It is news to no one that, in the Western world in general and the United States in particular, the call to fatherhood is being heeded less and less. Anyone unfortunate enough to pick up a newspaper is painfully aware that one-third of American children live without any father and that, in many inner cities, the out-of-wedlock birth rate exceeds seventy percent. Also well known, though rarely acknowledged, is the devastation that such a lack of paternity has wreaked on children and society more generally. Fatherless children have rates of incarceration, criminal activity, possession of firearms, poverty, drug and alcohol abuse, teen pregnancy, incompletion of school, and overall parental neglect and maltreatment alarmingly higher than their two-parent counterparts.
Coupled with the staggering divorce rate and the move in the West toward alternative lifestyles—permanent bachelorhood, cohabitation, or “serial monogamy”—it is now possible, without the slightest exaggeration, to begin using phrases such as “the end of the human family.” Reflecting on this paternal and marital landscape, theologian and pastor David P. Gushee soberly confessed, “I think it is quite possible that society as a whole is a lost cause.”
If there is to be any hope of stopping this societal hemorrhaging, then we must first identify the cause or causes of this decline in paternity. What exactly is making so many fathers abandon their posts?
I would like to propose that the demise of fatherhood is largely the result of a relatively recent and thoroughly unjustifiable faith in rational self-determination. Indeed, nearly all of the culprits that cultural observers have previously identified—contraceptives, abortion, women’s liberation, increased secularity, the usurpation of the functions of the father by the state—can probably best be understood as instances of this more general tendency.
In short, the demise of fatherhood is a product of what Thomas Sowell has dubbed “the unconstrained vision” of man. In this generally optimistic picture of human beings, there is every reason to believe that reason can achieve nearly anything it sets out to do. Every undertaking of the human race should flow from the rationally articulated plans of the individual. As Justice Anthony Kennedy infamously summarized in the passage dubbed the mystery clause of Casey v. Planned Parenthood, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Liberated from the constraints of custom and, increasingly, nature herself, the true powers of reason can be harnessed and applied to the unique circumstances of this unique individual’s unique situation. Faith in any other kind of guidance—for instance, forms of systemic or less directly rational knowledge, such as tradition—is mere superstition, a form of tyranny by other people, usually the dead. Standing firm against the oppressive tides of history, biology, and community pressure, the rugged individualist charts his own course for his own existence; indeed, he not only charts his course but also makes his map, his boat, and maybe even his own body of water.
In regard to paternity, the two most conspicuous and destructive instantiations of this unconstrained vision are voluntarism and functionalism.
Voluntarism, the new and Constitutionally validated philosophical undergirding of parenthood, is the notion that no person has any special duties to any other person unless he has explicitly or implicitly consented to them. To be duty-bound for any other reason, such as circumstance or biological kinship, would be to find oneself despotically ruled by irrational forces. This notion lies at the heart of reproductive freedom, championed by organizations such as Planned Parenthood, whose very name echoes the unconstrained view. “Reproductive freedom—the fundamental right of every individual to decide freely and responsibly when and whether to have a child—is a reaffirmation of the principle of individual liberty cherished by most people worldwide,” declares the organization’s website.
If women have the Constitutionally sanctioned individual liberty to terminate their pregnancies, as Justices Brennan and Kennedy affirm, then it can hardly come as a surprise that men, too, see no reason to be bound by unplanned parenthood. David Boonin, a philosophy professor at the University of Colorado, is forthright in his embrace of voluntaristic fatherhood: “If the man took reasonable precautions and made clear to the woman that he was unwilling to become a father, then while we may still be justified in saying that he is now behaving selfishly or callously, it may seem less clear that we would be justified in saying that he is violating the moral rights of the child or the woman.” And although the law persists in hypocritically pursuing dead-beat dads, the logic of Roe and Casey has not been lost on men: What makes a woman a parent is not that she is, in fact, a biological mother but, rather, that she chose to be a parent. And why shouldn’t men have the same choice? Why should they be tyrannized by the happenstances of biology?
Functionalism, for lack of a better term, is the legal and cultural notion that fatherhood is only incidentally related to biology and that the traditional functions of a father can be fulfilled through a patchwork of other relations or surrogates. On this view, there is little that is distinctive or even significant about a biological father’s relation to his son. On paper, it would appear that all of the functions of a father—providing affection, attention, protection, financial support—could be carried out by anyone or any group. How could something as incidental as a genetic link between two people possibly determine so much?
What began as the necessary and commendable move in law and the culture at large to equate biological and adoptive parents for reasons of stability (as well as to defang abusive or absent parents) has led to the view that blood relations are insignificant in regard to families. As a consequence, a barrage of alternative arrangements—intentionally mixed families, artificial insemination by donor (AID), heterologous surrogacy—is now being justified on the grounds of the irrelevance of biology. One lesbian-support website describes a break-up of a lesbian couple and their wrangling over the offspring of one of the partners (conceived through AID.) The other partner, who has no biological connection to the child yet playfully calls herself “a Canadian lesbian female-father,” chides her estranged lover for not recognizing her claims to paternity: “You are also wrong if you think that upon separation that any father is given adequate rights with their child.” Bad grammar aside, the message here is clear: To father is a function, and with the proper planning, procedures and safeguards in place, this function can be filled, at least in principle, by anyone.
Whether men in general are aware of any of these alternative arrangements, they are undoubtedly aware that they have been supplanted in the culture at large. If a mere biological father senses he can easily be replaced—if he is fungible, as the courts would say—then it is that much more difficult to find a reason to stick around. If anyone can do all of that tiresome, demanding, and thankless work, then let him (or her or them) do it!
The devastation wrought by voluntarism and functionalism on the human family has been incalculable, but for the average man the unconstrained vision usually never rises to the level of these sophisticated-isms, however much they continue to poison the culture. What has caused the most damage to fatherhood is the simple fact that this age insists that anything outside of the control of the human will is intolerable. And at bottom, success in fatherhood involves faith; it is something outside of the control of the human will. If the success of one of society’s most fundamental and critical roles depended on rational self-determination, then civilization would have come apart long ago. And now that it is being claimed that success in fatherhood must be the product of wise planning, we should not be surprised to see civilization coming apart.
In Sowell’s language, the wisdom embodied in fatherhood is “systemic knowledge,” knowledge acquired from the accumulated experience of previous generations. The rituals, customs, and rules of conduct that have been bequeathed to us by our predecessors are not principally products of reason; rather, they are embodiments of the successful adaptations that humans have made to their surroundings in the past. Not being the express product of a given individual, these adaptations are rarely understood in full by any given individual. In the words of economist F.A. Hayek, “[M]an has certainly more often learnt to do the right thing without comprehending why it was the right thing, and he is still better served by custom than understanding.” Understood in this light, confidence in fatherhood is confidence in a way of living, a groove that has been worn into existence by the many feet that have trod the same ground.
Faith in fatherhood, when such faith has existed, has always been faith in a tradition, which is to say faith in a communally and historically based institution that is wiser and more robust than any individual’s desires, whims, or considered judgments. Even before the children arrive and he is standing on the altar, the young father-in-the-making can hardly be said to be giving full consent to his marriage vows. The groom has little idea what he is getting himself into when he agrees to love his bride “for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health.” Legally speaking, no groom could ever satisfy the criterion of assent necessary for a binding contract; he only understands the content of the vows he has made long after he has uttered them.
To speak more metaphorically, what vowing spouses are doing is putting up a fence around themselves so that the seeds of the relationship will have the protection and space needed to grow. In a negative sense, they are barring the exits, but they are doing so because the positive goods to be attained—for them, their children, and society—are too good and often too unexpected to be entrusted to fleeting feelings of fidelity. As horse farmer and communitarian author Wendell Berry observes, marriage—like friendships, families, and neighborhoods—“is a form of bondage, and involved in our humanity is always the wish to escape . . . . But involved in our humanity also is the warning that we can escape only into loneliness and meaninglessness.”
Most fathers-to-be suppose that their old ego-centered lives will continue more or less unabated after the child arrives. With the exception of a few more obstacles and demands on their time, their involvement with their children is envisioned as being something manageable and marginal. Nothing like a complete transformation—an abrupt end to their former life—really enters men’s minds.
But then the onslaught begins, and a man begins to realize that these people, his wife and children, are literally and perhaps even intentionally killing his old self. All around him everything is changing, without any signs of ever reverting back to the way they used to be. Into the indefinite future, nearly every hour of his days threatens to be filled with activities that, as a single-person or even a childless husband, he never would have chosen. Due to the continual interruptions of sleep, he is always mildly fatigued; due to long-term financial concerns, he is cautious in spending, forsaking old consumer habits and personal indulgences; he finds his wife equally exhausted and preoccupied with the children; connections with former friends start to slip away; traveling with his children is like traveling third class in Bulgaria, to quote H.L. Mencken; and the changes go on and on. In short, he discovers, in a terrifying realization, what Dostoevsky proclaimed long ago: “[A]ctive love is a harsh and fearful reality compared with love in dreams.” Fatherhood is just not what he bargained for.
Yet, through the exhaustion, financial stress, screaming, and general chaos, there enters in at times, mysteriously and unexpectedly, deep contentment and gratitude. It is not the pleasure or amusement of high school or college but rather the honor and nobility of sacrifice and commitment, like that felt by a soldier. What happens to his children now happens to him; his life, though awhirl with the trivial concerns of children, is more serious than it ever was before. Everything he does, from bringing home a paycheck to painting a bedroom, has a new end and, hence, a greater significance. The joys and sorrows of his children are now his joys and sorrows; the stakes of his life have risen. And if he is faithful to his calling, he might come to find that, against nearly all prior expectations, he never wants to return to the way things used to be.
Reflecting upon this transformation, it must be concluded that virtually all of the goods that fatherhood has to offer originate outside of or are only tangentially related to the will and rational planning of a father. All of the Norman Rockwell moments in fatherhood—watching a son cleanly field a ground ball or a daughter sing in the school choir—are real, overpowering, and ultimately not of a man’s doing. In some nominal sense, of course, men give consent to be fathers, which is to say that they willingly hold their post while a swarm of unforeseen contingencies relentlessly comes their way. If they choose not to escape this form of bondage, most fathers, I would hazard to guess, would rightly regard themselves as “the luckiest men alive.” In their hearts they know that the goods of fatherhood are among the highest available in this life and that those goods are principally the result of forces—tradition (and perhaps even Providence?)—outside their rational plans.
But in our unconstrained age, tradition is, at best, a quaint relic, a lifeless curiosity gathering dust in an unfrequented museum. At worst, it is synonymous with oppression, the destructive force that brought us slavery, misogyny, and imperialism. Seeing farther now than our ancestors ever did, we are no longer burdened by the prejudices of the past or bound by promises that linger long beyond the point of their initial inspiration. We are now entering a brave new world, where marriage is easily dissolved before it becomes tyrannical, where parenthood is the product of choice not mere biology, where reproductive technologies allow us to have the children of our own making, and where fathers have finally earned the hard-won freedom to follow their dreams and leave their children behind.
Andrew J. Peach is an associate professor of philosophy at Providence College in Rhode Island.