Reply to George: VIII. No “Real” Marriage Until You’re Dead!

[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 259: In which George accidentally argues it’s okay for the government to recognize only the marriages of dead people (yes! yes, he does!).

Robert George, having “proven” that marriage can only exist between a man and a woman, and that it has an essential orientation to children, now turns his attention to what he calls “marital norms.”

Finally, unions that are consummated by the generative act [*], and that are thus oriented to having and rearing children, can make better sense of the other norms that shape marriage as we have known it.

Basically, he’s claiming it’s significant that his own theory of marriage explains our culture’s marital norms. But George makes three mistakes here, mistakes he’s made before.

  1. This reasoning is circular. George insists that his conjugal/procreative view represents “marriage as we have known it.” He’s wrong, but for now take him at his word.  In that case this paragraph amounts to:

The conjugal view of marriage explains the norms that have arisen around the conjugal view of marriage, which suggests the conjugal view is correct.  Why? Because it explains the norms…

And so on, around and around, with no starting point.  One might as well argue that segregationist ideas were able to explain the norms of segregation, which suggests that segregationist ideas were correct.  Why? Because they explain the norms, etc.

  1. A theory’s ability to explain does not make the theory true.  Can the conjugal/procreative view explain our marital norms? Perhaps. But that means nothing unless it’s the only view that can do this. George certainly hasn’t established that.

  2. George is violating the premise of his article. George believes marriage isn’t just whatever we say it is.  But “norms” represent nothing more than what most people do and believe. They’re not borne out of principled argument, but arise through trial and error over time and are subject to change.

Think of it this way: if marital norms continue changing to include two adults of any gender, will George revise his theory to include them? If so, then he’ll have to adopt the revisionist view he detests. If not, then marital norms are irrelevant to his discussion.

What are those “norms”?

Of course, those of us who are more empirical do care about these norms, so let’s take a look. George talks about two: permanence and exclusivity.

And we’re in trouble already. Western culture grew out of two traditions: the Judeo-Christian and the Greco-Roman.  Both have allowed divorce. The Old Testament is full of guidelines for ending a marriage, and while Jesus strenuously opposed divorce, that hasn’t kept Protestant culture from permitting it.

As for exclusivity — throughout western history that expectation has applied mainly to women. Men could have multiple wives, concubines, and literal sex slaves.

George’s norms depend on the time and place you’re looking at.  You can believe they have value and still recognize that George hasn’t grounded them in principled reasoning.

On permanence

George writes:

For if bodily union is essential to marriage, we can understand why marriage is incomplete and can be dissolved if not consummated, and why it should be, like the union of organs into one healthy whole, total and lasting for the life of the parts (“till death do us part”). That is, the comprehensiveness of the union across the dimensions of each spouse’s being calls for a temporal comprehensiveness, too: through time (hence permanence) and at each time (hence exclusivity).

First, toss out the first half of that first sentence.  Marriage cannot always be dissolved if not consummated. From the American Bar Association:

Most states consider a couple to be married when the ceremony ends. Lack of subsequent sexual relations does not automatically affect the validity of the marriage, although in some states non-consummation could be a basis for having the marriage annulled.

Some states. What about the others? Looks like George is picking and choosing his norms.

Now to the rest of George’s paragraph: a comprehensive union requires comprehensiveness across time.

Does it? We can’t know and George can’t prove it. First, because he never proved that a “real” marriage must be a “comprehensive union.” He just said that most people acknowledge it to be so. But, as we’ve established (over and over), what most people acknowledge is irrelevant in George’s logic.

Second, even if you accept the notion of comprehensiveness (as I’m inclined to), George never defined the term clearly enough to draw logical conclusions. He has said that comprehensive doesn’t have to mean all-encompassing, so that takes “permanence” off the table, even by George’s own reasoning.

No one’s married until someone dies!

Now this next bit is a favorite of mine. Let’s see where George’s premises can take us:

  1. George believes a lot of couples claiming marriage don’t have “real” marriages.

  2. George believes a union must be permanent to be a “real” marriage.

  3. But we can’t know a marriage is permanent — and therefore “real” — until it finally ends with the death of one partner.

  4. George believes “the state is justified in recognizing only real marriages as marriages.”

  5. Therefore (wait for it…), George’s reasoning leads us to conclude that:

The state is justified in recognizing only the unions of dead people as marriages.

Because, after all, until then, the state can’t be sure they are “real.”

I love that.  I have to admit it.  It tickles me and I find it delicious. To escape this, George has to abandon one of his beliefs. I have no idea which one, but I can’t wait.

By the way, I have to wonder what George thinks of a couple with children who continues living together, but not comprehensively.  That is, they stop having sex, or lose their emotionally intimacy, or separate their finances as much as they can, or simply barely speak to one another.

If their union is no longer comprehensive, are they still really married?  And if “real” marriage requires permanent, continual comprehensiveness (“through time” and “at each time,” in George’s words) is the government justified in saying they were never really married?

Also, George (as a Catholic natural philosopher) is devoting his life to creating a reason-based justification for Catholic doctrine.  But here’s a conflict. If two Catholics are married by a priest and have sex, the Church sees them as permanently married (with few exceptions).  How does that fit with George’s requirement for permanent, continual comprehensiveness?  It seems to say a man and wife could just shake hands and part ways, and thus no longer be “really” married.

I can only wonder.


I know I promised you polygamy and incest, but that would make this entry awful long. It’s coming, though.

Next time: Polygamy, incest, and the failure of George’s definition of marriage.

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

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3 Responses to Reply to George: VIII. No “Real” Marriage Until You’re Dead!

  1. 1
    rejiquar says:

    I have been enjoying this series a great deal, even without the added extra interest of being ex-Catholic with a bunch of sibs who would be just the sort to cite this guy. Now I have some sense of his arguments.

    Sorry I haven’t got anything more interesting, but I appreciate your posting.

  2. 2
    shalom says:

    The state is justified in recognizing only the unions of dead people as marriages.

    Perhaps he instead thinks the state is justified in banning divorce.

  3. 3
    Dan Hicks says:

    Regarding (1) and (2) at the top of the post: George is (and, over the previous few pages, has been) offering what’s called an abductive argument, or an inference to the best explanation. I like to present the logical form of these arguments to my students in this way:

    (1) Q
    (2) P is the best available explanation of Q
    (3) Hence, P

    Humans seem to use this type of argument all the time, whenever we infer the existence of some unobserved thing to explain some observed event or trend. For example, we’ve long noticed that the characters of organisms are well-adapted to both their other characters and the characters of other organisms in their native environment. More recently, we’ve started to notice things like vestigial organs and weird but effective combinations of things (like the panda’s `thumb’, which works like an awkward, jury-rigged thumb and is basically a spur of bone coming out of the panda’s wrist). The best available explanation for these two observations, taken together, is natural selection. And so we conclude that natural selection is real.

    This argument is not deductively valid: the premises do not guarantee that the conclusion is true. But the premises do give *some* reason to believe the conclusion. This is very useful when (as with natural selection) it’s all impossible to produce evidence that directly supports a hypothesis.

    This argument is not circular: neither of the premises is equivalent to the conclusion. It also doesn’t require that P be the only available explanation of Q. It just requires that P be the best available explanation.

    Of course, to support that last claim, you have to actually compare all the available explanations. And George has not done this. At best, he’s compared the conjugal/procreative view to a rather simplistic and perhaps even stupid view. This provides absolutely no support whatsoever to the claim that the conjugal/procreative view provides the best available explanation.