Defending Traditional Marriage

by Ben VanBerkum on April 18, 2011

Marriage. The word is loaded with political emotions in today’s cultural environment. Changes in societal perceptions have made marriage a hotly-contested issue, both politically and philosophically. The question of who can and cannot legally be recognized as married raises issues of discrimination, human rights, and the role of government in the lives of citizens.

Stanford students, being the activists we are, have naturally formed many groups to address these issues and to champion social changes. What the current campus atmosphere lacks is an organized student voice advocating for marriage as the union, until death, of one man and one woman—that is, the traditional definition of marriage. The Anscombe Society seeks to fill this void.

Our central thesis is that dialog about marriage must focus on what marriage really is. The Anscombe Society’s goal, then, is philosophical: we seek to promote campus discussion on the definition of marriage. We are confident that if we as a campus community approach the discussion honestly, we will come to understand the true nature of marriage.

In this spirit, we take our name from the British philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, whose work on this issue helped begin the development of an understanding of marriage that is not predicated on religious dogma.

Serious dialog on questions of philosophical importance is unproductive if it lacks a clear purpose. Unfortunately, much of the rhetoric surrounding marriage in our society seems designed from the outset to stifle intellectual inquiry.

For example, one common argument is that marriage is simply a legal construct. In this view, marriage is defined as whatever happens to be enshrined in law at a given moment. However, abandoning a key social institution to the wisdom (or whim) of the state forsakes intellectual rigor on a topic of great importance. Just as we seek a logical justification for any other law, we should seek to understand the laws that address marriage.

Furthermore, the history of marriage in this nation shows that legal recognition is not necessary for a union to be considered a marriage. Few would argue that a secret interracial marriage that took place before such unions were legalized was not actually a marriage. Rather, it was a marriage that was not recognized by the state. The state could likewise err on the other extreme and call something a marriage that is not, in reality, a marriage.

Either way, the state’s failure would not change the underlying and pre-existing reality of the institution, whose meaning is not simply imposed on it from without. We must therefore seek to formulate laws about marriage that accurately reflect its inherent nature.

An investigation of the question of marriage could proceed by many avenues, but one start is to ask what makes marriage different from friendship. The answer lies in completeness: while both are unions of the intellect and of the heart, in which individuals seek to know one another as well as they know themselves and to act in the best interests of the other, the union of marriage is more complete. For example, the ideals of permanency and exclusivity in marriage derive from making the union of marriage complete through all of time (permanency) and in each moment of time (exclusivity).

A critical component of this completeness is biological union. As humans, we are not merely an intellect, but also a body. Thus, any truly complete union must include bodily union. This cannot be any bodily union — merely shaking hands is far from sufficient. Instead, marriage requires a biologically complete bodily union, one in which two bodies jointly fulfill a single purpose, a single bodily function, that neither could achieve alone.

In a similar way, a good friendship can allow us to accomplish tasks that neither friend could have done on his own; however, we would never describe such tasks as basic biological functions, and it is in exactly this sense that friendship lacks the completeness found in marriage. Simple physiology shows that the only biological act that requires, or even admits, multiple subjects is heterosexual coitus. We conclude that for marriage to be truly complete it must not limit itself to emotional or intellectual union but must include a physical union of exactly this type.

Of course, this brief introduction to the intellectual discussion of marriage lacks the space to fully address every detail; but then, if the discussion were really so simple, there would be no need for our existence. We invite all Stanford students to continue this discussion with their friends, in their classes, and with us.

At our first event, we will be hosting Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse, founder of the Ruth Institute and a former Hoover Fellow, for a talk titled “Marriage Without Adjectives” on Tuesday, April 19th at 7:00 PM. If you are interested in joining us, either for Dr. Morse’s talk or for future meetings, please contact us at



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