So what is marriage, really?

The first of two posts about the new book “What is Marriage?” From an email by the Weekly Standard’s Jonathan V. Last:

So what is marriage, really? That’s the question asked by Sherif Girgis, Ryan Anderson, and Robert George in their new book titled (shockingly!) What Is Marriage? It’s a smart book on an important subject.

The Supreme Court has decided to hear two cases on same-sex marriage, meaning that we are finally headed toward what might be a clarifying moment on the subject, legally speaking. But what Girgis, Anderson, and George do in What Is Marriage? is provide some philosophical clarity.

The most powerful argument in favor of same-sex marriage has always been based on equality. Viewed from this position, marriage is a public institution—like the school system or buses—from which same-sex couples are unfairly excluded. Creating a right of same-sex marriage, this argument contends, does nothing to alter the institution itself. It merely provides equal access to a class of people previously excluded from it.

This is a reasonably powerful argument. Powerful enough that when the gay-rights lobby pivoted toward it recently they finally started scoring some electoral victories after years and years of failure at the ballot box.

But What Is Marriage? digs a little deeper into the equality argument and shows that it’s inherently superficial. Here are the authors in a recent essay in the Wall Street Journal:

We can’t move one inch toward an answer simply by appealing to equality. Every marriage policy draws lines, leaving out some types of relationships. Equality forbids arbitrary line-drawing. But we cannot know which lines are arbitrary without answering two questions: What is marriage, and why does it matter for policy?

The stance Girgis, Anderson, and George begin with is that drawing any lines around marriage is a moral choice. There is no default setting:

The conjugal and revisionist views are two rival answers; neither is morally neutral. Each is supported by some religious and secular worldviews but rejected by others. Nothing in the Constitution bans or favors either. The Supreme Court therefore has no basis to impose either view of marriage. So voters must decide: Which view is right?

And so they proceed, at length, to make the moral and philosophical case for marriage. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but the nub of it lies in natural law:

These insights require no particular theology. Ancient thinkers untouched by Judaism or Christianity — including Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Musonius Rufus, Xenophanes and Plutarch — also distinguished conjugal unions from all others. Nor did animus against any group produce this conclusion, which arose everywhere quite apart from debates about same-sex unions. The conjugal view best fits our social practices and judgments about what marriage is.

After all, if two men can marry, or two women, then what sets marriage apart from other bonds must be emotional intensity or priority. But nothing about emotional union requires it to be permanent. Or limited to two. Or sexual, much less sexually exclusive. Or inherently oriented to family life and shaped by its demands. Yet as most people see, bonds that lack these features aren’t marriages.

Far from being “slippery slope” predictions, these points show that the revisionist view gets marriage wrong: It conflates marriage and companionship, an obviously broader category. That conflation has consequences. Marriage law shapes behavior by promoting a vision of what marriage is and requires. Redefinition will deepen the social distortion of marriage—and consequent harms—begun by policies such as “no-fault” divorce. As marital norms make less sense, adherence to them erodes.

It’s bracing to see the philosophical case for marriage made in such unapologetic tones.

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