February 10th, 2011
[This post is part of a series analyzing Robert George’s widely-read article, “What is Marriage“, which appeared on pages 245-286 of the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy. You can view all posts in the series here.]
Page 246: In which Robert George sets up the argument in a way we cannot accept.
George tries to sneak his conclusion into his reasoning.
Robert George opens his article by making a fundamental distinction — one that we should not let him make. He writes:
What is marriage?
Consider two competing views:
Conjugal View: Marriage is the union of a man and a woman who make a permanent and exclusive commitment to each other of the type that is naturally (inherently) fulfilled by bearing and rearing children together. The spouses seal (consummate) and renew their union by conjugal acts—acts that constitute the behavioral part of the process of reproduction, thus uniting them as a reproductive unit. Marriage is valuable in itself, but its inherent orientation to the bearing and rearing of children contributes to its distinctive structure, including norms of monogamy and fidelity. This link to the welfare of children also helps explain why marriage is important to the common good and why the state should recognize and regulate it.
Revisionist View: Marriage is the union of two people (whether of the same sex or of opposite sexes) who commit to romantically loving and caring for each other and to sharing the burdens and benefits of domestic life. It is essentially a union of hearts and minds, enhanced by whatever forms of sexual intimacy both partners find agreeable. The state should recognize and regulate marriage because it has an interest in stable romantic partnerships and in the concrete needs of spouses and any children they may choose to rear.
In the last entry, I took issue with George’s opening sentence, and now I take issue with his second: why are these views competing views? The “revisionist” view can contain and include the “conjugal” view. As he describes them, instead of being mutually exclusive:
…they look like this:
Do you see what George has done here? There’s only one way these views are “competing,” and that’s if the conjugal view is the only correct view, and anything falling outside it isn’t “real marriage.” But that’s the very thing he’s setting out to prove! In other words, he’s asking you to accept his conclusion even before he makes his argument. In fact, he’s sneaking his conclusion into the very beginning of his argument. We call that circular reasoning.
Perhaps this is just a tiny logic trap. Perhaps George could escape it by rewriting his conjugal description as:
Marriage can only be the union of a man and a woman who make a permanent and exclusive commitment to each other of the type that is naturally (inherently) fulfilled by bearing and rearing children together.
But perhaps he knows he would lose his audience right away if he said only couples who bear and rear children can have marriages that are “fulfilled.” Here’s a case where George’s reasoning, careful as it may turn out to be, doesn’t match the experience of real-life married couples.
Ultimately, nothing in the revisionist view excludes the conjugal view. The second figure simply recognizes that children play a key role in many but not all marriages. This doesn’t mean that revisionists are holding up a sign that says, “Stop! No children allowed.” These views are “competing” only because George claims they are. If you reject that claim (as I do), you’ll see many of George’s later arguments fall apart.
“Which ones?” — A digression.
We’ve already talked about George’s rationalist, almost Platonic approach to the question, “What is marriage?” It shows itself here. Is it true that marriage is the type of relationship that is naturally (inherently) fulfilled by bearing and rearing children together? That sort of claim is absolute and certain. It’s hard to know how to go about evaluating it.
Unless, of course, we move our focus to the real world and ask instead, Are marriages naturally (inherently) fulfilled by bearing and rearing children together?
And the answer to that will be: Which ones?
Some marriages are fulfilled by kids. Some are broken by them. In some marriages, one child fulfills the marriage and another tears it apart.
Some married couples don’t want kids at all. Others were happy to raise to children for a couple decades, and then are happy to send them out into the world, regaining a measure of privacy and intimacy; such couples have marriages that were fulfilled by raising children and now are fulfilled by not doing so.
And none of this helped by George’s definition of fulfilled as it appears in footnote 18: “That is, made even richer as the kind of reality it is.”
I’ll come back to the vagueness and circularity of that later.
All of these observations are empirical, of course. George wouldn’t approve: he’d probably say this is all based on circumstance rather than principle, and he only cares about principles. But George’s principles conflict with reality. At this point, you need to ask yourself whether you’re a rationalist, willing to sacrifice reality so that you can bask in an empty logical certainty, or are you an empiricist, willing to give up that certainty to work toward understanding a messy and confusing reality?
(Okay, I may not have phrased that with complete impartiality.)
By the way, I like this question, “Which ones?” when people are trying to extend a generalization way too far. For instance:
Enough of that. Back to George’s article.
George stacks the deck with loaded terms.
I objected to George’s opening question. And to the sentence that followed. Now I have problems with his use of “conjugal” and “revisionist.”
“Conjugal” means “marital” or “related to marriage.” So he’s dubbing his view of marriage the “marital view of marriage” or — essentially — the correct view. Which would make the “revisionist view” the view that deviates from the correct view. Talk about stacking the deck! Terminology matters, and with these terms, he’s demanding we accept his argument before he even makes it.
Further, how revised is the “revisionist” view? Yes, the notion of same-sex partners is new, but that’s not the heart of what he views as a revision — the idea marriage exists when two partners:
commit to romantically loving and caring for each other and to sharing the burdens and benefits of domestic life. It is essentially a union of hearts and minds, enhanced by whatever forms of sexual intimacy both partners find agreeable.
How many people would disagree with that? If anything, this “revisionist” view is the commonly-held view, at least when it comes to marriage as it’s practiced by real human beings.
George’s conjugal view makes penis-in-vagina* a necessary condition of marriage, but in the last few centuries of Western civilization, how many couples have had to provide legal proof of that? If an ordinary married couple stops having sex, or never has sex to begin with, that can be cause for divorce or annulment if one of the partners is unhappy with the situation. But if neither complains, the government doesn’t intrude by invalidating the marriage against the couple’s wishes. How far back in history do we have to go to find the government demanding proof of penis-in-vagina before recognizing the marriage of two 80-year-old ordinary citizens? That’s how far back we have to go in order to consider George’s “revisionist” view a true revision.
Really, George should use “procreative view” (or “penis-in-vagina view”) instead of “conjugal view” and “common” in place of “revised.”
Perhaps this bickering over terminology seems trivial, but again and again we’ll see George using arguments that assume — and ask you to assume — his conclusion is true. Let’s not allow that.
I’ll stop here for now. George’s article relies heavily on this distinction between the conjugal/procreative view and the revisionist/common view. We’ll be coming back to it frequently, so it deserved its own entry.
Next: George takes a detour into bans on interracial marriage and thoroughly confuses the meaning of “discrimination.”
* Unfortunately, crude as it sounds, you’ll be seeing this penis-in-vagina phrase quite a bit in these entries. George prefers to call this interaction a reproductive, or generative, or procreative act. That breaks down, though, when he speaks of infertile opposite-sexers, whom he believes can still have a “real” marriage. For their sake, he sometimes uses the phrase procreative-type act.
But I can only see a procreative-type act as the type of act that leads to procreation, and for infertile couples no type of act leads to procreation. George is manhandling the English language, trying to keep infertile couples in the procreation tent by inventing terms with no coherent meaning. I don’t want to abet him in that effort, so I’ll use the more accurate phrase, penis-in-vagina.
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