1 Comment


Girgis, Sherif, Ryan T. Anderson, Robert P. George (2012) What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, New York: Encounter Books, 133 pages.

This book was chosen for review because of the changing views on marriage over the last few decades, a matter of clear concern to LDS people. At the time of the book’s publication, Girgis was a Ph. D. student in philosophy at Princeton and a J. D. candidate at Yale Law School. He is a Princeton graduate and a Rhodes Scholar. Anderson was a William E. Simon Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, the editor of the online journal Public Discourses: Ethics, Law, and the Common Good, and a Ph. D. candidate at Notre Dame. He has published extensively. George was a Visiting Professor at Harvard Law School; his permanent position is Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton. He has received many awards and has held many important governmental positions.

Although short, the book is dense with ideas. It is written to the general reader, is well researched, has a fine list of references, and scholars can benefit from it as well. The authors present their arguments in a logical, reasoned way. It is clear that their sympathies lie with traditional marriage as it is defined below.

Summary of Authors’ Arguments:

The book’s thesis is that there are two types of marriage: the conjugal and the revisionist. Conjugal marriage is the traditional marriage of our civilization, as seen from the standpoints of history, law, religion, art, social practice, literature, and philosophy. I will usually use the more familiar term “traditional marriage” when referring to conjugal. From those standpoints, marriage is a comprehensive union, as explained below. On the other hand, revisionist marriage (“non-traditional marriage”), coming to the fore only in the last few decades, is merely a loving, emotional, intense bond.

These simple definitions branch into a myriad of subtypes, which include: traditional heterosexual marriage between a woman and a man; heterosexual marriage between more than two partners; open heterosexual marriage, such as that exhibited in the swinging society; homosexual marriage between two men, two women, or more than two partners; informal liaisons in which no formal ceremony has been performed; marriages with children, no children, or adopted children.

The authors are concerned with the definition of marriage, what that means to society, and the state’s role in that definition. Religious, historical, and social contributions to our understanding of marriage are treated subordinately by the authors, who present their arguments as standing alone, and not dependent on those factors. Of course, they cannot really be severed from its definition since they lie at the foundation of the institution.

The authors’ more detailed view of conjugal marriage is one in which there are close bonds of every kind: physical, emotional, and spiritual. It is a relationship of commitment. It is seen as the ideal place for raising children and is characterized by the well-being of both parents and children. There is a closeness arising from the physical union of being “one flesh.” The authors contrast marriage with mere friendship, which has some of those features, but which is much looser and less binding.

Revisionist marriage is more like friendship, a relation of convenience, with less commitment. In such a marriage, one’s spouse is merely one’s “number one person.”

The book presents an extensive discussion of the role of the state in marriage. A quote from James Q. Wilson illustrates the authors’ view: “Marriage is a socially arranged solution for the problem of getting people to stay together and care for children that the mere desire for children and the sex that makes children possible does not solve.”

Another quote relates to legal considerations: “Long before same-sex civil marriage was envisioned, courts declared that marriage is the foundation of the family and of society… the first purpose of matrimony, by the laws of nature and society, is procreation; the procreation of children… ‘is one of the two principal ends of marriage.’ In fact, ‘marriage exists as a protected legal institution primarily because of societal values associated with the propagation of the human race.’” A second purpose of marriage is “that it tends to help spouses financially, emotionally, physically, and socially.”

Much discussion centers on the idea that loosening restrictions on marriage will impinge upon freedom of religion. Horror stories are given to show this.

The authors cite numerous statistics showing that children’s welfare is best when they are raised in a traditional male-female marriage.

The authors warn that recent court decisions widening—or loosening—the definition of marriage will weaken the benefits of traditional marriage to the severe detriment of society.

I favor the authors’ arguments, having been raised in a traditional marriage and being a spouse in another. I have little, though some, direct experience with non-traditional unions, but a broader understanding from mere exposure to the discussions about marriage in our current society.

I congratulate the authors for an extensive treatment of the topic. They have gathered an extensive amount of material supporting traditional marriage. However, I found their treatment hard to follow. It is presented at a high level of abstraction, and I had to persuade myself, somewhat unsuccessfully, that the authors had made a convincing case that conjugal marriage is best for our society. Although they treat historical, social, or religious matters as subordinate, the reader cannot prevent being influenced by such considerations. One might think that those would actually support traditional marriage. However, as an anonymous reviewer of this book review noted, history and religion have also given us discrimination, slavery, oppression and violence against women and that fact obscures the value of those matters.

The authors’ thesis is that there are two types of marriage, thus suggesting a clear dichotomy. But as noted above, there are many subtypes, and one sees that there is not really a clear dichotomy but rather a complex, many-dimensional landscape of marital relationships. The authors objectively discuss several opposing points of view. Unfortunately, I found myself saying, well, the opposing views have some merit. For example, can there not be considerable commitment in a non-traditional marriage? Participants in it stoutly assert that there can be. Such uncertainties blur differences between traditional and non-traditional marriages, leaving the reader unconvinced.

The authors’ arguments for state regulation of marriage lean heavily on the idea that the state is concerned with the welfare of the children. However, an opposing view would say: “Marriage is a legal contract subject to state laws. Children (and wives) have historically been property. The state has regulated marriage because of the legal contract and the protection of property. Historically, the state has not cared how you cared for your children as long as the state was not going to have to carry the burden.”

The strongest argument for traditional marriage is a practical one: the welfare of the children. I learned long ago, from scientific experience, that philosophical arguments or appeals to authority have little value. It is data that is important. This is the most valuable part of the book. The authors provide numerous references to studies whose results almost always support the view that children fare much better when they have a male father and a female mother. This point has been hotly debated, as people recognize its central importance.

I recommend the book to the general reader, with some qualification. As noted, it supplies considerable material on marriage. That is perhaps most useful in supporting one who already accepts traditional marriage. In a debate, because of the high level of abstraction, most of the authors’ arguments would not be of much use and minds almost certainly would not be changed. The best part of the book is the concrete data as presented in the last paragraph.

Full Citation for this Article: Harrison, Kent (2017) "What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, by Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George. New York: Encounter Books. 2012. 133 pages," SquareTwo, Vol. 10 No. 2 (Summer 2017), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleHarrisonMarriageReview.html, accessed <give access date>.

Would you like to comment on this article? Thoughtful, faithful comments of at least 100 words are welcome. Please submit to SquareTwo.

COMMENTS: 1 Comment

I. Robert P. George (one of the authors of the book reviewed here)

I’m grateful to B. Kent Harrison for reviewing my book (with Sherif Girgis and Ryan T. Anderson) What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense in the Summer 2017 issue of Square Two. Unfortunately, Mr. Harrison does not provide readers with an exposition of the book’s central philosophical arguments or an account of what we actually mean by the idea of marriage as a conjugal relationship. I hope, therefore, that readers of the review who are curious to assess the soundness of our arguments will read the book for themselves. They will find that we do not merely appeal to doctrine or tradition; nor do we make assertions that we fail to support with sociological evidence and/or careful philosophical argumentation. Moreover, we address in detail the leading arguments for the revisionist understanding of marriage as a form of sexual-romantic companionship or domestic partnership. Whether readers in the end find our arguments successful or unsuccessful, we would like their judgment to be based on a full and accurate understanding of the content of those arguments.

Thank you.