John H blogged on the connection between marriage and procreation and the infertility objection earlier today on Curlew River. While frequently employed as a facile and dismissive rejoinder to any argument that would identify procreation as a primary purpose of the institution of marriage, the fatuousness of the infertility objection can readily be exposed by closer inspection. Within this post, I will add a few more thoughts of my own on the particular character of the connection between marriage and procreation.
Arguably the most significant conceptual obstacle within the current marriage debates is that of an institution. In informal dialogue with proponents of same-sex marriage over the last couple of years, it has been their failure to grasp what an institution implies, and to reflect upon the purposes of the institution of marriage that has most struck me. Although I am not usually wont to quote from such a source, the Wikipedia definition of an institution is quite helpful for our present discussion:
An institution is any structure or mechanism of social order and cooperation governing the behavior of a set of individuals within a given human community. Institutions are identified with a social purpose and permanence, transcending individual human lives and intention by enforcing rules that govern cooperative human behaviour.
One of the most consequential details of this definition is the distinction that it draws between the social purpose of an institution and the intentions of individual human lives. The purposes with which people enter into an institution should not be confused with the primary ends of the institution itself. Although institutions may be responsive and accommodating to the particular interests of those participating in them, and may even exist in large measure to serve such interests, their social purpose exceeds these interests and can never be reduced to them.
The distinction between individual interests and the social purpose of institutions should be readily apparent to most. It is the difference between the purpose of the university and the intentions of the individual undergraduate. It is the difference between the purpose of the army and the purposes of the individual who volunteers for the forces.
The social purposes of these institutions take precedence over the private intentions of individuals. In order to be accepted within the army or university, you need to meet their requirements and submit to their norms and formative training. Were the army or the university to reorganize themselves around the most common individual ends of those entering into them and to prioritize these over any ends transcending them, they would in all likelihood become considerably less effective as unified, purposeful, and effective social institutions. In many cases, institutions ordered purely around the interests of the individuals within them could prove injurious to the wider society.
When commentators remark upon the ‘de-institutionalization’ of marriage over the last few decades, it is to this sort of reorganization that they are referring: marriage ceases to serve a social purpose that transcends the couple, and reorients itself to be almost entirely ordered around their intentions. The abandonment of an institutional conception of marriage is perhaps the most noteworthy background for the same-sex marriage debate. It is this de-institutionalization that explains the focus upon and the persuasive power of the language of rights and equality in the present debate.
It is this de-institutionalization that explains why people who are fiercely opposed to the imposition of cultural norms upon people’s sex lives can nonetheless strongly support the introduction of same-sex marriage. While an institution of marriage ‘governs the behaviour’ of society, traditionally disapproving of or not encouraging non-marital sexual relations, expecting monogamy, sexual exclusivity, and lifelong commitment of married partners, and stigmatizing adultery and fornication, de-institutionalized marriage is just the public imprimatur and validation of a private lifestyle choice, whose norms can be adopted or abandoned at will, and which have little bearing on society more broadly.
This de-institutionalized conception of marriage underlies the habitual language of ‘extending’ marriage or ‘including’ same-sex couples. For a de-institutionalized form of marriage, such an exclusion is fairly arbitrary, as same-sex couples enter into their partnerships for much the same reasons and ends as most opposite sex couples do. However, if marriage is an institution with a social purpose, the inclusion of same-sex couples must be measured against the social ends that marriage serves, and their inclusion must be determined according to their capacity to conform to the shape that marriage takes in order to achieve these.
It also underlies the common claim that two persons of the same-sex getting married cannot harm your marriage. While it may not harm your marriage, it harms the institution of marriage, which, in the long term, harms everyone.
Marriage as an Institution
In order to understand how marriage has functioned in most past societies, it is necessary to understand it institutionally. As an institution, marriage has taken the form that it has in order to serve various social purposes. While for many in contemporary Western society they may eclipse all else, historically, securing the happiness, companionship, and the public celebration of the union of the married couple have been quite far down the list of priorities for the institution.
Like any institution, marriage has had a measure of indifference to the private ends of those entering into it. The coincidence of institutional and private ends is quite unnecessary, provided that the institutional form and purpose is maintained. The individual goals and motives of your doctor are of secondary importance, provided that he is serving the ends of the health service. Where its social purpose is generally served, an institution has little reason to pry into the intentions of those entering into and functioning within it.
A marked difference between the ends to which the institution of marriage is ordered and the reasons for which individuals enter into the state of matrimony is exactly what one should expect from such an institution. The fact that most people may not get married primarily in order to provide a committed and secure context for the conceiving and raising of children does not mean that this is not the primary end of the institution. Nor does the fact that the conception and raising of children is a primary end of the institution mean that this must be a primary goal for every married couple.
Marriage and Procreative Sex
As an institution, the relationship between marriage and procreation is fairly strong. It is rather unlikely that we would have an institution of marriage, were it not for the fact that men and women can have procreative sexual relations. As Bertrand Russell observed, ‘it is through children alone that sexual relations become of importance to society, and worthy to be taken cognizance of by a legal institution.’
In debates about same-sex marriage, the emphasis upon procreation and a particular form of sex on the part of those opposed to the innovation is not infrequently identified as proof of an unhealthy preoccupation: surely marriage cannot be reduced to penile-vaginal intercourse and procreation! While sex is only one dimension of marriage among many for the couple, as regards the public institution of marriage, it is arguably the dimension that is of primary interest: marriage is about a socially approved, regulated, and protected sexual relationship between a man and a woman.
The public institution of marriage does not focus on the intimacy associated with the sexual act, but on its objective form, often in explicit and cringe-inducing detail. While marriage has many levels of personal significance for the couple and their friends and family, levels of significance that go far beyond sex, as a public institution, marriage is constructed primarily around a form of sexual relation that can only exist between one man and one woman. Relationships between men and women are of interest to wider society because men and women can engage in a private sexual union with huge public consequences. For this reason, society has established an institution around this particular sexual act, guarding, regulating, encouraging, and celebrating it.
It is here that the most fundamental contrast between same-sex relationships and male-female relationships emerges. While male-female sexual relationships are of great concern to the wider society on account of their potential consequences, wider society arguably has no vested interest whatsoever in same-sex relationships. This is hardly a partisan observation: many of the very same people who argue for same-sex marriage will vociferously maintain that wider society has no business or interest in what takes place in the bedroom. This is particularly true in the case of same-sex relationships. Gay or lesbian sex has only really been of interest to wider society on account of public health concerns associated with it, or because such sex has been perceived to threaten the unique value and significance of sex that occurs between men and women. The notion of forming an institution around anal or oral sex really is as bizarre and pointless as it sounds, which is why same-sex marriage advocates have redrawn the picture of marriage in a manner that puts sex (along with children) firmly in the background.
Naturally, the position that I am articulating here entails a firm rejection of the fashionable assumption that all sex is equal and univocal (sex is sex is sex…), deriving its meaning and value purely from private intentionalities. Rather, coitus between a man and a woman has a unique and superior objective value and significance, irrespective of the level of the feelings and intentions vested in it by the participants. Society is justified in treating such sexual relationships between men and women differently, as they possess a weight and importance that no other form of sexual relationship could possess.
This position is unabashedly and unapologetically heteronormative. Sexual relations between a man and a woman possess an importance for human existence that is quite lacking in a same-sex relationship, no matter how loving or committed. Sexual relations between a man and a woman achieve what is arguably the primary natural purpose of our sexually dimorphous bodies, express the most fundamental anthropological and cultural difference in union (and these two purposes are achieved even in the case of infertile relationships), and are the bond from which practically every human being who has ever lived has been conceived. While sexual relations with another human being of the same sex may be the occasion of profound self-realization, bonding, personalization, and embodiment, they cannot open onto the same transcendent horizons of human nature. More importantly, for our purposes, they do not represent the interpersonal source of a wider society of shared flesh and blood, with the intrinsic potential to create something that can exceed the partners.
Marriage and the Interests of Children
Procreation and child-rearing are primary purposes of the institution of marriage, not through maximizing the number of children conceived, but in serving the social purpose of ensuring that society reproduces itself in a manner that provides a secure, loving, committed, and natural context for the conception and raising of children, protecting the interests of both children and society at large in the process. Marriage endeavours to encourage and create a loving, secure, and committed environment for every child born into the world. The form that marriage takes is designed to uphold and encourage a norm and ideal that is most beneficial to children.
The form of the institution of marriage protects the unity of biological (genetic and gestational), social, and legal parenthood. It protects the interests of both men and women in the raising of the next generation. It protects the norm and ideal of children being raised by their biological mother and father. It protects the norm and ideal of children only having two parents, and not additional step-parents, surrogate or egg donor mothers, and sperm donor fathers, for instance. It protects the norm and ideal of a unifying and loving bond between a child’s progenitors, a bond within which they have a secure foundation for their identity. It protects children from having a divided patrimony. It protects bonds of blood that connect siblings to their progenitors, siblings, and extended families, giving them identity and kinship.
Marriage protects the humanizing norm and ideal of children finding their origins in an aneconomic, pre-technological, pre-political loving exchange of pledged bodies in a lifelong exclusive union. Marriage takes the form that it does because the union of a man and a woman is the source from which all human society must ultimately spring (bringing together the two halves of the human race in a unitive and generative union marriage is the protological form and icon of society as a whole), and is a more fundamental human reality than the market, politics, the law, technology, or medicine. It thus protects the truth that we transcend all of these other manifestations of human choice, providence, right, control, intervention, payment, or measurement, finding our deepest origins and deriving our truest identity from an economy of joyful gift and gratuity.
I have argued in the past that the changing definition of marriage brings with it a new understanding of the place, meaning, and value of children within our society. It downplays the importance of the rights of children formerly vested in the institution of marriage, arguing that biological parenthood, the presence of both a mother and a father, and simple origins can be treated with increasing indifference. Children, we are frequently reminded, are resilient, flexible, and adaptable. With this change comes growing tolerance and demand for the use of reproductive technologies to circumvent natural forms of procreation, and the expectation that adoption should proceed without regard to the norm and ideal represented in marriage (that every child should have a mother and a father of their own, who are bound together in a lifelong and exclusive union).
We should also be careful not to think purely in terms of the individual child. Changes in this area affect our understanding and perception of children more generally. Even though the child in a particular context might do well, a greater willingness to use reproductive technologies and to support unconventional child-rearing situations has consequences that extend beyond individual children to affect our perception and treatment of children and the unborn more generally. A particular example of this is the increasing dominance of the concept of the child as ‘choice’, and the framing of matters in terms of reproductive ‘rights’, privileging the rights of the adult on the presumption that children are resilient and adaptable. Marriage has traditionally been seen to be naturally ordered towards the conceiving and raising of children. At the base of marriage was the concept of openness to the gift of children, not entitlement as a right, or pure subjection to our decision as a choice. While the new phenomenology of the child can be great for the ‘chosen’ and ‘wanted’ children, it decreases our capacity to be open to ‘unwanted’ children, to those children (such as those born with severe disabilities) who do not conform to our ‘choice’. When our claims, our rights, and our entitlement takes priority in such a manner, we lose sight of the natural giftedness of the relationship between parent and child and the receptive openness and hospitality that the parent must maintain towards their child’s existence, however gifted or limited they might be, whatever characteristics they might possess, whatever they end up doing with their lives.
Marriage and the Infertile
The relationship between marriage and the infertile is clearer to understand when we appreciate our earlier distinctions between institutions and the private ends and behaviours of persons within them. Marriage does not exist to maximize procreation, but to encourage the occurrence of procreation and child-rearing within a secure, loving, and committed context, within which the interests of children are upheld. It is established around a form of sexual union apt for procreation, a sexual relationship to which it gives peculiar significance, and a form of relationship that most serves the interests of children.
Marriage integrates various ends, both public and private, into a single institutional form. These ends include, but are not limited to, the fulfilment of our desire for human companionship, sexual intimacy and relations, kinship, and offspring, the securing of the wellbeing of children and the protection and encouragement of their lifelong relationships with their natural parents, the bringing together of the sexes in society, the passing on of a legacy and family line, the creation of extended family bonds, the protection of blood relationships, and the formation of alliances and connections between families.
While infertile relationships may not fulfil all of these ends, they strengthen the institution by their commitment to it as the fundamental societal form within which we integrate these ends. An infertile couple’s marriage is no less a marriage on account of the fact that it produces no children. If infertile couples were to pursue sexual relations and companionship outside of marriage, it would encourage the dis-integration of the ends of marriage. By entering into marriage they are affirming that these things need to be held together within a single form (much as single people who abstain from sexual relations outside of marriage honour the union and its integrity). They are also declaring that the form of relationship that brings together the two sexes as one, and is the natural context for the conception, bearing, and raising of children should be accorded particular honour, which involves submission to the societal norms that surround it.
The crucial difference between these and same-sex relationships is found in the fact that same-sex relationships cannot integrate the various goods and ends of marriage into a single form. At best they are relationships in which ends detached from the integrating form represented by marriage are pursued in a less integrated manner. The problematic character of same-sex relationships in much Christian and other religious and philosophical thought arises from the belief that they may not merely represent un-integrated ends, but may be expressions of the disintegration of ends (much as adultery or other non-marital forms of sexual relations).
Recognizing same-sex relationships as marital entails a reorganization of the form of marriage itself and the necessary loss of its social purpose. Infertile relationships, by contrast, maintain and even strengthen the social purpose and form of the institution, despite the fact that they may not fulfil certain of the primary purposes of the institution themselves.
Homosexual Couples and Children
At this point, I should address the objection of those who argue that the fact that many same-sex couples are raising children should entail recognition for their unions. As I have already maintained, homosexual unions, in contrast to genuine marriages, have no intrinsic connection whatsoever to the bearing or the raising of children, nor are they ordered in terms of the goods of these ends. The sexual relation between a homosexual couple is categorically different from the organic bodily union that can exist between a man and a woman. A homosexual union is completely irrelevant to the bearing and raising of children. Homosexual unions bear no relation whatsoever to the marital act by which children are conceived. The parties in such a union are not the two natural parents of any children that they raise, and there is always the intervention or involvement of some third party. A homosexual union also radically departs from the natural mother and father form of parenthood.
There is no more reason to recognize such a union on account of the fact that the couple may happen to be raising a child between them than there would be to recognize a union between any other two persons who happened to raise a child between them apart from a sexual relationship. Their sexuality and their sexual partnership really is an irrelevancy as far as the ends of child-bearing and rearing go. In contrast, there are extremely good reasons why society should take cognizance of committed sexual partnerships between men and women, because these are the sorts of relationships that are conducive to, congruent, and consistent with the natural ends of both child-bearing and rearing (connecting children to their natural parents, giving them both a mother and a father, representing the two halves of humanity and society in their upbringing, etc.).
When it comes to the adoption of children, we are seeking to restore a broken situation to something that is as close as possible to the ideal. In certain cases the best available option for a child may be a single person, an unmarried couple or group of persons, or a same-sex couple. However, all else being equal, there should be an overwhelming preference for a situation where the child will have both a mother and a father. No adult has the ‘right’ to adopt a child. It must always be the needs of the child that take precedence: adults merely assume a set of duties.
This post has defended a position of opposition to same-sex marriage. At the heart of this case is a challenge to the assumption embedded in the language of ‘equality’ that so animates the same-sex marriage case. My claim is that, whereas in such cases as interracial marriage, restrictions could be shown to be arbitrary, discriminating between couples on the basis of differences that were indifferent to the ends of the institution itself, in the case of same-sex marriage, the differences are not indifferent. In the case of same-sex marriage, the differences strike at the heart of the ends of the institution. ‘Equality’ is only meaningful when people are in fact equal according to a clear set of criteria. Measured according the social purposes of the institution of marriage and the form that marriage takes in order to achieve these purposes, same-sex marriage is clearly not equal. In contrast, an infertile marriage between a man and a woman is in keeping with the form of marriage and also advances its purpose, not just by serving some of the ends of marriage directly, but also by encouraging its integration of ends more generally.
In treating same-sex unions, I believe that our discussion needs to be driven, not by a demand for equal treatment of forms of relationship that are quite different, but by the expectation of equitable treatment for all members of and partnerships within society, treating them impartially and fairly according to their particular merits and needs.
If a case is to be made for institutional recognition of same-sex unions, I believe that it should be clear that the institutional recognition that they should receive should be something distinct from marriage. This recognition should be contingent upon such unions adopting an institutional form – being subject to social norms and serving a social purpose that transcends the ends of those within them. The value, status, and degree of public recognition that society should accord to these unions should depend upon the measure to which society’s larger ends are served by their existence. Such institutional status should most definitely not be expected as a matter of entitlement, principally for the purposes of personal affirmation.
Should no social purposes compelling enough to provide a rationale for the existence of such relationships in a regulated and publicly encouraged institutional form be found, society can nonetheless make equitable legal provision for those who wish to enter into a secure and committed relationship with a person of the same sex, without thereby according such relationships the peculiar social approbation of institutional status, treating them as private relationships, not subject to higher institutional norms.
UPDATE: I have produced further questions and answers here, in a page that should always be easily accessible from my front page (under ‘Larger Projects’).