Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Marriage: union of persons?

In the Question and Answer I did for the American Family Association about same-sex 'marriage,' I argued that marriage is not a union of persons, but a specifically sexual union between a man and a woman publically recognized because of its potential fecundity. But this raised a question: how do I know marriage is a union of a man and a woman? How do I know marriage is not simply a union of persons?

To answer this question, I did a Reductio ad absurdum on the opposite view. I asked my readers to consider what it would mean is marriage actually did mean the union of two consenting adults. I explained that there would then be only two options. I quote:

The first option would be that while marriage hasn’t always been the union of persons, this is what marriage ought to be now. The second option is that marriage always has been the union of two consenting adults.

Now if both these options are problematic—and I will argue that they are—the only option left is to say that marriage is not a union of persons per se, but the union specifically of a man and a woman.

So let me explain why the first option—that while marriage hasn’t always been the union of persons, this is what marriage ought to be now—is so problematic. The problem with saying that marriage ought to mean the union of persons while acknowledging that historically this just hasn’t been the case, is that the whole case for same-sex ‘marriage’ then collapses. This is because 99% of the case for same-sex ‘marriage’ rests on the notion that what is being sought is not a qualitative change to the definition of marriage but simply a quantitative enlargement of the pool of people allowed to marry. But if we acknowledge that up to now the institution of marriage has never meant a union of persons, then that is essentially to concede the argument, since it implies that no one has been discriminating against couples of the same sex any more than they have been discriminating against an individual who wishes to “marry” himself or individuals who might wish to include polyandry in the definition of marriage. If up to now marriage has always meant the union of a man and a woman, then while we might be able to speak of a government discriminating against a black man by denying him the right to marry a white woman, it would not be coherent to talk about government discriminating against people wanting to marry someone of the same sex since such a contingency is incoherent according to the terms of the institution itself.

Indeed, if marriage has always been the union of a man and a woman, then saying that this discriminates against same-sex couples would be like saying that a club which has always been for golf discriminates against tennis players. The only way to get around this and to still maintain that marriage has previously referred to a union of a man and a woman would be to simply assert that the definition ought to be changed. That would be like saying that the golf club ought to become a golf-and-tennis-club. But this is not what is being pushed, because if it was, then it would negate the claim that homosexuals have been victims of unequal treatment. In reality they are no more the victims of unequal treatment than tennis players who are told they can only play golf at the golf club.

The other option left is what I mentioned a minute ago, namely that marriage has not previously referred exclusively to the union of a man and a woman, but that it always has been the union of persons. That would be like someone claiming that the golf club had actually always been a golf-and-tennis club. Now suddenly the issue becomes an empirical question that can be verified on historical grounds. Someone taking this position would need to maintain that the gender of the persons has always been accidental in an Aristotelian sense. But notice what follows -- We are then claiming that the union of a man and woman has always been a variant of the union of persons; that biology and the possibility of reproduction were never at the core of what marriage is, but additions to it; that consummation was never central to the completion of a marriage since only practical when the “union of persons” happened to be members of the opposite sex; that “man and wife” were never something that made a relationship a marriage but were always a species of the genus “union of persons.” These are historical claims that we can verify empirically, in the same way as we could verify it if someone claimed the golf club had always been a golf and tennis club.

As we look at the facts, we find that this has never been how the institution was understood, even among cultures like ancient Rome, which might have been most inclined to understand marriage as the union of persons. Given the fact that it was only fifty years ago that marriage stopped being understood in conjugal terms, it simply will not do to say that “man and woman” has always been a subset of “persons.” Ergo, those who take the view that marriage always has been the union of persons are pushed into the corner of having to acknowledge that throughout most of human history, the laws, customs, culture and language built up around marriage was based on a misunderstanding of what marriage actually was, for until recently no one understood that marriage has actually always been the union of persons. That would be about as absurd as saying that everyone in the golf club had really belonged to a golf-and-tennis-club or a golf-and-water-sports club or a golf-and-chess-club without realizing it.

Let’s be clear, the fact that marriage has never been understood as a union of persons does not itself prove the new concept to be faulty. However, at a minimum it does establish that it is a new concept, a novel definition that is discontinuous with the institution of marriage as it has been understood and practice for thousands of years. This is something the champions of gay marriage are reluctant to acknowledge since their case for “equal access” depends on maintaining some degree of continuity with the norms of an existing institution. They want to appropriate these norms to themselves without having the courage to admit that what they are really doing is restructuring, rearranging and changing the essence of the institution itself.

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