Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

We’ve Disconnected Parenthood from Marriage

Forty percent of babies are being born to women who aren’t married. And unwed motherhood has certainly become a routine, middle-class phenomenon. The upsides and downsides of this development all have to do with thinking of people more consistently as free individuals. I’m told in the thread that this development is not Lockean, in the sense that Locke says people who have babies should stay married as long as they’re raising kids, and he says nothing good about single parenthood. But if I were a feminist or a libertarian I might say that Locke wrote in the context of the division of labor necessary in a low-tech society, and there are limits to what he could say in his time to promote the liberation of women to be free individuals (although he actually does say a lot). Certainly he does say that we should regard as parent whoever is raising the kids, and so absent fathers have no status based on biology. And if we can invent our way out of any apparently natural limitation, he’s certainly all for it. In any case, the increasing detachment of parenthood from marriage (and marriage from parenthood--more married people than ever aren’t having kids) strengthens the case that same-sex marriage is a right that has emerged in our high-tech, unprecedently individualistic time. (Thanks to Carl Scott.)

Discussions - 23 Comments

Locke's position turns out to be difficult to interpret because his reduction of the familiy to contractual obligations, and the corresponding abstraction from love and the sacred, are at least partly intended as a thought experiment that highlights the problems of taking the logic of individual autonomy to its extreme conclusions. While Locke never recommends single parenthood in the 2nd Treatise his interpretation of marriage as a voluntary compact based on rational interest paves the way for it. And it extends to the whole of the family: the son honors his father if and only if he satisfies a catalogue of obligations--no element of natural affection or veneration---and the son is bound to his father by an expectation of patrimony. Part of the problem of modernity is its strident unfolding of what originally had some resemblance to a genuine aporia, that a body of philosphical exploration took on the character of a politial movement. Those more philosphically circumspect aspects of Locke's techno-rational attack on nature eventually get overwhelmed by the enthusiasm the rhetoric generates....

I think Professors Lawler and Kenneally are misreading Locke, exaggerating the notion of freedom in Locke or (con)fusing him with outlandish theorists like Sartre or de Bouvoir, who are the real apologists for our current rootlessness. Here's Locke himself, from the Second Treatise (par. 67), in a statement so traditional, so common-sensical, so far from modern autonomy, that it could be proclaimed from the pulpit on Sunday (or condemned by the courts on Monday):

The nourishment and education of their children is a charge so incumbent on parents for their children's good, that nothing can absolve them from taking care of it: and though the power of commanding and chastising them go along with it, yet God hath woven into the principles of human nature such a tenderness for their off-spring, that there is little fear that parents should use their power with too much rigour; the excess is seldom on the severe side, the strong [bias] of nature drawing the other way. And therefore God almighty when he would express his gentle dealing with the Israelites, he tells them, that though he chastened them, he chastened them as a man chastens his son, Deut. viii. 5. i.e. with tenderness and affection, and kept them under no severer discipline than what was absolutely best for them, and had been less kindness to have slackened. This is that power to which children are commanded obedience, that the pains and care of their parents may not be increased, or ill rewarded.

On another note, I think that in our situation of rising single-motherdom, nature will and does trump technology. A high-tech, prosperous society -- with both artificial insemination and so many unisex jobs in the labor force -- would seem to enable many single women or lesbian couples to conceive and support babies on their own. So technology and progress win on economic and reproductive autonomy. But nature roars back otherwise, as some of those babies are born boys, with a nature and (therefore) educational needs that are emphatically not unisex and cannot be simply met by a unisex household, economy, classroom, etc. Boys need fathers, not only for the loving (and physically dominant) guidance that fathers in particular can exercise, but also (and maybe more powerfully) for the example of responsible manhood -- i.e., how to be, not only what to do or not do (which a textbook or some other impersonal source can announce). And without this education, males, in their thumotic-testosteronic spasms, may very well tear down the social order, no matter how technological its economy or technocratic its rule.

And, as even (or especially) Locke argues, nature and God incline particular persons -- not merely any autonomous individual -- to perform this education well.

XV:170 - "The affection and tenderness which God hath planted in the breast of parents towards their children, makes it evident, that this is not intended to be a severe arbitrary government, but only for the help, instruction and preservation of their offspring."

That's from Second Treatise, which is about government, power and rights and relationships in those terms. Yet, he gives us that. Can't we presume that he believed that God has planted a reciprocal affection in the hearts of children towards parents? In Education Locke speaks about how a father is to secure the love of his son with familiarity. I think he expected people to love their fathers and presumed a need.

I was writing prior to seeing JQA post. Take it as given that I agree with him and bow to his more complete argument. Yes, nature will roar back. I don't know anyone, male or female, who lacks a father and does not long for one.

I guess an answer would begin with the fact that God didn't seem so gentle with the Israelites, who commanded them (we learn at the beginning of Deut8) to wander 40 years in the wildnerness. (How would that chastisement carry over to a father's treatment of his children?) But it's not the love between parents and children--which Locke does seem to assume--that's at issue here. It's the relationship between husband and wife, where Locke takes his bearings not from the Bible but from the behavior of the other animals. He makes marriage under civil government strictly contractual and that contract very litigible to secure the equal and freedom of women. That nature roars back I don't deny, but it's not nature as Locke understands it. Locke was, in fact, doing what he could to cast nature out with a pitchfork.

Both JQA and Kate are right that Locke makes all kinds of statements that seem to simply parrot the regnant tradition but he also plants the seeds of doubt as well. So whether or not we go the Straussian interpretive route( and there's a lot that recommends this--including the distinction between civil and philosophical discourse in bk 3 of the Essay, and the frank discussions of esoteric writing in the First Treatise and the Reasonableness) just about everyone has noticed a very real tension between Locke's nominalist/constructivist espistemology on the one hand and his moral/ traditional committments on the other.It always seem to me that Locke wanted to unfetter the individual and the science that serves him from the tutelage of nature at least (and maybe God) but struggled with what he did recognize as potentially serious moral/civil consequences. So I would agree with Peter that Locke's thought is the precursor to the wild individualism we often find later, even if Locke's mad progeny strays far from his original vision.

And while I agree with Peter that the husband/wife relation is more central to Locke than parent/child (although not the case in Some Thoughts), Locke does also often experiment with viewing it throught the prism of something more based on consent versus something more traditional: remember that the vulnerability of the child (and his lack of freedom before the authority of the parents) is based on his deficient rationality---once he can choose rationally, he can make decisions to honor his father and mother as a matter of free choice just as his parents dissolve the contract that obligates them to each other. Of course, I agree that nature is not so easily written out of the equation and I would even say that Locke is aware of the problems associated with a thorouhgoing transformation of the natural given to spontaneous free choice. Nevertheless, his account is not simply a traditional one.

in any case, the increasing detachment of parenthood from marriage (and marriage from parenthood--

Marriage (monogamous marriage) had little to do with parenthood, initially. That's a weak reed to hang the case for marriage on.

Locke is the man. His productivity as a philosopher was delightful. David Hume also is the man. He lived a good responsible life though not as productive. I think if Hume is going to be vindicated away from Locke it is in his responsibilty and not his productivity.

The mainstream media? This blog post is linked to CNN what's more mainstream than that? Btw to lawlers point this is only because women are so damn crazy these days with all their liberation bs.

Before the invention of modern birth control, marriage and child-rearing were inseparable as a practicle matter. The institution could not deal with one without dealing with the other, in the majority of cases.

That brings up a further point. Behind the separation of marriage and child-rearing lie birth control, and no fault divorce, in addition to the rise of having children outside of wedlocke.

But once sexual relations have changed in that mannter, presumably the law of marriage must change too. What is interesting about the gay marriage debate is how much of it is static in its thinking. Partnership benefits like visitation rights make sense for couples without children. On the other hand, the reason why health care benefits, pension benefits, etc. went to spouses is because they were created to suit marriages where the wife stayed at home and raised kids. That no longer being presumptively the case, those laws ought to change.

One further point. In his post, Peter notes the idea that "we should regard as parent whoever is raising the kids." The law has not been moving in that direction--at least in some parts of the law (outside of custody battles). In Sweeden (?) a couple of years ago, a sperm donor who helped two lesbian friends have a baby was deemed by a court to have monetary obligations for the child. More evidence of the modern conflation of raw biology with nature.

Thanks to Richard for his thoughtful post. He's right, for example, that spousal benefits make little sense now. But when he quotes me, he quotes me summarizing Locke. It goes without saying that sperm donors shouldn't have rights or duties to babies. It even goes without saying that sperm donation shouldn't go on.

Apologies to Peter. I was writing a bit too quickly. If anyone is curious, here the story form Sweden.

Would it make sense to set up two classes of marriage: with and without children. Call the former "civil unions" for all couples that don't have children, and allow something like no-fault divorce. But for couples with children, perhaps we ought to return to something stronger--call is "marriage." After all, more and more social science research indicates the importance of two parents for raising children, particularly boys.

This idea would bother many, but it might be the best we can do. I also suspect it is what the courts will end up doing--placing certain obligations upon couples with children that are not assigned to couples without children.

It is interesting, and probably a fact that the only folks who read or mention Locke are conservative/classical liberal. If you are using Locke or Lockeian to describe a mindset that exists independently from the group of folks who have read him then defending your usage is polite but confusing.

I will often times classify a thought or idea as Lockeian/Aristelian/Hegelian, ext...and this independent of the source of the thought, never meaning that the person echoing such thoughts has read the author or ascribes to his views to any extent that would justify defending the position by textual exegesis.

As if things were not complicated enough I can defend opposing positions with a multitude of political philosophers.

On a machiavellian front attacking Locke is quite a brilliant strategy as the defenses that are likely to result help bolster the conservative version of Locke.

Locke did write his essay concerning human understanding to clear the cobwebs of scholasticism and make way for Newton, but I still think he differs slightly from David Hume, never being so bold as to suggest commiting to the flame all that can only be sophistry and illusion. Locke's essay on Education is actually quite an interesting read.

I am not sure that my interest lies in making the strongest libertarian argument within Locke, but aren't you simply being Hegelian? To mean only in this case that you are seperating the form from the content and saying that the only thing that has striking power is the form of the philosophy... So if I agree with Kate I am argueing that form cannot be seperated from content, making you left Hegelian, loosely speaking...but this is ridiculous, or quite a bog down on your original point unless it was your intent, but I think I have a good idea of what your intent was, so I am being disingenuous, but if I am not to be disingenuous then I am to agree with David Hume and commit the whole fabric to the flames. Just for honesty sake I must admit that I do enjoy the wisdom of David Hume, albeit especially here I wish to avoid turning him into a logical positivist, which is to say that I don't think David Hume is AJ Ayer, but some almost treat Locke as if he was AJ Ayer, but Hume was friends with Adam Smith, and if folks quote Adam Smith this pleases my impartial spectator, yet if there is an impartial spectator you get screwed pawning off David Hume as some sort of simple hedonist, and even hedonism in the classical presentation is itself interesting and worthy of consideration.

Also Locke as a tutor never claimed parenthood by virtue of educating/raising children, albeit few folks today use private tutors or nurses to raise children, and it isn't altogether clear that if folks today(in America or Britain if you want to keep the field of comparison) are more individualistic that this is not due to democracy, greater wealth and more widespread education.

I am not so spoiled by modernity to think that even if same sex marriage is allowed we are not on the whole better off than those who distantly preceeded us.

I am also not sure exactly if we are more individualistic...we certainly have more virtual aquaintances...which reminds me of an arguement put foward by Platinga for the existance of God, involving the relative certainty of "other" minds. My warrants for the existance of God are perhaps better in many cases than my warrants for belief in the existance of a John Locke, albeit pushback from the Newsweek article notwithstanding I am not sure how many conservatives share which scepticism. In fact general uncertainty may be a greater cause for ascribing the label "individualism" than any other concrete fact...when we aren't exactly sure what we can say about the culture, it is most accurate to simply communicate by prefacing with the statement "I". When we are aware of knowing less, while still having so much more information, it is rational to say: I believe, instead of: as we all know. In fact I hold out the possibility that I can be dishonest by being completly honest, or as Hegel says telling the truth as far as one knows it. When the questions faced involve something that isn't a virtual community, something palpable and immediate there is never grounds for the level of fiction one finds in this present jungle...you either did or did not, and honest lying about the cherry tree is only possible now as opposed to in Washington's time. Measure twice cut once is great carpentry, but in modernity we simply have to depend far too often on second, third and forth hand measurements, when they conflict we cut by averageing. Is it a true cut? I hope so...and if not, commit the source then to the flames.

Strangely enough this leaves me with Jim Crammer as an economic advisor, and this I think is Lockeian or as those who are literary might think Martin Dressler, by Steven Millhauser(good book)...a literary sadness always surrounds the Lockeian, and the way he is portrayed, but Kate probably knows more about this than I do. Also perhaps the movie Click(Adam Sandler's portrayal of a Lockeian)

"There will be Blood" goes a little too far, but it might have set out to portray Daniel Day Lewis as a Lockeian...

There is no real limit to the use and abuse you can dish on poor old John Locke, but he might be the most influencial political philosopher in America.

I wrote the following yesterday, but did not have time to polish or complete it, and do not have such time today, either, but think it pertains to the argument, even as it has evolved, except for the last bits, which are more personal. ---------

Richard Adams, the issue here is not marriage and birth control, though the matter of marriage being about more than child-bearing and rearing may be an impetus behind the same-sex marriage business. I do agree, after listening to gay partners, that marriage as it relates to other contracts and personal privacy issues like HIPA, have something to do with that, too. My dying brother-in-law's partner of nearly twenty years had to get my sister's-in-law to sign off on all sorts of medical issues since they were next of kin and he was nobody in a legal sense.

As to Hubris' point, in the community college where I work, I have have many women students who are "liberated" to be both parents to their children. None of them, except the ones who were abused, are happy to be in that position. Even the ones who had been abused would simply rather that the father of the child be a more decent man. The presumption is that these mothers can just go to work, and thereby raise their child(ren) although what happens is that day care centers and public schools really raise their children for them.

John Lewis, I am no expert on Locke, I just read him for fun and because, as Ben says, he is the man. I think he is all wrong on the infant as tabula rasa business, but I agree with most of his observations, as I read them.

Peter Lawler, Maybe I read too much God into Locke. However, I really can’t see reading God out of him.
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Finally, yes, sperm donations are a horrible way to produce children, however I know several lesbians who have impregnated themselves with basters full of such donations from friends or acquaintances and I don't see how anyone can regulate that. Still, given DNA testing, the paternity could be established for the purposes of legally demanding child support in case of need. I know of one case where that happened. That poor sap of a "father" is still paying.

Kate, the father who provides nothing but poor sap shouldn't have to pay. It used to be common knowledge among enlightenment figures and was, in fact, reemphasized by Strauss that the God of Locke is emphatically "past tense." Locke deliberately misquotes the Bible to replace the living, giving personal God by the guy who mysteriously gave us our freedom and then went into a coma. Locke doesn't really mean for him to guide us in our use of our freedom. In Locke's decisive chapter of property, God disappears after money is invented.

Peter, actually, his sap was good. The kid is a good one. Yet, the father should not have to pay just because the mother ran into financial difficulties and he had (very slightly) deeper pockets than she. It is an absurd situation, because the law's morality has not kept up with the amorality of science.

I hope you are wrong about John Locke, because I would like to see him in Heaven. But the next time I get to read him, I will read more carefully: thank you.

The only problem with Locke is he over asserts productivity as the ultimate end. if he differentiated perspectives he would realize there are indeed greater ends than mere "advancement" (Note: advancement is very real and very important). If he would have aptly emphasized the responsible parts of the bible lawler would not be chastising him for killing the family (which he did describe). Locke tried hard to free everything natural to be purely manipulative however he cant as lawler correctly notes, but i dont think he would have ever advocated than anyways. His dogmatism (treatise - a formal and systematic exposition in of principles) is appropriate because after reading it you really do understand the power of productivity (lawler knows all about the power of productivity ) what you don't know is where that fits into the three perspectives. It fits in the second NOT THE FIRST thats what important here and by understanding that we can bring back the family, because frankly as lawler points were KILLING IT. Thats the real job of philosophy these days not to keep harping on Locke and Hobbes or advocating Deneen or Berry, instead understanding there both correct in the own contexts, we have to bring back Socratic philosophy the dialog.

Ben Bell, I'd be happy to advocate the regime of Deneen, McWilliams, and Berry, if someone could just show me any sort of plausible political and economic plan for arriving at it, or at least near it.

And back in my Michael Harrington democratic socialist days, I kept hoping that someone would finally invent the alternative of industrial democracy, that just HAD to be there, somewhere...if we just have enough open-minded experts...

But, alas, I had to grow up and settle for "two-cheers-for-capitalism."

Oh, and real quick, gotta go, the worst thing in the world is CIVIL UNIONS. That's the one silver lining from the Iowa insanity, that we can see the courts and gay activists are going to say all or nothing. Because again, the big problem ain't homosexuals or even religious liberty, it's heterosexuals. Do not, do not, do not give them anything else approaching "marriage lite." I fear that civil-unions, esp. if judicially enacted, will inevitably give them that.

It's been awhile since I've read Locke, so forgive me for any errors (but don't spare me correction, of course), but I think he is less of an individualist or a nominalist than he is portrayed. We cannot understand his works in a vacuum. He lived in a tyrannical and repressive age and sought to liberate men from tyrants and theocrats. In making the case for freedom for all individuals (not for "the individual"), Locke was not thereby destroying any sense of obligation. Rather, he was redefininig obligations in order to maximize justice. The political and economic equality he teaches has to be regarded as the greatest protection against oppression ever proposed. It was the inspiration for the American founders, as is widely known, and for good reason. It helped undermine absolute monarchy and paved the way for constitutional government. This is no mean achievement. Its alleged shortcomings and supposedly harmful consequences, such as family breakdown, (which he would condemn, as shown by his stout defense of the family as a natural unit) are not attributable to him but to those under the influence of historicism and its progeny. As to Locke's supposed nominalism, he sought in fact to free men of the constraints of scholasticism which, however much it owed to Aristotle in its forms had no affinity with its openness. In order to generate more livable conditions, men had to understand that they were not bound to the conventions as if they were eternally the natural order of things. What is best for contemplating things is not necessarily the best for making the world serve practical human purposes, which most emphatically includes avoiding the "inconveniences" of the state of nature untutored by wisdom, practical or otherwise. Was Locke wrong to moderate the excesses of monarchy and theocracy? If not, why not?

I appreciate everyone's contribution to this discussion, but I confess that I struggle with the comments of John Lewis, which would be more effective if they were more succinctly presented.

Carl Scott, my husband was a Michael Harrington acolyte. I was not conservative then, but even I could see that he and his friends advocated some imaginary alternate reality, which reminded me of asking directions in Oregon, when residents would say "You can't get there from here." I used to think, "Maybe if you started in Eden..."

Haven't we already got "marriage lite"? Couples live together, have children together, buy houses together, do all sorts of things that used to mean "marriage", but do not necessarily mean that any more. The least enforceable contract is that of marriage. If one party wants out, that's OK, there is nothing to be done. Marriage is a broken institution, except for those with the honor to take it seriously: a promise is a promise. At least civil unions might re-establish that idea of a contract and and give those sloppy arrangements something enforceable in the way of legal obligation. Take the matter out of the realm of romance. Those who are serious about marriage, because of faith or religion, can make their vows in a church and keep that promise out of conviction.

I certaintly agree with Richard Reeb concerning the positive achievements of Locke, although there is a tendency to exaggerate "the monkish ignorance and superstition" that preceded him. But the nominalism is real, the replacement of God with money is real, the liberation of the free person or individual from God and nature is real. So there are reasons in Locke why his thought can't be contained to produce only beneficial consequences, and the problems of our time are different from the problems of his. Tocqueville says in vol 2, part 2, ch 15 that had he written in Locke's time he would have been a Lockean. But even in the 1830s the challenge had become talking up the truth about the soul--the true greatness of the human being--against the leveling and disorienting effects of promiscuous theoretical nominalism and materialism.

"Couples live together, have children together, buy houses together, do all sorts of things that used to mean "marriage", but do not necessarily mean that any more." My guess is that our courts will not let that stand. Something like common law marriage will re-remerge via that back door. Nature will reassert herself. Couples will live together and have children, and there will be enforceable obligations that go along with that situation. It is probably not possible to abolish marriage in the long term. The question is what will the institution look like.

I'm a 51 year-old man who has avoided marriage and parenthood and do not regret it. I've read all the editorials from sociologists, ministers, researchers, etc who whine and complain about the demise of family structure, birthrates, etc and decided "that's their problem".

The fact remains that men (and women) who ignore the experts and nagging family members and go solo avoid many headaches and costs of holding a marriage and family together. In the man's case, he will probably lose the most money if he marries.

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