In his post yesterday, my former boss Robert P. George did not mention the public statement on marriage signed by an impressive array of scholars to which he is a signatory. Likewise, he didn’t note that this scholarly document has already made significant contributions to the public debate on marriage.
In June, George was among a small group of civic leaders who met with President Bush to discuss marriage. During this meeting, George handed the president a copy of the just-published booklet Marriage and the Public Good: Ten Principles . Senator Sam Brownback later quoted the statement, now commonly referred to as The Princeton Principles, during the Senate debate over the Federal Marriage Amendment.
The Princeton Principles are endorsed by an all-star list of more than fifty scholars, including James Q. Wilson of Pepperdine University, Paul McHugh of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Robert P. George of Princeton University, Amy Wax of the University of Pennsylvania School of Law, Hadley Arkes of Amherst College, Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard Law School, Leon R. Kass and Jean Bethke Elshtain of the University of Chicago, Jeremy Rabkin of Cornell University, and Daniel N. Robinson of Oxford University.
The Principles are the result of scholarly meetings in Princeton, New Jersey, over the past two years. These gatherings, convened by the Witherspoon Institute , united leading scholars from across the academic disciplines to present scholarly findings from their areas of expertise. Several participants decided that a formal statement summarizing the best available scholarship was sorely needed—hence the Princeton Principles .
The Principles are a scholarly tour de force, defending marriage’s importance for individuals and societies, from varied academic disciplines: sociology, psychology, biology, history, economics, moral and political philosophy, and law. Though initial reactions focused almost exclusively on the report’s take on same-sex marriage, the Principles are concerned with much more. The authors highlight several threats to marriage: a culture of divorce (afflicting even low-conflict marriages), widespread cohabitation, out-of-wedlock births, same-sex marriage, and the unregulated fertility industry.
As the Principles make clear, the breakdown of marriage has caused great harm to many Americans. Consider spouses abandoned through avoidable divorce. Consider adults who suffer fleeting flings rather than the protection, resources, and care of a spouse. Consider, above all, children hurt by their parents’ divorce; born without the protection and love of a father; or perhaps most appalling, artificially conceived (more accurately, produced) without the commitment of both parents and only to satisfy adult desire. As the authors note, "[M]arriage is losing its preeminent status as the social institution that directs and organizes reproduction, childrearing, and adult life." And the results have been disastrous.
The erosion of a healthy marriage culture has been particularly hard on the most vulnerable Americans. Yet cultural elites who purport to have compassion for those at the margins have for the most part looked the other way—or worse. The Principles point out:
The products of Madison Avenue and Hollywood often appear indifferent to, if not hostile towards, the norms that sustain decent family life. â¦ The nation’s retreat from marriage has been particularly consequential for our society’s most vulnerable communities. Out-of-wedlock birth, divorce, and single motherhood are much more common among lower-income African Americans and, to a lesser extent, Hispanic Americans, in large part because they often do not have as many material, social, and personal resources to resist the deinstitutionalization of marriage. The latest social scientific research on marriage indicates that minorities and the poor pay a disproportionately heavy price when marriage declines in their communities, meaning that the breakdown of the family only compounds the suffering of those citizens who already suffer the most.
The Princeton Principles present a holistic understanding of the importance of marriage as a social-justice institution. Many of our nation’s cultural elites, however, promote institutions that are hostile to the advancement of underprivileged Americans.
The document seemed necessary for two reasons. First, because the very idea that the public has any interest in "a socially supported normative understanding of marriage" is under attack, especially in the academy. Defending marriage would thus "require confronting these attacks, assessing their arguments, and correcting them where necessary." The Principles do just that, concluding with a statement bold for the academy but commonsensical to most Americans: "We are persuaded that the case for marriage can be made and won at the level of reason."
Second, the authors—almost all of whom are professors—thought that they owed this report to their students: "On behalf of our students, we need to make this statement, since marriage is above all a choice for the young: they need arguments to counterbalance the dominant arguments now attacking marriage as unjust and undesirable, and they need to know what marriage is in order to sustain their own marriages and raise their own children."
The Princeton Principles provide a concise list of ten principles to guide civic leaders in thinking about marriage and public life. But beyond pointing to particular principles, they offer the best one-stop scholarly resource for social science and moral and political philosophy pertaining to marriage. They conclude with five action points for legislation moving forward.
They also note, however, that legislation, though important, is not the primary means of reform. In the words of the statement: "Creating a marriage culture is not the job for government. Families, religious communities, and civic institutions—along with intellectual, moral, religious, and artistic leaders—point the way. But law and public policy will either reinforce and support these goals or undermine them. We call upon our nation’s leaders, and our fellow citizens, to support public policies that strengthen marriage as a social institution."
And they are careful to note that marriages cannot survive on their own, for no man—or marriage—is an island: "But a marriage culture cannot flourish in a society whose primary institutions¯universities, courts, legislatures, religions—not only fail to defend marriage but actually undermine it both conceptually and in practice."