John Corvino debates Maggie Gallagher on marriage in new book

In a new book, Debating Same-Sex Marriage, philosopher and prominent gay advocate John Corvino will debate Maggie Gallagher from the anti-gay National Organization for Marriage. The point/counterpoint approach to the book helps readers explore what marriage is for, why the government sanctions it, and how marriage for same-sex couples affects children's welfare, religious communities, and our societal understanding of why marriage matters. 

Corvino thoughtfully engages Gallagher in the book and effectively counters each of her anti-gay remarks about why she and NOM oppose the freedom to marry. He arms readers with articulate arguments about why the freedom to marry is so important for Americans.

The book was just released on June 1st. Corvino has shared an excerpt with Freedom to Marry explaining his view on "What Marriage Is":

Early in our collaboration Maggie Gallagher e-mailed me with the following challenge, “What’s your definition of marriage? If you’re going to use a word, you need a definition of the word.” 

I doubt that.

After all, most English speakers can competently use the word “yellow,” but ask the average person to define the term (without merely pointing to examples) and watch him stammer. Then try words like “law,” “opinion,” “religion,” and “game” just for fun. It’s quite common to have functional knowledge of how to use a term without being able to articulate its definition.

Okay, you say, but as someone deeply involved in the marriage debate, surely I have some definition to offer? Yes and no. I have definitions to offer, not a single definition.

As already noted, marriage is multifaceted. It can be variously understood as a social institution, a personal commitment, a religious sacrament, and a legal status. It looks different from the spouses’ perspective than it does from the outside; it looks different respectively to anthropologists, philosophers, theologians, lawyers, and so on. Each of these perspectives can tell us something about what marriage is; none of them is complete or final. So my rejection of a single, final definition stems not from the fact that I don’t know what marriage is, as critics will doubtless allege, but from the fact that I do. As one writer helpfully puts it: “There is no single, universally accepted definition of marriage—partly because the institution is constantly evolving, and partly because many of its features vary across groups and cultures.”

That writer is David Blankenhorn, in his book The Future of Marriage. It’s a surprising concession, since Blankenhorn — a marriage-equality opponent — spends most of the rest of the chapter railing against marriage-equality advocates for offering definitions that he calls “insubstantial” and “fluttery.” Blankenhorn’s main complaint is that these definitions are too focused on love and personal commitment. By contrast, he wants to define marriage by its social function, particularly its role in providing for children. He offers the following:

In all or nearly all human societies, marriage is socially approved sexual intercourse between a woman and a man, conceived as both a personal relationship and an institution, primarily such that any children resulting from the union are — and are understood by the society to be — emotionally, morally, practically, and legally affiliated with both of the parents.

Blankenhorn’s definition starts off a bit oddly: “marriage is...sexual intercourse.” It seems more natural to say that marriage is the relationship that provides the context for such intercourse. (Perhaps Blankenhorn had the new-natural-law conjugal understanding of marriage in mind.) “Socially approved sexual intercourse” is certainly one angle from which to understand marriage, and not an illegitimate one (pardon the pun). 

But it’s scarcely the sole one, as even Blankenhorn seems to recognize. On the very next page, he acknowledges a counterexample— raised by Christian theologians, no less: Marriage can’t be necessarily (that is, always) sexual, since if it were, the Virgin Mary’s “marriage” to Joseph would not be a marriage. And one could point to plenty of contemporary sexless marriages that are nevertheless marriages. Moreover, Blankenhorn’s own definition includes the hedge-words “nearly all” and “primarily,” acknowledging that marriage has multiple goals, including goals beyond connecting parents with their biological offspring.

Are there strictly necessary conditions for a union’s being a marriage? Yes. For instance, there must be at least two persons. (I say “at least” because polygamous marriages are still marriages, whatever other objections we might have to them.) The partners must at some time understand themselves to be married. Sexual relations between them are prima facie permissible, though not, despite the contrary claims of Blankenhorn and the new-natural-law theorists, required. Beyond those requirements, and maybe a few others, we find a host of typical features: romantic and sexual involvement, a shared domicile, mutual care and concern, the begetting and rearing of children, the intention to make the commitment lifelong and exclusive. But “typical” does not mean “strictly necessary,” and for any one of these features, it takes little imagination to conceive of a genuine marriage that lacks it. A “marriage of convenience” is still a marriage, legally speaking. A childless marriage is still a marriage. A marriage on the brink of divorce is still, for the time being, a marriage. 

What marriage-equality opponents deride as “insubstantial” definitions are actually scholars’ attempts to provide analyses broad enough to capture all of the different things that we identify as marriages: loving and loveless, parenting and childless, monogamous and polygamous, domestic and long-distance, same-sex and other-sex. Such definitions may appear to lack specificity. But the alternative is either to pack the definition full of hedge-words (“nearly,” “typically,” “primarily,” “often”) or else to leave it vulnerable to counterexamples. Blankenhorn’s definition actually exhibits both “flaws,” although I’m not sure it’s right to call them flaws. The looseness is a feature, not a bug.

In the context of this debate, those who challenge others for definitions (or cite definitions of their own) typically do so with the ulterior motive of proving that same-sex unions either can or cannot count as marriages — which means that their definitions often beg the question against the other side. I’d rather not take the bait. Instead, when people ask me for a definition of marriage, I usually begin by pointing to the standard vow. Marriage is the institution in which people live out the commitment . . .

to have and to hold; from this day forward; for better or for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; to love and to cherish; until death do us part.

These are the words my parents used; indeed, that many Americans use. They are the words that Boyd and Josh used. Obviously, they do not provide any kind of complete or perfect definition. We would need to flesh out what it means “to have and to hold,” for instance, explaining why that phrase captures a relationship with a spouse but not with, say, a sister. But the vow tells us something important about what people are committing to when they commit to marry.

I shared some of these thoughts in my weekly column once, which prompted an animated e-mail from Blankenhorn. He wrote:

"I invite you to look back at the entire world history of anthropological thought on the topic of what is marriage, and point out to me even ONE example of ONE scholar who has, based on ethnographic data, said, actually or in effect, since recorded history began, that marriage in human groups is properly defined as the promise of abiding love. If you can identify even one reputable scholar in the history of the world who has made such a statement or implied such a thing, I will grovel before you in abject intellectual humility and gladly buy you the lunch of your choice."

I couldn’t find an anthropologist who said that. Actually, I never even bothered looking. Anthropologists define marriage by its cultural function, and “abiding love” isn’t really their angle. But I did find this: “The inner and essential raison d’etre of marriage is not simply eventual transformation into a family but above all the creation of a lasting personal union between a man and a woman based on love.”

What radical, “fluttery” activist wrote these words? In fact, it was Pope John Paul II.

Of course the late pope says that marriage is “between a man and a woman”—no surprise there. But the interesting thing is that he defines it as “above all...a lasting personal union...based on love.” Perhaps he was distracted when he wrote this. Perhaps the Radical Gay Agenda had begun to infiltrate the Vatican. Or perhaps the pope realized what most people know: Marriage is indeed a lasting personal union based on love — which is not to say that it is only that. As I said above — and it bears repeating — any pithy definition of marriage will be partial and imperfect. The theologian’s perspective will be different from the anthropologist’s, which in turn will be different from the philosopher’s, the lawyer’s, the historian’s, the family therapist’s, and so on. There are counterexamples to the pope’s characterization, ways in which it is both too broad and too narrow. But “marriage” is not definable in the way “triangle” or “bachelor” is. And when marriage-equality opponents feel compelled to repudiate characterizations of marriage that strike me, the late pope, and most married couples as perfectly reasonable, something is clearly amiss.

The problem stems largely from the different senses of “love.” Do we mean love as a fluttery feeling? Then no, that doesn’t tell us much about what marriage is. Do we mean love as an abiding, exclusive, lifelong interpersonal commitment? Then that tells us a lot about what marriage is. More important, it also tells us why marriage is so good at doing what it does: providing for the needs of children, for example. Blankenhorn and Gallagher keep insisting on a false dilemma: Either marriage is about providing for children, or else it is “merely” an adult expression of love. Actually, marriage is both of these things — in interconnected ways — and then some.

 John Corvino is the Chair of the Philosophy Department at Wayne State University in Detroit, MI. He is a well-known speaker on LGBT issues, often referred to as "The Gay Moralist." Check back with Freedom to Marry later this week for an additional excerpt from Debating Same-Sex Marriage.