The Meaning of Marriage (Part 1)

Interview With Princeton's Robert George

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PRINCETON, New Jersey, MARCH 20, 2006 (Zenit.org).- Debates about the institution of marriage are often characterized as clashes between religious adherents and secularists, which imply the debate is one between faith and reason.



However, a new collection of essays from across the academic disciplines argues that marriage need not be defended solely through appeals to religious authority or tradition.

Robert P. George is co-editor with Jean Bethke Elshtain of "The Meaning of Marriage: Family, State, Market and Morals" (Spence). He is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University and serves on President George Bush's Council on Bioethics.

George shared with ZENIT some of the arguments presented in the book as to why marriage is an "intrinsic good." Part 2 of this interview will appear Tuesday.

Q: What compelled you to compile this book of essays on the meaning of marriage? What is so special about this collection?

George: These essays are important because they demonstrate that marriage isn't a sectarian issue or even a narrowly religious one.

Quite the contrary, the essays demonstrate the public importance of marriage and our ability as rational people to grasp the meaning, value and significance of marriage even when we do not invoke or appeal to special revelation or religious tradition.

Last December, Jean Bethke Elshtain and I hosted a three-day conference, sponsored by the Witherspoon Institute, that brought together leading scholars from across the academic disciplines -- history, ethics, economics, law and public policy, philosophy, sociology, psychiatry, political science -- to discuss marriage.

Scholars presented papers on their academic discipline's contribution to our understanding of marriage, and each of the disciplines offered profound insights into the importance of marriage both for individuals and for the nation.

The papers did not invoke revelation, religious authority or sectarian reasoning. This was the best of what's been termed "public reason" at work.

And the conclusions from everyone at the conference were that: a) marriage matters; b) marriage is in crisis; and c) we could be facing the virtual abolition of marriage if we go down the road of same-sex "marriage."

Professor Elshtain of the University of Chicago and I decided to compile these essays into a book because the information and arguments we were fortunate enough to have heard at the conference need to be disseminated throughout our nation. Every American who cares about civil society, child well-being and the condition of marriage in our culture needs to know about the scholarly findings reported in this collection.

Right now there is a public debate going on about marriage, but all too often it has devolved into shouting matches about same-sex "marriage" alone.

Our project tried to avoid this pitfall, and to examine the entire range of social problems at stake in the discussion of marriage: fatherlessness, cohabitation, divorce, out of wedlock childbearing, etc.

While I cannot mention every chapter in the book, there are three essays written from a social science perspective that I will mention.

Don Browning of the University of Chicago and Elizabeth Marquardt -- author of "World's Apart" -- have a fascinating essay, "What About the Children? Liberal Cautions on Same-Sex Marriage."

Maggie Gallagher, the president of the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, has an insightful essay entitled, "(How) Does Marriage Protect Child Well-Being?"

W. Bradford Wilcox, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, concludes the book with a reflection on marriage's impact on the least well off in society, in his essay, "Suffer the Little Children: Marriage, the Poor and the Commonweal."

Other essays include an argument on how the acceptance of same-sex "marriage" would erase the grounds of principle for rejecting polygamy and polyamory, that is, multiple partner sexual unions; an illuminating discussion of how "no-fault divorce" -- unilateral divorce -- has weakened marriage as an institution, and how the lessons learned from our mistake in embracing "no-fault" divorce might make us cautious as we contemplate even more radical changes; and arguments about the importance of marriage for the legal, political and economic welfare of our society.

When a generation ago people began to discuss "no-fault" divorce, few even considered whether allowing Adam to more easily divorce Eve would have anything other than positive effects on marriage and society as a whole.

In hindsight we can see how the introduction of "no-fault" divorce altered -- for the worse -- people's understanding of the meaning of marriage, with profoundly damaging social consequences.

That experience should make us very skeptical of claims that we can recognize the relationship of Adam and Steve as a "marriage" without further eroding a sound public understanding of what marriage means and what it truly is.

Q: Turning from the book as a whole to your particular contribution, a chapter on practical philosophy and marriage: What do you mean in your essay when you say that marriage is an "intrinsic good"?

George: I mean that marriage is properly understood as more than a means to ends that are extrinsic to it.

The value of marriage is not merely instrumental. Marriage is a basic human good -- an irreducible aspect of the well-being and fulfillment of a man and woman who unite themselves to each other as spouses.

When one understands marriage properly as the permanent and exclusive union of sexually complementary spouses whose comprehensive, loving and faithful sharing of life is founded upon their "one-flesh" bodily unity, one sees that marriage provides a reason for action whose intelligibility as a reason does not depend on further goals or objectives to which it is a mere means.

In uniting a man and a woman at every level of their being -- the biological, the emotional, the dispositional, the rational, the spiritual -- marriage is intelligibly choiceworthy as an end in itself.

Just as the most fundamental point of non-marital friendship is friendship itself, and not other ends to which friendships may be useful as means, the most fundamental point of marriage is marriage itself.

Q: You note that much of the confusion about sex and marriage in our culture finds its roots in the thought of 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume. How is this so?

George: I don't want to place too much of the blame on poor old David Hume.

As I point out in my chapter of "The Meaning of Marriage," Hume himself held rather conservative views about marriage, recognizing it as a profoundly important social institution, one which needs and deserves support and protection by the formal institutions of society and by the customs and mores of the people.

The problem is not in what Hume taught about marriage; it is in what Hume taught about practical reason and moral truth.

As I've observed, a sound understanding of marriage recognizes it as an intrinsic good, or what, following Germain Grisez, I have called a basic human good -- something persons have reason to choose precisely because they grasp its worth as an irreducible aspect of human well-being and fulfillment.

But Hume teaches that there are no basic human goods, no more-than-merely-instrumental reasons for choice and action. Rather, Hume supposes, all of our ends are given by subrational motivating factors, such as feeling, desire, emotion -- what Hume called "the passions."

Reason, then, is reduced to a purely instrumental role in the domain of deliberation, choice and action. Reason cannot identify what is intelligibly desirable and thus choiceworthy; its role, on the Humean account of the matter, is merely to identify efficient means by which we can achieve whatever ends we happen to desire.

As Hume summed up his position, "reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions, and may pretend to no other office than to serve and obey them."

To the extent that Hume's teaching has been accepted, whether formally or merely implicitly, by contemporary men and women, it has led them to adopt a form of subjectivism -- sometimes called "moral non-cognitivism" -- that undermines a sound understanding of marriage and other basic human goods.

This is particularly damaging in the case of marriage, because marriage is the kind of good that can be participated in fully only by those who, however informally, understand it properly. Its capacity to enrich our lives as spouses -- and, where the marriage is blessed with children, as parents -- is significantly dependent on our understanding it and grasping its more-than-merely-instrumental value.

[Tuesday: Public reasons for defending marriage]