Marriage, Illegitimacy, and Social Norms

Last week I had the privilege of chairing a discussion as part of the annual Charles Street Symposium. The discussion was based on three essays, which considered the question, Why Do Societies Prosper? David Ruffley MP acted as the discussant for the session.

The first essay was titled More on the What and Less of the Why, by Bernardo Fazendeiro1. Bernardo argues that we are asking the wrong question and before considering why societies prosper we must first consider what we mean when we talk about prosperity. He concludes by stating that “taking a step back is more necessary than ever, so that we can deliberate on versions of the good, whatever that may be…”

The second essay titled The Ethics of Disutility was by Mats Ekman2. Mats’ considers whether it is morally right to force a person to maximise his/her own utility, ultimately concluding that it would be wrong to do so, arguing that “right” and “good” are separate qualities.

The third (and most provocative) essay titled Social Norms, Illegitimacy, and Liberty was by Carissa Mulder3. Carissa argues that “America is suffering from an illegitimacy crisis.” Drawing on evidence that compares the life outcomes of children from married families versus children from unmarried families, the essay argues that people from higher socio-economic groups are more likely to marry before having children compared to those from lower socio-economic groups due to the presence of social norms/expectations, which are absent among the lower class (note: the essay uses US data and focuses solely on the US).

Social norms can only exist if there are consequences for violating them” argues Carissa. “Conforming to these behaviours results in societal approval. On the other hand, people must experience negative consequences for violating these norms if they are to be effective.

In an issue as complex as this, it is far easier to diagnose the problem than it is to prescribe the right solution – a point that came through clearly in the subsequent discussion. The essay offers some suggestions (with examples) but struggles to reach a practical path for progress, partly due to the complexity of the problem and partly due to the limited space available (the maximum word count for essays was 1500 words). The following paragraph offers some broad-brush suggestions:

Elites should preach what they practise: present the picture of a married couple raising their biological children as the paradigmatic example of the good life; be explicit about why fathers are important; emphasise the benefits to children in terms of staying in school, avoiding abuse, avoiding drugs, and avoiding involvement with the justice system. People who are married and those delaying childbearing until marriage should be frank about why they are doing so. This should be done in a sensitive manner. But sheepishly muttering the truth, rather than explaining it in a straightforward manner, doesn’t make it any less true. It just means that those who most need a clear plan of life to follow will not understand it.

It may be tempting to see this essay – that essentially advocates marriage as a prerequisite for having children – as a classic right-of-centre, pro-marriage argument the like of which is familiar among American conservatism. With this in mind, it’s notable that the essay steers clear of the familiar anti-government, pro-individual liberty arguments that one might expect. Indeed the essay argues that the government can play an active role in providing a solution, citing the example of the US government’s “decades-long anti-tobacco campaign”, which has resulted in a dramatic fall in tobacco use, despite tobacco products remaining legal and available.

The essay concludes with a thoughtful discussion on some of the obstacles to establishing social norms. The section on virtue was particularly good: “Positive social norms often require the exercise of virtue—work, continence, delayed gratification. Virtue does not come easily to most of us. Developing virtue requires sustained effort and self-denial…So the first difficulty in establishing positive social norms lies in the difficulty of conquering ourselves.

As I have said, arriving at a practical solution to a problem such as this presents a huge challenge. The statistics on children’s outcomes highlight a serious problem requiring a serious solution. But it’s a big step to then say that marriage is therefore the right prescription for everyone who has children. Forcing (or indeed strongly encouraging) this could easily end up with a completely different set of social problems.

That said, there is a strong case for helping people understand that a two parent married couple offers the best environment for children. Providing people with the statistics on this will allow them to make informed decisions about whether or not to have children. As the essay makes clear, it’s about gradually changing social norms rather than introducing heavy-handed policies that might result in negative outcomes. In theory, this is all well and good. But devising a method to achieve it is incredibly challenging.

I encourage you to read the essays in full, which are available at the following link (Carissa’s begins on p 38).



1 Bernardo is a research associate at the Centre for Critical Thought at the University of Kent

2 Mats is a doctoral student at the Helsinki Swedish School of Economics

3 Carissa is the Special Assistant to Commissioner Peter Kirsanow of the US Commission on Civil Rights


Poverty in the UK

A recent FT article describes a child in Liverpool who chews on wallpaper at night to relieve his hunger. He. Chews. On. Wallpaper.

I have no idea how to even process this information. This is England, 2013.

A couple of weeks ago, I was chatting with some friends in their house in a deprived area of Liverpool when they showed me a haunting crayon picture. Drawn by a local child, it featured a large, empty plate with wobbly letters stating baldly: “Do you see any food?”

“There’s a lot of little kids going hungry round here,” explained one friend, who works in a local community centre. Indeed, just the other day she had spoken to a family where the child had been chewing wallpaper at night. “He didn’t want to tell his mum because he knew she didn’t have the money for supper,” she explained. “We hear more and more stories like this.”

Source: Where Austerity Really Hits Home, Gillian Tett, Financial Times

What Do Mums Do All Day?

I recently came across this story. Needless to say it made my wife and me smile…

A man came home from work and found his 3 children outside, still in their pyjamas, playing in the mud, with empty food boxes and wrappers strewn around garden. The door of his wife’s car was open, as was the front door to the house and no sign of the dog. Walking in the door, he found an even bigger mess. A lamp had been knocked over; the throw rug was against one wall; in the front room the TV was on loudly with the cartoon channel; the family room was strewn with toys and various items of clothing.

In the kitchen, dishes filled the sink, breakfast food was spilled on the counter, the fridge door was open wide, dog food was spilled on the floor, a broken glass lay under the table, and a small pile of sand was spread by the back door. He quickly headed up the stairs, stepping over toys and more piles of clothes, looking for his wife. He was worried she might be ill, or that something serious had happened. He was met with a small trickle of water as it made its way out the bathroom door. As he peered inside he found wet towels, scummy soap and more toys strewn over the floor. Miles of toilet paper lay in a heap and toothpaste had been smeared over the mirror and walls.

As he rushed to the bedroom, he found his wife still curled up in the bed in her pyjamas, reading a novel. She looked up at him, smiled and asked how his day went. He looked at her bewildered and asked, ‘What happened here today?’ She again smiled and answered, ‘You know every day when you come home from work and you ask me what in the world I do all day? ”Yes,” was his incredulous reply. She answered, ‘Well, today I didn’t do it.’

On the Worst and Best of Humanity

NYT Mag CoverA recent episode of the brilliant Danish political drama, Borgen, included an uncharacteristically disturbing storyline about paedophilia. The episode entitled ‘Them and Us’ delved into the childhood of leading character Kasper Juul, to reveal that as a young boy he had been sexually abused by his father and by his father’s friends.

At times during the episode my wife and I found the flash-back scenes of Kasper’s childhood so upsetting that we could not watch them, opting instead to fast-forward past them.

Just a few days later on the New York Times website I stumbled across this long feature article that movingly tells the stories of several American women coming to terms with being victims of childhood sexual abuse in the knowledge that images and videos of their abuse are being shared among paedophile networks on the internet.

The article is utterly horrifying and, in parts, very difficult to read. It stirs up fierce waves of emotion that rage deep inside. Feelings of sorrow, love, and compassion for the victims soon morph into utter disgust and anger towards their abusers. I wished I could reach into the story and somehow protect the young girls from the evil being done to them. At the same time I wished all kinds of pain and misery on their abusers.

The NYT article follows the victims’ quest for some sort of legal justice. Indeed, it explores what justice even looks like when dealing with an area of the law that is constantly evolving. Thankfully, a little-known provision of the Violence Against Women Act provides some hope. This provision gives victims of sex crimes, including child pornography, the right to restitution or compensation.

With the help of lawyers, judges, and other experts, the women in the article are able to seek damages from anyone found in possession of the indecent images of them.

This financial compensation is small comfort considering the crimes committed and the lost childhoods of the victims. But the money represents something greater than compensation. It establishes a firm principle and proclaims a warning to anyone involved in child pornography: “if you participate in a market, you become responsible for that market” (quote: Paul G Cassell).

After reading an article like this it is easy (and perhaps natural) to dwell solely on what is wrong with humanity. Specifically, on the unimaginable levels of wickedness that people inflict upon each other. But the lesson I choose to take away is this: despite humanity’s seemingly endless capacity for evil, there exists in this world an unquenchable thirst for justice. This pursuit of justice is underwritten by a profound sense of compassion, made possible by men and women of courage who are standing up for what is right. In this case the lawyers, legislators, judges, and jurors who have protected and supported the victims of paedophilia.

And that, despite everything else, fills me with some hope.