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 When they come under attack as outdated, or cruel, or destructive, the moral defense tends to be, “Well, but it’s just wrong!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.