Saturday, May 07, 2011

What's Wrong With 'What Is Marriage?'

A new anti-gay marriage paper ('What is Marriage' by Sherif Girgis, Robert George, and Ryan Anderson) has been getting some attention recently. So I thought it might be useful to set out explicitly where I think their argument goes wrong. (But please don't interpret this as in any way legitimating the paper or indicating that the arguments merit engagement. I think that in a morally sensible society this would not be considered an open question, any more than (say) whether women should be allowed to vote.)

The article argues for what the authors call the Conjugal View of marriage:
Marriage is the union of a man and a woman who make a permanent and exclusive commitment to each other of the type that is naturally (inherently) fulfilled by bearing and rearing children together. The spouses seal (consummate) and renew their union by conjugal acts—acts that constitute the behavioral part of the process of reproduction, thus uniting them as a reproductive unit. Marriage is valuable in itself, but its inherent orientation to the bearing and rearing of children contributes to its distinctive structure, including norms of monogamy and fidelity. This link to the welfare of children also helps explain why marriage is important to the common good and why the state should recognize and regulate it.

The article suggests two routes to the anti-gay marriage conclusion: (1) that the Conjugal View is a metaphysical fact, which ought to be reflected and enshrined in law; and in any case (2) it has better consequences than the alternatives. I'll address each of these in turn.

The Metaphysics of Marriage

Methodologically speaking, I find the "metaphysics first" approach to public policy rather bizarre. For example, when instituting an intellectual property regime, the core question is not "what is intellectual property?" (as if there were some pre-legal fact of the matter), but something more like, what values are at stake here and what policies/laws would best serve these values?

The authors argue that revisionists must accept the primacy of their metaphysical question, for "[o]therwise, how could the law get marriage wrong?" (p.250) The obvious answer is that some legal regimes may be better or worse at realizing relevant values. But anyway, putting the word 'marriage' aside, we can interpret the first part of the paper as arguing that there's something distinctively valuable about the kind of relationship described by the Conjugal View (a value not shared by any other kind of relationship). So let's consider that claim.

Their core argument appears on pp.253-4:
Marriage is distinguished from every other form of friendship inasmuch as it is comprehensive... [B]ecause our bodies are truly aspects of us as persons, any union of two people that did not involve organic bodily union would not be comprehensive—it would leave out an important part of each person’s being...

Our organs—our heart and stomach, for example—are parts of one body because they are coordinated, along with other parts, for a common biological purpose of the whole: our biological life. It follows that for two individuals to unite organically, and thus bodily, their bodies must be coordinated for some biological purpose of the whole.

That sort of union is impossible in relation to functions such as digestion and circulation, for which the human individual is by nature sufficient. But individual adults are naturally incomplete with respect to one biological function: sexual reproduction.

Now, I'm happy to grant the claim that there's something distinctively valuable about comprehensive relationships, in some sense of that term. But it is just bizarre to interpret 'comprehensive' here to require this technical notion of 'organic bodily union'. There doesn't seem anything normatively significant about (perhaps unintentionally) performing a "biological function" together. Why think that biological functions matter intrinsically?

(To bring out the absurdity, suppose it turned out that some people are capable of joint digestion, though this procedure had none of the emotional impact of sexual intimacy. Would that show that the rest of us are incapable of "real marriage", since our unions fail to be "comprehensive" in virtue of leaving out the important part of us that is our digestive systems? It'd be awfully peculiar if the reality of my marriage depended upon the absence of this external contingency!)

It seems far more sensible to understand 'comprehensive' in a sense that concerns important human interests, as opposed to mere biological functions. As Jason Kuznicki puts it, "Marriage is a complete, all-encompassing, nurturing relationship. It’s about care for the whole person, so much so that no one else in all the world is quite as important." It's clear why relationships that are comprehensive in this sense are distinctively valuable. And it's equally clear that whether a couple have a relationship of this kind does not depend upon how their genitalia match up.

Test case: Suppose an old heterosexual couple get legally married, and spend the rest of their lives together. They are dedicated to each other's welfare, and share all that they consider important in life. Maybe they even adopt a child to raise together. They kiss, buy each other flowers on occasion, and are sexually intimate in various ways. But, for some reason (perhaps the woman suffers from severe vaginism), they just never have vaginal intercourse. Does anyone really want to say that they aren't really married, or that their relationship somehow fails to fall under the same normative category as a similarly nurturing and (humanly-)comprehensive relationship that happens to involve sharing a "biological function" in addition?

The authors acknowledge that "development and sharing, including the bodily union of the generative act, are possible and inherently valuable for spouses even when they do not conceive children." (p.257) But then why is it not equally true that such development and sharing, including sexual intimacy of a non-'generative' kind, is possible and inherently valuable in just the same way? Why should the biological category of one's actions make any difference to their normative character, if it makes no difference to the interests or well-being of affected persons? The authors' view seems to constitute a kind of bio-functional fetishism.

[Though one may question whether the proffered reasons are what really motivate the authors here. It's telling that when they finally consider the interests of gay persons, on p.283, the authors emphasize the possibility of "non-sexual friendship". I don't mean to denigrate the kinds of "deep friendship" they discuss, but I wonder: why is the option of a comprehensive (incl. sexual) relationship not still on the table?]

Objections
[I]n relationships that lack this orientation [towards reproduction], it is hard to see why permanence and exclusivity should be, not only desirable whenever not very costly (as stability is in any good human bond), but inherently normative for anyone in the relevant kind of relationship. (p.259)

But this is not particularly mysterious, on the 'marriage as (humanly-)comprehensive nurturing' view. A transitory relationship is clearly not a comprehensive intertwining of one's lives. And exclusivity seems more of a contingent pragmatic/instrumental consideration (given the possible risk of sexual dalliances distracting or even drawing one away from one's prior relationship), rather than anything essential to good marriages as such. Anyway, one can raise here a general dilemma: Either these features will serve real human interests, in which case their normativity is easily explained without appeal to 'biological functions', or else they don't serve any real human interests, in which case they mustn't be normative after all.

The authors continue (p.261):
Less able to understand the rationale for these marital norms, people would feel less bound to live by them. And less able to understand the value of marriage itself as a certain kind of union, even apart from the value of its emotional satisfactions, people would increasingly fail to see the intrinsic reasons they have for marrying or staying with a spouse absent consistently strong feeling.

This is rather ironic, given that the authors' own arguments rely on a morally incomprehensible bio-functional fetishism. As noted above, if these marital norms are to make sense, they must instead be grounded in real human interests, not metaphysical speculation about biological 'functions' and becoming 'one flesh'.

Won't somebody think of the children?

The authors object that if same-sex marriage were legalized,
the message would be sent that a household of two women or two men is, as a rule, just as appropriate a context for childrearing, so that it does not matter (even as a rule) whether children are reared by both their mother and their father, or by a parent of each sex at all. (p.263)

All the better! I endorse this message, and so should you. I think it's important (as a rule) that children be raised in a stable and loving environment. I do not think that the genitalia of the parents matters.

Throughout the paper, the authors make reference to "sociological evidence [that] children fare best... when reared by their wedded biological parents." (p.257) More specifically, a cited study tells us: "Children in single‐parent families, children born to unmarried mothers, and children in step‐families or cohabiting relationships face higher risks of poor outcomes." (258) But the unsurprising fact that children tend to do worse in broken or unstable families is no evidence at all that gay stable families do worse at raising children than heterosexual stable families. Nowhere in the paper do the authors address, or even acknowledge, this obvious objection to the relevance of the data they cite. One wonders whether they are trying to mislead their readers.

More relevant studies would directly compare straight parents with gay parents (as opposed to comparing stable straight families with dysfunctional straight families). The early evidence that I'm aware of suggests that children raised by lesbian couples face drastically lower risk of abuse, and do outright better on many relevant scales (spanning academics, self-esteem, and behaviour). Perhaps we should ban heterosexual marriage, and restrict the institution to lesbians only?

Conclusion

The article pursued two routes to its anti-gay marriage conclusion: one broadly philosophical, the other more pragmatic. The "philosophical" argument rested on a bizarre and fetishistic appeal to the normative significance of biological functions, losing sight of the kind of "comprehensiveness" that really matters for marital relationships. The pragmatic argument brazenly appealed to irrelevant studies that don't really support their conclusions at all.

And besides the possible impact on children and families, it's worth considering some of the broader implications of the gay marriage debate. One relevant consideration that is thoroughly neglected by the article's authors is that this debate is taking place in a social context of historical - and, often, ongoing - oppression and stigmatization of gay persons. By arguing that same-sex relationships cannot possibly have the same value as heterosexual relationships, the authors are contributing to this stigmatization. They are lending their academic prestige to real world bigotry. The authors worry that their view "will increasingly be regarded as evidence of moral insanity, malice, prejudice, injustice, and hatred." (p.265) But when one considers the flimsiness of their arguments, and the seriousness of these real-world effects, is this really a surprise?

Update: Sherif Girgis responds by arguing that since we care about (i) having biological children, and (ii) rights to bodily integrity, it (somehow) follows that concern for biological functions / neo-Aristotelian teleology isn't fetishistic? I leave the refutation of this silliness as an exercise for the reader.

44 comments:

  1. Hi Richard,

    Nice post about a nasty piece of work. It seems to me that this style of argument typically runs into two problems. The first is the move from the metaphysics (which is never any good, right?) to law. Why think that law ought to be responsive to a correct metaphysical claim? If there are reasons from excluding certain facts from consideration, the move ought to be controversial.

    The second problem has to do with functions. They say, " That sort of union is impossible in relation to functions such as digestion and circulation, for which the human individual is by nature sufficient. But individual adults are naturally incomplete with respect to one biological function: sexual reproduction." Fine. Individual adults are also naturally incomplete with respect to a second biological function: interpersonal sexual conduct. You can argue until you're blue in the face that the penis and vagina have a function, but insofar as that's consistent with the further claim that the other pairings of parts have functions, I don't see how you can get from the claim that a penis and a vagina have a function to the important claim that it's wrong to use the penis without a vagina or a vagina without a penis. Didn't Aquinas point out the stupidity of this sort of argument when he noted that it doesn't follow from the fact that a function of the hand is to use instruments that it is wrong to walk on them? Doesn't anyone read the classics anymore?

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  2. I figured that merely listing citations wouldn't be helpful, but here is an attempt to navigate the wealth of empirical studies on the comparison in question:

    The American Psychological Association has found that homosexuality is not a psychological disorder, that homosexual orientation does not impair psychological functioning, that there is no significant difference between child rearing by lesbians and by heterosexual women, that homosexual parents evenly divide the work involved in childcare, that they are satisfied with their same-sex relationships, and that, ultimately, “lesbian and gay parents are as likely as heterosexual parents to provide supportive and healthy environments for their children.”[1] There is no evidence that children of same-sex couples are especially prone to gender identity problems, mental breakdown, adjustment difficulties, psychological disorders, teasing, sexual abuse, or drug abuse.[2] There is a wealth of recent and consistent evidence that parents’ sexual orientation has little to no effect on children’s gender identity[3] or sexual orientation.[4] The most recent and comprehensive national study of adolescents’ peer reports and self-reports for children of homosexual and heterosexual parents has found that family type is not a statistically significant variable in determining peer relationships.[5] As such, Gallagher’s concerns are unwarranted.

    Gallagher’s argument assumes that parental gender is important, but there are no parenting abilities (beyond lactating) exclusive to males or females. Research shows that women spend more time than men on homemaking and childcare, but there is no evidence that this difference derives from gender (or sexual orientation) per se.[6] The most recent issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family contains a comprehensive overview of parental gender’s role in child development. The authors find that the strengths of mother-father families appear “to the same extent” with same-sex parents.[7] This sociological finding is more accurate than the conventional wisdom about unique parental roles because the study isolates gender from other family structure variables (e.g., the number of parents, biological or adoptive relationship, sexual orientation, and marital status).[8] Gallagher’s claim is based on studies that compare mother-father households with single-parent households, but that comparison is about the number of parents, not the gender of parents; as such, it is irrelevant to same-sex marriage.[9]

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  3. However, some studies have found that “lesbian mothers’ and gay fathers’ parenting skills may be superior to those of matched heterosexual parents.”[10] In 2008, three psychologists evaluated the existing research on child development in same-sex families. They analyzed 19 prevalent studies in terms of six developmental outcomes. In five of these areas – sexual partner preferences, psychological adjustment, cognitive development, gender identity, and gender role behavior – there was no statistically significant difference between children raised by heterosexual parents and those raised by same-sex parents. They found a clear difference in only one area: the parent-child relationship. Same-sex parents enjoyed “significantly better relationships with their children than did heterosexual parents.”[11] Of course, this trend could have been the result of self-selection bias: same-sex parents may have volunteered to participate to “offset and reverse negative images of discrimination.”[12] But studies have found the same trend in children’s reports of their family relationships, so it is unlikely that the parents’ volunteering is solely responsible.[13] Even if this trend does not obtain for same-sex parents in general, it is quite strong for lesbian parents in particular; there is credible evidence that lesbian couples offer better childcare than heterosexual couples because they provide greater maternal involvement.[14] At the very least, we have sufficient reason to believe that same-sex parents are not worse (and they might even be better) than heterosexual parents in terms of child development, so prohibiting same-sex marriage has no rational basis in the interest of children’s welfare.

    [1] American Psychological Association Counsel of Representatives, Resolution on Sexual Orientation, Parents and Children, 1 (2004), http://www.apa.org/about/governance/council/policy/parenting.aspx. See C.J. Patterson, “Family relationships of lesbians and gay men,” 62 Journal of Marriage and Family 1052 (2000); F. Tasker, “Children in lesbian-led families - A review,” 4 Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry 153 (1999); C.J. Patterson, “Lesbian and gay parents and their children: Summary of research findings,” Lesbian and gay parenting: A resource for psychologists,” (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2004). Ctd in APA, Resolution.
    [2] See E.C. Perrin and the Committee on Psychological Aspects of Child and Family Health, “Technical Report: Coparent or second-parent adoption by same-sex parents,” 109 Pediatrics 341 (2002); J. Stacey and T.J. Biblarz, “(How) Does sexual orientation of parents matter?” 65 American Sociological Review 159 (2001); F. Tasker and S. Golombok, Growing up in a lesbian family (New York: Guilford Press, 1997). Ctd in APA. See also J.L. Wainright and C.J. Patterson, “Delinquency, victimization, and substance use among adolescents with female same-sex parents,” 20 Journal of Family Psychology 526 (2006); J.L. Wainright, S.T. Russell, and C.J. Patterson, “Psychosocial adjustment and school outcomes of adolescents with same-sex parents,” 75 Child Development 1886 (2004). Ctd in Charlotte J. Patterson, “Children of Lesbian and Gay Parents: Psychology, Law, and Policy,” 64 American Psychologist 727, 732 (2009).

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  4. [3] See C.J. Patterson, R.H. Farr, and S.L. Forssell, “Sexual orientation, parenting, and child development in adoptive families,” Biennial Meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, Colorado (2009); A. Brewaeys, I. Ponjaert, E.V. Van Hall, and S. Golombok, “Donor insemination: Child development and family functioning in lesbian mother families,” 12 Human Reproduction 1349 (1997); S. Golombok, A. Spencer, and M. Rutter, “Children in lesbian and single-parent households: Psychosexual and psychiatric appraisal,” 24 Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 551 (1983); R. Green, J.B. Mandel, M.E. Hotvedt, J. Gray, and L. Smith, “Lesbian mothers and their children: A comparison with solo parent heterosexual mothers and their children,” 15 Archives of Sexual Behavior 167 (1986). Ctd in Patterson, “Children,” 731.
    [4] S.L. Huggins, “A comparative study of self-esteem of adolescent children of divorced lesbian mothers and divorced heterosexual mothers,” Homosexuality and the family, ed. F.W. Bozett (New York: Harrington Park Press, 1989), 123-135; J.M. Baily, D. Brobrow, M. Wolfe, and S. Mikach, “Sexual orientation of adult sons of gay fathers,” 31 Developmental Psychology 124 (1995); J.M. Bailey and K. Dawood, “Behavior genetics, sexual orientation, and the family,” Lesbian, gay and bisexual identities in families: Psychological perspectives, Eds. C.J. Patterson and A.R. D’Augelli (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 3-18. Ctd. in Patterson, “Children,” 731-732.
    [5] J.L Wainright and C.J. Patterson, “Peer relations among adolescents with female same-sex parents,” 44 Developmental Psychology 117 (2008). Ctd. in Patterson, “Children,” 732.
    [6] Thomas J. Biblarz and Judith Stacey, “How Does the Gender of Parents Matter?” 72 J. of Marriage and Family 3, 5 (2010).
    [7] Biblarz and Stacey, “How?” 3.
    [8] Ibid., 5.
    [9] Herek, “Legal Recognition,” 612.
    [10] APA, Resolution.
    [11] Alicia Crowl, Soyeon Ahn, and Jean Baker, “A Meta-Analysis of Developmental Outcomes for Children of Same-Sex and Heterosexual Parents,” 4 Journal of GLBT Family Studies 385, 398 (2008).
    [12] B. Fitzgerald, “Children of Lesbian and Gay Parents: A Review of the Literature,” 29 Marriage and Family Review 57, 69 (1999)
    [13] See F. Tasker and S. Golombok, “Adults Raised as Children in Lesbian Families,” 65 Amer. J. of Orthopsychiatry 203 (1995).
    [14] Fiona Tasker, “Same-Sex Parenting and Child Development: Reviewing the Contribution of Parental Gender,” 72 Journal of Marriage and Family 35, 39 (2010).

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  5. Richard,

    Thanks for posting this. I haven't had time to read the paper yet, but it looks like you've gotten to the heart of the problem. It strikes me as similar in tone to Michael Levin's famous paper about the abnormality of homosexuality, with some sort of smuggled in Christian metaphysics standing in place of Levin's naturalistic argument.

    I think your example of the woman with severe vaginism rightly raises issues with the argument, but I wonder if another avenue (pun totally intended) doesn't raise as big of a problem: what if the only way for this married heterosexual couple (the woman with vaginism) to have sexual closeness was through anal sex? Clearly, this would be problematic for the typical form of morality endorsed by natural law theorists (like George) but if it led to the intimacy, closeness, and monogamy that a 'marriage' entails, why would it still be wrong? And, if not in this case, then what argument closes off the same situation for two men?

    This argument also brought to mind as story I read this week about a 100 year old California man who married his 93 year old girlfriend. I wonder how, on the schema presented by these authors, such a marriage (clearly non-generative and very likely to be non-sexual) could be justified.

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  6. Let me second a comment from JayJohnson, made over here.

    'What I want to know is why is Harvard publishing such drivel?'

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  7. The Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy is, in its words, a "sister organization" of Harvard Law School's Federalist Society, so they are likely publishing it because it is a conservative essay, on a topic that's currently before the courts, written by well-pedigreed academics.

    Bracketing whether their positions (that gay marriage is a metaphysical impossibility, and if, per impossible, it isn't, also bad policy) are philosophically defensible - or even make sense together (why form moral opinions about metaphysical impossibilities?) - the reason it does not pass as a philosophy paper (which, objectively, it doesn't) is that it isn't written for philosophers. Instead, it's written for judges who could draw, at least, on its policy arguments (even some of its metaphysics sound like Justice Kennedy in his more oracular moments) to rationalize a decision that gay people do not have a right to marry under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

    To add a dash of conspiracy, Robert George and Justice Scalia are on friendly terms as fellow Catholics. See here.

    (But note that this - sympathetic judges and academics working in loose alliance to develop a matrix of judicially cognizable literature that supports their preferred take on issues before the courts - is common on both the left and the right.)

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  8. In response to the research Jake Nebel quoted above, is it possible that what the couple had to go through to become parents has more impact on their relationship with their children than the couple's sexual orientation? I'm assuming that unless one of the parents was in a heterosexual relationship previously (which does happen), that most gay/lesbian couples became parents either through adoption or IVF. I wonder if there's a study that compares the children of heterosexual couples who were able to have children easily through natural means vs. heterosexual couples who had to adopt or use IVF, if the couples who went through adoption or IVF would also have better relationships with their children because of what they had to go through to have them. I would think the couple that goes through those experiences are less likely to take their children for granted regardless of the couple's sexual orientation.

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  9. A couple thoughts on the post.
    First, here seems to be some cartesian rationalism afoot in your understanding of human nature, i.e. an unembodied idea of interpersonal relationships in your account of a comprehensive relationship. By that I mean that your view seems to neglect any role to bodily function.

    Test cases are a good way to illustrate things as you point out with your elderly couple example. Could two wholly non-sexually involved people meet your definition of a comprehensive relationship? Or two siblings?

    My point being that your definition works for a type of relationship but strikes me as odd when we reconnect that definition back to the ordinary language uses of marriage we encounter.

    So then if two people needed co-digestion for some reason, that would be an interesting type of relationship to look at. I take the traditional definition of marriage to be one in which the two parties co-operate to produce offspring and a home. That's what Aristotle states in BKs I and VIII of NE and BK I of the Politics. I take him to be acting on observation, but a belief in data might constitute metaphysics?

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  10. Second, Aristotle presents an interesting route of explaining why we should have parents raise their own children. In critiquing Plato's Republic, he maintains that there's a basic problem with passing kids off to others to raise. Namely, the level of care a child receives is a function of the belief of the parents that this is their child. (I don't think Aristotle had a concept of adoption so this changes things for modern pictures). One can at a minimum say it is most natural -- but not necessarily best -- that children be raised by their progenitors.

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  11. "But please don't interpret this as in any way legitimating the paper or indicating that the arguments merit engagement. I think that in a morally sensible society this would not be considered an open question, any more than (say) whether women should be allowed to vote."

    Why this disclaimer? I am always interested to hear people talk about what ought and ought not be done. I will not bar anyone from being heard whether directly by force or indirectly by whisperings and prejudice. It is not the expression of views that is odious, but the commission of the deeds that stem from them, and if deeds do follow upon words with any regularity, we should only be the more ready to dispute where there is disagreement, not the less.

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  12. The disclaimer is simply to indicate that I don't take the topic to be one which allows for reasonable disagreement. The opposing arguments are, in my view, strictly unreasonable, and I didn't want anyone to mistakenly infer otherwise from the mere fact of my writing a post that engages with those arguments. (The fact that people are disposed to make such inferences is why scientists and historians, for example, sometimes express similar worries about engaging with creationists or holocaust deniers.)

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  13. I think I am more skeptical than you -- I put no bounds upon reasonable disagreement. I almost feel as if I have no choice, for I am very afraid, once I grant that some are unreasonable, that I will have no criterion by means of which to assure myself I am not among their number. Perhaps if I were less of a coward, I would also be less of skeptic!

    But do you think there any premises that could be used to persuade the author of this article to recant their position? I read your response, and it seems to me you mainly reject their premises. Did I read too hastily?

    Because I imagine the reply might end up being something like this:

    "Sex is the one thing men and women cannot do alone -- and what really unites people so as to form lasting bonds of society -- that is a deep part of our human nature, and marriage is a social institution springing not from custom but necessity to reconcile the sexes with each other for the sake of human harmony and abundance. We moderns, because we are clever, have learned to manipulate all things, with the result that marriage is not so important as it once was. But the nature of marriage still springs from the nature of women and men, and it would be better to make legal provisions for whatever other sorts of relationships our contemporaries will tolerate -- so as to provide for them from each other that protection they require -- but to expand the boundaries of marriage is to confuse nature and custom and is no more healthy, socially, than the expansion of logic to include chapters on the different methods of discovery and the different kinds of certainty, is a welcome development, intellectually."

    I guess that even aside from the flowery rhetoric, you would object to this, because you disagree with the author about human nature. But then to resolve the dispute between you, you need some way of coming to agree as to what human nature is, I would think?

    (And I think the dispute would move first in the direction of Darwin until, if it managed to extricate itself from that mire, you would end up with some disagreement in natural theology?)

    But it is hard to predict the course actual disputes will take. I do not discourage them, though, because every argument is in need of premises, and the premises will be drawn back deeper and deeper, too, to the point where I am afraid we will adopt a kind of dogmatism and reject certain premises out of hand -- because they are not compatible with naturalism, or because they are bad theology, or what have you.

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  14. There was actually a nice article in the recent APA newsletter of the Philosophy and LGBT issues division that addressed the "natural function" objection. http://www.apaonline.org/documents/publications/v10n2_LGBT.pdf (.pdf link) The article raised the interesting point that even if one function of the genitalia is reproduction, it is perfectly plausible that another function is pair-bonding, and that for some people pair-bonding works better with someone of the same sex while with others it works better with someone of a different sex. Thus, just as the mouth serves functions of (at least) speaking and eating, the genitalia may serve two separate functions, and even from a natural law perspective there should be nothing wrong with using them for one function, even if that gets in the way of their other function.

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  15. Hi Richard,

    One point of clarification about biological fetishism. (Caveat: I have only skimmed the article, though I have experience with George, Finnis, et. al.) There is a teleological component at work here. Heterosex is said to be the only proper sex, because it is the only type of sex that propagates he human species. And the propagation of the species is considered to be an *intrinsic good*. In accordance with natural law theory's moral realism, it is also said that any rational human being could recognize that propagation is good. This is what endows the biological act with normativity. (I'm not suggesting of course that this makes the argument any more persuasive.)

    Also, these folks do have an answer to the old couple/infertile couple/incapable couple test cases. One might wonder if infertile couples -- young or old -- are truly married. Yes they are, because their act is of the same *type* as the procreative act. (And this is why anal sex or mutual masturbation are considered immoral.) This answer is an answer your question: are couples who for some reason incapable of having penetrative intercourse truly married? Yes, because they want to have heterosex and have the proper equipment for it, even if that equipment is malfunctioning.

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  16. Kenny - that's a nice point. (Though I still think the more fundamental issue is that we don't have any reason to care about biological functions as such, independently of how they serve to promote human wellbeing.)

    Hi Benjamin, in my example the couple cannot engage in an "act of the same type as the procreative act". So even if we accepted the (bizarre) premise that it's the "type" of one's act that matters, that still wouldn't help in the case I describe. You suggest that perhaps it's enough that the couple possesses appropriate desires and "equipment", but that seems terribly ad hoc, and incompatible with the authors' insistence that "any union of two people that did not involve organic bodily union would not be comprehensive", and hence would not be "marriage".

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  17. But didn't Henry VIII use the argument that his wife was infertile to plead for a divorce? There are people who have been ready to say that if a couple cannot procreate, they are not married. Someone (especially a king!) might easily bite the bullet.

    I also was uncertain about your point on metaphysics versus law. Whether or not marriage is socially constructed or has some kind of divine sanction seems to me a pretty important disagreement between the two sides, as well. (And, for that matter, whether the laws we draft ought to reflect some sort of natural or moral law -- whether, in a sense, the laws of a country can true. One advantage of supposing there are true and false laws, is that it gives some justification for civil disobedience.)

    Finally, could you explain what you mean by "fetishism"? Maybe it has some technical meaning I'm not aware of, but I was worried it has an element of name-calling (as if you had said people who do not want to extend marriage are pagans or barbarians -- which even if true, ought not to count as an argument)...

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  18. Benjamin,

    I find their rejoinder to the infertility argument to be pretty weak. Here is a snippet:

    "Similarly, the behavioral parts of the process of reproduction do not lose their dynamism toward reproduction if non‐behavioral factors in the process—for example, low sperm count or ovarian problems—prevent conception from occurring, even if the spouses expect this beforehand. As we have argued, bodies coordinating toward a single biological function for which each alone is not sufficient are rightly said to form an organic union." (267)

    Notice firstly that they use examples that do not elicit in the reader a sense of certainty. Why not use an example like a woman that had a hysterectomy at age 12? Why not use examples where it is clear that it is physically impossible for them to procreate? Why use words like "expect this" rather than "know"? I think this is an oblique way of influencing the reader. Maybe that is a bit ticky-tack, but it does bother me.

    But if we look at the substance of it, ignoring the deliberate choice of examples, there are pretty obvious problems. For one, how is the behavior of heterosexual sex between two people that know for a fact that it is physically impossible for them to procreate towards the end of the biological function of procreation? If two men or two women having sex is a behavioral factor that precludes procreation, it is only so because of non-behavioral reasons (physiology and anatomy). Why can't we make the same move with infertile opposite sex couples? If the reason gay sex is a 'behavioral factor' is because of non-behavioral factors, why doesn't the same hold for opposite sex infertile couples? It is just as possible for them to procreate as gay couples. Using their argument, I fail to see how two knowingly infertile people of the opposite sex having sex isn't a behavioral factor in the same way gay sex is.

    Now your response about the equipment is, as Richard rightly pointed out, an ad hoc. What equipment fulfills this requirement? Certainly a woman with no uterus and no ovaries lacks the 'proper equipment' to procreate, yet if these figure in it just re-raises the infertility problem. If having a vagina is necessary, but more importantly sufficient to fulfill the 'proper equipment' requirement, then there are chromosomal male couples that fulfill this requirement(see Swyer syndrome)!

    I also fail to see how the fact that heterosexual sex is the only kind of sex (though you can get pregnant without heterosexual sex) that can result in pregnancy imbues that end onto heterosexual sex that cannot possibly result in pregnancy. It seems weird to me to say "The reason infertile heterosexual sex is still towards the end of procreation is that if they had the anatomical and physiological requirements to procreate, they could then procreate." You can say the exact same thing about gay sex. It seems like a silly conflation, it conflates heterosexual sex with possibly-procreative sex. They clearly are not the same thing.

    As one last comment. Their paper is forced to take an extremely myopic stance towards both sex and gender, as well as the teleology of marriage. If we want to raise a metaphysical problem, how about what is a 'man' and what is a 'woman'? This might seem obvious to most people, but I don't think it is quite so obvious.

    I apologize if I am unclear anywhere, I typed this up in one fell swoop, so if anyone wants clarification on a point let me know.

    Oh and Richard, dead on critique, well done!

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  19. " Suppose an old heterosexual couple get legally married, and spend the rest of their lives together. They are dedicated to each other's welfare, and share all that they consider important in life. Maybe they even adopt a child to raise together. They kiss, buy each other flowers on occasion, and are sexually intimate in various ways. But, for some reason (perhaps the woman suffers from severe vaginism), they just never have vaginal intercourse. Does anyone really want to say that they aren't really married, or that their relationship somehow fails to fall under the same normative category as a similarly nurturing and (humanly-)comprehensive relationship that happens to involve sharing a "biological function" in addition?"

    This is a test case for your own position. If we human beings reproduced asexually, and if the most intense human relationships that existed were what is described in your paragraph above, marriage would never have been invented. It would never have been seen as necessary. The very notion of pair-bonding would never have had privileged status.

    If biological functions are as irrelevant as you claim, there should be no such thing as "marriage." You need to start to think about why marriage should exist at all -- as some officially named relationship with legal duties attached to it -- and why it has been seen as different from every other form of relationship (roommates, best friends, nephew-ship, etc.). Once you come up with a theory for THAT, then you will be prepared to say why the concept of "marriage" should be broadened.

    Otherwise, your arguments seem merely confused, like someone who says, "I can't see why the title 'eating' shouldn't be applied to the act of listening to music. Listening to music is a great thing, it's as pleasurable as eating, and it even serves some of the same purposes (encouraging community, entertainment, etc..). I just can't tell the difference, and it's only a fetish to say that the biological function of consuming calories has anything to do with 'eating.'"

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  20. J.R.: "Bodies coordinating toward a single biological function for which each alone is not sufficient are rightly said to form an organic union."

    What other things would they say "form an organic union"? Does an ant-colony form an organic union?

    I think it's going to be very hard to give hypothetical counter-examples in these sorts of cases, because there won't be any agreement as to what features of a case must stay fixed and what permit of variation (after all, if a man had a vagina and a uterus and all that, perhaps he could bear children -- but then would he still be a man?)...

    But perhaps there is some agreement that we can whittle down this view to the proposition that marriage is a union between two people for the sake of THEMSELVES bearing and raising children?

    This is the one strong point that can be made, that gay couples cannot produce children on their own in the traditional way. Maybe that's what marriage has been or was supposed to be -- our quarrel is if that is what marriage should be.

    But what marriage is does seem to me to depend a little bit more on what those who are married are prepared to call it, than what eating is depends upon what those who eat call it, and so I am inclined to agree that marriage is more a part of custom than nature. (Like all culture, it is between natures -- the nature of the one cultivating, and the nature of the thing cultivated.)

    But having granted that, I think my only argument against traditionalists is that I do not accept their principles and I do not like their customs. That is not satisfying, and perhaps they will take advantage of my doubts and snatch me back into the fold, but sometimes it is enough to show that the tradition lacks force, even if one cannot show it lacks foundation. (There's always a foundation -- but foundation is a matter of degree, at least in the case of buildings!)

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  21. I tried to be as open minded as possible and to give it a charitable interpretation but it became hopelessly obvious to me after the 10th page that the paper is an abomination. The paper is atrociously poorly argued. I guess the standards for academic rigor is not the same in legal journals as it is in major philosophy journals. The paper also does not speak well for the institutions where the authors are employed.

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  22. Concerned, it looks like your point actually helps the case against the argument of Girgis, et al.

    They drew a connection between marriage and comprehensiveness, and then between comprehensiveness and biology. Richard challenged the second connection. And now it looks like you're challenging the first connection: you're saying that marriage has some deep connection to biology as such, independently of anything to do with comprehensive relationships.

    Now, your argument seems to presuppose a connection between the historical origin of a practice and its proper legal definition, and I doubt anyone will grant that connection without a fight. But leaving aside your argument, it looks like you would have to agree that the argument of Girgis, et al. isn't any good.

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  23. No. I'm agreeing that marriage is a comprehensive relationship, and that it's comprehensiveness necessarily includes the possibility of acts that are connected to sexual reproduction. My argument, such as it was, was directed to the objection that there's nothing special about the biology of sexual reproduction, which seems as odd to me as saying that there's nothing special about breathing or eating food. Really? It's only our entire survival as a species that depends on those bodily functions, so maybe it isn't just a "fetish" to think there's something special about them and that other things people like to do with their bodily organs (whistle, blow bubbles, etc.) aren't quite as important.

    Another observation to add to the point I made about asexual reproduction: If human reproduction had evolved to require 15 people engaged in a complicated biological ritual, and if groups of 15 then started forming everywhere to live in a common house as a community, then human society would have evolved some sort of title for the 15-member communities that were associated with reproduction. That wouldn't be surprising at all, and it wouldn't be just a fetish to think that reproductive communities were somehow important.

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  24. Firezdog - moral 'fetishism' is when one misattributes intrinsic moral significance to something that doesn't warrant it. (For example, rule consequentialists and certain kinds of deontologists are sometimes accused of "rule fetishism" when they treat moral rules as more important than welfare outcomes.)

    Concerned - I think that human welfare matters, so obviously biology matters insofar as it makes a difference to people's wellbeing. What's fetishistic, I claim, is to attribute intrinsic moral significance to biological "functions" as such. One could try to give a consequentialist argument against gay marriage based on the importance of encouraging reproduction, but that would be a very different argument from the metaphysical one found in these authors (and it would face obvious problems of its own).

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  25. But Richard, a person might think that there is a moral order implicit in the normal order of biology, if that person believes the order of living things has somehow been approved by God. I suppose the interesting question is whether biological norms (for example health) have any moral force in the absence of divine approval. (If God wants things to be healthy, that would be a reason to pursue health, I suppose -- but otherwise, you might wonder if health has anything to recommend it, in the final analysis -- if, for instance, for some reason, one does not prefer it.)

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  26. Gergis, George et al are not arguing that everything that has a natural function ought to be legally protected. They are arguing that the specific natural function of heterosexual sex, the production of offspring, is massively important for human communities and so justifies a social and legal institution in order to secure the various social benefits they explain in the article.

    As for the alternative functions of human genitalia that Kenny mentions, it ought be noticed that the article does not claim to make any argument for the immorality of gay sex. Not every natural function warrants legal protection, and neither does every use of natural organs. This is explicit in the article with their test cases of sexless friendships and other forms of important human companionship.

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  27. Zena8,

    If their argument is that the production of offspring is massively important, and marriage has the specific purpose of extending legal protection/rights to relationships towards that end, why can infertile couple get married?

    They're arguing that "comprehensiveness" is a necessary condition of marriage, and biological union is a necessary condition of comprehensiveness (253-254). They also argue that the biological union can be achieved in infertile opposite sex couples. This to me seems to indicate that, according to their own argument, offspring are not a necessary condition of marriage. So either we shouldn't extend marital rights to any couple incapable (or unwilling) of producing offspring, or the production of offspring has no leg to stand on in this argument.

    It seems to me that at this point it is more important for humanity writ large, and a duty of industrialized countries in particular, to raise already existing children, rather than produce more. In the U.S. alone over 100,000 children are adopted annually. Our population will increase by half in the next 40 years. Producing children is hardly an issue, raising them and supporting the massive amount of people we have now is. Same sex couples can provide a great benefit in this regard by adopting, but they can also produce their own offspring in-vitro.

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  28. J.R., that's an interesting point about fertility. I would anticipate a reply of the following sort. Infertility is sometimes stigmatized. Therefore, the state should respect (where possible) the privacy of would-be newlyweds, and grant them marriage licenses without asking about their fertility status.

    I would counter: Many gender identities are also stigmatized. Therefore, the state should respect (where possible) the privacy of would-be newlyweds, and grant them marriage licenses without asking about their genders.

    Now it's true that gender, unlike fertility, is usually a matter of public knowledge. But of course, as Americans learn that their genders are often complex and sometimes stigmatized, that's increasingly not so.

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  29. It's about the right to conceive offspring together. The practical public policy question is "should we approve and allow people to conceive offspring with someone of the same sex?"

    And yes, it is possible using stem cell derived genetically modified gametes, or using computer synthesized DNA. Mice have already been created using cruder methods. None of these methods should be allowed, because it is unethical to manufacture a human being, the only ethical way to create people is by the union of a man and a woman using their unmodified natural gametes, so that we are all created equal.

    George et al fail to explain why siblings are not allowed to marry, since they are fully capable of bodily union. It is because society doesn't approve of them conceiving offspring together, it would be unethical. Same is true of same-sex couples.

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  30. John - that seems a separate issue (most gay couples who are married or want to marry do not thereby plan to conceive offspring together, though many may want to adopt or have a child to which at least one partner is biologically related). Though I will say that your claim that modifying gametes is "unethical" does strike me as similarly baseless (and akin to the knee-jerk conservatism that greeted the invention of IVF).

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  31. Nope, not a separate issue, procreation rights is the same issue as marriage rights.

    I know that most gay couples don't plan to conceive offspring together, that's my point: why demand a right that most people don't even want?

    Adoption and gamete donation are not marriage rights, conception of offspring is a marriage right.

    You might find creating people from whatever to be a right, but I don't think people have a right to create people from whatever they feel like.

    IVF at least joined natural gametes, with no genetic engineering or deriving them from stem cells.

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  32. "(P)lease don't interpret this as in any way legitimating the paper or indicating that the arguments merit engagement. I think that in a morally sensible society this would not be considered an open question, any more than (say) whether women should be allowed to vote."

    What I find so interesting about the above “disclaimer” is the dogmatic epistemic certainty, especially considering the writer’s vocation. From where does it come? How can it be justified?

    This certainty requires two levels of justification. First, is the writer’s certainty concerning his own position. Then, there’s the additional level of certainty pertaining to all others – that they too should hold the same views on this issue as the writer. In other words, the writer is certain of his own belief and certain that all others should have that same belief. As a matter of fact, he also seems certain that others should hold to that same belief with the same certainty he does. That’s why it ought not to be an open question.

    Abdelsayed (I don't intend to sign in as 'anonymous')

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  33. John Hanna - You conflate dogmatism with high confidence. It is quite possible to have high confidence in a proposition (that unicorns don't exist, or that there aren't any remotely sensible arguments against same-sex marriage) as a result of judiciously assessing the available evidence, and while remaining sensitive to any new contrary evidence that might (unexpectedly) later come to light.

    Are you not similarly confident that some moral views (e.g. "that black people should be enslaved") are so clearly and seriously wrong that there is something wrong with a society where they're seen as an open question? I am simply offering another moral judgment of that same kind.

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  34. I would strongly recommend not engaging with John Howard. He is a troll who frequently pops up in discussions of gay marriage and attempts to redirect the discussion into one of "procreation rights." What are "procreation rights," you ask? Well, according to Mr. Howard, only married people have the right to procreate or even have sex together; sex outside of or before marriage is "mutual rape," according to him. Yes, he actually said this at the Family Scholars blog. Seriously, do not engage.

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  35. That's an irrelevant point, Souza. I am raising the issue of same-sex reproduction using stem cell derived artificial gametes, which I think should not be allowed. Marriage is approval of procreating together and should remain so, so if we prohibit procreation we should prohibit marriage.

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  36. Richard what is your answer to the question, What is marriage?

    You are highly confident, as you said, that it is a type of relationship that .... [fill-in the blank].

    The challenge posed also entails showing that society may justly draw eligibility lines around the essentials of the type of relationship (that you have in mind). The line against some related people and against polygnous, polyandrous, and polyamorous are specifically mentioned. The boundary would be around whatever distinguishes societal regard for what is in bounds, firstly, and whatever is out of bounds, secondarily or tertiarily.

    The challenge entails consideration of the reasonableness of coherently making normative such things as sexual (bodily encompasses this) exclusivity and consent and so forth. For instance, marriage entails a default that the husband and wife raise the children they jointly beget; and the sexual basis for that default is part and parcel of their consent to marry; as is the same sexual basis for consummation (sealng or completing the comprehensive union), for annulment (no marriage existed), adultery (grounds for fault and dissoution). Its treatment in custom and law reflects the coherency of what is a deeply private aspect that is also a deeply public aspect of societal regard for this type of union or relationship, as a difference in kind and not just degree of friendship. There is an independant reality that society regards in discriminating between marriage and nonmarriage. Society responds to that when privileging the type of relationship and when drawing boundaries or limits justly.

    So your answer to the above question needs to identify what would be normative, if anything, by virtue of being integral to the type of relationship rather than extrinsc to it. What is the basis for justly discriminating in favor of this type of relationship, gay union?

    This challenge does presume that the pro gay union view is one which distinguishes gay union from other types of relationships that are neither gay union nor husband-wife union. That is, presumably gay union and husband-wife union share definitive essentials that are not shared by the rest of the spectrum of relationship types ... before a label and status are affixed on one side of the boundary and denied on the other side. But there is room for rejection of that presumption. Please explain why you'd accept or reject it; and why ought to, morally as your rmarks suggest, follow and follow with the hgh confidence you claim for yourself.

    The conjugal view is coherent in its own right. The gay union view might be attached to it indirectly, perhaps, by way of metaphor rather than the distant analogy commonly (mistakenly) invoked. But such an attachment would be arbitrary in its own right and arbitrary if it excluded most of the rest of the nonmarriage types of relationships that populate society. It would be unjust 'piggybacking' and ultimately self-defeating.

    But you owe to the broader disussion your answer to the question, What is marriage? Your answer must be tested by the same measure you have used to test your understanding of the conjugal view. That testing you also owe the discussion, Richard, especially in light of your disclaimer which you described as your expression of high confidence which in effect is a leap of faith in supposed certitude.

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  37. Richard, so is it your position that conservative Christianity, Catholicism, Mormonism, Islam, an orthodox Judaism cannot be held by reasonable people and there validity are not open questions in a modern society. I think that is a pretty big call.

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  38. Richard,

    What if the reader has the misfortune of finding Girgis's response fairly convincing, and your paraphrase of it inaccurate? Do you want truly to have persuaded us, or only to seem to yourself to have done all that could be done in that direction?

    It looks to me like your objection to the joint biological function argument misconstrues the logic of that argument, which is not that a comprehensive union requires union in every possible biological sense, but just that "any union of two people that did not involve organic bodily union [supply:of some kind] would not be comprehensive" (253). If it really were the case that some couples achieved such organic bodily union through joint digestion, this would perhaps be an alternative form of marriage (one in which the state could have no interest), since it would supply another means of organic bodily union, but it would not add a new requirement to marriage. (I am as disappointed as you surely are, by the way, that Girgis did not explicitly respond to this most colorful part of your criticism. We need more high-level conversations about joint digestion in this world.) As a matter of fact, the authors argue, there is only one candidate for organic bodily union. And it is because coitus (which unlike most organic functions has a significant potential effect on the common good) is the only form in which this union can be achieved that the state has an interest in regulating marriage. (Whether this interest translates into an actual power or right I would set aside as a distinct question.)

    I am also left wondering what you think marriage is, and why you think the state should have anything to do with it. Or is it your opinion that it shouldn't?

    Thanks for your assiduous work on this blog. I am always enlightened and challenged by what I read here.

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    1. Hi Amos,

      You bring out an interesting ambiguity, in whether we should understand Girgis' "comprehensive union" as requiring all or merely some forms of "organic bodily union". I previously argued against the former view on the grounds that, in a world with possible joint digestion, it would be absurd to see joint digestion as necessary for marriage. But we can just as well use this case to argue against the latter view too. It is absurd to think that, in the described case, joint digestion would be sufficient for marriage. Sex is special in a way that mere joint digestion would not be. This shows that what they have in common -- being "joint biological functions" -- cannot be what's special about sex. Far more plausibly, it is something to do with the psychological and emotional intimacy thereby engendered that we are responding to. But of course, those effects are shared just as well by other forms of sex besides the kind that constitutes a "joint biological function". Girgis et al's obsession with "biological functions" is just completely bizarre, and his response -- that bodies matter -- does nothing at all to support the fetishitic view that biological functions matter.

      "I am also left wondering what you think marriage is, and why you think the state should have anything to do with it. Or is it your opinion that it shouldn't?"

      It is of course often easier to tell that one view is wrong than to determine which of the remaining contenders is right. As I sketched in the main post, I'm sympathetic to a view according to which there's distinctive value to relationships that are "comprehensive" in a sense that relates to central human interests (incl. sexual interests) rather than bio-functional fetishism. As a Consequentialist, I think the state should be involved in marriage just if it does more good than harm by doing so. Plausibly it does, but if it turns out I'm wrong about that, then I'd be okay with marriage becoming a matter for non-governmental civil society and culture.

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    2. Thanks for your very quick and thoughtful response to such a late comment. This kind of engagement with your commenters is one of the things that makes you exceptional as a blogger (and as a dialectician).

      If I understand Girgis, et al correctly, the connection between the importance of bodies and the importance of biological function is supposed to be as follows:

      1. Marriage entails a union of persons along all dimensions which belong to their personhood.
      2. Among other things, being a body belongs to the personhood of human beings.
      3. The only way in which persons can enjoy union along the bodily dimension is coitus. Since: (a) union along the bodily dimension means in some non-wishy-washy sense being really one in body, and (b) the only kind of bodily conjunction that doesn't collapse into wishy-washiness is one that has the same kind of unity that the parts of a person's body have, and (c) the parts of a person's body have unity by virtue of biological functional interaction.

      I often get hoodwinked by subtle ambiguities in logic, so I may be missing something, but I think that the argument is at least valid, and does indicate a substantial connection between the importance of body (to being a person) and the importance of function (as accounting for real physical unity).

      Now you're saying that "central human interests" trump such metaphysical considerations of real unity, which are "fetishistic." If I understand this correctly, you are saying that physical realities are only of marginal interest to human beings, who are at heart concerned about feelings and psychological states. But I'm not sold on this hierarchy of interests, which sounds to me like a strictly egoistic interpretation of the motivation behind marriage. If you give someone the choice between feeling completely satisfied with his marriage on the one hand, and being really one with his spouse on the other, I think he'll choose unity unless he's a really hard-nosed egoist. Actually being united, not just feeling like it, is the whole point.

      You think it's implausible that joint digestion would be sufficient for marriage. I don't know why you would think so unless you were presupposing that the kind of intimacy appropriate to marriage had to have some natural connection to procreation. Maybe you're thinking of how repulsive it sounds, but I distinctly remember having exactly that thought in Sex Ed in 5th grade. From the point of view of natural selection, it seems likely that any joint biological function would be accompanied by a satisfying feeling of integration reinforcing the bond, no matter how icky it is when you think about it.

      BTW, can you point me to an explanation of what's meant by the term "fetishism?" Maybe somewhere else on your blog? This isn't a concept that figured large in my own education, so I never know *quite* what you mean.

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    3. Thanks Amos, I'm enjoying the discussion. (It's always nice to have an interlocutor who engages with my objections in a clear and logical way!)

      By 'fetishism' in this context I just mean attributing great moral/normative significance to something that doesn't merit it (and is instead morally irrelevant).

      Your representation of the argument for caring about biological functions is helpful. My response is to place some critical pressure on premises (1) and/or (3a), depending on exactly what is meant by "union" and dimensions that "belong to one's personhood".

      I'm not concerned about the "yuckiness" of joint digestion or anything. I'm merely bringing out that it doesn't seem intrinsically significant, merely in virtue of being a joint biological function. Neither is sex, for that matter. What makes either significant to a relationship, if it is, is its psychological and emotional consequences. You seem to implicitly appreciate this when you write that "it seems likely that any joint biological function would be accompanied by a satisfying feeling of integration reinforcing the bond". What matters, on my view, is precisely expressing and "reinforcing the bonds" between people, not simply sharing in biological functions as such.

      You write: "If you give someone the choice between feeling completely satisfied with his marriage on the one hand, and being really one with his spouse on the other, I think he'll choose unity unless he's a really hard-nosed egoist. Actually being united, not just feeling like it, is the whole point."

      I agree. We can imagine a case where two people are not really "comprehensively united" in my (human psychological interests) sense, but falsely believe themselves to be. They think that they know each other well, have developed a shared life plan, etc., but they're actually completed mistaken about this. Circumstances allow them to somehow breeze through life in a subjectively happy way, each doing their own thing and never realizing that they don't actually understand and support each other. That is, on my view, a terrible relationship. But it's not terrible because they fail to be unified according to objective metaphysical functions. It's terrible because they haven't really come together on a psychological level or in terms of (many of) their central human interests.

      So, we agree that "actually being united, not just feeling like it, is the whole point." The question is what kind of union we care about. Is it a union of our thoughts, plans, values, interests, pleasures, and lives? Or is it "union" in some abstract metaphysical sense that has no necessary connection to human interests and concerns? It seems to me that only the former makes sense to care about.

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    4. Sorry for leaving this very interesting and illuminating conversation hanging for so long. End of the semester, you know.

      I like the way you put the question at the end of your most recent comment, and I think I better understand the point of your objection now. It's not clear to me, however, whether you think a correct understanding of marriage depends on (1) what kind(s) of union people care about or (2) what kind(s) of union it would be good for them to care about?

      I'm not sure how to go about answering those questions myself. Question 1 seems likely to produce a range of answers, depending on whom you ask. Question 2 threatens to run into some serious paradoxes, turning on the question of how to identify a standard of worth that does not rely on actual care in a way that vitiates its independence as a measure. (This is a big puzzle for me that I'd love to see your take on.)

      I think you would find that many couples approach marriage intending to become literally "one flesh," although I am sure there are plenty of couples for whom marriage is a more supersensible business. Perhaps we need a more fine-grained vocabulary to account for such differences in intention.

      At any rate, I admit that I can't say precisely why someone who doesn't already care about union along the bodily dimension of personhood should change his attitude, so perhaps we've got as far as philosophy can take us re: our particular disagreement.

      Thanks again for the exchange. I hope to comment on some other posts soon!

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