Why Conservatives Defend Classical Marriage


If you’re a Conservative that has endlessly searched for arguments to explain to your Libertarian pals why this “same sex marriage thing” is important, this is a piece for you.


American Conservatism is most often defined today as opposition to big government; as the rejection of a vision of society in which the state plays the driving role. But no ideology can be defined in purely negative terms.  It is not enough to say that Conservatives are opponents of big government, because to oppose anything is necessarily to advance whatever must operate in its place.  This is why Conservatism is traditionally understood as   “pro-family”.  Even Libertarian thinkers such as economist Milton Friedman perceived the indispensable role that the family plays within a free society.  He once said the following while visiting a university campus:  “We tend to talk about an individualist society , but it really isn’t, it’s a family society. And the greatest incentives of all, the incentives that have really driven people on have largely been the incentives of family.” Friedman is correct. The only  type of societies in which citizens  pursue their interests as nothing more than isolated individuals are societies in which a very large social welfare system is present to perform the tasks traditionally performed by the family  (for example in Scandinavian countries such as Sweden which have among the lowest marriage rates, and yet simultaneously the highest divorce rates).  Even this  scheme however has only operated ideally within small homogenous societies.

On the other hand, whether we look at classical era America or  nations such as Hong Kong and Singapore, we see  that wherever we find thriving free markets we also find  an exceedingly high regard for the family.  There is no real world alternative to a society built upon the state except for a society that is built upon the family. Now the cornerstone of the family is the traditional institution of marriage, which is why Conservatism is also known as a  defender of this institution. That  brings us to the real theme of this particular piece which is captured in the following two questions. What does the Conservative mean by “traditional marriage”, and how is this meaning fundamentally at odds with the modern attempt to redefine this institution?

Marriage is an institution that exists for the sake of children. When we say this of course, we do not mean to refer primarily to children already within the world but to those children yet to be born. The basis of marriage is an understanding of the fact that the overwhelming majority of human beings will be born as a consequence of consensual sexual relations between men and women, and  the purpose of the institution is to condition the circumstances within which these children are first introduced into the world. Will they be born to two individuals within a relationship of convenience,  or will they be part of a closely knit family unit?  The second of these two choices is the unique invention of the institution of marriage.  Marriage is the ennoblement of a specific ideal for a specific reason. This ideal is the male/female covenant relationship.  The term “marriage” carries a special cultural weight and dignity which is based upon the notion of the exceptional status of the  relationship. That  exceptional status is due to its peculiar role within society. This role once again is not simply  procreation, it is about the responsible rearing of children by the parties that originally produced them (which is unquestionably the ideal).

Now there is a recourse when this ideal breaks down and it is called adoption.  Adoption is indeed a great social good, but the need for it almost always arises as a  consequence of circumstances that are dysfunctional and tragic. While a child is present within a broken home he or she suffers, and once given over to the child care services of the state they exist in a precarious condition.  Anyone at all familiar with the American foster care system and the stories of the children that have traversed that system will know that they generally range from unpleasant to  horrible.  Adoption is the very difficult second line of defense in the welfare of children.  Marriage however is the first line of defense. The service that the male/female covenant relationship provides that no other relationship or object can, is  the initial introduction of children into stable and nurturing environments, and it is this issue of  initial introduction  that ultimately determines the social soundness of any nation of free people,  as all the relevant statistics show  us.

By emphasizing the social importance of this first model of family  we do not devalue the husband and wife with adopted children. There  is of course no such thing as a comparison of superiority and inferiority between individual families. What we are discussing here is the importance of this first model of family to the society as a whole, and the fact that the institution of marriage serves to make it the predominate model within  society.  This objective should be shared by all people. The ultimate social goal of adoption after all is to eliminate the need for adoption. As this occurs, that first model of family naturally becomes the dominant one.

Based  upon what  has been said so far, we see that the primary purpose of marriage  is to promote an overall social ideal, not simply to bestow certain government benefits onto millions of individuals as an end in itself.  Now clearly any act that replaces the purpose of an institution with a different purpose redefines the institution. To  put it even more directly, it abolishes the first institution and establishes another in its place.  In the case of the marriage debate what we are  talking about is replacing an institution for the purpose of promoting the responsible procreation and rearing of children with an institution for the purpose of officially recognizing romantic desire. Why the Conservative would oppose such a policy is clear. But the opponent of traditional marriage counters that the institution which he  seeks to create does not actually conflict with the character of the classical institution of marriage as outlined by the Conservative.  How does he argue this? Instead of defining the central theme of his new institution as  romantic desire (which is certainly what it appears to be on its face) he refers to it as  “commitment ”.  He then proceeds to claim that this concept of “commitment” is an even broader purpose under which the traditional purpose of marriage championed by the Conservative may be neatly placed.

The first problem with this claim is that it is based upon a term whose use here is unspecified. It is meaningless to employ such terms if we do not understand precisely what we are saying when we use them. The reason that the opponent of traditional marriage has not bothered to offer  a meaning is because he takes for granted that the word “commitment” can only possibly be understood  according to his own intended use.  What is that use?  “Commitment” for him is defined by the spontaneous development of an emotional attachment . “Defined” here means that it  does not merely involve the development of this attachment,  but that  it is wholly based in it.  In order to understand why this  vision of marriage conflicts with the  classical vision of marriage we will now explore a different concept of commitment.

There is a bond between two brothers; a type of commitment.  Although there is an emotional attachment, it would be inaccurate to say that the relationship is based in an emotional attachment. Instead, it is the complete reverse: the emotional attachment is based upon the relationship. It emerges as a consequence of their status as brothers . a father has a daughter about whom he is entirely unaware.  He has not spent a minute of his life with her, and has had no time in which to develop any sort of emotional attachment through familiarity. Yet he eventually discovers her existence and prepares to meet her,  and on that very morning he would be willing to risk his life to save hers.  Here is one more example. No person ever expects to hear a mother say anything like “I just don’t have those warm feelings for my son that I used to have, I think we’re growing apart. I don’t believe I want to be his mother anymore.”

The two brothers, the father and daughter, the mother and son, all of these are examples of a type of relationship that is not grounded in emotional attachment but in identity. We will therefore refer to this type of commitment as “Identity Commitment”. Identity commitment is the type of commitment which characterizes the Natural Family, or what many anthropologists have historically called “True Kinship”. This concept actually extends beyond blood relations to include relations by marriage as well since both fall under a more general idea, which for the purposes of this discussion we will call  “Blood Association”.  It is through marriage that offspring bearing  the blood of both families is eventually produced, assuring the perpetuation and survival of each family through a merging into one new family. In both instances there is an “association through blood”.  In the case of direct blood relations,  it of course  has to do with the origin of individual family members. In the case of marital relations, it has to do with offspring  who carry the blood of both families, uniting them into one (the future of the family). But in each case the basis of the relationship lies in identity rather than emotional attachment. There is a “fact of blood” which binds all the various members of the family together.

Now upon closer inspection one comes to realize that this description is not quite precise enough. The  connection of the family by marriage precedes the offspring of the marriage and provides the  context for the appearance of that offspring. It would therefore be more accurate to say that these relationships are based upon “the idea of a fact of blood”, rather than the fact of blood itself.  The relationships do not first come into being with the birth of the offspring but with the idea of it; on the terms of the union of the two families.  The family identities are established prior to the birth of the children and await it; and as identity commitments of family, they are necessarily pre-designed to be permanent.  This principle of pre-existence described here  is central to marriage and its general social function.  a society in which the  relationships in question only solidify at the event of childbirth itself would have a family structure that was  unplanned, unreliable and utterly  precarious. That is why the institution of marriage has existed in societies throughout the world. The family identities are created and  solidify  when the covenant is established and the vows are made, not upon the event of childbirth. This is the significance of the term “commitment” as used within the context of the classical institution of marriage.

We can now understand why the married couple, who after years of trying to conceive discover that they cannot, is still willingly recognized  as family by the society.  If what society seeks to establish in marriage is an institution that creates connections and identities pre-designed to be permanent and life-long, it cannot then demand for them to be detachable on command. This violates human nature, and this institution in order to accomplish its goals must be based upon an understanding of human nature.  But this brings us to  an even deeper insight.  Technically speaking, although the ultimate purpose of the institution of marriage is to promote the responsible procreation and rearing of children, this is not its immediate purpose. Human beings are thinking creatures, and the state cannot simply promote concrete actions divorced from the ideal that motivates them. What marriage directly promotes is not the bare activity of the responsible procreation and rearing of children in itself (because that is impossible in principle) but the inner human disposition that motivates it; a disposition called identity commitment which is the mark of the Natural Family.This is the ideal that motivated the couple just mentioned on their wedding day, and throughout their ultimately unsuccessful attempts to conceive children.  In any society in which there is a very high regard for identity commitment, the responsible procreation and rearing of children within the closely knit family unit will automatically be the result since most men and women are indeed fruitful.

This principle can be seen even more clearly within societies in which the alternative explanations of the purpose of marriage that are currently popular are either less plausible or entirely impossible.  If we dial the clock back about three or four hundred years within the history of the Western world, when there should be no doubt to any intellectually honest person that marriage did indeed revolve primarily around the idea of procreation, we find that the infertile / sterile couple is still seen by society and by the law as family. For an even more compelling example consider the modern South Asian nation of India. Here we find a society in which the majority of marriages are arranged, demonstrating that  marriage is unquestionably an institution that is about child bearing and family creation rather than the official recognition of romantic/erotic desire.  Nevertheless, the infertile and sterile couple is still seen as family by the society and by the law. On top of this, infertility is neither a grounds for annulment or divorce there.   Finally it should be noted that when the modern  laws were first written in the 1950′s, virtually all marriages were arranged. So the idea that infertility and sterility would naturally nullify a marriage if it was about procreation rather than romantic desire is contradicted by these examples, but these examples are quite consistent with the core principle that is described above. The foundation of both arranged and elective marriage is the same (the promotion of the responsible procreation and rearing of children). The one difference is the criteria of spouse selection.

Now the goal of the current political movement concerning marriage is to replace an institution about Identity Commitment with an institution that is simply about romantic emotional desire. an institution based in identity and an institution based in emotion are of fundamentally different characters. To promote one, is to not promote the other.  Why for example would this new institution entirely based upon feelings even be conceived of  in principle as a permanent union?  a Washington Post article in 2013 seriously proposed the idea that perhaps a more modern version of the institution should grant  ”marriage leases”  that would remain in force only for a limited period of time.  After this period has expired, if the two are happy with the arrangement they can choose to renew the lease.  If not they don’t. Feelings are by their very nature transient and capricious, and an institution based upon them (as opposed to merely featuring them) would by its own nature be transient. We may think that it would be nice for the relationship to continue in perpetuity,  but we cannot actually say that it is a part of the principle of that  institution.

We simply take for granted the idea of commitment that is historically associated with marriage without a thorough consideration of its original foundation. Two sisters retain their bond not because there just so happens to be an emotional gravity between them, but because of their identity as sisters, and this identity in turn solidifies the emotional attachment. Identity commitment lies at the heart of our notion of the Natural Family. The traditional Fault System of divorce is a reflection of that understanding, which is the reason that the very same parties that disputed that issue now dispute this one.  The Fault System of divorce revolved around the preservation of the marital unit, and around marital duties rather than the recognition of feelings (which is now the focus of the modern No Fault divorce, and its notion of  “Irreconcilable Differences”).  The idea that the traditional conception of marriage was based entirely on romantic feelings is falsified by  the  early precedent of the Fault System alone.  The Fault System was counterintuitive to the idea of an institution designed solely to recognize the presence of feelings. It is however consistent with the idea of an institution for the purpose of cementing the identity commitments of family. This is why the traditional vow of marriage is  “Till Death Do Us Part” rather than “Until We Grow Apart”. It establishes family; it forges blood.

Additionally, there are also aspects of marriage that make no sense within  the context of this newly proposed institution such as the various other family connections that are created as a consequence of marriage.  In classical marriage, they exist because two families in order to perpetuate their existence through procreation, merge into one family. But there is no reason in principle that because two individuals of the same sex have a physical/emotional relationship that their relatives would become one family. This is something merely transplanted from the classical version of the institution.

“But” someone will say,  “what about those who are known to be sterile or infertile prior to marriage, why do we allow them to marry?”  This is of course not a social question but a legal question, and one that was best put by Supreme Court Justices Ginsberg and Kagan during the recent marriage trial (unfortunately, the counterargument that is to follow was not offered during the trial).  They argued that to say that marriage is about procreation is to technically open the door to a state law banning marriages that involve the sterile and the infertile. But by the same very odd  logic, if marriage is about sexuality instead of procreation, then a state could technically pass a law declaring that if it happens to discover evidence of medical impotence it can prevent a marriage. We know that the justices and the nation as a whole would not support such a policy in principle.  As I asked in a previous article that dealt with the legal issues alone  would Justice Ginsberg be willing to look an irreversibly impotent man in the face and tell him that he has no inherent legal right to marry because marriage is about sexuality? If she could not, does that mean that marriage is not really about sexuality?   As I have also mentioned, if marriage is not an inherently sexual union, then the historical justification for laws against close family marriage no longer exists. Two close family members that merely wished to exploit the  legal benefits of marriage and no more would have to be permitted to do so.  The institution is ultimately rendered meaningless.  Both the legal reasoning and the social implications of the changes that are introduced by this proposal of redefinition completely unravels the meaning of the institution.

Conservatives defend traditional marriage because it is the life-blood of the only entity that makes a  free society a possibility: the family.

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