A Female Spouse of a Male Spouse?

The recent controversy over a TV personality’s comments against homosexuality have reminded me to write the following addendum to my blog posts, “The Volitional, Objective Basis for Heterosexuality in Romantic Love and Marriage” and “I am Married … to a Woman.”

In these prior posts, I argued that marriage is between a man and a woman—not based on religion or procreation, but based on the importance of the sex of each partner in a romantic relationship. I debunked the mainstream theories that affirm non-heterosexual orientations. Most importantly, I presented a positive theory of heterosexual romantic love.

In Part 6 of “The Volitional, Objective Basis for Heterosexuality in Romantic Love and Marriage,” I wrote

Calling homosexual unions ‘marriage’ is as absurd as calling all spouses ‘wives’.

The concepts ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ provide a good analogy to the need for the gender-specific concept of marriage. These concepts are even more abstract than ‘marriage’, as they are derived from ‘marriage’. Yet these concepts still reference gender. Why do we need these concepts when we have the concept ‘spouse’? Doesn’t ‘female spouse’ convey the meaning of ‘wife’?

Well, who wants to say, “I love my female spouse” instead of “I love my wife”? The former statement is not condensed enough to be held it in our mind in the way we need. Yes, ‘female spouse’ contains all the characteristics that are contained by ‘wife’. But ‘female spouse’ is a phrase, not a concept; the phrase is not condensed enough to serve the cognitive need that a concept fills. Similarly, the phrase ‘heterosexual marriage’, with marriage referring to any kind of civil union, would not be condensed enough for holding the current meaning of ‘marriage’.

My criticism above is accurate; but it is much too lenient.

For one thing, if the concept of marriage were extended to include same-sex civil unions, then the phrase ‘female spouse’ would no longer clearly refer only to people we now call wives. A wife is a woman married to a man. But would a man married to a man also be a wife, in virtue of his being married to a man, or would he be a husband in virtue of his being a married man, or would he be both? The only way to be unambiguous would be to employ an awkward and difficult-to-grasp phrase such as “a female spouse of a male spouse’ to refer to what we now know as a wife.

But my earlier criticism is too lenient in a deeper respect: it omits an important issue regarding concepts. The issue is that a definition does not equal the meaning of a concept; the classic example is that the defining phrase ‘the rational animal’ is not the same as the concept ‘man’. When I wrote my initial blog posts on sexual orientation and marriage, I was not fully convinced that this issue applied. But now I am convinced, as I shall now explain. (For one analysis of the difference between a definition and the meaning of a concept, see Peikoff 1990, 88–106. My own analysis below has some significant differences.)

It is true that the phrase ‘rational animal’ refers to all men (including women) and only to men. It is true that all rational animals are organized to stand upright and move gracefully on two legs, have faces that express their powerful emotions that can be consistent with their rationality, have hands to shape the world in accordance with their rationality, have the capacity to integrate rational values with sexual desire, and are all members of a single species that has a distinctive physical appearance and other distinctive physical characteristics. That is, the phrase “rational animal,” once informed with the above knowledge, can identify all the attributes identified by the word “man.” But the words ‘rational’ and ‘animal’, taken separately, do not so identify all these attributes. And that fact leads to the crux of the issue.

As Ayn Rand (1990, 66–67) has identified, a concept is (metaphorically) a kind of “file folder” that includes many—open-endedly many—attributes of the referents of the concept. In my judgment, a phrase—such as “rational animal”—can also be such a file folder. However, in my judgment, the content of such a file folder, of either a concept or a phrase, is not a mere list of characteristics. The characteristics within a conceptual file-folder are arranged in a hierarchy. Such a hierarchy is the basis for, among other things, the rule of fundamentality: the most fundamental characteristics of a concept—such as the characteristics ‘rational’ and ‘animal’ of the concept ‘man’, belong in a concept’s definition. (In my “Theory of Propositions,” I write at length about the characteristics of a concept being in a hierarchy.) Other characteristics, such as that man can speak language, are derivative of more fundamental characteristics.

And here we arrive at the crux of the issue. Although the phrase ‘the rational animal’ means more than its constituent parts ‘rational’ and ‘animal’—that is, although the phrase ‘the rational animal’ encompasses all the characteristics encompassed by the concept ‘man’—the phrase nevertheless encompasses all of these characteristics in a different hierarchy, a different order of importance than the order entailed by the concept ‘man’. The phrase ‘the rational animal’ overly emphasizes the characteristics identified by each word—in particular, the word ‘animal’—taken separately, in an order of importance relevant to each word taken separately. That is, the phrase ‘the rational animal’ elevates and emphasizes all characteristics of all animals (such as that animals locomote and have a certain kind of cell structure in contrast to plants), and it de-emphasizes characteristics beyond rationality and even derived from rationality that are specific to and important to men (such as the characteristics of standing upright, having expressive faces, and having the capacity to integrate reason and emotion). Even on a perceptual level, the phrase ‘the rational animal’ tends to summon to mind the figure of a non-human animal rather than the figure of a man. Therefore, beyond the issue of condensation that I wrote about in my prior blog post, the phrase ‘the rational animal’ does not do justice as a substitute for the concept ‘man’.

Similarly and even more starkly, the phrase ‘female spouse of a male spouse’ does not do justice to the concept ‘wife’. Beyond being extremely awkward and difficult to hold in one’s mind, this phrase overly emphasizes strictly biological features of being female and male (such as having specifically male or female reproductive organs), along with legal and social characteristics of being a spouse, and de-emphasizes the distinctive kind of regard that a rational married woman qua woman has for her rational husband qua man (and vice versa).

As I discussed at length in my blog posts referenced earlier, this distinctive kind of regard includes that the husband is the primary source of physical power, is the physical protector of the wife, and is in charge sexually, while the wife is the primary source of physical beauty and is the supreme judge of the man in the man’s aforementioned responsibilities. Related to these different roles of the man and woman in marriage are clear differences in physical appearance of a man and woman. But in the current context, the specifics of why heterosexuals are sexually interested in members of the opposite sex and not the same sex are not the crux of the matter. The crux is that to a rational human being, the sex and sexual orientation of one’s spouse is important. Concepts such as ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ must continue to capture that importance, identifying sex and sexual orientation with emphasis and definite clarity.

Even the phrase ‘woman spouse of a man’ de-emphasizes essential characteristics of being a wife, characteristics that are not contained in the meaning of the words ‘woman’, ‘spouse, and ‘man’ considered separately.

Similarly and just as starkly, the phrase ‘heterosexual civil union’ does not do justice to the concept ‘marriage’. This phrase emphasizes strictly physical sexual characteristics along with legal and social characteristics, and de-emphasizes the characteristics pertaining specifically to the romantic relationship between husband and wife.

But if the ‘LGBT’ activists had their hypocritical way—observe the strident hypocrisy of insisting on the separate words ‘lesbian’ (female homosexuals, the ‘L’ in ‘LGBT’) and ‘gay’ (male homosexuals, the ‘G’ in ‘LGBT’)—what we now know as ‘marriage’ would mean nothing more than ‘heterosexual civil union’.


Peikoff, Leonard ([1967] 1990), “The Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy”, The Objectivist 6(5)–6(9). Reprinted in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, Expanded Second Edition. Edited by Harry Binswanger and Leonard Peikoff. New York: Meridian.

Rand, Ayn ([1966–1967] 1990), “Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology”, The Objectivist 5(7)–6(2). Reprinted in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, Expanded Second Edition.