Apples, Oranges & Gay Marriage

Or the Name Game & Hidden Assumptions

Ever since Aristotle, the philosophical categories of accident and an essence have provided a helpful way of distinguishing between the properties of a thing that are absolutely necessary for that thing to be what it is (essential properties) and those properties which a thing may possess but that are not absolutely necessary for its existence (accidental properties). For example, the property of greenness is accidental to apples, since an apple could be red or yellow and still be an apple. But "fruitiness" is an essential property of an apple, since, if it were not a fruit, it would not be an apple.

Put another way, an accident is an attribute not definitely excluded by the essence of a thing. Being tall is thus an accidental property of a tree, since a short tree is still a tree, whereas being ligneous is an essential property, since a tree that was metallic could no longer properly be called a tree, at least not a real one.

These distinctions can be usefully applied to the debate surrounding so-called gay marriage. Those who claim that same-sex couples have a right to get married tend to assume (usually without argument) that the sex of the two people involved is an accidental rather than an essential property of marriage. If they are right, then two men or two women can make a marriage just as easily as a man and a woman can. Under this framework, gender is to marriage what color is to an apple: an accidental property, not something essential to the thing itself.

In contrast, the Christian tradition has always maintained, by pointing to Genesis 2:24 and similar passages, that the sexual complementarity of husband and wife is not accidental to marriage, but absolutely essential to it.

The Question of Banning

Earlier this year, the UK government issued a consultation to gather feedback from the British public on same-sex marriage. The paper issued in accordance with this consultation continually framed the debate in terms of "removing the ban on same-sex couples getting married." Here the government jumped ahead of itself, however, because to speak of a ban on same-sex marriage is already to assume that same-sex marriage is possible, i.e., that gender is accidental rather than essential to it; yet that is the very point at issue.

Consider a parallel case: because it is not possible for a person to marry an orange, we do not say there is (or should be) a ban on human–orange marriage, any more than we would say there is (or ought to be) a ban on the cultivation of citrus apples. The essence of what marriage is simply excludes it from being contracted between a man and an orange, just as the essence of what an apple is excludes it from being grown as a citrus fruit. In both cases, the thing itself is conceptually impossible, so it makes no sense to speak of banning it.

If we were, then, to conclude that sexual complementarity is an essential property of marriage, it would be impossible for two persons of the same sex to get married, and it would be just as meaningless to speak of banning same-sex marriage as it would be to speak of banning the cultivation of citrus apples. On the other hand, if we were to conclude that the sex of the two people involved is merely accidental to marriage, then, and only then, would we be able to speak meaningfully of either banning or permitting same-sex marriage.

So which is correct? Is gender an essential or an accidental property of marriage?

Gender Is Essential

There are a number of good reasons to think that gender complementarity is an essential property of marriage. Consider some of the concepts and conditions that marriage gives rise to: concepts such as consummation and adultery. The very existence of these concepts presupposes a notion of marriage in which the participants are members of the opposite sex. Such concepts either become confused or collapse into complete vacuity once we assert that the gender of the participants is accidental.

Thus, when gender differentiation stops being essential to the married state, consummation and adultery either cease to be meaningful or must be redefined to mean something quite different from what they currently do. This was impressed upon me when I encountered the following paragraph in the UK government's consultation document on introducing same-sex marriage to England and Wales:

Specifically, non-consummation and adultery are currently concepts that are defined in case law and apply only to marriage law. . . . However, with the removal of the ban on same-sex couples having a civil marriage, these concepts will apply equally to same-sex and opposite-sex couples and case law may need to develop, over time, a definition as to what constitutes same-sex consummation and same-sex adultery.

Think about that for a minute. The English Parliament is proposing to allow same-sex couples to get "married" even though they acknowledge they have no idea what consummation and adultery would even mean under such conditions. Instead, they are content to rest in the knowledge that, some day, the courts will create new definitions for these terms. It remains to be seen whether the new definitions will play back to affect the meaning of consummation and adultery within heterosexual contexts. Given the press for equality, it would be hard to imagine that they wouldn't.

Redefining Marriage

The problem, of course, is that when you begin redefining everything that has to do with marriage, you are, by extension, redefining marriage itself. Homosexual activists generally do not like to acknowledge that they are trying to change the definition of marriage; they prefer to speak instead of simply allowing same-sex couples "equal access" to the existing institution. But if the things pertaining to the existing institution, such as consummation and adultery, must be redefined to the point where we no longer have a workable idea of what they even mean, then at some point it becomes hard to avoid the obvious—namely, that the activists are engaged in a push to redefine the meaning of marriage itself.

Redefining marriage is a way to get around the problem of accidents and essences. This can be illustrated by considering another parallel case. Suppose I really, really want oranges to be apples, so I redefine the meaning of "apple-ness" to include the essential properties of an orange, such as being citrus. Suddenly, by a sheer act of verbal fiat, there starts being such a thing as citrus apples. In a similar way, one might redefine marriage so that gender complementarity is no longer an essential component.

This may seem like a simple solution for the homosexual activists, but there is a slight problem. Every time they argue that we need to lift the so-called ban on same-sex marriage, they are implying that such a ban exists in a system regulated by the current definition of marriage. This suggests that their quarrel with the current concept of marriage is not its definition but its application, because we have already seen that it is absurd to ban something that is excluded by the very definition of the thing in question. But if they merely want to adjust the application rather than the definition of marriage, this is ultimately incompatible with their statements (such as those mentioned above) that implicitly involve an attempt to change the definition of marriage. In other words, in order to gain access to the thing they say they want, they have to change the definition of the thing they want into something else.

At the end of the day, same-sex advocates cannot have it both ways. They cannot argue both that we need to change the definition of marriage (and the concepts related to it) and that, in a system regulated by the current definition, same-sex couples are "banned" from marrying. This is because the current definition of marriage does not ban same-sex couples from getting married any more than it bans human beings from marrying oranges. It simply recognizes that gender differentiation is ­essential, rather than accidental, to the very nature of matrimony.

The very fact that the British government has admitted it has no idea of what consummation and adultery would look like in a same-sex marriage, even though these concepts are central to the very concept of marriage, underscores this point.

Hidden Assumptions

One of the frustrating things about the debate over same-sex marriage is that rarely are its advocates—and those inclined to sympathize with them—willing to row back upstream and examine whether sexual complementarity is accidental or essential to marriage. Instead, they make statements that presuppose an acceptance of the current definition of marriage (i.e., they merely seek equal access to the existing institution) while, consciously or unconsciously, they work toward a contrary goal: the destruction of marriage through its ­redefinition.

Consequently, what might be an opportunity for rigorous philosophical dialogue about the nature of reality itself descends into an endless cycle of assertions, denunciations, and accusations. Instead of spelling out their philosophical positions and putting them on the table for objective analysis, homosexual activists are usually content to construct arguments based on hidden assumptions—­assumptions that remain unexamined and insulated from critique, and that therefore can give rise to the type of mutually exclusive affirmations mentioned above.

This brings to mind a comment Herbert Schlossberg made in his book Idols for Destruction: he noted that a "bypassed assumption is the pocket of enemy soldiers that was ignored in an effort to engage the main body of the adversary, and it lies in wait to strike from the rear." He also pointed out that

No serious thought can be constructed without assumptions, but recognizing them—in our own thinking as well as in others—is vital if we are to avoid falling into serious error. Assumptions are beliefs; if they were proven, they would not be assumptions. And they are beliefs so taken for granted that it is not deemed necessary to prove them. That makes them doubly seductive: first, because the careless or untrained are misled into accepting conclusions without recognizing their shaky foundation of unstated beliefs; and second, the very fact that the most dubious beliefs are so taken for granted by experts lends an aura of verisimilitude that beguiles the overly respectful into accepting them without question.

No longer lying in wait to strike from the rear, these hidden assumptions of the contemporary homosexualist movement have successfully pummeled the gullible into believing that an apple must be allowed to be an orange. •

From Salvo 22 (Fall 2012)
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has a Master’s in Historical Theology from King’s College London and a Master’s in Library Science through the University of Oklahoma. He is the blog and media managing editor for the Fellowship of St. James and a regular contributor to Touchstone and Salvo. He has worked as a ghost-writer, in addition to writing for a variety of publications, including the Colson Center, World Magazine, and The Symbolic World. Phillips is the author of Gratitude in Life's Trenches (Ancient Faith, 2020), and Rediscovering the Goodness of Creation (Ancient Faith, 2023). He operates a blog at

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #22, Fall 2012 Copyright © 2024 Salvo |


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