Religion & Public Life With Mark Silk

While I’ve been on break, I’ve had a chance to read Robby George’s latest
against same-sex marriage, this one written with a couple of younger
colleagues in the current issue of the Harvard Journal of Law & Public
. It’s a notably Platonic exercise.

The authors believe that there is a Platonic form of marriage that is independent
of any social or legal circumstances, consisting of the union of one man and
one woman, sexually exclusive and long-lasting if not eternal. This is a species of
natural law myth-making, less entertaining but scarcely more plausible than the tale of primordially conjoined male-male, female-female, and male-female creatures that Plato puts into Aristophanes’ mouth in the Symposium.
That famous myth imagines a world of heterosexuals, gay men, and lesbians, each
seeking its original other half.

George & Co. see Nature as authenticating only heterosexual unions. They
ground this belief in body parts and functions: Because only one man and woman
can engage in coitus at one time, and coitus is the only (natural) way of
producing offspring to continue the human race, then “real marriage”
can only consist in a male-female duo. Any other marital arrangement is not the
real thing.

But why should the number of coital partners at one time be determinative? Gorillas
and ibexes can no more copulate with more than one partner at a time than humans
can. Does that make their family units (one alpha male, several female
partners) unnatural? If science is to be taken seriously, then the relevant
natural law has to be sociobiological: what’s natural is whatever arrangement
maximizes the individual’s opportunity to pass on his (or her) genetic

Among humans, this would seem to open the door to polygyny.
Why should a man have to wait more than nine months to sire another child,
especially if he can provide that child with all that is necessary to get on in
the world? The readiness of human societies to organize themselves polygynously
suggests that human nature is not averse to the sociobiological

No doubt, the patriarch Jacob would be distressed
to learn
that George & Co. do not regard his relationship with his beloved
Rachel as a
real marriage. Likewise the many Mormons who trace their ancestry to
forbears. This is not to claim that polygamy is necessarily a good
thing, only that
there is something bizarre about imagining that one can, by intellectual
fiat, rule it out of the history of legitimate marital relations.

make their rules according to their own evolving values–based on
custom, religious teaching, calculations of social utility, individual
claims, and the politics involved in sorting out all of the above.
Whatever merits the Georgian “conjugal view” of marriage may possess,
nothing qualifies it as a timeless truth.

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