Showing What 'Marriage' is: Law's Civilizing Sign

44 Pages Posted: 17 Aug 2013 Last revised: 22 Oct 2013

See all articles by Jude Chua

Jude Chua

Nanyang Technological University - National Institute of Education - Policy and Leadership Studies

Date Written: August 16, 2013


Oftentimes, there is a tight connection between signs and society. The words we use to refer to things and events are not as innocent as they seem; rather as signs they point to, in semiosis, specific things and events here, rather than over there. And depending on what is good or bad for us is over here, so also our attention is drawn to those things and events, and are inclined towards them, or at least, informed by them. Consider the word, “marriage”. In a very important paper, “What is Marriage?” in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy (2010), Sherif Girgis, Robert P George and Ryan T Anderson explain how the legal redefinition of the traditional meaning of marriage would erode not only the institution, but also the common good. More importantly, they argue that there are principled reasons why the law should distinguish conjugal and revisionist conceptions of unions and retain the conjugal meaning of “marriage”. In this paper I argue why their argument is unsound, and explain how it fails to establish a case on behalf of the retention of the traditional meaning of marriage in law. Because they restrict themselves, from the outset, to the physical structure of conjugal unions, their thinking is ringed into phenomenological data that is available to the external observer, and so ignore what other available data is present in the conjugal phenomenon, specifically data available to from the internal point of view. Unwittingly, by their methodological mistake they have hidden from their own view what they sought so keenly to unpack for us; my task is to pick up the trail from where it derailed, and unconceal conjugal or marital union’s nature where it matters for the legal debate. Retrieving from their insights, I develop a different argument on behalf of their case. By examining phenomenologically the dynamism of the life-world of relationships under the “conjugal” and the “revisionist” conceptions of marriage, rather than the physics of coitus and same sex activity, I argue that there is a distinct difference between the two types of unions. I show how conjugal unions afford (tend us towards, emerge capacities for, support our ability for…) one-flesh union. Instead revisionist unions portend a disintegrating falling apart, and afford the opposite: the obsession for illusory idolatry, and the indulgence in mirages. Also, conjugal unions matures us so that we can become other-caring persons, with civilizing effects that trickle outwards into the community from the core of a conjugal family unit. Not so with the other type, which lacks this civilizing quality. Therefore, I conclude that the law should and absolutely must retain the traditional meaning of “marriage” to include only conjugal unions, in order to point to these instead of others, with the social and civilizing benefits these unions entail when young men and women aspire to and attain these. For: this traditional meaning of “marriage”, pointing as it does to conjugal unions, carries in its semio-ethic (c.f Petrilli) womb, the cradle of civilization.

Suggested Citation

Chua, Jude, Showing What 'Marriage' is: Law's Civilizing Sign (August 16, 2013). Available at SSRN: or

Jude Chua (Contact Author)

Nanyang Technological University - National Institute of Education - Policy and Leadership Studies ( email )

1 Nanyang Walk
Singapore, 637616
67903246 (Phone)
68969151 (Fax)

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