How Do You Define “Marriage”? The Organic View vs the Synthetic View

Cosmopolitan Magazine, December 20, 2016

Two years ago today the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage was a constitutional right, and that states could no longer refuse to recognize such marriages. If an alternate universe existed in which I was forbidden to marry Kristi, and then the legal landscape changed, I would be ecstatic! So the jubilation on the part of same-sex marriage proponents is something I can empathize with.

And this ruling was celebrated by many more people who are not themselves same-sex attracted, but who cherish the notion of equality. Indeed, that is how this issue was framed – “marriage equality.” What could be more central to our political system than the notion of equality under the law?

But while I am sensitive to the deeply emotional aspects of this question, and while I grasp the impulse for equality that drives this issue, I believe the Court was profoundly mistaken in its decision. And the reason for this has nothing to do with any animus toward homosexuals, or with any grievance with the desire for equality. It has to do with the meaning of marriage itself.

The slogan of “marriage equality” is effective as a piece of rhetoric, but it is crucially deficient as a matter of policy, because the key issue here is not the meaning of “equality” but the meaning of “marriage” itself. To illustrate, let me just make up a word – globberstinkle. Now, if I were to launch a campaign for “globberstinkle equality”, the first item on the agenda would be to define what  globberstinkle is, and only then could I advocate that the right to globberstinkle be recognized in an equitable way. Likewise, the root issue in the case of same-sex marriage is not equality, but marriage itself. How is marriage to be defined?

It seems to me that there are two ways to define marriage. One way I will refer to as the organic definition, and the other I will call the synthetic definition. My argument here is that same-sex marriage depends upon a synthetic approach to defining marriage that ultimately collapses into incoherence.

But first, what do I mean by an organic definition? Organic food is that which is made without the addition of chemically formulated (or you might say, synthetically formulated) compounds. It is grown naturally. When I speak of the organic definition of marriage, then, I am speaking in terms of a definition of marriage that arises from the natural order itself.

What does such a definition look like? Well, here are the bullet points:

  • Men and women are different.
  • By virtue of this difference, men and women can reproduce.
  • For human beings, producing children involves a long-term commitment to teach and train children with the uniquely human features of rationality and conscience.
  • The same act that produces children also creates a tremendous physical, emotional, and psychological union.
  • This union, to be a true union, is mutual and exclusive and permanent.
  • Thus, male-female sexual complementarity points to a mutual and exclusive and permanent union which is the context in which children may be raised – in other words, marriage.

These are just the bullet points, of course, mere summaries of centuries of reflection on what constitutes marriage across many different cultures. The defense of each point would require much more elaboration – which is exactly what we see in the classical tradition of Plato and Aristotle, the biblical tradition of Judaism and Christianity, the religious tradition of faiths as different as Islam and Hinduism, and the rationalist tradition of the Enlightenment. Though these strands of thought would disagree on many important issues, they share this definition of marriage that derives from the natural order. That is what I mean by the organic definition.

This organic definition grounds the definition of marriage itself in male-female complementarity. (As an aside, notice that it has nothing to do with other issues, like race. The redefinition of marriage to mean marriage between only those of the same race was a tragic and illogical departure from the organic understanding of marriage.) And by grounding the definition of marriage in the conjugal union of one man and one woman, the organic view also limits marriage to two parties.

Perhaps you don’t accept this organic definition. What’s the alternative? The alternative is the synthetic definition. By this I mean (as Webster’s defines it) something “devised, arranged, or fabricated for special situations to imitate or replace usual realities.” In contrast to the organic view which defines marriage based on logical deductions drawn from the nature of male-female complementarity, the synthetic view argues that this natural order is irrelevant, that marriage is purely a social construct, and that we are free to re-arrange the components of a marriage any way that we wish.

Justice Kennedy eloquently summarized this synthetic view in his opinion two years ago:

The nature of marriage is that, through its enduring bond, two persons together can find other freedoms, such as expression, intimacy, and spirituality. This is true for all persons, whatever their sexual orientation.

However, my contention is that once the definition of marriage is loosed from its organic moorings, this synthetic view quickly undermines the very concept of marriage. How so?

In the first place, there is no logical reason that the synthetic view of marriage should limit it – as Justice Kennedy did – to a bond of two persons. If the issue here is the freedom of “expression, intimacy, and spirituality” as he claimed, then why should three or more persons not be permitted to enjoy these freedoms in the context of a group marriage? On the same day that the Court issued the Obergefell decision, the respected Politico website published an op-ed in favor of the legal recognition of group marriages. As the author argued:

Polyamory is a fact . People are living in group relationships today. The question is not whether they will continue on in those relationships. The question is whether we will grant to them the same basic recognition we grant to other adults: that love makes marriage, and that the right to marry is exactly that, a right.

It does no good to respond by saying that polygamous marriages should be prohibited because they place women in an unjust and abusive relationship. This article isn’t simply proposing one-man-plus-multiple-women marriages; it is arguing for the legal acceptance of all forms of group marriage, whether three men, two men and two women, or any other synthetic combo you can think of.

Without the organic backdrop of male-female complementarity, which inherently involves a duality, the synthetic definition of marriage has no legitimate grounds for denying legal standing to group marriages, other than sheer prejudice.

Further, why should marriage be limited to two persons? Is it not possible that a person may find “expression, intimacy, and spirituality” with something other than a person? Just a couple of weeks after the Obergefell decision, Arizona State law professor Gary Merchant argued in a piece on Slate that humans should be able to marry robots (when I first read it I immediately thought about James Franco’s guest appearance on 30 Rock!). In the stirring conclusion of his article, Merchant declares:

But as the court emphasized at the close of its opinion in Obergefell, the issue comes down to the “fundamental right” of a person in a free society to choose the nature of the relationships and lifestyle they choose to pursue, providing they do not unreasonably harm others in exercising their choices. Robot-human marriage is not about robot rights; it is about the right of a human to choose to marry a robot.

What could be more “synthetic” than the marriage of a human and a synthetic object like a robot? And how would someone who rejects the organic view of marriage deny a person such a right?

For that matter, why should marriage be about anyone or anything else at all? An article from the December 20th issue of Cosmo featured a story about a young lady who decided to marry herself.



In the months since the wedding, Erika has truly committed to herself, she says, fixing up her apartment, traveling, and working on her book. When people ask if she’s married, she says yes, and introduces people to her other half.

“For so many years, people had been telling me I was a great catch,” she says. “I caught myself.”

How can the benighted Justice Kennedy deny this person her right to find “expression, intimacy, and spirituality” in marriage merely because she doesn’t accept his archaic version of marriage as between “two persons together”? Shouldn’t she have legal standing to enjoy this most precious of all freedoms?

My point is that the synthetic definition of marriage, divorced from the natural order of male-female complementarity, has no grounding for a definition of marriage other than the arbitrary wishes of those making up the definition. As Humpty Dumpty told Alice, “It means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” And if “marriage” can mean anything, then it means nothing. And therefore the phrase “marriage equality” has as much meaning as “globberstinkle equality.”




  1. Would be interested in seeing the rebuttal to this well written and thoughtful line of reasoning!

  2. Excellent article Kimosabie, flawless logic in my humble opinion,. Wish we heard this from pulpits once a month, along with the virtues of the “organic BIBLE option”. Our children and grandchildren are being effectively reprogrammed.

  3. Shane, Firstly, I want to make it clear that I am writing this as a friend and a brother. I hope to learn from this interchange and I thank you for this opportunity to clarify my own thoughts.

    Secondly, I think you are logically correct in your assertion regarding “synthetic” construct, polyamory (& I have several friends of very good moral character in that camp), multi-person marriage etc.

    Having said that, I see a broader picture as I start zooming out and getting a view, not from the ground, but from one perspective higher.

    Firstly, I see humanity flourishing and prospering economically. An inevitable result is that we have more and more choices about everything. Another inevitable result is that we, speaking globally, are having fewer and fewer children. We do not eat to survive these days; we eat for pleasure & taste. Likewise, most of sexual activity across the globe is not for procreation, but for pleasure, intimacy & companionship. Personally I see this as a wonderful thing.

    Secondly, from an even higher perspective, I want to write about love. I am a spiritual seeker, with home base in mysticism. I do not know much about Christianity (or the particular doctrine you follow under that broad umbrella). Here is what seems to be true (paraphrasing Rabbi Hillel), Christianity is about unconditional love – the rest is commentary. I, too, firmly believe there is no “Other”. If a gay couple of good moral character sought to join your church, I assume they would be welcome there.

    That is all for now, my good friend.

    With much love,

    • Shane

      June 27, 2017 at 11:19 am

      Thank you so much for the kind and thoughtful reply. Just a couple of responses to clarify where I’m coming from. I didn’t mean to suggest that procreation is the only purpose for sexual intimacy. I briefly mentioned another – the unitive aspect of sexual relations. But what I did intend to convey is that this unitive aspect is organically related to the procreactive aspect, and that both follow from male-female complementarity. To tie this in with your food example, we are naturally ordered to eat in order to live. But there is also inherent pleasure in delicious food for its own sake to be sure (I can tell from FB that you are quite the “foodie”!). And there is inherent pleasure in the unitive aspect of sexual love. So these purposes are distinct, but related to each other.

      Love is indeed the supreme ethic of Christianity. The issue here is – once more – definitions. From a Christian point of view, the highest sort of love is that which seeks the good of another. Part of that “good” is to help one another deal with the disordered relationships with God and other people that Scripture describes as sin. Christianity teaches that Jesus, through his atoning death on the cross, opened a pathway for deliverance from sin. And this loving sacrifice is available to everyone. But reception of this gift involves the choice to turn from those sins which created the disorder and to follow Jesus (Christians call this repentance).

      So if a couple that is engaged in any behavior that Scripture defines as sin were to come to my church, we would point them to Jesus by sharing the gospel and urging them to turn from sin and follow Jesus. That is the highest “good” that can be done for anyone (again, from the Christian point of view).

      But another part of this love is to show kindness to others regardless of their beliefs and behaviors. Far too often, Christians have succumbed to prejudice and hatefulness toward those who do not follow the teachings of Jesus. Jesus was emphatic about the truth, but he also was emphatic that his people should treat everyone with kindness.

      This call to hold conviction with compassion is challenging, and I often fail to balance these virtues correctly.

      • As you say so wisely, “This call to hold conviction with compassion is challenging, and I often fail to balance these virtues correctly”, this is the crux of the matter. Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I’m looking forward to your class at HU!

  4. I guess my only question would be your definition of organic. It would seem that the original context would be a better definition of “organic” since it traces it back to its roots. Historically, it has always been a civil union primarily meant for the financial gain of the involved parties. We see this evidenced by polygamy, marriages if cousins, half-siblings, and even the deceased with the living. This went on for millennia. Since the Church primarily stayed out of any formal doctrines relating to defining marriage until roughly the 13th century, wouldn’t it be a stronger argument to say that the Church created the synthetic definition to serve its own needs?

    If we’re using the true meaning of organic, then we should be discussing what occurred naturally, without interference. Since the Church was the first to attach expectations to something that had occurred naturally for millennia in various natural forms, it only makes sense that they created the first synthetic definition

  5. Chris Mongeon

    June 28, 2017 at 7:38 pm

    Thanks for posting about this, Shane. I appreciate that you’re willing to make an argument and receive feedback on it.

    First, I believe you have based your argument on an “appeal to nature” logical fallacy. Many “natural” or “organic” things are also considered “good”, and this can bias our thinking. Why is the “organic” definition of marriage good or ideal?

    Second, I believe you have cherry-picked aspects of “the natural order” on which to base your “organic” definition of marriage. For instance, you state that “the organic backdrop of male-female complementarity…inherently involves a duality”; when for many mammals, the natural order is to have 1 dominant male with a clan of females who bear him offspring. The young are raised communally. Polygamy has in fact been an ebb-and-flow if not a constant part of human history. Why is polygamy not a part of the “organic” definition of marriage? Also, the male-female complementarity (in which you say the “organic” definition of marriage is grounded) only requires humans to have reached puberty. Why is child marriage not a part of the “organic” definition of marriage?

    Third, you have made a strawman out of the “synthetic” definition of marriage. I think it’s important to acknowledge that the “synthetic” definition grounds the definition of marriage itself in consensual union. You are correct when you say that there is no “synthetic” reason to limit marriage to just two parties (but I would contend that there’s no “organic” reason, either). There is, however, a very good reason to limit marriage to consenting adults as opposed to children or animals or robots (which cannot consent), or the marrying of oneself (since you are already “you” and cannot be union-ed).

    All things considered, the synthetic definition seems to be superior here.

    • Shane

      June 30, 2017 at 10:35 am

      Some responses:
      Why is the “organic” definition of marriage good or ideal?
      Because it reflects the natural order, aka reality. It is the same reason that a heart that pumps blood efficiently is a “good” heart, as opposed to a bad one. It fulfills its naturally ordered end.

      Why is polygamy not a part of the “organic” definition of marriage?
      Because the conjugal act itself is the union of two parties, a man and woman. I recognize that multiple party sexual relationships exist in the animal world – they do in the human one, as well! But the issue is what does reason tell is the natural ordering of human sexual relations. (And I assume you would have no problem with their legal acceptance?)

      Why is child marriage not a part of the “organic” definition of marriage?
      Because procreation for human involves much more than simply intercourse and childbirth. HUman beings are rational creatures, and require a long process to be reared into maturity. This is a task for adults and not children.

      There is, however, a very good reason to limit marriage to consenting adults as opposed to children or animals or robots (which cannot consent), or the marrying of oneself (since you are already “you” and cannot be union-ed).
      Well, there are many people who disagree with you, and since you reject the natural grounding of marriage in male-female complementarity, it will be difficult to argue with them. For instance, if – as Justice Kennedy said – marriage is about “expression,” then it hardly is your business whether someone “expresses” themselves with another human. Since a robot is a machine and not a human being, “consensual” criteria do not apply. So on what other basis can you criticize human-robot marriage? And why assume that this “expression” must be limited to another person since – as the young ladies featured in the Cosmo piece make clear – they have found the ultimate object of expression in marrying themselves (and presumably that is consensual!). The “union” they want is with themselves!

      I’d like to suggest a thin little book that defends the natural view of marriage in more detail for your consideration –

Comments are closed.