What is Marriage?

I read What Is Marriage?: Man and Woman: A Defense and came to the realization that we need more public discussion of the fundamental question in our “marriage equality” debate. The fundamental question is, What is marriage?

I’m not going to offer any potential definition here. Instead, I would like to offer a comparison to illustrate why that question needs to be discussed openly and on its own terms. Hopefully in the process I also offer a framework for having that discussion in an objective, non-threatening way. The comparison is to ask the question: what is Pi?

Theoretically we know what Pi is (which is possibly more than we can say about marriage). It’s the ratio between the radius of a circle and its circumference. Functionally it is a number that we’ve never found the end of – 3.1415926535…

With Pi, there is an absolute definition that we can agree on even as we continue the process of discovering the sequence of digits to represent it. With marriage we don’t even have a universally agreed upon definition which is one more reason why we can’t come to an agreement upon the issue of how close an approximation is close enough for public policy purposes. If Pi were like marriage – lacking an agreed upon definition – then we could debate whether 5 was as good as 3 for a starting point rather than debating whether we should enforce accuracy to seven decimal places (3.1415927) rather than five decimal places (3.14159) or whether 3 decimal places (3.142) is accurate enough for purposes of public policy.

There are some people who insist that marriage is whatever we define it to be. For those people there is no wrong answer. Their debate begins and ends with public opinion. For those who believe that there is some fundamental thing that is marriage which we are trying to support or approximate in public policy, the first step is to come to some common understanding about what that fundamental thing is.

It seems to me that part of the challenge in our current “marriage equality” debate is that the amount of common ground for how marriage is defined generally extends to two decimal places of precision but the government regulations currently in place are equivalent to five decimal places of precision. To follow the Pi analogy, I would describe our public marriage policy history like this:

For much of history we agreed that Pi was the ratio between the radius and the circumference of a circle, roughly 3.14159. As we learned more and got better tools we extended the policy definition of Pi eventually to 3.14159265. After a while some people decided that definition was too restrictive for practical purposes and got the law changed to define Pi as being 3.142. Somewhere along the way many people grew up being taught that “Pi” was just a name for the number we use in calculating circles and that it stood for “3.142” rather than being taught that it was a fundamental mathematical constant for which 3.142 was considered a sufficiently accurate approximation. The result of this lackadasical teaching is that those people came to view Pi as basically arbitrary and as they grew they had no reason nor understanding to debate what Pi really is. When someone tells them that Pi could or should just as well be 3.0 since that’s so much easier to calculate they are ill-equipped to debate that assertion.

Our understanding of marriage ranges from:

  1. Those who think it is an artificial construct that can be changed.
  2. Those who think that regardless of what it really is, the government should enforce little or no accuracy to any underlying reality in the public policy definition of marriage.
  3. Those who recognize that there is a fundamental reality that is much more complex than any public policy and that we should be wary of making changes in the policy without having a better grasp on the underlying reality
  4. Those who recognize that marriage is based on a fundamental reality and they have actively sought to learn for themselves what that underlying reality is to even greater accuracy than the public definition requires.
    • They have also realized that the less nearly our public policy reflects that reality the more problems we create through the dissonance; this group also recognizes that the previous loosening in our marriage policy has contributed to myriad problems in our society.
    • While they do not have a perfectly unified understanding of what marriage actually is or even total agreement on how precise public policy should be in reflecting that reality, they are keenly aware when people propose policies that are clearly out of sync with that reality.


About David

David is the father of 8 extremely organized children (4 girls / 4 boys) who is constantly seeking answers to tough questions related to parenting, education and politics while moonlighting for 40 hours each week as a technology professional. He also enjoys cooking, gardening, and sports.
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