Interview with Robert George – What Is Marriage?

Robert George

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.