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What Are the Best Arguments for Traditional Marriage? #8 Post of 2012

Post Author: Bill Pratt

The citizens of North Carolina voted Tuesday, May 8, 2012, 61% to 39% in favor of adding an amendment to the state constitution that re-affirms the traditional view of marriage between one man and one woman.  Even though this was an overwhelming victory, it still saddens me that so many people in our state have failed to understand what is at stake in this debate.

As I’ve researched this issue for the last several years I have read numerous excellent treatments on marriage.  Recently, though, I discovered, thanks to the Manhattan Project, the best concise, scholarly treatment I’ve ever read on marriage.  The article is entitled “What Is Marriage?” and it was originally published in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy.  The authors are Sherif Girgis, Robert George, and Ryan T. Anderson.

Below is the table of contents, to give you an idea of the ground that the authors cover in the paper:

I. ……………………………………………………………………..248

A. Equality, Justice, and the Heart of the Debate …………………………………………..248

B. Real Marriage Is—And Is Only—The Union of Husband and Wife…………………..252

1. Comprehensive Union ………………………253
2. Special Link to Children ……………………255
3. Marital Norms…………………………………..259

C. How Would Gay Civil Marriage Affect You or Your Marriage? ………………..260

1. Weakening Marriage …………………………260
2. Obscuring the Value of Opposite‐Sex Parenting As an Ideal ………………………..262
3. Threatening Moral and Religious Freedom ……………………………………………263

D. If Not Same‐Sex Couples, Why Infertile Ones? ………………………………..265

1. Still Real Marriages……………………………266
2. Still in the Public Interest…………………..268

E. Challenges for Revisionists ……………………..269

1. The State Has an Interest in Regulating Some Relationships? ……….269
2. Only if They Are Romantic?………………271
3. Only if They Are Monogamous? ……….272

F. Isn’t Marriage Just Whatever We Say It Is? ……………………………………………274

II . …………………………………………………………………….275

A. Why Not Spread Traditional Norms to the Gay Community? ………………………….275

B. What About Partners’ Concrete Needs? ……………………………………..280

C. Doesn’t the Conjugal Conception of Marriage Sacrifice Some People’s Fulfillment for Others’? …………….281

D. Isn’t It Only Natural? ………………………………284

E. Doesn’t Traditional Marriage Law Impose Controversial Moral and Religious Views on Everyone? …………………………………………..285

CONCLUSION……………………………………………………….286

When you click on the link to the article, it will take you to the abstract.  All you have to do to get the complete article is click on the “Download This Paper” link on the same web page.  In order to entice you to read the whole paper, I quote the conclusion of the paper below:

A thought experiment might crystallize our central argument.  Almost every culture in every time and place has had some institution that resembles what we know as marriage. But imagine that human beings reproduced asexually and that human offspring were self‐sufficient. In that case, would any culture have developed an institution anything like what we know as marriage?  It seems clear that the answer is no.

And our view explains why not.  If human beings reproduced asexually, then organic bodily union—and thus comprehensive interpersonal union—would be impossible, no kind of union would have any special relationship to bearing and rearing children, and the norms that these two realities require would be at best optional features of any relationship. Thus, the essential features of marriage would be missing; there would be no human need that only marriage could fill.

The insight that pair bonds make little sense, and uniquely answer to no human need, apart from reproductive‐type union merely underscores the conclusions for which we have argued: Marriage is the kind of union that is shaped by its comprehensiveness and fulfilled by procreation and child‐rearing.  Only this can account for its essential features, which make less sense in other relationships.  Because marriage uniquely meets essential needs in such a structured way, it should be regulated for the common good, which can be understood apart from specifically religious arguments.  And the needs of those who cannot prudently or do not marry (even due to naturally occurring factors), and whose relationships are thus justifiably regarded as different in kind, can be met in other ways.

So the view laid out in this Article is not simply the most favorable or least damaging trade‐off between the good of a few adults, and that of children and other adults.  Nor are there “mere arguments” on the one hand squaring off against people’s “concrete needs” on the other.  We reject both of these dichotomies.  Marriage understood as the conjugal union of husband and wife really serves the good of children, the good of spouses, and the common good of society.  And when the arguments against this view fail, the arguments for it succeed, and the arguments against its alternative are decisive, we take this as evidence that it serves the common good.  For reason is not just a debater’s tool for idly refracting arguments into premises, but a lens for bringing into focus the features of human flourishing.

In addition to this paper, if you want to hear an outstanding podcast that features a traditional marriage advocate debating a gay marriage advocate, you cannot do better than listening to the Unbelievable? podcast entitled “The Gay Marriage Debate – Peter Tatchell vs Peter D Williams.”  Peter Williams verbally makes many of the same arguments you will read in the marriage paper, and he does a truly exceptional job of it.


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Comments

  • Andrew Ryan

    “There would be no human need that only marriage could fill”

    As in previous posts, are you/Is he arguing that all infertile couples, elderly couples [of any combination of genders] have NO need that is met by marriage? In my experience the ability to have kids is not an essential requirement to having a need to marry. It’s an insult to post-baby-bearing age people to tell them they have no human need that only marriage can fill.

    “In that case, would any culture have developed an institution anything like what we know as marriage? It seems clear that the answer is no”

    It depends. Seeing as our own culture has accepted the need for non-child-bearing straight couples to marry, it doesn’t seem such a stretch to accept that this hypothetical culture might also develop. It’s possible that the species in this scenario would not have evolved our desire/need for committed relationships, being more like lizards, and therefore would not have needed marriage.

    But we’re not lizards, we HAVE evolved to desire committed relationships, and gays are just as much a recipient/beneficiary of these feelings as straight people. If we’d evolved denser body hair then we might not have needed clothes, but it’s a pointless conjecture as that’s not the way we turned out.

    I’ll try to listen to the podcast soon. I bumped into Tatchell once. Regardless of your political/religious views, everyone should be able to accept that he’s a brave, courageous man who has suffered physically for his willingness to confront tyrants eg his clash with Robert Mugabe.

    Finally, when you talk about ‘traditional marriage’, remember that what that tradition means has changed much over time. It’s only a hundred years ago that 12-year-olds could marry, it’s five decades ago that inter-racial marriage was allowed universally. A couple of hundred years ago it was almost entirely about property and land.

  • Andrew Ryan

    The paper DOES address the infertile argument:

    “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.”

    Right, it’s an end in itself, thus undermining the entire “It’s about kids” argument.

    They then argue that it STILL has to be man and woman, because marriage is:

    “…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.”

    So it has to be a man and a woman because of the way they have sex. Unfortunately for their argument, this is just asserted. It’s taken as a priori. They seem to be begging the question. Gay couples apparently aren’t organic uniting their bodies.

    Then they give an additional argument for why allowing infertile couples to marry doesn’t undermine their ‘It’s about kids’ argument:

    “More generally, even an obviously infertile couple—no less
    than childless newlyweds or parents of grown children—can live
    out the features and norms of real marriage and thereby contribute
    to a healthy marriage culture. They can set a good example for
    others and help to teach the next generation what marriage is and
    is not. And as we have argued and will argue, everyone benefits
    from a healthy marriage culture.”

    Great, by that argument gay couples can contribute to a healthy marriage culture, even though they may not produce children.

    They don’t explain why gays are any less able to contribute to this culture than any other childless couples, and they don’t explain why gays with children aren’t actually making a GREATER contribution to this culture than childless couples. Apparently they think that it’s LESS damaging to have gay couples NOT being married, thus giving an example of people in committed relationships, perhaps with children, being unmarried.

  • http://questionablemotives.wordpress.com/ tildeb

    The conclusion states,

    “So the view laid out in this Article is not simply the most favorable or least damaging trade‐off between the good of a few adults, and that of children and other adults. Nor are there “mere arguments” on the one hand squaring off against people’s “concrete needs” on the other. We reject both of these dichotomies. Marriage understood as the conjugal union of husband and wife really serves the good of children, the good of spouses, and the common good of society.

    The lack of compelling causal evidence supporting this tripartite claim is one factor to consider. The compelling evidence against this bold causal assertion is another. Taken together, these two factors reveal that compelling causal evidence from reality plays no central role informing the popular desire to legally discriminate against gays marrying. Something else, some other motivating reason, is at work here… and it supersedes the common concern for equal rights in law for all. This is cause for deep concern. What motivating factor is deliberately undermining our collective rights and freedoms and succeeding… most recently in North Carolina?

  • http://sandwichesforsale.blogspot.com/ DagoodS

    Since I was responding on the other blog entry about North Carolina’s Amendment on same sex marriage, specifically replying to Robert George, I guess I should comment here.

    First, thank you for the article. Interesting reading. As Andrew Ryan already pointed out, the authors agree we look to the marriage itself, not progeny or procreative possibilities:

    Article: 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. (pg 267)

    To recognize only fertile marriages is to suggest that marriage is merely a means to procreation and childrearing—and not what it truly is, namely, a good in itself. (pg. 268)

    I was looking for the specifics regarding definition of marriage (obviously looking to see how same sex marriage would be excluded under such a definition) and found the authors focused on sex. Not just any sex, of course, but coitus alone. It was not exactly stunning they found the one (1) thing homosexual couples cannot do that heterosexual couples do as THE defining characteristic in marriage. Indeed, it would seem to be the only non-religious point to hang their hat on. Everything else—having or not having children, sex, commitment, love, ceremony, contract, etc.—both hetero- and homosexual couples equally can employ.

    Their entire point can be summed up:

    Article: Anglo‐American legal tradition has for centuries regarded coitus, and not the conception or birth of a child, as the event that consummates a marriage. (pg 255)

    This is not….exactly…correct. Notice the first term—“Anglo-American”—they veer away from solely relying upon “American.” Why? Because English law allows annulment for failing to consummate a marriage, whereas American law does not. (I found numerous vague references stating, “a handful of states allow annulment for non-consummation” but I never did find even a single state specifically listed.)

    Why are the authors roping in “Anglo”? Because “American” would be wholly insufficient. Worse, they fail to focus on the entire history of Marriage, including Roman or Germanic (let alone African or Asian) all providing a vast variety of marriage definitions.

    [By the way, English courts have defined “consummation” as penetration and left it that. They have NOT limited it to coitus, and thus even under English law, this argument would fail.]

    Secondly, you may notice it states, “for centuries” coitus has been considered the event consummating a marriage. Yet they left it particularly gray as to what “centuries” we are talking about. What if we find out it happened to be from the 12th – 16th Centuries? I stopped doing research on English law, but it would seem for at least a few centuries to present it has NOT been consummation determining marriage, but completion of the ceremony.

    I should note, even in England, lack of consummation makes the marriage voidable—NOT void on its face. In other words, the person who wants sex, but can’t have it, must make the affirmative step to void the marriage, it is not void on its face. (If a lurker does not understand the difference, I will explain more upon request.)

    Why do the authors not reveal the current law? Why don’t they interact with the current law? It would seem they need to re-define marriage as requiring consummation. Who is the “revisionist”?

    Bill Pratt, I am slightly curious….does it bother you at all the authors do not reveal the state of the law in America for the past few centuries, but must dig back 100’s of years and another country to support this contention?

  • http://ferlans.wordpress.com/ Tracy

    Have there been any good rebuttals to this paper yet?

  • Boz
  • Andrew Ryan

    Yes. See below, if you’ll pardon my immodesty…

  • http://questionablemotives.wordpress.com/ tildeb

    A reminder that behind such laws are real people from real families with real children.

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