Real Marriage
From the March 21, 2011 issue of NR


There are two millennia worth of compelling metaphysical arguments aimed at showing the presupposition of this: that the body is an integral dimension of the human person. But here it will suffice to consider other moral indications of the same point: If someone ruins your car, he vandalizes your property, but if he amputates your leg, he injures you. There is a difference in kind between vandalism and violation; between destruction of property and mutilation of bodies. Moreover, part of what is peculiarly perverse about torture or sexual exploitation is that it uses one aspect of the person (his body) against another aspect of his self (wishes, choices, commitments). That is why rape remains gravely wicked when performed on a comatose person who never finds out and sustains no lasting physical or psychological injuries. It still involves misusing — ab-using — a person, and not merely using and replacing intact his or her property. Relatedly, you can licitly relinquish all rights over your property, but you cannot do the same with your body or its capacities for labor: Not just slavery but even voluntary servitude — the relinquishing of all rights over your own body and its capacities — is ruled out, because your body is (part of) you and not just your property.  If Steorts rejects the special value of bodily union in marriage apart from its psychological effects, how can he account for the special and inherent harm of bodily abuse? But if he acknowledges that full personal union requires bodily union, he must take the body on its own terms. He must accept the objective conditions of its distinctive kind of unity — the coordination of parts for the single biological good of a whole — which adults can achieve only in coitus.

Thus does the sentimentalism of Steorts’s view, like all sentimentalisms, reflect a stunted humanism: It ends by misperceiving, and finally harming, the good it set out to serve. By understanding human beings, their union, and their fulfillment too narrowly in terms of degrees of emotion, it devalues the various friendships and destabilizes the marital goods of which pleasures and other experiential delights are best seen as welcome perfections. 
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JASON LEE STEORTS REPLIES: Consider a man who has testicular azoospermia, knows it, falls in love with a woman, and discloses that to a certainty they cannot have children. If these two want to marry, Girgis would marry them. His reason is that the sex they have is oriented to procreation. But it is not. They will never have children, and their knowing this will make it impossible for them to see their union as procreatively oriented. Thus falls apart Girgis’s explanation of why they should follow the norms he and I care about: The reality of their relationship precisely does not call for life-sharing to foster children they know they will not have.
Why do they want to marry? Is it not because they are in love, have committed to spend their lives together, and want the law to protect their commitment when it comes to e.g. property and health care? And are a same-sex couple not also able to make this commitment? 
Both the same-sex couple and the man with testicular azoospermia and his wife have reasons to follow marital norms, which I presented and Girgis has ignored. Where there exist children to protect, I want our law to enforce the norms, by making it harder to divorce and by making unwed parents responsible for their children’s welfare. This would underscore the serious implications of procreative-type sex (which means: sex that might lead to procreation — not, as Girgis has it, sex like this). And it would do so more clearly than present law, since it would not treat couples without children as though they had them. (By the way, I also advocate using the tax code to encourage people who are married and can do so to procreate, and who have procreated but not married to do so.)
Girgis has also ignored this proposal, an omission that reduces his section on sociology to irrelevance, though it does set him up to falsely claim that I present a brief in Partilla and Riddell’s defense. His implausible view of sex, according to which it is only about getting pleasure if not had like this, and his belief that “wanting to spend your life with someone” can mean nothing other than wanting to spend every waking second with that person, are not true to human experience. And he really is the dualist, because he is making judgments of value based on generalizations about bodies rather than generalizations about being a person — that is, existing in the first person with one’s body and mind united. (I don’t know what it would mean to see one’s body as “an instrument for producing [one’s own] desirable feelings.” “A telescope is an instrument for seeing distant objects” — this I understand. “That person’s body is an instrument for producing my desirable feelings” — this I understand and deplore.)

— Mr. Girgis is a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at Princeton University and a 2008 Rhodes Scholar. He can be reached at [email protected]. Portions of this essay are adapted from his article “What Is Marriage?” (co-authored with Robert P. George and Ryan T. Anderson), which appeared in the Winter 2011 issue of the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy and is available at This article originally appeared in the March 21, 2011, issue of National Review.


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