The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 


Dispatches From The Sensate Culture:

The Philosophy Behind the Conjugal View of Marriage

Sherif Girgis

I want to begin with a general set of thoughts about why it is important to have a serious intellectual discussion about marriage, in particular in an environment where we share a common faith or a common set of assumptions and understandings about moral and political theory. It is very easy for people to think, “I know what I know by the scriptures or by my faith tradition or by my community, and I can just stop there.” There are several reasons for us not to stop there, however, as important and critical as those sources of knowledge are. 

The first reason is maybe the most obvious: not everyone is Christian. This is the most obvious point because we are all pressed day in and day out to give an account—a “reason for our hope,” as Saint Peter says—of the views that we hold in terms that other people can understand and appreciate whether or not they share a particular faith tradition. That is on full display today in the moral and political and legal battles that we are facing as a culture. But it does not stop there, and if we did stop there we might be thinking too strategically. There are several internal reasons, reasons rooted in the flourishing of our own communities and our own faith life, to think about the non-faith-based arguments for these moral and political views. Understanding the reasons, the rationale, the human goods at stake in these debates—whether you approach these issues from philosophy or from social science or from other disciplines or with all of them converging—gives you a deeper appreciation of something that we might all assent to at some intellectual level, but not yet really feel in our bones. It helps us appreciate, namely, that this is not just an arbitrary set of constraints; this is not just a test that God imposed, when He could have given any other, and we are just here to eke out an existence of barely obeying or not. This is a law of love, a correspondence to the truth about who we are and how we are made and how individuals and societies flourish. We have nothing to fear from any of the disciplines, because the truth all converges. The truth is consistent with itself.

The last reason for such a discussion is that it also helps us to appreciate our faith on its own terms. It is one thing to say that there are non-religious reasons for something; it is another to realize that those non-religious reasons will help us understand the point of the faith. Understanding the argument from the disciplines actually also helps unpack the contents of what we might believe on other grounds. It helps us apply it to new circumstances and to new issues and problems that were not faced when the sources of these traditions were developed.

First, it is helpful to consider an account of the philosophy behind the conjugal view of marriage. What is much less apparent is the philosophy that is at work on the other side of the issue. Sometimes this is depicted as a matter of neutrality: you are either neutral, morally and religiously, and so you favor recognizing same-sex relationships as marriages; or you have this sectarian, partisan imposition of your own moral views, and that is the conservative side. But there are actually two competing visions of marriage here. They both make assumptions, and when you examine those assumptions, the conjugal view turns out to be much more cogent and coherent. The view in favor of redefining marriage to include same-sex relationships actually has deep tensions and contradictions that have not been honestly faced because those assumptions have not been unearthed.

The first thing to note is how the debate has occurred on its own terms. The main argument in favor of redefining marriage has been one of equality. That is the slogan: marriage equality; equality for gays and lesbians. That argument will not get us one inch towards figuring out what the right marriage policy is, because everyone in the debate favors equality. The whole question is what marriage is. What is this relationship that we have a political and moral obligation to recognize on an equal basis? That is the question that stops proponents of redefining marriage every single time. If you actually linger and wait for them to offer an answer, none is forthcoming. The reason is not that they are not assuming an answer to that question—they are—but that their answer does not hold up to scrutiny, so we can do their work for them.

Let us think about what vision of marriage is at work in their view. Imagine two men who are living together and sharing a home and all the burdens and benefits of common life, and they are committed to doing it for the long haul—but what brought them together is that they are brothers who have just never moved out, never married, and who have decided to live together. Their relationship does not get recognized as a marriage. If what brought them together was a sexual relationship, it does. So what defines marriage in this revisionist view (because it is proposing to revise our long-standing understandings) is a certain kind of deep, emotional union—sexual, romantic companionship. That is what sets marriage apart. It is not the only thing that is involved, but it is what makes it different from other forms of companionship, friendship, cohabitation, and so on. This view gets marriage wrong. It gets marriage wrong not just by the lights of people of faith, of orthodox members of the Jewish and Christian and other traditions, but even by the lights of most people on both sides of the debate today.

You can see this by trying to think about how this view could explain or account for other features of marriage. Take the idea, for example, that marriage involves a commitment for life. Most people accept, most people will agree, that to get the marriage off the ground, you have to commit for the long haul; that is part of what makes it different from other forms of companionship or from dating. That view makes no sense in principle if what really makes a marriage is a certain kind of deep, emotional bond. There is no guarantee that such an emotional bond lasts for life, and so there is no reason to pledge to be with the other person for life, as opposed to, “for as long as love lasts,” as some people change their vows to be: for as long as that emotional connection remains. In fact, in the work of sociologists like Johns Hopkins University’s Andrew Cherlin, for example, you see that many have the reverse idea, the idea that if you stick with the relationship after the emotional bond has faded, it is harmful; it is inauthentic; it is a failure of sincerity and genuineness. The point, in short, is that the permanence principle makes no sense on this vision of marriage. There is no reason to pledge permanence as long as the thing that makes it a marriage (as opposed to an ordinary friendship) is not itself permanent.

The idea of sexual exclusivity is in similar tension with the revisionist view. For some people, by temperament or taste, for most people perhaps, pledging sexual exclusivity enhances the emotional intensity of the relationship. But increasingly many couples today are saying exactly the opposite, that not pledging exclusivity but actually having a by-agreement-open relationship makes the emotional stability of their marriage stronger. On this vision of marriage there is no answer to them. There is no reason of principle that marriage should be the kind of relationship that pledges exclusivity if what really makes the marriage is a certain kind of emotional bond that is at its best contingently connected to exclusivity.

On this revisionist view, moreover, marriage is not inherently a relationship of two people. There is no reason of principle that three men, for example, could not have a deep emotional bond and share all the burdens and benefits of common life, and want their relationship ratified, want to avoid stigmatization for themselves, for their children, want to be able to have all the legal incidents and benefits of marriage life. In fact, that is an argument that is increasingly being made—and not just by conservatives offering hypotheticals, but increasingly by people in these relationships. New York Magazine published a very sympathetic profile a few years ago of a throuple comprised of three men who were making exactly these arguments—not just saying that this was their lifestyle choice, but saying that it was a natural outflow of their own identities.[1] The kind of relationship in which they found the most personal fulfillment, the most personal stability and satisfaction over time, was a three-person relationship, where the distribution of duties and the issues of jealousy and trust just have a different shape than they do in two-person relationships. Some of these people will say, “I always thought something was different about me. I always thought I just wasn’t satisfied out of romance in the same way that my friends were. And then I discovered the ‘poly’ (polyamorous) community. And I found that this was my orientation.” Such individuals are making exactly the same arguments, and the revisionist view of marriage, again, has no answer because what it makes central is the personal fulfillment of adults. (At this point, even the idea that marriage is a sexual relationship starts to look arbitrary, on the revisionist view. If what really makes the marriage is a matter of degree, the closeness or the intensity or the priority of the relationship, then there is no reason of principle that it should be sexual as opposed to deep but platonic.)

So permanence and exclusivity and monogamy and sexual union and certainly a connection to family life and through that to the common good—every single one of the defining features of marriage, everything that makes marriage different from companionship—cannot be explained on the revisionist view of what makes a marriage. That inability is something that is simply not discussed, because people are never pressed to give their own account of what marriage is. They immediately confront you with “bigotry!” or with “malice!” or other kinds of accusations about your character or your intentions, and they leave the arguments aside. Those unexamined assumptions cannot be what marriage is.

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