[Paleopsych] InCharacter: James Q. Wilson: The Ties That Do Not Bind: The Decline of Marriage and Loyalty

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James Q. Wilson: The Ties That Do Not Bind: The Decline of Marriage and Loyalty

    Man is a social animal utterly dependent on forming and maintaining
    relationships with other people. A person who has always been truly
    alone is one who will be emotionally dead. Of all of the relationships
    into which people enter, the family is the most important. We are
    raised by parents, confronted with siblings, and introduced to peers
    through our familial roots. Indeed, human character arises out of the
    very commitments people make to others in their family or outside of
    it. Marriage, of course, is the supreme form of that commitment. When
    we make marriage less important, character suffers. In addition to the
    fact that married people are happier, wealthier, and sexually more
    satisfied than are unmarried persons or those cohabiting, it turns out
    that married people and their children are less likely to commit
    The problem our society, and indeed any society, faces today is to
    reconcile character and freedom. The Western world is the proud
    beneficiary of the Enlightenment, that cultural and intellectual
    movement that espoused freedom, endorsed scientific inquiry, and
    facilitated trade. But for a good life, mere freedom is not
    sufficient. It must work with and support commitment, for out of
    commitment arises the human character that will guide the footsteps of
    people navigating the tantalizing opportunities that freedom offers.
    Freedom and character are not incompatible, but keeping them in
    balance is a profound challenge for any culture.
    One aspect of character that appears connected with marriage and is
    even included in the marriage vows of many religious traditions is
    loyalty. But what sort of loyalty is meant here? The word comes from
    the French loyauté, which in turn derives from the Latin legalis. In
    feudal times, it meant fidelity to ones oath to a master. The
    nineteenth-century American philosopher Josiah Royce said that loyalty
    was the supreme moral good, but surely that cannot be right. As
    critics have pointed out, a Nazi is not regarded as a moral person
    because he is loyal to Nazism. Even being loyal to the state in which
    one lives can be destructive if the state is headed by an evil ruler
    or is constitutionally illegitimate.
    Let me distinguish, therefore, between two meanings of the term.
    Loyalty can mean doing ones duty (obeying the law, honoring promises,
    paying taxes, serving faithfully in the military) or it can mean a
    commitment to valued friends and family. In this second sense almost
    everyone is loyal to someone because they partake of the necessary
    sociability of mankind. No one can exist without being sociable to
    some degree; a human who lives life without any contact with other
    people will not be able to speak or perhaps even to think in some
    meaningful way. In this essay I use loyalty to mean the natural
    sociability of people. A loyal person is someone who is attached to
    other people for the long term based on a deep sense of what is due to
    them. It is hard to imagine a person who utterly lacks any sense of
    loyalty; that trait, after all, is the basis for friendship and the
    duties that friendship and moral obligations imply. Even people
    without married parents, or possibly without knowing any parent at
    all, will invest somebody a friend, a teammate, a gang member with
    One can imagine a person who is part of society but, because he or she
    trusts no one in that society, lives a life of anxiety and
    calculation. And we can find people who appear to enjoy the company of
    others but who nevertheless lack any sense of obligation to them. We
    call them sociopaths because they will cheerfully cheat or attack
    others without compunction.
    The fundamental social institution that encourages loyalty is the
    family. An infant is raised by one or two parents and acquires an
    attachment, usually a strong one, to these people. If raised with
    brothers and sisters, a child will become attached to them. These
    siblings are ordinarily loyal to one another even when they are not
    fond of one another or live in widely separated locations. A family
    also instills some concern about the future, teaching people that they
    must pay taxes, service mortgages, and arrange for the education of
    their children in ways that suggest a commitment to manage whatever
    events may bring.
    The evidence of the centrality of the family is all about us. We care
    more about our children than about the children of others; we run
    greater risks to save a threatened child or parent than we do to help
    someone elses child or parent; when we go home we expect to be taken
    in; when football players appear between plays on television, they
    routinely say, Hi Mom.
    Some countries, and some people in almost every country, recognize the
    benefits of social commitments but seek to obtain them from nonfamily
    sources. In Sweden, public officials have made it clear that the laws
    of that country should give no advantage to marriage over unmarried
    cohabitation. In France, a law is now in force that allows any couple
    to appear before a court clerk where they sign a paper that recognizes
    their union, one that can be ended at will with no divorce proceeding.
    Here in America, Emory Law School professor Martha Fineman has urged
    that marriage should be abolished as a legal category and replaced by
    an arrangement in which society will pay for children to be raised by
    caretakers. Her views were matched by a conservative federal judge,
    Richard Posner, who, after arguing that conventional marriages foster
    puritanical attitudes, went on to propose the Swedish system in which
    marriage offers so few advantages over cohabitation that the latter is
    preferable to the former.
    To see what is wrong with the view that commitment based on
    cohabitation is preferable to commitment based on marriage, one need
    only apply the implications of cohabitation to business partnerships.
    Suppose two people wish to sell bread. They can have an oral agreement
    to do that, or they can enter into an enforceable contract. If they
    rely on an oral agreement, then whenever one gets bored, greedy, or
    distrustful, he or she can walk away from the partnership with
    whatever that person can carry. But if they insist on a written and
    enforceable contract, ending the partnership will require the
    agreement of the other person and the sanction of the law. As a result
    of the power of contracts, most businesses use them.
    So also with living together. Men and women who cohabit have only a
    weak incentive to pool their resources and to put up with the
    inevitable emotional bumps that come from sharing an apartment and a
    bed. In this country each member of a cohabiting couple tends to keep
    a separate bank account. This means that they keep personal wealth
    apart from shared wealth. When the two members of a cohabiting couple
    have unequal incomes, they are likely to split apart, whereas when two
    members of a married family have unequal incomes they are likely to
    stay together. In a marriage, we merge not only our feelings but our
    wealth. We know that we not only share our love, we share our
    dependency. Cohabitation merely means living together; marriage means
    making an investment in one another.
    Why does marriage beget loyalty when cohabitation does not? The
    difference is that marriage follows a public, legally recognized
    ceremony in which each person swears before friends and witnesses to
    love, honor, and cherish the other until death parts them.
    Cohabitation merely means shacking up. Of course, many marriages end
    in an easily arranged divorce, but even in this new era of no-fault
    divorces, they still must be done before a magistrate and be
    accompanied by a careful allocation of property and children.
    Perhaps because of the acknowledged impermanence of their condition,
    cohabiting couples, compared to married ones, are more vulnerable to
    depression, have lower levels of happiness, experience more cases of
    physical abuse, are more likely to be murdered, are more likely to be
    sexually unfaithful, and more likely to be poor. Children living with
    cohabiting parents are, compared to those living with married ones,
    much more likely to witness their parents relationships end, to have
    emotional and behavioral problems, to experience educational problems,
    and to be poor.
    Some of the disadvantages of cohabitation result from the fact that in
    this country men and women who live together without being married are
    likely to be poor and erratic even before they formed their
    relationship. So the effects that are ascribed to cohabitation may
    result in part from prior disadvantages. In this country 60 percent of
    high school dropouts have cohabited compared to 37 percent of college
    graduates. In other countries, especially in Scandinavia, cohabitation
    is common among affluent people who have, in growing numbers, rejected
    conventional marriage. Because of these differences, the children of
    unwed American mothers are much poorer than those of unwed mothers in
    Denmark, Finland, and Sweden. There is no easy way to sort out the
    different effects of cohabitation itself from the traits of those who
    choose to cohabit. It is possible that even if people who now cohabit
    were to marry, their lives, and those of their children, would be as
    bad as they are when they simply live together.
    The defects of cohabitation and the benefits of marriage are lost on
    many young Americans. Six out of ten high school seniors think it is
    usually a good idea for a couple to live together before getting
    married because by cohabiting they will find out whether they really
    get along. In 1985 about half of all Americans said that there is no
    reason why single women shouldnt have children. But in the same poll,
    people were asked whether it was acceptable for their daughter to have
    a child outside of wedlock. Only one out of eight respondents agreed.
    Apparently half of us think it is all right for other peoples
    daughters to have illegitimate children but hardly any of us want it
    for our daughters. As sociologist Barbara Dafoe Whitehead put it,
    cohabitation is not to marriage what spring training is to baseball.
    This tension between our libertarian views about other people and our
    conventional views about ourselves has made it hard for this country
    to think seriously about marriage. Almost everybody believes that
    marriage is a good idea, but over one-fourth of all children (and over
    half of black ones) are now being raised in single-parent families.
    There is one large exception to this confusion in the publics mind:
    Among Americans who attend church weekly, only one-fourth said that it
    is morally acceptable to have a child out of wedlock, whereas among
    people who seldom or never attend church nearly three-fourths held
    that view. Religious communities are unabashed about wanting to breed
    the kind of cohesion and loyalty that results from a strong family
    The problem of single-parent families is, of course, much worse than
    that of cohabiting ones. This fact is by now so well-known that most
    sociologists believe it. Though single-parent families are poorer than
    two-parent ones, the best research shows that, even after controlling
    for income, growing up in a single-parent (typically, female-headed)
    family makes matters worse for a child, and that this is true in every
    ethnic group. Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur have done the most
    careful research on this matter and have concluded that poverty by
    itself accounts for about half of the problems of children in
    single-parent families, with the absence of the father explaining the
    rest. These problems are not trivial. After holding income constant,
    boys in father-absent families were twice as likely as those in
    two-parent ones to go to jail and girls in father-absent families were
    twice as likely as those in married families to have an out-of-wedlock
    What all of this means for the rest of society is evident on the
    evening news programs. Boys without married fathers populate our
    street gangs, and these gangs are responsible for an inordinately high
    level of violence. We rely on the police to control gangs, but the
    important, and often absent, control is that exercised by fathers. A
    boy growing up without a father has no personal conception of what it
    means to acquire skills, find a job, support a family, and be loyal to
    ones wife and children. Research on the link between unemployment
    rates and crime has shown that the connection is very weak. The
    connection between crime and father absence is much higher. Boys in
    single-parent families are also more likely to be idle rather than in
    school or unemployed and to drop out of high school. These differences
    are as great for white families as for black and Hispanic ones and as
    large for advantaged children as for disadvantaged ones.
    In Europe as well as in America the proportion of children who live
    with a single, usually female parent has risen dramatically. In 1960
    less than one out of every ten of the families in Canada, France,
    Germany, Sweden, or the United Kingdom was headed by a single parent,
    and many of these were families where the father had died. By 1988
    that percentage had roughly doubled.
    There are several explanations for these changes. One is that women
    have entered the workforce and become economically more independent
    than they once were so that more of them can survive (and in a few
    cases do rather well) with a child and without a husband. These are
    the Murphy Brown mothers, but they are relatively rare. Only about 4
    percent of white unmarried mothers are college graduates; the rest
    have, at best, finished high school. A second is that when women
    outnumber men, as they do here and in some other countries, they face
    tougher statistical odds against getting married. A third reason for
    single-parent families is that, at least in this country, welfare
    payments have enabled poor women to choose children and government
    checks over children and a husband. Indeed, evidence now suggests that
    the availability of welfare payments is associated with out-of-wedlock
    The fourth reason, in my view the most important one, is that
    cohabiting without being married and having a child out of wedlock
    have lost their stigma. We have a lot of single-parent families
    because the shame once attached to having a child out of wedlock has
    largely disappeared. In my book, The Marriage Problem, I devote many
    pages to explaining why this stigma has vanished. A full account
    requires one to understand how the way we conceive of our
    relationships to one another has changed in Western society.
    At one time, a couple living together without being married was
    regarded as shameful. This stigma was reinforced by labeling any child
    emerging from this improper union as a bastard. The word bastardy
    referred to children born to unmarried parents. It did not refer to
    children conceived by their parents before marriage but born after
    they were married. Pregnant brides were common in England from its
    earliest history on; they produced about one-third of all births. They
    were not viewed as a social problem. But children born to unmarried
    parents faced very high costs. Such children could not inherit
    property, and so if they were abandoned by either parent they had no
    one to whom they could turn. To survive at all they usually had to be
    taken in by a kindly aunt or adult friend.
    Scholars have studied bastardy in England using data that goes back to
    the sixteenth century. Until roughly the beginning of the eighteenth
    century, the illegitimacy ratio (that is, the proportion of all births
    that were out of wedlock) was 4 percent or less. In the nineteenth
    century it crept up to around 5 percent. By the 1970s it was well over
    8 percent. Today it is nearly 30 percent. That increase came about
    because the state abandoned the penalties it once enforced on
    bastards, developed programs to take care of single-parent families,
    and had its policies shaped by new sentiments about marriage.
    In this country those sentiments are easily captured by comparing
    opinions of the United States Supreme Court. In the late nineteenth
    century it spoke of marriage as a sacred obligation and a holy estate
    that was the source of civilization itself. By 1972 it had abandoned
    any such reference and said instead that marriage is an association of
    two individuals, each with a separate emotional and intellectual
    makeup. Marriage was once a sacrament, then it became a sacred
    obligation, and now it is a private contract.
    Friedrich Nietzsche would not have been surprised. He predicted that
    the family would be ground into a random collection of individuals
    bound together by the common pursuit of selfish ends, in other words,
    family loyalty would slowly disappear. John Stuart Mill would have
    been pleased by these developments; he had long argued that marriage
    should be a private, bargained-for arrangement.
    For many women the change has been a disaster. They may prefer
    cohabitation and shun marriage as a trivial inconvenience, but then
    they discover that cohabitation will not last and their children will
    be disadvantaged. They may marry, but they will quickly discover that
    husbands often want new trophy wives and, in order to get them, will
    find it easy to end marriages. And when the marriage ends, the women
    will discover that, though the courts try to be fair, they will often
    be left with too little money with which to support themselves and
    their children.
    Today the war between Western freedom and the radicalized critique of
    that freedom we find among many Muslims is a war about how well we
    manage the challenge between freedom and character. Our freedom has
    made the West wealthy; the lack of freedom in most Muslim nations has
    left that part of the world poor. Radical Muslims rejoin that Western
    freedom was purchased at too high a price because European and North
    American nations are awash in a sea of crime, drug abuse, pornography,
    illegitimate children, wanton women, and licentious television
    programs. Only by living in close devotion to the teachings of Allah
    as revealed in the Quran do these critics think that a culture can be
    There are some small signs that American culture is regaining a grip
    on itself in this regard. The crime rate has dropped dramatically for
    reasons that have nothing to do with economic success. The sharp
    increase in the percentage of children living with single parents that
    began around 1960 has leveled off and was about the same in 2003 as it
    had been in 1990. The rate at which children are born to teenage
    mothers has declined since 1991, the year at which it hit its peak. In
    2000, teenage pregnancy rates for girls ages fifteen to nineteen were
    about one-fourth lower than they had been in 1991. Some of this
    reduction may well result from increased use of contraceptive devices
    rather than from sexual abstinence. In 2002, the use of condoms had
    increased by over one-third since 1988.
    Though there has been a decline in teenage birthrates and an increase
    in the use of contraceptives, the leveling off in the proportion of
    children living in single-parent families is at best a modest gain. It
    may be the result of either a revived culture or the exhaustion of
    further victims. The cultural explanation would be this: women are
    more willing to avoid becoming unwed mothers. The exhaustion argument
    is this: perhaps there are no more people at risk, and so the rates of
    children living in single-parent homes have reached a natural apogee.
    We cannot choose between these two explanations with any precision,
    but there are some signs that a cultural change has occurred.
    Bill Cosby made headlines when in June 2004 he called on parents to
    take charge of their children and for black men to stop beating their
    women. A survey done in 2001 jointly by CBS News and Black
    Entertainment Television found 92 percent of black respondents
    agreeing that absent fathers are a major problem. Many rap and hip-hop
    musicians, to a degree not appreciated by most of us, sing lyrics that
    call attention to fatherless families and child abandonment, albeit in
    words that offend practically everyone. It must be one of the supreme
    ironies of the modern age that the most vulgar, foul-mouthed musicians
    sing words that call attention to our gravest social problem. It
    surely is paradoxical that the worst features of our commitment to
    freedom endorse an appeal to the greatest threats to our character.
    At this point in an essay, one expects to find set forth the correct
    solution to our problem. That will not happen here. There is no magic
    bullet that can revive marriage and enhance its character-forming
    properties. Even our boldest measures have so far had little visible
    impact. Welfare reform reduced the proportion of women on welfare and
    increased the fraction who are working, but it has done next to
    nothing about increasing the likelihood that welfare recipients marry
    before having more children.
    It is easy to see why. If you run a welfare agency, you can urge your
    frontline employees to be tough about women seeking welfare payments.
    If you do that, your success is immediately evident, you save the
    state money, and you act in accordance with public opinion that has
    always regarded the old welfare system as a disaster. But now imagine
    that you want to tell these employees to increase marriage rates. Your
    effect will not be measurable or even visible for many years, you will
    not save the state any money, and you will not have public opinion
    strongly behind you.
    In fact, there is a tendency in American politics to shy away from any
    discussion of these matters because they lack the obvious pain of an
    airplane crash or the dramatic appeal of an isolated case. Since the
    Supreme Court struck down laws against homosexual conduct many people
    have been preoccupied with either encouraging or resisting homosexual
    marriage. Whatever your views about homosexual marriage, were it
    adopted nationally it would affect only about 2 or 3 percent of the
    population. Cohabitation, divorce, and single-parent families are
    problems that affect roughly half of the population. Still, we find it
    more interesting to discuss homosexual marriage than to discuss
    marriage itself.
    But talking about marriage is essential to the future of our society.
    Marriage shapes our commitments and builds our character. No one is
    quite certain what will restore marriage to its once privileged
    position, but many private groups and some state governments are
    trying to find out. Our task ought to be to encourage and to evaluate
    these efforts.
    If we are successful in revitalizing marriage, we shall have
    dramatically improved loyalty and the benefits that flow from this
    commitment. Marriage, it is true, is a lasting restriction on human
    freedom; indeed, some young people resist marriage because by
    accepting it they lose some of their freedom. But every human freedom
    has its limits: we cannot falsely shout fire in a crowded theater nor
    knowingly print libelous stories about another person. In every aspect
    of our lives we accept limits to freedom, but in the case of the
    limits set by marriage we gain a great deal in return: longer,
    healthier lives; better sex; and decent children. Loyalty to spouse
    and children and relatives enhances our capacity to enjoy the freedom
    we have.
    James Q. Wilson is the Ronald Reagan Professor of Public Policy at
    Pepperdine University. He is the author or co-author of fourteen
    books, the most recent of which are The Marriage Problem: How Our
    Culture Has Weakened Families, Moral Judgment, and The Moral Sense.
    Many of his writings on morality and human character have been
    collected in On Character: Essays by James Q. Wilson.

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