On Tuesday Jason Lee Steorts, managing editor of National Review, published “An Equal Chance at Love: Why We Should Recognize Same-Sex Marriage.” Coming from a center-right publication, this article critiqued the “traditionalist” position against recognizing same-sex marriages. His arguments for same-sex marriage rest on the value of sex (regardless of complementarity or reproductive potential) in deepening relationships. He argues that traditionalists should see commitment and sexual exclusivity as ends in themselves. If by “traditionalist” Steorts intends to critique the traditional Christian opposition to marriage, then his arguments fail to address the heart of the issue. Steorts’ argument rests on the exaltation of will over existence in the denial that our bodies have any inherent meaning. Consequently, he conflates romantic and marital love rather than recognizing them, as a traditionalist would, as distinct but complementary. This emphasis on the will represents a nihilistic denial of metaphysical and teleological moral imperatives and ultimately destroys any restrictions on human activity.
Steorts asserts that civil marriage is a creation of the state aimed at safeguarding the interests of children and protecting stable and committed relationships. He argues that infertile and same-sex couples “have the same reasons and motivations, rooted in their love for each other, to abide by the standards of conduct that we traditionally associate with marriage.” He believes the traditionalists are wrong for taking “a stand against burgeoning social endorsement of commitment and sexual exclusivity as ends in themselves” because the only thing differentiating same-sex marriage from traditional marriage is sexual complementarity. Steorts then broadens his argument to deny that one can “derive an ought from an is” because human are not “instrumentalities;” thus, he contends that he has disposed of the natural law argument. His final objections are that the traditional view “assumes that the value of a marital relationship consists in a good that is conceptually distinct from the relationship itself,” and that it is blind to “the uniqueness of romantic love, and …the psychological function of sex in deepening the bond between people who share such love.”
Sexual complementarity is, however, the reality of human existence. People are born male or female, and, while confusing conditions may arise, this fact points to the essentiality of that complementarity being expressed in the marriage relationship. Bodies have meaning, however much Steorts might try to ignore that fact. A human’s body exists, in part, to be united with a person of the opposite sex, a fact that a basic diagram of the human reproductive system unquestionably demonstrates. Traditionalists of the Christian, Jewish, or Muslim variety understand this when they read that God created man in his image, male and female. Woman was formed out of man, thus when a man unites with his wife they again become “one flesh,” and show the fullness of the image of God in mankind. This appeal to revelation, while helpful, is not necessary. Reason demonstrates that the marital union of male and female unites humanity together and carries with it the potential for the creation of new life. The meaning of marriage, therefore, is inseparable from the complementarity of male and female in human existence. Christians understand another dimension of this union by tying it to the generative love that unites the Trinity.
Steorts argues that people are not instrumentalities and that the is of their bodies does not entail an ought that restricts how those bodies are properly used. He distinguishes people for this reason from watches: watches have a function (keeping time) and are good insofar as they perform that function. Steorts does not deny the inherent complementarily unitive and reproduction functions of the human body, he denies that those realities place limits on the proper use of the body (and its reproductive functions). Instead, he asserts the triumph of the human will over bodily existence; as he puts it, “If you are deliberating over some choice, you are not asking yourself what is the case. You are asking yourself what to make the case.” You are not asking what do your bodily existence and functions mean regarding your behavior, but rather for what behavior do you want to use your body and its functions. The futility of such an idea can be seen by looking to almost any bodily function besides sexual activity. A person cannot decide that he is going to digest food through his auditory system, nor can he breathe by swallowing air into his digestive system. Humans, not being instrumentalities, can of course choose to act in a dysfunctional manner such as overeating, bulimia, using steroids, or cutting to relieve pain. This dysfunctional behavior, while a confirmation of the freedom of the human will, does not change the meaning of bodily existence and function.
Whether Steorts would like to admit it or not, his denial that an ought can be derived from the is of reality ultimately destroys the possibility of morality itself. Nietzsche recognized and celebrated this. As previously noted, Steorts claims, “If you are deliberating over some choice, you are not asking yourself what is the case. You are asking yourself what to make the case.” Theft, murder, and rape are all defensible under this criteria. The traditionalist – the one who derives the is from the ought – uses his reason to see that, just as he is a distinct person with relative autonomy over his body who has desires and can feel pain, loss, and violation, so is every other person he encounters. The is of his human condition, at the very minimum therefore, demands that he treat others as he would want to be treated.
Steorts, however, claims that the is of human existence – personal autonomy, desire, fear of pain, loss, and violation – do not determine what you ought to do when faced with a particular choice. The decision whether or not to steal from, murder, or harass another person only depends on what you decide “to make the case.” If the case you make is that the shared humanity of the other person does not entail kind and just treatment, Steort’s ethical system cannot indict you of wrongdoing. One need not imply here that Steorts does not find theft, murder, and rape objectionable, – I have absolutely no doubt that he does – what is being argued is that he must depend on a different ethical system in order to make that objection. Morality or standards of justice cannot persist under the claims of nihilism.
Same-sex marriage and sexual activity denies the reality (the “what is the case”) of man and woman’s complementary existence and the reality of their bodies; infertile heterosexual couples do not and their condition cannot reasonably be used to argue for same-sex marriage. While romantic love expressed in sex certainly deepens the bond between two people, only complementary unions are capable of telling the truth of humanity through that love – the truth of the wholeness of humanity in the union of male and female and the truth of bodily existence. Other forms of love and commitment (friends and extended family) are also of high value, both to the persons directly involved and to society at large. But these relationships are necessarily distinct in kind from marriage. This distinction is not due to lower or less important types of love or a lack of romantic interest or because the good of marriage is somehow distinguishable from the relationship between the two persons. The good of marriage – the union of humanity, what the Scripture describes as “one flesh” – defines the type of relationship that marriage is just as the goods of friendship or mentorship or a business relationship define the type of relationship present. The good of marriage entails commitment and sexual exclusivity, but – contrary to Steort’s claim – those things do not themselves constitute the good of marriage.
Because the good of marriage and sex is defined by the type of complimentary relationship that can only exist between a man and a woman, same-sex marriage becomes a definitional impossibility and sexual activity between members of the same sex can only be seen as a dysfunctional use of one’s body. Sexual exclusivity, romantic love, and the human will cannot change the complimentary meaning of the human body and its sexual functions. Same-sex unions, consequently, result in two people lying to themselves and to each other about the meaning of their bodies. This lie cannot be erased by human will or state recognition. Love that is based on a lie should be steered towards love based in truth. Marriage, on the contrary, takes its meaning not from a civil contract aimed at providing the best atmosphere for children but from the very truth of human existence. Because of the truth that marital union presents, as well as the manifold other blessings it provides families and societies, marriage deserves our protection.