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Defending Traditional Marriage

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  • 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 http://tinyurl.com/anscombe-society.

     

     

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    • Ben VB

      Update: The talk will be on Tuesday, April 19th at 7:30 PM in Cummings Art, Room 4 (same building as Annenberg).

    • Masaru

      Marriage must be a legal construct in America because of separation of state and religion. Various religions can choose to recognize marriages as they see fit, but legally there must be a separate definition (which could in fact be equivalent). But marriage can’t be defined as “Jesus says so” or something like that. Why is it always God anyway? Why do we have to ignore what other religions have to say about issues like this?

      “Simple physiology shows that the only biological act that requires, or even admits, multiple subjects is heterosexual coitus.” What? You might want to consider rephrasing that because it makes no sense. First, coitus is by definition heterosexual. Ignoring that, I’ll assume you were trying to sound intellectual by using coitus instead of sex. Then “coitus” of any sort clearly requires multiple subjects. How do you have sex by yourself? And male homosexual “coitus” also requires and admits multiple subjects.

      And what about the married couples who don’t have sex (anymore)?

      Your argument is weak.

    • Sodomite

      I appreciate a good satire, Ben. You’re positively Popeian!

      One preliminary observation: Without adjectives, your definition of marriage would be as flaccid as any God-fearing abstainer. Oh, wait…

      I found this to be particularly tickling:
      “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.”

      I’m pretty sure I can’t achieve prostate orgasm by myself, either. Penetrative anal intercourse, FTW.

      This, too:
      “Simple physiology shows that the only biological act that requires, or even admits, multiple subjects is heterosexual coitus.”

      I’m also pretty sure that my acts of homosexual coitus have admitted multiple subjects. And I mean full-blown orgiastic intersubjectivity.

    • Rahul

      What about heterosexual couples that choose to be abstinent?
      Elderly couples that are too old/no longer wish to have sex? Are their marriages no longer valid?

      I would too disagree to with your claim that “the only biological act that requires, or even admits, multiple subjects is heterosexual coitus.” The only thing that could possibly make heterosexual sex the “only biological act” that marriage can be based on is the fact that it is the only “natural” way for babies to be conceived. Yet, what if a heterosexual couple is unable to have a baby? Is their marriage no longer a true marriage? Otherwise, everybody – homosexual couples, transgender couples, transsexual couples – can have sex; there is nothing truly unique about heterosexual sex.

      Also consider heterosexual love between a couple in which one or more party is too disabled to have sex. Again, would you deny them the right to marriage?

      By making marriage conditional on this lofty and fundamentally flawed notion of the uniqueness of heterosexual sex is a dangerous notion, one that leads to marriage being an exclusive institution of reproduction rather than one of love and mutual support.

      This reads merely as a misguided attempt to cloak religious belief in secular philosophy.

    • Matt Grossman

      I too harken back to a quieter era, when there was a cultural climate in which words were only loaded with pure emotional emotion.

    • Alison

      I’m confused by “Simple physiology shows that the only biological act that requires, or even admits, multiple subjects is heterosexual coitus.” If the ‘biological act’ and ‘purpose’ you’re discussing is intimacy with another, then sex between two people of the same gender is not excluded. If all the talk about bodily union and function is in fact about producing children or at least attempting to, then couples who decide not to have children don’t seem to have marriage available to them either. If you don’t count homosexual sex as ‘biological,’ then I have a seriously hard time believing this argument is predicated on anything other than religiously-dictated definitions and values, and think any study of animal sexuality undermines that notion.

      Who is harmed by two consenting adults choosing to pledge their exclusive, eternal union, seeking the exact completeness you laud in this piece?

    • Zouaf

      I think you’re one of the stupidest people I’ve read in the Review.

    • Julian

      “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.”

      Why should the state reserve the right to dictate the “type” of union on which a marriage contract may find itself “truly complete,” especially if that “type” excludes “emotional or intellectual unions”? Does a couple have no other right to marriage than via coitus? For all this alleged necessity of “heterosexual coitus” (rightly denoted above as redundant, but whatever), the author doesn’t seem to want to talk about a reproductive imperative, which is basically the only distinction between coitus and other sex acts. (The distinction is certainly not about determining certain acts that do or do not “require, or even admit, multiple subjects,” and I would be most surprised if the author himself did not know of ex-coital acts that meet this standard prior to his writing this article).

      In short, if the author is going to posit that baby making is the juncture between “truly complete” marriages and all others, he had best offer some honest and forthcoming justification concerning why our government is in the place to dictate a reproductive imperative.

    • JJ

      The definition of “traditional” marriage is laughable. Bigamy was the traditional way not too long ago. Beating your wife for not putting out was the traditional way, too. Getting married at 12, the same.

      If you really want “traditional” marriage, you’re barking up the wrong tree.

    • Andres Morales

      Are you kidding? What do you even define as a “philosophical” discussion of marriage? You’re ideas are only getting “stifled” because they’re empty attempts at hiding your personal (shortsighted?) beliefs behind the veil of intellectual inquiry. As people above have so aptly noted, your definition of biological union is deeply flawed in that it degrades marriage into a purely reproductive institution. What if I were able to reproduce with a sheep? I guess if we’re keeping it traditional I’d probably have to ask her father for her hoof-in-marriage, but other than that I could marry her right? Philosophically speaking, of course.

    • teehee

      lol

    • Zouaf

      I commented earlier, letting the author know perhaps too bluntly what I think of his intelligence. It wasn’t approved – someone must be feeling sensitive.

      If marriage is defined by coitus, and if “true” marriage does not correspond to a legal definition set by the state (both points made by the author), does it follow that any act of coitus= marriage?

      Does it then follow that the very promiscuous are married, in the “true” sense, to everyone they’ve ever had sexual relations with?

      I sense the infiltration of a secret Mormon agenda…

    • Zouaf

      Just so my actual opinion is unmistakable: marriage is clearly not about coitus, nor is it about reproduction.

      Marriage is also a legal construct, a contract between two people recognized (and enforced) by the state.

      There’s no reason to exclude homosexuals from marriage and this article is weak sauce.

    • Eli

      Wow, when I was at Stanford, the Review was full of Ayn Rand-ite libertarian wankers who insisted, among other things, on the unlimited right of free people to form contracts with one another (which would, of course, eliminate things like the minimum wage and rent control). Now, it’s a bunch of religious-right wankers who think that certain types of contract can only possibly be made by people of the correct gender pairing?

      Make up your minds!

    • Sodomite

      NEWB.

    • Kolby

      I appreciate the article, Ben. I disagree with your position and most of your reasoning, but I appreciate the calm and rational style. Too often, debate over same sex marriage devolves into name-calling and expletive-lobbing.

      It appears that this comment thread has already seen some of that. I’ve yet to see a case where calling someone stupid convinced them to accept a different opinion.

    • Audrey

      “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.”

      I think that interracial marriages that took place before such unions were legalized were NOT considered marriages at the time. They were at best ignored and at worst subject to discrimination and violence.

      Why do laws about marriage need to “accurately reflect its inherent nature”? Civil rights are about protecting people’s ability to participate in civic and political aspects of the state. Marriage, regardless of it’s religious, political and philosophical origins, has become a governmental institution, a legal contract that affords individuals certain rights. Making the argument about the “inherent nature” of marriage allows for discrimination because you can create a definition that excludes certain people. Instead we need to focus on what marriage IS in law and how not allowing certain people to marry cuts them off from freedoms that others may access.

    • Jireh Tan

      Er, hello. GEM Anscombe did not help to “begin the development of an understanding of marriage that is not predicated on religious dogma”. Rather, her writings on marriage reflect a particularly Catholic point of view. (In fact, her writings on most topics reflect a particularly Catholic point of view. Except for her works on Wittgenstein. Though it is hard to be particularly Catholic about Wittgenstein, I guess.)

      I’m fine with people advancing religious arguments. But my pet peeve is people who do so WITHOUT acknowledging the religiosity. No respect.

    • 28YR_RELATIONSHIP

      My gay male partner and I are coming up on our 29 year anniversary. I have 19 straight colleagues and one female gay colleague. The longest surviving relationship belongs to the oldest straight guy (30 yrs). I come second. The other gay person comes third (23 yrs). The next closest relationship clocks in at merely 13 years. When the writer has achieved 20+ years in his relationship, I will listen to what he has to say about what works best. Until then, perhaps he should observe the world more closely and be less eager to display his ignorance.

    • Observer

      I can sum up this op-ed in one line:
      Preserve traditional heterosexual marriages because by definition that’s what the word “marriage” means.

      Sorry, but the justification for constraining marriage to a (heterosexual, as implied in the article) “biological union” or its “inherent nature” is mere tautology.
      If you really wanted to make a compelling argument about constraining marriage to biological unions, then you’d have to constrain the definition of marriage to those who wind up having children. Whether the child is biological, delivered by cesarean, artificial insemination, a surrogate mother, in-vitro, or adopted creates further complications. Good luck with that.

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    • J.

      You raise a good point. People should be tested for fertility before they’re married. If either or both of the fiancées are infertile, their marriage should be prevented (or annulled, if it’s too late), and the infertile parties should be prohibited from marriage in the future. It’s about our biological destiny as humans, right?

    • Modern Miscegenation

      “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.”

      I would agree with the author if he is implying that the state need not sanction a marriage for it to be a legitimate bond uniting two lovers in the eyes of many. The extrapolation, however, that the state therefore did not need to recognize interracial marriages is discriminatory and morally contempt. No less so when “interracial” is replaced with “same-sex”.

      Strong political will (anti-miscegenation laws) opposed the union of interracial couples on the basis that it was unnatural, against tradition, and would destroy the institution of marriage. The same rhetoric spews from homophobic mouths today.

      Infertility has never been a prerequisite for heterosexual couples to marry and is no excuse to not grant political rights to a loving couple. State intervention has been used extensively (in 30 states, including California) to prohibit the union of same-sex couples, which I heard no condemnation of from Morse. This reveals that it is not the government she loathes, but homosexuals.

      There remains no reasonable secular argument against same-sex marriages. There was nothing secular, by the way, about Elizabeth Anscombe–just read her Opus Dae. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles/AnscombeChastity.php

    • Divv Bramplus

      This seriously reads like a kid fresh out of high school debate wrote this. Just absolutely cringe-worthy.

    • Defending Traditional Spelling

      “Dialogue,” please, not “dialog”!

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    • Fannie

      “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.”

      Ben is arguing that marriage is a thing that exists in reality like, say, a tree or a flower. Setting aside the fact that this argument is traditionally advocated from a Catholic point of view, the big logical flaw is that it is circular.

      Ben’s argument, at its core, is that only a man and a woman can get married, because marriage can only exist between a man and a woman. Notice that the argument does not, therefore, address the issue of whether same-sex marriage is a good idea for society.

      And, regarding the “pre-existing reality” thing, one is led to wonder. If marriage is a pre-existing reality, how do we humans know one when we see one if it is unmarked by a state license or ceremony?

      Does this “pre-existing reality” of a marriage exist whenever a man and a woman shack up together? Does it start existing after the first time they engage in coitus? What if a person has children with more than one partner- does he or she have a “natural marriage” with each of those partners? Do defenders of marriage have special equipment with which to detect marriages that are not marked by ceremony or license?

      These are mostly rhetorical questions, by the way, serving to illustrate the absurdity of the “marriage is a pre-existing reality” argument.

    • Little man

      An admirable thesis, and how it is explained. We are all philosophers, but not all are good philosophers. Therefore, not everyone will be able to understand the fallacies in the idea of “equal rights”, which is not in the Constitution per the Federal government.

      It’s more fun to go against “the current”, than with it, if logic is on our side.

      I knew my Alma Mater would be able to see both sides of this issue. Stanford faculty may be largely of Democrat persuasion, but i know that they will never abandon rational thinking.

    • Aaron

      I am coming to Stanford having endured an absolutely miserable adolescence after I came out in the middle-of-nowhere, Indiana. Part of the reason Stanford appealed to me so much was because I thought that no one would either care or want to discriminate against me in the university. How naïve. My worst fears about the Hoover Institute have been realized, and I am absolutely disgusted by this article and that this outdated viewpoint is endorsed by a legitimate student newspaper and organization. I am embarrassed for Stanford.

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