On Public Discourse,Sherif Girgis responds to criticism from fellow philosophy graduate student at Princeton University, Richard Chappell. Girgis was co-author of an article on marriage to which Chappell took exception. In the current article, Girgis reprises his argument:
A marriage, like any other voluntary personal union (broadly, like any friendship), exists when persons commit to activity toward common ends, and is fostered by such activity. But the union created by commitment to marriage is uniquely comprehensive in (a) how it unites persons, (b) what it unites them with respect to, and (c) what kind of commitment it demands.
(a) Marriage unites persons both volitionally and bodily. (b) Spouses unite bodily only by coitus, which is ordered to bringing new human life into the world; new life in a sense is one human good among others, but in another sense transcends and includes other human goods. So unlike other forms of community (e.g., universities or sports teams), marriage is ordered to realizing not just this or that human value (e.g., knowledge or play), but new loci of value—persons—and thus also the broad domestic sharing uniquely apt for their development. (c) Marriage inherently calls for permanence and exclusivity.
To expand on (a), the bodily union of two people is like the bodily union of organs in an individual. Just as one’s heart, lungs, and other organs form a unity by coordinating for a biological good of the whole (i.e., the organism’s life), so a man’s and woman’s bodies form a unity by mutual coordination (coitus) for a biological good (reproduction) of their union as a whole.
As for (b), there is a deep connection between this, the marital (conjugal) act and the core of a distinctively marital common life, also shaped by an orientation toward procreation, onto which cultures and couples graft other practices according to circumstance and taste: Having committed to sharing in the generative acts that unite them bodily, spouses cooperate in other areas of life (intellectual, recreational, etc.) in the domestic sharing uniquely apt for fostering children’s overall development. And of course they cooperate in the tasks of parenting where children do come. But ordinary friendships, unions of hearts and minds embodied in conversations and various joint pursuits, can have more limited and variable scope.
And finally, (c). In view of its comprehensiveness and its orientation to children’s needs, only marriage inherently requires of its would-be participants pledged permanence and exclusivity. Thus is marriage, again like the unions of organs into one healthy whole, properly total and lasting for the life of the parts. (Indeed, comprehensive union can be achieved only by two because no single act can organically unite three or more people bodily.) And thus, again, is it uniquely apt for the procreation and education of offspring, an inherently open-ended task calling for unconditioned commitment. But friendships as such require no promise of permanence and are often enhanced, not betrayed, by openness to new members. Hence, abandon the conjugal view for a view of marriage as romantic coupling, and you forfeit the basis of all of these other distinctively marital norms.
Girgis goes on to discuss why exclusive coital relationships are the unique identifier of marriage, and why such partnerships should be legally privileged. His final salvo declares that a broadening of the definition of marriage necessarily implies a narrowing of the definition of other relationships:
The conjugal view, precisely in presenting marriage as oriented to procreation—mothering and fathering—and true bodily union, not just shared experience, keeps from making marriage totalizing. It alone makes clear which activities we owe our spouses in marital love; which we owe it to them not to share with others; and which we could share now with them, now with others, without any compromise of principle.
Chappell’s revisionism would have us blur these distinctions. If marriage differs only by degree (and not in kind) from other bonds, then non-marital relationships, as between sisters or close friends, are diminished, for marriage offers simply the most of what makes any union valuable: shared experience. Those who (for whatever reasons) do not marry just settle for less.
So it is that the contemporary thought police, in their zeal to expurgate and erect barriers against an ideological offense and its perpetrators, miss the richly populated horizon visible from the more traditional perspective, a horizon with space for many types of communion, each with its own depth, passion, and constancy of presence and care.