It is often remarked by church historians that the authentic development of theological doctrine does not occur until it is challenged by the advent of a new heresy. Something similar might be said about the development of traditional moral wisdom—such wisdom doesn't translate itself into explicit philosophical argument until it is forced to do so by some unsound innovation which challenges it.
Perhaps the most striking consequence of this challenge—for those who are willing to listen—is the cogency and persuasiveness of the growing intellectual defense of traditional marriage: reasoned argument on behalf of what was once tacit moral consensus. The best of this intellectual defense is on display in a recent book, The Meaning of Marriage: Family, State, Market, and Morals (Spence Publishing, 2006, 316 pp.) edited by University of Chicago professor of social and political ethics, Jean Bethke Elshtain, and Princeton University professor of jurisprudence, Robert P. George.
The book is the result of a conference held at Princeton in 2005, organized by the dynamic new scholarly think-tank, the Witherspoon Institute. The Meaning of Marriage comprises eleven essays by an interdisciplinary team of leading academics. Together the essays consider the institution of marriage from a variety of fields, including history, ethics, public policy, law, economics, philosophy, sociology, and political science. As the book shows, the advent of legalized same-sex unions in recent years is only the culmination of a destabilizing trend which began at least five decades ago, and it is as much the result of unprecedented structural changes in the everyday life of modern societies as it is the result of ideological shifts in sexual morality.
In her introduction to the book, Professor Elshtain laments the shallowness of much of the contemporary public debate regarding marriage. Her complaint is surely correct, and in this regard the serious and measured arguments put forth in The Meaning of Marriage are a welcome change. Elshtain's introduction also provides a succinct summary of each essay, helpfully highlighting the key points. One of the most interesting (but demanding) essays is "Sacrilege and Sacrament" by British philosopher Roger Scruton. As Elshtain puts it,
... Scruton addresses marriage from a far-reaching humanistic perspective, highlighting important methodological considerations in the study of human practices. Scruton begins by contrasting the external, detached stance assumed by social science, and the internal, first-person perspective of lived human experience. Considered from the viewpoint of the former, marriage provides essential social functions for perpetuating society over time, and from the viewpoint of the latter, marriage sanctifies our sexual desire by elevating it into existential commitment to another person.
Social scientist Elizabeth Marquardt and University of Chicago professor Don S. Browning, in their essay "What about the Children? Liberal Cautions on Same-Sex Marriage," sketch a "philosophical anthropology" of marriage. They explore, as Elshtain puts it, "the similarities between the traditional views of Aristotle and Aquinas on the one hand, and contemporary evolutionary psychology on the other. These disparate sources concur on the importance of 'kin altruism' for effective child rearing, an insight overlooked by most same-sex marriage proponents." Another fascinating essay is "Changing Dynamics of the Family in Recent European History" by Princeton economic historian Harold James. Again, Elshtain:
John Maynard Keynes famously remarked, "In the long run we are all dead anyway." True enough for us the living, but not so for society's future generations—they are the long run. Economists, therefore, often search for 'inter-generational equity' and social mechanisms that can make reliable and legitimate transfers between generations…. Harold James argues the family is perhaps the only social institution capable of achieving inter-generational and inter-temporal equity. A living generation's concern for society's future stems largely from concern for the prospects of its own children. This concern provides the present generation with incentives to undertake projects and activities whose benefits they will never see, but which their descendants will enjoy.
James' essay provides a penetrating lens through which to see the current depopulation crisis plaguing Western Europe and Japan (and for that matter, "blue state America" as well): abandonment of the traditional family undermines the economic and political viability of entire societies.
Frequent tothesource writer Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse contributes a provocative essay entitled "Why Unilateral Divorce Has No Place in a Free Society." She analyzes rival conceptions of marriage and the family in economic terms and shows how a divorce culture, and a fortiori a same-sex union culture, diminishes personal liberty and enhances the scope of state power. In effect, Morse presents the libertarian argument for traditional marriage.
Maggie Gallagher and University of Virginia professor, W. Bradford Wilcox, each address marriage from a sociological perspective. Gallagher's piece "(How) Does Marriage Protect Child Well-Being" sketches the present state of marriage research and provides a helpful summary of the sociological data which demonstrate the superiority of traditional marriage for children. Wilcox's "Suffer the Little Children: Marriage, the Poor, and the Commonweal" details a sociological history of the family since the 1960s, stressing the destructive consequences of abortion and widespread contraception, and shows how divorce and broken families lead to material poverty. From this conclusion Elshtain points to an important lesson: "Wilcox's argument should dispel the common assumption that the plight of today's poor is simply a result of economic inequality and the cultural values and family structure are of secondary importance." On the contrary, cultural values and family structure are perhaps the dominant contributors to poverty.
The other essays in the book are also engaging, and each offers a distinct vantage point on marriage. Legal scholar David F. Forte's "The Framers' Idea of Marriage and Family" addresses how the American founding generation saw the importance of marriage and the family. Amherst political philosopher Hadley Arkes argues in "The Family and the Law" that legal endorsement of same-sex unions will likely mark the end of any public regulation of sexuality at all—even perhaps pedophilia. Once a principle is enshrined in law, he writes, it works itself out to its logical conclusion.
Robert P. George's essay, "What's Sex Got to Do with It? Marriage, Morality, and Rationality," makes a philosophical argument for the immorality of homosexual activity. George contends that only in the biological and psychological complementarity shared by a man and a woman can actual "one-flesh" unity be achieved. Sexual activity outside this context violates the basic good of marriage.
The contemporary situation in family law and its historical roots are the subjects of law professor Katherine Shaw Spaht's essay, "The Current Crisis in Marriage Law, Its Origins, and Its Impact." Political theorist Seana Sugrue rounds out the collection with "Soft-Despotism and Same-Sex Marriage," in which she addresses the family as a bulwark of civil society, drawing upon the work of Alexis de Tocqueville.
The Meaning of Marriage should be required reading for anyone who wishes to think seriously about the nature of marriage and the family and about their role in contributing to individual and social well-being. Proponents of same-sex unions and other inheritors of the sexual revolution will be confronted by a stiff challenge. Defenders of traditional marriage and family life will acquire a potent set of arguments on their behalf, none of which is dependent upon religious claims. In either case, Elshtain and George's The Meaning of Marriage will provoke.