Princeton's Robert George
PRINCETON, New Jersey, 20 MARCH 2006 (ZENIT)
Debates about the institution of marriage are often characterized as
clashes between religious adherents and secularists, which imply the
debate is one between faith and reason.
However, a new collection of essays from across the academic disciplines
argues that marriage need not be defended solely through appeals to
religious authority or tradition.
Robert P. George is co-editor with Jean Bethke Elshtain of "The Meaning
of Marriage: Family, State, Market and Morals" (Spence). He is McCormick
Professor of Jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program in
American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University and serves on
President George Bush's Council on Bioethics.
George shared with ZENIT some of the arguments presented in the book as
to why marriage is an "intrinsic good." Part 2 of this interview will
Q: What compelled you to compile this book of essays on the meaning of
marriage? What is so special about this collection?
George: These essays are important because they demonstrate that
marriage isn't a sectarian issue or even a narrowly religious one.
Quite the contrary, the essays demonstrate the public importance of
marriage and our ability as rational people to grasp the meaning, value
and significance of marriage even when we do not invoke or appeal to
special revelation or religious tradition.
Last December, Jean Bethke Elshtain and I hosted a three-day conference,
sponsored by the Witherspoon Institute, that brought together leading
scholars from across the academic disciplines
history, ethics, economics, law and public policy, philosophy,
sociology, psychiatry, political science
Scholars presented papers on their academic discipline's contribution to
our understanding of marriage, and each of the disciplines offered
profound insights into the importance of marriage both for individuals
and for the nation.
The papers did not invoke revelation, religious authority or sectarian
reasoning. This was the best of what's been termed "public reason" at
And the conclusions from everyone at the conference were that: a)
marriage matters; b) marriage is in crisis; and c) we could be facing
the virtual abolition of marriage if we go down the road of same-sex
Professor Elshtain of the University of Chicago and I decided to compile
these essays into a book because the information and arguments we were
fortunate enough to have heard at the conference need to be disseminated
throughout our nation. Every American who cares about civil society,
child well-being and the condition of marriage in our culture needs to
know about the scholarly findings reported in this collection.
Right now there is a public debate going on about marriage, but all too
often it has devolved into shouting matches about same-sex "marriage"
Our project tried to avoid this pitfall, and to examine the entire range
of social problems at stake in the discussion of marriage:
fatherlessness, cohabitation, divorce, out of wedlock childbearing, etc.
While I cannot mention every chapter in the book, there are three essays
written from a social science perspective that I will mention.
Don Browning of the University of Chicago and Elizabeth Marquardt
author of "World's Apart"
have a fascinating essay, "What About the Children? Liberal Cautions on
Maggie Gallagher, the president of the Institute for Marriage and Public
Policy, has an insightful essay entitled, "(How) Does Marriage Protect
W. Bradford Wilcox, assistant professor of sociology at the University
of Virginia, concludes the book with a reflection on marriage's impact
on the least well off in society, in his essay, "Suffer the Little
Children: Marriage, the Poor and the Commonweal."
Other essays include an argument on how the acceptance of same-sex
"marriage" would erase the grounds of principle for rejecting polygamy
and polyamory, that is, multiple partner sexual unions; an illuminating
discussion of how "no-fault divorce"
weakened marriage as an institution, and how the lessons learned from
our mistake in embracing "no-fault" divorce might make us cautious as we
contemplate even more radical changes; and arguments about the
importance of marriage for the legal, political and economic welfare of
When a generation ago people began to discuss "no-fault" divorce, few
even considered whether allowing Adam to more easily divorce Eve would
have anything other than positive effects on marriage and society as a
In hindsight we can see how the introduction of "no-fault" divorce
people's understanding of the meaning of marriage, with profoundly
damaging social consequences.
That experience should make us very skeptical of claims that we can
recognize the relationship of Adam and Steve as a "marriage" without
further eroding a sound public understanding of what marriage means and
what it truly is.
Q: Turning from the book as a whole to your particular contribution, a
chapter on practical philosophy and marriage: What do you mean in your
essay when you say that marriage is an "intrinsic good"?
George: I mean that marriage is properly understood as more than a means
to ends that are extrinsic to it.
The value of marriage is not merely instrumental. Marriage is a basic
irreducible aspect of the well-being and fulfillment of a man and woman
who unite themselves to each other as spouses.
When one understands marriage properly as the permanent and exclusive
union of sexually complementary spouses whose comprehensive, loving and
faithful sharing of life is founded upon their "one-flesh" bodily unity,
one sees that marriage provides a reason for action whose
intelligibility as a reason does not depend on further goals or
objectives to which it is a mere means.
In uniting a man and a woman at every level of their being
biological, the emotional, the dispositional, the rational, the
marriage is intelligibly choiceworthy as an end in itself.
Just as the most fundamental point of non-marital friendship is
friendship itself, and not other ends to which friendships may be useful
as means, the most fundamental point of marriage is marriage itself.
Q: You note that much of the confusion about sex and marriage in our
culture finds its roots in the thought of 18th-century Scottish
philosopher David Hume. How is this so?
George: I don't want to place too much of the blame on poor old David
As I point out in my chapter of "The Meaning of Marriage," Hume himself
held rather conservative views about marriage, recognizing it as a
profoundly important social institution, one which needs and deserves
support and protection by the formal institutions of society and by the
customs and mores of the people.
The problem is not in what Hume taught about marriage; it is in what
Hume taught about practical reason and moral truth.
As I've observed, a sound understanding of marriage recognizes it as an
intrinsic good, or what, following Germain Grisez, I have called a basic
something persons have reason to choose precisely because they grasp its
worth as an irreducible aspect of human well-being and fulfillment.
But Hume teaches that there are no basic human goods, no
more-than-merely-instrumental reasons for choice and action. Rather,
Hume supposes, all of our ends are given by subrational motivating
factors, such as feeling, desire, emotion
what Hume called "the passions."
Reason, then, is reduced to a purely instrumental role in the domain of
deliberation, choice and action. Reason cannot identify what is
intelligibly desirable and thus choiceworthy; its role, on the Humean
account of the matter, is merely to identify efficient means by which we
can achieve whatever ends we happen to desire.
As Hume summed up his position, "reason is, and ought only to be, the
slave of the passions, and may pretend to no other office than to serve
and obey them."
To the extent that Hume's teaching has been accepted, whether formally
or merely implicitly, by contemporary men and women, it has led them to
adopt a form of subjectivism
sometimes called "moral non-cognitivism"
that undermines a sound understanding of marriage and other basic human
This is particularly damaging in the case of marriage, because marriage
is the kind of good that can be participated in fully only by those who,
however informally, understand it properly. Its capacity to enrich our
lives as spouses
and, where the marriage is blessed with children, as parents
significantly dependent on our understanding it and grasping its
more-than-merely-instrumental value. ZE06032021
Interview With Princeton's Robert George
PRINCETON, New Jersey, 21 MARCH 2006 (ZENIT)
Proponents of same-sex "marriage" often claim that allowing same-sex
couples to marry cannot possibly harm anyone else's marriage, as the
relationship is distinctly private.
This argument prompted scholars from across the disciplines to gather
together to offer distinctly "public reasons" for the preservation of
the institution of marriage as a male-female union.
Their results have been gathered into a new book, "The Meaning of
Marriage: Family, State, Market and Morals" (Spence), co-edited by
Robert P. George and Jean Bethke Elshtain.
George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and director of the James
Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton
University and serves on President George Bush's Council on Bioethics.
The scholar shared with ZENIT why the ability to choose and meaningfully
participate in marriage is dependent upon legal and cultural
institutions that support that choice.
Part 1 of this interview appeared Monday.
Q: You describe the good of marriage as a "one-flesh communion of
persons." Is that a distinctly religious concept?
George: No. The intrinsic value of marriage, understood as a
comprehensive, multilevel sharing of life founded upon the bodily
communion of sexually complementary spouses and naturally ordered to
procreation and the upbringing of children, can be grasped, and has been
grasped, by people of different faiths and by those of no particular
The teachings of most, if not all, religions extend to marriage in one
way or another, but the good of marriage can be known, and is known, by
reason, even when unaided by revelation.
Even when it comes to providing a critical reflective account of
marriage, John Finnis has made the point that the greatest philosophers
of ancient Greece and jurists of pre-Christian Rome were able to
articulate the foundations of a sound understanding of this great human
Of course, the language of "one-flesh union" derives from the Hebrew
Bible and is powerfully reaffirmed by Jesus in the Gospels. For Jews and
Christians, revelation reinforces and illuminates a great truth of
Q: Section 1652 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: "By its
very nature, the institution of marriage and married love is ordered
toward the procreation and education of the offspring and it is in them
that it finds its crowning glory." The Catechism thus appears to
describe marriage in purely instrumental terms. Can you clarify how your
position is consistent?
George: Sure. I have already remarked that married love and the
institution of marriage are naturally ordered toward procreation and the
upbringing of children.
But this is not to say that children are extrinsic ends to which marital
union, in its sexual dimension or otherwise, is a mere means. "Ordered
toward" does not mean "is merely a means to."
Perhaps the best evidence that the Church recognizes the intrinsic value
of marriage and does not treat it merely as a means to procreation is
her clear and unwavering teaching that people can have reason to marry,
and may legitimately marry, and can be fully and truly married, even
when the infertility of one or both spouses renders procreation
impossible for them.
Marriages of infertile spouses are true marriages. They are not
pseudo-marriages. They are not second-class marriages.
Because human beings are constituted as they are, thus constituting the
human good as it is, it is intrinsically fulfilling for men and women to
unite in a form of communion apt for
procreation and the upbringing of children even where, in their
particular case, they will not be able to conceive or rear children.
Spouses truly become "one flesh" in their marital intercourse even when
temporary or permanent infertility means that conception will not take
place. It is worth noting that for Jews and Christians marriages are
consummated by completed sexual intercourse, not by achieving the
conception of a child.
However, nothing in the affirmation of this great truth contradicts the
equally great truth that children conceived as the fruit of marital
communion are indeed the "crowning glory" of marital love.
Children are not operational objectives of the sexual union of spouses
or of the institution of marriage; rather, they, are gifts supervening
on marital love to be welcomed and cherished as perfective participants
in the community
established by their parents' marital communion.
Q: Does the Church's recognition of the validity of infertile marriages
contradict its teaching that marriage is necessarily the union of a man
and a woman, rather than a union of any two persons, including persons
of the same sex?
George: No. The key thing to see is that the Church, consistently with
what we know by the light of natural reason, understands marriage as
fundamentally and irreducibly a sexual relationship.
people can live together, caring for each other and sharing each other's
lives in many dimensions. But for a marriage to be brought into
existence and be completed, a comprehensive, multilevel sharing of life
must be founded on the bodily
union of spouses.
A man and woman pledged to permanent fidelity to each other must become
"one flesh" by virtue of the consummation of their union by intercourse
in which they fulfill the behavioral conditions of procreation
whether or not the non-behavioral conditions necessary for conception to
take place happen to exist.
In the absence of true biological union, persons cannot be sharing each
other's lives in the uniquely marital way; their sharing of life cannot
be a comprehensive sharing, one in which their communion at other levels
is founded on their bodily communion.
It is by performing marital acts
acts that are procreative in type, whether or not they are reproductive
in effect; and even if, due to disease, defect or a woman's age they
cannot result in procreation
that a man and woman pledged in permanent fidelity to each other
consummate and renew their marriage as a one-flesh union.
This is why marriages cannot be between more than two persons, however
fond they are of each other and however committed to the group each may
sincerely be; and it is why marriages cannot be between persons of the
Once we understand marriage as truly a one-flesh union, we see that
sexual activity between or among members of polyamorous groups or
between partners of the same sex, however much they may desire it or
find it satisfying, is inherently non-marital.
Whatever one makes of claims that sexual play can enhance the emotional
bonding of participants in polyamorous or same-sex relationships,
plainly it cannot unite the sex partners maritally. Whatever its motive,
objective or point, it cannot be biological, "one-flesh," unity
very foundation and defining principle of marriage.
Please note, by the way, that the Church's teaching here reflects her
understanding of the body as fully participating in the personal reality
of the human being, and not as a mere subpersonal instrument for
achieving ends or inducing satisfactions desired by the conscious and
desiring aspect of the self
considered, as in dualistic theories, as the real person who inhabits
and uses a body.
The biological union of spouses in procreative type acts can be true
personal communion, precisely because we are our bodies
though, of course, we are not only our bodies
are body-soul composites. We are not non-bodily persons
minds, souls, consciousnesses
residing in, or supervening on, and using non-personal bodies.
Q: If marriage is so self-evidently good, then why does the state need
to intervene to preserve it? Couldn't it be preserved in churches and
religious communities where it is celebrated and lived in the fullest
George: This is a superficially appealing proposition.
Its appeal fades, however, the moment we consider both: a) the
importance of marriages, and thus marriage considered as an institution,
to the well-being of society and the state; and b) the vulnerability of
marriage as an institution to social pathologies and to ideologies
hostile to marriage that weaken the institution's immunities to these
The most powerful and basic reason for the public's interest in marriage
and its institutional health is its unique suitability for protecting
children and rearing them to be upright people and responsible citizens.
As Brad Wilcox, Maggie Gallagher and other social scientists who have
contributed to "The Meaning of Marriage" have shown, few things are as
important to the public weal
in our current circumstances almost nothing is more urgent
than creating and maintaining a set of social conditions in which
children being raised by their moms and dads is the norm.
Certainly religious communities and other institutions of civil society
have an indispensable role to play, but law has a role to play, too. The
law is a teacher.
It will teach either that marriage is a reality in which people can
choose to participate, but whose contours people cannot make and remake
e.g., a one-flesh communion of persons united in a form of life uniquely
suitable to the generation, education and nurturing of children
the law will teach that marriage is a mere convention, which is
malleable in such a way that individuals, couples, or, indeed, groups,
can choose to make of it whatever suits their desires, interests or
subjective goals, etc.
The result, given the biases of human sexual psychology, will be the
development of practices and ideologies that truly tend to undermine the
sound understanding and practice of marriage, together with the
development of pathologies that tend to reinforce the very practices and
ideologies that cause them.
Oxford University philosopher Joseph Raz, himself a liberal who does not
share my views regarding sexual morality, is rightly critical of forms
of liberalism which suppose that law and government can and should be
neutral with respect to competing conceptions of moral goodness.
In this regard, he has noted that: "Monogamy, assuming that it is the
only valuable form of marriage, cannot be practiced by an individual. It
requires a culture which recognizes it, and which supports it through
the public's attitude and through its formal institutions."
Of course, Professor Raz does not suppose that, in a culture whose law
and public policy do not support monogamy, a man who happens to believe
in it somehow will be unable to restrict himself to having one wife or
will be required or pressured into taking additional wives.
His point, rather, is that even if monogamy is a key element in a sound
understanding of marriage, large numbers of people will fail to
understand that or why that is the case
therefore will fail to grasp the value of monogamy and the intelligible
point of practicing it
unless they are assisted by a culture that supports, formally by law and
policy, as well as by informal means, monogamous marriage.
What is true of monogamy is equally true of the other elements of a
sound understanding of marriage.
In short, marriage is the kind of good that can be chosen and
meaningfully participated in only by people who have a sound basic
understanding of it and choose it with that understanding in mind; yet
people's ability to understand it, and thus to choose it, depends
crucially on institutions and cultural understandings that both
transcend individual choice and are constituted by a vast number of
individual choices. ZE06032121