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Last winter Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George posted online their paper What is Marriage? , a comprehensive, accessible argument for the view that marriage necessarily involves one man and one woman. The article was an unlikely hit, climbing to become the number one paper on SSRN after being downloaded over 28,000 times.

The paper has received responses from some of the nation’s most prominent legal scholars, but one of the most provocative responses came—-somewhat unexpectedly—-from the managing editor of National Review , Jason Lee Steorts .

Steorts’s argument —-which, Girgis dryly notes in his response , is “hard to rephrase without seeming to ridicule”—-urges us to view marriage as a “maximal experiential union”, the kind of union that can be enjoyed as fully by same-sex couples as by opposite-sex couples. Girgis explains:

First, Steorts’s view of marriage as maximal  experiential union misconstrues what is essential for marital love. After all, if a certain emotional state (being in love) were necessary, as Steorts suggests, then it would be impossible to  commit sincerely to marriage. For this would require promising to keep up feelings, over which you have no direct control, and you can’t sincerely promise to secure what you can’t control. Moreover, true unity depends on the presence of a genuinely shared good, but feelings are inherently private. (As Steorts admits in another connection, “each of us is trapped in his own experience.”) So feelings can only give valuable texture and depth to individuals’ separate appreciations of  another good, which  is shared. That is why fixation on feelings can make love degenerate into selfish (even if reciprocal) gratification.

Marriage is not a matter of experience or feeling, which is why, Girgis says, “Spouses aren’t any less married after 50 years than on their fifth day — or after a long day on the job than on a libidinous Saturday morning.”

Girgis’s tightly argued—-and quite devastating—-response is a model of how to debate charitably without pulling any punches. Even those who don’t give a fig about marriage but happen to be interested in the art of argument (this describes some not insignificant percentage of American boys) should read it here.


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