Brandon Vogt

Interview with Robert George – What Is Marriage?

Robert George
Last year, Our Sunday Visitor asked me to write a special section for their newsweekly on marriage. The centerpiece was a 4,000-word article titled “The 10 Best Arguments for “Same-Sex Marriage”…and Why They’re Flawed”. I also wrote a short article on the need for logic and charity when discussing controversial topics like marriage.

One big highlight of preparing the section was getting to interview one of my intellectual heroes, Professor Robert George. George is professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University and a visiting professor at Harvard Law School. He’s an expert on marital law and a strong advocate of traditional marriage.

Along with two students, Sherif Girgis and Ryan T. Anderson, George recently co-authored a book titled, What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense (Encounter Books, 2012). The book is simply the most insightful, eloquent, and strongest defense of marriage I’ve ever read. It expands on arguments made in their renowned academic paper by the same name, published in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy. The paper remains the most-downloaded academic paper in the history of the Internet.

Enjoy the interview!

Brandon Vogt: In the book, you say the entire marriage debate hinges on one question: What is marriage? Why is that question so important?

Robert George: Advocates of redefining marriage to include same-sex relationships appeal to the principle of equality. We cannot, however, understand what equality does and does not require without first determining what marriage is.

Marriage laws will always draw distinctions between the types of relationship that count as marital and the types that do not. Appeals against the distinctions they draw based on claims about equality will in every case depend for their validity on whether the distinctions are arbitrary. Whether the distinctions are, in truth, arbitrary or non-arbitrary will turn on a judgment of what marriage is.

What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A DefenseSo, the key question is: What is marriage? Yet this is the question that those seeking to redefine marriage seek desperately to avoid. They hold to the unquestioned assumption that marriage, properly understood, is simply an especially intense emotional bond, and that the marital relationship is merely a form of sexual-romantic companionship or domestic partnership. This assumption underwrites their claim that distinguishing “same-sex” from “opposite-sex” partnerships in defining marriage is arbitrary and therefore a form of invidious discrimination.

The assumption, however, turns out to lack credibility. It cannot be squared with the history of our law and practice of marriage, or with aspects of marriage that remain, to a considerable extent, uncontroversial.

For example, it cannot make sense of why marriage is necessarily a sexual partnership, as opposed to a partnership that could just as well be integrated around other (nonsexual) shared interests, activities or objectives (a love of tennis or literature, a shared commitment to a political or religious cause, or whatever).

Nor, quite crucially, can it make sense of why marriage is a union of two persons, and not three or more (triads, quadrads, etc.) in polyamorous sexual partnerships.

What can account for, explain and justify these features of marriage is the traditional understanding of marriage as a conjugal union. This type of union is a multilevel (bodily as well as emotional) sharing of life that is made possible by the sexual-reproductive complementarity of man and woman. It is oriented to, and would naturally be fulfilled by, the spouses’ conceiving and rearing children together.
Brandon: Some people wonder why the government even concerns itself with marriage. Why does it regulate this type of relationship?

Professor George: Marriage is critical to the success of any society because it is the way that mothers and fathers are united to each other in a relationship uniquely apt for the project of child rearing. Now, obviously, law and the state have a profound interest in successful child rearing. Every other social good depends on that.

So, although the state did not invent marriage—marriage, properly understood, is a pre-political institution—the state rightly and necessarily recognizes marriages, distinguishes marital from nonmarital forms of relationships, and supports, regulates and promotes marriage in the hope of sustaining a vibrant marriage culture.

This explains why, historically and across cultures, governments have formally recognized and regulated marriages, even though they have not done that for ordinary friendships, relationships among siblings or purely religious sacraments and ceremonies, such as baptisms and bar mitzvahs.
Brandon: How would legally recognizing same-sex marriage weaken the marriage relationship?

Professor George: Marriage properly understood is not exclusively about procreation and child rearing, though that is what grounds the state’s profound interest in marriage.But it is always linked, if indirectly, to those human goods and purposes. Marriage, as a conjugal union, is the kind of relationship that is oriented to, and would naturally be fulfilled by, the spouses’ having and rearing children together. Where a marriage is not blessed with children, it remains a marriage because being in a relationship of this nature is intrinsically good and fulfilling; it is not merely instrumentally valuable as a means to successful child rearing.

So, the law has always recognized consummated marriages as valid and perfected marriages, even where the spouses know that their sexual congress will not give them children. And the law has always treated all marriages, including the marriages of infertile spouses, as bound by the norms that shape and structure marriage as a conjugal union: sexual exclusivity and fidelity, and the pledge of permanence.

When the law abolishes the conjugal conception of marriage and replaces it with a counterfeit, the rational basis of these norms will be lost, and people’s belief in them and willingness to abide by them will erode as the norms make less and less sense to each generation. They will seem more and more like mere relics of a bygone age when marriage was understood differently.

Initially, of course, habitual ways of thinking and sentimental attachments will cause some people to continue to think of the norms as valid and binding, but that won’t last.

Is this conservative “scaremongering”? Hardly. Candid activists in the same-sex marriage movement say essentially the same thing. Writer Victoria Brownworth, for example, acknowledges that redefining marriage “will almost certainly weaken the institution of marriage.”

The difference between Brownworth and me is only this: She thinks weakening marriage by redefining it would be a good thing, something that would liberate people and free them from constraints and “hang ups.”

I think it would be a catastrophe for children, for families, for communities and for the larger society, all of whom depend for their well-being on the health and vibrancy of the original and best “department of health, education and welfare,” the marriage-based family.
Originally published in the Our Sunday Visitor Newsweekly.

Pick up your copy of Robert George’s excellent book, What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense (Encounter Books, 2012).

And if you liked this discussion, you’ll find several more on my Interviews page. Subscribe free via feed reader or email and ensure sure you don’t miss future interviews.

  • nlcatter

    catholics think every marriage outside their church is invalid

  • I’m still not convinced that governments should concern themselves with regulating marriage at THIS point in history. When the definition of marriage is completely *relevant* and transitory in Western societies, why bother?

  • ForChristAlone

    And the case is aptly made that, because the current definition of marriage held by the State and by various other cultural and non-Catholic religious institutions and the definition of marriage held by the Catholic Church are so fundamentally distinct, the Catholic Church ought NOT to recognize any “marriages” other than Her own. It is obvious that the Catholic Church and She alone hold a wholly different view of the essential nature of marriage. The only hope for the future of the true meaning of marriage will be in the Catholic Church’s drawing that distinction clearly and allowing people to make the choice.

    The only commonality between societal definitions of marriage and that held by the Catholic Church is that both (at this time) involve the species homo sapiens.

  • Thomas Boynton Tucker

    I don’t see how these arguments contradict the arguments for same-sex marriage, which advocates will say are also about mutual fulfillment, and are intrinsically good and fulfilling for the partners. They may even raise children togehter. None of this is clear from the interview; I hope the paper and book go further to counter these arguments.

    • Thomas, you don’t see any contradictions between the conjugal few Professor George promotes and the redefinition of “same-sex marriage” advocates?

      Perhaps you can clarify by answering this question for me: what is marriage?

      • Thomas Boynton Tucker

        I really don’t see the contradiction, if marriage is valid between a man and a woman who are infertile. It seems to me that once you concede that, then you concede that marriage truly is a fulfilling union between people in which the begetting of children is not a sine qua non. After that, it’s hard to deny it betwen people of the same sex just because they cannot have children together.

        • ForChristAlone

          Two men cannot consummate conjugal union as the expression of love according to the natural order.

          • Thomas Boynton Tucker

            I agree with you, Deacon, but statements like that do not resonate with the young people who support SSM.

          • Thomas, regarding your earlier comment about there being no contradiction between homosexual couples and infertile couples marrying, please see this article I wrote (particularly #6):


          • One more question, Thomas: if marriage is, as you describe, “a fulfilling union between people in which the begetting of children is not a sine qua non” why should marriage be monogomous; or constrained to two people; or necessarily sexual; or recognized by the state? Robert George’s main point is that your definition offers no reason for those specific traits while the conjugal view does.

            Also, what principled interest would the state have in regulating “fulfilling unions between people”? I have several friendships I’d consider to be “fulfilling unions.” Should I consider all of these friendships marriages? If not, what’s the difference between strong friendships and what you call “marriage”?

          • Thomas Boynton Tucker

            First, keep in mind that I do not hold to these arguments in favor of SSM. But I know people who do, and I am still having trouble refuting them. The answer to your first question would be that there is indeed no reason for it necessarily to be monogamous or constrained to two people. Dr. George himself said that marriage was “intrinsically good and fulfilling”, even when procreation was not possible.; SSM advocates would say that they see the same thing in their unions, and even if not monogamous, etc.
            As for the state sanction, they argue that it is for recognition of validity, recognition of equality, and for recognition of equal legal protection. Some owuld even argue that they have adoptee children and so it provides a legal framework in which to raise their children.
            Again, I fail to see how Dr. George’s arguments refute these points since marriage as a “multilevel (bodily as well as emotional) sharing of life” (his words) applies to SS couples as well as infertile couples.

          • Thomas, thanks for the reply.

            First, to refute the most common arguments from your SSM-supporting friends, I’ll again point you to my article. That’s its entire aim:


            Second, being “intrinsically good and fulfilling” is a quality of all true marriages but it isn’t the only trait or requirement. I have intrinsically good and fulfilling friendships but that’s no reason for me to demand the state pretend they are marriages. Beyond that, “intrinsically good and fulfilling” is a subjective marker than cannot be used as a basis for national marriage policy–how could you determine which relationships met that criteria?

            Third, you say:

            “As for the state sanction, they argue that it is for recognition of validity, recognition of equality, and for recognition of equal legal protection.”

            I think you misunderstood my question. I meant to ask, “Why would the government care whether to regulate any and all ‘fulfilling union’?” I wasn’t asking why would homosexual couples want their unions recognized and incentivized. I was asking what principled incentive the government has to concern itslef with these types of relationships. For traditional marriage, the answer is clear: marriage unites children to the parents and should thus be regulated and promoted. But since *all* same-sex couples are inherently infertile, there is no similar government interest.

            Finally, you have to understand what Dr. George means by “multilevel sharing of life” to understand his point. In his book, “What Is Marriage?”, he refers to the organically unitive act that unites two people in both body and soul, namely the conjugal act. That act can only take place when two bodies come together and coordinate toward a particular end, namely procreation. This unity occurs even when the end (conception) isn’t achieved, just as the different organs within your body coordinate to your health, and form one complete body even if they fail to keep you in good health. I suggest reading his book (or his free online paper, linked in my original blog post) for more info.

          • Thomas Boynton Tucker

            Thanks for the link, Brandon, I will read the article and hope to find some good counterarguments in it.
            To answer some of your points above, I would point out first that although same-sex couples are inherently infertile, many of them are still now raising children, or have the option to raise children, so there is a government interest in that. In fact, there potential for raising children is now the same as it is for infertile heterosexaul couples.
            Second, although you speak of an organically unitive act, same sex couples would argue that they also engage in an organically unitive act. Keep in mind that most people today either have no knowledge of, or simply reject, the idea of Natural Law, so whether or not the act is ordered to procreation is meaningless to them. All they see is the unity, and see that unity occuring whether or not it is a same sex act, or a contracepted act. FInally, I agree with you that the state cannot, and in fact does not, recognize “good and fulfilling” as a reason for sanctioning marriage. Nor does it recognize the goal (either real or theoretical) of procreation as a reason for sanctioning marriage. In fact all you have to do is apply for a marriage license and not have any legal impediments to have the state sanction your marriage.

© 2017 Brandon Vogt