An "Interview" with Robert George: Part 4

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Is the institution of marriage lost in our culture?

It is battered in our culture, but it is not lost. Private pro-marriage forces, such as Marriage Savers, are doing important work through churches and other institutions. Much damage was done by bad legislation and policy, almost always in the name of reform. That legislation and policy is now itself in need of reform.

What is the key to restoring and securing the institution of marriage?

We must recover (1) a sound understanding of what marriage is and (2) why it is in the public interest for law and policy to take cognizance of it and support it.

What type of association and institution is marriage?

Marriage is a prepolitical form of association—what might be called a natural institution. It is not created by law, though law recognizes and regulates it in every culture. Nowhere is it treated as a purely private ­matter.

What do you think of the idea that marriage should be privatized?

I understand why someone would consider this idea, but it strikes me as a bad one. There is a reason that all cultures treat marriage as a matter of public concern and even recognize it in law and regulate it. The family is the fundamental unit of society. Governments rely on families to produce something that governments need—but, on their own, they could not possibly produce: upright, decent people who make honest, law-abiding, public-spirited citizens. And marriage is the indispensable foundation of the family. Although all marriages in all cultures have their imperfections, children flourish in an environment where they benefit from the love and care of both mother and father, and from the committed and exclusive love of their parents for each other.

You believe that those who believe in limited government should strongly back government support for the family. Why?

Does this sound paradoxical? In the absence of a strong marriage culture, families fail to form, and when they do form they are often unstable. Absentee fathers become a serious problem, out-of-wedlock births are common, and a train of social pathologies follows. With families failing to perform their health, education, and welfare functions, the demand for government grows, whether in the form of greater policing or as a provider of other social services. Bureaucracies must be created, and they inexorably expand—indeed they become powerful lobbyists for their own preservation and expansion. Everyone suffers, with the poorest and most vulnerable suffering most.

Why is it important to understand that marriage is a matter of moral truth?

The effective defense of marriage against the current onslaught will require an understanding of marriage as a matter of moral truth. Practical or pragmatic arguments are legitimate and important. But too few pro-marriage politicians are willing to say much about what marriage actually is. This gives those who would abolish the conjugal conception of marriage an important advantage in public debate. They hammer away with their rhetoric of “love makes a family” and demand to know how anyone’s marriage would be threatened if the same-sex partners next door were also allowed to marry.

Everyone agrees that marriage, whatever else it is or does, is a relationship in which persons are united. But what are persons?

According to the view implicit in sexual-liberationist ideology, the person is understood as the conscious and desiring aspect of the self. The person, thus understood, inhabits a body, but the body is regarded (if often only implicitly) as a subpersonal part of the human being—rather than part of the personal reality of the human being whose body it is. The body is viewed as serving the interests of the conscious and desiring aspect of the self by functioning as an instrument by which the individual produces or otherwise participates in satisfactions and other desirable experiences and realizes various objectives and goals.

On this view, how is it possible for two or more people to unite?

For those who formally or informally accept this dualistic understanding of what human beings are, personal unity cannot be achieved by bodily union as such. Persons unite by uniting emotionally (or, as those of a certain religious cast of mind say, spiritually). And, of course, if this is true, then persons of the same sex can unite and share sexual experiences together that they suppose will enhance their personal union by enabling them to express affection, share the uniquely intense pleasure of sex, and feel more intensely by virtue of their sex play.

What is the alternate traditional view of personhood?

The alternate view of what persons are is the one embodied in both our historic law of marriage and what Isaiah Berlin once referred to as the central tradition of Western thought. According to this view, human beings are not nonbodily persons (consciousnesses, minds, spirits, what have you) inhabiting and using nonpersonal bodies. Rather, a human person is a dynamic unity of body, mind, and spirit. The body, far from being a mere instrument of the person, is intrinsically part of the personal reality of the human being.

And how, on this, view, do persons unite?

Bodily union is personal union, and comprehensive personal union—marital union—is founded on bodily union. What is unique about marriage is that it truly is a comprehensive sharing of life, a sharing founded on the bodily union made uniquely possible by the sexual complementarity of man and woman—a complementarity that makes it possible for two human beings to become, in the language of the Bible, “one flesh,” and for this one-flesh union to be the foundation of a relationship in which it is intelligible for two persons to bind themselves to each other in pledges of permanence, monogamy, and fidelity.

So what is marriage?

Marriage, considered not as a mere legal convention or cultural artifact, is a one-flesh communion of persons that is consummated and actualized by acts that are procreative in type, whether or not they are procreative in effect.

Is marriage intrinsically good (in and of itself) or a mere instrumental good (good only for something else)?

It is an intrinsic human good, and, precisely as such, it provides a more than merely instrumental reason for choice and action.

The bodily union of spouses in marital acts is the biological matrix of their marriage as a comprehensive, multilevel sharing of life: a relationship that unites the spouses at all levels of their being. Marriage is naturally ordered to the good of procreation (and is, indeed, uniquely apt for the nurturing and education of children) as well as to the good of spousal unity. At the same time, it is not a mere instrumental good whose purpose is the generating and rearing of children. ­Marriage, considered as a one-flesh union, is intrinsically valuable.

What’s the relationship between the procreative good of marriage (the generating and rearing of children) and the unitive good of marriage (one-flesh union).

The procreative and unitive goods of marriage are tightly bound together. The one-flesh unity of spouses is possible because human (like other mammalian) males and females, by mating, unite organically—they form a single reproductive principle.

It is a plain matter of biological fact that reproduction is a single function, yet it is carried out not by an individual male or female human being, but by a male and female as a mated pair. So, in respect of reproduction, albeit not in respect of other activities (such as locomotion or digestion), the mated pair is a single organism; the partners form a single reproductive ­principle: They become one flesh.

How do you respond to those who want to deny this?

Consider this thought experiment: Imagine a type of bodily, rational being that reproduces, not by mating, but by some individual performance. Imagine that for these beings, however, locomotion or digestion is performed not by individuals, but only by biologically complementary pairs that unite for this purpose. Would anybody acquainted with such beings have difficulty understanding that in respect of reproduction the organism performing the function is the individual, while in respect of locomotion or digestion the organism performing the function is the united pair? Would anybody deny that the unity effectuated for purposes of locomotion or digestion is an organic unity?

Precisely because of the organic unity achieved in marital acts, the bodies of persons who unite biologically are not reduced to the status of extrinsic instruments of sexual satisfaction or expression. Rather, the end, goal, and intelligible point of sexual intercourse is the intelligible good of marriage itself as a one-flesh union.

On this understanding, the body is not treated as a mere instrument of the conscious and desiring aspect of the self whose interests in satisfactions are the putative ends to which sexual acts are means. Nor is sex itself instrumentalized. The one-flesh unity of marriage is not a merely instrumental good, a reason for acting whose intelligibility as a reason depends on other ends to which it is a means. This unity is an intrinsic good, a reason for acting whose intelligibility as a reason depends on no ulterior end.

What about pleasure? Isn’t sex for the purpose of pleasure?

The central and justifying point of sex is not pleasure, however much sexual ­pleasure is rightly sought as an aspect of the perfection of marital union; the point of sex, rather, is marriage itself, considered as an essentially and irreducibly bodily union of persons—a union effectuated and renewed by acts of sexual congress—conjugal acts. Because sex is not instrumentalized in marital acts, such acts are free of the self-alienating qualities that have made wise and thoughtful people from Plato to Augustine and from the biblical writers to Kant, treat sexual immorality as a matter of the utmost seriousness.

So what is the relationship between one-flesh unity, pleasure, and the desire for children?

In truly marital acts, the desire for pleasure and even for offspring are integrated with and, in an important sense, subordinated to the central and defining good of one-flesh unity. The integration of subordinate goals with the marital good ensures that such acts effect no practical dualism that separates the body from the conscious and desiring aspect of the self and treats the body as a mere instrument for the production of ­pleasure, the generation of offspring, or any other extrinsic goal.

But what about procreation? Don’t traditionalists believe that the sexual union of spouses is for the instrumental goal of having children?

It is true that St. Augustine in certain writings seems to be a proponent of this view. The conception of marriage as an instrumental good was rejected, however, by the mainstream of philosophical and theological reflection from the late Middle Ages forward, and the understanding of sex and marriage that came to be embodied in both canon law and civil law does not treat marriage as merely instrumental to having children. Western matrimonial law has traditionally and universally understood marriage as consummated by acts fulfilling the behavioral conditions of procreation, whether or not the nonbehavioral conditions of procreation happen to obtain.

So this is why sterility does not prevent marriage?

Right; the sterility of spouses—so long as they are capable of consummating their marriage by fulfilling the behavioral conditions of procreation (and, thus, of achieving true bodily, organic unity)—has never been treated as an impediment to marriage, even where sterility is certain and even certain to be permanent. Children who may be conceived in marital acts are understood not as ends extrinsic to marriage but rather as gifts—fulfilling for the couple as a marital unit and not merely as individuals—that supervene on acts whose central defining and justifying point is precisely the marital unity of spouses.

Why do you oppose same-sex marriage?

I and others have elsewhere developed more fully the moral case for the conjugal conception of marriage as the union of one man and one woman pledged to permanence and fidelity and committed to caring for children who come as the fruit of their matrimonial union. I have argued that acceptance of the idea that two persons of the same sex could actually be married to each other would make nonsense of key features of marriage and would necessarily require abandoning any ground of principle for supposing that marriage is the union of only two persons, as opposed to three or more. Only a thin veneer of sentiment, if it happens to exist (and only for as long as it exists), can prevent acceptance of polyamory as a legitimate marital option once we have given up the principle of marriage as a male-female union.

What would be the result of accepting the idea of same-sex marriages?

The acceptance of the idea would result in a massive undermining of religious liberty and family autonomy as supporters of same-sex marriage would, in the name of equality, demand the use of governmental power to whip others into line. The experience of Massachusetts as well as foreign jurisdictions is that once marriage is compromised or formally redefined, principles of nondiscrimination are quickly used as cudgels against religious communities and families who wish to uphold true marriage by precept and example.

How do you think through the problem that many who defend marriage seem to have marriage problems of their own and to act hypocritically while defending traditional morality?

Part of the trouble pro-marriage politicians and others have in defending marriage follows from the fact that these pathologies that afflict the marriage culture are widespread, and supporters of marriage, being human, are not immune to them. This is not to excuse anyone from personal responsibility. But the fact is that sustaining a marriage despite the ­collapse of many of its social supports is difficult. In trying to stand up for marriage, political leaders, intellectuals, and activists who have had marital problems of their own are subjected to charges of hypocrisy. Many therefore censor themselves. As a result, the pro-marriage movement loses the leadership of some of its most talented people.

And you believe that pro-marriage defenders must go beyond the issue of same-sex marriage, right?

The question of same-sex marriage is critically important, but rebuilding and renewing the marriage culture goes far beyond it. By abolishing the basic understanding of marriage as an inherently conjugal union, legal recognition of same-sex marriage would be disastrous. But many would say that such recognition would simply ratify the collapse of marriage that ­followed from widespread divorce, nonmarital sexual cohabitation, and other factors having nothing to do with homosexual conduct.

How do we rebuild the marriage culture?

Rebuilding the marriage culture will require (1) careful, incremental legal reforms to roll back unilateral divorce, accompanied by (2) herculean efforts on the part of nongovernmental institutions—especially churches and other religious bodies—to (a) prepare couples more adequately for marriage, (b) help them nurture strong marital relationships, and (c) assist those who are dealing with marital problems. Public-private partnerships will be essential, in my view, to cutting the divorce rate. This won’t be easy. If marriage weren’t so important, it wouldn’t be worth trying.

What do you think of the judicial usurpation of democratic legislative authority?

As with abortion, same-sex marriage is being advanced by liberal activist judges who exercise ­creative powers of constitutional interpretation. That gives us reason to pursue with new dedication the ­larger fight against the judicial usurpation of democratic legislative authority—another profound abuse of governmental power. State courts have given the ­supporters of same-sex marriage some important early victories, especially in Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Jersey (though in the latter two states the courts did not order that the word marriage be attached to legally recognized same-sex partnerships), and those supporters are in a position to fight hard to secure their gains in democratic forums and even to advance them.

Why do you think this issue should be taken directly to the people?

Despite extraordinarily broad support for same-sex marriage in the universities and the media, initiatives to preserve marriage as the union of one man and one woman have prevailed, usually by decisive margins, every time they have been put on the ballot but once. (The sole exception, Arizona, already had a legal definition of marriage as a male-female union in its state law.) Even in the deep blue state of Wisconsin, a ­marriage initiative prevailed in a near-landslide on election day in November 2006—in the course of what was around the country a big night for liberals and Democrats. With the Federal Marriage Amendment stalled, state marriage initiatives and constitutional amendments are vitally important. The issue should be taken to the people at every possible opportunity. Even in the bluest states, marriage will have a stronger chance with the people than with the judges or even with the legislators.

Some people have wondered whether the best way to handle the conflict over marriage in our politics is a federalist solution, one that eschews a national policy on marriage and leaves it to each state to define marriage as it sees fit.

This, too, I think is a bad idea. Just as the nation could not endure half slave and half free but eventually had to go all one way or all the other, we will not be able to get by with a situation in which some couples are “married” in one state, not married when they move to or travel through the next, and married again when they reach a third.

What happens if same-sex “marriage” is legally recognized in a small number of states?

It will spread throughout the nation, either through judicial action under the Constitution’s Full Faith and Credit Clause or by the working of informal cultural pressures. Some states may try to hold out, but they will sooner or later be forced into line.

Do we need a national or constitutional resolution of this issue?

Yes, we need a national resolution, and probably a constitutional one.

You are typically loathe to interfere with traditional state power, seeing federalism as (1) serving limited government and (2) embodying your belief in the principle of subsidiarity. But you still believe in a national and possibly a constitutional resolution?

Judicial usurpation has put into operation a chain of events that will result in the radical redefinition of marriage unless action is taken at the national level—going beyond the Defense of Marriage Act (which may yet be struck down by the courts)—to preserve the conjugal conception of ­marriage.

Some politicians and others say that they are against same-sex marriage but in favor of legal recognition of same-sex partnerships, with all or most of the rights and responsibilities of marriage, only falling under a different rubric. What do you think about civil unions?

If law and policy are at least to do no harm to marriage, it is critical that they avoid treating nonmarital conduct and relationships as if they were marital. There are clear moral lines—and not merely semantic ones—between what is marital and what is not, and the law should respect them. If they are blurred or erased, the public understanding of the meaning of marriage will erode.

What do you think about marital-type benefits being made available to same-sex couples?

Some of the benefits traditionally associated with marriage may legitimately be made more widely available in an effort to meet the needs of people who are financially interdependent with a person or persons to whom they are not married. Private contracts between such people should be sufficient to accomplish all or most of what they consider desirable.

What qualifications would you want in place for domestic partnership packages?

If, however, a jurisdiction moves in the direction of creating a formalized system of domestic partnerships, it is morally crucial that the privileges, immunities, and other benefits and responsibilities contained in the package offered to nonmarried partners not be predicated on the existence or presumption of a sexual relationship between them. Benefits should be made available to, for example, a grandparent and adult grandchild who are living together and caring for each other. The needs that domestic-partnership schemes seek to address have nothing to do with whether the partners share a bed and what they do in it. The law should simply take no cognizance of the question of a sexual relationship. It should not, that is, treat a nonmarital sexual relationship as a public good.

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