February 18th, 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.]
This is it. This is the meat you’ve been waiting for. This is the next generation of anti-gay talking points. Because this is…
Pages 252-255: In which Robert George tries to prove only a man and a woman can marry.
George gets off to a bad start.
As many people acknowledge, marriage involves: first, a comprehensive union of spouses; second, a special link to children; and third, norms of permanence, monogamy, and exclusivity. All three elements point to the conjugal understanding of marriage.
Hmm. That second word, “many,” is one of the slipperiest in our language. More troubling, though, is why he’s even invoking what “many people acknowledge.” George holds that marriage is not just whatever we say it is, so why does it matter to him what “many people acknowledge”? This vague appeal to public opinion feels like he’s trying to get people to buy in for the wrong reasons.
I have a still bigger issue with “All three elements point to the conjugal understanding of marriage,” especially the phrase point to: What does it mean?
To achieve his goal with the article, he must mean that these three concepts are necessary for a marriage to be a real marriage — that a marriage lacking any one or more of these three items is not a real marriage.
Remember, he’s not just saying that conjugal/procreative marriage is a real marriage. He’s trying to establish that other kinds of marriage are not real, that only the conjugal/procreative view is valid.
We’re seeing some slick PR here. George isn’t being upfront, and it’s easy to see why: This idea of three necessary conditions is a tough sell, especially to elderly folk who can’t have kids but do want to marry. It’s easier to say something meaningless like “point to” and thus avoid a situation where even your most traditional readers say, But that doesn’t match my real-life experience.
For George to succeed, then, he has to establish two things:
If you break either of those statements, you break his argument.
We’ll break them both.
What is a comprehensive union?
Let’s look at his first item, “a comprehensive union of spouses.”
Marriage is distinguished from every other form of friendship inasmuch as it is comprehensive. It involves a sharing of lives and resources, and a union of minds and wills — hence, among other things, the requirement of consent for forming a marriage.
George is on to something here. The problem is that he seems to think he’s saying something precise. He’s not. With one exception (sex) he never defines what he means by “comprehensive.”
Sharing resources may seem straightforward — joint bank accounts, co-ownership of the home, etc. — but it gets murkier with resources like time and energy. Sharing lives is poetic but inexact. And a union of minds and wills? The meaning of that could be beautiful or frightening. At one point, union of wills meant a woman subordinated her free will to her husband, even to the point that he could have sex with her by force without breaking the law (marital rape used to be seen as a contradiction in terms, a legal and logical impossibility).
So what does comprehensive mean? I hate when people invoke dictionary definitions instead of focusing on the speaker’s intent, but George’s vagueness makes it necessary. I found it to mean of broad scope or content; including all or much.
Now, George has made it clear he doesn’t intend it as all-encompassing. That leaves us with broad scope and including much. That’s vague to the point of uselessness.
There’s another problem: George never bothers to prove comprehensive union is a necessary condition. He merely asserts it, with a nod to what “many people acknowledge.” (Granted, it’s tough to prove a statement that doesn’t even have a clear meaning.)
So there’s no standard here. That a fatal problem for Robert George. If he were more empirical, he might take this insight — this appealing hunch — and flesh it out by looking at real-life marriages. But George is a rationalist: he’s going to treat this idea of marriage as a comprehensive union and build a logical case on it, as if it he’d clearly defined this starting point and proved it beyond doubt.
But he hasn’t. That will haunt him. For now, just keep in mind that comprehensive in no way means all or nothing. Because Robert George certainly forgets it when he talks about sex.
Only a man and a woman can have a comprehensive union.
George starts this out by saying that marriage, as a comprehensive union:
also includes organic bodily union. This is because the body is a real part of the person, not just his costume, vehicle, or property. Human beings are not properly understood as nonbodily persons — minds, ghosts, consciousnesses — that inhabit and use nonpersonal bodies. After all, if someone ruins your car, he vandalizes your property, but if he amputates your leg, he injures you. Because the body is an inherent part of the human person, there is a difference in kind between vandalism and violation; between destruction of property and mutilation of bodies.
Likewise, because our bodies are truly aspects of us as persons, any union of two people that did not involve organic bodily union would not be comprehensive — it would leave out an important part of each person’s being. Because persons are body-mind composites, a bodily union extends the relationship of two friends along an entirely new dimension of their being as persons. If two people want to unite in the comprehensive way proper to marriage, they must (among other things) unite organically — that is, in the bodily dimension of their being.
I’m sympathetic to the general thrust of the argument, as long as we boil it down to Marriage typically involves some sort of physical union. Of course, that’s a much weaker version of what he’s claiming, and won’t take him to the conclusion he wants.
Here’s where his argument breaks down:
Likewise, because our bodies are truly aspects of us as persons, any union of two people that did not involve organic bodily union would not be comprehensive — it would leave out an important part of each person’s being.
He can’t make this claim because he hasn’t defined comprehensive. It’s a fuzzy, ill-defined term that offers no clear dividing line to say: This is comprehensive but that is not.
Accordingly while I’m intuitively inclined to accept that physical contact is a key component of a healthy marriage, I’m skeptical of George’s ability to prove that it’s essential to a real marriage. (Sorry for all the emphasis in that sentence, but the differences are worth highlighting).
Unfortunately, George wants to prove far more than that: Not just that marriage requires some sort of physical union, but that it must be “organic bodily union” — which is his academic, genteel way of saying penis-in-vagina.
That’s one hell of a project.
Tennis. Um, what?
This necessity of bodily union can be seen most clearly by imagining the alternatives. Suppose that Michael and Michelle build their relationship not on sexual exclusivity, but on tennis exclusivity. They pledge to play tennis with each other, and only with each other, until death do them part. Are they thereby married? No. Substitute for tennis any nonsexual activity at all, and they still aren’t married: Sexual exclusivity — exclusivity with respect to a specific kind of bodily union — is required. But what is it about sexual intercourse that makes it uniquely capable of creating bodily union? People’s bodies can touch and interact in all sorts of ways, so why does only sexual union make bodies in any significant sense “one flesh”?
I’ll admit this paragraph baffles me. What’s he proven here? Almost nothing.
Here’s his claim: Tennis exclusivity (or any non-sexual exclusivity) is not a sufficient condition for real marriage, therefore sexual exclusivity is a necessary condition for real marriage.
Let’s just note: George doesn’t prove that you need more than tennis exclusivity to make a marriage. Yeah, I’m inclined to accept that intuitively, but my intuition also tells me that same-sex marriage is “real” marriage. George can’t rest his argument on my intuition, because my intuition disagrees with him elsewhere.
Ultimately there’s no chain of reasoning here. I don’t know why he drops in the issue of exclusivity — of any sort — at this point in the argument. I don’t know why he jumps from sufficient conditions to necessary conditions. I don’t know why he thinks he can assert that sexual exclusivity is a requirement.
Whether you personally believe it’s a requirement isn’t the issue. George is promising in this piece to reason his way to his conclusions, no matter how intuitively or emotionally appealing they may be. Do I have that wrong? Is he perhaps not trying to reason here, but to offer analogies that illustrate a self-evident truth. But that doesn’t fly — I’ll just claim my own set of self-evident truths, and there conversation ends. No need for a forty-page academic paper published in a law journal.
Finally, there’s this: why does only sexual union make bodies in any significant sense “one flesh”?
Whoa. Nice introduction of Christian poetry to a non-religious argument. I imagine he wants us to read that poetry and think of procreation. But remember it’s only poetry. He hasn’t established that his undefined comprehensive union requires a literal merging of DNA (and he doesn’t believe that, anyway).
Your spouse is like a stomach.
Moving on, regarding sexual union:
Our organs — our heart and stomach, for example — are parts of one body because they are coordinated, along with other parts, for a common biological purpose of the whole: our biological life. It follows that for two individuals to unite organically, and thus bodily, their bodies must be coordinated for some biological purpose of the whole.
Oh my. We really need to pick this apart. What does he mean by “It follows that…”? He can’t mean the second sentence is a necessary logical implication of the first. He’s just setting up an analogy, and as he well knows, analogies can illuminate an argument, but they aren’t arguments themselves.
Furthermore, his analogy fails. Organs coordinate toward a biological purpose because they are purely biological entities. But a wife is not a stomach and a husband is not a liver. Spouses are not purely biological. They are spiritual, emotional, and intellectual as well. And so is their union. It does not follow that bodily union must serve a biological purpose. It’s enough that it serve any sort of purpose essential to the well-being of the whole.
And sex does (or can do) exactly that. I feel sorry for anyone who doesn’t understand that sexual intimacy can create emotional intimacy and deepen the commitment of two loving partners. Granted, that’s a subjective experience — if you don’t know what I mean, I can’t prove it you. But if you don’t know what I mean, then I suspect our experiences are so different that we’ll never come to agreement on the nature of sex at all.
Moreover, I worry over his phrase, “biological purpose.” Once again, we’re stumbling over an ill-defined term. This isn’t the middle ages: We don’t live in an era where the body is one thing and the mind is something completely separate. This mind/body distinction hasn’t survived recent discoveries in neuroscience or research into the impact of brain injury on the ability to think and feel. We have much to learn, but we know at least enough to say that “biological purpose” is not a cleanly-cut and well-defined concept, separate from reason and emotion.
Actually, with that in mind, I have to revise what I said earlier. Your digestive organs don’t just serve a biological purpose. Try not eating for a day, and see how well you can think. Try not eating for a week, and see how well you can meet your responsibilities as part of a comprehensive union. Even biological organs don’t just serve our biology.
By the way, I’ll note too that he never defines what it means to “unite organically.” Previously he’s spoken of uniting comprehensively, though he never defined that either. Does he mean something as lofty as uniting as one organism? That’s impossible — even if two parents contribute portions of their DNA to create a child, they still exist in their marriage as two organisms. Or is it more mundane, like the uniting our bodily organs? Either way, he’s sneaking in a new, unjustified, and ill-defined — heck, undefined — concept.
In any case, George has failed to establish that the “comprehensive” (?) union necessary for a “real” (?) marriage requires a physical union serving a “biological” (?) goal.
And frankly, even if he did, it would land him in big trouble later when he tries to defend the “real” marriages of infertile heterosexuals.
Our bodies, ourselves
George writes that:
individual adults are naturally incomplete with respect to one biological function: sexual reproduction. In coitus, but not in other forms of sexual contact, a man and a woman’s bodies coordinate by way of their sexual organs for the common biological purpose of reproduction. They perform the first step of the complex reproductive process. Thus, their bodies become, in a strong sense, one — they are biologically united, and do not merely rub together — in coitus (and only in coitus), similarly to the way in which one’s heart, lungs, and other organs form a unity: by coordinating for the biological good of the whole. In this case, the whole is made up of the man and woman as a couple, and the biological good of that whole is their reproduction.
And a bit later:
But two men or two women cannot achieve organic bodily union since there is no bodily good or function toward which their bodies can coordinate, reproduction being the only candidate. This is a clear sense in which their union cannot be marital, if marital means comprehensive and comprehensive means, among other things, bodily.
This highlights a bigger flaw in his argument: George’s comprehensive union is a strangely fractured union. He views it as a bunch of different unions tied together with string: There’s a bodily union and (presumably) a mental union, a spiritual union, and an emotional union. But, for no good reason, the bodily union has to have a purely bodily effect for it to count. George cuts it off from other types of union and treats as a separate thing.
That’s especially odd, given that George has said elsewhere, “Moreover, sexual acts have a tendency, in most people at least, to create a strong feeling of bonding and an expectation of a deeper, noninstrumental relationship.” We’re just swimming in contradictions here.
Let’s sum this up.
George fails to prove marriage requires an opposite sex couple:
George’s argument is like broken staircase. Every time you climb a step, it breaks. And if you ignore that and leap to the next one, it breaks too.
For all these errors, I do like one notion he’s introduced: That in exploring “What is marriage?” we should look at things that neither partner can achieve alone, that they can only accomplish together. And I will tell you — once again, as a subjective truth — that a sexual union with my partner (which can be simultaneously mental, emotional, and spiritual) gives me entrance to an existence whose richness I cannot achieve by myself.
I’ll call that an organic bodily union.
Next: George stumbles badly over the connection between procreation and marriage.
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