The Corner

Our Bodies, Our Souls

Princeton professor Robert P. George sent me an email regarding David Brooks’s column endorsing gay marriage. George has argued that central defining tenets of social liberalism presuppose a logically insupportable person-body dualism, in which a supra-bodily person (typically conceived as a conscious and desiring “self”) is seen as inhabiting, and using as an instrument, a sub-personal body. Thus in debates over abortion, embryo-destructive research, and euthanasia, the claim will be made that “personhood” begins at some point after a human being’s body is present, and may end before a human being dies. The “person” is not the body. With regard to sexual morality, George draws on the thought of classical philosophers as well as Jewish and Christian writers to argue that sexual behavior whose object is something other than actualizing the one-flesh communion of a man and woman in marriage is immoral because it involves the instrumentalization of the bodies of sex partners, thus enacting a self-alienating existential separation of “body” and “person” (although not a metaphysical dualism, which is impossible). All this by way of explaining George’s shorthand in his email to me.

George writes: “With Andrew Sullivan now on the record celebrating the ‘spiritual value’ of anonymous sex, I see that it falls to David Brooks to make the case for ‘gay marriage’ in the name of fighting promiscuity.

“One thing you can count on: Whoever argues for the proposition that marriage is not an intrinsically heterosexual union will be operating on the basis of some form of person/body dualism. If the maker of the case is a conservative, then what you would expect, I suppose, is the claim that the real person is the soul. The body is conceived as subpersonal, and merely derivative in moral significance. And sure enough, that’s what you get with David’s analysis:

“‘. . . we are not animals whose lives are bounded by our flesh and by our gender. We’re moral creatures with souls, endowed with the ability to make covenants, such as the one Ruth made with Naomi.’

“Of course, we are creatures with souls; but it is also true that our lives are bounded by our flesh and gender. Operating from essentially dualistic assumptions, David presents these as mutually exclusive alternatives (either we are bounded by flesh or we have souls); but they aren’t. Both statements are true. (There is a classic systematic treatment of this in Aquinas, and a good contemporary affirmation and explanation in David Braine’s book: The Human Person: Animal and Spirit.)

“When it comes to marriage, David evidently views biological complementarity and organic bodily union as unnecessary because the real persons who unite in the marriage bond are the two (genderless) souls. Marriage is not (as in the Bibical and natural law conception) a one-flesh union (in which sexual congress is the biological foundation of a more comprehensive sharing of life that unites spouses at all levels of their being: the biological, emotional, rational, dispositional, and spiritual); rather, marriage is a soul-union. (Of course, this immediately raises the question asked by advocates of polyamory: Why can’t three souls unite? Or seven? The same question stumps secular liberals who conceive marriage as an emotional union: Why can’t five people unite emotionally and engage in sexual conduct together to enhance their experience of emotional solidarity?)

“The truth affirmed in the Bible and by many in the long philosophical tradition is that the human persons united in marriage are not (genderless) souls residing in bodies. Each person is body and soul—inseparable. Thus, the person really is male or female. The person has a sex. His (gendered) body is himself.”

I would add that the, so to speak, disembodied case for gay marriage is in tension with the case, made by some advocates, that depends on the unchosenness of, i.e. the strong genetic predisposition toward, homosexuality.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.


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