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Did love win?

| Tuesday, August 25, 2015

On June 26th the Supreme Court held that same-sex marriage is a constitutional right; no state may deny a marriage license to a couple because they are the same sex. For many, this represented an enormous victory for love and equality.

We all want all marriages to be treated the same. Talk of marriage equality, then, simply begs the question of what marriage is.

Those who cheered the Supreme Court’s ruling say that love makes a marriage. I’m confident that no one has ever believed that slogan as stated. The love that is shared between father and son, brother and brother or teacher and pupil is real love, and yet no one thinks that such love makes a marriage.

So, those who cheered the ruling speak of “stable, committed” relationships. But brothers and sisters love each other in a committed, stable way and no one would call them married.

To most, it seems sex has to be involved. So, if you want to be together with someone you love — and you’re having sex — you can marry, and there’s an end to it. But this will not do. If one wants to claim that love makes a marriage, or that love plus sex makes a marriage, one must identify what is distinctive of marital love and the kind of union it seeks.

Marital love is about total union with the one I love. A marital lover seeks union with the beloved on all levels of his or her being: we can call this thing a comprehensive union. Importantly, one level of our being is bodily: my body is me, part of who I am. So any union that is total or comprehensive would unite lovers at the bodily level (as well as the mental and emotional levels).

Such a union cannot be constituted (though it can be enhanced) by feelings, because feelings are inherently private realities. Feelings of affection may be simultaneous, but they are not truly shared. What really does unite people is sharing a good, and such sharing can only be realized through action. All reasonable action aims at some good, and calls for a commitment appropriate to that good.

At the bodily level, comprehensive union is constituted by active coordination toward a single bodily end of the whole. My heart, lungs and other organs are one flesh and comprise a true bodily union in that they are actively coordinated toward a single bodily end — my biological life — of the whole — me. Bodily union typically takes place within a person, but it’s possible between two people in only one respect: coitus. In coitus a man and a woman can participate in a bodily coordination for a single end — reproduction — of the whole — the couple. No other kind of sexual act is capable of achieving true bodily union.

It’s worth noticing one implication of the bodily union just described: it exists in the very moment of coordinated activity. If two people coordinate their action toward reproduction, they unite in a bodily way whether or not they end up bringing about new life.

Of course, bodily union alone does not make a marriage. Just as the existence of mutual love alone does not mean that we have a marriage, neither does having sex make us married. What does make a marriage — a comprehensive union — requires a bit more explanation.

As mentioned above, marriage is a comprehensive union of whole persons — all of whom we are. I’ve stressed that this includes our bodies, but it also includes our minds (and our emotions). We achieve a union of minds when we choose to commit ourselves to the same end in marital vows.

Being comprehensive in uniting partners on all levels of their being, marriage is also comprehensive with respect to the goods that the partners participate in. Because the act that achieves bodily union is the kind of act that is capable of reproduction, marriage unites partners in a wide ranged sharing of domestic life appropriate to family life. Not all marriages will produce children, and not all marital acts will result in conception, but all marital intercourse is participated in as the first step of the process that is oriented towards the conception of a new human being, and thus is not only valuable in itself but is inherently oriented to new life and the sharing of domestic life.

Recall that the commitment appropriate to a relationship follows from the goods that are pursued in and through that relationship. Marriage — comprehensively uniting partners on all levels of their being and with respect to the widespread sharing of the goods of domestic life and procreation — calls for comprehensive commitment: through time (permanent) and at each time (exclusive). This commitment is made through the marriage vow, which does not represent a generic sort of commitment, but a commitment precisely to do certain things. Spouses commit to permanence and exclusivity with respect to the comprehensive cooperation that is instantiated by the marital act (made marital by their consent to permanence and exclusivity) and that unfolds into widespread sharing of domestic life.

Those who commit themselves to shared action toward procreation and domestic life, to the union of body and mind, commit themselves to married life. Those who dedicate themselves to other noble purposes — sisters who run an orphanage or lifelong friends who decide to share retired life together — are not married. In general, two men or two women may love each other, may desire to share all aspects of domestic life, and may make a pledge of permanent and exclusive commitment to each other. But those commitments are distinct from the marital commitment, which must include bodily union, something that unites two persons of the opposite sex (on equal terms).

Comprehensive union makes sense of the norms of marriage that most of us agree on: that it should be permanent and exclusive and monogamous. Arguments for redefining marriage to include same-sex couples cannot make sense of these norms in any principled way, and thus cannot adequately explain what marriage is, or, consequently, why the state is interested in protecting and promoting it. Love, as such, does not make a marriage. If it did, would it not be inherently unjust to limit marriage to only two people, to only sexual relationships or to require permanence when love fades?

Equality demands that like cases be treated alike, not that different cases be treated alike. A marriage policy that excludes same-sex couples in no way violates equality. So rather than proclaiming, as if the debate was over, that love and equality have won, we should — and will — continue to think about what marriage is, why it matters and why the state has an interest in regulating it.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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