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Harvard Debate Stresses Meaning and Purpose of Marriage (5493)

Law student warns against the social harm that would come from a redefinition of marriage.

02/27/2013 Comments (30)

WASHINGTON — At the heart of the national debate on same-sex “marriage” and unions is a fundamental disagreement on the nature of marriage, said a participant in a recent discussion at Harvard Law School.

Arguments in favor of redefining marriage are simply “wrong about what marriage is,” explained debater Sherif Girgis.

He added that enshrining same-sex “marriage” in law “would be harmful for the common good, and in particular for the common goods that get government involved in marriage in the first place.”

Girgis is a law student at Yale Law School as well as a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton University. He recently co-authored the book What Is Marriage with professor Robert George of Princeton University and Ryan Anderson of the Heritage Foundation.

Challenging him in the debate was professor Andrew Koppelman, who teaches law and politics at Northwestern University.

The discussion, sponsored by the Harvard Federalist Society, was held at Harvard Law School on Jan. 31 and aired on C-SPAN on Feb. 19.

Koppelman presented arguments in favor same-sex “marriage” and criticized Girgis’ book for being “so novel and esoteric,” joking that the audience of Harvard Law students was “still trying to get it.”

He added that “marriage is not essentially anything,” saying that social norms by nature “evolve” and that marriage is no different.

Girgis, however, observed that nearly every government and society throughout history have been involved in regulating marriage.

Governments typically do not regulate intimate relationships such as friendships, he noted. Marriage is an exception, he said, because it is an institution that offers key services to society, namely the provision, care and education of a new generation of citizens.

It is because of “the social need to promote those stabilizing norms” that governments oversee marriage, he explained. 

Girgis also warned of the social harm that would follow a redefinition of marriage, saying that, in debates on this topic, people should be aware of the “implications for the future, and for future marriages in particular.” 

While no-fault divorce was hailed as an acceptable and harmless way of ending high-conflict marriages, the author said, “it changed people’s understanding of what they were getting into” and resulted in an end to many medium-conflict unions.

The causalities of this arrangement were children who experienced split homes or were raised with an absent parent, he said.

The normalization of same-sex unions “teaches that mothers and fathers are replaceable in terms of parenting” and will likely lead to an increase in children who do not know at least one of their biological parents, he observed.

Girgis critiqued “the main vision of marriage” espoused within society that defines marriage as primarily an emotional union.

He explained that while it is consistent for that view to accept same-sex partnerships as marriage, that view is unable to explain “less controversial features that we all agree set marriage from other bonds,” such as monogamy and exclusivity.

Furthermore, he said, in making emotion the determining characteristic of marriage, there is no reason for it to require a “pledge of permanence,” and there is no logical reason to prevent marriage from being extended to multiple partners or non-sexual partners who share an emotional bond.

Instead, Girgis suggested a definition of marriage based upon “complementarity,” the ability of spouses to bear and raise children. This definition of marriage, with the family at its core, explains other attributes associated with the institution, such as permanence, monogamy and the sexual relationship of the spouses.

He said that the common contemporary understanding of marriage “suggests that the norm of sexual complementarity is arbitrary,” but if one accepts that a man and a woman’s ability to bear children is unnecessary for the institution, “then so is permanence; so is monogamy.”

In addition, Girgis commented on the position of wanting to redefine marriage as a way to combat unjust discrimination against those who have same-sex attractions.

While he agreed that injustice must be countered, he warned against using marriage to do so, cautioning that such a move would have devastatingly harmful consequences.

Rather than changing the definition of a timeless and foundational social institution, he said, “I think the answer to bullying is to fight bullying; the answer to prejudice is to affirm the equal dignity of every human being.”

Filed under education, marriage