The Wheatley Institution

Fellow Notes


Elevating the Discourse and the Culture of Marriage

“Marriage is by its very nature and substance worthy of defense.”

Richard N. Williams | January 12, 2015
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A newly married couple holds hands before a pastor, a union which is worth defending.



Review of Conjugal Union: What Marriage Is and Why It Matters by Patrick Lee and Robert P. George, 2014, Cambridge University Press 143 pp.

The on-going, and often hotly contested academic, cultural, and legal debates concerning marriage too often occur at a superficial level, some distance downstream from the more sophisticated and careful discourse to be found at the headwaters of understanding of our culture and our nature. Because of this, slogans and sound bites frequently substitute for analysis, and careful consideration of genuine issues and crucial consequences is truncated. Such thin discourse can quickly become political and self-serving, and the minds of many otherwise thoughtful people get side-tracked – if not hijacked. Conjugal Union: What Marriage Is and Why It Matters, authored by Patrick Lee and Robert P. George, pulls the discourse back from the sound-bite philosophy and politically purposed prose that has been too common for too long. The authors are explicit that this book is a philosophical analysis of marriage. It is also an explicit defense of traditional conjugal marriage. People committed to the defense of conjugal marriage and the preservation and privileging of marriage as it has existed, will appreciate this book. Those proposing a fundamental redefinition of marriage and the abolition of current marriage law should also appreciate the book because it provides a succinct yet sophisticated articulation of the philosophical underpinnings of the defense of conjugal marriage, allowing opposing arguments to aim at the real issues and at the best and most thoughtful arguments for marriage.

This book might be thought of as a conceptual companion volume to the 2012 book, What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense by Sherif Girgis, Ryan Anderson, and Robert P. George. The question posed in the title of the former book is answered in both the title and content of the 2014 book. In Conjugal Union, Professors Lee and George, in clear and concise terms, put a broader philosophical foundation under the arguments presented by Girgis, Anderson, and George, and locate the defense of marriage within a mature philosophical tradition. The analysis by Lee and George goes to the intellectual heart of the matter of marriage and gives voice to the key issues involved in the current public discussion, which are too often left unarticulated and undeveloped. For this reason, the book is required reading for anyone serious about the questions at the heart of the current debate over marriage.

Conjugal Union provides a sound basis for arguing that marriage should not be redefined or re-conceptualized to include any relationship that fails to conform to what marriage fundamentally is. Recognizing same-sex relationships or other non-marriage relationships as marriages is not just a matter of “widening the tent,” so to speak. Rather, such an alteration of what counts as marriage entails a profound category mistake. The book goes on to lay out a number of negative consequences – meaningful, intellectual, and moral – that are likely to result from the diffusion of marriage into a loosely defined fluid set of social relationships reflecting preference and desire rather than inherent form and substance. The analysis offered by Lee and George is a demonstration that it is simply false to claim, as some have done, that any defense of traditional conjugal marriage merely reflects an underlying animus toward people with same-sex orientation. The defense of marriage just is what it claims to be; that is, a defense of marriage qua marriage because marriage is by its very nature and substance worthy of defense, whatever may be the particular cultural sources of the challenge de jour. The authors also point out (p. 9) that their arguments are philosophical, “unaided by faith,” and able to be accepted by anyone regardless of religious commitment. The arguments are made primarily within the “natural law” tradition of moral philosophy.

The defense of marriage just is what it claims to be; that is, a defense of marriage

The introductory chapter, in addition to providing a very helpful overview of the book and its core arguments, lays out the fundamental definition of marriage that conceptually distinguishes marriage from all other groups and relationships. It is in this substantive distinction that marriage is established as a category of community, one that is different in its essence from other communities. It is the essential constituents of the community of marriage that are not and cannot be replicated in other communities. Thus, including such other communities as marriages obviates and negates the essence of marriage itself. The good and the meaning of marriage do not extend to other non-marriage communities and relationships because such other relationships lack the essential elements of the category which constitute the good and the meaning of marriage.

The authors articulate in the introduction what the succeeding chapters establish by analysis:

. . . that marriage is the community formed by a man and a woman who publicly consent to share their whole lives, on every level of their being, including the bodily, and in a type of relationship that would be fulfilled by begetting, nurturing, and educating children together (even if in fact this or that marriage does not result in children) . . . marriage is by its nature exclusive and binding until the death of one of the spouses. (p. 9)

This fundamental expression of the nature of marriage is clarified and defined throughout subsequent chapters.

Chapter Two takes up both marriage and morality as understood within a broad natural law tradition. Lee and George critically examine the classical natural law approaches and speak to the difficulty entailed in such “naturalist” positions. It is philosophically as well as practically difficult to derive a satisfactory ethical system from postulates about what is natural, that does not ultimately beg the question of what is moral. Lee and George ultimately move, therefore, to an analysis of marriage within what is sometimes referred to as a “New Natural Law” position. In this perspective, the fundamental nature of human persons is the ground for any understanding of what is morally right and wrong but in a way different from what one might found in classical natural law positions. At the center of questions of morality is what can be clearly understood as a basic human good, or what can be taken to be a “good in itself.” That is, what can be counted as among “basic human goods” – goods in themselves? Judgments about what is good (i.e., a basic human good), therefore are based on understandings of what, in line with the nature of the sorts of beings we are, constitutes “human flourishing, both in ourselves and in others” (p. 22) and furthers other basic goods-in-themselves.

Basic human goods must be understood as ends in themselves, rather than means to other ends.

Basic human goods are “irreducible aspects of the well-being and fulfillment of human persons,” (p. 27) and are thus trans-situational, tied to our human nature, not to circumstances or other ends for which they are merely instrumental. Basic human goods must be understood as ends in themselves, rather than means to other ends. Such goods may contribute to other goods, but they are supportive and congenial to other goods, rather than mere means or methods of achieving them. In traditional natural law approaches, basic goods are good because their good can be established based on some over-arching principle or truth available through philosophical reflection or revelation from God or some natural necessity. In the new natural law approach that informs Lee’s and George’s work, however, such theoretical knowledge is not superior to knowledge given through and by experience (understood in a broad sense). Thus, the goodness of a basic human good is tied to the realities available to us through lived-experience as well as reason and sensibility. We understand basic human goods to be good because they are perfective of our human nature. In this way, morality, in new natural law, is freed from the questions and dilemmas that have traditionally afflicted classical consequentialist and deontological approaches to morality.

For Lee and George, moral goods are not pursued as ends to other goods, but they are goods in themselves which are consistent with – congenial with – other basic human goods. A morally good course of action is consistent with the basic human goods and enhances them for ourselves and for others. A morally bad course of action is one that is inconsistent with or ignores basic human goods. Often bad actions are pursued as means to other ends which are not basic human goods. The authors summarize the nature of morality from this perspective:

The first practical principles and the first moral principle are not derived from theoretical propositions but arise out of direct insights into the possibilities toward which we are oriented by our human nature. These basic goods are aspects of genuine flourishing. . . . we should energetically pursue various basic goods and respect all of the basic goods, both in ourselves and in others . . . Pleasure is not itself a basic good, but it is not wrong to pursue pleasure as an aspect of a genuine good. The pursuit of pleasure and enjoyment can mislead, however, if the pursuit of it . . . leads us away from promoting or realizing a genuine good of someone or toward harming someone. (p. 36)

Support for marriage as a basic human good... comes ultimately from our essential human nature

In Chapter 3, Lee and George defend marriage as a genuine human good. As such, marriage establishes a community uniquely able to reveal and promote genuine perfective human flourishing. One not well versed in new natural law theory would be tempted to challenge this declaration that conjugal marriage, as defined in the book, is a basic human good. One might ask for some set of propositions that establish marriage as a basic human good. Such a call for justification of the good of marriage based on some more abstract good, however, assumes that some abstraction is more real and important than the lived-experience of the comprehensive unity that is marriage itself. This would make marriage only an instrumental good – one which helps realize whatever higher or more general good is captured in the abstract proposition or principle used to justify the good of marriage. Thus, to provide a principle-based propositional argument that marriage is a basic human good at the same time denies that it is one, because it turns marriage into a means to achieve or bring about the good end embodied in the principle or proposition. Support for marriage as a basic human good, therefore, comes ultimately from our essential human nature – from the kind of beings we are. This gives an experiential and embodied sense to basic human goods, and thus, to morality. Establishing that marriage is a basic human good will come as human nature manifests itself in reason, experience, evaluation, culture, history, and moral sentiment, and in the consistency of marriage with other basic human goods. This evidentiary weight is available to all beings possessed of those very attributes of our nature by virtue of which we are human and sensitive to what is constitutive of a flourishing life, and by which we are able to aspire to perfection of our own nature.

In response to a challenge to justify the characterization of marriage as a human good in itself, one might well turn the challenge back, and invite the skeptic to demonstrate why marriage as it has essentially been understood through history, and by its very nature, is not good in itself. For example, just how is it not good for a man and a woman to form a community by consent to share their whole lives on every level of their being, including bodily? Is it not more consistent with other goods-in-themselves for a man and a woman to share intimately in the spiritual, emotional and bodily realms, than to just share one or two of these aspects of their being? Is not the begetting, nurturing, and education of children together by men and women thus united not a good-in-itself? If not, why is it not good? Can or should marriage ever be merely instrumental? Can we find a basic human good-in-itself for either a man or a woman not to be involved in such a multi-level unity, and the procreative and nurturing activities implied therein? Are there not good reasons, borne out by experience that this sort of intimate relationship, oriented toward family, ought to be exclusive in its intimacies? Is there a positive good-in-itself, consistent with, and enhancing other basic human goods to be found in promiscuous human sexual activity? By the same token, one might ask whether there is an identifiable good-in-itself that loving, committed whole-lived comprehensively intimate communities should be of short duration rather than lasting and permanent.

It is readily apparent that the affirmation that conjugal marriage is a basic human good is difficult to refute. Many attempts at refutation avoid the real issue and point to the fact that some people don’t desire that kind of marriage, or that such marriages are often less than successful. Neither of these arguments speaks to the question of whether marriage is a basic good, invoking instead personal preferences or human failures. But personal preference is not a basic good, and human failure to achieve the good is not evidence against the good that could, and perhaps should, have been achieved. Many contemporary calls for redefinition of marriage allow, in one way or another, that marriage is a basic human good, but argue that the definition of marriage can be widened to include other relationships than just that between a man and a woman, or that it need not include exclusivity or permanence. Such alterations of the definition of marriage alter the fundamental nature of what marriage is. The result is that the newly defined marriage is not the same thing, and since marriage as a basic human good is tied to its fundamental nature, the resultant relation is not marriage. Rather, by claiming to be marriage when it is not it therefore replaces marriage or obviates it. Since basic human goods are consistent with, further and enhance all other human goods, some other thing that replaces and obviates rather than furthers and enhances a basic human good (i.e., marriage) cannot also at the same time be a basic human good.

Ultimately, it is for this reason that proposals to fundamentally alter marriage to include same-gender couples, polyamorous relationships, or sexually open relationships are category mistakes. Such relationships are not in fact marriages. They do not embody the basic human good that is marriage. Many attempts to alter the definition of marriage extol marriage as a way of deepening relationships or enhancing interpersonal commitment. These good effects, even when true, however, turn marriage into a means (to increasing personal satisfaction or commitment) as opposed to furthering marriage as an end in itself, i.e., a basic human good-in-itself. If marriage is taken to be – defined as – a means to enhance satisfaction, a means of deepening a relationship or a commitment, then it becomes, just that – a means deemed to be important for some persons’ privately preferred ends. The inherency of the basic human good is lost. It is not enough to say that some altered form or marriage would be good for some person, group or political purpose. The question is whether any altered form constitutes a good-in-itself and does not lose the constituent aspects of the basic human good that marriage as conjugal union is. Although Lee and George do not specifically articulate this challenge, it is implied in their analysis that any calls for the redefinition of marriage must demonstrate how a new, reconfigured version of marriage constitutes a basic human good-in-itself and does not simply rely for its justification on the fact that it facilitates personal preferences or self-selected fulfillments. In fact, they suggest that it is just this analysis that proponents of the redefinition of marriage have never been able to produce.

Thus, it is crucial to understand that men and women come to marriage as embodied rational beings

In Chapter Four, Lee and George take up the matter of sexuality. It is maintained consistently throughout the book that inherent to marriage as a basic human good is the community of a man and a woman at every level of their lives, including the emotional, spiritual and physical. The bodily union of male and female into an organic unit most saliently instantiates the union itself, and distinguishes the union of marriage from all other relationships. Thus, it is crucial to understand that men and women come to marriage (as to life itself) as embodied rational beings, not as independent consciousnesses or autonomous egos that just happen to also possess bodies. The sexual characteristics and capacities of our bodies are not something we somehow own and deploy for whatever purposes may suit us, including pleasure. Rather, those characteristics and capacities are integrated into the composition of our nature as the kind of beings we are. It is the sexual complementarity of that composition that permits, invites, and expresses the unity of the lives of husband and wife at the bodily level and thus furthers and promotes the basic human good that is marriage. Marital sexual intimacy is integrated, as few things can be, into the flourishing of human life and is thus perfective of human nature.

Pleasure should never be the end or purpose of the intimacy.

Lee and George offer a compelling insight into the nature of non-marital sexual intimacy. While pleasure certainly attends marital sexual unity, pleasure should never be the end or purpose of the intimacy. The end or purpose is the multi-level sharing of lives between a man and a woman in a type and form of relationship conducive to the begetting, nurturing and educating of children – which is the basic human good of marriage itself. Thus Lee and George argue that any other sexual activity cannot be a good-in-itself, and is mere instrumentality. Absent the total sharing of lives, at every level including the level of the body inherent in the basic human good of marriage itself, sexual activity is merely self-expression and will have only transient meaning, at best. Lee and George remind their readers (pp. 46-47):

“. . . pleasure is not in itself a good. . . .pleasure is a genuine good only if it is an aspect of a condition or activity that is already genuinely a part of human well-being and fulfillment, and this . . . is also true of sexual pleasure. . . . To be a genuine good . . . [sexual pleasure] must be part of a sexual act that already realizes a genuine good. . . . In truly marital acts, the genuine, common good is their bodily, organic unity, as a noninstrumental aspect and the biological basis of the overall (multileveled) reality of their marriage. The only type of community a procreative-type act can actualize is a procreative-type community, that is, marriage.”

From the conclusion of this analysis – i.e., that only a procreative-type act can actualize the community that is marriage (as it is inclusive of bodily union) – the obverse also follows. Any community that precludes procreative-type acts – because such acts uniquely constitute the bodily sharing of lives at every level – cannot be a marriage. This is the category mistake made by advocates of alternative forms of marriage, including, currently, same-sex marriage. It is this reasoned conclusion, rather than animus toward any persons or groups, that can and should undergird the defense of marriage as conjugal union against redefinitions that dissolve marriage qua marriage, as the basic integrated human good that it is and has been.

Lee and George devote an entire chapter to the elaboration of the nature of sexuality in marriage as a basic human good, and of sexuality outside marriage. The authors argue, consistent with new natural law theory, and against a common current of much post-modern thought, that human sexual activity is not the sort of thing that can simply be rendered meaningful at the whim of whatever persons engage in sexual activity of whatever sort. The meaningfulness, the significance, of sexual activity cannot be maintained unless it is part of, and thus furthers a basic human good. This point is made by Lee and George by way of a too common example. The response of one spouse when confronted by the other with evidence of sexual infidelity predictably includes a statement to the effect that, yes, there was extramarital sexual activity but “it didn’t mean anything.” This response is tragic on several levels, not the least of which is ironic recognition that sexual intimacy detached from the basic human good-in-itself, ceased to be good-in-itself. It will also cease to have meaning in itself. It therefore must acquire meaning of a sort, manufactured by those who engage in it for reasons unincorporated in a basic human good. The meanings for sexuality thus detached are thus ephemeral, and require constant self-affirming maintenance by the participants who can only ground their constructed meanings in one or another species of desire, need, or communal pleasure-seeking and or comfort or pleasure-giving.

When sexuality is integrated in the basic human good of marriage so that it actualizes the whole-person unity on every level, husbands and wives thus engaged enjoy a state of sexual integrity. When sexuality is not integrated into the basic human good of marriage so that a sexual act involves the whole embodied person in a unity, sexual activity necessarily becomes instrumental – aimed at something other than the basic human good of comprehensive unity – and the sexual body becomes dis-integrated from the whole person unity that it activates within marriage. Dis-integrated sexual activity makes the body an instrument and, to that extent, detaches the person from the meaning otherwise inherent in sexuality when it is connected to the basic human good of marriage. One is compelled then to try to make and maintain some meaning, or to give in to the ultimate meaninglessness of sexual activity not as unified end, but as mere means to any number of external ends. The authors summarize the point this way (p. 76):

By choosing to use one’s sexuality apart from a real marital communion, one adopts the attitude . . . that sex is a mere bodily act that may or may not have any profound significance, but if so, only from extrinsic intentions [rather than from basic human goods]. This attitude is a standing denial of the real capacity of sexual acts to be part of, and to embody, the bodily-emotional-spiritual union, procreative in its fulfillment, of a man and a woman. Such a choice is . . . a distortion of one’s view . . . of human life itself – since the body is viewed as “merely biological” and subpersonal.

The final chapter of Conjugal Union deals with “Marriage and the Law”. This chapter will be informative and helpful to readers interested in the issues surrounding contemporary arguments for and against altering the legal definition and standing of marriage. The authors clearly take a stand in favor of maintaining the legal definition of marriage as between a man and a woman and against redefining marriage to grant legal status as marriage to other communities. One of their primary arguments in favor of a legal definition of marriage as between a man and a woman is that, while conjugal marriage specifies a recognizable category of “marriage,” alternative definitions are incoherent because they specify no specific category. Lee and George point out that this concern is not a “slippery slope” argument – expressing concern that legal definitions will become looser and looser to include any number of groups and forms. Rather, their objection is that such definitions are incoherent, providing no guidance as to what particular communities of persons might constitute a marriage. Such incoherence is not merely logically unfortunate, but substantially problematic when incorporated into law and acted upon by legal authorities and by culture.

In talking about the undoing of the definition of marriage as conjugal union, Lee and George reiterate the importance of a clear and sufficient definition that establishes marriage as a basic human good. It is the lack of just this definition of marriage as a basic human good that is at the center of the authors’ reasoned response to calls for redefinition of marriage which try to make marriage other than conjugal union:

“In sum, marriage is the kind of human good that can be chosen and realized only by persons who have some basic understanding of what it essentially is. Hence creating a culture that obscures the nature of marriage and, thus, its central and defining features, makes it more difficult to participate in, cultivate, and appreciate genuine marriage.” (p. 106)

In briefest terms, the redefinition of marriage obscures the goods of conjugal marriage and ultimately results in their loss,since they cannot accrue in other communities. Further, since the category of marriage as redefined is actually undefined, even an understanding of what marriage is and what it means is also obscured. This includes the basic human good-in-itself that marriage is, the perfective capacity of marriage, and the related basic human goods that marriage itself furthers and supports. Lee and George offer an example (p. 109):

“. . . a strong marriage culture links fathers . . . to their children (and their children’s mothers). The institution of marriage provides the normative link between coitus and procreation, on one hand . . . and responsibilities to the family . . . on the other hand. Where the nature of marriage is obscured and the culture of marriage is weakened, fewer young men and women marry, fewer view marriage as the proper context for sexual conduct and expression, and . . . the number of children growing up outside intact families [increases].”

They go on to conclude (pp. 109-110):

“Severing the idea of marriage from any intrinsic link to procreation, and identifying it as an essentially emotional union, diminishes the appreciation of the distinctive value of marriage and the rationale for the norms of exclusivity and permanence. That in turn gravely harms spouses, but especially children.”

This analysis is at the heart of the authors’ response to one of the broadest and most common challenges often put to defenders of conjugal marriage: What’s the Harm? The insight offered by Lee and George into this question, and the clarity of articulation and focus may be one of the volume’s chief contributions. The authors summarize what is at stake in the question of marriage (pp. 121-122):

The same-sex “marriage” proponents assume that the change in marriage is only a slight one, and so when others respond by insisting that marriage not be changed in this way, they suspect there must be some other motive lurking beneath the reaction. However, we have shown that the change would indeed be fundamental – a shift from marriage conceived as essentially a bodily-emotional-spiritual bond, one naturally fulfilled by procreation and education of children (and so requiring exclusivity and the sincere pledge of permanence), to “marriage” conceived as essentially an emotional union, one not including an organic bodily union and not intrinsically linked to procreation and education of children (and one that therefore provides no principled moral basis for the requirements of exclusivity and permanence). This change would harm marriage in the same way that reorganizing and promoting polyamorous partnerships would harm marriage: by changing in a fundamental way its cultural understanding. And so it would harm young men and women by making this good less available to them – since marriage needs to be understood at least in a basic way to be consented to – and would also harm children by weakening the most central institution that provides for their nurturance and education.

In the title of the book, Conjugal Union: What Marriage Is and Why It Matters, Lee and George offer a faithful description of its contents. The book makes a contribution by providing in a brief readable form a careful definition of marriage as the conjugal union it has been, and a philosophically grounded defense of marriage as a basic human good. In doing so, the book provides a refutation of claims that opposition to the redefinition of marriage rests only on animus or discrimination. In the course of its analysis, the book lays out the importance of a strong marriage culture and presents the reasoned understandings on which the defense of our marriage culture rests.