Getting Marriage Right

The divisive and hateful rhetoric towards those who support traditional marriage is unworthy of our democracy. Australia has always been a nation of diverse intellectual and cultural heritage; it is simply an insult to that heritage to stifle debate and discussion on the most important social institution, which has always been centred on the precondition for society itself; the conjugal union of male and female.

This isn’t a debate about equality. As surprising as this might sound to many, everyone already believes in marriage equality. All marriages ought to be treated equally under law. The question is not one of equality but rather of what marriage actually is. We cannot judge that a certain marriage policy is just/unjust without first establishing what marriage is and why the government takes an interest in it. Why? Because ultimately, every marriage policy drawn up will exclude some relationships (yet they don’t infringe on equality); so we need to have principled lines to draw. The equality issue is a complete misnomer.

The advocate of traditional marriage holds that marriage is more than just an emotional union of a particular intensity. Many different types of relationships involve love, commitment, the sharing of burdens and benefits but they aren’t therefore marriages (think here of co-habiting monks or siblings that share a household). Reducing marriage to a mere emotional union fails to account for why marriage needs to be a sexual union at all, why it requires a permanent commitment to get off the ground or even its limitation to two people. These norms receive no explanation on the revisionist view. As Sherif Girgis puts it, “Redefining marriage collapses the distinction between marriage and companionship in principle and in practice. It therefore undermines all the marital norms—so critical for spousal stability and the next generation’s well-being—that explain the law’s involvement in marriage”. The conjugal view does not face this conceptual difficulty; it grounds marriage in the complementarity of male and female and their ability to engage in comprehensive bodily union (the generative act).

Unlike other unions, the male-female union is by its very nature oriented towards new life and is naturally fulfilled by child-rearing. It is the only kind of union geared towards that end, which is why the state draws a *distinction* between it and other relationships. The state has no interest in love simpliciter or friendships as they serve no connection to the common good. The state has an interest in its future citizens, which is why it provides incentives for husband and wife to stay together as mother and father. Infertile couples do not challenge this distinction: they remain procreative in type even if not in effect. Their union is still ordered toward procreation as an end just like a damaged eye remains an eye in virtue of the kind of thing it is. Their blocked capacity to conceive is not intrinsic to their union but rather accidental i.e., as a result of contingent and accidental features of their reproductive systems. In contrast, union between two males or two females is essentially of the non-reproductive type. The state still takes an interest in childless or infertile marriages because it wants to convey a view of marriage as it really is, not just as a means to an end.

I have no problem with civil unions or contracts for all sorts of other relationships. There are of course inheritance issues, hospital visitation concerns etc. But none of this shows there is no meaningful distinction to be made as to which relationships are marriages. The distinction is there, it is real and is worthy of legal recognition.

In essence, disagreement is a healthy aspect of society. When we disagree we are able to learn more about ourselves and others. But with disagreement should come mutual respect and a a commitment towards the common good. Hateful rhetoric exists on both sides of this question and that must be defeated.

We must strive to get marriage right.

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