Reply to George: XI. Gay Marriages Will Destroy Straight Marriages

[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 260-262: In which Robert George explains why legalizing same-sex marriage will lead opposite-sex parents to divorce.

At this point, Robert George has finished redefining marriage laying out his concept of marriage. He changes direction and starts to explains why marriage equality would be bad public policy.

That’s good, sort of. George finally walks away from the arcane, byzantine logic he’s been advancing so far and strides into the arena of recognizable public debate. These are the issues people discuss at work and with their families, rather than just in the pages of academic journals.

George has a strange view of us.

His first argument is that marriage equality will weaken the institution. As before, he starts badly:

No one deliberates or acts in a vacuum. We all take cues (including cues as to what marriage is and what it requires of us)  from cultural norms, which are shaped in part by the law. Indeed, revisionists themselves implicitly concede this point.  Why else would they be dissatisfied with civil unions for same-sex  couples? Like us, they understand that the state’s favored  conception of marriage matters because it affects society’s understanding  of that institution.

“Why else” indeed?  He’s nailed us. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard this conversation:

Why can’t you be happy with civil unions?

Well, Joe, it’s because the law shapes cultural norms, which means the state’s approach to the legality of marriage shall influence society’s understanding of marriage — and by extension, your understanding and mine. Now get me another beer, would ya?

Seriously. As far as I can tell, among regular people — people who don’t live in the pages of academic journals — same-sexers want to marry for the same reasons as opposite-sexers, and those reasons are mostly emotional. I’ve written of that elsewhere, but it’s not relevant here, except to point out George’s odd perspective on “revisionists.”

George offers more of the same.

However, since the whole aim of this project is to critique George’s argument, let’s see where he goes with it.

In redefining marriage, the law would teach that marriage is fundamentally about adults’ emotional unions, not bodily union or children, with which marital norms are tightly intertwined.

We’ve already covered this in past entries, right?

  • It’s the emotional union and commitment that makes marriage such a good environment for raising kids. Ideally, the commitment precedes the children, which means the emotional union often is what marriage is fundamentally about.
  • George’s personal, idiosyncratic conception of “bodily union” is confused and limited, and certainly no part of our cultural understanding.
  • We can explain marital norms without invoking children.
  • Same-sex couples can be just as eager to raise children as opposite-sexers.

George is talking about the wrong public policy.

Moving on:

Since emotions can be inconstant, viewing marriage essentially as an emotional union would tend to increase marital instability—and it would blur the distinct value of friendship, which is a union of hearts and minds.

This has nothing to do with same-sex marriage. He’s talking about a different policy question — he’s talking about divorce:  Is a change in emotion reason enough to end a marriage? That’s a whole different debate. Some conservative argue that innovations like no-fault divorce weaken the meaning of marriage. Go ahead, argue away. But as long as all couples (same-sex and opposite-sex) are subject to the same body of divorce law, then adding same-sexers to the mix will do nothing to alter the message.


George writes:

Moreover, and more importantly, because there is no reason that primarily emotional unions any more than ordinary friendships in general should be permanent, exclusive, or limited to two, these norms of marriage would make less and less sense.

First (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 that married people should stay together as long as they are raising children. Once those kids are no longer at home, there’s no reason for the parents to stay together in that home either. So the norm could say it’s fine for couples with grown kids (or no kids at all) to split up. Now, George may not like this norm, but his conjugal view can’t support anything stronger.

Second, we’ve seen that George’s conjugal view doesn’t really explain why marriages should be exclusive or limited to two. Meanwhile, the revisionist/common view can argue persuasively for those norms.

Oh, those hapless, helpless heterosexuals

George continues:

Less able to understand the rationale for these marital norms, people would feel less bound to live by them. And less able to understand the value of marriage itself as a certain kind of union, even apart from the value of its emotional satisfactions, people would increasingly fail to see the intrinsic reasons they have for marrying or staying with a spouse absent consistently strong feeling.

In other words, if marriage is not about fertilizing an egg with sperm — wait, no, George doesn’t insist on actual procreation, so let me rephrase:  In other words, if marriage is not about inserting a penis in a vagina, then people won’t understand the importance of creating a permanent, exclusive relationship that provides kids with a stable home.

It’s easy to dismiss this as the Stupid Heterosexuals argument:  straight people just aren’t smart enough to deal with two guys getting married, and it will make them divorce.

Okay, that was fun to type but I’m not really being fair, especially since I believe many of our most valuable convictions are emotional beliefs instilled in us from childhood. But there are two problems with this:

  1. We allow elderly and infertile straight people to marry. Isn’t that just as bad? George tries to say no, and we’ve already seen how he fails. But even professional philosophers read George’s justification of  infertile straight marriages only to find it convoluted, even nonsensical. The average person, then, who has no need or desire to spend their days reading articles in the Harvard blah blah blah, sure isn’t going to find his reasoning convincing — or even know of it at all. Therefore, his claim that allowing gays to marry will undermine marital stability makes as much sense in the real world as a claim that letting old people marry will make young parents more likely to divorce.
  1. Some gay couples want kids. More every year, I would bet — for me, growing up in the 60s and 70s, it wasn’t even spoken of, but that’s changed now. It’s true that two men cannot create an embryo, but George’s concern for permanent, stable parental relationships makes more sense when it comes to child rearing than child bearing, anway. As more gay couples adopt or use IVF, those couples will reinforce George’s “marital norms” in exactly the same way straight couples do.

George and his co-authors write a few more paragraphs, but it all depends on the (erroneous and ill-reasoned) content that precedes them, so there’s no point in rehashing it.

Next:  George argues marriage equality will harm children, and for the first time I have to wonder whether he’s being deliberately deceptive.

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10 Responses to Reply to George: XI. Gay Marriages Will Destroy Straight Marriages

  1. 1
    shalom says:

    The elephant in the room here is complementary gender roles — it’s bizarre that George doesn’t even mention this (unless I missed something in my reading). There is a very obvious logic of gender difference pervading anti-SSM discourse that neatly explains what George goes to extreme lengths to justify — the idea that men and women are innately different and complementary, and therefore need each other, and complete each other (dare I say comprehensively unite?), in a special way. This explains why different-sex couples who are older, infertile, childless by choice, married for the second (or the 7th!) time, or even both celibate homosexuals, all intuitively look married to anti-SSMers, while a same-sex couple who are madly in love with kids don’t. Occam’s Razor rules gender ideology a much better explanation that “organic bodily union,” which seems to mean nothing, explain nothing, and justify nothing.

  2. 2
    Dianne says:

    The elephant in the room here is complementary gender roles — it’s bizarre that George doesn’t even mention this (unless I missed something in my reading). There is a very obvious logic of gender difference pervading anti-SSM discourse that neatly explains what George goes to extreme lengths to justify — the idea that men and women are innately different and complementary, and therefore need each other, and complete each other (dare I say comprehensively unite?), in a special way.

    Indeed, heterosexism is based on sexism. I suspect that George is trying to say that marriage must be between a man and a woman because there must be a leader in the marriage, a “head of the household” and if both partners are the same gender, how do you know who that is? However, he’s smart enough to know that that amount of overt sexism will not go over well with most readers so he talks around it, even when talking around it is very illogical. In the end, the whole essay is not about George’s reasons for disapproving of same sex marriage, but his rationalizations for doing so. His basic reason is likely that he doesn’t want marriage equality and if two men or two women can marry it becomes harder to maintain the power differential of heterosexual marriage-and harder for men to maintain their greater power in society in general.

    And, indeed, he may be right that this will lead to more divorces-but more divorces because women are not trapped in abusive marriages and men don’t feel obligated to stay with spouses they don’t love or even like because they don’t want their exes to starve or become homeless if they divorce them* (a real possibility in some cultures and in the past in “western” culture.)

    *Of course, there are men trapped in abusive marriages and women concerned about their spouses’ standard of living if they divorce, but in “traditional marriage” where the man is the head and the woman subservient, such situations would be few.

  3. 3
    shalom says:


    Indeed. I would add a distinction between what Julia Serano (author of Whipping Girl) terms traditional sexism (the valuing of men/masculinity over women/femininity, as you describe) from what she terms oppositional sexism — the related, but distinct, belief that men/masculinity and women/femininity are opposites. Though traditional sexism is no doubt an important part of heterosexism, I think oppositional sexism may be the key element when it comes to SSM. You don’t have to believe in male household headship to believe marriage can only be between a man and a woman.

  4. 4
    Robert says:

    Well, there are a lot more gay marriages now than there were 10 years ago when I got married. And now I’m getting divorced. So clearly, empirical evidence proves that gay marriage destroys straight marriages. YOU CAN’T ARGUE WITH LOGIC!!!

  5. 5
    Jake Squid says:

    My sympathies, Robert.

    But I’m pretty sure that the cause is actually the election of Obama to the presidency.

  6. 6
    Robert says:

    It’s probably both. You’d realize that if gay cooties hadn’t rotted your mind.

  7. 7
    Éric says:

    Hi. Great series of articles! This post misses the george-what-is-marriage category, which makes it harder to find when one wants to read all the series.

    [Thanks! Fix made. — Amp]

  8. 8
    f.c says:

    Marriage will always be between one man and one women because God’s law supersedes human laws. We have to look at the purpose of marriage, it is not based on just feelings but, rather a sacrament which is a public sign that one gives oneself totally to this other person. It is also a public statement about God: the loving union of husband and wife speaks of family values and also God’s values.
    I will pray for you.

  9. 9
    Susan says:

    Well, f.c., we really weren’t discussing religious marriages, you know?

    What is God’s opinion on Limited Liability Companies? (Can only be formed by Bible-believing Christians?) On the stock market? On traffic laws?

    Civil law is one thing; “God’s law” is something else again.

    We’re all praying for you too.

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