic love and a commitment to love forever, till death do us part. It is a union that is comprehensive, not only hearts and minds but bodies as well, and the bodily union must be organic and is not just a privilege of the couple but a necessary element of a true marriage. The authors argue for the imperative understanding of coitus as that which not only seals a marriage but gives it its distinctive structure and privileges.

To illustrate this point, they suggest substituting any non-sexual activity, like tennis, as the basis for an exclusive relationship. Committing to play tennis with only one particular partner would not make the couple married nor make it necessary or even desirable. They also ask the reader to consider a hypothetical world where reproduction happened asexually and children were self-sufficient. Is it likely that marriage would look anything like the traditional model, if it even existed? This clearly suggests the second of three essential elements of true marriage (the first being a comprehensive union of spouses): its inherent orientation towards children. While convincingly arguing against the objection that childless couples compromise this assertion, the authors make a cogent case for the intrinsic value of caring for the particular needs of children directing the traditional understanding of marriage as heterosexual, monogamous, and permanent.

Which brings me to the third essential element of true marriage – marital norms of permanence, exclusivity, and monogamy. These norms flow from the other two elements, and the authors argue that a “marriage” that is not comprehensive and oriented towards children would be difficult to defend as conducive to any of these norms.

There is much more presented in Girgis, George, and Anderson’s paper What is Marriage? to support the legal enshrining of the traditional structure of marriage, and no other. If you’re interested in a better understanding of the fundamentals of the same-sex marriage debate, I highly recommend that you read it yourself. It’s not terribly long, neither is the language philosophical or technical.

Before we can argue about what marriage is not, we need to better understand what it is.

Here are a few of the many important assertions the paper makes, with associated page numbers of the PDF download.

“…the state cannot choose or change the essence of real marriage; so in radically reinventing legal marriage, the state would obscure a moral reality.” (Pg. 8)

“…abolishing the conjugal conception of marriage would weaken the social institution of marriage, obscure the value of opposite-sex parenting as an ideal, and threaten moral and religious freedom.” (Pg. 16)

“In redefining marriage, the law would teach that marriage is fundamentally about adults’ emotional unions, not bodily union or children, with which marital norms are tightly intertwined. Since emotions can be inconstant, viewing marriage essentially as an emotional union would tend to increase marital instability…”  (Pgs. 16-17)

“Moreover, and more importantly, because there is no reason that primarily emotional unions any more than ordinary friendships in general should be permanent, exclusive, or limited to two, these norms of marriage would make less and less sense.” (Pg. 17)

“…marriage (is) a union whose norms and obligations are decisively shaped by its essential dynamism toward children. “ (Pg. 24)