On Tuesday, the debate “What is Marriage?” examined the definition and meaning of marriage and looked at both sides of the same-sex marriage debate.
The Tocqueville Program for Inquiry Into Religion and American Public Life and the Dean’s Fellows of the College of Arts and Letters co-sponsored the event, which featured Dr. John Corvino and Sherif Girgis, two recognized scholars on either side of the debate. Political science professor Patrick Deneen moderated.
Deneen introduced Girgis, a current PhD candidate in philosophy at Princeton University and law student at Yale Law School, as “on the side of defense of the more traditional definition of marriage between a man and a woman,” and Corvino, chair of the philosophy department at Wayne State University, as “seeking an argument on the behalf of the expansion of that definition to include same-sex couples.”
In his opening statements, Girgis said the audience at Notre Dame was different than many he had faced before, particularly when debating Corvino.
“This is also the first time I’m at a place where things might be a little more evenly divided in the audience, if not a little bit slanted towards me, so I’m going to do what many of you might regard as tying both hands behind my back," Girgis said. "I am not going to argue for morality. I’m not going to argue from tradition — the way that things always have been, and it’s the way they have to be. And I’m not going to argue from religion although I’m a Catholic, and I think that religious arguments are perfectly reasonable.”
Girgis said grounds for his argument against the expansion of the definition of marriage may be found in a fundamental flaw within the argument for such an expansion.
“I’m going to argue that what I’m going to call the revisionist view of marriage, that marriage should include same-sex relationships, actually has deep contradiction at its core," Girgis said. "... It actually ultimately undermines the very thing it’s trying to do, which is to describe the principle difference between marriage and other kinds of companionship."
Corvino said marriage as an institution has traditional origins, but it has at times had a more flexible definition and practice. Perceived distinctions between "marriage and other kinds of companionship" are subjective, Corvino said.
“Marriage is a social institution recognizing committed adult unions, which are presumptively sexual and exclusive … and which typically involve sharing domestic life, mutual care and concern, and the begetting caring for children,” Corvino said. “I say 'presumptively' and 'typically' in there because we can look throughout history and find exceptions that we would still recognize as marriage. We may not think they’re ideal, we may not think they make for good marriage policy, but they are still marriage."
Corvino said the expansion of the definition of marriage encourages inclusivity within American society.
“Why do people find the idea of same-sex marriage compelling?" Corvino said. "... I think it boils down to some very simple premises, including the idea that relationships are good for people, that marriage is good for relationships, and that some of our fellow citizens happen to be gay."
Echoing that theme, Corvino said in his closing statements that the benefits of marriage transcend the boundary between homosexuality and heterosexuality.
“Relationships are good for people; they help people grow," Corvino said. "Marriage as a public commitment and as a personal union is good for relationships. And that this is true for those of us who do not, or cannot, engage in the sort of sex that includes coitus."
Girgis and Corvino also appeared on Vantage Point, the College of Arts and Letters NPR radio program on Tuesday night, in a segment entitled “Why Get Married?” with Notre Dame professor of sociology Richard Williams.