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What is Marriage?

August 26, 2015

 

Listening to the state of today’s public debate about marriage reminds me of a comment that Dorothy Sayers made almost 70 years ago in her essay “The Lost Tools of Learning":

 

Have you ever, in listening to a debate among adult and presumably responsible people, been fretted by the extraordinary inability of the average debater to speak to the question, or to meet and refute the arguments of speakers on the other side? … Have you ever followed a discussion in the newspaper or elsewhere and noticed how frequently writers fail to define the terms they use? 

 

The Millis Institute has launched a new initiative to help students contribute to public conversations in a more thoughtful, coherent and winsome way.  We call it Socrates in Senior School, and the goal is to assist Year 11 and 12 students to think through the right questions concerning timely issues.  Last Friday we held our inaugural event entitled “Marriage: What Questions Should We Ask?,” featuring Dr Ryan Anderson from The Heritage Foundation in the U.S. (and author of Truth Overruled: The Future of Marriage and Religious Freedom).

 

Dr Ryan Anderson discusses the most important questions to ask concerning marriage to an

audience of over 200 young people at the Millis Institute's inaugural Socrates in Senior School forum.

 

With a logical precision that would have made Dorothy Sayers proud, Anderson examined the definitions and arguments about marriage proposed in today’s public square.  He noted that the average citizen assumes marriage is a permanent, monogamous, sexually exclusive institution between two adults.  Many, however, want to continue to uphold those norms while redefining marriage in terms of consenting adult romance.
 
Anderson pointed out that this is logically problematic.  If marriage is redefined as a relationship between two caring adults regardless of their gender, it is hard to identity any principle that would require marriage to be:

  • permanent (after all, feelings often change over time);

  • monogamous (what if some people think that sexual openness will help their relationship?);

  • between only two people (what if three people share intense intimacy?).

Furthermore, redefining marriage to mean simply a relationship of intimacy and care-giving would not justify the government getting involved in it in the first place. 

Anderson urged the students to engage in a more logically consistent conversation by first focusing on the most important question regarding marriage: What is it?  Citizens cannot have logically coherent conversations about marriage equality or discrimination unless they first define what it is they are talking about.  According to Anderson,

 

We all want marriage equality.  We all want the law to treat all marriages equally.  The question is, what type of relationship is a marriage? … The only way to know whether your definition of marriage is respecting marriage equality is to know the reality of what marriage is in the first place.  You have to first ask ‘What is marriage?

 

In contrast to viewing marriage in terms of consenting adult romance, Anderson outlined a philosophically robust vision of marriage as a union binding a man and woman together to care for any children their love brings about.  This relationship is distinguished from other forms of intimacy and care-giving by its comprehensive nature.  It is comprehensive

 

  • in the levels at which it unites spouses—including a physical one-flesh union “so complete that 9 months later it might require a name”;

  • in the goal to which it is naturally ordered—i.e. creating and raising a new human life;

  • in the commitments it calls for—i.e. monogamy and sexual fidelity “’til death do us part.”

This definition explains not only why we ascribe norms of permanence, monogamy, etc. to marriage but also why the government has a vested interest in it (i.e. it’s inherently related to the birthing and raising of future citizens).  Indeed, Anderson argued that this definition matters because it maximizes the possibility that a child’s father commits to the mother and that the two of them commit to the child.  He suggested that it's a matter of social justice that we provide children the greatest opportunity possible to receive the unique benefits of mothering as well as fathering:  

A law that redefines marriage to make fathers optional … makes it harder to say that the fathers [who are] missing in their children’s lives matter. …  If you care about social justice … you have to care about marriage and you have to care that the State gets [the definition of] marriage correct.

In “The Lost Tools of Learning," Sayers lamented, “Is not the great defect of our education today … that although we often succeed in teaching our pupils ‘subjects,’ we fail lamentably on the whole in teaching them how to think?”  I applaud the schools that participated in this inaugural Socrates in Senior School event for encouraging their students not only to learn about an important issue but also to cultivate the ability to think and discuss that issue in a logical and civil manner. 

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