The Future of Marriage

This week’s Ricochet posts on marriage have made a sustained argument about what marriage is and why marriage matters. For a more detailed treatment of these issues, look to my new book, co-authored with Sherif Girgis and Robert P. George, What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense.

Monday’s post pointed out that long before there was a debate about same-sex marriage, there was a debate about marriage. It launched a “marriage movement,” to explain why marriage was good for the men and women who were faithful to its responsibilities, and for the children they reared. Over the last decade a new question emerged: What does society have to lose by redefining marriage as we’ve always known it?

Answering that question must begin with a clear idea of what marriage is. Tuesday’s post explained that marriage is a uniquely comprehensive union. It involves a union of hearts and minds; but also—and distinctively—a bodily union made possible by sexual complementarity. As the act by which spouses make marital love also makes new life, so marriage itself is inherently extended and enriched by family life and calls for similarly all-encompassing commitment: permanent and exclusive. In short, marriage unites a man and woman holistically—emotionally and bodily, in acts of conjugal love and in the children such love brings forth—for the whole of life.

If this is what marriage is, why does the government care? Wednesday’s post explained the many ways in which marriage contributes to the public good. Government cares about male-female sexual relationships because these alone produce new human beings. For highly dependent infants, there is no path to physical, moral, and cultural maturity—no path to personal responsibility—without a long and delicate process of ongoing care and supervision. Unless children do mature, they never will become healthy, upright, productive members of society. Marriage exists to make men and women responsible to each other and any children they might have.

Thursday’s post documented statements by many leaders of the effort to redefine marriage that show no interest in retaining marital norms—in fact, quite the opposite. Redefining marriage to abandon the norm of male-female sexual complementarity also would make other essential characteristics—such as monogamy, exclusivity and permanency—optional. This is increasingly confirmed by the rhetoric and arguments of those who would redefine marriage, and by the policies that their more candid leaders increasingly embrace.

The most interesting—and revealing—comments on this week’s posts have been those that said marriage is simply whatever sort of interpersonal relationship consenting adults—be they two or 10 in number—want it to be; sexual or platonic, sexually exclusive or open, temporary or permanent.

That idea sounds like the abolition of marriage. Marriage is left with no essential features, no fixed core as a social reality—it is simply whatever consenting adults want it to be.

If so, how can redefining marriage for public purposes to include same-sex relationships be a demand of justice? A matter of basic fairness and equality? From the wide variety of interpersonal consensual relationships that adults can form, why should the state pick out same-sex ones?

Indeed, some of those who posted comments saw this logic, and thinking that marriage has no form and serves no social purpose, they concluded that the government should get out of the marriage business.

If so, how will society protect the needs of children—the prime victim of our non-marital sexual culture—without government growing more intrusive and more expensive?

Marriage benefits everyone, because separating the bearing and rearing of children from marriage burdens innocent bystanders: not just children, but the whole community. It’s the community that often must step in to provide (more or less directly) for their wellbeing and upbringing. A child born and raised outside marriage is six times more likely to experience poverty than a child in an intact family—and therefore welfare expenditures grow. So by encouraging the norms of marriage—monogamy, sexual exclusivity and permanence—the state strengthens civil society and reduces its own role.

But marital norms make no sense—as matters of principle—if marriage is redefined. There is no reason of principle why emotional union should be permanent. Or limited to two persons, rather than larger ensembles. Or sexual, much less sexually exclusive. Or inherently oriented to family life and shaped by its demands.

If marriage isn’t founded on a comprehensive union made possible by the sexual complementarity of a man and a woman, then why can’t it occur among more than two people? If marital union isn’t founded on such sexual acts, then why ought it be sexually exclusive? If marriage isn’t a comprehensive union and has no intrinsic connection to children, then why ought it be permanent?

This isn’t to say that couples couldn’t decide to live out these norms where temperament or taste so motivated them; but that there is no reason of principle to demand it of them. So legally enshrining this alternate view of marriage would undermine the norms whose link to the common good justifies state action in the first place.

This highlights the central questions in this debate: what marriage is and why the state recognizes it. It’s not that the state shouldn’t achieve its basic purpose while obscuring what marriage is. Rather, it can’t. Only when policy gets the nature of marriage right do we reap the civil society benefits of recognizing marriage.

The future of our country, then, relies upon the future of marriage. The future of marriage depends on citizens’ understanding of what it is and why it matters—and demanding that government policies support, not undermine, true marriage.

  1. ConservativeWanderer

    It’s been a pleasure having you around, Ryan. Hopefully you won’t be a complete stranger after your guest contributor time here ends. :)

  2. katievs

    Great summary post.

  3. Rachel Lu
    C

    It’s nice the way you’ve laid this out. For skeptical conservatives, the critical point to make is that small government depends on successful family structures, and that the breakdown of those structures leads to more (and more intrusive) government. I preach that message all the time around here, but I think your step-by-step presentation of it has been a thorough and effective way of developing the argument.

  4. Hartmann von Aue

    You understate the point. It is not the Republic that is endangered by this abolition of marriage. It is human civilization. 

  5. Pseudodionysius

    the common good

    That phrase is another fulcrum in this debate. I encounter many Catholics who are confused by the phrase and assume it either doesn’t exist or that its synonymous with socialist doctrine.

  6. skipsul

    Thanks for this series.  But it’s hard telling people that, in some areas, the right answer is “no, you can’t.”

  7. ConservativeWanderer
    skipsul: Thanks for this series.  But it’s hard telling people that, in some areas, the right answer is “no, you can’t.” · 5 minutes ago

    But society does that all the time.

    No, you can’t take what belongs to your neighbor without permission.

    No, you can’t drive 60 mph in a school zone.

    No, you can’t print your own money.

    The problem is, some people want anarchy rather than a true society.

  8. Rawls

    Thank you for the series, Ryan!

    Although I still disagree, and my libertarian streak remains in favor of same-sex marriage and parentage (especially adoptive!), it was a good debate.

    I too hope you won’t be a stranger to Ricochet.

    And for all you libertarian-leaning readers out there who aren’t commenting, please do. We could use some fresh voices in here to whip things up.

  9. Douglas

    ““Public virtue cannot exist in a Nation without private Virtue, and public Virtue is the only Foundation of Republics.” – John Adams

    Further, private virtue must in part be maintained and nurtured by public policy… i.e. laws.

  10. Mike H
    ConservativeWanderer

    No, you can’t take what belongs to your neighbor without permission.But society does that all the time.

    No, you can’t drive 60 mph in a school zone.

    No, you can’t print your own money.

    The problem is, some people want anarchy rather than a true society. · 37 minutes ago

    I think some anarchists believe society will flourish under anarchy. I am not one, but I have an anarco-capitalist friend.

    He believes society will still apply these rules in the absence of government through other means. He also doesn’t have a problem with government making laws that would be enforced in an anarchist society. So he doesn’t have a problem with government doing obvious things. Not that he speaks for all “anarchists.”

  11. Merina Smith

    I have greatly appreciated this series of posts and the logical way they have been laid out.  I would really like to see more discussion of the effects of SSM on children, however.  It seems to me that this debate centers too much on the needs of adults or on various political ideas about liberty and such and not enough on the requirements of children.  Ryan has made that clear in his posts, but there hasn’t been much response to it.  In my mind, that is the single most important question in the debate.  There are multiple problems and questions.  

    1-Are men and women are indeed different and do they bring different skills to parenting?

    2-Is it important for children to see maleness and femaleness modeled in the home?

    3-Would children be less likely to have a mother and father, either birth or adopted if SSM becomes generally legal?

    4-How would SSM affect children in other areas of life, education for example?  

    There are other important issues for adults, religious freedom and freedom of association for example, but I’d most like to see these questions about children discussed.  They are the most vulnerable. 

  12. Ed G.
    Merina Smith: I have greatly appreciated this series of posts and the logical way they have been laid out.  I would really like to see more discussion of the effects of SSM on children, however. …..

    Merina,

    While I agree that the outcomes for kids are better in a stable home including both biological parents, I argue that the outcomes issue is irrelevant in discussing whether marriage should be changed to include SSM (however, it is relevant when discussing why marriage should remain exclusive, monogamous, and permanent). The point is that it is the duty of the biological parents to care for the children that they produce and marriage is offered as a form to help them do just that. After all, if some study were to be produced indicating that children are better off raised by an Asian father and a Hispanic mother – better off there than with the biological parents – I’d certainly not surrender my kids to the government man come around to collect them and deliver them to their new superior parents. Outcomes are important, but irrelevant to the discussion.

  13. Merina Smith

    Ed–Good question.  I’d like to know the answer to that too.

    Rachel–Well, yes, the point is that it is far better that children have a mother and father, whether for greater stability or because men and women each bring something different to the table.  I’d just like to hear from SSM supporters how they justify their views based on what has to be significant doubt about the effects on children of what can only be described as a monumental change to marriage and family culture.  I don’t think sufficient attention has been paid to this question by commenters, probably because people tend to minimize its importance.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone assert “Kids just need two people who love them.”  I think it really really helps if you have one of each gender,  and given the stakes, I want to hear SSM supporters justify their position. 

  14. katievs
    Ed G.

    Merina,

    While I agree that the outcomes for kids are better in a stable home including both biological parents, I argue that the outcomes issue is irrelevant in discussing whether marriage should be changed to include SSM…

    His argument is exactly based on what marriage is, isn’t it?  The “outcomes” display and reinforce the value of marriage for society, they don’t comprise it simply.

    Marriage is not reducible to a contract between consenting adults.  (If it were, then society would have no right to restrict it to couples who mean to be monogamous, would it?)

    It’s something much deeper and realer than that.  And it’s entire essence is grounded in the natural fact of sexual complementarity and pro-creativity.

  15. Ed G.
    katievs

    Ed G.

    Merina,

    While I agree that the outcomes for kids are better in a stable home including both biological parents, I argue that the outcomes issue is irrelevant in discussing whether marriage should be changed to include SSM…

    His argument is exactly based on what marriageis, isn’t it?  The “outcomes” display and reinforce the value of marriage for society, they don’t comprise it simply.

    Marriage is not reducible to a contract between consenting adults.  (If it were, then society would have no right to restrict it to couples who mean to be monogamous, would it?)

    It’s something much deeper and realer than that.  And it’s entire essence is grounded in the natural fact of sexual complementarity and pro-creativity. · 1 minute ago

    I’m not following. Are you taking issue with me, with Merina, or simply adding a point?

  16. Rachel Lu
    C

    Good points, Katie. I’d add that the state’s interest in marriage is justified first and foremost by its unique success in producing and raising healthy, responsible citizens. If we’re considering expanding marriage to include other combinations of people, the suitability of those couples for parenthood can hardly be an irrelevant subject.

  17. Merina Smith

    Ed–I’m pretty sure she’s agreeing with me by saying that outcomes are not irrelevant.  Rachel, on second thought, I think the importance of maleness and femaleness is pretty central because without that you could easily say that same sex couples who have demonstrated stability are just as suitable as heterosexual couples for raising children. Stability is important, but I think complementarity is more central to the question at hand. 

  18. Rachel Lu
    C

    But if you’re not willing to rely on generalization, no kind of sociological discussion will be useful. I mean, that’s what sociology *is*; making generalizations based on trends in data. And we certainly do plenty of it whenever we explore questions of gender differences! What if you have an unusually masculine mother or an effeminate father? Etc etc. I don’t really think we’re at cross purposes in any serious way. I certainly don’t discourage discussion of gender differences and their importance to marriage and parenthood! But in my experience it’s a harder battle to win with a lot of people, precisely because the differences between the sexes (once we move beyond the physiological) are so complex and subtle.

  19. Merina Smith

    You could be right, Rachel. 

  20. Nick Stuart

    Bought both the Kindle and dead tree version of your book. I’m going to be using it for a small group study (as soon as I can pull a small group together).

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