Where We Miss Morality: The Unmarried Mothers Disaster

USA Today included an editorial yesterday about the explosion of births to unmarried mothers in America that has exacerbated many societal problems. It’s a stunning story : in 1960,  the figure was 5.3%; by 1970, in the teeth of the cultural upheaval launched in the late 60’s, it had  more than doubled to 10.7%.   In 2009, 41% of children born in the USA were born to unmarried mothers,  including a frightening 73% of non-Hispanic black children.  The editorial suggested that reversing the trend is a priority, but was short on ideas for how to address it. Notably absent was the method of social control that had served the United States well since 1776, and had been effective world-wide since the institution of marriage: calling it wrong.

Ethics Alarms is philosophically pro-ethics and anti-morality, in the sense that morality is made up of non-debatable edicts based on ancient wisdom or divine dictation, without room for moderation, reconsideration or analysis. The weakness of morality is that when accumulated experience and advancing knowledge show that a moral tenet has no basis in fact and truth, the moral mandate stands unchanged: an example is the traditional moral condemnation of homosexuality.

In the 1960’s, powerful elements in our culture began rejecting traditional morality on the theory that there was no truth to back up many moral requirements. The taboos against sexual promiscuity, sex before marriage, abortion, homosexuality and unmarried child-bearing were among those most attacked, and to varying degrees, the cultural disapproval of all of these was significantly reduced, if not eliminated entirely. Morals are vulnerable this way. They last for generations as beyond debate and reconsideration, and over time the public stops thinking about why they were created in the first place. When they come under attack as outdated, or cruel,  or destructive, the moral defense tends to be, “Well, but it’s just wrong! That should be enough!” But morality doesn’t require an explanation of why something is wrong; that is the realm of ethics. During the sexual revolution, nobody had the data to make the ethical arguments.

Regarding the reason for disapproving marriageless childbirth, we do now. From USA Today:

“…evidence is overwhelming that children of single mothers — particularly teen mothers — suffer disproportionately high poverty rates, impaired development and low school performance.

A long-term study by researchers from Princeton and Columbia universities who’ve followed the lives of 5,000 children, born to married and never-married mothers in 20 urban centers, is the latest to reach that conclusion, and it sheds light on the reasons.

A large majority of the never-married mothers had close relationships with a partner when their child was born. But by the time the child was 5, most of the fathers were gone and the child had little contact with him. As many of the mothers went on to new relationships, the children were hampered by repeated transitions that did more harm to their development.”

In other words, having a kid out-of-wedlock is a lousy thing to do to your child, the culture, and society. That adds up to unethical, which isn’t as powerful as “immoral” once was, but more persuasive…if we have the courage to make the case. Right now, our culture is stuck in the 60’s mindset of rejecting negative judgments of the conduct of others. There is no stigma at all to having a child without marriage, and that means that the most visible and lauded in our society–celebrities, the wealthy, the powerful—have  children before or without marriage without hesitation, shame or consequences. Their example forges a social norm that is toxic to society generally, and therefore even for those who have the resources to minimize the disadvantages facing single-parent children, the conduct is wrong—selfish, irresponsible, unfair.

The ethical argument is far from over-whelming, however. Many single-parent children do very well; my own father was one. Traditional moral prohibitions on marriage-free child-bearing would ban pregnancy for women who want a child but can’t find a responsible husband, women who plan responsibly for their child, and who, like Murphy Brown, have the ability to care for them. How can we say such women are wrong, bad, unethical—regardless of their special circumstances? Morality permits no waiver for special circumstances, but ethics does. The problem is that contingent disapproval doesn’t work very well at controlling conduct. Every unmarried parent thinks he or she is special. If we don’t disapprove of all, we won’t discourage any.

It may not be overwhelming, but the ethical argument against unwedded motherhood is strong. It violates Kant’s Universality test for conduct: if everybody did it, we would have a true disaster on our hands. It violates the Golden Rule: would you want two dedicated, committed parents, for yourself growing up, or one? And it fails utilitarian analysis, for whatever freedom individuals might lose by having to give up the option of single-parenthood, society would be measurably healthier if it had fewer “fragile families,” as Daniel Pat Moynihan called them.

The shame and social isolation that once was the penalty for out-of-wedlock pregnancy was cruel and often unfair, but as social control, it worked. It is not coming back; neither is a strong moral prohibition. For better or worse, we are left with making the ethical arguments, which include telling celebrities like David Letterman, Goldie Hawn and most recently, actress Natalie Portman that we aren’t going to just shrug off their choices to have out-of-wedlock kids and continue applauding them as if there is nothing wrong with it. Their self-indulgent choices do real harm to the culture, and are instrumental in pushing those most vulnerable in our society into the chain of irresponsibility that USA Today’s statistics document.

Realistically, however, criticizing celebrities is not going to have much effect, not now, with unmarried motherhood so entrenched in our culture. We need, somehow, to make a society-wide case that the conduct isn’t just risky, but wrong.

It was so much easier when we could just say it was immoral, and that was enough.

19 thoughts on “Where We Miss Morality: The Unmarried Mothers Disaster

  1. Well, for the Hollywood set, the whole “wedlock” thing is a joke. It doesn’t mean to them what it means to the majority of the country, so the kind of marriage that we would want children to grow up in is a rarity in Hollywood.

    …which renders a Hollywood starlet having an out-of-wedlock child kind of irrelevant.


  2. Part of the problem is that far from being disapproved, unwed mothers and their children are considered the favored family unit by the state. My wife joked that we never should have gotten married. If we had just lived together we would have had a lot more benefits. These benefits include:

    •Free healthcare for both children that cover them with no deductible and no co-pay.

    •Free daycare.

    •College scholarships for them and her. As it is, we had to pay for two college programs my wife completed.

    •Possibly food stamps and housing assistance.

    By marrying, we forfeited all of these state benefits. I know people who remain unmarried for just those reasons. No one is rewarded for being responsible, getting married, and supporting their own children.
    A bigger effect of these benefits are that some teenage girls view pregnancy as a ‘way out’. If they get pregnant, the state gives them food, an apartment, a check, and free college tuition. For the most vulnerable girls, this is a big temptation and a decision they really aren’t mature enough to think through.

    Yes, some morality seems outdated and there seems to be no reason for it, until you try to get along without it. Morality was usually implemented for a reason determined through trial and error. Some may no longer apply, but telling which those are is perilous work. No one who implemented the benefits described above intended people to get pregnant on purpose to get them or stop from marrying to maintain them. They were unintended consequences.
    The big problem is that there is no way to make this unacceptable without implementing unpleasant consequences for the men, women, and children. As with all irresponsible conduct, if you hold people responsible for it, the consequences are unpleasant.

  3. I don’t like where thinking along these lines can lead. At all ..

    Most data actually suggests that while unweb pregnancies are increasing, it’s not a result of more teen or pre-marriage sex. Rather, there’s simply less pressure to GET married if a kid happens. I’m not suggesting unwed parents are preferable, but you can’t convince me the alternative (forcing couples to wed, through threat of social stigma, simply because they conceived) is a better option.

    Secondly, where is the evidence that our society is going to hell as a result? Are we, as a society, worse off than we were fifty years ago, a century ago? Arguments of this sort require that I first accept your moral premise and your conclusion without a direct correlation. Even if it could be proven that having children before marriage is wrong and that we, as a society, it doesn’t necessarily follow that our society is on a downward spiral for allowing it to continue. Increased abortions, too many people on welfare, rising poverty rates can all be fixed other ways, without limiting people’s freedom to fuck (pardon my French).


    • A desperate argument, Neil. The link to poverty , crime, and welfare is pretty solid, and that’s even with record levels of abortion. It’s not a fucking issue—there’s not much excuse for getting pregnant. Bottom line: society pays for the irresponsible choices of others. And the once imposing obligation of having to marry your mistakes was a terrific disincentive. I’ve seen how my son’s friends born into no-marriage families are bounced around like a crazy uncle—no question in my mind that for every kid that has a sound childhood being raised by one parent, there are 20 who don’t.

    • I agree with the above statement. Your facts in the article are pushing towards teen mothers being the problem. More women (any age) are choosing to raise their children alone. So you suggest women should marry just based on the fact that it is “morally” correct? That’s absurd. There are many reasons women Choose to raise children alone. Women should get married even if they are unhappy with that person? the partner is abusive? the partner is an alcoholic or addict? You might want to look into the reasons why women are deciding not to marry. Divorce rates are high, you would rather women marry now and face a higher chance of divorce? You started your research based in the 1960’s before then data shows that teen pregnancy was much higher. Pick your battle, do you want more teen moms or unwed mothers? I am both a teen mom and an unwed mother. I live with the father of my child and have decided not to get married until I am 100% certain I will not get divorced. My son is very happy, healthy and perfect intellectually.

      • Nothing in the article references morality in any way. Your comment begins with an atrocious unethical rationalization: “More women (any age) are choosing to raise their children alone”—so what? Does that make it right, responsible or a good idea? If that’s the way you figure out what is “right,” this blog is either way over your head, or you need to bone up on the basics before commenting.

        The rests would embarrass you if you had any idea what you are talking about: me, it just irritates, because you are making irrelevant and non-responsive, not to mention cliched and foolish, arguments that don’t address the post:

        “There are many reasons women”: There are alwasy reasons for irresponsible behavior. I don’t care. It’s still irresponsible.
        “Women should get married even if they are unhappy with that person?” No, people shouldn’t have children with people they know they don’t want as a partner. Obviously.
        “You might want to look into the reasons why women are deciding not to marry.” No only are you repeating yourself, you’re repeating irrelevancies. “Reasons” why women have children too young and irresponsible don’t excuse it. The reasons not to have kids as teens are a lot more persuasive: bad for the kids, bad for the mothers, bad for the culture, the economy and society.
        “Divorce rates are high…” So what? And what’s “high?” They are less than than 50%, and the fact that a lot of couples are irresponsible about divorcing doesn’t validate more irresponsible behavior.
        “You would rather women marry now and face a higher chance of divorce?” Hilarious. Yes, there’s no chance of divorce if you don’t get married.
        “You started your research based in the 1960′s before then data shows that teen pregnancy was much higher.” What do you think this statement means? We are talking about UNMARRIED teen pregnancies.
        “Pick your battle, do you want more teen moms or unwed mothers?” I don’t have to pick anything. Neither. Both are irresponsible. Unwed mothers are the worse of the two—both are generally a bad idea.
        “I am both a teen mom and an unwed mother. I live with the father of my child and have decided not to get married until I am 100% certain I will not get divorced. My son is very happy, healthy and perfect intellectually.” Which also proves nothing. If it works out for you, fine—I hope it does. It’s still a high risk, irresponsible life choice for the majority of people who choose it, and the facts are unequivocal.

        By the way, there is never 100% certainty for anything. How’s school working out? Because based on your comment, you need it, and I don’t see how you have time for it.

  4. I agree that this issue is something that we should worry about, but is there any study on this that controls for the socio-economic background of the parent’s parents (for example; comparing the conditions of single parents whose parents were poor versus married parents who were raised in poor households)? Or even controlling for the unfortunate phenomena of teenage pregnancy? I do remember reading at least one, but my mind is really hazy right now.

    • To further the point, There’s a strong correlation between poverty and unwed mothers. IAll I see see in this report is that people who can’t afford kids, shouldn’t have kids. The unwed thing appears to be unrelated.

      Make the ethics about only have kids you can afford, and then it makes sense. Too bad a large percentage of the population is poor.

      • No, having a kid without a stable family makes you poor–unless you are rich already. This is conduct that the rich can get away with, make look acceptable, and that is ruinous to the majority of the population that isn’t rich, but that follows the lead of those who are. Like recreational drugs, but even more catastrophic societally.

        • Having a kid without a stable family does not make you poor. Having a kids without the means to support it makes you poor. Often, single parents don’t have the means to support a child, but many 2 parent stable families also don’t have the means.

          Single parents aren’t the problem. Poor parents are. You could argue that it’s unethical for poor people to have kids, but that sounds horrible, so you switched to the more acceptable idea, single parents. Shame on you.

          • Having children without a stable family DOES make you poor.
            Let me illustrate just one aspect of this. Let’s assume that the mother is (otherwise) responsible and has a job. Like a lot of people, she only gets too sick to work about a week out of the year. Now add a normal child. Like most young children, they are too sick to send to daycare about 2 weeks out of the year. So the mother now has to miss 3 weeks of work per year. Making the responsible choice to take care of her sick child gets her fired.

            now what is her income? Do you think there’s a good chance she might end up impoverished? What if she isn’t as lucky as the average person and her child is sick more often, or her car breaks down more often, or she suffers any of the other slings and arrows that life can throw? She has no support system, no second income, no one who can alter their schedule to complement hers.

            • Making the responsible choice to take care of her sick child gets her fired.

              How did she get fired? I’m pretty sure the Family Medical leave Act still exists. Hell, I used it last year.

              “She has no support system, no second income, no one who can alter their schedule to complement hers.”

              Do single mothers not have family and friends? You’re creating a very specific case: A woman with an unstable job and nobody she can count on. Seems like that fits my “having a kid without the means to support it” category. Being single exacerbates the situation, but the situation is not at all implied by being single.

  5. You should see my town and neighborhood. In my state, 40% of girls give birth before 18. One third of the high school freshmen have to take a remedial class to learn their multiplication tables and the high school graduation rate is ~50%. The median income for single parent families is ~$23,000/year. Over 20% of the people in my town have a family income of less than $15,000/year. I know people who were overjoyed to hear that their 14-year old was pregnant because they would get to be a grandmother before they were 30. I know people whose dreams evaporated when they became a teen parent and a future of college and career disappeared into the reality of raising a child as a teenager. I know of a family whose 4 teenage children ‘graced’ them with 8 grandchildren within 4 years drowning them in a financial wasteland. All but the first example were people who would be considered middle class or upper middle class.

    Live in my neighborhood and tell me that this isn’t a problem.

  6. Jack Marshall,
    When the American Psychological Assoc. in 1973 and, then, the American Psychiatric Assoc. in 1974 delisted Homosexuality from the category of Behavioral Illnesses in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 4, the Bible of Behavioral Science, United States of America, it did so because it PROFESSIONALLY caved in to political pressure from the National Gay & Lesbian Alliance {the very definition of a PERVERTS alliance}, if that’s the exact name. That is PROFESSIONAL COWARDICE of the nth degree. You’ve probably heard of Feminists’ and Queers’ [there’s nothing ‘gay’ about being queer, a non-euphemism] WORD MAGIC, which calls specific things exactly what they AREN’T to advance their agenda of [Alfred C.] Kinsey-anistic TRYSEXUALITY [Yes, that means with ANYTHING]. Calling a spade a spade is not(!) how they operate.

    The truly excellent volume by Dr. Richard Green, MD, JD, “The Sissy Boy Syndrome and the Development of Homosexuality” is a must-read for those who want to know how pervert-queers are home-made. And, then, you absolutely must read Dr. Joseph Nicolosi’s “A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality” which is absolutely superb. If you read them each twice, that’s even better!

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