He says that marriage requires “facing major life events jointly” and is deeper where it includes rearing children — i.e., sharing activities. But then he declares that “any union of two persons who are in love” — who have a certain mental quality of experience, certain feelings — “is deeper than that of any two who are not, even if they have reproduced . . . because only in romantic relationships can persons fully and reciprocally share themselves.” (And, though trumping in importance shared activities, such romantic desire for, and “existential commitment” to, the other’s whole person must be fostered in “the experience of sexual intimacy.”)
For this reason, we learn something about a relationship from the way it is sealed or embodied in certain activities. Ordinary friendships center on a union of minds and wills, by which each person comes to know and seek the other’s good; thus, friendships are sealed in conversations and common pursuits. Scholarly relationships are sealed or embodied in joint inquiry, investigation, discovery, and dissemination; sports communities, in practices and games. But marriage, on the conjugal view, is a comprehensive union of two sexually complementary persons who seal (consummate or complete) their relationship by the generative act — by the kind of activity that is by its nature fulfilled by the conception of a child. So marriage itself is oriented to and fulfilled by the bearing, rearing, and education of children. The procreative type of act distinctively seals or completes a procreative type of union.
Only the conjugal view gives marriage a distinctive shape — by highlighting orientation to procreation through bodily union. Steorts is welcome to suggest an alternative distinctively marital activity, to be shared between spouses and them alone as a unique expression of their form of communion, and its corresponding broader obligations. But I do not see how he can avoid either gerrymandering to include same-sex partnerships but not (say) triads, or relapse into an ideal that would trigger terminal claustrophobia in any normal person. But even as Steorts’s view expands the norms of marriage beyond recognition (and practicality), it rests them precariously on the shifting ground of deep romantic feeling — which varies, like all emotions, in quality and intensity. Moreover, because there is no reason that primarily emotional unions any more than ordinary friendships in general should be permanent, exclusive, or limited to two, these norms of marriage would make less sense on Steorts’s model. That is, it would make less sense why the experiential union of marriage should be maximal at all. Less able to understand the rationale for these marital norms, people would feel less bound by them. (See, for example, Andrew Cherlin’s The Marriage-Go-Round on how the rise of expressive individualism relates to the divorce revolution.) And less able to understand the value of marriage itself as a distinctive type of union, even apart from the value of its emotional satisfactions, people would increasingly fail to see the inherent reasons for marrying or for staying with a spouse absent consistently strong feeling — or, as for Partilla and Riddell, in the presence of strong temptations to form fresh “maximal experiential unions.”
- Educational achievement: literacy and graduation rates
- Emotional health: rates of anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and suicide
- Familial and sexual development: strong sense of identity, timing of onset of puberty, rates of teen and out-of-wedlock pregnancy, and rates of sexual abuse
- Child and adult behavior: rates of aggression, attention deficit disorder, delinquency, and incarceration
Thus, with the further erosion of marital norms, the state would be forced to play an ever greater role in children’s health, education, and formation more generally, with those in the poorest and most vulnerable sectors of society being hit the hardest, as the evidence cited in my article with George and Anderson shows.
Peer-reviewed studies referenced there also indicate that men and women generally bring different gifts to the parenting enterprise, and that boys and girls tend to benefit from fathers and mothers in different ways. With the recognition of same-sex partnerships as marriages, no civil institution would any longer reinforce these points, and there would be proportionately less motivation for individuals and communities to make decisions based on the mother-father parenting ideal.
This helps to explain why weakening marital norms would be a catastrophe for limited government. Absent a flourishing marriage culture, families often fail to form or maintain stability. As absentee fathers and out-of-wedlock births become common, social pathologies increase, as does the demand for governmental policing and social services. According to a Brookings Institution study, $229 billion in welfare expenditures between 1970 and 1996 can be attributed to the breakdown of the marriage culture and the resulting exacerbation of social ills. Research on Scandinavian countries by sociologists David Popenoe and Alan Wolfe also supports the conclusion that as adherence to marital norms declines, state spending rises.
THE HUMAN PERSON
Steorts might object that he does meaningfully distinguish the type of love and sharing specific to marriage, by agreeing with the conjugal view that marital union must include bodily union, which he simply sees differently than do George, Anderson, and I. Or he might reply that our view proves too much — for example, by implying that infertile couples cannot unite bodily. But such replies reflect an error about the makeup of the human person — one so implausible on inspection that Steorts himself professes to reject it, even though it is essential to his theory. Sometimes called “body-self dualism,” it sees human persons as mere minds or consciousnesses that inhabit and use their bodies as vehicles or extrinsic instruments. Against this view, Steorts claims to agree with my co-authors and me that the human body is an integral part of the human person. But it does not take much analysis to see that despite his protestations, Steorts fails to take the body seriously — to see the moral significance of the fact that the body is no mere instrument for producing desirable feelings, but a real part of one’s person.
Why should full personal union require sexual activity? Having turned to the question, Steorts merely points out that sexual desire is desire for a person. No doubt. But desire is a psychological state. If Steorts requires sexual intimacy just as a way of fostering and expressing certain emotions, which form the real “maximal union” of persons, then he hasn’t really understood bodily union and its centrality to marriage, or escaped body-self dualism, after all. Indeed, Steorts justifies his conclusion that any sexual activity can unite just as well as coitus on the ground that same-sex partners’ sexual activity is no different “in experience” — that is, psychologically — from a husband and wife’s conjugal acts. He thinks that both couples have the same basic attitude toward their respective acts, and that this is all that matters. So it really is just the mental experience or sense of unity that matters. But this is obviously false, for it implies that people’s hallucinating or fantasizing about each other could unite them bodily.
In other words, organic bodily unity is achieved when a man and a woman coordinate to perform an act of the kind that causes conception — a generative act. If it is a free and loving expression of spouses’ permanent and exclusive commitment, a generative act is also marital. Because interpersonal unions are valuable in themselves, and not merely as means to other ends, a husband and wife’s loving bodily union in coitus and the special kind of relationship to which it is integral are valuable whether or not conception results and even when conception is not sought. But two men or two women cannot achieve organic bodily union since there is no bodily good or function toward which their bodies can coordinate, reproduction being the only candidate. This is a clear sense in which their union cannot be marital, if marital means comprehensive and comprehensive means, among other things, bodily. This also explains why our law has historically treated coital consummation, not childbirth, as completing a marriage. In reply, Steorts objects that not all coital acts are of the generative type. While “a millennium or two ago . . . every instance of coitus seemed to be of the same kind,” today we see “physiological differences between fertile and infertile couples” that belie this. But such condescension toward a benighted past is, besides tiresome, misplaced. Of course the ancients knew that there were physiological causes of sterility (e.g., in the elderly, and in all couples most of the time). And yet thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, and Plutarch either took for granted or explicitly affirmed that even sterile coital acts — precisely because of their unitive nature — could be marital.
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.