The Meaning of Marriage (Part 3)

In my earlier article, “The Meaning of Marriage (Part 1)”, I suggested that there are three options when it comes to the meaning of marriage. These three options can roughly be reduced to the following:

  1. Although the concept of marriage involves a degree of cultural relativity, at its core marriage is something specific, namely a sexually complementary (or dimorphous) union publically recognized because of its potential fecundity;
  2. Although the concept of marriage involves a degree of cultural relativity, at its core marriage is something specific, namely a union of consenting persons (or adults) who commit to romantic partnership and domestic life.
  3. The concept of marriage is entirely culturally relative; therefore marriage is a social construct and can mean whatever we choose for it to mean.

In my follow-up article, “The Meaning of Marriage (Part 2)”, I explored some of the problems inherent in the second of these positions. I want to build on the argument now by now considering the problems inherent in option #3. If we find that this third option cannot possibly be true, then because I have already falsified option #2, it follows by a simple process of elimination that the first option in the above trilemma must be correct.

A social construct?

The idea that marriage is a social construct has been defended by Andrew Koppelman, the John Paul Stevens Professor of Law at Northwestern University, who echoed much current thinking when he said, “marriage is not essentially anything; it’s a historical cultural formation.”

Saying that marriage is entirely relative (as opposed to affirming that it is only partially relative as I did in Part 1) evacuates marriage of its objective fixity. After all, if marriage can mean anything, then in another sense marriage means nothing.

There is no theoretical reason why marriage can’t be a completely malleable cultural construction, for there are many things in our world that are subjective, malleable, and have very little meaning independent of human consciousness. For example, in Part 1 of this series I gave examples of certain types of artworks that only achieve the status of art because of being labelled and treated as such. An instance of this would be Marcel Duchamp readymades, the most famous of which was his 1917 “Fountain.” “Fountain” was a simple urinal that only became art because it was treated as art.

Thousands of similar examples exist from the corpus of 20th century art, where an artist will take an object from ordinary life and display it as art. There is nothing intrinsic in these artefacts that set them apart as being art in the way that the noises of Beethoven’s 5th symphony are intrinsically the noises of art, for the art-ness of a readymade is entirely relative to the social context. If a future anthropologist were to come across a recording of Beethoven’s 5th symphony, he would be able to tell that it was art (as opposed to a recording of non-art noise) from the intrinsic features of the sounds, but if the signature “R.Mutt” was removed from “Fountain”, there would be no intrinsic features which distinguished it from any common 1917-style urinal.

On the other hand, there are many things in our world that are not simply social constructs and which do have fixed real-world objectivity. Though there are schools of modern philosophy that would deny it, most ordinary people would agree that there is a realism to trees that is independent of our consciousness. The difference between a tree and a flower is not like the arbitrary difference between an ordinary urinal and a readymade, for it is a difference that would still exist even if there were no people in the world to introduce the categories. Put another way, the boundary between a tree and a non-tree isn’t a product of human culture or language. The same applies to many things in our world: rocks, bears, hornets’ nests and the truth that two plus two always equals four (in base ten).

Which class of things does the institution of marriage fall into? Is it like trees and rocks that have an objective existence independent of cultural perception, or is the difference between marriage and non-marriage a social construct like the difference a urinal that is art and a urinal that is non-art? To say that marriage is among the first class of things would be to affirm that there is a certain kind of relationship in the world involving a certain type of union and that the difference between this type of relationship and other types of relationships is objective and not culturally-dependent in a way that the difference between a-urinal-as-art and a-urinal-as-non-art is not.

It is easy for people to imagine that marriage is included in the class of culturally relative things, since marriage clearly involves a degree of cultural relativity with respect to its accidents, as I showed in my first article in this series. But the concept of marriage cannot be entirely a cultural construct since it has objective intrinsic goods attached to it such as the assurance of patrimony, the integrity of inheritance, the enrichment of family life, etc. These things have an objective fixity to them and are not merely matters of cultural perception like the difference between a beautiful dress and a non-beautiful dress might be entirely culturally relative.

Or go back to the example of Duchamp’s readymades: were it not for an assenting community, there is nothing intrinsic in “Fountain” that sets it apart from other early 20th century urinals. Its art-ness arises from conditions extrinsic to the thing itself. But—and here’s the crucial point—there are things intrinsic in the marital union that sets this type of relationship apart from other types of relationships in a non-culturally relative way.

Again, these intrinsic goods include, but are not limited to, such things as assurance of patrimony, the integrity of inheritance, the enrichment of family life, an increased likelihood that children will be raised by their biological parents, and on and on.

We are free to say that marriage is oppressive, discriminatory, bigoted, or that it ought to not exist in its present form, just as someone could say that trees ought to not exist and should be cut down; however, to assert that marriage as such is simply a cultural construct is about as irrational and saying that trees are merely a social construct. The fact that there exists in the real world an institution that is inherently sexual, is uniquely enriched by family life and which requires permanent and exclusive commitment to begin at all and which has numerous intrinsic goods attached to it, is simply an empirical observation about the anthropological space we occupy. It is something that an outside observer on human society could notice and identify comparable to the way an outside observer could notice and identify the art-ness of Beethoven’s 5th symphony.

Suppose it were not so

But let’s suppose this was not the case. Let’s assume that the meaning of marriage is infinitely malleable, that it is a social construct and can mean whatever we choose for it to mean in the way that 20th century art came to basically include anything anyone wanted it to include.

If that were the case, then it would make any remaining restrictions on what can count as marriage merely arbitrary. Faced with the logic of this nominalist turn, this is exactly what some people are now arguing. In an article last month for Slate, Jillian Keenan suggested that the meaning of marriage is endlessly elastic. The topic of her article was polygamy, but the principle of marital plasticity might be taken in any number of other directions:

“The definition of marriage is plastic. Just like heterosexual marriage is no better or worse than homosexual marriage, marriage between two consenting adults is not inherently more or less “correct” than marriage among three (or four, or six) consenting adults. Though polygamists are a minority—a tiny minority, in fact—freedom has no value unless it extends to even the smallest and most marginalized groups among us. So let’s fight for marriage equality until it extends to every same-sex couple in the United States—and then let’s keep fighting. We’re not done yet”

My point in quoting this is not to invoke a slippery slope argument that legalizing “gay marriage” will lead to legalizing polygamy. Alastair Roberts is right that since same-sex “marriage” is by far the more radical aberration, “expressing a concern that same-sex marriage might lead to polygamy would be akin to worry on our part that mainlining heroin might lead to experimentation with marijuana.” Moreover, for all its problems and gender inequality, polygamy is still marriage since it involves sexual dimorphism (at least, if the conclusion of this article be accepted). Rather, the problem in Keenan’s perspective is more basic: once we accept the narrative that marriage is plastic, then there is no theoretical limit that can determine when the marriage modernizers are actually finished. If marriage is so plastic that it can mean absolutely anything, then in another sense it means nothing at all.

It is significant in this regard that dozens of public figures (including leading activists, scholars, educators, writers, artists, lawyers, journalists, and community organizers) have now signed a joint statement titled, “Beyond Same-Sex Marriage: A New Strategic Vision for All Our Families and Relationships.” This statement argues that those who are advancing same-sex “marriage” have not gone far enough. Invoking a fallacious is-ought line of reasoning, the statement argues that since traditional nuclear families are no longer the norm, government needs to be more elastic in what it considers to be “legitimate families.” They write, “The struggle for same-sex marriage rights is only one part of a larger effort to strengthen the security and stability of diverse households and families.” How diverse? The Statement suggests that anyone living together should be considered a family, including “Close friends and siblings who live together in long-term, committed, non-conjugal relationships...” It also suggests that “legitimate families” can involve people who don’t live together, including “Queer couples who decide to jointly create and raise a child with another queer person or couple, in two households.”

If these examples illustrate anything, it is that once we concede that marriage (and therefore family) are social constructs, these categories become so wide that they tend to be evacuated of coherent meaning.

Argument from the herd

Once we concede that marriage has no essential meaning but is entirely culturally relative, then the only thing left to give fixity to marriage is whatever the majority happens to say. We see this happening in much of the public debate about same-sex marriage, where journalists, media commentators and even lawyers are increasingly appealing to the herd for validation of their positions.

This was the approach taken by Andrew Koppelman, the John Paul Stevens Professor of Law at Northwestern University. When defending “gay marriage” against Sherif Girgis in a fascinating debate at the Harvard Law School, Koppelman began his argument by citing statistics showing how many people now accept same-sex “marriage”, as if his opinion was proved right through majority consensus. As Koppelman continued his presentation, one of the key points in his response to Girgis was not that Girgis’ arguments for the conjugal view were illogical (although he did allege that in a different part of the debate), but that most ordinary people wouldn’t be able to understand them. Koppelman’s implied premise was that same-sex “marriage” was above critique because it had the understanding of the majority.

It sounds strange that any intelligent person could imagine that having the support of 51% of the country makes a policy position correct. However, if marriage is entirely relative to the cultural moment, then what else could determine the boundaries of marriage other than majority opinion? A parallel would be the moves in the game of chess, which achieve their legitimacy purely through majority consensus.

Koppelman actually invoked this example in the aforementioned debate, pointing out that the move that the knight is allowed to make wasn’t always how we know it today, but evolved over hundreds of years. Just as there is no objective essence to chess which determines that the knight has to move in the way it does, so there is no objective essence to marriage which determines that it has to mean one thing and not another thing. It is entirely a cultural construct.

Regularities and Relativism

By comparing marriage to chess, Koppelman seems to have moderated the implications of a relativist view of marriage. Even though he believes marriage to be a social construct lacking in any essential meaning, it still has recognizable boundaries through convention in the way the game of chess does. As Koppelman declared,

“I think the most attractive alternative is to say marriage is not essentially anything; it’s a historical cultural formation. It doubtless would not have arisen were it not the case that human beings reproduce sexually – that’s how it came to arise – but it doesn’t have any essence. There are regularities about it that ought to influence the way that married people behave…. But marriage might be a practice that suits human needs but can be modified freely as our understanding of human needs evolves.”

A slight problem with this position is that no one really believes the marriage has no essential meaning outside of cultural formation, not even those who explicitly advocate this position. For if it were really true that marriage is akin to in the game of chess in which there is no independent standards beyond consensus to determine how the pieces ought to move, then we cannot argue that certain types of marriage law are unjust even in principle. Those who argue that it is hateful, bigoted and unjust to posit a definition of marriage that excludes certain types of people (i.e, homosexuals) from being able to marry, imply that there is an independent standard for what marriage is that such exclusionary laws presumably violate. As Koppelman himself said, “excluding couples which look an awful like heterosexual married couples, from this institution, partakes of that pattern of stigma and discrimination that we’re trying to move away from. And this is a way to try to move away from it.” But if our marriage law is entirely relative to historical cultural formation in a way analogous to the game of chess, then it is hard to see how someone could make such a claim. There can be no injustice in a culture excluding certain types of relationships from being true marriage if the definition of true marriage is itself a product of that culture in the first place.

It is true that an institution can be socially constructed and still have rules, as in the example of chess indicates. However, if those rules are themselves without any principled basis, one cannot argue that these rules have any ultimate ontological legitimacy. But we have seen that all people on both sides of the same-sex ‘marriage’ debate want to argue that certain notions about marriage are wrong (whether because of unjust exclusions or unjust inclusions). My argument is that the relativistic view of marriage cannot sustain such claims.

The same point can be made in a different way. There would be nothing wrong with a culture deciding that food is art just as there would be nothing wrong with a culture that decided to allow the Queen to make the move that the Knight can make because art and chess are social constructs; but defenders of same-sex “marriage” do want to claim that there is something wrong with defining marriage in a way that allegedly excludes homosexuals. But if marriage is merely a social construct like chess or art, then there is no principled reason to maintain the rules attached to it just as there is no principled reason to insist that chess variants are not chess.  Now it doesn’t really matter that chess is a cultural convention because we all generally follow the same rules for the sake of a common end, which is an organized and enjoyable game. But we do not have this same luxury when it comes the institution of marriage since there is no recognizable consensus regarding the telos for which marriage exists. This lack of a recognizable consensus is only a problem if we hold the view—encapsulated in option #3 above—that the cultural consensus is what gives marriage its meaning.


In Part 1 of this series I laid out three different options on the meaning of marriage: (1) the view that marriage involves the union of two sexually complementary persons (in other words, a man and a woman); (2) the view that marriage is a union of persons; (3) the view that the meaning of marriage is relative. I suggested that it is customary to simply presuppose one of these definitions and then to argue from that, rather than arguing to the definition from prior considerations. Not wanting to fall into the same trap of merely assuming my conclusion, I took up the challenge of offering a rational defence of the traditional view of marriage as a sexual union of a man and a woman. My defence has been indirect, to the degree that it has involved eliminating the viable alternatives. I began this process of elimination in Part 2 by sharing problems with the second option, and in the present article I have exposed errors in the third position.

My argument against the relativistic view of marriage involved a careful consideration of the types of things in our world that are social constructs. I argued that marriage is unlike these culturally relative things in so far as the institution has certain intrinsic goods attached to it that do not depend on convention for their existence. I also employed a reductio ad absurdum to show that a denial of this fact leads to evacuating meaning from marriage. For if marriage is merely a social construct, it cannot even enjoy the regularity of other social constructs such as the rules of chess.  Finally, I argued that even those who advocate the notion that marriage is completely relative, do not really believe it when push comes to shove.

By a process of elimination, this leaves us with option#1, that although the concept of marriage involves a degree of cultural relativity, at its core marriage is something specific, namely a sexually complementary union publically recognized because of its potential fecundity.

Next Steps

Talk with your pastor about what your church can do to strengthen, in your community, the Biblical and historic view of marriage Robin has argued for in this series.

For further insight into this topic, see ‘The Meaning of Marriage (Part 1)’ and ‘The Meaning of Marriage (Part 2)’ and read Robin’s Q&A with the American Family Association. Also see Robin’s Christian Voice article ‘Why gay marriage is a public threat Part 1 and ‘Why Gay Marriage is a Public Threat Part 2’ Also watch the debate that Sherif Girgis and Andrew Koppelman had at the Harvard Law School about the meaning of marriage.

Finally, we urge you to buy the book
What is Marriage?: Man and Woman: A Defense from our online store.

The Meaning of Marriage (Part 2)


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