Reply to George: VII. Is Marriage About the Children? Not for George.

Rob Tisinai

February 24th, 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.]

Pages 255-259: In which George pretends to talk about children but really just repeats his thoughts on sex organs.

This is the most frustrating part of George’s article for me.  Trying to rebut it is like trying to rip apart air: there’s nothing to grab on to.

Marriage and children

In this section, George links children to marriage. This ought to be straight-forward, but…no. Once again, he starts badly:

Most people accept that marriage is also deeply — indeed, in an important sense, uniquely —oriented to having and rearing children. That is, it is the kind of relationship that by its nature is oriented to, and enriched by, the bearing and rearing of children. But how can this be true, and what does it tell us about the structure of marriage?

Problem:  Why does George care about what “most people accept”?  He believes marriage is not simply whatever most people decide it is. That’s a key point in his article. He’s made it clear that if the day comes when “most people accept” same-sex marriages as “real” marriages, that won’t change his opinion one bit.

Now, personally, I do think it’s important to look at what most people think of marriage, because marriage is a human invention designed to meet a human need. To learn about that need, we have to look at real people.

However, I don’t put stock in referenda, opinion polls, and the public’s mood at any one moment. I’m not much interested in most people’s view of the abstract institution. I want to know what they say about their own marriages. Why did you marry? Why do you stay in your marriage? If you left, why did you leave? Investigate that for many people across cultures and time, and we’ll discover more about the nature of marriage.

But George doesn’t accept this empirical approach, so I wish he would stop with his “many people acknowledge” and “most people accept.” Since he’s declared these things don’t matter, I have to wonder if he invokes them as a way of getting support for statements he hasn’t proven.

Also, we’ve got another undefined term:  What does he mean that marriage is deeply “oriented” to bearing and raising children? Especially since his article admits that having and rearing children is not enough to make a marriage, and that childless marriages can still be “real.” Clearly, this “orientation” is not a universal feature of marriage.

Children and the revisionist/common view

I think it’s clearer and more useful to say marriage is well-suited to bearing and rearing children — it creates a better environment for nurturing kids.

Why? I’ll base my answer on George’s description of the revisionist/common view of marriage he so opposes:  two people have committed to romantically loving and caring for each other, to sharing the burdens and benefits of domestic life, to uniting their hearts and minds.

When two people come together like this, they improve the odds of creating the sort of stable, loving, attentive home in which (experience tells us) children thrive. Most people do want this loving union for its own sake. And most people want children. This wonderful synchronicity means that any useful body of marital law will foster the development of children — even if some couples never procreate or take advantage of those provisions.

So it’s perfectly natural from the revisionist/common view that marriage is well-suited to raising kids. But remember this: Marriage is well-suited to child-rearing because of that bond, that commitment, between two adults. Take it away, and you lose the link between marriage and children. In other words:  the adult commitment is essential to marriage; the orientation to children is not.

That’s why George’s conjugal/procreative view of marriage is a subset of — not a competitor to — the revisionist/common view.

Consummation, PIV, and marriage

George offers this strange paragraph:

If there is some conceptual connection between children and marriage, therefore, we can expect a correlative connection between children and the way that marriages are sealed. That connection is obvious if the conjugal view of marriage is correct. Marriage is a comprehensive union of two sexually complementary persons who seal (consummate or complete) their relationship by the generative act — by the kind of activity that is by its nature fulfilled by the conception of a child. So marriage itself is oriented to and fulfilled by the bearing, rearing, and education of children. The procreative-type act distinctively seals or completes a procreative?type union.

You can be forgiven if this seems garbled to you. Apparently George is very hung up on the fact that traditionally marriage has been consummated by PIV (penis-in-vagina sex). He wants us to read enormous significance into that. But the paragraph is strange because its purpose isn’t clear. Is he trying to show that traditional rules of consummation mean procreation is an essential part of marriage? If so, he fails.

  1. Let’s start with a point for the logic geeks. Look at the first sentence. It’s an if-then statement. But it accomplishes nothing, because according to the rules of logic, the converse of a true if-then statement is not necessarily true.  Take a sentence like:

If you are at the Louvre Museum, then you are in France.

To get the converse of that sentence, just switch around the if and then parts like this:

If you are in France, then you are at the Louvre Museum.

Clearly, the converse of a true sentence may not turn out to be true.  Why is that significant?  Because George’s first sentence basically says:

If marriage requires an orientation to children, then consummation will  be focused on procreation,

But, it does not follow that the converse is true.  In other words, logic doesn’t permit him to turn it around and claim:

If consummation is focused on children, then marriage requires an orientation to children.

It’s this last statement that George wants to establish. But that’s the converse of his first sentence, so even if you accept that first sentence, he still hasn’t proven anything about the nature of marriage.

  1. I’m confused by the vagueness of If there is some conceptual connection between children and marriage…”

“Some conceptual connection”? That could mean anything. After all, marriage has some conceptual connection to divorce, but that doesn’t mean a marriage requires a divorce in order to be a “real” marriage. Still, if George wants merely wants to establish “some conceptual connection” between marriage and kids, I’ll grant him that, though for the reasons I talked about above.

  1. Even if PIV is the traditional way of sealing a marriage, that doesn’t mean it’s a necessary condition. George has ruled out appeals to tradition in his approach. He wants to establish a tightly-reasoned argument for his narrow definition of marriage, and he’s been clear that marriage is not just whatever most people say it is — which is that all tradition itself can establish.
  2. When George is talking about sealing a marriage through PIV, he’s talking about what the law has traditionally required. But the whole purpose of this discussion is to determine whether we should change marriage law. It’s meaningless to argue we shouldn’t change the law because then the law would be different.
  3. This sentence doesn’t accomplish much:

That connection [between marriage and children] is obvious if the conjugal view of marriage is correct.

He’s just saying the conjugal view explains the connection between marriage and children. But that doesn’t make the conjugal view true — not unless the conjugal view provides the only explanation. We’ve already seen, though, that the revisionist view easily explains “some conceptual connection” as well.

George does this a lot in his essay — he talks about the explanatory power of his view. But unless he shows that the revisionist/common view can’t explain what he sees, then he’s just wasting his time.

  1. George makes an odd leap here:  since marriage is sealed by a procreative act, then marriage is fulfilled by bearing, reading, and educating children. Does that hold up logically? If one’s status as a driver is sealed by signing one’s name to the license, does that mean that driving is “fulfilled” by an act of calligraphy?

Frankly, that last point’s a bit shaky because I don’t know what George means when he says something “fulfills” marriage. Usually we think of the people in a marriage as being fulfilled by marriage — what does it mean to say marriage itself is fulfilled by procreation? Actually, George gives an answer:

That is, made even richer as the kind of reality it is.

That’s his idea of clarification. Unfortunately, it’s quite circular:  George is trying to establish the nature of marriage by using a preconceived notion of what kind of “reality” marriage is. It amounts to:  Marriage is oriented to children, because children make marriage richer, because marriage is oriented to children.

It’s not really about the children for George.

After a few paragraphs on infertile couples, George offers this key sentence:

Same-sex partnerships, whatever their moral status, cannot be marriages because they lack any essential orientation to children: They cannot be sealed by the generative act.

Um — what?  George makes a sudden leap using two assumptions he hasn’t justified.

  1. A partnership must have an essential orientation to children to be a real marriage.
  2. Same-sex partnerships lack any essential orientation to children.

Wow. We started with George’s vague claim that most people accept that marriage has an orientation and a conceptual connection to children, and suddenly we find him claiming this “orientation” is “essential” to a real marriage. How did we get there?

Actually, George’s answer to that is disheartening and doesn’t even involve kids:  A marriage requires comprehensive union, which includes organic bodily union, which means PIV.

How about that second assumption:  Why can’t same-sex partnerships have any essential orientation to children?  George says — again —  it’s because we can’t have PIV. But George seems to have forgotten he offered a different criteria for orientation to children: the idea that the marriage is of the sort of relationship that is enriched by children.

Why isn’t this true of same-sexers?  Why, for instance, do children enrich an infertile couple who adopts but not a same-sex couple who does the same thing? The only difference George points out and cares about — the only difference he ever seems to care about — is that infertile opposite-sexers can have PIV.  Which he still calls a “generative act” even though for them it’s, well, not.

At this point, my reaction is:

Aaargh!  This whole section is just a rehash of the stuff he wrote before on organic bodily union! All this talk of children enriching a marriage is just more code for PIV, even when PIV can’t make kids.

Oh, that’s so frustrating.  And this is all I can handle today.  I’ve skipped two topics: George’s explanation of why infertile couples can still have real marriages, George’s discussion of married, biological, opposite-sexers as the parenting ideal.  He’s comes back to this later in more depth, so I’ll address these topics when they come back up.

And trust me, the stuff on infertile couples will be fun to break down.

Next:  Marital norms, polygamy, and incest

Ben in Oakland

February 24th, 2011

“Aaargh! This whole section is just a rehash of the stuff he wrote before on organic bodily union! All this talk of children enriching a marriage is just more code for PIV, even when PIV can’t make kids.”

This is what I said in my last posting, wherein I said:

“Basically, it sounds to me that George has spent 40 pages or so repeating over and over that marriage is one-man-and-one-woman because it just is, that PIV is better than non-PIV because it just is, and that heterosexuality, no matter how base in its expression, is always better than homosexuality, however noble, because…

…wait for it…


The real logical problem is contained in a previous discussion of yours, rob, wherein you dealt with the fallacy of “if everyone were gay, the human race would end.”

Lots of gay people are oriented towards children. My friends R&M just today celebrated the 1 week of their daughter. R has always been oriented to children, always wanted one, and always wanted on that was his biologically.

Being gay doesn’t mean you don’t like children or don’t want them, any more than being straight means that you like them or want them, let alone are prepared to care for them. Being gay means you are oriented towards someone of the same sex for love, romance, family, and sex.

The orientation towards children is proved by the extraordinary lengths so many gay couples will go to in order to have children.

If everyone were gay, there would be a lot fewer unwanted children, a lot fewer abortions, and a lot more parents who have thought long and hard about having children, instead of so many that have had children because they were drunk, or didn’t have protection, or wanted to please the grandparents, or wanted to keep their marriage together.

Heterosexuals themselves have effectively divorced marriage from children. Birth control has been widely available and essentially unrestricted for over 50 years. there is a 40% divorce rate. Deadbeat dads are rarely brought to justice. 40% of the children born in this country are bastards, and that is not just the children of fundamentalists and right-wingers. Abortion is a common method of birth control.

The United States has the highest teen pregnancy rate in the industrialized world. These children are NOT getting married. The Center for Disease control says that one-third of girls get pregnant before the age of 20. Teen, a site managed by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, states that there are “750,000 teen pregnancies annually. Eight in ten of these pregnancies are unintended and 81 percent are to unmarried teens.”

Read more:

and of course, that certain community that is such a bastion of good ol’ family values when it comes to other people’s lives. Children in fatherless families having children for generations, multiple children fathered on multiple mothers by multiple fathers, all without benefit of marriage, but with welfare benefits abounding for having more. (Not that they are doing it for those huge welfare checks. I wouldn’t believe that for a moment). But because they have a culture that supports it.

Once again, the hetero world maybe needs to get its act together before they start throwing stones.

David in Houston

February 24th, 2011

This paragraph is very telling:
“Same-sex partnerships, whatever their moral status, cannot be marriages because they lack any essential orientation to children: They cannot be sealed by the generative act.”

Notice how he adds, “whatever their MORAL status”. In his attempt to make it sound as though his entire thesis has nothing to do with his religious beliefs about homosexuality, adding this disclaimer makes it all the more apparent that it does. Otherwise, why put it in there in the first place?

He is also making an assumption that ALL heterosexual couples are oriented towards wanting/raising children (because of PIV), and ALL homosexual couples are not. He hasn’t proven either scenario. He would need to prove that only heterosexuals have the inborn trait (compulsion) to be a parent. In fact, we already know that some straight married couples never have children, and that some gay (married) couples are raising children. This proves that sexual orientation has nothing to do with whether or not someone is “oriented toward children”.

Priya Lynn

February 24th, 2011

Right David, for George to say same sex unions lack any essential orientation towards children is a bald faced lie and I’m sure George knows it. The only thing thats essential for an orientation towards children is a desire to parent and as you’ve said many same sex couples have that and many opposite sex couples do not.

Priya Lynn

February 24th, 2011

George said “So marriage itself is oriented to and fulfilled by the bearing, rearing, and education of children.”.

He hasn’t proven that is the case, in fact I’ve read that for most married couples their happiness is diminished once they have children – the bearing, rearing, and education of children makes couples feel less fulfilled by marriage.

“George makes an odd leap here: since marriage is sealed by a procreative act, then marriage is fulfilled by bearing, reading, and educating children.”.

Many, perhaps most couples have no intention for their first sex act to be a procreative one and many will use birth control in addition. To say that a marriage is consummated by a procreative act is completely false for many if not most heterosexual couples.

David in Houston

February 24th, 2011

I wanted to thank Rob for taking on Mr. George’s incoherent blathering about “moral truths” and “organic bodily unions”. I don’t know where he gets the strength to wade through this garbage. The entire 40 pages comes down to: As long as a penis goes into a vagina, you get a big Marriage Stamp of Approval from Robert. It really doesn’t matter if you love each other, or have known each other for any amount of time. To be honest, based on Mr. George’s ideology, he doesn’t really care if you’re gay and you want to marry a straight person. As long as PIV is involved, you’re good to go!

I just reread the section called If Not Same-Sex Couples, Why Infertile Ones? He condescendingly calls same-sex relationships “friendships”. A term SO blatantly offensive that if I met Robert in person, I’d most likely punch him in the face. Then he goes on to rationalize that infertile couples and the elderly can teach the next generation what marriage is AND IS NOT. “Not” meaning, of course, same-sex relationships. Did it ever cross his mind that married same-sex couples could also set a good example for younger gay citizens? So that the next generation of gay citizens will grow up knowing that they won’t be ostracized by society? Of course not. I’d love to hear Robert explain how ostracizing homosexuals benefits society as a whole. I’m willing to bet it would have something to do with “moral truths”. But the reality is, there is nothing moral about demonizing a segment of society, simply because you don’t like them.


February 25th, 2011

Well, Rob, before you’ve even finished, apparently you’ve influence the DOJ to reconsider, but George is not having it.

He still think’s his is a “legitimate moral belief” and you are prolly “dripping with animus” for suggesting otherwise.

[And yes, he leaves “legitimate” undefined and grounded in nothing other that our legal tradition, even when speaking colloquially.]

David in Houston

February 25th, 2011

Just posted this comment on the Catholic News Agency website. Comments are moderated, so I’m doubtful it will show up:

“He treats that belief as if it were a mere prejudice, as though it is motivated by a desire to cause harm to people,” George told CNA Feb. 24. “Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. It is a legitimate moral belief that has informed our law throughout history.”
Moral belief? So, in other words, George believes that homosexuality is immoral. That is a religious opinion, not fact. Our country is not a theocracy, nor is marriage solely a religious institution. Non-religious straight couples get married in our country every single day. The state grants churches the ability to dispense marriage licenses; and church weddings are completely optional. City courthouses perform secular marriages to religious and non-religious couples. To disregard these facts is extremely disingenuous. George’s utopian idea of marriage is hardly a universal concept. Women are now treated as equals in the relationship, and no-fault divorce is commonplace. Historically, these concepts have never existed.

As for the 31 states that have banned same-sex marriage? Over a century ago, 31 states had bans on interracial marriage. 72% of the public were in favor of those bans. The Supreme Court ruled those bans unconstitutional. By doing so, they disregarded the “will of the people”. Unfortunately for people like George, history doesn’t seem to teach them anything.


February 26th, 2011


I’m glad Rob noted “most people”. George could use more precise/technical terminology, even in a Harvard journal. As it is, it does look like the well known “appeal to prejudice”.

I very much like Rob’s section on the converse and the logical slippage.

Long comment (sorry) to follow…


February 26th, 2011

Here’s my back-of-the-envelop summary of George in this section:

1. Our moral intuition is such that marriage is somehow linked with children.
2. Our legal tradition informs us that it is coitus, not children, at the center of the civil contract of marriage.
3. We assert that we can uncover the nature our moral intuitions about the linkage with children (and, thereby, rationalize them) by proposing that coitus is related to procreation and procreation is related to children, so marriage is “specially” related to children.
4. Infertile couples are on the procreative “team”, gay couples are not.

I have to shorthand the reply, because … a lot of personal reasons, direct and indirect. So,

1. We might have the intuition that marriage is intertwined with children. However, we might also have intuitions that children are intertwined with “civil union”, right? Indeed, our strongest intuitions about marriage may be between those who are married and those who are not.
2a. More than “coitus” has been involved in the historical understanding of marriage (including polygamy and interracial ‘bonding’ and even, say, such practices as prima nocta). To exclude other historical aspects that also might inform an intuition is biased, even if one admits an exhaustive list of all the “traditions” associated with marriage would be hard to list. To so pare historical reading just one perhaps doesn’t render the argument inconsistent, but it makes it weak, even if the literary effect is to make it look strong.

2b. Moral intuitions drawn or based on tradition alone are not sufficient at law (unless one argues just to confirm the biases of the Justices…).

3. We can put the locus of this intuitive “linkage” in other concepts. The desire to have children could be in ‘the great mystery of being human’, for instance, or other concepts of social responsibility, or even as a non-essential aspect of ‘sexual drive’.

What’s more, there clearly are those who have the desire for children (and can legitimately formulate the intent to) who are not married or who may need reproductive assistance technologies. Put another way, how does the persistence of gay people (and infertile couples) who desire to raise kids and the observation that non-married couples can and do responsibly raise kids inform our judgement about the link of marriage to children?

Finally, to anticipate objection(s), we can similarly locate the desire to have your own biological children in factors other than PIV.

4. Our moral intuition about infertile couples is not served by creating “a team that cannot win football games”. While it is true that “children change everything”, we don’t nevertheless think of infertile couples as “non-winners”, do we?

The difference between an all-infertile football team and an all gay rubgy team is hardly explanatory. Infertile couples cannot have the intent to ‘naturally procreate’ (via PIV). They might be “playing”, but without the intent to “win” can we really say they are a “football team”? To postulate a ‘natural intent’ that inheres in bodily organs (like “instinct”?) and is more determinative, from a moral perspective, than the ostensive intent doesn’t look Aristotelean to me. Am I wrong?

Finally, ‘sex changes everything’. Gays are clearly engaged in more than coordinating to friendship. In fact, it’s so different, it is plain to anyone who takes the time for discernment that it is as fundamental a sexual expression for them as do non-gay couples have, with what is ‘natural’ for them. (And no, we don’t have to permit everything, if we concur that observation, even from a fundamental, not normative, perspective.)


February 28th, 2011

Today’s marriage meta homework:

A nongay couple gets married. They decide to have children, with the intent that they will abuse them, in whatever way you imagine, including the most severe. It also happens that they will unintentionally abuse them, physically and emotionally.

What are the implications of this for the ‘natural law’ view of marriage and/or George’s Harvard-enunciated view above, including the “link” with children and norms?

Does GGA consider this? Why or why not?


March 1st, 2011

@ David in Houston, I see that you’ve attracted some replies on CNA…

With some real gems:

When it comes to homosexuality which has provided it’s own evidence of cognitive and emotional impairment particularly in the illogical and psychotic social climbing demand to recognize a ‘marriage’ between two people of the same sex.

If you look at the facts, homosexual male couples have the highest rate of promescuity and infidelity to their “partners.” To grant the privileged term of “marriage” to this unstable pairing would be foolish, and certainly would fall short of the definition of marriage. The homosexual relationship serves no public purpose, i.e. bringing forth new citizens in a stable environment.

One sees the same rejoinders over and over again.

I applaud Rob’s effort to go line-by-line. It might result in a really well thought-out ‘talking points memo’, which, in turn, could really serve to move the debate forward in a way that harmonized and crystallizes the case.

This is very helpful, because one can see that so many (including Chief Justices?) are prone to be swayed by prejudices, rather than discernment, even still.

David in Houston

March 1st, 2011

Thanks for point that out, Amicus. I love reading the incoherent babble: “…it’s own evidence of cognitive and emotional impairment particularly in the illogical and psychotic social climbing demand…”

So it’s an emotional impairment to demand to be treated equally in society? I could use their same argument to support slavery. Those uppity black people with their illogical and psychotic impairment and psychotic social climbing demand to recognize that ‘black people’ are equal to ‘white people’. The nerve!

Priya Lynn

March 1st, 2011

David in Houston, there actually was a doctor in the States prior to the civil war who defined a slaves desire to be free as a diagnosable form of mental illness. He even had a medically sounding name for it and all.

David in Houston

March 1st, 2011

Here’s my response to the other David:

All of our laws are based on our man-made legal system and our Constitution. The Supreme Court does not refer to the Bible for legal guidance (hopefully). As a reminder, we started our own country to escape theocratic rule.

You wrote, “When it comes to homosexuality which has provided it’s own evidence of cognitive and emotional impairment particularly in the illogical and psychotic social climbing demand to recognize a ‘marriage’ between two people of the same sex.”

So in other words, it’s an emotional impairment to demand to be treated equally in society? I could use your same argument to support slavery: Those uppity black people with their illogical and psychotic impairment and psychotic social climbing are demanding us to recognize that ‘black people’ are equal to ‘white people’. The nerve of some people! — Today, society demonizes people because of their sexual orientation. Fifty years ago, they demonized black people (for different reasons).Then these same people are taken aback when these ostracized people don’t want to be treated as second-class citizens. I would think promoting the social structure of marriage (monogamous long-term relationships) would benefit society, regardless of the sexual orientation of the couple. All the more reason for secular marriage to be sanctioned by our government.

You wrote, “Marriage is predicated on a complimentary union of archetypal polar opposites. This admits the potential for procreation which is not to be dismissed as an unnecessary element of a marriage. There is no union to which the state or any man can be said to have the luxury of investing as we do as a society recognizing a marriage, where that union is unproductive and un-conducive.”

So basically you’re saying that only couples with different sex organs should have the right to marry; even if those couples never have children. This position is completely arbitrary. A couple that is infertile, or a couple that is elderly, or a couple that decides to never have children are ALSO “unproductive and un-conducive” when it comes to procreation. But because they are heterosexual they get a “free pass” to get married. Having different sex organs seems to be the ONLY criteria for getting a marriage license. Case in point: A gay man and a lesbian woman could go down to the city courthouse right now and get married. The state and the government couldn’t care less if they love each other, or even if they’re heterosexual. As long as they have the correct sex organs, they’re good to go!

I find it galling that Tiger Woods can sleep around with a dozen women while he’s still married. Get a divorce, and still have the right to get married again. The same goes for Rush Limbaugh (Newt Gingrich, John McCain, et al). All of them have been married more than once. (four-times, three-times, twice) Some have cheated on their wives. Yet they have the audacity to make moral claims about the sanctity of marriage. It is the height of hypocrisy. They are the poster boys for heterosexism in society.


March 2nd, 2011

@David I find it fascinating that the keepers of the flame on marriage consider it “social climbing” to ask for marriage rights, not something else. What does that imply about how they think of marriage, eh?

The meta homework I put above is proving fruitful. Here’s more, from today, relevant to this post’s discussion.

Meta marriage homework 2:

Is the ‘special link’ to children better understood as an hedonic link? Look at the words that George uses to describe sex and children and the words/descriptions that we would normally use that he ignores: “free and loving expression”, “sharing one’s body”, “made even richer”, “enriched”, “fulfilled”.

Brad Carmack

November 2nd, 2011

Just FYI, I presented my response to Robert George’s What is Marriage? in a conference last weekend. Watch my presentation here (, download my slides here (, and read my paper (

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Daniel FettyThe FBI’s annual Hate Crime Statistics aren’t as complete as they ought to be, and their report for 2004 was no exception. In fact, their most recent report has quite a few glaring holes. Holes big enough for Daniel Fetty to fall through.