Originally published in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, this book’s core argument quickly became the year’s most widely read essay of more than 300,000 scholarly articles posted on the Social Sciences Research Network. Now expanded to address a flurry of prominent responses, What Is Marriage? stands poised to meet its moment as few books of this generation have. If the marriage debate in America is decided in the next few years, it will be either with this book’s help, or despite its powerful arguments.
Rhodes Scholar Sherif Girgis, Princeton University professor Robert P. George, and Ryan T. Anderson, editor of the online journal Public Discourse, provide a devastating critique of the claim that equality requires redefining marriage. They point out that any assessment of what “marriage equality” demands depends on first determining what marriage is—what sort of relationships must be treated as essentially the same. They defend the principle that marriage, as a comprehensive union ordered to family life, requires a man and a woman. And they argue for the great social benefits of enshrining this principle in law.
Most compellingly, they show that those who embrace same-sex civil marriage leave themselves no firm ground—none—for not recognizing as marriages every relationship type describable in polite English, including multiple-partner (“polyamorous”) sexual unions.
Finally, What Is Marriage? decisively answer common objections: that the historic view is rooted in bigotry (like laws forbidding interracial marriage); that it is callous to people’s needs; that it can’t show the harm of recognizing same-sex couplings, or the point of recognizing infertile ones; and that it treats a mere “social construct” as if it were natural, or an unreasoned religious view as if it were rational.
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About the Author
Ryan T. Anderson is William E. Simon Fellow at the Heritage Foundation and the editor of Public Discourse: Ethics, Law, and the Common Good, the online journal of the Witherspoon Institute. A Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude graduate of Princeton University, he is a doctoral candidate in political philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. He has worked as assistant editor of First Things and was a Journalism Fellow of the Phillips Foundation. His writings have appeared in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, First Things, the Weekly Standard, National Review, the New Atlantis, and the Claremont Review of Books.
Robert P. George is a Visiting Professor at Harvard Law School and McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. He is a member of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, and previously served on the President's Council on Bioethics and as a presidential appointee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights. He is a former Judicial Fellow at the Supreme Court of the United States, where he received the Justice Tom C. Clark Award. He is a recipient of the United States Presidential Citizens Medal and the Honorific Medal for the Defense of Human Rights of the Republic of Poland.
Read an Excerpt
Chapter One: Comprehensive Union
For all the difficulty and ambiguity of making value judgments, the broadest outlines of the good life are plain to most of us. One man has a healthy body and a happy family, an enriching complement of hobbies and a keen sense for Bob Dylan. By day he teaches high-school seniors to savor the rhythm and wit of Chaucer’s poetry; by night friends help him savor red Bordeaux. A second man is debilitated, depressed, desensitized and detached. It doesn’t take a poet or a saint to see who is better off.
It is equally clear that there is nothing special about Dylan, Chaucer, or Bordeaux that gives the first man his advantage. There is no single good life, but a range of good lives: countless ways of blending the basic ingredients of human thriving. But the ingredients themselvesthe most foundational ways in which we can thrive, what we call “basic human goods”are more limited. They include only those conditions or activities that make us better off in themselves, whether or not they bring us other goods. It makes sense for us 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. A critical point here is that marriage and ordinary friendship do not simply offer different degrees of the same type of human good, like two checks written in different amounts. Nor are they simply varieties of the same good, like the enjoyment of a Matisse and the enjoyment of a Van Gogh. Each is its own kind of good, a way of thriving that is different in kind from the other. Hence, while spouses should be friends, what it takes to be a good friend is not just the same as what it takes to be a good spouse.
What, then, is distinctive about marriage? All sorts of practices are grafted onto marriage by law and custom, but what kind of relationship must any two people have to enjoy the specific good of marriage? This framing of the question, though unusual, should not seem mysterious; we could ask it just as well of other basic human goods.
Table of Contents
A Note on Authorship ix
From Epithalamion, by Edmund Spenser xiii
Two Views of Marriage 1
Why This Book Now 4
What We Will Show 6
What Our Argument Is Not 10
1 Challenges to Revisionists 13
The State Has an Interest in Regulating Some Relationships? 15
Only If They Are Sexual? 16
Only If They Are Monogamous? 18
2 Comprehensive Union 23
Comprehensive Unifying Acts: Mind and Body 24
Comprehensive Unifying Goods: Procreation and Domestic Life 28
Comprehensive Commitment: A Rational Basis for Norms of Permanence and Exclusivity 32
3 The State and Marriage 37
Why Civil Marriage? 38
Is Marriage Endlessly Malleable? 46
4 What's the Harm? 53
Weakening Marriage: Making It Harder to Realize 54
Weakening Marriage and Expanding Government: Eroding Marital Norms 56
Making Mother or Father Superfluous 58
Threatening Moral and Religious Freedom 62
Undermining Friendship 65
The "Conservative" Objection 66
5 Justice and Equality 73
The Case of Infertility 73
The Injustice of Bans on Interracial Marriage 77
6 A Cruel Bargain? 83
Practical Needs 84
Dignitary Harm 85
Personal Fulfillment, Public Recognition 88
7 Conclusion 95
Appendix: Further Reflections on Bodily Union 99