Contra Girgis: a student responds

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Peter Antich
Contributing Writer

In the paper he presented at our university two weeks ago, Sherif Girgis briefly responded to the challenge, posed by “revisionists,” to provide a principled argument for recognizing the unions of infertile couples but not same-sex partnerships. I would like to investigate further whether it really is logically consistent to recognize infertile couples but not same-sex partnerships. I find it not only philosophically worthwhile to check Girgis’ logic, but also morally obligatory.

Let’s get some basic material out of the way first. For Girgis, couples are recognized on the basis of “organic bodily union.” An act is unitive, or produces bodily union, in so far as the participants are coordinated for a common biological purpose of the whole. The only biological purpose that can be shared by two people is reproduction. So organic bodily union between two people is achieved when those two people coordinate to perform an act of the kind that causes conception, i.e. a generative act.

But what constitutes a generative act? In order to recognize infertile couples, Girgis claimed that infertile couples are capable of generative acts. However, because infertile couples are by definition incapable of conception, for Girgis an act can be generative even if it will not and cannot result in conception, independent of the intention of the couple. Rather, an act is generative because it is an act of the kind that causes conception. An act is generative, then, if and only if it is a necessary condition for generation, i.e. under some conditions it will result in conception.

However, on these grounds we would have to claim that individuals, by themselves or with a partner, would be capable of generative acts, since an individual can perform acts that would, under some conditions, result in conception (even though under these conditions it will not). At this point, Girgis would probably add the following condition: An act is generative if and only if it occurs within an “ensemble” of other acts, and this full “ensemble” must be, at least sometimes, sufficient to cause conception.

While a generative act is part of an ensemble, we often consider acts that aren’t a part of this full ensemble to be generative. One can easily imagine a male cancer patient whose treatment involved the removal of one of the smaller organs of the reproductive system, the action of which organ is necessary for conception. Technically speaking, he wouldn’t be capable of generative acts that occur within the full ensemble, yet Girgis would agree with me that this man and his wife could perform generative acts. Girgis has arbitrarily limited the scope of this ensemble in order to classify only certain acts as generative.

Thus we can modify the previous condition: An act is generative only if it occurs within an “ensemble” of other acts, and this full “ensemble” need not be even occasionally sufficient to cause conception. While this claim doesn’t amount to much, it is clear that according to it, same-sex couples are capable of acts that occur within an “ensemble,” and thus of generative acts.

But are same-sex generative acts unitive? For Girgis, an act is unitive when the participants are coordinated for a common biological purpose of the whole. He says, “Whatever their thoughts or goals, whether a couple achieves bodily union depends on facts about what is happening between their bodies.” Not to be crass, but in the imaginary circumstance in which an individual could perform sexual acts simply with the relevant parts of the opposite sex, not with an individual of the opposite sex, for Girgis these acts would be unitive. This seems absurd to me. I think that generally, when we aren’t trying to limit the scope of marriage, we define unitive acts as acts in which two individuals coordinate for a common goal. Bodily unity would occur when two individuals coordinate with each other, through the coordination of their bodies, for a common goal – not when two bodies coordinate for a goal inherent to their bodies. But I suspect Girgis would disagree on this point. Nevertheless, it should be clear that the bodies of same-sex partners, when together, remain oriented toward generative acts and the partners coordinate to perform these acts.

Ultimately, I find Girgis’ criterion for marriage to be silly and his application of it disingenuous: If same-sex generative acts are unitive, then his position is simply inconsistent.

5 COMMENTS

  1. You also have to realize that infertile couples rarely know if they are infertile. Ergo the argument fails on that point.

    Additionally, you will realize that even if a couple marries old, it is the exception to the rule, and the above writers argument applies.

    It just goes to show, people will argue anything to justify Gay marriage. But there is really no logical justification nor a moral one.

    • Mr. Locke has been so kind as to offer not only one, but two objections to my article. As one good deed indeed deserves another, I’d like to address his objections.

      Mr. Locke first makes the ponderous claim: “You have to realize that infertile couples rarely know if they are infertile. Ergo the argument fails on that point.” One could rephrase his argument: 1) Most infertile couples do not realize that they are infertile. Therefore, 2) the argument fails. Well, I would be glad to agree with the good Mr. Locke that many infertile couples don’t realize they are infertile, just as I would be glad to agree with any kindly soul that many trees have green leaves, that often the sky is blue, and that, for the most part, the day after today is tomorrow. Of course, I don’t take any of these claims, including Mr. Locke’s, to have any bearing on my argument. It would have been most gracious of Mr. Locke to provide several intermediary steps for his highly enthymematic argument. Short of that, I haven’t the least idea how his objection is in any degree relevant. For my argument, as for Girgis’, whether an act is a generative and unitive act has nothing to do with the intention of the couple or with whether two know that they are infertile; in Girgis’ words, it simply has to do with “facts about what is going on between their bodies.” I am simply following Girgis’ suit in pursuing this line of argument – if Mr. Locke objects, he should take it up with Girgis and not with me.

      Perhaps even more opaque is Mr. Locke’s second objection. It runs: “Additionally, you will realize that even if a couple marries old, it is the exception to the rule, and the above writer’s argument applies.” Assuming that Mr. Locke didn’t have a crisis of faith midway through his objection and claim that my argument does in fact apply, I take his argument to be: 1) some people claim that because some couples marry old, Girgis’ argument fails, but 2) couples marrying old is an exception to the rule, so 3) Girgis’ argument applies. Well, first of all, I haven’t made anything remotely like the claim that because some couples marry old, Girgis’ argument fails. Girgis’ argument is highly refined and is the product of a really first-rate mind. I wouldn’t test it on such silly grounds: assuming that couple marrying old is relevant only as a couple that is no longer fertile, I don’t see how the example adds anything new or interesting to the discussion. Further, it is hardly significant that couples marrying old or infertile couples are exceptions to the rule. It needn’t be the case that most couples are infertile for the criterion of marriage to be other than fertility. There need be only one infertile couple married.

      If I have been ungracious towards Mr. Locke, then I apologize. Insofar as he has offered a rational response to my article, I thank him. However, as to his final remarks (namely, “It just goes to show, people will argue anything to justify Gay marriage”) I have no kind words for him. With what vim and vigor has the good Mr. Locke succeeded in missing the point so entirely! I don’t see a single indication in his comment to indicate that he read a word of my article, and more than one indication that he didn’t. Had he been a man of good enough faith to read my article for a moment with sincerity, he might have avoided offering such apparently absurd objections. Mr. Locke’s comment goes well enough to show that buffoonery abounds on either side of such debates. I hope that it wasn’t with such a small mind that I read Girgis’ argument. If it was, then I most certainly apologize.

  2. To Mr. Locke:
    In the no doubt sage words of the no doubt venerable Chris Wester: “Apology accepted. Just don’t do it again.” More seriously – I, of course, understand; mistakes are made. At 5 AM, I find, it is best to read in moderation.

    Otherwise:
    Here is a link to Sherif Girgis’ reply to my letter. His reply is the third letter in the article. My response to his reply will be found as the first comment.

    http://udallasnews.com/2011/11/22/letters-to-the-editor-2/

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