Robert George recently published “What Is Marriage,” an argument against same-sex marriage. Or perhaps I should say, the argument against same-sex marriage; conservatives say that “What Is Marriage” is “required reading… a definitive defense of the institution of traditional marriage”; “one of – if not the best – argument there is”; even calling “What Is Marriage” “‘Momentous’ is not an overstatement.”
Robert George and co-authors Sherif Girgis and Ryan Anderson have written a paper that’s too long and detailed to be responded to in a single blog post, so in this post I’ll concentrate on just section I.B.1, “Comprehensive Union.” This section is, I believe, the core of George et al’s argument. (For ease of typing and reading, I’ll just refer to “George” from now on, rather than “George et al”).
George’s argument is that only opposite sex couples can truly be “married,’ because only opposite sex couples can form a “bodily union” (a phrase used 27 times in “What Is Marriage”). So what is “bodily union”? George’s explains:
Marriage is distinguished from every other form of friendship inasmuch as it is comprehensive. It involves a sharing of lives and resources, and a union of minds and wills—hence, among other things, the requirement of consent for forming a marriage. But on the conjugal view, it also includes organic bodily union. This is because the body is a real part of the person, not just his costume, vehicle, or property. Human beings are not properly understood as nonbodily persons—minds, ghosts, consciousnesses—that inhabit and use nonpersonal bodies. After all, if someone ruins your car, he vandalizes your property, but if he amputates your leg, he injures you.
This is a little too simplistic. I can agree with George that my body is part of me, while still making the distinction that my mind — which is a process taking place within my brain — is central to my personhood in a way no body part apart from the brain is. My toe is part of me, but if a doctor has to amputate it I’m still myself; but if a doctor amputates my entire brain, I am dead. (Even in the case of Terri Schiavo, Shiavo’s parents didn’t argue that she was alive despite brain death; they argued that the diagnosis of brain death was mistaken).
Anyway, George’s point is that people are composed of both body and mind. He continues:
Likewise, because our bodies are truly aspects of us as persons, any union of two people that did not involve organic bodily union would not be comprehensive—it would leave out an important part of each person’s being. Because persons are body-mind composites, a bodily union extends the relationship of two friends along an entirely new dimension of their being as persons. If two people want to unite in the comprehensive way proper to marriage, they must (among other things) unite organically—that is, in the bodily dimension of their being.
Okay, so in order to be a real marriage, two people must “unite in the comprehensive way,” which (since people are partly bodies) includes “bodily union.”
Again, I wonder. Suppose two people — a man and a woman — are each paralyzed from the neck down. They meet in the waiting room of their doctor’s office, fall in love, get married. George would presumably say that theirs could never be a real marriage, but I don’t agree.
But what is it about sexual intercourse that makes it uniquely capable of creating bodily union? People’s bodies can touch and interact in all sorts of ways, so why does only sexual union make bodies in any significant sense “one flesh”? Our organs—our heart and stomach, for example—are parts of one body because they are coordinated, along with other parts, for a common biological purpose of the whole: our biological life. It follows that for two individuals to unite organically, and thus bodily, their bodies must be coordinated for some biological purpose of the whole.
Okay, so by bodily union, they mean something that can only be created by sexual intercourse (“Sexual intercourse, also known as copulation or coitus, commonly refers to the act in which the male reproductive organ enters the female reproductive tract.” –Wikipedia.)
It’s true that our organs are parts of one body; they are physically joined, and together with other body parts form a single individual. But it’s not true that every part of our body is “coordinated… for a common biological purpose… biological life.” The hair on my forearms, too sparse to provide warmth, serves no such purpose; neither do my skin tags; neither does the small benign growth in my left ankle. These things are not coordinated with my body for any biological purpose (they could all be removed at no biological cost to me), yet they’re part of my body.
But individual adults are naturally incomplete with respect to one biological function: sexual reproduction.
In other words, reproduction in humans requires men and women to collaborate; no woman can reproduce without a man, and vice-versa.
In coitus, but not in other forms of sexual contact, a man and a woman’s bodies coordinate by way of their sexual organs for the common biological purpose of reproduction. They perform the first step of the complex reproductive process. Thus, their bodies become, in a strong sense, one—they are biologically united, and do not merely rub together—in coitus (and only in coitus), similarly to the way in which one’s heart, lungs, and other organs form a unity: by coordinating for the biological good of the whole. In this case, the whole is made up of the man and woman as a couple, and the biological good of that whole is their reproduction.
If you’re like me, you had to reread that passage a couple of times to make heads or tails of it. And that’s because George’s argument doesn’t make sense. Let’s put it in a simpler format:
1) Individual adults are naturally incomplete with respect to sexual reproduction.
2) Reproduction can only be begun via coitus between a man and a woman.
3) Thus, during coitus, a woman and a man’s bodies are biologically united and become one flesh.
How does #3 follow from #1 and #2? Answer: It doesn’t.
Biologically, the man and the woman are never one flesh; they remain two separate entities, even during coitus. This can be easily confirmed with DNA sampling (albeit at the cost of dire embarrassment for both the couple and the lab technician assigned to gather samples). In fact, they are two separate entities engaged in the act of rubbing together.
In another essay, Robert George clarified that when he says “the spouses become one flesh” he doesn’t mean it “in some merely metaphorical sense.” But there is no non-metaphorical sense in which the spouses become “one flesh.”
Outside of metaphors, collaboration does not transform two beings into one. For example, I collaborate with another artist when we create comic books (I do the drawing, he provides the colors), but that doesn’t make us one artist.
This is important, because George’s claim that men and women in coitus become “biologically united” and “in a significant sense, ‘one flesh’” is the foundation of George’s entire argument. Every positive argument George gives for why marriage must be opposite-sex fails, because his key concept of “bodily unity” — which he mentions over and over in this essay — is not true.
Maybe what makes male-female couples alone marriage material is that coitus is a means to another end, that end being children? But George himself denies this:
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.
This is because in truth marriage is not a mere means, even to the great good of procreation. It is an end in itself, worthwhile for its own sake.
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.
But no union can be “comprehensive” in George’s sense, because it’s never the case that two bodies “achieve organic bodily union” during coitus (except metaphorically, which isn’t the sense he means). Since comprehensive union — two bodies non-metaphorically becoming one flesh — never happens, it follows that no union, ever, has been marital. So George’s logic leads to the conclusion that no couple, hetero or homo, can ever be married.
Now, George might respond that he doesn’t mean bodily union to mean that the couple is “biologically united” and “one flesh” per se, nor does he mean it to be a mere metaphor; perhaps he means it in some third, as yet unexpressed, sense. But in that case, his claim to having expressed a “clear” sense in which straight couples, but not gay couples, form unions is untrue. The only clear distinction George makes in “What Is Marriage” is his mistaken claim that during coitus heterosexual couples are biologically united as one flesh.
I largely agree with George that a marriage, in nearly all cases, requires a physical, sexual union to become complete. (There may be individual couples who are exceptions, but for the overwhelming majority of couples, it will not feel like a true marriage without a sexual union.)
Of course, two people in love, when they collaborate in really wonderful sex, frequently do feel they’ve become one flesh in a significant (although metaphoric) fashion. They feel increased closeness, lowered barriers, and valuing the other as much or more than the self. For most couples, this fosters an important way in which the two do become one — the two people become a couple, the individuals become an “us.” (In the context of a long-term, committed relationship, this is associated with important physical benefits, including fewer colds, faster healing, lower blood pressure, and better pain control.)
So there’s an important sense in which couples do experience a sexual, bodily union, distinguishing the married relationship from a celibate friendship. But this would suggest that same-sex couples are similar to opposite-sex couples, and able to marry. Anticipating this argument, George writes:
Pleasure cannot play this role for several reasons. The good must be truly common and for the couple as a whole, but pleasures (and, indeed, any psychological good) are private and benefit partners, if at all, only individually. The good must be bodily, but pleasures are aspects of experience. The good must be inherently valuable, but pleasures are not as such good in themselves—witness, for example, sadistic pleasures.
George’s reductive, simplistic view of sex — if it’s not coitus, then it has no content at all, beyond simple pleasure felt individually — has little relationship to the variety and value of sex as many couples actually experience it, and is thus deeply unsatisfying to anyone who thinks arguments should be based on reality. There are literally thousands of witness-participants (both hetero and homo) who have reported having deeper, more meaningful, and more useful sexual experiences than George’s argument credits. How does George account for them all being so very wrong about their own experiences — are they all experiencing false consciousness? Are they all liars, engaged in some bizarre conspiracy? Or is George simply mistaken? Occam’s razor suggests that George is mistaken.
Saying “pleasures are not as such good in themselves–witness, for example, sadistic pleasures” is a little like saying “childbirth is not as such a good in itself–witness, for example, the birth of Hitler.” For any good, one could imagine an instance of the good being used for negative purposes; yet if “can never be used for negative purposes” is the definition of good, then absolutely nothing on this mortal Earth is or ever can be good. That’s silly. In the right context (i.e., not Hitler), childbirth is a good; and in the right context, sexual pleasure is also a good.
* * *
There is no evidence in “What Is Marriage” — none — for the proposition that heterosexual coitus involves a biological fusion of two bodies into one flesh, what George calls “bodily union.” The reason there is no evidence for that is that the proposition is simply, obviously, and clearly not true.
“What Is Marriage” is an attempt to set out a secular argument against same-sex marriage, and it succeeds insofar as the word “Jesus” is never actually used. But at heart, “What Is Marriage” is a faith-based argument. George believes, as a matter of faith (all he has, since he lacks evidence), that there’s something called “bodily union,” a biological merger of male and female bodies, that occurs only in coitus. This “bodily union” is an essential part of reproduction, and yet distinct from the ability to reproduce, which is how George squirms around the problem of infertile heterosexuals marrying.
But basing laws on Robert George’s faith in a mythical “bodily union” is no better than basing laws on my faith in Mork from Ork. Robert George and his fellow-travelers may have faith in magical bodily unions, but they would be morally wrong to force that faith on us through the legal system. Yet without faith in “bodily union,” George’s entire argument for hetero-only marriage collapses. (George also presents a negative argument against SSM, which I will address in a later post.)
If “bodily union” is not a literal claim, then (despite Robert George’s claim that it’s not a metaphor) it must be a metaphoric claim. But now we’re treading on even more bewildering territory. Do we want a society in which people’s civil rights are decided, not by what is just, not by what is pragmatic, not by what is fair, but by a metaphor? Metaphors, unlike facts, can change arbitrarily. Suppose that George chooses to believe in a different metaphor next year — a metaphor saying that comprehensive unity can only be achieved by dog owners, for instance. Would we then be obliged to change marriage laws to exclude cat owners?
If this is really the best possible argument against same-sex marriage, I feel very optimistic for the future of equality.