If you ask someone to define a circle, you will likely get several different definitions, depending on their mathematical sophistication; but if they are good definitions they will be accurate. Some may be procedural: a circle is the shape traced by a compass moving through 360 degrees. Others may be Euclidean: a circle is the set of all points in a plane equidistant from a single point. Note that these “definitions” can also accurately be called “descriptions.” They both limit what a circle is and how a circle is formed. The question, “But why is a circle defined or described in this way?” — were it to arise — would very likely be met with a blank stare; though a wise philosopher might simply respond that this is a convention useful in geometry and mathematics, and of course there are an infinite number of circles that can be drawn around any given point, and this gives us a tool to name them and work with them.
Would that the marriage debate were so simple. There are some for whom it is that simple, in their own minds. Marriage is “defined” — for example — as “the lifelong union of one man and one woman,” and any example that doesn’t meet the definition falls outside the term. Some such definitions are also fairly called “descriptions” but nonetheless draw the line at some things being within the category while others are not.
Leaving aside the reality that a strict application of that definition fails to address whether a marriage that ends in divorce was ever a marriage, or still is, the more serious problem arises when people ask the question about marriage that I hazard no one would ask about circles: “Why is marriage limited in this way.”
When faced with this question, some will resort to a merely definitional and tautological approach that boils down to, “Because that’s what marriage is.” This is unassailable, but also not a real answer to the question, as it begs it.
Other answers will commonly include an appeal to the fact that only men and women can procreate. Of course, the problem with that answer is evident: people can procreate without marriage and marry without procreation — so clearly the ability or the lack thereof cannot be essential. The creation of such notions as virtual or potential procreativity seem even further removed — and beside the point as even those who definitely can procreate might not marry or procreate; and this particular dodge is ultimately a subterfuge to preserve the “man and woman” requirement in their essential, rather than procedural, reality — which the more astute among you will recognize as another form of begging the question.
Among other appeals will be the well-worn fallacies of appeal to authority, tradition, or numbers — forces to which one may choose to bend but which are not in themselves proof of the rightness of the premise.
Ultimately, the question with which we have to deal is much more serious, and much more complex, than simple definition or description. It concerns the lives and loves of countless human beings, seeking to order their lives under a discipline that allows those lives and loves to flourish and grow. It is not easy to stretch definitions when they are deeply entrenched in a culture, but it is incumbent upon us to recall that marriage is a cultural convention, and an infinite number of circles that can be inscribed round any given point.
Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG