The traditionalist finds a criterion of a certain intrinsic value in the simple fact that a married man and woman engage in the generative act. He cannot condition this value upon the consequence of reproduction, since he sees infertile heterosexual couples as candidates for marriage; nor can he condition it upon the experience of sexual intimacy as the bodily dimension of romantic love, since this would make candidates of same-sex couples. Contra this, the revisionist sees no difference of intrinsic value between coitus and the sexual acts of same-sex couples.
The revisionist may prosecute his view by challenging the traditionalist’s claim that an infertile couple are a reproductive unit. A millennium or two ago, when the bodily means of reproduction were not well understood, every instance of coitus seemed to be of the same kind. But it is through instances that we see kinds, and we see more detail in the instances now, including physiological differences between fertile and infertile couples. These differences are natural facts no less than the macroscopic structures of sexual organs are natural facts, and when what is at issue is whether a couple are a reproductive unit, we will want our definition of that kind to overlap as precisely as it can with the facts about whether reproduction is possible. Confronted with the insistence that fertile and infertile couples are alike reproductive units, the revisionist might appropriate Bishop Butler’s remark that “everything is what it is, and not another thing,” and diagnose the traditionalist with descriptive myopia.
The more important point is that the traditionalist’s “what it is” does not tell us why we should find value in “it.” Let us ask the traditionalist: “Conceded, there are two kinds of sexual macro-structure, and a practice involving one of each that, depending on the instance, might or might not have the potential to generate children; would you now explain what good other than children or the hope or expectation of them, and other than the expression of a kind of love, depends on this practice?” Given that his judgment of value establishes no connection between the fact upon which it fixates and the experiences of human beings, what answer can the traditionalist make without turning his argument into a piece of dogma?
Against the traditionalist’s “comprehensive union,” the revisionist understands marriage as what I will call “maximal experiential union.” This is two persons’ sharing each other’s lives — conceived not as the facts about their bodies plus the facts about their minds, but rather as the facts about their experienced unity of the two — as comprehensively and deeply as possible. It satisfies in the strongest way the desire to escape the condition of facing life alone. It necessarily involves, and is consummated by, sexual intimacy, for the reason Roger Scruton identifies in his essay “Sacrilege and Sacrament”: “Sexual desire is not a desire for sensations. [Nor, I add, is it a desire for children, even if it is accompanied by that.] It is a desire for a person: and I mean a person, not his or her body conceived as an object in the physical world, but the person conceived as an incarnate subject, in whom the light of self-consciousness shines, and who confronts me eye to eye, and I to I.”
Scruton thinks that, the sexes being different, the experience of homosexual desire is dissimilar — and, we are to assume, inferior — to the experience of heterosexual desire. This claim is separable from his insight about the nature of sexual desire, and I find it not very compelling. Presumably indeed the experience of homosexual desire is different from that of heterosexual desire, but this does not entail that the former is less directed toward or compatible with existential commitment, or that the categorical difference is greater than differences between couples of either category. No one can know for sure, since each of us is trapped in his own experience. But homosexual and heterosexual persons show the outward signs of finding in committed romantic love the same kind of value. If we grant that they do, we must conclude that the traditionalist indulges an untenable dualism about body and mind as these relate to value. He assigns to the body’s reproductive function a fixed value for two classes of person between whom that function’s fulfillment in experience differs greatly, yet for whom the value of sexual intimacy as the expression of love is the same. He thus conceptually detaches the body from the natural, body-with-mind reality in which a large class of human beings exist.