In the seventies family life was reconstructed to make adults free to choose the family lives they wanted. The promise of “families we choose”was that family life would be happier and more satisfying. No-fault divorce would end unhappy marriages. Easy birth control and abortion on demand would mean there would be no unwanted children. Cohabitation before marriage would end naïve marital choices. Reducing the stigma of divorce, unmarried parenting, cohabitation, abortion, and homosexual relations would widen the spectrum of “family.”
However, as Francis Fukuyama argued convincingly in The Great Disruption, the sixties and seventies disrupted traditional ways of arranging society in the name of freedom, without putting any better social arrangements in their place. Indeed, as things have played out since then, the new social arrangements have produced many new social problems, without solving the old ones. The American Paradox, David Myers argues, is that today Americans feel materially rich, but spiritually poor. Norval Glenn, a leading family sociologist, has shown that while most people are still happy with their marriages, fewer report being very happy compared to forty years ago.
The problem, I think, is that family life is not based on choice, but on faithfulness. The problem with the religion of choice is that it does not let you actually choose anything. Any choice made now forces you to give up other choices in the future. If, on the other hand, you try always to keep your options open, you never get to live any particular kind of life fully.
The conflict shows up most clearly when we are talking about marriage. As Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher demonstrate in The Case for Marriage, marriage can change lives because of the Power of the Vow. We choose our mates. More importantly, we choose never to choose another, barring death. That is what gives marriage its power. Choosing to live a married life with one particular woman is what makes the extraordinary change in men. Single men live the life of “options.” They have lots of choices, but many fewer accomplishments. Married men are the most productive economic group in society because they have given up the life of many options, and are living the life of their one great choice.
When we say “choice” now, it first calls to mind the choice about abortion. Easy abortion was supposed to end unwanted children. It didn’t. There are many factors which contribute to the problem of unwanted children. Still, a pro-choice attitude toward children, however much it may free women to live as they choose, has the unintended effect of undermining commitment to the children who are born, and to children in general.
As a society, the growth of choice about every aspect of family life – and genetic design of children and cloning are on the horizon, expanding the world of family choice – has, paradoxically, undermined our collective commitment to actual families.
Choice is a virtue in a society. But it is a secondary virtue. Faithfulness is a primary social virtue. When choice serves faithfulness, society is better. When choice displaces faithfulness as a high social virtue, society suffers. And the institution of society that depends most on faithfulness, commitment, reliability, and the Vow, is family life.