What Questions Must Marriage Revisionists Answer? Part 2

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

If marriage revisionists want to reject the conjugal view of marriage and decouple marriage completely from human biology and sexual reproduction, then they need to answer some questions about the revisionist view.

Robert George, Ryan Anderson, and Sherif Girgis, in their seminal paper on marriage, pose three challenges to marriage revisionists. In part 1 we dealt with the first two challenges. In part 2, we present the third and final challenge.

Third, on what principles can marriage revisionists deny marriage to three people at a time, or four people at a time, or more? The authors present yet another scenario:

Go back now to the example of Joe and Jim, and add a third man: John. To filter the second point out of this example, assume that the three men are in a romantic triad. Does anything change? If one dies, the other two are coheirs. If one is ill, either can visit or give directives. If Joe and Jim could have their romantic relationship recognized, why should not Joe, Jim, and John?

How might marriage revisionists respond?

Again, someone might object, everyone just knows that marriage is between only two people. It requires no explanation. But this again begs the question against Joe, Jim, and John, who want their shared benefits and legal recognition. After all, it is not that each wants benefits as an individual; marriage is a union. They want recognition of their polyamorous relationship and the shared benefits that come with that recognition.

Marriage traditionalists have a ready and principled response:

But if the conjugal conception of marriage is correct, it is clear why marriage is possible only between two people. Marriage is a comprehensive interpersonal union that is consummated and renewed by acts of organic bodily union and oriented to the bearing and rearing of children. Such a union can be achieved by two and only two because no single act can organically unite three or more people at the bodily level or, therefore, seal a comprehensive union of three or more lives at other levels.

Indeed, the very comprehensiveness of the union requires the marital commitment to be undivided—made to exactly one other person; but such comprehensiveness, and the exclusivity that its orientation to children demands, makes sense only on the conjugal view. Children, likewise, can have only two parents—a biological mother and father. There are two sexes, one of each type being necessary for reproduction. So marriage, a reproductive type of community, requires two—one of each sex. . . .

The goal of examining the criteria of monogamy and romance . . . is to make a simple but crucial conceptual point: Any principle that would justify the legal recognition of same‐sex relationships would also justify the legal recognition of polyamorous and non‐sexual ones. So if, as most people—including many revisionists—believe, true marriage is essentially a sexual union of exactly two persons, the revisionist conception of marriage must be unsound. Any revisionist who agrees that the state is justified in recognizing only real marriages must either reject traditional norms of monogamy and sexual consummation or adopt the conjugal view—which excludes same‐sex unions.

George, Anderson, and Girgis summarize their three challenges to marriage revisionists this way:

But we challenge the many revisionists who support norms, like monogamy, as a matter of moral principle to complete the following sentence: Polyamorous unions and nonsexual unions by nature cannot be marriages, and should not be recognized legally, because . . .

27 thoughts on “What Questions Must Marriage Revisionists Answer? Part 2”

  1. “Assume that the three men are in a romantic triad”

    Same question to people taking the conjugal view, but assume that it’s a man and two women, and they’re wanting to produce children together.

    Again, you might object, everyone just knows that marriage is between only two people. It requires no explanation. But this again begs the question against Jo, Jim, and Joan, who want their shared benefits and legal recognition. After all, it is not that each wants benefits as an individual; marriage is a union. They want a marriage to provide best for their shared children.

    “Such a union can be achieved by two and only two because no single act can organically unite three or more people at the bodily level”

    A man can impregnate two women in the same night if he wants to. Why does it have to be ‘a single act’? Even allowing that – and I don’t want to use graphic descriptions and get my post deleted like Gene Bulmer – if a man is quick enough he could impregnate two women at the same time if he withdraws and re-inserts quickly enough. If marriage is about having children, why not marry two women and have children with both?

    One might as well argue that romance can only be achieved by a couple, because no romantic love can join three or more people. You can dispute that and claim that romance CAN include three or more people, but that just reflects your OWN view of romance. The argument being presented is that the (so-called) REVISIONISTS’ view of marriage cannot exclude polygamy. If the REVISIONIST views marriage as being about romance, and defines romance as being between two people, then there’s nothing inconsistent about allowing gay marriage but not allowing polygamy.

    Certainly saying it’s about love no more leads to polygamy than saying it’s about children – indeed, historically the justification for polygamy has always been about children, not about romance or love. If anything, romance gets in the WAY of polygamy, makes it LESS possible.

  2. “Any revisionist who agrees that the state is justified in recognizing only real marriages must either reject traditional norms of monogamy and sexual consummation or adopt the conjugal view—which excludes same‐sex unions”

    In return:
    If, as most people—including many conjugalists – believe, true marriage should include people who are infertile, any conjugalist who agrees that the state is not justified in stopping post-menopausal women or other infertile people to marry must adopt the romantic view—which includes same‐sex unions.

  3. Multi-individual marriage comes with its own problems, differing from same-gender marriage. Particularly, determination of ability to provide post-marriage. How would inheritance, spousal support, child support, joint tenancy in the entirety or dower work, for example?

    However, presuming the appropriate laws could be passed to satisfy those requirements, I am uncertain why it would be a difficulty for the revisionist view.

    Curiously, I am uncertain how the traditional view would sustain an equal objection. If the SOLE important element of marriage—“traditional” marriage—is the ability to perform coitus, then a traditional, conjugal marriage view should welcome polygamy and polyandry. As long as there is a pair of opposite sex individuals able to perform coitus amongst the 3 or 4 or 5 or more…wouldn’t this sustain the single most important requirement the authors rely upon?

  4. When you issue a challenge for people who deny polygamy on moral grounds you are not attacking every revisionist view. I don’t actually even know anyone who stands on the platform you’ve scrutinized. Not that they aren’t out there, but you seem to be under the impression that they are a large group. So large in fact, that when you define that group you co-opt the word revisionist, as though that ideology is the only current ideology that proposes revising the current rules of marriage. I don’t think you’re entirely aware of what the beliefs out there are. I agree with you that in general these people you attack have
    not, to my knowledge, given compelling reasons to support their views. But I think you’re attacking straw men.

    I am aware that the vocabulary we use, like revisionist, is not of your choosing, and we are working under the framework of the article. But you have not pointed out these flaws with the article, and you support the article. I’d like to know if you support the idea that this article presents about what being proposed in revising the rules, which in my opinion is one of ignorance to what ideas are really out there.

  5. I cannot speak for Bill, but I think the answer to your nuance question is sex. (pun intended)

    The two things he talks about, and the article talks about, are the ability to have sex under Bill’s definition of sex, and the having of the children.

    I’d argue that the first point makes the second one redundant. This of course leads us back to the infertility argument. But, if we accept that both points need to be met, then what of people who get married without the intention of having sex under Bill’s definition of it or children. Should they be stopped from marrying? Maybe you’d argue that we cannot know if they don’t intend for these things, but lets suppose that they made the person procuring the license aware of this fact.

    That said, I clearly cannot speak for Bill, but I would like to voice my opinion on what he has said thus far has led me to believe. Bill, feel free to correct me, but I would ask that you to give an example of some other thing you think marriage is about that is exclusive to straight people in some way if you intend to do so. (Or obviously explain why some view I have said you support is incorrect.)

  6. Sean,
    Just to be clear about your views on marriage, could you answer the questions below? Preferably with just a “yes” or “no” except for the last question. You don’t have to give reasons for your answers.

    Would you be OK with marriage between two members of the same sex who are romantically involved?

    Would you be OK with marriage between two members of the same sex who are not romantically involved?

    Would you be OK with marriage between more than two members of the same sex who are romantically involved?

    Would you be OK with marriage between more than two members of the same sex who are not romantically involved?

    Would you be OK with marriage between one man and more than one woman who are romantically involved?

    Would you be OK with marriage between one man and more than one woman who are not romantically involved?

    Would you be OK with incestual marriage if the partners were above 21 years old?

    Who would you prevent from getting married, if anybody?

  7. Interesting questions. Part of the problem is with definitions of marriage, but I’d say that any of these could be such that the situation is fine by me depending on definitions. For this reason, I think the best way to answer your questions would be to start by saying I think in general the institution of marriage is there because we like it. I agree that it doesn’t really serve any essential purpose. We could reproduce outside of marriage, and socially I’m sure there’s a way for a large scale society to exist without marriage. Marriage is largely if not entirely a construct of popularity. There is nothing inherently essential about it.

    The short answer to all of your yes or no questions is yes, I’d be OK with them. But, I don’t know that those views are as widely held as my views specific to gay marriage. Since most of these are not under the same pressure and spotlight as gay marriage I do not hold opinions on those as strongly, because I simply haven’t examined the issues as closely. But, I think any victimless crime should be legal, and to my knowledge these scenarios all fall into that category.

    I’d be curious to hear your answers to these questions you have posed, though I think I know most of them. So, I’d just like to hear what you think about each one man one woman scenario you proposed. (And the incest one, which could be under that but doesn’t explicitly state the gender roles as the other questions do.)

  8. As a bit of a side note, incestuous relationships are an interesting subject. On some level, we’re all related. So I’m not sure what level you’d consider incest, but I’ll point out that marriage between cousins has not always been frowned upon by society.

  9. That said, what I’ve talked about given here isn’t why (directly) I support gay marriage. I have more than one leg for my gay marriage table. The main one though, is that I support extending the current legal definition to include gay couples because if we give it to straight romantic couples (or even non-romantic couples, since the law allows any two straight people to get married irrespective of how they feet towards one another) we have no right to deny that same right to people who are romantically involved with someone of the same gender. (Or, again, not romantically involved)

  10. Hello Bill.

    I appreciate the fact you are using secular and philosophical arguments to prove your view to outsiders instead of relying on rare verses from an allegedly inerrant Bible.

    I follow this approach and explain why homosexuality is not sinful

    because it is neither harmful for the individuals nor for society, as psychology and sociology have conclusively demonstrated.

    What about polygamy? Well if it is not harmful for the individuals and society, it is okay. The problem is that we know it is not the case and that it most often leads to jealousy and injustices, so it is not a life style which should be promoted.

    But is it wrong in every situation? I doubt it because there might well be exceptions whereby the three really live together happily.

  11. Hey Andrew I wonder how you judge if something is morally permissible or not.

    As explained in my comment above, I base myself on the golden rule, the absence of harms for society and the individuals


    as well as on the principle that one of the main purpose of human life is to grow in one’s ability to give and receive love


    I would be very glad to learn your thoughts on that.

    Lovely greetings from my homeland, Lorraine/Lothringen in France.

  12. I appreciate your answers. They really clarify the differences between you and me.

    You said, “Marriage is largely if not entirely a construct of popularity. There is nothing inherently essential about it.”

    You also said, “We could reproduce outside of marriage, and socially I’m sure there’s a way for a large scale society to exist without marriage.”

    I completely and totally disagree with you on these points. I believe that the marriage institution is essential; it is built into human nature biologically and spiritually (I’ve been leaving the spiritual element out, but it’s worth mentioning at this point).

    Because marriage goes hand and hand with human nature, I believe that a large scale society cannot survive without this institution. I would add parenthetically that all of the empirical evidence is on my side here.

    Virtually every sociological study that has been done over the last 50 years indicates that children are far more successful, by just about every imaginable metric, when they are raised by their two married biological parents. All other family structures fare less well. If you are not aware of this research, I suggest you go find out for yourself. I’m not sure you don’t believe me, but it’s true nonetheless.

    You also appear to have the unconstrained view of human beings, as Thomas Sowell would put it. Check out this blog post:


    Finally, it is fascinating to me that this whole discussion gets back to metaphysics, and philosophical anthropology in particular. You appear to deny that there is any such thing as a fixed human nature. You probably don’t think that there is an essence to being human, or that human nature is directed toward specific purposes. You appear to believe that humans are just what we say they are. Whatever the popular view of the day is defines what humans are.

    That there is such a thing as a human nature has been the dominant view among western thinkers for thousands of years. Plato and Aristotle both thought in those terms, and so have their philosophical disciples up to the present. Yet, you reject this view of human nature.

    As a bit of a tangent, have you ever studied philosophy, or metaphysics in particular?

  13. I think you may be basing your ideas on the idea that human nature is something to base judgements of what ought to be on. So if it is in our nature it is good. (in general) I’d imagine you get this from your worldview that we are made in God’s image and that God is good. Ergo, we are gaining the attributes of his goodness within our nature. Not entirely sure if that’s exactly your take, but I’m reasonably sure I’m in the right ballpark with the God thing. So, since you see it as within human nature to have a certain type of marriage and raise kids a certain way, you think that’s the good way.

    Apart from the discussion about what human nature is and is not, I think that human nature doesn’t necessarily map to good and bad, (the ought). From the standpoint of humans having evolved, there is no reason to assume that our tendencies and inclinations are what map to the ought. The ought needs to be reasoned, and it is always conditional. I ought to eat is only true if I want to stay alive. So, the idea that a particular view of marriage is in human nature wouldn’t sway my opinion even if I thought it were true. And not all of the evidence is one your side. Are you familiar with the Na of China? And when you say marriage, fewer societies have had that. Lots have endorsed infidelity, and considered women property of their man. That’s not the marriage you’re saying we should have. (I hope)

    If we add in children to the debate we’re treading into another topic; where the line between the rights of a child and the rights of a parent are. I’m not adverse ot that discussion, but I don’t want to get lost entirely on a tangent.

    I’m a bit young to have any formal training in the philosophical fields, but when I see people asserting things on the basis of Plato said x or Aristotle said y, all I see is an argument from authority. They should just assert things x and y without appealing to who said it. Aside from that, I happen to think these philosophers are demonstrable wrong about things. For example the idea that the planets are striving to reach the center of the universe contradicts what science has shown us about these things. Plato supported slavery. The ideas of philosophy should not be given more merit based on the philosopher who said them. Claims stand or fall on their own merit, not based on who said them. I think they are wrong about lot of things, and who thinks an ides doesn’t sway me any more than that Christianity is a more widespread belief in the United States than atheism. To answer your point specifically, if they thought human nature was the path to ought, yes, I’d reject that too. I am not aware of all of their claims, but I don’t care. That doesn’t impact specific claims on specific issues. You don’t agree that Plato and Aristotle can be really wrong? We know that planets do not move towards the center of the universe, and we agree slavery is wrong.

  14. A person can hold that there is a fixed human nature without also believing that the Christian God exists. Plato and Aristotle weren’t Christians, after all. Obviously Plato and Aristotle were wrong about some things, just as everyone else on the planet is wrong about some things. But these two men’s ideas about many things are still taught in universities 2500 years after they lived, therefore it only seems reasonable to give them a hearing. Shouldn’t you educate yourself about what they said?

    Parenthetically, the vast majority of what you believe about the world is based on authority. If you had to see everything for yourself, or study a massive pile of evidence and argumentation in order to learn anything about the world, you would know almost nothing.

    I can guarantee you that parents, teachers, book authors, internet bloggers, have all told you things that you believed based on their authority. We cannot avoid learning things on authority, so it is incredibly important that we wisely choose who our authorities are.

  15. Andrew, do you care to answer the same questions I gave to Sean?

    Would you be OK with marriage between two members of the same sex who are romantically involved?

    Would you be OK with marriage between two members of the same sex who are not romantically involved?

    Would you be OK with marriage between more than two members of the same sex who are romantically involved?

    Would you be OK with marriage between more than two members of the same sex who are not romantically involved?

    Would you be OK with marriage between one man and more than one woman who are romantically involved?

    Would you be OK with marriage between one man and more than one woman who are not romantically involved?

    Would you be OK with incestual marriage if the partners were above 21 years old?

    Who would you prevent from getting married, if anybody?

  16. I’m not saying we should ignore their teachings, or reject them outright. Certainly they didn’t get everything wrong. But they too though humans were created, and didn’t really understand it in terms of evolution. On this issue, I think that’s a very important piece of information. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t give our ears to people. Certainly they are only authorities because people think they have something good to say. I’m not going to ignore them, but the only argument you put forth shouldn’t be that person x or y thought it. That’s not really a sound argument. You should look at why they thought it, decide if you agree, and explain it to others in terms of that. I’m not opposed to listening to their views, but I will consider them myself, and not simply accept them, even if everyone else has. Certainly authority is important, but it’s by no means the end of the discussion. To simply cite them is something I don’t consider of much value. I want their reasons cited in addition to their names. Within the branch of philosophy, we’re all on a fairly even ground. Anyone could think about claims, but not everyone could, say, go visit Australia themselves to ensure that the rest of the world isn’t lying or wrong.

  17. Bill you sill haven’t answered directly. If you’re planning on a blog post I’m happy to wait, but I am really curious about your answers.

  18. The romantic view of marriage is about couples*, including same sex couples. With that in mind: Yes. No. No. No. No. No. Not sure (incest can lead to birth defects, so it would have to be conditional on no children being possible).

    Your answer would be no to every question there, and I’ve already explained why I don’t think a ‘no’ naturally follows from the the ‘conjugal view’ argument. Indeed the conjugal view DID allow for polygamy for thousands of years in different cultures.

    *I’ve already explained why I have this view in other posts.

  19. I would answer “no” to every question. You would answer “yes” to every question and Andrew would answer “yes” to only the first question.

  20. Since I don’t have to do all the heavy lifting around here, Andrew, it would be interesting to see you to try to convince Sean why he is wrong to answer “yes” to all of the questions.

    I believe that the traditional conjugal view is firmly based in human biology and a fixed human nature, but I think your revisionist view, as these posts have shown, can only answer Sean in very ad hoc ways.

    I have yet to see you explain why marriage should be limited to two people who are romantically involved, except that this version of marriage is currently in vogue. You keep reminding me that “the ship has sailed” and that romantic relationships between two people just is what most people think marriage is.

    But this is not a reasoned defense of your position. Maybe Sean’s definition of marriage as a commitment between any number of people will be in vogue 50 years from now. What will you say to him to convince him he’s wrong?

    You’ve abandoned biology. You’ve abandoned reference to a fixed human nature. You’ve set aside the social science findings that children do best when raised by their biological mother and father. You believe that religious views about marriage are irrelevant, so that argument isn’t available to you.

    What is left? How will you keep Sean from winning the day?

  21. I’m sure you do believe that, but it equally strikes me that you can only deny polygamy in equally ad hoc ways (I’ve explained why several times).

    “But this is not a reasoned defense of your position.”

    But your own position, as argued here, seems to have been based on what you believe was traditional in the past. For that reason I think it’s quite fair enough that I point out in response that the romantic view has been traditional now for quite a few generations, if not a couple of centuries.

    “You’ve set aside the social science findings that children do best when raised by their biological mother and father.”

    So are you arguing against adoption? I’m guessing not. Social sciences find that kids do better with two parents bringing them up. What’s BAD is parents splitting up. Marriage encourages parents to stick together. Therefore it’s quite consistent for me to approve of gay marriage. In fact I’d say YOU are ignoring social science to oppose SSM, for just that reason.

  22. I’ve already told Sean on another post that I disagree with one of his points. Yes, I disagree with him here as well, but to be honest it takes up enough time arguing through your points without picking up his as well (though I appreciate you do indeed have most of the heavy lifting in that more people are disagreeing with you here than agreeing).

  23. Thanks. Obviously I think you two are wrong, but I think Andrew and I might agree more than we seem to. Andrew has said that it depends on children (and I agree with that) but I think there are other contingencies we have. It depends on whether Andrew is against polygamy in general or not. If he is, then yes we’re quite different. Otherwise though, I think a 30 minute coffee shop talk could allow us to come to an understanding and agreement on the issue. (I actually have the same answer as Andrew on the last one, so we agree there as well, just to clarify things. It was a conditional yes on the same conditions as Andrew gave)

    You do indeed have the heavy lifting in terms of answering, especially since it looks like you have to defend your views against multiple people with multiple views. It would probably be easier for you if everyone you disagreed with made the same points. but alas, such is the world. Just know that we appreciate your willingness to converse with us, and that we are, or at least I am, considering what you have to say, and it does affect our, or at least my, views. (For whatever that’s worth)

  24. Andrew, it seems that your only argument yet with regards to Bill’s points on polygamy when he argues about your foundation for the claim is that his foundation doesn’t support it either. That doesn’t make you correct though. You can both have views that don’t defend the idea of only two people. If I missed where you did this before, please, point me too it and I’ll have a look. I’m curious. If you have yet to do this though, then you should enlighten us as to your foundation for the claim. As far as I am aware, neither of you has a foundation to deny it. I don’t think there is a sound one. That’s why I think it should be allowed. Since we start with the set of all rights, and then subtract, what reason do you offer for denying polygamy?

    I agree with you on the children thing. In general we don’t couple marriage to the idea of children when discussing what should be legalized, and I think we can discuss them as separate issues if we allow people to marry and not have children.

  25. My position is not based solely on tradition. It is based on there being a fixed human nature, human biology, social science which tells us that we should be doing everything we can to encourage traditional family structures for the sake of children (SSM clearly does NOT do this), and it is built on God’s revelation to us in the Bible (I don’t bring this up much because it doesn’t get me anywhere with people who don’t take the Bible to be God’s word.)

    Just to be clear, it is BEST to have the biological mother and father raise a child. Obviously this can’t always happen, so we allow for married couples to adopt children, as this would be far better than children living in an orphanage.

    But by legalizing SSM, we would be explicitly saying that it is just as good for a child to be raised by two same-sex partners as it is for them to be raised by their biological parents. SSM completely obscures the findings of social science in that case. Right? If SSM is equivalent legally to traditional marriage, it follows that children are just as well off being raised in the SSM home as being raised by their biological parents.

    What is so ironic is that people who are skeptics, who demand evidence for everything, who say that empirical science is the arbiter of all reality – these are the same people who are completely ignoring the findings of empirical science when it comes to what family structures work the best for raising children. I guess science doesn’t matter as much when ideological and political matters get in the way.

  26. Bill, I don’t see how legalising SSM is stating that two gays adopting is equal to biological parents. Do you believe allowing straight parents to adopt sends a message that they are equal to biological parents? If yes, then logically you, again, should be against infertile couple marrying. If no, then your argument is inconsistent.

    As an aside, obviously biological parents are the ideal, but that doesn’t mean we don’t allow adoption, right?

    Now, if you’re arguing that gays aren’t as good as straights for adoption, then you need to make that case. Before then your argument against gays marrying still equally applies to any couples who can’t naturally conceive.

    At any rate, we’re talking about the right to marry, not the right to adopt.

    By the way, would you tell adopting parents to their face that you see them as inferior to biological parents? Seems a bit harsh. The hoops one must jump through to adopt are tight ones – biological parents by contrast get no veting.

Comments are closed.