Just in time for families to gather for Thanksgiving, Time magazine tells us that marriage is becoming “obsolete.” A survey conducted in conjunction with Pew Research Center found that nearly 4 in 10 Americans agree that marriage is passé.
That number includes both those who applaud the trend (62 percent of cohabiting parents) and those who lament it (42 percent of self-described conservatives).
The real story, however, is the unstated assumption that marriage is defined primarily by the benefits it confers. As Time puts it, people no longer “need to be married to have sex or companionship or professional success or respect or even children.”
The title of the article is, “Marriage: What’s It Good For?”
How did Americans come to accept such a utilitarian view of marriage? It is a narrow, culturally conditioned, modernist Western definition—one that promises liberation but in reality poses a threat to liberty.
The sources of Western civilization–both classical and Christian–recognized that social relations like marriage are natural, built into human nature. Marriage was regarded as a pre-existing social institution with its own normative structure.
We do not create marriage from scratch. Instead, in the elegant language of the marriage ceremony, we “enter into the holy estate of matrimony.”
Then, in early modern Europe, the strange idea arose that marriage is neither natural nor intrinsic to human nature. Newtonian physics pictured the material universe as atoms bumping around in the void under the force of attraction and repulsion. The same metaphor was soon applied to the social world as well.
Civil society was pictured as so many human “atoms” who come together and “bond” in various social relationships.
Social contract theorists like Locke and Rousseau proposed that humans start out as atomistic, disconnected, autonomous individuals. In the “state of nature,” there is no marriage, no family, no civil society.
How, then, did social relationships arise? According to the theory, they were created by choice. And therefore they can be re-created by choice.
Social contract theory thus reduces all relationships to, well, contracts.
In a contract, the terms can be defined any way you like. Unlike a pledge of one’s entire life for better or worse, a contract is a limited exchange of goods and services. It’s a deal we strike with others, which we can make or break at will. If it no longer produces the desired benefits, it can be terminated.
Sound familiar? This is the view of marriage Time presumes when it entertains the very idea that marriage could be obsolete.
And Time is not alone. Most Americans absorb some form of social contract theory with the very air they breathe. Princeton professor Eric Springsted says it is the unconscious assumption that students bring to the classroom: “Without ever having read a word of Locke, they could reproduce his notion of the social contract without a doubt in the ¬world.”
No wonder Americans sense that social bonds are growing weaker. In Democracy’s Discontent, Michael Sandel of Harvard complains that liberal political philosophy pictures humans as “unencumbered selves” who refuse to be bound by any “moral or civic ties they have not chosen.”
In Rights Talk, Mary Ann Glendon, likewise of Harvard, says that even our laws are based on an image of the “unencumbered individual, a being connected to others only by choice.”
And if humans are originally and inherently autonomous individuals, then it follows logically that any moral limit on their autonomy will be regarded as contrary to their nature. The idea that marriage has a normative structure will seem oppressive.
As a result, marriage as practiced in America has become extremely fragile–with tragic consequences. The empirical data clearly show that children of unmarried or divorced parents are more likely to have emotional, behavioral, and health problems. They are more likely to have difficulties in school and drop out. They are at higher risk for unmarried pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse, suicide and crime.
Consequently, they are more likely to require social services through the educational system, the health care system, the mental health system, and the criminal justice system. All these interventions are intrusive and costly. Enforcing child support payments alone costs individual states tens of millions of dollars.
As marriage weakens, the state grows more invasive and more expensive. And people grow less free and less empowered.
The costs of marriage breakdown are borne by the entire society, and therefore it is reasonable for the entire society to demand support for marriage—to insist that it is privileged both culturally and legally.
The defense of marriage is the defense of freedom. Neither of which is obsolete.
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