Talking past each other

"Conversation," by Camille Pissarro

The phrase “talking past each other” surely applies to the “debate” in which we are supposedly engaged over the meaning of marriage as it relates to divorce, redefinition, cohabitation, unwed parenting, etc.  On one side, there are discussions of the channeling function of the law, the importance of upholding ideals in the face of real-world tragedies, and the rightful expectation of children to know and be raised by their own mother and father or a very close alternative.

On the other side, the message is simpler: I hurt because of you.

The subtext is that if the laws are changed to be more inclusive or if standards are relaxed, then pangs of conscience will be alleviated or thoughtless people will stop saying unkind things.

As Maggie Gallagher noted recently, it seems that there will always be the potential for unmet desires, but the call for a truly civilized society is to prioritize our response to the hurt this situation engenders. Will we respond to expressions of pain in a way that increases it for another person? Read more

Weighing decisions of character against feelings of discomfort

In our continued debates over moral issues, it is not uncommon for politicians, opinion leaders and others to announce that, after agonizing over the issue, they have decided to change positions or announce positions in favor of things like abortion or redefining marriage or whatever.

Some of these announcements are well-meaning and sincere, some are opportunistic and cynical. A common explanation is that the experience of a relative or friend or prominent advocate has led to the change of heart (or mind). It’s probably not appropriate to try to guess motives – and certainly not to assume ill motives – but sincerity is not the only factor that ought to be considered.

For instance, how should our discomfort (even very acute or agonizing discomfort) caused by the fact that moral standards appear to create hardships for others be weighed against other considerations? Does the fact that we know or admire or love someone who has rejected the standard absolve us from upholding it?

To paraphrase a statement I heard years ago, there is a need for decisions of character apart from sympathy. Read more

Spending our children’s inheritance

One of the gems in Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France is his description of the tradition threatened by the social engineering of the French Revolution as an “entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers, and to be transmitted to our posterity.” The analogy is to a form of property ownership in which a person inherits subject to the condition that the property is passed along without diminution to the next heir.

This concept has an echo in the Preamble to the Constitution which includes among the purposes of ratification that the States might “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” “Secure” is an action verb here. Noah Webster’s dictionary (1828) defines “secured” as: “Effectually guarded or protected; made certain; put beyond hazard; effectually confined; made fast.”

A recent study in the Journal of Political Economy provides an interesting take on inheritance. It found that only a small part of the correlation between the incomes of fathers and the incomes of sons can be explained by financial factors. The inheritance is more an inheritance of “human capital” — skills, knowledge, capacity, personality traits, etc. Read more

Polyamory and willful blindness?

Imagine a scenario where a small child is allowed to play with loaded weapons without meaningful oversight from the parents. Then imagine the parents excuse their behavior by saying that the child had not yet been shot or shot anyone else, so his continuing to play with firearms has no relevance to their parenting abilities.

A few weeks ago, a Pennsylvania court issued a ruling in a custody dispute with, one can only hope, very unusual facts. The dispute was between a mother and father who had conceived a child while the mother was married to another man with whom the two parents lived (another woman subsequently joined the mix), and the adoptive parents of the biological mother. The parents’ “lifestyle choice” has been given the odd neologism “polyamory.”

At one point in the polyamorous relationship, one of the children sustained an injury while with the husband (not the father) that spurred child welfare agency involvement (it’s unclear what happened, as the court notes in a footnote). “After the four-way polyamorous relationship between Mother, Husband, Father and Stepmother dissolved,” the current dispute erupted. The trial judge gave custody to the grandparents, and this opinion came from a review of that decision.

Read more

Academic witch hunt ends in acquittal

A Child Trends report in 2002 concluded: “First, research clearly demonstrates that family structure matters for children, and the family structure that helps children the most is a family headed by two biological parents in a low-conflict marriage.”

There is plenty of social science evidence, spanning decades, to support this assertion, much of it collected in a report by the National Marriage Project called “Why Marriage Matters.”

Some influential voices would like to place an asterisk on the conclusion that married biological parents are the gold standard in terms of child well-being. They argue that there is one family structure that seems to be an exception to the common-sense view that children benefit from a stable family structure with their own biological parents. This group consists of same-sex couples raising children. Despite the lack of sexual complementarity and biological relatedness, we are told by organizations like the American Psychological Association, children raised by parents in same-sex relationships experience no different outcomes. (For a critique of the APA position paper on same-sex marriage, see this briefing paper from the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy [iMapp].) Read more

Helen Gurley Brown and the American family

Helen Gurley Brown’s death last week was followed by a number of laudatory stories about her trail-blazing career at Cosmopolitan magazine.

Undoubtedly she was successful, measured by influence and money. But I find it hard to lionize her career or her effect on American culture. She was well-known for turning Cosmo into a source of explicit “man-pleasing” sex tips, and for the quote: “Good girls go to heaven. Bad girls go everywhere.” A terribly clever saying, yes, but “going everywhere” isn’t a roadmap to a happy, fulfilling life.

Reading fashion magazines that emphasize appearance, sexuality and thinness – filled with Photoshopped images – is not healthy for girls or for women, and Cosmo is one of the worst offenders.

The perpetration of this distorted outlook is insanity. It is not just anti-family, but also profoundly anti-feminist – despite articles on a range of subjects, such magazines’ main focus is on women as objects to be looked at, valuable mainly for their (super sexy!) appearance, no matter their other abilities or roles in life. As The New York Times wrote, “The look of women’s magazines today — a sea of voluptuous models and titillating cover lines — is due in no small part to her influence.”

Brown, the author of Sex and the Single Girl, was an icon of “women’s sexual liberation,” aka the sexual revolution, which research has shown was not exactly healthy for the American family. Although she was happily married to David Brown for decades, she suggested that women above a certain age – when the pickings were slim – have sex with their friends’ husbands. Really? Now there’s a friend you could do without. (She also said, “You can’t be sexual at 60 if you’re fat,” so apparently only thin women could prey on their friends’ husbands.)

Brown was a strong woman who had a wildly successful career in a field dominated by men. Her influence in publishing and in encouraging women to broaden their career choices undoubtedly went deeper than Cosmo‘s lurid covers. It’s a pity that her real legacy is the intensified objectification of women and girls (or, as Forbes puts it, “do-me feminism“).

Alimony, audits and adoption: family issues heard during Utah interim meetings

During last week’s interim day meetings, the legislature heard three family issues.

The Judiciary Interim Committee listened to testimony about reforming alimony (brought to the Committee by Representative Fred Cox, R-West Valley City) which has been a Sutherland Institute priority. The proposal would allow courts to consider whether one spouse broke up a marriage in determining an award of support from one spouse to the other. This is a matter of basic justice: a person who did nothing to break up a marriage should not have to pay the spouse who did; a spouse should also not be put into a bad financial position by a spouse who destroys a marriage. The committee seemed open to the commonsense principle the reform would advance. Sutherland will continue working on this issue. Read more

Utah could take a lesson from Chris Christie on surrogacy

On Aug. 8, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie did the right thing in vetoing a bill that would have allowed adults to contract with one another so that one would carry a child to term for money and then surrender the child to another individual or couple to raise. The governor’s veto message included this important point: “While some will applaud the freedom to explore these new, and sometimes necessary, arranged births, others will note the profound change in the traditional beginnings of the family that this bill will enact. I am not satisfied that these questions have been sufficiently studied by the Legislature at this time.”

The National Leadership Coalition Against Exploitation of Women by Use of Gestational Surrogacy Agreements, a very diverse group (including the National Organization for Women, the Eagle Forum and the New Jersey Family Policy Council, among other impressive participants) issued an excellent statement in response to the veto:

We believe it is not an overstatement to observe that if gestational surrogacy enabling laws were to be widely adopted, it would irreparably change human civilization. In order to embrace any form of surrogacy, our culture would have to adopt two radical assumptions as morally acceptable:

1. That we should go back to a time when women’s role in society is viewed as one
where they bear children for men and have no right to the custody of the
children they bear; and

2. Mothers provide nothing of particular value in the lives of the children to whom
they give birth.

Relevance to Utah? Utah law allows for surrogacy contracts for money with some significant exceptions. Gov. Christie’s suggestion that the matter needs serious study should be considered seriously here. The Utah law was enacted as part of adoption of a uniform parentage act in 2005. Much of that act was probably anodyne and it is difficult to tell from the legislative history whether there was much discussion of this provision, which reasonable people must have thought would be rarely invoked. Perhaps, taking our cue from a sister state to the east, it is time to look into this question again.

How sound marriage laws enhance liberty

A sincere question often raised in the debate over the definition of marriage is whether it is appropriate for government to be in the marriage business at all. For those of us who believe in the principle of limited government, it is a question that deserves serious thought. There is much to say about why it might be appropriate for government to have laws regarding marriage even in a limited government system. Here I will offer a few practical considerations.

First, the most contentious issue today regarding marriage is whether the jurisdiction of the government over marriage will be greatly expanded. Until very recently, the laws regarding the eligibility to marry were extremely simple and limited. They were based on natural relationships between men and women, the kind that have always been recognized as unique in all kinds of human societies because of their potential to provide a mother and father for children. In the United States, the state merely recognized these relationships and required that to have the legal status of marriage conferred upon them a couple need only not be married to someone else and have the ability to consent (including reaching a certain age, a common-sense requirement). Some states added an extraneous requirement related to race in order to hijack the social capital of marriage to promote an evil notion of racial supremacy. The U.S. Constitution was amended after the Civil War to make clear that our laws ought to be colorblind, though it took many decades for that principle to begin to be fully honored.

With same-sex marriage, the power of the state expands dramatically to encompass a new role: not merely recognizing as a legal matter what is true as a natural reality — that there are two sexes whose union is unique in type and effect— but creating an entirely new kind of institution meant to give the government’s stamp of approval to any kind of relationship favored by adults. As a corollary, the government would now begin to tamp down definitions of family such as the idea held by many religious people and others that marriage is inherently the union of a husband and wife.

On this matter, some erstwhile advocates of small government have nothing to say. Not only do they not oppose the takeover of the marriage institution, they favor it, adding merely that ideally the government will get out of the marriage business. It would make more sense to oppose government expansion in the marriage business and then gradual disentanglement of the state from other areas of social life, but most often what we hear is support for redefinition and the wish that after expanding its jurisdiction over marriage, the government will (magically?) decide to drop the whole business altogether. My grandmother often said, “If wishes were fishes we’d all have a fry.”

I have recently publicly proposed a thought experiment. In 1787, every state in the new union had strict divorce laws and a very, very limited tolerance of “family diversity.” In 2012, we have exceedingly loose divorce laws and an increasingly expansive legal recognition of new family forms. The question is: Are we freer now than we were then? It may be easier to get out of a marriage contract (on paper, though not in reality), but do we have more liberty when a broad swath of the adult population has to get court permission to schedule time with their children or faces collection proceedings from the state for child support?

These and similar questions merit pondering for those inclined to surrender on the redefinition of marriage in the hopes that someday the dream of a world without marriage law will come to pass. Sincerely considering them might lead to a different conclusion — that maintaining a basic, well-defined legal structure to house the social institution of marriage enhances, rather than threatens liberty.

How is Utah’s child welfare system doing?

As we have reported, the Utah Legislature is reviewing an audit of the Utah Division of Child and Family Services.  The Foundation for Government Accountability has just released a report with state rankings based on 11 different child outcomes. The report’s aim is to assess the performance of state child welfare systems.

As the report states, “a top performing child welfare system should respond quickly to allegations of abuse, ensure that kids who are abused are transitioned to a safe and permanent home as quickly as possible (whether through successful reunification or adoption), guarantee that children in out-of-home placements are in safe and supportive home-like settings (foster care or kinship care) with as few placements as possible, and reduce the overall incidence of abuse and, subsequently, the number of children in need of foster care.”

There is good and bad news for Utah in the report.  Read more