Reply to George: X. Why Infertile Straights Get to Marry

Rob Tisinai

March 13th, 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 256-257, and 265-268, in which Robert George explains why infertile opposite-sex couples can still have “real marriages.”

A consistent question for skeptical readers is whether Robert George’s reasoning led to his conclusions or whether he started with certain conclusions and developed reasoning, however tortured, to justify them. This section, more than any other, shows the answer.

The problem and the promise

George now tries to roll a heavy boulder up a steep hill. He’s just not strong enough to do it.

His task in this section — in the whole article, actually — is to develop a theory of marriage that excludes same-sex couples and includes infertile opposite-sexers.  Let’s recap his argument against same-sexers to see why this will be so tough.

  • Marriage is comprehensive union.
  • A comprehensive union requires bodily union.
  • Organic bodily union requires “bodies coordinating toward a single biological function for which each alone is not sufficient.”
  • The only candidate for this biological function is reproduction.
  • A same-sex couple cannot reproduce, and therefore cannot achieve organic bodily union, or comprehensive union, or marriage.

I hope I’ve thoroughly slaughtered this argument, but for now let’s take it seriously. It would seem this excludes infertile opposite-sexers, too.

But George doesn’t think so. In fact, he promises to show that problem of whether:

marriage is possible between an infertile man and woman—is easily resolved.

“Easily resolved.” Let’s have a look and see.

When do individuals form a unit?

He starts with this analogy:

Again, this is not to say that the marriages of infertile couples are not true marriages. Consider this analogy: A baseball team has its characteristic structure largely because of its orientation to winning games; it involves developing and sharing one’s athletic skills in the way best suited for honorably winning (among other things, with assiduous practice and good sportsmanship). But such development and sharing are possible and inherently valuable for teammates even when they lose their games.

Just so, marriage has its characteristic structure largely because of its orientation to procreation; it involves developing and sharing one’s body and whole self in the way best suited for honorable parenthood — among other things, permanently and exclusively. But such development and sharing, including the bodily union of the generative act, are possible and inherently valuable for spouses even when they do not conceive children.

Therefore, people who can unite bodily can be spouses without children, just as people who can practice baseball can be teammates without victories on the field. Although marriage is a social practice that has its basic structure by nature whereas baseball is wholly conventional, the analogy highlights a crucial point: Infertile couples and winless baseball teams both meet the basic requirements for participating in the practice (conjugal union; practicing and playing the game) and retain their basic orientation to the fulfillment of that practice (bearing and rearing children; winning games), even if that fulfillment is never reached.

People have thrown George a lot of flack for comparing infertile couples to “losers.” He’s said that’s not what he meant, and points out with some fairness that an analogy is not the same as an equation. Marriage, he says, is not a competition; people who focus on that aspect of the analogy are missing the bigger point.

Let’s give him that, and make a stronger critique of the analogy. It’s about people forming a unit because they are working together to achieve a goal.  That’s crucial. Imagine if the baseball players weren’t trying to win. Suppose they were just out on the field to enjoy the day, throw the ball around, hit it a few times, maybe sunbathe. Then they wouldn’t be a team at all, just a few folks having a good time. So you see, goal-oriented behavior matters in George’s analogy (as does the nature of the goal).

This assumption, not pointed out by George, destroys the analogy. I’ll lay it out as clearly and fairly as I can:

The analogy The reasoning The conclusion
Baseball players A group of people A man and a woman
Who are trying to win a game Who are working together to achieve a goal Who are trying to conceive
Are still a team Are still a unit Are still a “real” married couple
Even if they fail Even if they fail Even if they fail

George’s analogy, then, applies only to infertile couples who are trying to conceive. If baseball players are tossing around a ball, not trying to win, they’re not a team. And if an infertile couple knows they can’t have kids, and they’re just just tossing around on the bed for fun and intimacy, not trying to conceive, then they’re not a real married couple, according to George’s analogy.

Now take a closer look at this odd sentence from the quote above:

But such development and sharing, including the bodily union of the generative act, are possible and inherently valuable for spouses even when they do not conceive children.

I don’t know how many times I can say this: PIV [penis in vagina] is not a generative act for an infertile or elderly couple! It’s not. Not, not, not.

It’s not.

Put differently, there is no sense in which their bodies are “coordinating toward a single biological function for which each alone is not sufficient” — not if that goal is reproduction. They can’t achieve it alone and they can’t achieve it together. And if they’re not even trying? Then they’re like that gang of friends throwing balls around — they’re just doing it for the pleasure and satisfaction of it.

Okay, this is merely George’s analogy. It fails, but that could just be due to bad writing and explanation. We need to dig deeper to show George’s mistakes.

A truly awful implication

George writes:

Any act of organic bodily union can seal a marriage, whether or not it causes conception. The nature of the spouses’ action now cannot depend on what happens hours later independently of their control — whether a sperm cell in fact penetrates an ovum. And because the union in question is an organic bodily union, it cannot depend for its reality on psychological factors. It does not matter, then, if spouses do not intend to have children or believe that they cannot. Whatever their thoughts or goals, whether a couple achieves bodily union depends on facts about what is happening between their bodies.

Stop. Think about what must surely be an unintended logical consequence:

Rape is an organic bodily union.

According to George, organic bodily union does not depend on psychological factors. On intent. On thoughts or goals. Nothing matters but “facts about what is happening between their bodies. ” Even if you take physical violence out of the picture, that still leaves rape by terrifying the victim with the thought or intent of violence. And, according to George’s reasoning, that’s organic bodily union.

In other words, no act of physical love can ever seal a marriage between two men. But rape between a man and a woman can.

Ponder what this reasoning allows. A girl is handed over to a man for a marriage she doesn’t want. If he takes her by force on their wedding night? That’s organic bodily union.  If she stays with him because she’s  cowed into permanent resignation and submission by force of law, because it’s the only way she can keep and care for the child borne of that wedding night rape — that’s a “real” marriage. (And not unheard of.)

But two free women, in a loving, sexual, committed, permanent relationship, raising children together? Nope, no marriage possible.

Something is horribly wrong with George’s definition of marriage, of comprehensive union, of organic bodily union.

Now, George might insist the full-hearted consent is need for a marriage, but this itself would be a radical notion. Throughout much of the world, throughout much of history, a girl married the man her family chose and stayed with him because it was her lot in life and role in the society. If George insists on full-hearted consent, then he’s as much of a “revisionist” as anyone — in fact, his view of marriage, the “conjugal” view, would be possible only because society has adopted what he considers the “revisionist” view.

Still, whether or not George insists on full-hearted consent for marriage, that still leaves rape as “organic bodily union,” which George defines as independent of thought, goal, and intent.

We’re back to spouses as stomachs

George revisits his digestion metaphor:

It is clear that the bodies of an infertile couple can unite organically through coitus. Consider digestion, the individual body’s process of nourishment. Different parts of that process —  salivation, chewing, swallowing, stomach action, intestinal absorption of nutrients — are each in their own way oriented to the broader goal of nourishing the organism. But our salivation, chewing, swallowing, and stomach action remain oriented to that goal (and remain digestive acts) even if on some occasion our intestines do not or cannot finally absorb nutrients, and even if we know so before we eat.

Similarly, the behavioral parts of the process of reproduction do not lose their dynamism toward reproduction if non?behavioral factors in the process — for example, low sperm count or ovarian problems — prevent conception from occurring, even if the spouses expect this beforehand. As we have argued, bodies coordinating toward a single biological function for which each alone is not sufficient are rightly said to form an organic union.

Thus, infertility is no impediment to bodily union and therefore (as our law has always recognized) no impediment to marriage.

The digestion metaphor is odd and misguided, but let’s begin with the most mysterious phrase: “dynamism toward reproduction.” This is (yet another) undefined term. At first I thought by “dynamism” George meant something like, capable of producing change or accomplishing a goal. But in that case, he’s self-evidently wrong because for infertile people, “the behavioral parts of the process of reproduction” have no capacity to produce a reproductive change or accomplish a reproductive goal. That’s what “infertile” means.

Reluctantly, then, I went to the dictionary. The best I could do was “great energy, force, or power; vigor,” but that fails too. Sex for an infertile couple has no reproductive energy, force, power, or vigor. And, as I said above, they’re not “coordinating toward a single biological function for which each alone is not sufficient.”

New analogy, same mistake.

None of this makes any sense to me. The digestion metaphor doesn’t help either. To begin with, forget about stomachs and intestines. George is very clear about distinguishing between behavioral and non-behavioral factors. Intestines are not part of the “behavioral process of digestion.” It’s not behavior: it’s involuntary muscle action. Instead, consider chewing which, like sex, is a behavioral choice.* If a person has a medical condition that makes swallowing impossible, then chewing in fact is no longer “oriented” to the goal of digestion. If the person chews food at all, it will be only to enjoy the flavor.

In other words:  Just as chewing is not a digestive act when digestion is impossible, sexual intercourse is not a reproductive act when reproduction is impossible.

I do not believe George’s words mean what he thinks they mean

George continues:

Thus, infertility is no impediment to bodily union and therefore (as our law has always recognized) no impediment to marriage. This is because in truth marriage is not a mere means, even to the great good of procreation. It is an end in itself, worthwhile for its own sake. So it can exist apart from children, and the state can recognize it in such cases without distorting the moral truth about marriage.

Of course, a true friendship of two men or two women is also valuable in itself. But lacking the capacity for organic bodily union, it cannot be valuable specifically as a marriage: it cannot be the comprehensive union on which aptness for procreation and distinctively marital norms depend. That is why only a man and a woman can form a marriage — a union whose norms and obligations are decisively shaped by its essential dynamism toward children. For that dynamism comes not from the actual or expected presence of children, which some same-sex partners and even cohabiting brothers could have, and some opposite-sex couples lack, but from the way that marriage is sealed or consummated:   in coitus, which is organic bodily union.

This is why George’s critics call his thinking convoluted:  For George, “dynamism toward children” is about a penis entering a vagina, even for elderly or infertile adults who cannot create children, even for fertile adults who have no intention of raising the children they may create. For George, “dynamism toward children” has nothing to do with children at all, real or hoped for.

George’s own phrasing betrays him:  If a comprehensive union depends on “aptness for procreation,” then in George’s eyes infertile couples cannot have a comprehensive union — and therefore, cannot have a marriage. Oh, and there’s another of George’s undefined terms: aptness. But if you look it up you’ll see how wrong he is.

By the way — and I don’t know whether I even need to point this out — George’s tightly-insulated, reality-free logical structure ignores the fact that two romantically-bonded men or women can have a relationship that is oriented toward children.

George admits defeat.

Finally, there’s this:

[M]arriage is not a mere means, even to the great good of procreation. It is an end in itself, worthwhile for its own sake. So it can exist apart from children, and the state can recognize it in such cases without distorting the moral truth about marriage.

This seems like George’s admission of defeat, an acknowledgement that same-sex marriage is real marriage. His escape, though, is to say that recognizing same-sex marriage would be “distorting the moral truth about marriage.”

But what moral truth does he have in mind? Certainly it’s not about children, child-bearing, or the best circumstances for child-rearing — he gives all that up in this very paragraph. The only distinction between an infertile opposite-sex and a same-sex couple is PIV, unrelated to the production of children. Is that his great moral truth?

Marriage must be between a man and a woman because marriage requires a penis in a vagina. So there.

That’s what it amounts to, now that he’s admitted infertile couples to marriage, now that he’s admitted that marriage is worthwhile for its own sake, existing apart from children. Nothing else remains.

The problem and the promise, redux

What did George promise us for this part of his article?

Part I also shows that what revisionists often consider a tension in our view — that marriage is possible between an infertile man and woman — is easily resolved.


Even if you think he resolved the issue, it sure wasn’t easy. And how did he “resolve” it? By taking his definition of organic bodily union (“bodies coordinating toward a single biological function for which each alone is not sufficient”) and throwing it out the window.

As I said…fail.

Next: George argues that heterosexuals just aren’t smart enough to raise families in a world with same-sex marriage (well…that might be my own paraphrase).

*  Just to be clear:  Having sex is a behavioral choice. Sexual orientation is not.

Mark F.

March 13th, 2011

Good take down of Mr. George. I would love for you two to have a formal debate.

Have you submitted an official response to the journal this was published in?


March 13th, 2011

You need to get over this. There is no rational argument. The end.


March 13th, 2011

He’s Catholic, right? I noticed he keeps talking about the inability to have children not being a factor, but what if PIV includes a condom or birth control pills? If the couple is intentionally subverting procreation, is there marriage real? It seems to me George is saying it’s not.


March 13th, 2011

*their marriage. I need to proofread before I post.


March 13th, 2011

I keep telling myself that this is the best they can come up with. It reads like really bad fiction, doesn’t it?


March 14th, 2011

“I hope I’ve thoroughly slaughtered this argument, but for now let’s take it seriously.”

Sorry but I can’t take it seriously, I try and I try, and I really make an effort to take a biological argument for marriage, any kind of marriage, seriously, but since a marriage is a social institution and has nothing do with biology, I simply think any biological argument for marriage, any kind of marriage, is stupendously idiotic.


March 14th, 2011

Stephen, I think it’s important to pick apart these arguments because people really believe this crap. This is the best the other side could come up with, and it’s not nearly good enough.

David in Houston

March 14th, 2011

I think I was looking forward to this section more than any other; and you completely destroy his argument. Well done, Rob.

In my opinion, this is where George’s argument completely unravels:

“This is because in truth marriage is not a mere means, even to the great good of procreation. It is an end in itself, worthwhile for its own sake. So it can exist apart from children, and the state can recognize it in such cases without distorting the moral truth about marriage.”

So his forty pages of pseudo-intellectual gibberish all come down to P.I.V. If you can put a P. in a V. then you have a real marriage. Because that’s the so-called “moral truth about marriage”. But that’s George’s moral truth. Which could be completely different from Fred or Barry or Zelda’s moral truth. He doesn’t prove anything. He’s just saying there is an inherent moral truth that everyone should already be aware of, that I don’t need to explain because it’s so obvious. Sorry, George. It’s not. The fact of the matter is, Barry and Zelda (complete strangers) could go down to the city courthouse and get married right now. The “state” isn’t going to ask them if they’re ever going to have sex, because it isn’t any of the state’s business or concern. Barry and Zelda could sleep in separate bedrooms (and never have sex) for the next fifty years. The state would still consider them married. George might not. But Barry and Zelda are holding a marriage license that says otherwise.

George tries to reinforce his theory that same-sex relationships are inferior by calling them “friendships”. George can’t possibly prove that, but feels the need to insult gay people none the less. He further insults gay people by saying:

“For that dynamism comes not from the actual or expected presence of children, which some same-sex partners and even cohabiting brothers could have…”

Again, George tries to compare same-sex couples to non-sexual family relationships (friendships). Anyone will the smallest amount of common sense would know that same-sex relationships (with the intended goal of marriage) are sexual in nature (just like opposite-sex couples). Why George is unwilling to acknowledge that, is actually puzzling. Would his theory fall apart if same-sex couples are romantically and physically involved with each other? No. According to George, P.I.V. is the only requirement to marriage. So I’m curious why he insists on degrading same-sex relationships.

My theory is that if George admits that same-sex couples have the exact same romantic and sexual feelings that opposite-sex couple have, it would make it harder for him to win over people that are on-the-fence about marriage equality. But by painting same-sex couples as “the other”, it’s easier for people to rationalize discriminating against us. According to George, same-sex couples are merely friends. Lie #1. Same-sex couples are the same as brothers. Lie #2. For someone who is suppose to be using logic and reason to make their point, George completely fails at his goal.


March 14th, 2011

I’m with Kelly above – George, as a good Catholic, does not take into account the childless-by-choice couple who is technically fertile but chooses not to reproduce. Does that fit his definition of a marriage? And if it does not, should such couples be allowed marriage licenses?

There is one other circumstance I’d love to quiz George about – the couple who wants to have children, gets married and are fertile, but then become unable to commit the act of “organic bodily union” and have children later. I am thinking specifically of Christopher Reeve and his wife Dana? Was their marriage still real the minute after he became paralyzed? And if a marriage can be real even without the “organic bodily union” – so without even the possibility of future children, how can he exclude same-sex couples.

Ben in Oakland

March 14th, 2011

David: “According to George, P.I.V. is the only requirement to marriage. So I’m curious why he insists on degrading same-sex relationships.”

Are you really wondering this? That is his whole argument.

A gay couple that have been together for 40 years are just friends. Any man and owman who met five mintues ago can get married if they have the money, are legally eligible, and have neough alcohol in them to think it’s a good idea.

Mihangel apYrs

March 14th, 2011

The PIV isn’t even a valid criterion: there’s nothing in law that states that sexual intercourse must take place (except as grounds for annulment). His entire thesis comes down to a marriage must be between a person born with a penis and a person born with a vagina, THAT is the only criterion, that defines marriage, ie
marriage is between such people because only such people can marry: the circular argument of the intellectually moribund, despite all his verbosity and pseudo-intellectual meanderings.

Either marriage is a sacrement with certain spiritual and moral elements and imperatives (for instance procreation) OR it is a social construct that can be redefined as society changes. Society allows the former but literally supports the latter (through legislation etc): George is arguing for the former’s ethos to be emplaced as the rule rather than that of society. His argument could well have been extended to banning divorce since that destroys a plank of the sanctity of marriage.

3/10 for content, 0/10 for logic, 0/10 for rhetoric – you do not choose your conclusion and then work back from it!


March 14th, 2011

Bravo to Rob for having the fortitude to read this crap and then spend time thinking about it. I couldn’t do it and thank him heartily for making generous use of his time in our behalf.

George’s argument is, of course, religious. Marriage is a social construct bound by law. We get married in a church (some of us) AFTER we get a license from the state and not the other way round.

But it’s pointless to argue with these people. It only makes them feel important and drives up their speaking fee.

David in Houston

March 14th, 2011

Ben: My point was that George didn’t have to denigrate gay relationships to further his theory. But the fact that he does, is very telling. It’s either an act of desperation, or one of blind ignorance. It’s interesting because George works so methodically trying to prove his theory. Then out of nowhere he makes the claim that gay relationships are equivalent to platonic friendships or siblings. Unlike everywhere else in his thesis, he doesn’t offer a shred of proof to back up those claims. Does he think the reader should accept what he’s saying with blind faith? Because that’s exactly what he’s asking them to do.

Does George actually believe that gay couples that have been together for decades, and have been fighting for the right to marry, are simply platonic friends? No rational person can honestly come to that conclusion. I’m still not sure if George is ignorant about same-sex relationships — which calls into question his ability to argue against them — or if he is desperately trying to denigrate them in an effort to make opposite-sex relationships appear to be superior. I’m leaning toward an act of desperation. If he can convince his audience that same-sex couples aren’t anything like their opposite-sex counterparts, then it’s easier to make an argument to deny gay couples equal treatment in society. It’s very clear that George failed to accomplish that goal.


March 14th, 2011

Something is horribly wrong with George’s definition of marriage..

OH, that just made my day. (I’m imagining Rob doing a hair toss and a dismissive look away).

Along with all the “slaughtering” and “destroying”, someone might want to keep Rob away from the knives today…

Kidding aside, there is this.

“Spouses as stomachs” emerges as a more important theme, as the argument wears on. It highlights the notion that our sexuality, that what we are expressing in sex, is not necessarily limited or perhaps even fully defined (morally, biologically, spiritually), by our sex organs, even though sexual desire is an integral component.

I agree that George has strained the analogy about infertile couples playing on the same team. There may be a better way to illustrate why, which may be helpful. As an aside, I assume “dynamism” is code for the greek in Aristotle, so what he is saying is that the object retains its (God-given?) telos, because it is not man made, but ‘natural’.

A) Put a broken shovel on the wall, call it “art” and few philosophers would say it is still a shovel.
B) Put a torn off arm on the wall, call it “art” and few philsophers would say it is still an arm.
C) Put a peach pit on the wall, call it “art”, but many philsophers would still say it is a peach pit, because it retains its potential, its “dynamic” [daimon?] to become a peach tree.

In short, he wants nongay, naturally infertile couples to be like peach pits, but they clearly are not. :-(

GGA have underdeveloped the notion of “comprehensive” in this essay, intensionally or otherwise. This may leave room for them to argue back (i.e. tread lightly).

George may be better defended on rape than we suppose. See footnote 55, p. 266. Rape may be ‘bodily union’, but it is not a ‘marital act’. PIV is simply necessary, but not sufficient. This leaves it to the reader to go back and find all the places where GGA have done slight of hand by implying it was both. Once you start making a list of sufficient conditions, you need to argue for them, separately and fully, showing that they aren’t tautological, at least.

Last, if non-marital acts can be part of a marriage, then that opens up another line of inquiry, e.g. how much non-marital sex can there be? This is not a defeat of his definition, just an indicator that such definitions may be very hard to compose, indeed.


March 14th, 2011

@Stephen You write as if we were in a comfortable majority on the issue and could can simply ignore it it as a majority could minor, ad-hoc, or fringe groups.

@Aeval It would be much more persuasive for us if we could show both a case for gay marriage that rests on “biology” and one that doesn’t, do you agree? At least that way, the gays would be situated similarly to their nongay compatriots, some of whom believe as you do and some who do not.


March 14th, 2011

Amicus, I write only as myself. I’m not saying that my way is the best way only that it’s my way. And writing as a married man (thank you Canada) this matter touches me more nearly than some. My husband and I have made our lives together for 41 years. Our marriage, while legal in Canada, means nothing in NY. And to tell you the truth, given the amount of venom and filth being spread about on the subject, I rather regret my marriage now as it links us with these people. My husband and I have done all we can to safeguard ourselves and I could cope with continuing to live beyond the pale.

All I really mean is that these people are unreachable by reason or appeals to decency. For Andrew Sullivan to engage in public ‘debates’ with the likes of Maggie Gallagher merely serves to give her legitimacy and ups her speaking fee. No one will be convinced one way or the other. Perhaps the best way to change opinion is for more people to get to know married gay men and women.

For those of you who wish to try to engage the likes of George, more power to you. BTW. Aren’t there three authors? The links all seem to lead to the same document. And what is the Harvard Law Thing doing publishing such tripe?


March 14th, 2011

Rob, I would L.O.V.E to hear George´s logic and explanation for one very simple situation since PIV is his all encompassing definition for a “real marriage”: a war veteran is wounded and has his reproductive organs amputated. Is he barred from marriage? should the state stop him from marrying? are the poor soldier and his future bride doomed to be just friends, since they can´t IN ANY POSSIBLE WAY achieve organic bodily union?
I realy would like to hear his response to this very real situation, since even his beloved catholic church would bless this union without restraints.


March 14th, 2011

Rob asked: But what moral truth does he have in mind?

The answer is not given in this paper, directly. In his other work (no, I’m not an expert), the answer is, more or less, the [objective] good of a society well-ordered to the rearing of children.

Why they didn’t mention it in this essay, I don’t know, but I’m starting to question whether George himself wrote this one…

The import is that he’s possibly arguing morality on two “planes” at the same time, although it is debatable that he is. The effect is to muddle the argument/exposition in the PIV stuff, where the prejudicial revulsion to sodomy is the strongest, and take the focus off the broader picture.

@CPT_doom – although it would be fascinating to see how he answers, it’s true that, no matter how he answers, childless-by-choice couples are positive “distortion of the moral truth of marriage” as he conceives it, where “distortion” is the fear that George uses to set aside ‘gay marriage’. (He may concede this, but say that there is nothing he can do about it, legally, but he can do something about the gays, legally).

Rob Tisinai

March 14th, 2011

Dammit, Roger, you totally stole my thunder! That’s in my ending, to contrast with George’s bizarre thought experiment as the close of the paper. I might as well show you how I’ve currently got it drafted:

A virgin goes to war with a fiancé back at home. A terrible wound leaves him unable to have vaginal intercourse, or sex of any sort. Yet his fiancé has always seen him as more than a walking penis and she cannot imagine leaving him. They marry.

What’s your reaction? Do you honor their deep human bond and commitment to a life together? Or do you picket their wedding and introduce legislation to legally ban this marriage on the grounds that “the state is justified in recognizing only real marriages as marriages” and there can be no real marriage without penis in vagina?

Timothy Kincaid

March 14th, 2011

George’s argument is premised on the idea that he looks at the norm of things, not at the individuals. To work towards a goal, things are broken into distinct categories, those which are structured in a way to achieve a goal and those which are not. It doesn’t matter if the distinctions between the two groupings have exceptions, but rather that the policy leads to achieving the goal.

In this case George divides the universe of marriage-seeking units into two groups, entities comprising of one male and one female and entities with other compositions.

And he presents these two classifications as having a norm that distinguishes the two groups, whether they include the possiblity/expectation of procreation. He purports to reward one category because its norm is directed towards procreation and the other category’s norm is not directed towards procreation.

This is not an illogical goal. A good argument can be made that categories that lead to procreation provide a value that deserves reward and special consideration.

And it is not the individual’s couple’s circumstances that dictate the “realness” of a marriage, but rather that they fall within the category and thereby have, by extension, shared characteristics. So while any particular opposite sex couple without an ability to procreate – like Roger’s war veteran – may not individually promote the goal, they belong to a category that does.

Drawing a line such as ‘all opposite sex couples except war veterans without sex organs’ is impractical. Policy is driven by the dominant distinctions of the group, not by the few exceptions.

So George’s argument could be perfectly valid providing that it does three things: correctly identifies the characteristic to reward, correctly identifies the distinguishing characteristics of the groups, and is the best place to draw the line.

The problem for George is that he is having trouble presenting a characteristic to reward that is a accomplished by where he draws his line.

It can’t be child raising because his line does not result in breaking the population in a way that approximates this goal. A huge amount of same-sex couples are raising children and a huge amount of opposite sex couples are not.

It can’t be baring children, because otherwise it would be far easier just to ban infertile couples and those who do not wish to have children. (And, by the way, in what universe would baring children without any consideration of raising children be a worthy goal? Maybe in some countries with low birth rates?)

So instead George is left defending the one characteristic that truly differentiates the two groups created by this delineation: sex. And that is really the heart of George’s argument is about: the basis for providing to opposite sex couples what is denied to same sex couples is the way they f*ck.

Not just in whether such f*cking can lead to children. George argues against drawing the line at fecundity. It only be, as Rob says, PIV.

Unable to illustrate how a gay marriage ban leads to identifiable social goals, it is to the inherent gloriousness of heterosexual f*cking that he appeals for his marriage barrier.

Setting ourselves outside religion, culture, or political tensions, and looking at what he says, it becomes clear that George’s entire article is nothing more than a pean to heterosexual f*cking. Perhaps he’s the missing voice at the Symposium.

He doesn’t use those words, of course, preferring ‘procreative act’ and various other euphemisms, but ultimately George just wants to reward heterosexual and punish homosexuals for the way they f*ck.

Thomas J. Coleman

March 14th, 2011

George’s bizarre borderline sports analogies and apparent a priori obsession with “Organic Bodily Unions” brings to mind Dr. Strangelove writer (and self-described “party girl”) Terry Southern’s dialogue he wrote to reflect the insane General Jack D. Ripper’s mania about “Precious Bodily Fluids” in the movie Dr. Strangelove (see also “Who’s on First” by Abbott and Costello for the tortured sports analogies or reference to “Operation Drop Kick” in the aforementioned Strangelove).

Two questions: First, how did such an obsessed, homophobic lunatic secure an endowed chair at Princeton and, Second, why do his Ivy League colleagues stand by and take him so seriously rather than just laugh him out of town?


March 14th, 2011

George’s baseball analogy is really the ugliest and most useless thing he wrote in the whole article. Analogies are a weak form of argument.

Really – an infertile couple are NOT like a baseball team that play and never win, the ARE like a baseball team that plays with no bats and no ball and have no hope of winning ever. But that doesn’t need to stop them running around the bases for fun ;)

Mihangel apYrs

March 15th, 2011

“bear children”

(otherwise you mean making ’em nekkid…

Timothy Kincaid

March 15th, 2011

Oh lordie. Bare and bear are always a problem for me.

Well that’s what you get when English is your second language (gibberish is my first)


March 15th, 2011

@TK I agree your clear, pithy, straightforward take on the structure of the debate/argument. Your line of criticism would also be my central line.

In short, the norm – the final good – that he proposes is easily overdetermined, yet he deliberately proposes an underdetermined analysis (i.e., iif PIV) to support it. And, one can believe that critique without being committed to ‘the full Stacey’… or even “liberal” norms.

Other than that, I’d just add/share that it’s not clear (to me) that his argument could be “perfectly valid”.

For one, membership in a category/class is not the route to determining morally correct acts, is it? The additional work that George does to help himself with that doesn’t cut it (for me).

Second, you correctly observe “George’s argument is premised on the idea that he looks at the norm of things, not at the individuals”. Now, as Rob was pointing out above, George insists that marriage is a good in itself (in this text and others it’s more of an assertion, almost a desperate one, than an argument).

If there is a technical, conceptual way to combine those two ideas, it escapes me currently. Participation in the ideal, i.e. “fulfillment”, is indeed performative (means-end), otherwise the social norm of marriage is unintelligible – we wouldn’t need such a norm.


March 15th, 2011

(yeah, I may have strictly misused “underdetermined” there – take is a broad, non-technical sense.)

@ThomasColeman I’d guess that one, short answer is that many do not have a carefree attitude toward precious bodily fluids.


March 15th, 2011

“the social norm of marriage” better as “the social norm of marriage as he conceives it”


March 15th, 2011

I just wanted to take this opportunity to claim credit for coming up with “penis-in-vagina=marriage” in the context of these discussions. So glad I could contribute even a little to the destruction of George’s house of cards.


March 15th, 2011

in a nutshell:

1) you have to play for the ‘right’ team;


2) even if infertile there is still the innate possibility that even a 75-85 year old female can concieve, so it’s okay just be going through the motions;

BUT what does this mean for the different-sex couple who chooses or refuses to conceive? shouldn’t they be ‘dis-married’ in that case?


March 15th, 2011

I’m still waiting for George’s answer to whether transsexuals can get married. According to the church, I am just a mutilated man married to a woman, but there is absolutely no penis in vagina sex going on between me and my wife and to all the world, we appear to be a lesbian couple (and I would say we are). So, since George is looking at groups, not specifics, he’d allow me to marry a woman and call it real (since he would claim I am male) and yet we aren’t going through the same motions that an infertile couple go through.

The world is simply bigger and more varied than George’s narrow ideology allows for.

Donny D.

March 15th, 2011

At least one of us has asked why Robert George (presuming that he’s the major author of the piece) would denigrate gay relationships, which he does through all parts of the essay that I’ve read.

It’s because he’s anti-gay, and has a history of it, including trying to convince the Supreme Court not to strike down this country’s sodomy laws:

If he wants to stop you from ever having sex, he’s anti-you.

Regan DuCasse

March 15th, 2011

“the moral truth of marriage”…
Uh, what?

There IS no moral test to qualify to be married. No couple is required to reveal anything about themselves other than being a man and a woman, they aren’t already married, related and old enough to consent.

If this man agrees that not bearing children doesn’t disqualify a couple and their marriage of it’s validation, then he’s blown his whole wad with the above statement.

Incarcerated criminals can get married. So can people, as pointed out, of disparate physical ability and PROXIMITY.
There is no test of competence or ability to CARE about children, which is THE most important aspect, not just HAVING them.
The most reprobate of heterosexuals can marry, over the most exemplary of gay persons.

THAT is what is not only unfair about the ad hoc Constitutional exclusions, but also the blatant hypocrisy and contradictions in the anti equality argument.

Timothy Kincaid

March 15th, 2011


BUT what does this mean for the different-sex couple who chooses or refuses to conceive? shouldn’t they be ‘dis-married’ in that case?

George does not discuss this and probably for good reason. His answer would likely not sell well in the marketplace of ideas.

I suspect that if he were strictly truthful (a highly unlikely prospect) we would find that his approach to a different-sex couple who refused to conceive would be to deny them birth control. This is the position of his Church and we’ve yet to see George vary from such dictates.

Thomas J. Coleman

March 15th, 2011

Regan is right: there is no “moral” test for civil marriage: that was already been decided many moons ago in the American, French and Mexican revolutions to name a few. “Natural law” provides no cover; like “creationism,” it’s just another name for state-imposed religious dogma.

The modern, secular legal basis for marriage is found, for instance, at Article 86 of the Louisiana Civil Code, descended from the Napoleonic Code circa 1803: “The law considers marriage in no other view than as a civil contract.” Not “bodily unions” or any other bizzare, Strangelovian hokum. BTW, in Louisiana, as in most places, ignorance of the law is no excuse, as noted in Civil Code Article 7: “After the promulgation, no one can allege ignorance of the law.”

Again, two questions: First, how did an obsessed, homophobic lunatic like Robert George secure an endowed chair at Princeton and, Second, why do his Ivy League colleagues stand by and take him so seriously rather than just laugh him out of town (or at least off-campus)?


March 15th, 2011

@Stephen I’ve been meaning to get back to you. There are a slew of reasons I (personally) don’t think the effort is self-defeating.

1. It’s my intuition that many people doing the ‘thinking’ and research ‘on the other side’ are in an incredibly insular, gay-free environment. (Come to think of it, some on our side seem so, too…) What they end up doing is reading every last bit – and I mean every last bit – that “Andrew Sullivan” ever wrote and taking that as the gospel of gaydom, or whatever. Some of them, like some orthodox jewish, don’t even seem to do that! It was my impression that Blankenhorn, when he drew up his lists, didn’t have a gay person sitting at the table – he may have, I don’t know. Piercing that veil is a good thing.

2. I think there is a role in popular activism in relation to these high-falutin’ debates in moral theory. If people leave arguments unattended or have holes, popular notice of that is a kind of pressure. It’s focused. It’s on point. It’s not just shouting. [Also, everyone can learn something too. Those on our side who think they have it all figured out amaze me. Know what you don’t know. Always be prepared to listen.].

3. Personally, I’m inherently unwilling to dismiss someone’s ideas just because they are a Catholic, because I wouldn’t want them to dismiss mine, just because I’m a gay. Not that those two things are the same, but you get the drift.

4. What we do here isn’t really elevating Mags or her speaking fee, in quite the same way. I guess one hope is to continue to try to get past “you’re a bigot!” to either “you’re a bigot, and here’s why” or “your put-down is wrong and mean, and here’s why”.

Thomas J. Coleman

March 15th, 2011

I didn’t know (or even intuit) that Princeton is incredibly insular, gay-free environment and last I checked George was “McCormick Professor of Jurispurdence” at Princeton, (albeit currently “on leave”). But I will stand corrected if, uh “corrected.”

So once again, two questions (albeit slightly modified): First, how did an obsessed, homophobic lunatic like Robert George secure an endowed chair at Princeton (albeit currently “on leave”) and, Second, why do his Ivy League colleagues stand by and take him so seriously rather than just laugh him out of town once and for all (or at least off-campus)?

Not that I’m against high falutin’ debates on moral theory, as long as we stop short of how many angels can do the tango on the head of a pin and we don’t have to become TOO incredulous. Indeed, I just finished the excellent “Destiny and Desire” by Carlos Fuentes, which is full of such moral discussions, digressions and meditations (and more than a little repressed homosexuality), all narrated by a severed head on a beach just north of Acapulco, where the strapping cliff divers say a prayer and take a well timed 125 foot plunge into the sea below. It’s a sum of all things novel, and it makes lots more sense than anything I’ve seen come out of the unsevered head of Robert George.

Priya Lynn

March 16th, 2011

Stephen said “But it’s pointless to argue with these people. It only makes them feel important and drives up their speaking fee…For Andrew Sullivan to engage in public ‘debates’ with the likes of Maggie Gallagher merely serves to give her legitimacy and ups her speaking fee. No one will be convinced one way or the other.”.

If that’s true then there’s no point in even attempting to achieve marriage equality – can’t be done, may as well close up shop and accept the inevitable. Obviously though, its not true. The percentage of people in favour of marriage equality has changed a great deal over the years – people can be convinced one way or the other. For that reason its paramount that arguments like George’s be addressed. If we just abandon the stage to people like him his specious arguments will convince people and marriage equality won’t be achieved.

Timothy said “George’s argument is premised on the idea that he looks at the norm of things, not at the individuals. To work towards a goal, things are broken into distinct categories, those which are structured in a way to achieve a goal and those which are not. It doesn’t matter if the distinctions between the two groupings have exceptions, but rather that the policy leads to achieving the goal.”.

By the same token then it shouldn’t matter if gays are allowed to marry, that would be just another exception to the couple characteristics he thinks necessary to “real” marriage.

Timothy said “And it is not the individual’s couple’s circumstances that dictate the “realness” of a marriage, but rather that they fall within the category and thereby have, by extension, shared characteristics. So while any particular opposite sex couple without an ability to procreate – like Roger’s war veteran – may not individually promote the goal, they belong to a category that does.”.

The key characteristic to that category is the ability to procreate so infertile couples can’t be considered part of that category.


March 16th, 2011

@Thomas C I don’t know what to think of George.

Personally, I have no special interest in questioning his position at University. In a way, it’s a distraction from the goals of the discussion. Shoot the message, not the messenger. Sure, we’ve impugned his motives, when there is apparent cause to, but that’s the limit of it.

On your citation of the civil code, my 2-cents is that there is wisdom to mine in that legal history and in understanding the intent of what was meant, at the time, by it, i.e. the law has no view (or “endorsement/enshrinement”) on the “moral content” of marriages, be they Mormon, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Catholic, Quaker, Anglican, or otherwise.

However, you are skipping over the points (and tension) raised in response by asking, even if that is so, why do we have a public policy on marriage at all, not just private arrangements, and asking/observing that, even if ‘neutral’ on the denomination issue, isn’t the law actually a ‘moral statement’ about other issues, like bigamy, polygny, incest, adultery, rape, polyamory, incarceration, and, variously, sodomy, masturbation, public sex, bestiality, and perhaps some others, but even some writ large, like ‘family’, biological family, procreation, civilization, ideal civilization, motherhood and apple pie.

But that brings us back to Part I, not part X, perhaps.


March 16th, 2011

For Rob, regarding “George admits defeat”.

Here is George writing the same, but at length. Notice he uses the word “parents” and “any couple”. (!) The rest confirms my muddling above on moral “planes”, that marriage is very clearly ‘dual-purpose’ in his schema.

Last, notice that all consequentialist arguments are disallowed, including any consequentialist statements about optimal outcomes for childrearing (gasp) and that also extends to incest (i.e. a union that knowingly results in negative birth outcomes/risks), an extension we don’t have to infer or guess at, because George positively confirms that his view on incest is nonconsequentialist.

As explained earlier [wasn’t really], the complexity of marriage [phrase used for the first time, here…] stems from the fact that one aspect of the total good of marriage [phrase ‘total good’ used for the first time, as best I recall] – bearing and raising children – requires a stable and loving environment formed by the children’s parents. In order to form a stable and loving environment, this union cannot be a mere contractual and instrumental agreement entered [my emphasis, or continued? or instantiated?] solely for the sake of children – this would depersonalize [my emphasis] both the children and the parental union [n.b. how this compares with Blankenhorn, Gallagher, Saddleback’s Warren, for sure?]. Hence the parents – and any couple who might become parents – should form a stable union of love for each other [“stable” undefined analytically, as is “union of love”], an interpersonal union [a friendship? deliberately avoiding that word?] that is in itself good but that would be naturally fulfilled by bearing and raising children. But since this type of interpersonal union of man and woman is in itself good even if this natural fulfillment is not reached, it follows that sterile couples must be included within the extension of this kind of community – otherwise, marriage will be reduced to a mere means in relation to an extrinsic end and would cease once that end was completed or if it was found to be impossible of realizing.

To my thinking now, all I need to finish up is to his own argument (above) with a ‘marital norm’ that is not needlessly exclusive, but cognizant of gays.

In other words, tweak his premise and run his own arguments, coming out with a different and favorable conclusion.

This avoids having to do the work of unpacking his logic (including gaps), undoing his prejudicial apologetics, and losing impact by getting roped into some of the well known faultlines in differing philosophical approaches, i.e. the whole forms versus empiricism thing, etc.

I’d be surprised if this hasn’t been done already. (I saw some hint of it in references to Michael Perry’s work, but I like to think for myself as far along as possible, until I hit a mental block).


March 16th, 2011

“to finish up is to his own” s/b “to finish up is to use his own”


March 18th, 2011

@Tim regarding your post in the next thread on law/norms and in reference to my 2-bit reply to Thomas C just two up or so, we have to resolve the tension that I outlined, by offering a more clear conception of how the law functions in relation to these things and how it protects a ‘fundamental right’.

Having just read or re-read Maggie’s chirps on how we will destroy civilization, I think her conception of how the law ought to function is dead wrong and her tussle with Koppleman is just talking past each other, maybe.

Once we articulate a better, full, yet concise view of the purpose and functioning of the law in this area, these issues will easily fall in line, IMHO.

That improved framework will also deflate George’s contention that we must decide “What marriage is?” and take a long wade through PIV to do it, in order to make any judgments or conclusions.

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