Redefining Civil Marriage Guts The Rationale For Civil Regulation

Wedding Cake Ornament1959In their first chapter, “Challenges to Revisionists,” the authors of What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense: Sherif Girgis, Ryan Anderson, and Robert George, begin their defense by going on offense as they write, “those seeking to redefine civil marriage misunderstand a human good—not just a legal artifact or title.”1

…the most foundational ways in which we can thrive, what we might call “basic human goods”…are the conditions or activities that in themselves make us better off, whether or not they bring us other goods. It makes sense to want these for their own sake. Health, knowledge, play and aesthetic delight are a few examples, and another is friendship.

Yet another basic human good, we think, is marriage….2

The revisionist view of marriage falls apart by its own definition, irregardless of the truth of the conjugal view of marriage (emphasis added).

Its deep errors are often overlooked, on the implicit assumption that if the conjugal view is wrong, revisionism must be right. This is obviously mistaken logic and, in fact, the revisionist view fails on its own terms: no coherent version of it can account for three points common to both sides of the debate: [1] the state has an interest in regulating certain relationships; [2] that interest exists only if the relationships are sexual; and [3] it exists only if they are monogamous.3

Both sides claim those three points as rationale for civil regulation of their view of marriage, but are all three points true of each view? Let’s pick up again those two different definitions of marriage.

The conjugal view of marriage:

Marriage is, of its essence a comprehensive union: a union of will (by consent) and body (by sexual union); inherently ordered to procreation and thus the broad sharing of family life; and calling for permanent and exclusive commitment, whatever the spouses’ preferences.4

The revisionist view of marriage:

…the union of two people who commit to romantic partnership and domestic life: essentially an emotional union, merely enhanced by whatever sexual activity the partners find agreeable. Such committed romantic unions are seen as valuable while the emotion lasts. The state recognizes them because it has an interest in their stability, and in the needs of spouses and any children they choose to rear.5

What Is Marriage bookmarked borderLet’s compare those two views point by point:

[1] the state has an interest in regulating certain relationships;

We don’t have laws on some relationships, such as friendships, because they “simply do not affect the common good in structured ways that could justify legal regulation.”6 The state has regulated the marriage relationship, because societies needs “strong marriages to produce what they need but cannot secure: healthy, upright children who become conscientious citizens.”7 Only the conjugal view of marriage has an inherent core that includes procreation and family life. Marriage has “enough objective structure, apart from spouses’ preferences, to be legally regulated.”8

The revisionists have no valid rationale as to why the state should regulate their view of marriage. Children are not inherent to this view because it is impossible for any same-sex couple to bear children in and of themselves. (Infertility is not a direct analogy, and the issue of stability is discussed later).

[2] [the state’s] interest exists only if the relationships are sexual;

Why is this a rationale for the state regulation of marriage? Again, I think the conjugal view of marriage can answer because of children who can be conceived in that relationship.

The revisionist cannot successfully answer by claiming that marriages are the most intense of relationships, and that sex generally fosters and expresses that intimacy. Emotional bonds are certainly important, especially in marriage. But if sex matters for marriage only for its emotional and expressive effects, as the revisionist must hold, then surely sex is perfectly replaceable, as no one really holds.9

My question is why would they even want the state involved in the first place? Especially since the Left’s mantra is get out of my bedroom! Girgis, Anderson, and George ask,

What is so different about sex that it can set a class of bonds apart—not just in name or feelings, but in the type of value realized and commitment involved— from the spectrum of non-sexual bonds compatible with various commitments? What unifies sex and the other features of marriage as one good? The answer, as we argue below, is this: Marriage essentially involved all-encompassing— including bodily—union, and sex unites bodily as no other activity can. But as we also show, sex that unites in this sense—making two people one, much as parts of a single body are one—requires a man and a woman.10

[3] [the state’s interest] exists only if they are monogamous.

…As chapter 2 will show, the conjugal view explains why marriage is possible only between two people. It also makes clears how spousal commitment can be exclusive. Since it sees marriage as something more specific than emotional union…the conjugal view alone can justify such extensive commitment as the norm for marriage.11

If the state has an interest only if a marriage is monogamous, then revisionists must answer why their definition of marriage is inherently monogamous. A type or intensity of emotion does not necessitate monogamy. The revisionist must also answer why the sexual relationships they espouse necessitate monogamous behavior. Again, revisionists have no answer.

In short those who want civil regulation of a revisionist view of marriage cannot provide a rationale as to why the government has an interest in regulating their definition of marriage. Without public purpose to their marriage policy, why should the state be involved?12
My posts on the book, What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, are more than a book review or report. Because I think it brings so much help and clarity to the ongoing debate on marriage, I’m working through their arguments to support or augment your own thinking on marriage. I recommend buying the book and working through it on your own, and I hope these posts spark your interests. If anything is unclear, please let me know. Any misinterpretations of the authors’ intents are obviously my own, and I will correct any that I discover. Previous posts on What Is Marriage? include:

Ceramic ornament used on the top of a wedding cake in Birmingham, England in August 1959, Andy Mabbett, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert George, What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense (Encounter Books, New York NY: 2012) 14, 13–14, 14–15, 6, 4, 15. 15–16, 17, 17–18, 19, 21.


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