Real Marriage
A reply to Jason Steorts


Steorts’s thinly veiled contempt for these conclusions — and, implicitly, for the body as part of the person — is exposed when he sneers at the idea that “the value of a relationship between two persons in love [would] depen[d] on the structure of their genitals.” He might as well ridicule the idea that Juliet’s attraction to Romeo would depend “on the structure of Romeo’s genitals,” or for that matter that the moral rights of the comatose would depend on “the structure of their genes,” which code for personhood. Comprehensive interpersonal union requires not what Steorts calls the “experience” of bodily unity (certain pleasures, thoughts, sensations) but its achievement, in coitus. Because our bodies are parts of our persons, “merely bodily” differences can suffuse our whole being and ground moral differences.

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.

*   *   *

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?

March 21, 2011    |     Volume LXIII, No. 5

Books, Arts & Manners
The Long View  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Athwart  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Poetry  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Happy Warrior  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .