In Obergefell v. Hodges, Justice Kennedy has penned a decision of historic hubris and stupidity—as both Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Scalia argue in their dissents. The basis of the decision is a claim to special enlightenment (we shall not say “revelation”) about the meaning and import of liberty—special because the majority claims access to essential truths about marriage, sex and liberty heretofore unavailable to all peoples in the entire history of the world.
Putting aside legal arguments about hidden autonomy rights in the Fourteenth Amendment, the Court justifies its decision on the basis of the “new insight” that procreation is accidental to marriage. Its warrant for this claim is that social changes, including recognition of the equal dignity and rights of women, “have worked deep transformations in the structure of marriage, affecting aspects of marriage once viewed as essential” (2, my emphasis). Thus, the Court claims, there is precedent for the view that the procreative potential once thought essential to marriage is in fact no more central to the institution than the race, precedents embodied in the Court’s previous affirmation of liberty rights to contraception and sodomy in Griswold and Lawrence. Rather, the Court now believes that what is essential to marriage is the autonomy right of “self-definition” in one’s intimate relationships and the right to be esteemed for this choice.
If this claim about the essence of marriage was either true or insightful, it would indeed be momentous. Unfortunately, it is neither. The Court’s argument rests on an insidious and profound misunderstanding of what “essential” means—let alone what the essence of marriage is—and a majoritarian understanding of moral progress. While real moral progress often does require us to distinguish what is essential from what is accidental—as when the Court correctly held that race is accidental to the institution of marriage—the Court’s current use of the term invalidates the very distinction it wishes to invoke.
The terms “essential” and “accidental” can be understood both logically and metaphysically. Logically, a property is “essential” to a concept if it belongs to the very definition of that concept, and is “accidental” if it does not. Thus it is essential to the concept bachelor that a bachelor is unmarried, but not that he be a certain color or height. One can imagine a leprechaun bachelor who is green and four inches tall; one cannot conceive of a married bachelor. Similarly, speaking metaphysically, a property is essential to something if that property belongs to or proceeds from the nature or essence of the being, i.e., a property the being cannot lose and remain the same kind of being. In contrast, accidental properties can be gained and lost without loss of a being’s identity. It essential to the nature of food that it nourish us, but accidental that it be pleasing to the palette. That is why stale bread is still food. However, the undigestible and unnourishing detritus of a meal is no longer bread, but feces, and therefore no longer food.
The nature of something is a reflexive principle of motion or change, that to which a thing inclines itself always or for the most part. Thus it belongs to the nature of acids to corrode and of copper to conduct electricity because the very structure, the form, the what-it-is-to-be acid and copper is to be capable of corrosion and electrical conduction, respectively. Action follows nature—things act thus-and-so because of what they are. This is important: We can define, classify, and understand the world by learning about what potentialities for action a thing has or does not have precisely because the nature of a thing is its principle of intelligibility—that which makes us capable of understanding it. A being with no nature or essence would be a being which was not inclined to one action or effect rather than another. Such a being would be unintelligible, arbitrary, ab esse, without reason.
The nature in question in the debate over marriage equality is human nature, and specifically the nature of human sexuality. Human sexuality is both procreative and unitive: It is ordered to procreation and the intimacy of family life. We know this, first, because sexual activity is reproductive. We do not call playing video games or driving a car sexual acts because neither of these actions is a cause of human life. (One could have sex while playing video games, I suppose, but the sex and not the video game would be the cause of life.) Second, we know that family life is essential to human sexuality because reproduction is complete when there exists another adult instance of the species, and in human beings this only results after a long period of dependency, socialization, and education which takes place within a family. A human being is a rational, social animal, and our sexuality—our reproductive, relational, and emotional lives—reflects that.
So should our morality. It has long been held that sexual virtue requires chastity and marriage, that the reproductive flourishing of human beings is best accomplished by spouses committed to one another and to their children, and that actions which frustrate this flourishing—adultery, abandonment, and so on—are for that reason both irrational and immoral. They are irrational because such actions are contrary to the intelligible nature of the human person, and immoral because to be good is to act in accord with one’s nature, and bad otherwise.
The Court was therefore correct to conclude that race is accidental to marriage. Whether one is white or black makes no causal difference to one’s ability to engage in procreation and family life or the excellence with which one does so. Homosexual behavior does make such a difference, however, since homosexual behavior cannot, of itself, give rise to new life. It is not by nature directed to procreation or family life, but rather constitutes the deliberately sterile use of the sexual powers. It is sexually disordered because it attempts to produce some of the essential and accidental effects of sex—pleasure, intimacy, and personal devotion—with beings who are by nature incapable of fully realizing those ends.
That our culture and the Court have come to accept the moral liceity of both contraception and sodomy does not show that the “essence” of human sexuality and marriage have changed—indeed, what is essential to something cannot change, belonging as it does to the nature of the thing—but that our prevailing sexual culture has grown ever more unnatural, irrational, immoral, and destructive of human flourishing. One consequence of this is that we now view and defend practices contrary to the essence of marriage as irrelevant to the nature of the relationship, and rather hold autonomous self-determination to be central to it. To call good what is evil and choose it is the essence of sin: that is the nature of it. To compel others to do the same is the essence of tyranny, the abdication of legitimate authority, as the Chief Justice himself states in his dissent: that is the nature of it. To claim otherwise is neither new nor insightful: Men have called themselves gods since the first sin of Adam.
Joshua Schulz is assistant professor of philosophy at DeSales University.