It’s the fall of 2006. John Partilla, an Upper West Side advertising executive, meets Carol Anne Riddell, a local news anchor. Like-minded and both brimming with energy, they hit it off; within five years, they’re exchanging vows. But when the New York Times covers their wedding, it sparks a blaze of controversy. Why?
Partilla and Riddell were already married when they met — at their children’s pre-kindergarten. In fact, their families became friends. But rather than “deny their feelings and live dishonestly,” they decided to abandon their spouses and children. As the Times put it, “All they had were their feelings, which Ms. Riddell described as ‘unconditional and all-encompassing. . . . It was a gift . . . but I had to earn it. Were we brave enough to hold hands and jump?’”
Just days before Partilla and Riddell’s story appeared in the Times, Robert P. George, Ryan T. Anderson, and I posted online an article to be published in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy defining and defending what we called the “conjugal view” of marriage, according to which marriage is inherently the union of one man and one woman. We showed how redefining civil marriage to include same-sex romantic partnerships would speed the cultural currents that led Partilla and Riddell to “jump,” and thus seriously harm the common good. Recently in these pages (“Two Views of Marriage,” Feb. 7), Jason Steorts published a counterargument that, while not mentioning Riddell and Partilla, amounts to a brief in their defense.
That counterargument is false in almost every dimension. Steorts builds a faulty theory of marital love on a confused account of the human person. He construes marriage as “maximal experiential union” — a goal that, to the extent that it is intelligible at all, would put undue strain on spouses, obscure the value of norms specific to marriage (like permanence and exclusivity), and bulldoze the topography of non-marital relationships. It would thus tend to undermine the marriage culture, and with it the welfare of spouses and children. But it would also affect the unmarried, by obscuring the special value and social prestige of other forms of intimacy. Steorts’s view, imbued with sentimentalism, is in fact less humane than the view it would displace.
Steorts wrote his argument with enough acuity to flag certain common philosophical errors, but not enough care to avoid them — with the remarkable result that its early sections contain, in plain language, rebuttals to the rest. But it is worth rehearsing its problems here and showing how the conjugal view of marriage avoids them. The reason is simple: For all its problems, Steorts’s argument captures and condenses the nebulous ideas behind today’s movement to redefine civil marriage, yesterday’s push for no-fault divorce, and other corrosive trends. Answering it convincingly will hasten the day when the invitation to join Riddell and Partilla’s jump into emotivism is seen for what it is — a call to cultural suicide.
COMPETING VIEWS OF MARRIAGE
George, Anderson, and I argue that marriage is a unique form of friendship in being comprehensive and inherently oriented to procreation. As a comprehensive union, it unites not merely minds and wills, but also bodies. Human beings can achieve bodily union only when they cooperate in coitus, which makes two people into a single reproductive unit. As a union inherently oriented to procreation, marriage is sealed and distinctively embodied in this reproductive kind of act. (That is, although spouses may deepen their union through any number of activities, only coitus is per se marital, which is why it has historically been called the “marital act.” The law has never treated sodomitical acts, even between a wedded man and woman, as marital or capable of consummating marriage.) Our account of marriage explains why it is structurally different from other forms of friendship (e.g., pledged to permanence and exclusivity), why it is of particular interest to the state, and why two persons of the same sex cannot (any more than triads) form a marriage.
For Steorts, on the other hand, marriage is “maximal experiential union”: It consists in “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 . . . as possible.” Readers might wonder in what sense they could share “the facts about” that experienced unity (or is it the experience of that experienced unity?) with their spouse. They might further wonder whether Steorts’s taste for oracular pronouncements hasn’t overwhelmed concern for coherence in this, the central statement of his definition of marriage.