What is Marriage? (Part 4)

The first three parts of this series (see Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3) detailed the positive arguments made by the authors for a “conjugal” view of marriage. The remainder of the book—chapters four through six, the conclusion, and the appendix—address objections to the view that the authors have presented. The fourth chapter, “What’s the Harm?”, addresses an objection commonly put by advocates of same-sex marriage, that extending the institution to same-sex couples will increase the blessings of marriage while doing no harm to existing marriages or marriage itself. The authors list six harms (53-72) that may arise from changing the definition of what a marriage is. Their argument is based on the ideas that Law tends to shape beliefs; beliefs shape behaviour; and beliefs and behaviours affect human interests and well-being (54). The particular harms identified are:

  1. Redefining marriage redefines it for everyone. Opposite-sex unions would increasingly be defined by what they had in common with same-sex unions; that is, they would come to be seen primarily or even exclusively as emotional unions, and this would make the basic goods of marriage traditionally understood, more difficult to realise. For example, choosing a suitable partner might be reduced to emotional signals of compatibility rather than a prospective partner’s fitness for such prosaic things as domestic relations and parenting.
  2. By making marriage about emotional union, the norms of marriage make less sense. If sexual complementarity is optional, so too are permanence and exclusivity. As the norms weaken, so might the emotional and material well-being that marriage gives to spouses.
  3. Conjugal marriage reinforces the centrality of reproduction and parenting, and the idea that men and women bring different, complementary strengths to the tasks of parenting. As the connection between marriage and parenting is obscured, no parenting arrangement will be recognised as ideal. The problem here is not that same-sex couples cannot be excellent parents, but the development of the idea that mother or father is superfluous. The authors argue that the result will be the diminishing of the social pressures and incentives for husbands to remain with their wives and children, or for men and women to marry before having children. Ultimately, because having a loving biological father and mother is ideal for child development, many children, and so the state also, will be worse off.
  4. The authors suggest that moral and religious freedom will be threatened for anyone who does not agree with the new legal definition of marriage. If support for conjugal marriage is really akin to racism—as has been claimed by those supporting changes to the definition of marriage, then those who support the traditional view should be subject to similar cultural and legal treatment that racists receive.
  5. The revisionist view will undermine friendship and make things harder for single people. As marriage is defined simply as the most valuable or even only kind of deep communion, it becomes harder to find emotional and spiritual intimacy in nonmarital friendships.
  6. Finally the authors address the so-called “conservative objection” that extending marriage would impose its norms on more relationships, which can only be a good thing. This objection fails, they suggest, because the state could not effectively encourage norms for which there is no deep and rational basis. “Rather than imposing traditional norms on same-sex relationships, abolishing the conjugal view would tend to erode the basis for those norms in any relationship” (67, original emphasis).

Chapter five, “Justice and Equality” (73-81), addresses the criticisms that the conjugal view is inconsistent when dealing with infertile marriages, and at odds with the principle of equal access to marriage. The second objection is easily addressed:

Laws that distinguish marriage from other bonds will always leave some arrangements out. You cannot move an inch toward showing that marriage policy violates equality, without first showing what marriage is and why it should be recognized legally at all. That will establish which criteria (like kinship status) are relevant, and which (like race) are irrelevant to marriage policy (80-81, original emphasis).

The authors argue, as noted in an earlier post, that infertility does not invalidate a marriage, for even the infertile couple engage in an act of bodily union that is fit for and capable of reproduction even if the goal is never achieved. Further, the infertile couple demonstrate that marriage is a human and social good in itself, that marriage is more than merely reproduction. Of course a friendship between two men or two women is also valuable in itself, but “lacking the capacity for organic bodily union, it cannot be valuable specifically as a marriage; it cannot be the comprehensive union on which aptness for procreation and distinctively marital norms depend” (76, original emphasis).

Is support for the conjugal view of marriage “a cruel bargain”—the title of the sixth chapter (83-93)? Does it win support for the many at a cruel cost for the few? Why argue for a position that harms the personal fulfilment, practical interests, and social standing of same-sex-attracted people? The authors agree that same-sex couples, and indeed many other kinds of relational partnerships seeking practical legal benefits (such as recognition as next of kin, financial and medical rights, etc.) should not be hindered from obtaining them. Further, because every marriage policy will keep some people from legally recognised relationships, we must fight against arbitrary or abusive treatment of those for whom this is the case, with the same force and diligence that we use to oppose unjust distinctions by race or sex (91).

Legal recognition does not include changing the definition of marriage, however, for sheer legislative will cannot erase the very real differences between the conjugal and revisionist views of marriage, or make disregarding them harmless to the common good. “Redefining civil marriage means pretending otherwise” (87).

The same-sex civil marriage debate is not about anyone’s private behavior, but about legal recognition. … Legal recognition makes sense only where regulation does: these are inseparable. The law, which deals in generalities, can regulate only relationships with a definite structure. Such regulation is justified only where more than private interests are at stake, and where it would not obscure distinctions between bonds that the common good relies on. As we have argued, the only romantic bond that meets these criteria is marriage, conjugal marriage (90, 92).

The authors conclude, therefore, that marriage is a particular kind of union with distinct and essential features which cannot be set aside without fundamentally changing and weakening what marriage is. They make this claim on the basis of philosophical and legal considerations without appeal to religious or theological authorities. They have amassed a great deal of evidence to highlight the rationality of their arguments, and to show how and why counter-arguments fail.

Marriage is not a legal construct with totally malleable contours—it is not “just a contract.” Instead, some sexual relationships are instances of a distinctive kind of bond that has its own value and structure, which the state did not invent and has no power to redefine. As we argued in chapter 1, marriages are, like the relationship between parents and their children or between the parties to an ordinary promise, moral realities that create moral privileges and obligations between people with or without legal enforcement. Whatever practical realities draw the state into recognizing marriage in the first place (e.g. children’s needs), the state, once involved, must get marriage right to avoid obscuring the shape of this human good (80, original emphasis).

Marriage understood as the conjugal union of husband and wife really serves the good of children, the good of spouses, and the common good of society. When the arguments against this view fail, the arguments for it succeed, and the arguments against its alternative are decisive, we take this as evidence of the truth of the conjugal view. For reason is not just a debater’s tool for idly refracting positions into premises, but a lens for bringing into focus the features of human flourishing (97).

14 thoughts on “What is Marriage? (Part 4)

  1. It is difficult to understand why you are impressed with these arguments. To consider just objection 1: Why should an emphasis on emotional compatibility extinguish concern with skill in parenting? Having raised 5 children, I’m persuaded that parenting is a team sport. Emotional compatibility enabled my wife and I to share a bond of love and enabled us to communicate. It enhanced our parenting. It didn’t compete with it.

  2. Hi Bill,
    I agree: parenting is a team sport, and I think the authors of this book will agree with you. I think their point here – probably not well expressed by me – is that emotional connection, while very important for an effective marriage, is not the only consideration, especially given the variableness of our emotions. The passions can overtake the reason, sometimes to our detriment.

  3. Michael, I don’t quite understand what you think is so distinctive about what a man and a woman bring separately to the raising of children. Can you give me some very concrete as an example?

    It can’t be that women are more “nurturing” than men, or more gentle, etc. I know plenty of families where the woman is the ambitious go-getter and the man is the one who goes to all the school activities. I don’t think we should leave the premise uncontested, so I’d like to hear some specific examples of what is it that only women can do in parenting/marriages that men can’t, and vice versa.

    Like Bill, I’m surprised you find any of these arguments convincing. They sound so ludicrous. But I agree society at large needs to have a conversation about it.

  4. Hi John,
    I don’t have the book with me at the moment. From memory, it is not that the authors try to identify particular attributes and divide them between male and female. Rather, it is the fact of the woman as a woman and a man as a man that is important.

    They cite many research studies in the notes throughout the book, and I recall some dealt with this matter, but I cannot direct you to them at present. The studies, of course, deal with trends and generalities rather than specifics. It will always be possible to find a heterosexual couple who are atrocious parents, and a gay couple who are brilliant. They agree, but that is not their argument. Their argument is that law and public policy should seek that which is best in the general sense – which they obviously argue is a particular set of circumstances, while allowing for other possibilities unless they are detrimental to the common good.

  5. Isn’t it possible, even likely, that gay parents, on average, are superior to straight parents? I say this just from observation of the gay and straight couples among my circle of friends who have kids.

    A few points to compare. (1) Gay parents always have kids intentionally, whereas many straight couples bring kids into the world that they do not want, and therefore sometimes resent. Every gay couple has to go through a long (sometimes, years-long) process where they have to affirm that bringing a child into their lives and all its sacrifices is something they want. This means they have usually taken the necessary steps in terms of their career, housing plans, etc. This explains why I have some straight friends who resent the impact of their kids on their career/marriages/family life, but none of my gay friends do.

    (2) Gay couples are almost always more affluent in this scenario, because only the ones who can afford it can pay the tens of thousands more dollars for adoption paperwork, lawyers, etc. This means the child in this scenario is almost always placed with a couple with significant financial means to assure he will be provided for.

    (3) Gay relationships have been shown in study after study to be more egalitarian. In straight relationships, sex-based stereotypes often leads to gender based division of labor rather than “equal parenting.” The concept of an “absentee Dad” was birthed within this type of construct, no?

    Speaking as a straight woman, if I had a child I was going to give up for adoption, the gender of the would-be parents would be the farthest thing from my mind. Maybe Michael’s different and having a man and a woman is the most important thing for his child if he were to give it up for adoption. It just does not make any sense to me.

    Seems like a whole bunch of “philosophizing” just to justify a position that’s fundamentally Christian in nature. Seems dishonest to me. Would respect the position more if someone just said: “I’m Christian and I dislike it” rather than pretending otherwise.

  6. Btw, I also think it’s offensive to refer to gay relationships as merely “friendships.” If that’s what you really think, you really need to get to know some gay couples. The depth of their love and commitment is not merely a “friendship.” It’s a silly, offensive term that’s intended to trivialize their relationships.

  7. Hi Lisa,
    I think it is certainly true that some gay parents would be better parents than some heterosexual parents. I won’t comment on whether or not it is more likely that gay parents generally are better – I simply do not have access to any data to make an intelligent comment. I can accept your “philosophising” as the attempt to justify your position – we ought to argue for those things we believe in. It is not a case of “I am a Christian and I dislike it.” I am trying to summarise the arguments in a book that purports to offer philosophical and legal arguments for the proposition that marriage is a particular kind of relationship. I do think, however, that they have been successful in their endeavour: they explicitly take a non-religious approach and make no religious arguments in the book.

  8. The authors do not refer to gay couples as “friends.” They deal with a whole range of relationships as they consider why marriage should be a special kind of relationship in law. These relationships include heterosexual and gay couples, married couples and those in de facto relationships, siblings sharing a home and domestic arrangements, and other relational configurations doing the same, including friends. They do not trivialise gay couples’ relationships.

  9. “I do think, however, that they have been successful in their endeavour: they explicitly take a non-religious approach and make no religious arguments in the book.”

    I don’t mean this in an offensive way, but you sound a little naive about the politics and context of the authors whom you cite. Have you actually researched their background and intellectual influences? Also, taking a non-religious approach means being genuinely open to where the evidence/data takes you. Robert George and Ryan Anderson have conceded many times that because they are Catholics, no amount of evidence in favor of gay parenting/adoption/marriage, even if favorable, even if true, will change their minds on the matter. And in fact, that is the most intellectually honest thing they have ever said on the matter. They think there are strong arguments against same-sex marriage, but even if the non-religious arguments were weak, they would still NOT accept it for religious reasons. So what is the point of this exercise?

    When I spoke about friendships, I had your sentence in mind: “Of course a friendship between two men or two women is also valuable in itself …” Perhaps I misread you, but I thought you were saying that a romantic relationship between two men or two women was merely a friendship. If that’s not what you believe, that’s an infelicity of language and nothing more. That’s fine.

    One last question. As a supporter of gay marriage, I’ve familiarized myself with a great deal of literature that “conservatives” cite. Everything from Rod Dreher, to Girgis, to Gallagher, etc. What are some of the books/works you’ve read (even if you disagree with them) that come from the perspective of someone who supports same-sex marriage? I’m just curious.

  10. Michael, can you explain what this means: ” Rather, it is the fact of the woman as a woman and a man as a man that is important.”

    The whole exchange between you and some of the posters leaves me puzzled. If, in fact, as you say, it should be painfully obvious that men and women bring something unique as men, and as women, to a marriage, why does it seem so hard for you to raise some understandable examples when challenged to do so?

    Leave the vagueness and ambiguity aside, and just speak in layman’s terms. What is it that a mother can do that a father cannot, and a father can that a mother cannot? Lisa and I are very different in our parenting styles and personalities, but very little (if any) of that has to do with our gender. There are things that she does better, and things that I do better, but again, it’s not that our gender makes each of us better at those various tasks.

    Just name one example in a straightforward way as food for thought.

  11. Hi Ash,
    The authors do not frame their argument in this way. The do speak about whether one gender or another is superfluous with respect to parenting. They do discuss the impacts of absentee fathers and so forth.

    They do, however, provide many references to studies about the various topics they discuss. For example, one study referenced is pro-same-sex-marriage which yet argues that men and women have different impacts on child development. See: http://scholarship.law.duke.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1151&context=djglp

  12. Thanks for the link. All in all, a rather fair article. I am assuming you also agree with the other conclusions of the article?

    1) “Extant research permits the conclusion that lesbigay parenting does not psychologically harm children … despite the methodological limitations … their findings are remarkably consistent …” (p. 146)

    2) That part of what makes gay parenting difficult is not the weakness of gay parenting itself, but the discrimination, bullying and teasing that the gay parents and the children of gay parents face in public and social settings. (pp. 151 – 156)

    3) So, let’s come to Section D, which presumably is what you think is relevant to the dialogue. To summarize, the author thinks the data is very difficult to interpret in relation to the question of whether dual-gender parenting leads to better outcomes, all other things equal, but suggests that parents who are acting in conventionally gendered ways may help kids socialize differently. As opposed to deconstructionists, the author suggests that “mothers and fathers discipline, play, and talk with their children quite differently.” (p. 168), and that “mothers contributed somewhat more to kinship ties and friendships, fathers more to childrens’ educational attainment …. ” Also, “fathers are somewhat more effective disciplinarians.”

    The conclusion is that “fathers and mothers each make a unique – though not essential – contribution to children’s social, emotional, and intellectual development,” and therefore that it is not sound public policy to deny gay people either marriage or parental rights. (p. 192). POTENTIALLY UNIQUE, THOUGH NOT ESSENTIAL.

    Kinda funny to cite this article as support for your argument against gay marriage or gay parenting? I agree with most of what is said in this article.

  13. By the way, I’m also curious about what you think about the final section raising the possibility that gay parenting is superior to dual-gender parenting.

    Article suggests that gay parenting might be superior because “unplanned children are at higher risk of criminality and delinquency, child abuse and neglect” (p. 177). (I had raised this possibility myself a few posts back!) Also because “mothers of unwanted children have poorer relationships with their children” (p. 177). Furthermore, “some studies suggest that two mothers parent better than a father and a mother, because mothers are generally more skilled at childcare.” (p. 178)

    Michael, it’s a bit disingenuous to pull out from this rich article the conclusion, as you say, that “men and women have different impact on child development” (your latest post), without also highlighting that the author thinks the differences, if they even exist, are modest or irrelevant in practical effects, or that gay parenting may in fact be superior to straight parenting, or that the author thinks the current research absolutely does not support denying marriage or parenting rights to “lesbigay” couples.

    I do want to thank you for the article reference though. I did learn quite a bit.

  14. Hi again, and thanks once more for your comments Lisa. No, I don’t think it is disingenuous – I was trying to address the question posed by Ash, and to do so by using an article written by someone arguing for same-sex marriage and parenting. And that’s why I posted the link. Anyone interested can read the article for themselves, as you obviously did. It is also one of the articles referenced by the authors that I have followed up. I have only followed up a couple of the many they cite because I am quite time-poor at present, and it is not the major focus of work in any case.

    I too noted the issue of intentionality around the bearing of children, something I had not thought of before. The idea of unwanted children is a tragedy – I guess you would agree with that. And perhaps that is why the tradition developed as it did. The advent of modern technology is a matter relevant to the entire discussion, a can of worms in its own right, and an issue not really addressed in the authors’ argument. Obviously, though, it has immediate implications for this particular aspect of the discussion, implications I am aware of but have not the expertise nor the time to chase down at present.

    I am not at all sure that I agree with the whole article. I am only familiar with Haidt’s latest work which I found very significant – as a possible diagnostic tool for understanding aspects of human community and decision-making. I don’t necessarily accept the whole philosophical framework that he brings to support his understanding of moral emotions. But significant, and something I want to explore further if and when time permits. Whether I would go as far as Redding has with it, I am not sure. By his account, I am disgusted by homosexual behaviour and that is the underlying cause of my concerns. That is simply not the case.

    Ultimately the whole point of reading this little book was to seek a philosophical account of marriage to see whether it is possible to identify whether or not marriage is “something” and inherently so. Or is it merely a malleable human or social convention? The authors argue for the former. They present a good case, but not an open-and-shut case. But it is rational and well-supported, though even its reception shows that many disagree with their argument. And that’s okay, as I see it at least.

    My own view does not depend on their success or otherwise, being shaped by biblical and theological ideas – as I understand them. But that is not what I was attempting here.

    In any case, I have appreciated your thoughtful push-back and critique, though I dare say we will not end up in agreement with respect to our views. And that’s okay too. I wish you and family peace.

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