Reply to George: III. Stop Sneaking in Your Conclusion!

[This post is part of a series analyzing Robert George's widely-read article, "What is Marriage", which appeared on pages 245-286 of the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy. You can view all posts in the series here.]

Page 246: In which Robert George sets up the argument in a way we cannot accept.

George tries to sneak his conclusion into his reasoning.

Robert George opens his article by making a fundamental distinction — one that we should not let him make.  He writes:

What is marriage?

Consider two competing views:

Conjugal View: Marriage is the union of a man and a woman who make a permanent and exclusive commitment to each other of the type that is naturally (inherently) fulfilled by bearing and rearing children together. The spouses seal (consummate) and renew their union by conjugal acts—acts that constitute the behavioral part of the process of reproduction, thus uniting them as a reproductive unit. Marriage is valuable in itself, but its inherent orientation to the bearing and rearing of children contributes to its distinctive structure, including norms of monogamy and fidelity. This link to the welfare of children also helps explain why marriage is important to the common good and why the state should recognize and regulate it.

Revisionist View: Marriage is the union of two people (whether of the same sex or of opposite sexes) who commit to romantically loving and caring for each other and to sharing the burdens and benefits of domestic life. It is essentially a union of hearts and minds, enhanced by whatever forms of sexual intimacy both partners find agreeable. The state should recognize and regulate marriage because it has an interest in stable romantic partnerships and in the concrete needs of spouses and any children they may choose to rear.

In the last entry, I took issue with George’s opening sentence, and now I take issue with his second:  why are these views competing views? The “revisionist” view can contain and include the “conjugal” view. As he describes them, instead of being mutually exclusive:

Figure 1: Competing views

…they look like this:

Figure 2: Compatible views

Do you see what George has done here? There’s only one way these views are “competing,” and that’s if the conjugal view is the only correct view, and anything falling outside it isn’t “real marriage.” But that’s the very thing he’s setting out to prove! In other words, he’s asking you to accept his conclusion even before he makes his argument.  In fact, he’s sneaking his conclusion into the very beginning of his argument. We call that circular reasoning.

Perhaps this is just a tiny logic trap. Perhaps George could escape it by rewriting his conjugal description as:

Marriage can only be the union of a man and a woman who make a permanent and exclusive commitment to each other of the type that is naturally (inherently) fulfilled by bearing and rearing children together.

But perhaps he knows he would lose his audience right away if he said only couples who bear and rear children can have marriages that are “fulfilled.” Here’s a case where George’s reasoning, careful as it may turn out to be, doesn’t match the experience of real-life married couples.

Ultimately, nothing in the revisionist view excludes the conjugal view. The second figure simply recognizes that children play a key role in many but not all marriages. This doesn’t mean that revisionists are holding up a sign that says, “Stop! No children allowed.” These views are “competing” only because George claims they are. If you reject that claim (as I do), you’ll see many of George’s later arguments fall apart.

“Which ones?” – A digression.

We’ve already talked about George’s rationalist, almost Platonic approach to the question, “What is marriage?”  It shows itself here.  Is it true that marriage is the type of relationship that is naturally (inherently) fulfilled by bearing and rearing children together? That sort of claim is absolute and certain.  It’s hard to know how to go about evaluating it.

Unless, of course, we move our focus to the real world and ask instead, Are marriages naturally (inherently) fulfilled by bearing and rearing children together?

And the answer to that will be:  Which ones?

Some marriages are fulfilled by kids.  Some are broken by them.  In some marriages, one child fulfills the marriage and another tears it apart.

Some married couples don’t want kids at all.  Others were happy to raise to children for a couple decades, and then are happy to send them out into the world, regaining a measure of privacy and intimacy; such couples have marriages that were fulfilled by raising children and now are fulfilled by not doing so.

And none of this helped by George’s definition of fulfilled as it appears in footnote 18: “That is, made even richer as the kind of reality it is.”

I’ll come back to the vagueness and circularity of that later.

All of these observations are empirical, of course.  George wouldn’t approve: he’d probably say this is all based on circumstance rather than principle, and he only cares about principles.  But George’s principles conflict with reality.  At this point, you need to ask yourself whether you’re a rationalist, willing to sacrifice reality so that you can bask in an empty logical certainty, or are you an empiricist, willing to give up that certainty to work toward understanding a messy and confusing reality?

(Okay, I may not have phrased that with complete impartiality.)

By the way, I like this question, “Which ones?”  when people are trying to extend a generalization way too far. For instance:

  • Question:  “Do you really think gay couples contribute as much to society as straight couples?”
  • Answer: “Which ones?”
  • Question:  “Do you think a man can really take the place of a mother?”
  • Answer: “Which ones?”
  • Question: “Do you think apple desserts are just as good as chocolate desserts?”
  • Answer: “Which ones?”

Enough of that.  Back to George’s article.

George stacks the deck with loaded terms.

I objected to George’s opening question. And to the sentence that followed. Now I have problems with his use of “conjugal” and “revisionist.”

Conjugal” means “marital” or “related to marriage.” So he’s dubbing his view of marriage the “marital view of marriage” or — essentially — the correct view. Which would make the “revisionist view” the view that deviates from the correct view. Talk about stacking the deck! Terminology matters, and with these terms, he’s demanding we accept his argument before he even makes it.

Further, how revised is the “revisionist” view? Yes, the notion of same-sex partners is new, but that’s not the heart of what he views as a revision — the idea marriage exists when two partners:

commit to romantically loving and caring for each other and to sharing the burdens and benefits of domestic life. It is essentially a union of hearts and minds, enhanced by whatever forms of sexual intimacy both partners find agreeable.

How many people would disagree with that? If anything, this “revisionist” view is the commonly-held view, at least when it comes to marriage as it’s practiced by real human beings.

George’s conjugal view makes penis-in-vagina* a necessary condition of marriage, but in the last few centuries of Western civilization, how many couples have had to provide legal proof of that?   If an ordinary married couple stops having sex, or never has sex to begin with, that can be cause for divorce or annulment if one of the partners is unhappy with the situation. But if neither complains, the government doesn’t intrude by invalidating the marriage against the couple’s wishes.  How far back in history do we have to go to find the government demanding proof of penis-in-vagina before recognizing the marriage of two 80-year-old ordinary citizens? That’s how far back we have to go in order to consider George’s “revisionist” view a true revision.

Really, George should use “procreative view” (or “penis-in-vagina view”) instead of “conjugal view” and “common” in place of “revised.”

Perhaps this bickering over terminology seems trivial, but again and again we’ll see George using arguments that assume — and ask you to assume — his conclusion is true. Let’s not allow that.

I’ll stop here for now. George’s article relies heavily on this distinction between the conjugal/procreative view and the revisionist/common view.  We’ll be coming back to it frequently, so it deserved its own entry.

Next:  George takes a detour into bans on interracial marriage and thoroughly confuses the meaning of “discrimination.”

* Unfortunately, crude as it sounds, you’ll be seeing this penis-in-vagina phrase quite a bit in these entries.  George prefers to call this interaction a reproductive, or generative, or procreative act.  That breaks down, though, when he speaks of infertile opposite-sexers, whom he believes can still have a “real” marriage.  For their sake, he sometimes uses the phrase procreative-type act.

But I can only see a procreative-type act as the type of act that leads to procreation, and for infertile couples no type of act leads to procreation. George is manhandling the English language, trying to keep infertile couples in the procreation tent by inventing terms with no coherent meaning.  I don’t want to abet him in that effort, so I’ll use the more accurate phrase, penis-in-vagina.

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28 comments to Reply to George: III. Stop Sneaking in Your Conclusion!

  • 1
    Matthew says:

    A couple of questions I would ask George if I were able to:  Would he deny marriage rights to the Intersexed?  Would it depend on the sex of the person they wish to marry?  Secondly, what does he think of trangender marriage, which is actually LEGAL in places like Texas that don’t allow same sex marriage.  Its legal because the Supreme Court has held that marriage is a fundamental right, therefore, you have the right to marry SOMEBODY.  The State cannot eliminate your right to marry EVERYBODY.  So, states have had to decide what sex you are — the sex at birth or the sex after the sex change.  Different states have come up with different answers.  Texas decided to go with sex at birth (which means, man transitions to female, can then marry a female, from birth).  Looks like a same sex couple.  This is legal.  But if penis is chopped off, what does George think of this situation?  Would he disagree with it?  The intersexed and transgenders are making the lines blurry anyway because the Supreme Court has held they have a right to marry someone, even if, for now, one sex can be eliminated by law in some states.  If George believes this class of people should not be allowed to marry anybody  ever, I wish he would make that clear.  If not, I wonder how such legal marriages are even penis-vagina occuuring relationships let alone the terminology he uses. 

  • 2
    Anonymous says:

    I really enjoy reading your blog, especially these entries. I’ll have to get around to reading George’s article sometime. I don’t know what you do for a living, but I bet you’d be a great lawyer.

  • 3
    Mrs. Chili says:

    I was annoyed to no end about the assumption that, from the first page, his claims were correct.  He’s assuming facts not in evidence and concepts not agreed upon, which made it difficult for me to continue reading.

    I just had a conversation with one of my students about how to be open minded.  I’ve already decided that gay marraige is a GOOD thing, but i’m willing to entertain any objections that can be presented to me in a clear, convincing way.  I read George’s article in the hopes that someone would be able to present me with SOMETHING I could consider from a different point of view.  Let’s just say that I’m still looking….

  • 4
    Jeff M. says:

    Rob, this series of articles is great! You are clearly and succintly tearing down these illogical and harmful arguments.
    I love you and your blog! (in a purely platonic and non-conjugal way)

  • 5
    Christopher Mongeau says:

    Thank you for pointing out the (deliberately) loaded terms George used. I read “‘revisionist” and know he meant “people who are revising, ie, ‘redefining’ marriage”. Merely accepting his terms means you are accepting that false conclusion that marriage is being “re-defined”. And I do like your inclusive diagrams versus his exclusive ones.

  • 6
    Ben in oakland says:

    George’s arguments in this case are just another way of saying that gay people are trying to redefine marriage for everyone. Of course that isn’t true, and when I have some more time to do so, I will do that writing. but so far, there is this that I wrote a month ago, and which is another way of expressing what Rob said with his Venn diagrams.
    A commenter wrote this:”Allowing gay couples to marry doesn’t change the definition of marriage — heteros can marry as they always have. It merely expands access to marriage.”
    UI wrote back: The most cogent statement on the subject that I have read. I’ve said many things that were similar and making that point, but that summed it up. Allow me to expand it a bit further….
    Allowing gay couples to marry does not change the definition of marriage — heteros can marry just as they always have, to the opposite gender person of their choice. It does not affect and has never affected, in any way demonstrable by logic, fact, or experience, and in any jurisdiction where it is legal, the rights, status, and responsibilities of any heterosexual marriage. It merely expands access to marriage.
    However, those anti-gay heterosexuals (alleged) and churches can continue to define, to their hearts delight, marriage as God given,sanctified, and hetero. They can continue to deny our marriages as being real, or our families, faiths, and loves as real and every bit as important as theirs. They can exclude and shun us all they wish, and tell everyone that according to their religious beliefs, our marriages and families are counterfeit.
    No problem. Stupid, wrongheaded, and bigoted, small-minded, ignorant, and ultimately on the wrong side of history. But no problem.
    BECAUSE IT AIN’T ABOUT YOU, YOUR RELIGION, OR WHAT YOU “THINK”.
    It is about how our government treats us,and our freedom of religion, our equality before the law.
    A second issue that George keeps bringing up, though he doesn’t say it often in so many words, is the alleged, but otherwise wholly imaginary, superiority of PIV over non-PIV. It is superior if you want to make a baby as a result of sexual activity, but that assumes that people have and OUGHT ONLY TO Have, sex for one reason. That is also wholly imaginary.
    Finally, who is REALLY trying to re-define marriage? I have seen almost nothing in my life to refute the idea of gay people as the ultimate scapegoats. It’s funny how it works. straight people behave badly– divorce, family abuse and abandonment, adultery,
    sexual abuse of children, illegitimacy– and gay people get the blame. Our marriages are the threat to traditional PIV marriage– we see it EVERYWHERE in the marriage battles– by some mysterious process known only to the underpants gnomes.
    This is where George is trying to re-define it. Marriage is everything he says it is, but even from the 300 year old cultural and legal perspective from which he operates, as rob has demonstrated already, it is also quite a bit more.
    Marriage is an easily obtainable and relatively inexpensive contract which lays out a legal set of responsibilities, obligations, rights, and benefits. There is no requirement for sex, piv or otherwise, reproduction, good parenthood, qualified parenthood, or death-do-us-part.
    In fact, as Rob has pointed out elsewhere, there are laws in this country, which have been “traditional” (oh, the irony!!!), which specify precisely that you may NOT be able reproduce in order to get married.
    And one of the things it has been for centuries, and which George is downplaying because it completely undercuts his argument, is that marriage is ALSO the MAIN LEGAL MEANS BY WHICH A NEW FAMILY IS CREATED. Another is adoption. You create a family with a 10 year old girl by adopting her, not by marrying her, one of the two reasons (the other is age of consent and contracts) why marriage equality will not lead to child marriage. You can’t marry your sister not only because of incest and bad seed issues, but because you already are legally defined as family. If you’re not married, your sister may be your next of kin and make end-of-life decisions for you, even if you hate her and haven’t spoken to her in 40 years.
    I will agree with George that family is the building block of society– a group of people who care for and support each other. So then, the real questions become:
    1) if families are building blocks, why are gay families, especially those with children– 70,000 children in California alone– excluded?
    2) Why are gay people denied that inexpensive, easily obtainable and universally understood contract when they wish to say: this is my family?
    3) what social good is served by preventing the building block of society from forming, especially when any man and woman who met five minutes ago, and have enough alcohol in them to think it is a good idea, can get married? And they can reproduce with no more thought than they gave to getting married. It is not licensed or regulated
    4) Reproduction may be the goal of marriage, from George’s perspective. However, any man and any woman who are physically capable of it can reproduce without marriage. In fact, some communities are plagued by generations of children having children, of women and men fathering and mothering children by different opposite sexed parents, with the concomitant destruction of real families in those communities.

  • 7
    Chip Cool says:

    Rob, I’m not sure I agree with your assertion that the notion of same-sex partners is entirely new. Certain works by the late John Boswell (e.g. Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe) document examples of same-sex partnerships within the Christian church and beyond up to about the 14th century. You could probably insert one small phrase to make this statement more accurate: “Yes, the notion of widespread acceptance of same-sex partners is new…”
    Good work on this series thus far. Looking forward to more!

  • 8
    Hanoumatoi says:

    I found the notion of the PiV act sealing the union to be foolish and oversimplistic.  Sex can help to bind two people together (regardless of what kind of sex or the gender/identification of the partners), but to me what seals the union is two people making sacrifices for each other.  Moving across the country for their partner’s job, making them dinner and letting them sit down when they’re to tired to help, the very domestic acts we do every day together.  PiV as an act of bringing two people together could help strengthen the union, but that’s not what is meant by the traditional notion, which is much more the man staking a physical claim, back when men owned their wives.  I haven’t read other things, but does he actually support going back to that sort of marriage agreement, where the woman has no rights?

  • 9
    Regan DuCasse says:

    Yep, rob confirms what I’ve been saying. Those who opposed ss marriage debate the issue as rob points out, as if they are competing concepts, incompatible to the other.
    When really, different types of people, who are married in fact are COEXISTING concepts, not at odds with each other, but are all complimentary with the common factor of being MARRIED.
    What KIND of married, is another subject, also as rob points out, which has nothing to do with gay folks

  • 10
    Greg says:

    Isn’t George a Catholic?  How come he isn’t railing about the US recognizing second marriages after a divorce?  Because that’s also against his religion.  And when it all comes down to, “I don’t want to accept something my religion doesn’t accept,” aren’t we to where the 1st amendment takes over?

  • 11

    [...] have a still bigger issue with “All three elements point to the conjugal understanding of marriage,” especially the phrase point to:  What does it [...]

  • 12

    [...] have a still bigger issue with “All three elements point to the conjugal understanding of marriage,” especially the phrase point to:  What does it [...]

  • 13

    [...] FOOTNOTE: I was persuaded to switch to the term “PIV sex” after reading this post by Rob Tisinai. I’d highly recommend reading Rob’s entire series of posts responding to George et al. [...]

  • 14

    [...] I’ll base my answer on George’s description of the revisionist/common view of marriage he so opposes:  two people have committed to romantically loving and caring for [...]

  • 15

    [...] I’ll base my answer on George’s description of the revisionist/common view of marriage he so opposes:  two people have committed to romantically loving and caring for [...]

  • 16

    [...] We’ve been through George’s abuse of this term many times. Check here if you don’t recall. [...]

  • 17

    [...] We’ve been through George’s abuse of this term many times. Check here if you don’t recall. LINK [...]

  • 18

    [...] then he’s as much of a “revisionist” as anyone — in fact, his view of marriage, the “conjugal” view, would be possible only because society has adopted what he considers the “revisionist” [...]

  • 19

    [...] then he’s as much of a “revisionist” as anyone — in fact, his view of marriage, the “conjugal” view, would be possible only because society has adopted what he considers the “revisionist” [...]

  • 20

    [...] (and I should have pointed this out in the section on marital norms), nothing in George’s conjugal view suggests that marriage should be permanent. The most, the very most, he can argue for is a norm [...]

  • 21
    Blinn Combs says:

    Very interesting series.  Allow me to quibble with your commentary a bit.  George’s procedure, from the start, is to offer up two different *essentialist* definitions of marriage.  Essentialist definitions work by picking out the, well, essential characteristic of the thing in question.  The classical example–really the only one Aristotle ever gave in its entirety, was the definition of man as a rational (species) animal (genus).  The two views he states are exclusive because they nominate distinct features as being essential to marriage.   However, he’s not guilty (yet) of begging the question; this is just staging.  He’s presenting a (conjugal) view which he will go on to defend.
    Of course, you’re right that he has stacked the deck somewhat, for the simple reason that defenders of marriage equality need not accept or defend *any* essentialist conception of marriage.  Consider a parallel:  We might all agree that the production and trade of goods is about as natural a human activity as exists, and to that extent agree that financial markets or corporations have some basis in human nature, while still rejecting the view that corporations have some essential nature apart from the functioning state which provides them charter and recognition.  Similarly, we can doubt that the natural origin has any meaningful implications for the state’s regulation of commerce or the social value of modern corporate institutions.

  • 22
    Jim says:

    Probably it is addressed later on, but the  argument for inclusion of infertile opposite-sex couple marriages as valid is that — short of body parts being physically absent — these couples can theoretically) still bear children.  Few “infertile” men truly put out no sperm, they just put out too little to give a good chance of pregnancy — but it can happen.  “Infertile” women often still have potentially viable eggs, but they don’t release or impregnate or implant successfully — but they can.  Call it a 1-in-a-million chance, or call it a “miracle” (and thus religious in nature), but stuff like the Octomom and 69-year old mothers in India and so on are all the “proof” needed to secure the validity of infertile couples to be “married”.
    How you include people with vasectomies and hysterectomies and their parts blown off by roadside bombs, I don’t know, other than under the heading of “If God wanted it to happen, He would make it happen.”  (And once you utter that phrase, all bets are off, because a truly omnipotent “God” could make a gay couple get preggers, right?)

  • 23

    [...] George has some challenges for us “revisionists.” He says we can’t meet them, but you know what?  He’s [...]

  • 24

    [...] have a still bigger issue with “All three elements point to the conjugal understanding of marriage,” especially the phrase point to:  What does it [...]

  • 25

    [...] I’ll base my answer on George’s description of the revisionist/common view of marriage he so opposes:  two people have committed to romantically loving and caring for [...]

  • 26

    [...] We’ve been through George’s abuse of this term many times. Check here if you don’t [...]

  • 27

    [...] George has some challenges for us “revisionists.” He says we can’t meet them, but you know what?  He’s [...]

  • 28

    [...] III. Stop Sneaking in Your Conclusion! [...]

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