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Until just yesterday, no society--monogamous or polygamous--had defined marriage as anything other than a male-female union. With clear and cogent arguments, What Is Marriage? explains the rational basis of this historic consensus. It defeats the arguments for recognizing same-sex partnerships as marriages and shows how doing so would harm the common good. Originally published in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, this book's core argument quickly became the year's most widely read essay of more than 300,000 scholarly articles posted on the Social Sciences Research Network. Now expanded to address a flurry of prominent responses, What Is Marriage? stands poised to meet its moment as few books of this generation have. If the marriage debate in America is decided in the next few years, it will be either with this book's help, or despite its powerful arguments. Rhodes Scholar Sherif Girgis, Princeton University professor Robert P. George, and Ryan T. Anderson, editor of the online journal Public Discourse, provide a devastating critique of the claim that equality requires redefining marriage. They point out that any assessment of what "marriage equality" demands depends on first determining what marriage is--what sort of relationships must be treated as essentially the same. They defend the principle that marriage, as a comprehensive union ordered to family life, requires a man and a woman. And they argue for the great social benefits of enshrining this principle in law. Most compellingly, they show that those who embrace same-sex civil marriage leave themselves no firm ground--none--for not recognizing as marriages every relationship type describable in polite English, including multiple-partner ("polyamorous") sexual unions. Finally, What Is Marriage? decisively answer common objections: that the historic view is rooted in bigotry (like laws forbidding interracial marriage); that it is callous to people's needs; that it can't show the harm of recognizing same-sex couplings, or the point of recognizing infertile ones; and that it treats a mere "social construct" as if it were natural, or an unreasoned religious view as if it were rational.
Chapter One: Comprehensive Union
For all the difficulty and ambiguity of making value judgments, the broadest outlines of the good life are plain to most of us. One man has a healthy body and a happy family, an enriching complement of hobbies and a keen sense for Bob Dylan. By day he teaches high-school seniors to savor the rhythm and wit of Chaucer’s poetry; by night friends help him savor red Bordeaux. A second man is debilitated, depressed, desensitized and detached. It doesn’t take a poet or a saint to see who is better off.
It is equally clear that there is nothing special about Dylan, Chaucer, or Bordeaux that gives the first man his advantage. There is nosinglegood life, but a range of good lives: countless ways of blending the basic ingredients of human thriving. But the ingredients themselves—the most foundational ways in which we can thrive, what we call “basic human goods”—are more limited. They include only those conditions or activities that make us better off in themselves, whether or not they bring us other goods. It makes sense for us to want these for theirownsake. Health, knowledge, play and aesthetic delight are a few examples, and another is friendship.
Yet another basic human good, we think, is marriage. A critical point here is that marriage and ordinary friendship do not simply offer different degrees of the same type of human good, like two checks written in different amounts. Nor are they simply varieties of the same good, like the enjoyment of a Matisse and the enjoyment of a Van Gogh. Each is its own kind of good, a way of thriving that is different in kind from the other. Hence, while spouses should be friends, what it takes to be a good friend is not just the same as what it takes to be a good spouse.
What, then, is distinctive about marriage? All sorts of practices are grafted onto marriage by law and custom, but what kind of relationshipmust anytwo people have to enjoy the specific good of marriage? This framing of the question, though unusual, should not seem mysterious; we could ask it just as well of other basic human goods.