The Wheatley Institution

What is Marriage?

Sherif Girgis
October 20, 2014

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Thank you very much. I appreciate it. I look forward to the day when they can end that introduction with "and he has a job," but for now that will do. Thank you so much for having us. For me, it's an honor to be here at the Wheatley Institution; I believe so much in what it's doing, and I was just thinking to myself as I was sitting there that it's pretty difficult to think of too many other places where you can have as meaty and as morally and intellectually serious an introduction as the one you just heard about the mission and the purpose of this conference and of the Wheatley Institution more generally. It's just very, very encouraging.

On that note, I want to begin with a general set of thoughts about why it's important to have this kind of discussion, why you're not wasting your time here, in short, and in particular in an environment where we share a common faith or a common set of assumptions and understandings about moral and political theory. It's very easy for people to think,"I know what I know by the scriptures or by my faith tradition or by my community, and I can just stop there." And I think there are several reasons for us not to stop there, as important and critical as those sources of knowledge are.

The first reason is maybe the most obvious; it's that not everyone is Christian. The whole world isn't BYU or Steubenville or anywhere like that. This is the most obvious point because we are all pressed day in and day out to give an account, a "reason for our hope," as St. Peter says, to give an account of the views that we hold in terms that other people can understand and appreciate whether or not they share a particular faith tradition. And that is on full display today in the moral and political and legal battles that we're facing as a culture. But I don't think it just stops there, and I think if we did stop there it might sound too strategic. I think there are several internal reasons, reasons for the flourishing of our own communities and our own faith life to think about the non-faith based reasons for these moral and political views. Understanding the reasons, the rationale, the human goods at stake in these debates—whether you approach it from philosophy or from social science or from other disciplines or with all of them converging as we will today—gives you a deeper appreciation of something that we might all assent to at some intellectual level, but it helps to really feel in our bones. This is not just an arbitrary set of constraints; this isn't just a test that God imposed that he could have given any other, and we're just here to eke out an existence by or not. This is a law of love, a correspondence to the truth about who we are and how we're made and how individuals and societies flourish. And we have nothing to fear from any of the disciplines who we'll be thinking in terms of today because the truth all converges. It's all consistent with itself. It's one thing to acknowledge that and to officially subscribe to it and to say it when asked or pressed; it's another to really see how it works in particular cases, and that's the kind of thing we want to show today.

The last point is that I think it also helps us appreciate our faith on its own terms. It's one thing to say that there are non-religious reasons for something; it's another to say that those non-religious reasons will help us understand the point of the faith. It actually also helps unpack the contents of what we might believe on other grounds. It helps us apply it to new circumstances and to new issues and problems that weren't faced when the sources of these traditions were at work. For all of these reasons, it's really important to be here; it's important to have the discussion that we're having today and, again, I'm just so grateful to be a part of it.

I'm going to sketch an account of the philosophy behind what we're calling the conjugal view of marriage. What's much less apparent is the philosophy that is at work on the other side of the issue. Sometimes this is depicted as a matter of neutrality: you're either neutral, morally and religiously, and so you favor recognizing same-sex relationships as marriages; or you have this sectarian, partisan imposition of your own moral views and that's the conservative side. What I want to suggest today is that there are actually two competing visions of marriage here. They both make assumptions, and when you examine those assumptions, the conjugal view turns out to be much more cogent and coherent. The view in favor of redefining marriage to include same-sex relationships actually has deep tensions and contradictions that haven't been honestly faced because those assumptions haven't been unearthed. They haven't been brought to light. And Ryan Anderson, my coauthor, is going to tell you then about what difference it makes to law and policy, why enshrining one or another vision of marriage in our law will have an effect downstream in real, concrete terms on flesh-and-blood human beings on the relationships they form and on the outcomes especially for the next generation.

The first thing to note is how the debate has occurred on its own terms. What have the arguments been? The main argument in favor of redefining marriage has been one of equality. That is the slogan: marriage equality; equality for gays and lesbians. And the first point to note is that that argument will not get us one inch towards figuring out what the right marriage policy is. The reason is that everyone in the debate favors equality: the whole question is what marriage is. What is this relationship that we have a political and moral obligation to recognize on an equal basis? That is the question that stops proponents of redefining marriage every single time. If you actually linger and wait for them to offer an answer, none is forthcoming. What I want to suggest is that the reason is not that they're not assuming an answer to that question—they are—but that that answer doesn't hold up to scrutiny, so we can do their work for them. Let's think about what vision of marriage is at work in that view. If you imagine two men who are living together and sharing a home and all the burdens and benefits of common life and they're committed to doing it for the long haul—but what brought them together is that they're brothers who have just never moved out and who've never married and who've decided to live together, they don't get recognized as a marriage on this view. If what brought them together is a sexual relationship, they do. So what defines marriage on this, what we call the revisionist view of marriage because it's proposing to revise our long-standing understandings, is a certain kind of deep, emotional union—sexual, romantic companionship. That's what sets marriage apart in this picture. It's not the only thing that's involved, but it's what makes it different from other forms of companionship, friendship, cohabitation, and so on. And the thing to note is that that view gets marriage wrong. And it gets marriage wrong not just by the lights of people of faith, of orthodox members of the Jewish and Christian and other traditions; it gets marriage wrong even by the lights of most people on both sides of the debate today. And you can see that by just trying to think about how this view could explain or account for other features of marriage. Take the idea, for example, that marriage involves a commitment for life. Most people accept that, most people will agree that to get the marriage off the ground, you've got to commit for the long haul; that's part of what makes it different from other forms of companionship or from dating—but that view makes no sense in principle if what really makes a marriage is a certain kind of deep, emotional bond. There's no guarantee that that emotional bond lasts for life, and so there's no reason to pledge to be with the other person for life, as opposed to, "for as long as love lasts," as some people change their vows to be, for as long as that emotional connection remains. In fact, in the work of sociologists like Johns Hopkins University's Andrew Cherlin, for example, you get the reverse idea, the idea that if you stick with the relationship after the emotional bond has faded, it is harmful; it's inauthentic; it's a failure of sincerity and genuineness. So the idea here is that the permanence principle makes no sense on this vision of marriage. There's no reason to pledge permanence as long as the thing that makes it a marriage as opposed to something else isn't itself permanent.

The idea of sexual exclusivity is in a similar situation. For some people, by temperament or taste, for most people perhaps, pledging sexual exclusivity enhances the emotional intensity of the relationship. But increasingly many couples today are coming out and saying exactly the opposite, that actually not pledging permanence and exclusivity but actually having a bi-agreement open relationship makes the emotional stability of their marriage stronger. And on this vision of marriage there's no answer to that. There's no reason of principle that marriage should be the kind of relationship that pledges exclusivity if what really makes the marriage is a certain kind of emotional bond that is at its best contingently connected to exclusivity. 

The idea that marriage is inherently a relationship of two people. There's no reason of principle that three men, for example, couldn't have a deep emotional bond and share all the burdens and benefits of common life, and want their relationship ratified, want to avoid stigmatization for themselves, for their children, want to be able to have all the legal incidents and benefits of marriage life. In fact, that's an argument that's increasingly being made—and not just by conservatives and hypotheticals, but increasingly by people in these relationships. So New York Magazinehad a profile, a very sympathetic one a couple years ago about a throuple, which is a three-person couple, and it was three men who were making exactly these arguments—not just saying that this was their lifestyle choice, but saying that it was a natural outflow of their own identity. The kind of relationship in which they found the most personal fulfillment, the most personal stability and satisfaction over time, was a three-person relationship, where the distribution of duties and the issues of jealousy and trust just have a different shape than they do in two-person relationships. Some of them will say, "I always thought something was different about me. I always thought I just wasn't satisfied out of romance in the same way that my friends were. And then I discovered the poly community. And I found that this was my orientation." They're making exactly the same arguments, and this vision of marriage, again, has no answer because what it makes central is the personal fulfilment of adults. That is the identifying principle of marriage on this view.

At this point, even the idea that marriage is a sexual relationship starts to look arbitrary. If what really makes the marriage is a matter of degree, the closeness or the intensity or the priority of the relationship, then there's no reason of principle that it should be sexual as opposed to deep but platonic. And so you have a lawyer a couple of months ago in the Washington Post, again, not a conservative rag, saying we should recognize friendship relationships on just the same basis because it's arbitrary to think that there's a deep moral or social difference in whether the connection involves a sexual component. So permanence and exclusivity and monogamy and sexual union and certainly a connection to family life and through that to the common good—every single one of the defining features of marriage, everything that makes marriage different from companionship is impossible to explain on this view of what makes a marriage. That's something that just doesn't get discussed because people are never pressed to give their own account of what marriage is. They immediately confront you with bigotry, with malice, and with other kinds of accusations about your character or your intentions, and they leave the arguments aside. So those unexamined assumptions can't be what marriage is. Again, we haven't appealed to the Bible; we haven't appealed to tradition; we haven't said, "Well, it's just always been this way so it always has to be." We haven't appealed to even the moral questions of whether it's morally okay to have a same-sex relationship or a sexually open relationship—we've just been taking people's understandings of some core features of marriage for granted and working from those. Even by their own lights, they can't explain what makes a marriage. Actually, it's a little bit worse than that, because by their own lights, if you have an arbitrary distinction in the realm of marriage then you are a bigot; you are a purveyor of injustice on a huge social scale. But they themselves can't explain things like permanent and exclusive commitment, things like the idea that marriage is a relationship of two that so far most people in favor of redefining marriage still want to hold on to. By their own lights, their view is one of radical injustice.

I've pressed this argument, I don't know, for four or five years now, since we first released an article that then became the book that Richard mentioned. And I've pressed it in front of very intelligent audiences, I've pressed it at law schools and universities and in philosophy faculties and classrooms and seminars, and I have not once gotten anything approaching a convincing answer. In fact, I've started to develop a little bravado. So I start my talks at these extremely hostile environments where the Q and A goes for 90 minutes without a single friendly question, and I say, "I'm here to challenge everything you think you know about sex and marriage, and I know you think I'm a bigot. I think there are contradictions in your own view, and I'm eager during the Q and A for you to point them out in front of the two- or three- or five hundred people here." And it doesn't happen. So that's the first thing to see is that they have no account of what marriage is.

Ryan is going to discuss some of the implications of doubling down on their implicit assumptions about what makes a marriage. But at this point even before we get to that, you might be asking, "What's the alternative? Maybe I can grant that they don't have an account of permanent, exclusive, monogamy, sexual union, and connection to family life. But is there a view of marriage that makes sense to them or is it just the residue of various traditions?" One thing we know for sure is that it can't just be a matter of theology. The reason for this is that you can name me any religion you want, and I can give you a culture and a time and a place where basically this vision, the traditional or conjugal view of marriage was accepted. It had no connection to Judaism or Christianity or any other religion that you might mention, so it couldn't just be that.

We have ancient Greek and Roman thinkers: Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Xenophanes, Rufus Plutarch, who never saw a Hebrew parchment, never met St. Paul, never got a letter from him to their town, who had exactly the male-female conjugal vision of marriage. And not just took it for granted but defended it in dialogues, in lectures, in philosophical accounts of the nature of love and of conjugal love in particular. I can give you quotes from Musonius Rufus that sound like they're straight out of the mouth of the pope. One of the liberal historians of philosophy at Princeton Gregory Vlastos, once said that the very unfortunate thing (to his view) is that Pope Paul VI who put out statements against contraception and in favor of male-female vision of marriage basically had the same views of marriage and sex as Plato. So that's proof, historically, that we can't just attribute this to religion.

We also can't just attribute it to animus against people in same sex relationships. And there again, history just explodes that theory of where this view comes from. In the interracial marriage ban, in that case it's clear that this was a natural outflow of Jim Crowe laws. In all of human history, this is now a point from the historian Nancy Kye, who has testified in favor of redefining marriage in several cases, is a professor at Yale; she has the liberal sector in her view; she has no reason to fudge it. And she says interracial marriage bans don't show up anywhere in human history until colonial America. Why? Because in that context and that context alone, caste tracked race. And to preserve caste, you had to keep the races from mixing. So history all but proves that white supremacy was the purpose of interracial marriage bans, as the court says in Loving v. Virginia, white supremacy. It explodes the myth that animus about same-sex relationships was because we have cultures that span the spectrum in terms of their attitudes about sexuality that still had this same basic vision of marriage. We have cultures that had nothing like our concept of sexual orientation, which really only emerges in this form in the 19th century. You had cultures that were completely okay with even ritualized form of same-sex sexual relationships, for example between men in ancient Greece. In none of them did it ever occur to them that marriage might be a genderless institution.

So what is the source? What is the account of marriage that makes sense of all these features, and links them to sexual complementarity? Well, in the Hebrew Bible, you get the idea of one flesh union. In some Greek and Roman thinkers that had no connection to that source you have the idea of integral amalgamation, a lot clunkier but similar idea. And in our own book we describe it as the matter of comprehensive union. What does that mean? Well, in every respect that makes a form of community or relationship at all, the community or the relationship known as marriage is comprehensive. What are those respects? This is basically out of Aristotle: any kind of community is formed by cooperation, by common action towards common ends in the context of the commitment. And it's in those respects that the commitment of marriage is defined by its comprehensiveness. But this is a basic framework in which you can understand any form of community. So take a university community like the one we have here. It's defined by cooperation towards the truth. That's the common good that defines this form of community. So a university is made the kind of thing that it is; you're being most like a university when you have seminars and exchanges and discussions, when you have classroom lectures, when you're in the lab, when you're doing research, when you're publishing. Those are the actions that most define this kind of community because of the end that they have which is truth. And because of that common end and those common activities, the community of a university is defined by certain commitments of academic integrity, of respect for the truth, of publishing the results no matter how inconvenient they are, and of pursuing the truth and a special premium on honesty and courage in its pursuit. So there all those three elements of a community hang together. They all make sense of each other.

It's in those three respects that the community of marriage is comprehensive. First, in its unifying activity. Most of us understand that friendships of other forms are a union of heart and mind. You come to know and to seek and to promote the other person's good. But the community of marriage is comprehensive: it's a union of heart, mind, and body. Because we're bodily beings; if you leave the body out, you don't have a total union with the beloved. And for the most part, people are willing to accept that total union with the beloved is part of what makes it a marriage and not some other form of companionship. Most people also understand that it has something to do with sexual component of the marital relationship, but they can't explain it from there. Why? Because they tend to think that at this point what makes sex special for marriage is that it makes you feel much closer. It fosters and expresses feelings of intimacy. But if that's all it did then it wouldn't' really be a bodily union at all. It would just be fostering the union of hearts and minds. There has to be something else about the sexual act that makes it integral to marriage. Some other and much more meaningful, more literal sense in which the two become "one flesh," and what is that? In our book, we suggest that you can think about it by analogy to the one flesh union of any individual person. So here you've got heart and lungs and all the other parts that all make up one being. Why? It's not just because they're all wrapped up in the same skin; it's not just because they have the same DNA; it's because they're all oriented together. They're all functioning together towards a single end of the whole that they make up, which is my biological life. Any biologist can explain the functions of the organs and so on in terms ultimately, if you go back far enough, of that one overriding goal. And it's in that radical sense of bodily union that two people can become one flesh, but only in one case, only by one activity, and that is the activity by which a man and a woman seal their marriage. In the marital act they themselves are the parts of a single person, are functioning together, are oriented together, are coordinating towards a single bodily end of the whole. Here, the whole is not just the individual but the couple and the bodily end is reproduction.

In that first dimension, in the unifying act, the dimensions of the partners united, marriage is comprehensive. But that kind of comprehensiveness, that bodily union, requires a man and a woman. It's also comprehensive in the range of goods uniting it. The university is defined mainly by goods of knowledge and truth and understanding, and a sports community by recreation and athletic excellence. (I think. I've never known personally.) And the union of marriage is defined somehow not just by intellectual pursuits or by recreational pursuits but somehow by all of them together. That's something that intuitively again most people get. They get that that's somehow connected to sharing a home, that the standard for a marriage is to share your whole life in that sense.

But what makes that true? Well, here again most people will also go with you in saying, "It's a connection to family life. It's the fact that marriage makes a family. And a family gets formed and the parents form each other and the family in every dimension intellectual and recreational and so on." But what makes that true? What makes marriage oriented to family life and through family life to a comprehensive range of goods? It couldn't just be choice. If it were just choice, then a family could come in shapes and sizes that people on the other side of the debate even say doesn't cut it. If you've got a bunch of nuns in a convent and someone leaves an orphan at their doorstep and they decide to band together and raise the child, people might think that was a commendable thing, they're giving this kid a shot, there's no other alternative available and so on—but nobody would think that made them a marriage or that that made their connection as a community the same kind of a connection that you have between marriage and family. So it couldn't just be choice. But what is it then? Only the conjugal view has any answer.

On the conjugal view, the very act that makes marital love is also the kind of act that makes new life. The thing that makes it comprehensive, that extends the union of heart and mind between the spouses into the bodily realm is the very kind of act that also makes new life. And so marriage itself, the relationship embodied by that act, is fulfilled and extended and enriched by family life. It calls for the wide range, for the comprehensive sharing of the home.

The last point is if that if it's comprehensive in most senses, in the dimensions of the partners united: heart, mind, and body; and in the range of goods that unite them: intellectual, recreational, and in every other respect that you need to develop whole new human beings; then it's also got to be comprehensive in its commitment. What does that mean? Through time, it means permanence; at each time it means exclusivity. So permanence and exclusivity and sexual union, the idea that it's two people, that there's a connection to family life, and through that to the common good—every single one of the things that the revisionist view would tear apart, this view explains and unifies. Again, by a single concept that didn't have to make any appeal to religion or even to the moral status of non-marital sex. That's the picture that we had embodied in law and culture and more broadly in our civilization and literature and art. Anthony Esolin has a book called Twelve Arguments for Sanity in which he sketches this out. He's not a philosopher, but he knows literature inside and out and he shows you how a lot of Western literature, many of the greats, Shakespeare and Spencer and Milton were shaped by this vision of marriage and family and gave it beautiful poetic and literary effect. Our culture—not just our religion—our legal institutions, all of these were shaped for centuries by this vision of marriage, which got a huge boost through our religious traditions but didn't simply begin there. That vision, that broad vision of what makes a marriage, and the connection between marriage and family and the common good is what's at stake in the same-sex marriage debate, in the questions of no fault divorce, of childlessness, of having children before getting married or without getting married, of the coming apart of the marriage cultures in the United States where people at the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder don't have and aren't committing to the stability of marriage—all of those debates come to the clash between the revisionist and the conjugal view of marriage just sketched. Now, at this point you might ask, "How do they have concrete effects? What is the evidence that this stuff matters, that's it not just a beautiful theory for a seminar?" And that's what Ryan is going to discuss next. Thanks.

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