The Procreation Problem

A Philosophically Conservative Rejoinder to What Is Marriage?

What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, authored by Ryan T. Anderson, Robert George, and Sherif Girgis, is widely recommended as the foremost defense of “one man/one woman” marriage based on natural law principles. The book has undoubtedly been influential, even to the point of being cited by Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito in his United States v. Windsor dissent. Significantly, the book does not rely on religious authority to buttress its claims, rendering it more palatable to audiences not sharing its authors’ convictions.

Anderson, George, and Girgis advocate a definition of marriage which holds that an “ordering towards procreation” is understood as a necessary property of marriage and the marital act. By “ordering towards procreation,” what is meant is that the conception and rearing of children is the definitive and purposive feature of marriage.

I find this concept of marriage prohibitively narrow. Accordingly, I offer here a critique of the Anderson-George-Girgis definition before offering and defending my alternative formulation.

A brief preliminary note: I make references here to “the Christian tradition” to denote the fact that I view myself as working within a theological heritage that extends well beyond me and that has established certain entrenched normative boundaries. I do not (and neither do Anderson, George, and Girgis) invoke “the Christian tradition” as a premise supporting the conclusion of my argument.

My central objection to the Anderson-George-Girgis definition arises from its treatment of “edge cases” where previously rigid bright-lines appear to blur significantly. In the Anderson-George-Girgis paradigm, engaging in a conjugal act where one or both parties are known to be infertile is treated as morally permissible, on the grounds that the act is “ordered toward” procreation. This stance is problematic for the thesis they assert. “Known incapacity” is not coherently separable from “intentionality/ordering toward.” If a man knows that his body is incapable of metabolizing alcohol, thus rendering him unable to become intoxicated, his consumption of alcohol cannot then be “ordered toward” inebriation, but must be impelled by some other reason. “Ordering toward” implies a cognizable intent to bring about a particular state of affairs, and cannot rationally coexist alongside knowledge that such a state of affairs cannot be obtained. Thus, investigation into other motivations underlying a particular action is warranted, since the prior “end-ordered-towards” is an inadequate explanatory factor.

A possible counterargument has been raised to this, holding that one can order actions toward a particular end (in this case, conjugal relations where one or both parties are known to be infertile) with “openness” to the possibility of divine miraculous intervention. This argument also fails: its breadth seems to allow for the possibility that non-procreative sexual acts could provide a context within which the same miraculous intervention occurs.

Accordingly, I offer an alternate definition of marriage that, in my view, more wholly reflects both natural reason and the sine qua nons of the historic Christian tradition: marriage is a solemnized framework within which the ontological complementarity of the sexes is reflected. I term this definition Emergent Traditional Marriage (ETM) to reflect the fact that this definition arises from the breadth of historical practice, but that isolated traditions might depart from this norm. This term is to be understood as a concept derived from an aggregate, not derived from a universal. There are two linked claims in the ETM definition, each of which warrants exposition.

First, as a solemnized framework, marriage entails an exchange of duties and obligations under the auspices of greater entities. Those duties and obligations derive their moral force from the fact that they occur before God, and they derive their legal force from the fact that both parties call the state to witness the union and enforce its norms. (If one is not a person of faith, one might understand the moral force of obligations as being present in a sort of Kantian sense.)

Second, ontological complementarity is a core property of marriage. I draw here a sharp distinction between complementarianism as a role-oriented philosophy, offering prescriptive norms for behavioral segregation on the basis of gender, and complementarity, which is a descriptive term reflecting the unitive potential of the male/female dynamic. This arises from an empirical biological absolute: one sex is possessed of XX chromosomes, and the other is possessed of XY chromosomes. When phenotypically actualized, sexual dimorphism is evidenced. Two distinct groups thus exist, each with their own component of a complementary reproductive apparatus. Arguing that this dimorphism is purely cultural is to argue against an empirical reality.

The aforementioned complementarity is a property of men and women in se: it does not require procreation, or directedness of the conjugal act toward the same. The conjugal act is something men and women can do because they are men and women, and are different from one another. It does not make them men and women or create the ontological complementarity discussed here: that complementarity exists whether or not conjugal acts occur which reflect it.

The ETM formulation solves the “infertile couples” dilemma as well as the question of acquired incapacity (Suppose a soldier, through a tragic wartime accident, loses his sex organs. Is he thus committing a moral violation if he marries, knowing that procreation or even a standard-form conjugal act will not be possible?). In both of these cases, the Anderson-George-Girgis definition is severely strained. The definition I have proposed here suggests that in both cases the marriage may proceed, without creating a “slippery slope” toward the normalization of forms of marriage outside the Christian tradition.

The ETM formulation I have proposed is not without its possible criticisms. It does not explicitly foreclose polygamous arrangements (though by virtue of the solemnization requirement, ad hoc polyamory is excluded). Nor does this definition preclude state practices that confer benefits on ETM as well as on other coupling arrangements (i.e. civil unions). Finally, this is not a normative argument that ETM be the only form of sanctioned/sponsored relationship within a given jurisdiction. This is an argument that ETM is a coherently differentiable kind of relationship which reflects the way marriage has traditionally been understood, and that ETM has a unique value and certain non-duplicable inherent properties.

This ETM definition, I submit, best captures the essence of marriage as philosophically and historically (and indeed, theologically) understood.

Photo courtesy of Ben Cabe Photography.

John Ehrett

John Ehrett

John currently resides in Arlington, Virginia, where he works as an attorney and writer. He holds an M.A.R. from the Institute of Lutheran Theology and a J.D. from Yale Law School.

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