R. Scruton, ‘Phryne’s Symposium’, in Xanthippic Dialogues.

At the start of the sexual revolution the American humorist James Thurber wrote a book entitled Is Sex Necessary? , in which he satirised the growing obsession with sex and the psychology of sex, in the first wave of enthusiasm for psychoanalysis. The conservative response to the question contained in Thurber’s title is, roughly, yes, sex is necessary, but not under that description. The fashion of isolating sex, and the sexual act, from its emotional and institutional context, is inimical to those things which make sex necessary to our social condition. But, seen for what it is, as a gift between sexual partners, through which they express their love and take full responsibility for its reproductive consequences, sex (in other words, erotic love) is as necessary as anything in the repertoire of human feeling.

Since Thurber’s time sex has obviously continued to become more and more prominent in people’s thoughts and in the political process, and it is obvious, in the case of modern America, that battles between liberal and conservative are increasingly about matters that concern, or touch on, sex. The most important of these concern the family and its protection – a matter over which conservatives see themselves in conflict with all of the following:

  1. The advocates and practitioners of ‘sex education’.
  2. Feminists who reject the family as a patriarchal institution that oppresses women.
  3. Sexual promiscuity and its apologists.
  4. Pornography and the addiction to vicarious sex.
  5. The gay lobby, and in particular the proponents of gay marriage.

Now, not all those causes are purely conservative causes. Many feminists, (Catherine MacKinnon for example), are hostile to pornography, as a kind of assault on women, through the ‘objectification’ of their sexuality, while some proponents of gay marriage (Andrew Sullivan, for example) see it as a solution to the observed promiscuity of the ‘gay scene’. Many liberals, who believe that sexual relations between consenting adults are private affairs, about which the law should be as silent as is reasonably possible, have doubts about modern forms of sex education, and endorse the conservative view that children should be kept out of the sexual market until ‘ready’ to negotiate it. Nor do all conservatives agree in opposing all of the things that I have listed. Andrew Sullivan, for example, describes himself as a conservative (as in his recent book The Conservative Soul ), and quite a few conservatives agree with liberals that we should do our best to ‘leave sex out of it’, when it comes to legislation. Richard Posner, founder and advocate of the ‘law and economics’ school of legal thinking, who would count as a conservative from many points of view, takes a highly libertarian attitude in his book on the subject – Sex and Reason – which is, however, a book that seriously misdescribes both the items mentioned in its title. (In addition to being wrong about ‘sex’ and ‘reason’ it also manages to be wrong about ‘and’ – the little word about which Tristan and Isolde meditate for a full quarter of an hour in Wagner’s opera.)

To make sense of this topic I believe we have to go into the philosophical question of the intentionality of desire. This won’t solve all the social and political questions, but it is a necessary condition of stating what those questions are about. Plato deserves eternal credit for having raised the philosophical question in a form that shows its importance, and for having given, in the Phaedrus and the Symposium his unforgettable account of the ‘ascent’ from sensual to intellectual love. Phryne’s Symposium is an attempt to answer Plato’s Symposium by putting women back in the picture – the intellectual arguments there hinted at are spelled out at greater length in my book Sexual Desire.

Object, Goal and Fulfilment.

A frightened child wants his mother. Here the object of desire is mother; the goal is mother, and the fulfilment is mother. The desire for mother is a deep-seated need, which has its origins in our species life, and which only gradually is transformed, as life proceeds, into a species of rational love, when reciprocal giving replaces one-sided taking. Until recently it was never doubted that this kind of need-desire is an exception among human attachments, and that all other attachments not only implicate us as rational agents, but also involve an element of choice or deliberation. Freud changed all that, by arguing that the very same force (which he called the ‘libido’) is involved in attaching a child to his mother and a lover to his partner.

There are many problems for the Freudian view, however. One of them is that the intentionality of sexual desire is entirely unlike that of the mother-need. First of all, object, goal and fulfilment seem to fall apart. Mary is the object of my desire, but it is only in a manner of speaking that she can be described as its goal. I may have a very vague idea of its goal – i.e. of the condition towards which my desire is tending. (Consider the story of Daphnis and Chloë, for instance, or the very different story of Tristan and Isolde.) There is a ‘course of desire’, in which the goal becomes gradually more determinate: but it is a well-known fact that every actual thing done by way of expressing the desire, even that which is known as the ‘consummation’, somehow falls short of achieving what was wanted – a fact that has given rise to endless literature, none better than Lucretius Book IV, as translated by Dryden. Finally the fulfilment of desire seems to have nothing directly to do with its goal. Desire in itself, even when satisfied, leaves the person unsatisfied, until incorporated into another and more enduring project. For Plato this project was the ‘ascent of love’, towards that knowledge of, and familiarity with, the universal form of beauty which he describes so affectingly in the Symposium . This ‘ascent’ idea was taken over by medieval Christian writers (especially the Troubadours and Dante), though it probably came to them via Avicenna and Sufi sources. In all its versions the ascent seeks the fulfilment of sexual desire outside the desire, in a condition in which the physical urge has been transcended. But Plato reads back into the original urge all the creative potential of the transcendence. Eros becomes a cosmic force, merely embryonic in the first urges of desire, and fully realized only in the great creative process of intellectual generation.

Some would say that this way of looking at things is not accidentally connected with Plato’s homosexuality, which cannot find fulfilment in ordinary domestic arrangements, but must fly free of them, into a realm where male companionship provides the norm of social life. Even the medievals, in espousing the ‘ascent’ idea, associate it not with marriage and the family, but with relationships that are outside marriage – either adulterous, or aspiring in an adulterous direction. The Platonic ascent is offered as an alternative to marital union – a way of overcoming forbidden passion by transcending it into a permitted alternative.

Xanthippe points out that there is an element of self-deception in the Platonic ascent, a kind of refusal to face up to the real challenge of sexual desire, which is the other who is its object. By ascending beyond him I also in a sense reject him – reject his real and living demand that I unite not with some abstraction, nor even with his soul conceived as an ideal and a spiritual attribute, but with him , the embarrassing, physical, incarnate object who is also a subject, and therefore as capable of embarrassment as me. Xanthippe therefore defends the traditional idea, that the true fulfilment of desire is marriage, or something like marriage, in which two people create between them the institution that includes them both.

This separation of object, goal and fulfilment is an interesting phenomenon. It is, in fact, a mark of inter-personal attitudes generally. Consider anger. The object of my anger is John, who has insulted me; the goal is to punish him, by getting my revenge; the fulfilment (according to the Christian, at least) is to forgive him, when his apology has been offered as a gift. Fulfilment means re-establishing the equilibrium of the self, the equilibrium required by a life in happiness. To be able to do this I must not allow my anger to run out of control. Hence the need for virtue – the virtue, in this case, of gentleness, described by Aristotle as the disposition to feel the right amount of anger towards the right object on the right occasion and for the right length of time. It is this that will enable me, in time, to overcome my anger, to enter the posture of forgiveness, and so to move back towards the peaceful acceptance of John and the restoration of our friendship. This process is part of happiness (eudaimonia), which Aristotle described as ‘an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue’. Xanthippe suggests that the same philosophy of virtue applies in the field of sexual desire. Gentleness, as Aristotle describes it, is a part of justice. Chastity, as Xanthippe describes it, is a part of temperance – another of the cardinal virtues. Chastity, in the Xanthippic perspective, is not a matter of total abstinence, but rather a matter of feeling the right desire towards the right object in the right circumstances, and so on. Hence she endorses Archeanassa’s desire for Plato, even while condemning the immature phallicism of Plato’s response to it: she sees in this desire the nuptial tendency which (in favourable circumstances, i.e. the circumstances provided by marriage) leads to fulfilment.

Of course, you don’t have to agree with Xanthippe, in order to see the point of the distinction I have been drawing. The three-fold intentionality of sexual desire is one of many features that align it with the inter-personal attitudes, and separates it from the animal urges with which it is often naively confused. And it is a source of many confusions: for example the confusion of the goal of desire with its fulfilment (as in one traditional Catholic view, that the sexual act aims at children, or is essentially procreative); or the confusion of object with goal, and consequent misdescription of the goal, as in the Kinsey view of sex discussed below.

Desire and Biology.

However, since sexuality is a condition that we share with the animals (and also with some plants); since sexual pleasure involves acts that animals too engage in, and since the result that nature intends through these acts – namely reproduction – is in both cases the same, there is a temptation to reduce sexual desire to a state of mind that we share with other animals. (Interestingly enough Freud is not guilty of this kind of reductionism: indeed, on Freud’s theory, it is hard to see why sexual desire has anything to do with reproduction at all, harder still to see why animals should mimic it.)

This reductionist approach to desire has had a lot of influence in America, on account of the Kinsey reports, which purported to put our sexual behaviour under a laboratory microscope, so as to see it ‘objectively’, as it had never been seen before. Kinsey was in no sense part of the ‘genome revolution’, and his attempts to ‘biologize’ sex make no mention of genetic strategies: indeed, what we know of those strategies points in a direction opposed to his libertarian agenda. Nevertheless, Kinsey was advancing a form of biological reductionism In order to bring animal sexuality and human sexuality under the same biological umbrella, he described sexual experience as a sensation, located in the sexual organs. (The influence of Freud here is evident: see Freud’s Three Lectures on Sexuality , developing the (absurd) theory of the ‘erotogenous zone’.) Kinsey made it look as though the accumulated weight of moral prohibitions and inhibitions on which human beings had hitherto depended was entirely dispensable: the real goal of sex is not to express desire for another, still less to provide a vehicle for interpersonal love, whether towards the object of desire or towards the children who might stem from its fulfilment, but to obtain pleasurable sensations. Sexual initiation, according to the Kinseyite view of things, means learning to overcome guilt and shame and to put aside our hesitations. The result of this – ‘good sex’ – can occur with any partner of either sex, or with no partner at all, and requires no institutional preparation, no social endorsement and no long-term commitments, whether to the partner or to offspring. The partner drops out of consideration – his nature as an object of desire is entirely determined by his function in securing the sexual goal. (There is an antecedent to this, in Wilhelm Reich’s theory of the orgasm.)

However, sexual desire is not a desire for sensations. It is a desire for a person: and I mean a person , not his or her body, conceived as an object in the physical world, but the person conceived as an incarnate subject, in whom the light of self-consciousness shines and who confronts me eye to eye and I to I. True desire is also a kind of petition: it demands reciprocity, mutuality and a shared surrender. It is therefore compromising, jealous and also threatening. No pursuit of a sensation could be compromising, jealous or threatening in this way. (Something like Hegel’s dialectic of master and slave can be enacted at the sexual level too.)

The interpersonal nature of desire explains why unwanted advances are forbidden by the one to whom they might be addressed, and why they may be experienced as a kind of contamination. It explains why rape is so serious a crime: for rape is an invasion of the victim’s freedom. If you describe desire in the terms used by Kinsey, however, the outrage and pollution of rape become impossible to explain. Being raped will appear no worse than being spat upon and shame will not be seen for what it is – a necessary psychic barrier and a stage on the way to personhood – but as an obstacle to your own and others’ enjoyment.

Someone might object that sexual desire cannot be counted among inter-personal responses, when it is so obviously concerned with the body, and with sensual pleasure. However, the same might be said of mother love – which certainly begins in an instinctive move towards attachment, but rapidly develops into an inter-personal tie that forms the most important stimulus to the child, in his progress towards full personhood of his own. Moreover, we should never forget the strange way in which the body serves as a focus of sexual desire. It is not the organs of generation that are the focus of erotic interest but things like the face, the eyes, the voice, the way of moving and being – the presence of the other person in the body so to speak. The object of desire is not seen as a human body (that would be necrophilia) but as an incarnation, and the thing incarnate in the body is a person. The eyes, for instance, are a focus of desire because of the way they look at me . The body of the beloved is not an object but a subject, transparent, as it were, to the ‘I’ that inhabits it. This is part of the ‘phenomenology’ of desire, and needs detailed spelling out. In a way that is what Phryne does in her speech – for although she has chosen another kind of fulfilment than that which desire itself suggests, she is very clear about the first stage of erotic intentionality, the focusing on the other, as an incarnate subject.

What Phryne brings out is that the inter-personal character of desire is also an aspect of sexual arousal. Unlike a sensation, arousal is directed – it has an epistemic character, and depends upon an incipient representation of the other, whom it is ‘about’. (This is true even in auto-eroticism, where the other is represented in fantasy rather than in fact.) Hence there can be mistaken arousal, like that experienced by the wife of Amphytrion, when visited by Zeus in the guise of her husband (or was it a mistake?), or that experienced by Lucretia, in some versions of the story, when raped by Tarquin. (This was rape, since she did not know it was Tarquin, and therefore had not consented to the advances of Tarquin, even while yielding to the advances of this man, who happened to be identical with Tarquin: referential opacity here being the proof of intentionality.) See also the amusing chapter of Thurber on ‘recessive knee syndrome’.

Sexual Morality.

Those considerations tend to suggest that sexual morality is not an option that we may choose not to take up, but an intrinsic feature of the predicament in which we are placed by desire. (Contra Foucault, for example, in his Histoire de la Sexualité,, especially L’Usage des plaisirs. ) This morality is intrinsic in the sense that it does not depend upon the circumstances of desire, or upon any long-term social policy, but simply upon the fact of desire as an inter-personal reaction, which has a fulfilment and a decline of its own. Of course, it is another question what this morality requires of us, and whether and to what extent it is culturally malleable. But there is surely some force in the conservative conviction that some form of sexual morality is a permanent feature of the human condition, and that we disrespect this fact at our peril. You don’t have to observe very much of the human scene to recognize the ease with which antagonisms, fears, anxieties and black hatreds can arise from sexual aggression and abuse. Hence the common-sense morality that enables us to negotiate this dangerous terrain is bound to be reflected, up to a point at least, in the law. Rape, for instance, is treated more seriously than bodily assaults of other kinds; the abuse of children is severely punished; and laws governing indecency and obscenity still stand, however ineffective they may prove in the internet economy.

(One interesting question which we could discuss: what, if anything is wrong with pornography, or with the interest in pornography? This connects with the subject/object distinction in phenomenology, with addiction studies in psychology, and with the contrast between the erotic and the obscene in representations.)

At the root of sexual morality lies the thought that we are compromised by sexual desire – both as subjects, when we express it, and as objects, when we are targeted. The relation to which it tends is one in which one person is maximally vulnerable to the other, and maximally exposed. The phenomenology of this predicament is not easy to describe: it involves a whole range of responses from shame to passion, in all of which the central thought is that I in my body am uniting with you in yours. Sartre has written perceptively about this in Being and Nothingness – and also bleakly, since his existentialist egomania leads him to conclude that the goal of desire can never be achieved, and that only in sado-masochism is the impossibility of bodily union finally dramatized and accepted.

From this vulnerability stem many of the ancillary phenomena of desire – both good, like tenderness, erotic love, and the existential commitment which, according to Xanthippe, is the true fulfilment of desire; and bad, like jealousy, abuse and exploitation, as experienced by Potone. Moreover, the good and the bad make room for each other. It is only the one who loves who can feel the full bite of sexual jealousy, even though the object of jealousy is not the love of the beloved but his or her desire.

Jealousy is an interesting phenomenon. Like sexual shame it is something that only a rational being can experience; and like sexual shame it shows the peculiar position of the body in the transactions of sexual desire. The beloved’s sexual desire is the pivot of the jealous person’s interest, and he can tolerate any favour granted to his rival save this one. It is possible to be jealous even of the most casual encounter (indeed, especially of the most casual encounter) provided only that it was the occasion of desire. There is a certain mystery here, which Shakespeare explores in Othello , and Proust in The Remembrance of Things Past. Jealousy involves the perception of the beloved as obscene, and there is a kind of catastrophe involved, in the clash between that perception and the perceptions that are framed in the language of love. Hence the aggression of a jealous person is directed not at his rival but at his beloved. (In the animal kingdom there are contests over sexual partners: but they are always directed at rivals, and never lead, as human jealousy leads, to the deliberate and implacable destruction of the one who is wanted.)

Jealousy of that kind is a huge misfortune, from which people can protect themselves in two ways: by living in a world of faithful attachments, or by living in a world of entirely faithless detachments. The second of those options is, on the conservative view, unsustainable, since it leaves the process of home-building and social reproduction to others , while doing nothing to ensure that there are any others to ensure that society survives. The first of those options, however, requires a widely accepted sexual code, designed to inculcate the habit of fidelity. This habit is natural and normal; but it is also easily broken, and the temptation to break it is contained in desire itself – in the element of generality which makes us present ourselves as man in general or woman in general, in the very moment of passion, when it is just you and me. This element of generality tempts us to experiment, to verify, to detach ourselves from the burdensome duties of fidelity in the interest of excitement and risk. Virtuous desire is faithful, as Xanthippe shows; but, as she also shows, virtuous desire is an artefact, made possible by a process of moral education that we do not understand in its complexity.

Sexual Politics.

Of course, there are many ways in which a sexual morality might be constructed, in conformity with Xanthippe’s theory of the essential nuptiality of desire. While conservatives will tend to uphold the moral code in which they have been brought up (since that is what it means to be a conservative), it is not for conservative philosophy to choose among the options, if those options all respect the reality of desire, as an inter-personal response.

However, there is more to desire than that. And the more has an important political dimension. Plato, acutely aware of this fact, wished, in The Republic, to confine eros to the interpersonal sphere, where it could be transcended, and to hand over the business of social reproduction to the state. For a variety of reasons, conservatives have tended to the view that the factory farming of children is neither desirable nor really possible, and that social reproduction is not the concern of the State, but the internal business of civil society. And it should occur in the manner outlined by Hegel, and until that time assumed so unquestioningly that it was never referred to, namely through the institution of the family. In most respects, therefore, the conservative approach to sexual politics conveys a concern for the family, as the unit of social reproduction, whose interests and functioning must be secured against predation, whether from individuals or from the state.

(It is worth remarking that the whole theme of sex, including the family, sexual morality and our nature as sexual beings, had been absent from political philosophy since the beginning of social contract theories (Bodin and Hobbes) until Hegel. The theme is present in Aquinas and other medieval thinkers, because of the Christian legacy. The interesting thing is that secular thinkers, like Hobbes, Locke, Hume, even Burke, take Christian morality entirely for granted (unlike Aquinas), and therefore never discuss this matter on which social reproduction depends.)

The short sketch of sexual phenomenology that I gave above is meant to suggest that sexual morality is intrinsic to desire, and does not need to rely on external, utilitarian calculations for its support. However, there are important external considerations that influence the conservative perspective, the most important being the concern for social continuity and the handing on of ‘social capital’. That phrase has become very topical, not so much in philosophy as in sociology, partly as a result of studies by Robert Putnam and others, on the importance of social assets in ensuring the stability and well-being of people in modern conditions.

Like economic capital, social capital can be accumulated and invested. It is built through creating networks of trust and good will, which enable people spontaneously to pool their intellectual and physical resources in a common enterprise. Our societies have accumulated a great stock of social capital in the form of culture, networks, institutions and laws. Social capital can be wisely invested, as when we found a school or university, and endow it with good teachers, good books and good facilities, so helping the fund of knowledge and skills to grow. It can dwindle, as Robert Putnam shows, through the gradual retreat from social contacts. (Bowling Alone.) It can also be wasted, and the conspicuous waste of social capital is one of the most commented upon features of our societies today. This waste has been documented by several authors, notably by Charles Murray and James Q. Wilson, who have shown the way in which, by throwing economic resources into the welfare system, we do not merely waste those resources; we also waste social capital, producing the welfare-dependency that prevents people from learning how to be on equal and responsible terms with others, subsidising indolence and exhausting our teachers, social workers and doctors with the thankless task of caring for people who are often unwilling to care for themselves.

Those are the kinds of sociological thought on which conservatives tend now to draw, in describing the family as indispensable for the handing on of social capital. The principal piece of social capital on which free economies and law-abiding polities depend is the sense of responsibility – the sense in each individual member of society of being answerable for his actions to others. That sense is built up within families, and easily dissipated when families fall apart. It is at risk in the typical welfare household, and – as Murray and Wilson have shown – being born out of wedlock is a far greater predictor of subsequent incarceration than any other normally measured factor, such as race, class or IQ. It is at this point, however, that we encounter a certain paradox in the conservative position. On the one hand, the conservative believes that the state has no business meddling in, still less taking over, the task of social reproduction. On the other hand, conservatives see the family as so fundamental to social reproduction that they are tempted to call on the state to provide it with legal and constitutional guarantees. Can we have it both ways?

Liberals are apt to respond by arguing that freely chosen relationships are a fundamental right, and if the children born to those relationships cannot be successfully raised by the parents, then it is the duty of the state to step in and take charge. Maybe the future will be exactly as Plato argued that it should be. Maybe we will see a world in which erotic relationships have become entirely a matter of inter-personal choice, protected by the state in all their freely chosen forms, while children, should they occur, will be a charge on the public purse, to be raised in institutions or farmed out to those with an urge to adopt them. Of course there may be rare cases of people who are willing and competent to bring up their children by themselves (conservative ‘savages’, in the manner of Brave New World). But they would deserve no special support for this gesture, and indeed would prove, through their competence, that they are better able to manage their lives and should therefore be subject to higher taxation. Maybe there could be a child tax on all those who wished to raise their own children; and this tax could pay for the education and nurture of the children of those who are incompetent to look after them. In any case the whole arrangement should be seen as an interim position, between the old-fashioned bourgeois family, and Brave New World, in which children are produced according to laboratory specifications.

Now, no liberal actually argues like that, though Dworkin comes fairly close to it. But the point is that, for the conservative, such is the logic of the liberal position. If sex is severed from reproduction, and seen purely as a contract for mutual pleasure, then the state can have no business supporting one kind of sexual contract in preference to another. Its only business can be to ensure that the deals are consensual, and do not involve the exploitation of vulnerable or immature parties. (Though everyone is vulnerable, and women especially, as Castallax points out in her parody of Aristophanes.)

Marriage and contract.

The conservative position can best be understood through the institution of marriage. For the liberal, marriage is a contract like any other, though one which enjoys privileges bestowed by the state – immunities from certain kinds of taxation, enforcement of obligations in the event of separation or divorce, and so on. For the conservative (e.g. Hegel, though the view is implicit in de Maistre too), marriage is not a contract but a substantial tie – in other words, the creation of a new entity by a vow. Vows of this kind are not the same as contracts: they are the source of indefinite obligations, which cannot be specified in advance except in the most general of terms (to ‘love, honour and obey’ etc.). Hence they are not defeasible by non-performance. They have an ‘eternal’ character from the mere fact that they are never fulfilled in time, but remain always in a state of petitioning. Divorce is an anomaly, in that it wishes to recognize that the relation was one of marriage, involving all the penalties of a vow, while bringing the marriage to an end for some fault, as though it were not a vow but a contract, severed for non-performance. The traditional Catholic teaching was that the only non-performance that could be rightly invoked in these circumstances was that of non-consummation, since that showed that the substantial union had not been created – this was not divorce but annulment, i.e. an assertion that the marriage had never existed.

Marriage is one of those institutions that we spontaneously see both from outside, in terms of its social function, and from inside, in terms of the moral and spiritual condition that it creates. No honest anthropologist can fail to acknowledge the functional importance of marriage. In all observed societies some form of marriage exists, as the means whereby the work of one generation is dedicated to the well-being of the next. Marriage does not merely protect and nurture children; it is a shield against sexual jealousy, and a unique form of social and economic co-operation, with a mutually supportive division of roles that more than doubles the effectiveness of each partner in their shared bid for security. Marriage fulfils this complex function because it is something more than a contract of mutual co-operation, and something more than an agreement to live together. Hence marriage enjoys – or has until recently enjoyed – a distinct social aura. A wedding is a rite of passage, in which a couple pass from one social condition to another. The ceremony is not the concern of the couple only, but of the entire community that includes them. For this is the way that children are made – made, that is, as new members of society, who will, in their turn, take on the task of social reproduction. Society has a profound interest in marriage, and changes to that institution may alter not merely relations among the living, but also the expectations of those unborn and the legacy of those who predecease them.

Wedding guests therefore symbolise the social endorsement of the union that they have assembled to witness, and the marriage is a kind of legitimisation of the potentially subversive desire between the partners. Society blesses the union, but only at a price. And the price has been, in traditional Christian societies, a heavy one: sexual fidelity ‘till death do us part’, and a responsibility for the socialising and educating of the children. As people become more and more reluctant to pay that price, so do weddings become more and more provisional, and the distinction between the socially endorsed union and the merely private arrangement becomes less and less absolute and less and less secure. As sociologists are beginning to observe, however, this gain in freedom for one generation implies a loss for the next. Children born within a marriage are far more likely to be socialised, outgoing and able to form permanent relationships of their own, than children born out of wedlock. For their parents have made a commitment in which the children are included, and of which society approves. This fact is part of the deep phenomenology of the marital home. Children of married parents find a place in society already prepared for them, furnished by a regime of parental sacrifice, and protected by social norms. Take away marriage and you expose children to the risk of coming into the world as strangers, a condition in which they may remain for the rest of their lives.

An anthropologist will hardly be surprised, therefore, to discover that marriage is regarded, in most simple societies, as a religious condition. Rites of passage are conducted in the presence of the ancestors, and the ancestors are presided over by the gods. Religion is one way in which the long-term interests of society may animate the short-term decisions of its present members. Hence it is natural that marriage should be seen from within as something divinely ordained, with a sacred aura that reinforces the undertaken duties and elicits the support of the tribe. You don’t have to be a religious believer to observe this or to see its point. You need only be aware of what is at stake, when people bring children into the world and claim those children as their own.

However, we have lived for close on five centuries with the Protestant doctrine of divorce, as a permissible condition within the Christian communion. This doctrine changed things. But the decisive difference was made by the concept of civil marriage, in which it is the state, rather than any religious institution, that authenticates the marriage. This means that marriage, so produced, can no longer be regarded as a sacrament (i.e. a relation to which God too is a party), but only as a humanly constructed tie. It may not have been intended as a contract, when the State first took over (at the French revolution); but it rapidly moved in a contractual direction, since inevitably vows without the presence of the Eternal lose their eternal quality, and therefore their status as vows. On the other hand, the law of marriage is nowhere part of the law of contract, and the result is that we have inherited an institution which is a legal and moral anomaly. We do not (yet) have no fault divorce: but that is all that prevents marriage from declining to a contract of cohabitation.

On the other hand, important residues of the sacramental view remain. For example, bigamy remains a crime in most Western states. Adultery is everywhere a ground for divorce. Children of a marriage are regarded as the responsibility in every sense of their parents, and the first concern of the courts in the event of divorce. And so on. It is easy to see, therefore, why the idea of gay marriage is so troubling to many conservatives. On the one hand it is seen as a threat to social reproduction, since it makes marriage into a kind of perfunctory endorsement by the state of a sexual union that has no reproductive meaning. On the other hand it is a vivid reminder of the fact that the state, in taking over marriage, has in any case turned it into a quasi-contract between the partners, in which children are a dispensable part of the deal. Here is what I once wrote about the matter, by way of expressing the conservative dilemma:

‘When the State usurped the rite of matrimony, and reshaped what had once been holy law, it was inevitable that it should loosen the marital tie. For the State does not represent the Eternal, nor does it have so much regard for future generations that it can disregard the whims of the merely living. The State is always and inevitably the instrument of its current members; it will respond to their pressures and try to satisfy their demands. It has therefore found it expedient to undo the sacrament, to permit easy divorce, to reduce marriage from a vow to a contract and – in the most recent act of liberalisation – to permit marriage between people of the same sex. None of this has been done with evil motives, and always there has been, in the back of people’s minds, a memory of the sacred and existential ties that distinguish people from animals and enduring societies from madding crowds. The desire has been to retain the distinctiveness of marriage, as the best that we can hope for by way of a lasting commitment, while escaping from its more onerous demands – demands that people are no longer prepared to recognise. As a result marriage has ceased to be a rite of passage into another and higher life, and become a bureaucratic stamp, with which to endorse our temporary choices. I would not call this a gain in freedom – for those choices have never been denied to us, and by dignifying them with the name of marriage we merely place another obstacle before the option to which humanity has devoted so much of its idealising fervour. Of course, we are still free to dedicate our lives to each other, to our home and to our children. But this act is rendered the more difficult, the less society recognises the uniqueness, the value and the sacrificial character of what we do. Just as people are less disposed to assume the burdens of high office when society withholds the dignities and privileges which those offices have previously signified, so are they less disposed to enter real marriages, when society acknowledges no distinction between marriages that deserve the name, and relationships that merely borrow the title.’

The most cogent position for a conservative to take is that the state is not able to create a marriage, but only to recognize it, and that it may recognize as marriages relationships which are in fact only agreements of cohabitation. Whether this is good or bad depends upon the extent to which people regard the state as a genuine endorsement of their conduct, rather than a source of rewards and penalties. But if you lose the sacramental idea of marriage, it seems to me, you lose the main support for the view that the business of social reproduction lies with civil society, and not with the state.


There are vast lacunae in the above: not touched on is the topic of feminism, for example. Why has this been such a challenge to conservatives? Why do liberals spontaneously endorse the feminist agenda? And why is it an agenda rather than an attitude?

Likewise, the topic of abortion. Why has this become such an issue? This connects with Burke’s constant invocation of the unborn and trusteeship. If we regard the unborn as a threat to the interests of the living, in what way can we protect our inheritance? The grotesque way in which this issue is discussed in America: ‘life versus choice’, etc. From the conservative perspective the issue has to do with sacrifice: should the living sacrifice their interests for the sake of the unborn, or should the unborn be sacrificed to the living? The answer to that question determines what you will say about the specific cases.

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