Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Thoughts

When I was younger, I assumed only poor people had children without getting married. Now I have reached the age where friends of mine are having children. Either I was mistaken, or my generation's behaviour is different. I know a lot of couples who have had children out of wedlock. The circumstances varied. Sometimes couples decided to have a child without getting married. Sometimes a girl got pregnant accidentally and decided to keep the baby. Then the man stayed with her but without marriage, or left.
Everybody has their own life to live. It is easy to moralize, but much harder to live up to your own moral standards, or other people's.
Still, I am worried about this change. It is better for a child to have two parents who are committed to each other. Because people's feelings are very variable, it is better to commit to each other with a public promise. If two people are not ready to make that public promise, then I do not think it is the right time for them to have a child.
This issue evokes strong feelings in me because of my own family history. Other people with different stories might have different feelings. All these emotions deserve respect, but they do not replace facts. The claims I have just made are in line with the social science evidence. Children from married parents have "better outcomes" than children living with two unmarried parents, or with single parents. That jargon term means that they are happier, do better in school and so forth. (I am not an expert in this area and the science is no more settled than in any other social science topic. Google Scholar has been my friend here.)
There are many reasons why people's choices about marriage have been changing. Two important ones may be culture and laws.
Up until the 1950s, sexual and family culture was not very free. There were a whole set of rules that applied to people. Sometimes these rules were enforced by formal institutions: for example, unmarried mothers might be forced to give up their children for adoption. But I believe that mostly they were enforced by social pressure. People who broke the rules could be shunned by their peers. Many of these rules were unjust. Different standards applied to men and women. Gay sex was seen as wrong and gay people were stigmatized. In some places even interracial marriage was disapproved of or banned. The rules were mainly justified by religion.
In the 1960s, more people started to reject these rules, for all sorts of reasons but partly
because they thought they were unfair. Since then, it has widely been thought wrong for us to judge other people's behaviour by any rules. Of course, many things are agreed to be bad (like murder and defrauding old ladies). But there used to be a big layer of behaviours classified as not illegal, but immoral. That layer, between the illegal and the totally OK, has got thinner.
One reason is a sort of liberalism. We feel that it is not our business to judge other people's lives. There is a quote in a letter by Henry James: "remember that every life is a special problem which is not yours but another’s and content yourself with the terrible algebra of your own."
Whatever the merits of this argument, it is not in the classical liberals. John Stuart Mill, for example, thought that only behaviour that harmed others should be legally banned. But it was fine for individuals and society to avoid and shun people for a much wider range of things. He may even have thought that these informal sanctions were essential ways for a free society to maintain itself. (I don't have On Liberty to hand.)

I believe that by refusing to make any moral judgments, beyond the really obvious ones on crimes, our society probably threw out the baby with the bathwater. It ought to be possible to have a system for making moral judgments that would not be (e.g.) sexist or homophobic, and would not be based in religious reasons that many people might reject. It would also be a good idea if that system were public -- not in that it was uniformly agreed upon by everyone with no differences, but in that it was publicly discussed and argued about, and not simply seen as an extension of our personal preferences.
I think that one of the informal rules ought to be: people should try to bring up children in monogamous couples. As marriage is a good way to show you are serious about being a monogamous couple, perhaps having children in marriage would be the right way to do it. And in particular, if you are a man and you get someone pregnant, you ought to marry that person.
That is what I meant by culture. I don't think anything I have said is very original, but I thought I should add my voice to the people saying it. As this blog post has got quite long, I will save laws for another time. In general, I am worried that more children are born outside marriage, and I am glad that most of my closest friends have got married before having children.