We’re Ignoring a Root Cause of Our Problems

The single greatest contributor to our social pathologies such as addiction, mental illness, suicide, and violent crime is the breakdown of marriage and the family.

Everyone today is concerned about the sharp increase in social pathologies in America: addiction, mental illness, suicide, violent crime, and so forth. They want to blame the economy, social media, the pharmaceutical industry, the gun lobby. Recently, some people have suggested a connection between mass shootings and marijuana use. But what I want to know is this: How many mass shooters were raised by parents in an intact, biological marriage? Why has this information not even been collected?

The fact is, no one seems to want to talk about what is probably the single greatest contributor to our social pathologies: the breakdown of marriage and the family. Much of the evidence is there (see for example this summary of the data assembled by the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, but also important books by  Ryan Anderson, Robert George, and Sherif Gergis, Charles Murray, Katie Faust and Stacy Manning, Allan Carlson, and others), but the underlying truth cuts strongly against our dominant culture of expressive individualism.

The truth is that we are not by nature autonomous individuals but dependent rational animals; and intact, biological marriage (the comprehensive union of one man and one woman) is a necessary (if not sufficient) condition for human development and flourishing. Facing this truth will require us to confront widespread practices, especially promiscuity, cohabitation, and no-fault divorce, but also same-sex marriage and surrogacy. 

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Historicists or cultural relativists who assert that human thought is necessarily bound by particular cultural and political conditions haven’t read enough. For example, when my students read Plato’s The Republic, written by a dead white male almost 2,500 years ago, they are shocked to discover there an argument for the equality of men and women and a political proposal for political and social equality that matches the fervid imaginings of the most radical second-wave feminist.

But Plato’s Socrates is also sober enough to acknowledge that the success of his proposal will require men and women to “exercise naked together”; the elimination of permanent, monogamous marriage; universal daycare (a “pen for nurses”); and “a throng of lies and deceptions.” 

In other words, although Socrates’ tone is perfectly serious, one cannot miss a certain irony (and in my view, the entire The Republic is satire in the service of anti-utopian ends, but that is an argument for another time): A regime based on natural equality requires very unnatural conventions. This irony results from the mystery of a shared human nature marked by dyadic sexual differentiation. For the reasons offered here, I think “dyadic” is a better term than “binary” because it highlights the intrinsically relational and complementary nature of the biological, reproductive differences. 

Sexual differentiation is not superficial, like skin color or baldness. It permeates and shapes our common human nature down to the smallest cell. The great challenge is how to simultaneously acknowledge and provide for sameness and difference, and for the children that spring from it. One thing is clear: treating men and women as simply identical by ignoring their sexual differences is no more feasible or just than treating them exclusively in terms of their differences. There is simply no way to map human equality and natural differences neatly onto public policy or personal choice. The reality is going to be messy. 

Similarly, every human being by nature is simultaneously dependent and free, and this at different stages of life and in different ways. From infancy to death, human beings need care and assistance for their flourishing, but their full development is ultimately rooted in their own choices. The conceit of Socrates’ proposal is not to eliminate dependency but to transfer all of it to the state. This also is the strategy of modern liberalism or progressivism, as exemplified in the famous (or infamous) “The Life of Julia” advertisement for Obama. 

FDR’s declaration that “necessitous men are not free men” (must we say “people” now?) marked the turning point from classical liberalism, which merely sought to eliminate artificial “pseudo-aristocratic” hierarchies like legal titles of nobility and primogeniture, to the new form of progressive liberalism which sought to eliminate every form of hierarchy. But modern liberals overlook the fact that “the state” is just an abstraction for “men,” that the condition for their freedom from one dependency is the embrace of another, and that artificial “government men” are much less likely to be good caregivers than married, biological mothers and fathers. 

Here again is another dilemma: Human beings are necessarily dependent on other, fallible human beings. The question is how best to provide for that dependency, given what we know about human nature? And here again there is not a simple solution. Men are not angels. There is no reason to deny that even biological parents can be neglectful and abusive, or that non-biological caregivers and even government workers can in some cases provide better. But the best evidence we have strongly indicates that married, biological parents are the best caregivers for their children, and there are strong arguments that they have presumptive right (and duty) to be the primary caretakers of their children. 

“Presumptive” means defeasible: parents who seriously abuse or neglect their caregiving duties to their children are liable to forfeit them, and there seems no way to do this except through legal intervention, although not without strong procedural safeguards. But this is an exception, whereas here I want to talk about the rule: What does a pro-marriage and pro-family society look like, and what can be done to promote and protect it?  

First, we must restore the correct legal definition of marriage as a comprehensive union of one man and one woman. Marriage, like natural rights, is a trans-political reality that the state cannot create but instead has a duty to recognize and protect. As advocates of conjugal marriage insisted repeatedly, the point of legal marriage is not to discriminate against other relationships but to ratify the truth about this kind of relationship. Marriage as a comprehensive (including sexual) union of a man and a woman is indeed a singular form of relationship, but it is the intrinsic relationship of marriage to the irreplaceable work of bearing and rearing children that justifies legal recognition and protection.  

In Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized same-sex marriage throughout the United States, the Court not only invented a right that is found nowhere in the Constitution or our nation’s tradition, it preempted a healthy process of democratic deliberation, invalidated the decision of democratic majorities in more than half the states, and effectually made defenders of legal conjugal marriage into bigots by disregarding its core justification and rationale. In principle, the reasoning of Obergefell makes legal marriage a matter of personal definition; and unless that reasoning is repudiated, it is only a matter of time before legal marriage is expanded to include any association adults agree to—monogamous, plural, polyamorous, open, temporary, sexual, or non-sexual.  

The result of the Obergefell logic is to subject the welfare of children to the whims of adult desire. In the words of Katy Faust, it is to put “us before them” instead of “them before us.” How many adults, before indulging their desire for children, have first asked themselves whether they themselves would have wished to be conceived in a petri dish by an anonymous sperm donor, or would have wished to be raised by a plurality of adults, or by a single mother, or by no mother? I am very doubtful any of them would wish for themselves what they are willing to inflict on others.

Resisting Obergefell will not be an easy task, given the strong cultural force of expressive individualism and the difficult fact that many people have relied upon Obergefell to organize their intimate lives. But the recent effort by the Democratic Party and some Republicans to affirm same-sex marriage should be strongly resisted. The recent Dobbs decision shows that this resistance is not hopeless.     

Second, we must take on no-fault divorce, which treats marriage as even less binding than an ordinary contract and which led to a rapid escalation in divorce rates. Scholars across the political spectrum acknowledge the anomalous nature and unjust and undesirable consequences of no-fault divorce, but no one is proposing to change it. Why not? At the very least, it would be very good to revive the covenant marriage movement, which allows prospective spouses to choose for themselves a more binding legal marriage. 

Third, it is time to legally recognize the paramount right of parents to rear their children. It is notable that there is no mention of parental rights in the leading documents of the American founding, including the Declaration of Independence, state constitutions, and the United States Constitution. When the state of Oregon, in 1922, passed a law requiring children to attend public schools against the wishes of their parents, the Supreme Court had difficulty finding a Constitutional objection. In Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925), they eventually pretended to discover such a right in the Fourteenth Amendment’s protection of liberty, a fateful decision that would eventually help pave the way for discovering a right to “privacy,” and by extension abortion, in the Constitution. 

In other words, the Court delivered the just result but only by doing violence to the law. This should have been a warning to Americans of the need for something like a “parents’ bill of rights” which would affirm what most Americans had always believed and still believe: that parents have a (defeasible) natural right to the caregiving of their children. Perhaps a moment has arrived once again for such a movement, as parents across the political spectrum are strongly reacting to harmful school closings and the ideological indoctrination of their children.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we need to think hard about the “estate of marriage and family” in the modern world. Whatever one might say for the reasonableness of coverture marriage in the context of an agrarian economy, and whatever general reservations one might have about feminism, the first-wave feminists like Mary Wollstonecraft were right to see the incongruity between this model of marriage and the new natural rights regime and the industrial and commercial economy made possible by the principles of the American founding. 

The first-wave feminists sought to affirm the dyadic truth of human equality and sexual difference referred to above. I believe one of our most important tasks today is to harness and advance the gains of first-wave feminism while resisting the opposing extremes. Neither equality without difference (radical feminism, which is currently imploding under transgenderism) or difference which obscures equality (patriarchal traditionalism) do justice to the true reality of the sexed human person. Perhaps no one has done better work on this than Erika Bachiochi. (See here, here, and, more recently, here.) And while I am not prepared to endorse all of her policy proposals, Bachiochi has identified challenges that can no longer be ignored if we want to support healthy marriages and families. 

And then there is marriage and family culture. As Leon and Amy Kass point out in their wonderful book Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar, the cultural script for dating has been lost, and young people are skeptical that happy marriages are even possible. I have seen this with my own students in a course I frequently teach at Hillsdale College: “Philosophy of Love, Sex, and Marriage.” There is tremendous cultural work to be done here, and the success of endeavors like The Dating Project indicate that many young people are demanding a better way. 

Whatever form cultural renewal takes, there is one thing of which I am certain: We will not achieve a healthy marriage and family culture until we learn to resist the empty romantic enchantments of expressive individualism. Tolstoy was wrong when he wrote that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I believe exactly the reverse is true. Expressive individualism is boring and almost always results in a bland conformity. The real adventure is in the romance of domesticity. In the end, the task is very simple: families, become what you are, and you will set the world on fire. 

[Image Credit: Shutterstock]


  • Nathan Schlueter

    Nathan Schlueter is an associate professor of philosophy at Hillsdale College, where he teaches courses in literature, politics, and philosophy. He is the author of One Dream or Two? Justice in America and in the Thought of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Lexington Books, 2002) and editor (with Mark Mitchell) of The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry (ISI Books, 2011).

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