What Is Marriage For?

Is marriage, at its heart, an institution that confines heterosexual sex and ensures that every child is born firmly tied to its biological parents, legally, economically, emotionally, and socially? Or is it an ever-changing institution, constantly battled over, whose rules change dramatically over the centuries? Do same-sex couples belong in the Western vision, because of the revolution in marriage law and philosophy over the past 150 years? Or would adding same-sex couples violate its core purpose? What is the purpose of sex?  What's the purpose of civil marriage, as opposed to religious marriage?

Maggie Gallagher, of NOM fame (National Organization for Marriage), and I disagree profoundly. We discussed these differences in some detail at bloggingheads. Eyebrows are raised, voices get pointed, but neither of us foam at the mouth, although it gets a little close. Enjoy.

Don't miss the point around 41 minutes, where I ask her whether she believes in IVF and donor semen. Answer: no.

By the way, we're gonna have a rematch in September, where we go beyond these philosophical abstractions and talk current politics. Do you have any questions or points you'd like me to raise? Please let me know.


No matter how many times I hear Maggie "clarify" her stance, I have no idea what she's saying.

She claims that the public purpose of marriage is to tie children to their biological parents, but she never explains: (a) why this should be thought of as the only public purpose of marriage, and (b) why it's not a blatant double-standard to allow opposite-sex couples, but not same-sex couples, to marry when they "violate" this purpose. I thought E.J. pushed objection (a) quite effectively throughout the exchange; Maggie didn't seem to get it. To maintain her position, Maggie must deny that all other purposes can be public purposes, which would be a tall order (so far, Maggie has simply asserted her position without argument). However, I wished E.J would have pushed Maggie on objection (b).

Undeniably, many opposite-sex couples can marry even though they can't/won't satisfy Maggie's so-called "public purpose" criterion, so a violation of it is no barrier to marriage. Maggie is not opposed to marriages that violate her criterion, *except when it comes to same-sex couples.* On Maggie's view, opposite-sex couples who violate Maggie's "public purpose" criterion should still be allowed to marry, but what's the difference between those couples and same-sex couples? Answer: one group is gay and the other isn't -- hence a blatant double-standard.

Either Maggie's "public purpose" criterion should prohibit couples who can't satisfy it from marrying or not. If not, then her criterion obviously has no relevance to the SSM debate. If her criterion should prohibit couples who can't satisfy it from marrying, then it should apply to *all* couples who can't satisfy it - not just same-sex couples. However, Maggie is not willing to apply her criterion equally -- opposite-sex couples get a pass. Why? As I said above, no matter how many times she has tried to "clarify" this, I have no idea what she's saying.

In one of her articles, Maggie wrote: "Gay marriage is rooted in a false equation: Loving a man is not the same as loving a woman; a sexual union that can give rise to children is fundamentally different in kind than a union not so freighted, for good and for ill, with the fact of procreativity."


The above prompts the question: what about heterosexual unions that are not "freighted...with the fact of procreativity?" Are they also "fundamentally different in kind" than sexual unions that can give rise to children? What's the difference between heterosexual unions that are not "freighted...with the fact of procreativity" and homosexual unions?

I think it was a measured and mostly intelligent conversation. It's useful to see where the views diverge and where accommodations can be made.

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