Thursday, September 3rd, 2009


During the ongoing debate over same-sex marriage, it’s common to hear conservatives speak of the “definition of marriage,” but what exactly do we mean by the “definition” of marriage.  Are we talking about the purpose of marriage, its form, or both?  Most Americans (including conservatives) seem to be referring to marriage’s form: one man and one woman (for life).  I submit to you that this is the wrong place to begin the debate.  If we allow the discussion to center on marriage’s form, we are sure to lose.

I am persuaded that one of the main reasons we are facing the social and moral predicament we are is because we have reduced the “definition of marriage” to its form, losing sight of its purpose.  Without understanding the particular purpose of civil marriage in society, its traditional form is not necessary.  When we understand the purpose of civil marriage, however, the traditional form logically follows.

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J. Budziszewski noted that sometimes we deny what we know to be morally true by improperly pitting two moral principles against one another.  Consider marriage and fairness.  We recognize both to be moral goods.  Those who advocate for same-sex marriage, however, pit them against one another, arguing that if we are going to be fair we must permit same-sex couples to participate in the institution of marriage.

The problem is in their understanding of fairness.  They understand fairness to mean everyone must be treated exactly the same.  This definition is flawed, however.  Fairness requires that we do not arbitrarily treat people differently, or arbitrarily treat them the same.  In the case of same-sex marriage, we are not arbitrarily treating same-sex couples differently than heterosexual couples.  There is a principled reason for our discrimination: as a rule, heterosexual couples procreate while same-sex couples do not (and the principal reason government is involved in regulating marriage in the first place is because they are interested in the production and socialization of children).  To say it is unfair to preclude same-sex couples from marrying is like saying it’s unfair to allow one baseball team to beat another.  The purpose of baseball is competition, so it is fair to allow them to compete.  Likewise, the purpose of marriage is procreation, and it would be unfair to treat relationships that cannot procreate as equal to those that can.