Reply to George: VII. Is Marriage About the Children? Not for George.

[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.]

Pages 255-259: In which George pretends to talk about children but really just repeats his thoughts on sex organs.

This is the most frustrating part of George’s article for me.  Trying to rebut it is like trying to rip apart air: there’s nothing to grab on to.

Marriage and children

In this section, George links children to marriage. This ought to be straight-forward, but…no. Once again, he starts badly:

Most people accept that marriage is also deeply — indeed, in an important sense, uniquely —oriented to having and rearing children. That is, it is the kind of relationship that by its nature is oriented to, and enriched by, the bearing and rearing of children. But how can this be true, and what does it tell us about the structure of marriage?

Problem:  Why does George care about what “most people accept”?  He believes marriage is not simply whatever most people decide it is. That’s a key point in his article. He’s made it clear that if the day comes when “most people accept” same-sex marriages as “real” marriages, that won’t change his opinion one bit.

Now, personally, I do think it’s important to look at what most people think of marriage, because marriage is a human invention designed to meet a human need. To learn about that need, we have to look at real people.

However, I don’t put stock in referenda, opinion polls, and the public’s mood at any one moment. I’m not much interested in most people’s view of the abstract institution. I want to know what they say about their own marriages. Why did you marry? Why do you stay in your marriage? If you left, why did you leave? Investigate that for many people across cultures and time, and we’ll discover more about the nature of marriage.

But George doesn’t accept this empirical approach, so I wish he would stop with his “many people acknowledge” and “most people accept.” Since he’s declared these things don’t matter, I have to wonder if he invokes them as a way of getting support for statements he hasn’t proven.

Also, we’ve got another undefined term:  What does he mean that marriage is deeply “oriented” to bearing and raising children? Especially since his article admits that having and rearing children is not enough to make a marriage, and that childless marriages can still be “real.” Clearly, this “orientation” is not a universal feature of marriage.

Children and the revisionist/common view

I think it’s clearer and more useful to say marriage is well-suited to bearing and rearing children — it creates a better environment for nurturing kids.

Why? 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 each other, to sharing the burdens and benefits of domestic life, to uniting their hearts and minds.

When two people come together like this, they improve the odds of creating the sort of stable, loving, attentive home in which (experience tells us) children thrive. Most people do want this loving union for its own sake. And it seems most people want children. This wonderful synchronicity means that any useful body of marital law will foster the development of children — even if some couples never procreate or take advantage of those provisions.

So to explain this marriage-children connection, you needn’t resort to George’s preferred “conjugal” definition of marriage. It’ss perfectly natural from the revisionist/common view that marriage is well-suited to raising kids. But remember this: Marriage is well-suited to child-rearing because of that bond, that commitment, between two adults. Take it away, and you lose the link between marriage and children. In other words:  the adult commitment is essential to marriage; the orientation to children is not.

That’s why George’s conjugal/procreative view of marriage is a subset of — not a competitor to — the revisionist/common view.

Consummation, PIV, and marriage

George offers this strange paragraph:

If there is some conceptual connection between children and marriage, therefore, we can expect a correlative connection between children and the way that marriages are sealed. That connection is obvious if the conjugal view of marriage is correct. Marriage is a comprehensive union of two sexually complementary persons who seal (consummate or complete) their relationship by the generative act — by the kind of activity that is by its nature fulfilled by the conception of a child. So marriage itself is oriented to and fulfilled by the bearing, rearing, and education of children. The procreative-type act distinctively seals or completes a procreative?type union.

You can be forgiven if this seems garbled to you. Apparently George is very hung up on the fact that traditionally marriage has been consummated by PIV (penis-in-vagina sex). He wants us to read enormous significance into that. But the paragraph is strange because its purpose isn’t clear. Is he trying to show that traditional rules of consummation mean procreation is an essential part of marriage? If so, he fails.

  1. Let’s start with a point for the logic geeks. Ultimately, in the section, George will act as though he’s proven that “real” marriage” requires an “essential” orientation to marriage. Now look at the first sentence of his paragraph. It’s an if-then statement. But it accomplishes nothing, because according to the rules of logic, the converse of a true if-then statement is not necessarily true.  Take a sentence like:

If you are at the Louvre Museum, then you are in France.

To get the converse of that sentence, just switch around the if and then parts like this:

If you are in France, then you are at the Louvre Museum.

Clearly, the converse of a true sentence may not turn out to be true.  Why is that significant?  Because George’s first sentence basically says:

If marriage requires an orientation to children, then consummation will  be focused on procreation,

But, it does not follow that the converse is true.  In other words, logic doesn’t permit him to turn it around and claim:

If consummation is focused on children, then marriage requires an orientation to children.

It’s this last statement that George wants to establish. But that’s the converse of his first sentence, so even if you accept that first sentence, he still hasn’t proven anything about the nature of marriage.

  1. I’m confused by the vagueness of If there is some conceptual connection between children and marriage…”

“Some conceptual connection”? That could mean anything. After all, marriage has some conceptual connection to divorce, but that doesn’t mean a marriage requires a divorce in order to be a “real” marriage. Still, if George wants merely wants to establish “some conceptual connection” between marriage and kids, I’ll grant him that, though for the reasons I talked about above.

  1. Even if PIV is the traditional way of sealing a marriage, that doesn’t mean it’s a necessary condition. George has ruled out appeals to tradition in his approach. He wants to establish a tightly-reasoned argument for his narrow definition of marriage, and he’s been clear that marriage is not just whatever most people say it is — which is that all tradition itself can establish.
  2. When George is talking about sealing a marriage through PIV, he’s talking about what the law has traditionally required. But the whole purpose of this discussion is to determine whether we should change marriage law. It’s meaningless to argue we shouldn’t change the law because then the law would be different.
  3. This sentence doesn’t accomplish much:

That connection [between marriage and children] is obvious if the conjugal view of marriage is correct.

He’s just saying the conjugal view explains the connection between marriage and children. But that doesn’t make the conjugal view true — not unless the conjugal view provides the only explanation. We’ve already seen, though, that the revisionist view easily explains “some conceptual connection” as well.

George does this a lot in his essay — he talks about the explanatory power of his view. But unless he shows that the revisionist/common view can’t explain what he sees, then he’s just wasting his time.

  1. George makes an odd leap here:  since marriage is sealed by a procreative act, then marriage is fulfilled by bearing, reading, and educating children. Does that hold up logically? If one’s status as a driver is sealed by signing one’s name to the license, does that mean that driving is “fulfilled” by an act of calligraphy?

Frankly, that last point’s a bit shaky because I don’t know what George means when he says something “fulfills” marriage. Usually we think of the people in a marriage as being fulfilled by marriage — what does it mean to say marriage itself is fulfilled by procreation? Actually, George gives an answer:

That is, made even richer as the kind of reality it is.

That’s his idea of clarification. Unfortunately, it’s quite circular:  George is trying to establish the nature of marriage by using a preconceived notion of what kind of “reality” marriage is. It amounts to:  Marriage is oriented to children, because children make marriage richer, because marriage is oriented to children.

It’s not really about the children for George.

After a few paragraphs on infertile couples, George offers this key sentence:

Same-sex partnerships, whatever their moral status, cannot be marriages because they lack any essential orientation to children: They cannot be sealed by the generative act.

Um — what?  George makes a sudden leap using two assumptions he hasn’t justified.

  1. A partnership must have an essential orientation to children to be a real marriage.
  2. Same-sex partnerships lack any essential orientation to children.

Wow. We started with George’s vague claim that most people accept that marriage has an orientation and a conceptual connection to children, and suddenly we find him claiming this “orientation” is “essential” to a real marriage. How did we get there?

Actually, George’s answer to that is disheartening and doesn’t even involve kids:  He just invokes his prior flawed argument that a marriage requires comprehensive union, which includes organic bodily union, which means PIV.

How about that second assumption:  Why can’t same-sex partnerships have any essential orientation to children?  George says — again —  it’s because we can’t have PIV. But George seems to have forgotten he offered a different criteria for orientation to children: the idea that the marriage is of the sort of relationship that is enriched by children.

Why isn’t this true of same-sexers?  Why, for instance, do children enrich an infertile couple who adopts but not a same-sex couple who does the same thing? The only difference George points out and cares about — the only difference he ever seems to care about — is that infertile opposite-sexers can have PIV.  Which he still calls a “generative act” even though for them it’s, well, not.

At this point, my reaction is:

Aaargh!  This whole section is just a rehash of the stuff he wrote before on organic bodily union! All this talk of children enriching a marriage is just more code for PIV, even when PIV can’t make kids.

Oh, that’s so frustrating.  And this is all I can handle today.  I’ve skipped two topics: George’s explanation of why infertile couples can still have real marriages, George’s discussion of married, biological, opposite-sexers as the parenting ideal.  He’s comes back to this later in more depth, so I’ll address these topics when they come back up.

And trust me, the stuff on infertile couples will be fun to break down.

Next:  Marital norms, polygamy, and incest

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15 comments to Reply to George: VII. Is Marriage About the Children? Not for George.

  • 1
    Colm says:

    I’m just so astonished that Harvard printed such an obviously flawed paper.

  • 2

    I’m writing my own reply to George, and I’m boggled that George, who’s supposed to be a traditionalist, is just gliding by the evidence of history and (especially) anthropology. I’m also surprised that *you* are accepting his glide.

    George says:

    marriage involves: first, a comprehensive union of spouses; second, a special link to children; and third, norms of permanence, monogamy, and exclusivity.

    Anthropologically and historically, this is bunk.

    Across times and cultures, marriage has only one eternal, defining feature: in-laws.

    “Comprehensive union” is a novel, culturally-specific concept — in most societies, for instance, a husband had inalienable rights to property his wife could not control.

    “A special link to children” means only that marriage sorts children into kinship groups: not father and mother, anyone can do that. The problem is with larger groups, grandparents and cousins, moities and totems. Marriage is part of a society’s kinship rules.

    It should be obvious that “permanence, monogamy, and exclusivity” are *very* culture-specific and, for our culture, new. I don’t think male infidelity was considered a devastating blow to a marriage or grounds for divorce in any Western society before the 20th century — as long as the husband didn’t support his other women (and their children) at the same level as his wife, he could screw whomever he wanted.

    I’ll link back when I have a post up. Good job reading through George’s paper — I’m only about a quarter of the way through and my head is about to explode from exasperation.

  • 3
    Regan DuCasse says:

    Doctor Science is really hitting on the truth. Marriage, was about IDENTITY and property. If anything, men wanted to know the child was THEIRS, hence requiring women to be virgins upon marriage. Marriage made CONNECTIONS and increased property. Hence spouses requiring dowries and being traded for property and livestock.
    Marriage was more for practical reasons like this. It’s much needed progress that’s made marriage a more egalitarian union, as Judge Walker said ‘of equals’.
    For so long, the enforcement of marriage favored men, displaced and subjugated women and children and assumed that gender predestined the ROLE one would have in that marriage. What, ‘traditional’ means to George, and in too circumspect a way he describes, is assuming that government can predestine the ROLE of gender and enforce it. So they bring in children and the ‘need’ for a mother and a father because their assumption is that fathers only do certain things and mothers only do certain things.
    This disqualifies individual character, ability and most of all, that marriage isn’t exclusively for fertile couples. George is trying to create a world that never really existed, and at the expense of gay couples and reality.

  • 4
    blue star says:

    What makes me giggle in regards to these somersaults of logic that this paper makes to justify straight marriage as the only kind of “real” marriage is how relationships like mine bust that boundary wide open.

    My spouse is a pre-operative trans* woman. We are currently expecting our first child, who was conceived using George’s precious ” procreative act.” And our child will be the product of a lesbian marriage.

    I just wonder at how the variation of what “man” and “woman” can be, even in a biological sense, is just completely glossed over in his narrow definitions.

  • 5
    Christopher Mongeau says:

    Procreate: To beget and conceive
    Rearing: Bring up and care for (a child) until they are fully grown

    These terms are related but not synonymous. A stable family unit is an ideal environment to rear children, and many families, gay and straight, have done wonderful jobs raising children without having “procreated”. It pisses me off when people meld “begetting” with “bringing up” as the ideal, it’s an insult to families like my own that we are something less than.

    But if marriage “begets” more stable families, what is his reasoning for denying this to many gay families? His emphasis on biology is a point where his whole reasoning process breaks down IMO.

  • 6

    I just posted <a href=””>Indefensible</a> at Obsidian Wings, citing your heroic efforts in close reading.

  • 7

    Regan DuCasse:
    I think you are quite correct: George’s real problem is with modern gender roles, not with the definition of marriage on its own. What’s interesting and kind of surprising is that he can’t *say* that straight out. Basically, he wants to argue for the patriarchy, but he can’t find any actual logic in support of it so he has to flail about and misdirect. It’s even possible that he doesn’t *know* why he believes in Traditional Marriage, that he’s hiding his love of male supremacy from himself.

  • 8
    Scot Colford says:

    Not criticizing. Just think you meant to say “If consummation is focused on procreation, then marriage requires an orientation to children,” where you say “If consummation is focused on children, then marriage requires an orientation to children.”
    That is to say, you haven’t exactly flipped your if-then statement in the hypothetical portion of #1.

  • 9
    Wade@MacMorrighan.Net says:

    WTF?  And, this was published in a PEER-REVIEWED academic journal?  How, when almost the whole article is a couching of a HUGE and VERY WELL KNOW logical fallacy known as “Special Pleading”???
    Also, if procreation, according to George, fulfills the contract of marriage, than why don’t we have laws annulling marriages amid couples who do NOT procreate?

  • 10
    Darina says:

    Imagine the following hypothetical situation: a straight couple produces a baby by in vitro fertilization because they can’t manage it otherwise. So it’s their own biological child, but it wasn’t conceived by the “generative” act. What would Geoge say about that, I wonder? Ah, they can still perform the “generative” act, so I guess their marriage is “real” enough.
    But what if a straight couple can’t perform the “generative” act for some medical reason, or sheer old age? Are they still “really” married? :)
    And Rob, his whole article is a rehash of the same stuff over and over again. 

  • 11
    Tony D says:

    George attempts to idealize marriage as if it were some commonly agreed upon precept of understanding; yet he offers no basis of analogy that operates in a legitimate realistic parallel or from a rational application of our current marriage regulations and parameters under current law for straight couples. There is no requirement to be wed to have children, or for couples to intend to have children in order to wed.
    The SCOTUS ruling with Turner v. Safely obliterates his other arguments on “union” as well.
    Let’s keep the fictitious paradigms of the freedom-miser contingency in check and stick with the facts at hand, and not be subdued by this wishful posturing that, by default, attempts to promote a totalitarian ideal that has not existed for hetero couples, and should never exist in official American society.
    It also screams of inherent prejudice when George’s points regarding children and family are presented to prevent gay equality specifically; knowing all the while that the general populace would undoubtedly view his stance as utterly preposterous were he attempting to apply these exact arguments in regulating straight couples and their ability to wed or have children.  Such myopic and exclusionary focus of these ideals toward gays is nothing, if not bigoted.

  • 12

    […] the emotional union and commitment that makes marriage such a good environment for raising kids. Ideally, the commitment precedes the […]

  • 13
    Manawolf says:

    I wish he would stop with his “many people acknowledge” and “most people accept.”

    It seems to me that this is just a cheap attempt to set the grounds of an argument – i.e., if you accept X, then Y; but he’s presuming that all rational people (or at least those reading this paper) would agree with X, because it seems self-evident to him. The problem is that we don’t agree with X, while his “then Y” is also faulty, so the entire thing is just an exercise in sloppy reasoning. As is every argument against SSM that I’ve ever heard.

    I’m not above blind spots in reasoning myself, but this is the sort of thing I would have self-censored when I was writing my first Philosophy paper in community college.

  • 14

    […] the emotional union and commitment that makes marriage such a good environment for raising kids. Ideally, the commitment precedes the […]

  • 15

    […] VII. Is Marriage About the Children?  Not for George. […]

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