Put as simply as possible, the "Cultural War" ("Kulturkampf") is primarily concerned with the way people set their own personal psychological priorities. How free should people be to choose their own personal goals, to decide upon and express their own values?

On one level, the condemnations of the "me generation" seem concerned mainly with hedonism. But, when regarded more deeply, the controversy involves the way people choose significant others and personal goals.

There had, until recently, existed an Axiom of Un-Choice: the most important priority for anyone was to serve his Deity and the immediate needs of others. In particular, sexuality was to be channeled into fidelity, procreation and the support structures of the extended family. One was called upon to give up adolescent, narcissistic fantasies about sexual attractiveness and to feel and perform sexually for one (opposite-sex) partner for a lifetime, despite the inevitable degradation of sexual attractiveness in age, illnesses, and accidents. Less gifted or attractive people were expected to pair off with their "own kind" or, in some cases, forego independent adult lives to take care of other family members. Part of this process was the conditioning of men to act like "men" and play fungible warrior without much questioning until women tamed them. The system worked to a point, providing somewhat stable support structures yet leaving families the targets of manipulation by politicians. What was most important was that one not question this "sexual constitution" or it wouldn't work at all if people had to think about it; sexuality was not a legitimate subject of creativity. Loving only what "turns one on" was seen as cheating, leading to bad karma. The right to "choose significant others" or to limit the scope of commitment was seen as likely to leave vulnerable people out in the cold and, in a society not willing to become too dependent on government or large institutions, likely to leave people without a safety net for themselves. The nuclear family, particularly for men, provided a sexual context for what would otherwise seem like burdensome social obligations, prerequisite for adult freedoms; but if this sexual motivation were to work for average men, alternatives could not be even discussed.

About the time of Stonewall (1969) and various other contemporaneous events (the end of Vietnam, Watergate, Moonwalk), ordinary middleclass people began to mistrust traditional authoritarian values and to develop an interest in individualism. Why not deregulate sexuality and the operation of the individual psyche, take it away from statist or bureaucratic social control and return it to the individual?

With this new personal libertarianism, we've seen the whole range of personal results. Some people do incredibly well, even in young adulthood, while others destroy themselves. We see AIDS and cocaine, but we see the Internet, marvelous advances in medical technology, and finally a resurgence of an interest in space.

Still, even in a society where there is much more personal freedom, "moral" questions about how one uses this freedom remain. What does it take to be held in high regard with those whom one would want as significant others or best friends? Does it mean that one must define oneself largely through a stable "marriage" to another (opposite-sex) adult (with the likelihood of children) before one is regarded seriously as one's own person? (There's real tension over this point, and it feeds the "stalking problem"; indeed, conventional marriage can become a convenient mask for personal inadequacies.) Does it mean that at some point one should be able to provide for someone else beside himself? Does it mean that one should show he can care about others beyond the meritocratic glamour of money or physical attractiveness? For indeed, when one who has never done these things and who has remained peripheral or expendable in personal relationships approaches others for personal social contact, his motives tend to become suspect, even creepy. (Ironically, the libertarian "self-ownership" idea reinforces the right of anyone to "reject" another for this reason!) A variation of this problem is the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, where an older man craves the aesthetic satisfaction of someone much younger. You could call this the "sexual princess problem" (as described by George Gilder) or a call for a pinch of aesthetic realism. It's pretty obvious that lifetime monogamous same-sex marriage could be advocated (for non-heterosexuals) as a reinforcement to the "conservative" idea of social obligations carried out with "family values." With legal recongition of same-sex marriage, writes conservative writer Jonathan Rauch in the essay "Who Needs Marriage" in Bruce Bawer's anthology Beyond Queer (Free Press, 1996), marriage can be "expected" (though not "required") of almost every adult. This "conservative" view of family and social obligation seems to emphasize that one ought to commit oneself to others while remaining acutely aware of one's indigenous shortcomings, before venturing out on one's own.

What strikes me, of course, is that conservatives, in their desire to appropriate personal adult sexuality as a "community resource" (especially to keep young fathers married, once they have had children), miss the idea that recognizing same-sex marriage might, instead of devaluing marriage as a fundamental social and legal institution, increase the pressure upon almost all adults to make commitments to others into major personal priorities. (National Review, Nov. 8, 1999, David Frum, "The Fall of France: What gay marriage does to marriage" (p. 26) and Maggie Gallagher, "Marriage-Saving: A movement for matrimony" (p. 38).

A notion of the imperative to marry affirms the importance of conventional (complementary and procreative) sexuality and criticizes its avoidance. It allows young people the highs of narcissism in finding a permanent mate once, and then (in "playing fair") expects the personality to deepen into the ability to feel sexually and "appropriately" whatever happens (especially after such medical calamities as breast cancer or major accidents), even should a second mate be chosen by an older adult after the death of a first spouse.

The obligation to place "family first" also invokes our often under-discussed notion of deservedness. We are uncomfortable with the observation that the workplace has become so "Darwinian" (as that term is commonly understood, perhaps naively), where people with heavy family responsibilities (not always chosen freely) compete with singletons, where people may depend "unfairly" on the "dirty work" of others, but, where, also, families may propagate unequal distributions of wealth.

Should America go down a socially conservative path after the Y2000 election, the slope might become slippery indeed. Say, Roe v. Wade is overturned, all abortions are outlawed in some states, then Congress "strengthens" DOMA and mandates "asking" military recruits about sexual orientation. Then a next step might be to penalize adults who remain unmarried (heterosexually) or who do not have other dependents, say in federal mortgage insurance, tax codes, and employment especially if they move away from their parents. Some people sincerely believe that adults should not have lives of their own until they meet family responsibilities and "sacrifice" for others (although these people usually don't say this). The downside of this view, even in the most "moralistic" socially conservative thought, is that a lot of people would get a free ride from this kind of public policy.


Is there a Moral Obligation to Marry and to Stay Married?

The philosophical (sometimes mixed with practical and sometimes not properly conceived) arguments for such a position may be given as follows (and note that these arguments generally could apply to same-sex marriages):

Today, families with children are thrown into "unfair" economic competition with single people. Both parents wind up having to work and compete in a "Darwinian" workplace, which results in less time spent with their children and serious emotional problems for children.

On the other hand, employers sometimes feel that "spouses" can help get business; married employees may be more stable and have fewer psychological needs (to "meet people") to compete with work.

Marriage (starting with the "tender trap" of sexual "possession") gives men, in particular, a lifelong support network and gives men who are not otherwise particularly gifted a way to "fit in." That is, women tame men, and when so harnessed men are (supposedly and statistically) more likely to remain interested sexually in one partner as both age. Older men in stable marriages may have more reason to maintain medical checkups and may find it easier to face cancer and heart treatments when they have committed partners to take care of them. Singletons, who must compete on their own, are left out in the cold if they develop disabling medical problems. As Jonathan Rauch writes (in Beyond Queer), a single person is "an accident waiting to happen."

Family support networks relieve government and the public of supporting the poor and disadvantaged. Family provides the ultimate "safety net."

A culture which emphasizes the individual over family tends to become overly competitive and to leave incapable people left to their own resources. It may over-emphasize superficial values like money and physical attractiveness.

Marriage actually helps many people discover a real "individuality" (even if relative to family and the needs of others) as compared to symbolic affiliation with the ideals of a group. A man may tend to be rather uninterested in parenting or fatherhood until a woman teaches it to him, yet experience a reward as the child matures into a young adult.

Some "family first" obligations (even those that may not be chosen, such as those to aging parents or relatives) are moral primitives and should not be regarded as matters of personal choice. Look at the movies October Sky and One True Thing. We must give people in time of need or less gifted people a fare shake in the "caring game."

For those individuals who are really emotionally unsuited for marriage, altruistic alternatives (priesthood, convent, mission periods) can be set up. Or singles could be expected to "stay home" and care for aging relatives.

(For people who believe that all moral principles must come directly from Scriptures): The Bible (and Koran) insist that marriage is God's will for most people.

The arguments against this position might go as follows:

It's healthy for a young adult to develop a "self-concept" (through a combination of work, creative work, and social interactions) first before depending emotionally upon a particular pair-bond relationship.

Marriage can become a cover-up for personal inadequacies. But social conservatives might argue that this happens only because modern affluent society is insufficiently supportive of marriage. I would add that, if you want to be really free, you have to be able to deal with your personal shortcomings by yourself. To some extent, individual meritocracy is good. (Outside of HIV-exposure risks and less daredevilish behavior, married men don't necessarily practice better health habits, in terms of diet, smoking and exercise, than singles. (I add here, however, that there is one study, however, claiming that young gay men today smoke cigarettes at the same rate [about 35%] as straight men about three decades ago.)

Young adults would have to think twice about elaborate career plans that apparently require postponing marriage and parenthood.

"Family" becomes a convenient target for unfair manipulation by politicians and large commercial interests.

Socialization of young men through the nuclear family amounts to an intellectually dishonest and deceptive "con game" ("the tender trap"), where men must hide many psychological aspirations from themselves.

"Family" unfairly preserves inherited wealth or inherited social class and "assigned station in life."

The gains of women in the workplace (even in the military) would be reversed (or "vacated"). Men would, in some cases, wonder what they fell in love with! (Unlike in the past, when women were viewed as naturally "superior"; it was the men who had to prove their worth in a competitive workplace or in warrior-like group activities. This sure sounds like George Gilder's Men and Marriage!)

People need a variety of psychologically intimate relationships to grow, although we could debate if one of these needs to be the anchor, "marriage."

Because a stable marriage becomes so important, there is plenty of incentive for jealousy (as in Eyes Wide Shut).

Even if family provides a less pervasive "safety net" than can government, people need to be given the opportunity to fail completely on their own, because the success of some people as individuals on their own eventually benefits everybody and increases wealth for everybody.

Even though the Bible obviously supports the family, Jesus advised in Matthew 19 that marriage was only intended for certain people, and Paul wrote that it was "better to marry than to burn," but that a spiritual path as an independent person was perfectly acceptable, even preferred. The Roman Catholic Church offers a priesthood (or convent life) for those adults disinclined to form families of their own, and in fact bans marriage (and all sexual activity, including, in theory, masturbation) for those who make this choice; most protestant denominations do not offer this.

Religion itself is a bit divided on how it treats "free will." One can experience faith and still own responsibility for one's own beliefs. Saying that the "Lord" didn't mean for us to control our own lives can sound like a copout.

Just as with economic issues, psychological surplus has a "supply side" behavior. When people are free to pursue their own personally chosen psychological goals (even while repudiating "family first" or loyalty to the family that made the person's individuality possible), they create a human surplus that in the long run benefits others.

To the extent that modern neo-individualism seems "counter family," individualism is a politically health counter to traditional political forces, whether these are based upon religion, more conventional statism, or modern democracy ("minorities rule"); all of these require a certain collectivism to get things done.

Can same-sex marriage fulfill a "family-first" moral obligation?

From personal experience, I don't know. What if, when I was in my twenties, I had learned (and this is subjunctive!) that same-sex marriage would be supported but that, to be recognized as a grown-up, I would be expected to remain sexually interested in one man, and put supporting his needs above all of my own ambitions, for a whole life? Could I have? I know of gay male couples who have. I might have reconsidered heterosexuality (no "reparative therapy," thought) but I might well have wound up with divorce and loose children.

Should the state become involved if indeed there is such an obligation?

Certainly there are a lot of mechanisms possible. Severely tax unmarried adults (Mussolini taxed bachelors heavily), bring back and mandate the "family wage," paid parental leave, child-friendly censorship of the media and commercial Internet sites, and so on. Public policy could severely penalize singletons like me. Well, I hope not!

Would a libertarian polity resolve to a family-friendly or family-first society? You could deregulate employment law and marriage law and let things shake themselves out. You could even reduce marriage to a civil contract between any two adults. Society might balkanize more than it does now, and people would choose to live in those segments (geographically or socially) where they individually fit in and can earn livings. Would economic "neutron stars" wind up unfairly exploiting families anyway? It would get interesting.

The fundamental policy choice over "Family First" could be phrases this way: will "we" ("society") require every adult to be part of a committed "caretaking" and "being looked after" agreement (that is, The Family) before he may pursue his own individually chosen adult goals? This is something many people would rather find "in the Bible" rather than analyze "rationally" because, perhaps, conceptualization itself encourages the "sexual suicide" process. Same-sex marriage could actually reinforce this finding, if one gets past the "women tame men" and "homosexual narcissism" paradigms.

To the extent that the social culture compels a "family first" personal strategy constraint of everyone, however, one can see, perhaps, a society which appear to achieve a greater value for human life for its own sake and which, by placing all other culture subordinate to that, may surprisingly make its achievers even more visible while making more average people more respectful of their limitations. The moral verdict on the "cultural war" cannot be predicted without some set of postulates (here we go, epistemology, anyone??), yet it seems to thrive on the tension, not just between freedom and responsibility, but also between real people and the conceptual beauty that only real people can create and perceive the Oscar Wilde paradox. May an individual ethically maintain complete control over choosing whom he will really care about? Empirically, I know that many people feel that "family first" is a motivational moral imperative. Morality breaks down into "do no harm" and "prior obligation" factions. Our culture has a deepening gap in appreciating people because of what we perceive as "merit" (achievement, money, possessions, power, even sexual attractiveness), and just because they are human. Family, after all, is predicated upon the notion that no everyone is self-sufficient and not everyone can easily appeal to others on his or her own.

If we learn to "work smart," we can execute our own personal choices and simultaneously meet our moral obligations to others.

See related essay on narcissism.

Return to archive page.