The Generals Who Started the War on the Family

Family Politics: The Idea of Marriage in Modern Political Thought

  • Scott Yenor
  • Baylor University Press, 2011; 430 pages, $39.95

Scott Yenor wastes no time in getting to the point. The political science professor at Boise State University writes in the opening chapter of this book: “Modern individuals see themselves as persons independent of unchosen duties such as many of those associated with family life; history seems to be on the side of emancipating individuals progressively from impositions of society and nature.” He stands on solid ground in making his observation; the most recent data indicate that 41 percent of all births in the United States in 2009 were to parents living outside the protective bonds of marriage. Indeed, Alexis de Tocqueville’s vision of “an innumerable crowd of men, all alike and equal, turned in upon themselves in a restless search for those petty, vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls” has proven prescient.

To be sure, Tocqueville had expected that, for the modern man, his “children and personal friends [would be] for him the whole of the human race.” (Charles Dickens insight is perhaps more insightful on this latter point, as his portrait of Mrs. Jellyby whose “telescopic philanthropy” led her to neglect immediate family ties in pursuit of the good of humanity writ large.) Yet, for an increasing number of Americans, Tocqueville may have been too optimistic. He did seem to recognize that even family ties might be contingent for the restless modern: “he exists only in himself and for himself; if he still retains his family circle, at any rate he may be said to have lost his country.”

From whence did the seemingly ubiquitous self-image that Yenor diagnoses arise? According to the professor: “Today’s ‘war over the family’ is a war of visions, a battle of ideas in a longer war among greater, deeper thinkers—the ‘generals’ in the conflict—that shapes how we view the world.” Identifying an eminent group of political philosophers as the generals in this analogy, Family Politics admirably places under the microscope all that these thinkers wrote about marriage and the place of marriage vis-à-vis society and the state. The generals under examination include John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, G. W. F. Hegel, John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, Sigmund Freud, Bertrand Russell, and other less prominent thinkers.

In fulfilling this role, Yenor offers an indispensible introduction to understanding the place of marriage and the family in the work of some of the most well-known modern political philosophers. The descriptive chapters reflect both a careful reading of their work and a measured presentation of their thought. Although the reader will sense dissatisfaction (well-deserved) with the weakness of some of the profiled writers, all the generals are given a fair and even-handed treatment. The reviews expose how these revered figures attempted to grapple with and—increasingly as time goes on—to justify a repudiation of human nature and received notions of marriage and family. Yenor’s analysis accurately captures how these pivotal writers articulated and evaluated the ends of marriage and the family. At the risk of oversimplifying, the earlier chapters describe intellectual generals who intended to defend marriage with “modern” justifications. Later warriors, notably Marxist and feminist social critics, launched a full-scale assault on matrimony, attempting to destroy it altogether or to empty wedlock of all substantial meaning.

Yenor does not neglect more recent philosophers who have responded to these assaults, a defense that de Tocqueville anticipated. The gifted Frenchman had indeed warned of what Marx, Engels, and Beauvoir prescribed: “an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure [citizens’] gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild.” For these generals, function-rich marriages and families not only could, but should, according to de Tocqueville, be replaced by a government that “provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?”

At the same time, Yenor maintains that both the erstwhile defenders and the attackers of the family shared presuppositions, specifically an overemphasis on narrow understandings of individualism and contractualism as the sine qua non of marriage. As these notions have manifested themselves in laws and social practices increasingly familiar on the American scene, the process confirms that, indeed, ideas have consequences. These consequence-laden ideas include the contingent nature of marriage codified in the no-fault divorce regime as well as the prevalence of commitment-lite non-marital cohabitation, arrangements in which parties can leave at will without even the legal formalities that still attend divorce. Tragically, the formative ideas of our time also include those making commodities out of children, many of whom—with the abandonment of marriage as the normative prelude to childbearing—are now reduced to the status of a lifestyle choice of adults aided by technological innovations and an accommodating legal system.

Yenor’s proposes a response to this fatal flaw in his closing chapter. He explains: “Defending marriage and family life demands that we expose the intellectual extremism in these partial conceptions of consent.” This means facing squarely what the institution of marriage has become:

Modern advocates of autonomy and personal independence distort the satisfactions of marriage into personal satisfactions. They underestimate how genuinely satisfying marital love creates mutual dependence that limits human autonomy and fail to see how marriage and family life are satisfying because they involve this love and dependence.

Standing in opposition to this reductionist account, the Boise State scholar offers a fuller appreciation for what marriage must entail:

Lovers are dependent on a beloved, and unified family life necessarily entails a range of dependencies. Instead of denying that marriage and family life involve dependencies, I would acknowledge and embrace that reality. Family life entails the dependencies of love. . . . Love is “oppressive” (if that is the right word) or dependency-making; it makes claims on our being; it involves changing our identity; it points to our lack of self-sufficiency. It [the characterization of marriage as oppressive] is false, however, in that love’s chains are neither arbitrary social constructions, nor unchosen, nor unworthy of choosing. (emphasis added)

Sounding like Jennifer Roback Morse in Love and Economics (2001), Yenor claims that while “marriage is founded in consent; it forms a loving, mutually dependent relation that supersedes the point of view of contracts.” Or as F. H. Bradley put it: “Marriage is a contract, a contract to pass out of the sphere of contract.” To the degree that Americans have forgotten this richer understanding and embraced a purely contingent notion of marriage, they have created, according to legal scholar Bruce Hafen, a “waning of belonging” which ignores, in Akira Morita’s words, “the organic correlations between autonomy and dependence, which lies at the heart of human existence.”

If Americans continue to repudiate the discipline of unchosen obligation inherent in the understanding of marriage that modernity attacks, they lose much more. They repudiate moral excellence, the quality of fulfilling obligations one has not precisely chosen or “bargained for.” They also repudiate moral courage, since a society that recognizes duty, fulfillment of responsibility, and rightly directed loyalty as essential and valuable—and understand them to be character traits worthy of aspiration—is essential to the development of this virtue. Repudiating unchosen obligation demeans human dignity. If we insist that men and women cannot bind themselves in a non-contingent way, we degrade them.

This repudiation of unchosen obligation inevitably results in a war on the realities of biology, sexual complementarity, dependence, and vulnerability. As the war escalates, the casualties include those traditional Americans who continue to value these realities, citizens who must be marginalized to prevent discomfort to the beneficiaries of the new ethic of choice. The victims become those who are dependent and vulnerable, including children who are denied the benefit of growing up with married parents. The most acute loss, as Yenor notes, may be the paradoxically linked quality of joy. The curious cost of this joy was memorably explained by G. K. Chesterton: “If I vow to be faithful I must be cursed when I am unfaithful, or there is no fun in vowing.” Chesterton insists, “results must be real; results must be irrevocable.” He uses the example of marriage as the “great example of a real and irrevocable result.” Put slightly differently, without real stakes, there is no joy. In this respect, Family Politics helps Americans weigh the high stakes involved with an embrace of radical contingency. More important, by revealing how this tragic embrace has been imposed upon the country, Yenor offers a path to its rejection.

Mr. Duncan, a frequent contributor to The Family in America, is the executive director of the Marriage Law Foundation, a public-interest law firm in Lehi, Utah.