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.