The Long March from Marriage to Autonomy

An Adaptation from "The Recovery of Family LIfe"
The Long March from Marriage to Autonomy
Story Stream
recent articles

The following piece is an adaption from "The Recovery of Family Life: Exposing the Limits of Modern Ideologies" by Scott Yenor.

A sexual revolution is taking place among us. All see it, but all do not judge it in the same way. Some celebrate this revolution as the fulfillment of the democratic and modern promise and seek more ways to deepen and extend it. For these advocates the revolution represents being on the “right side of history.” They judge all proposals for change by whether they keep the revolution rolling. 

Others think or affect to think that the great revolution is a product of happy accidents (“the ’60s” or “the pill”), but sinister forces could rally to reverse it in a backlash so it is crucial to be forward in defense of yesterday’s gains. 

Others see the sexual revolution as an element of an irreversible democratic revolution, and they despair of all efforts to limit the revolution; they retreat or plan a retreat from this new world. 

Others see the seemingly irresistible march of the sexual revolution as part of the democratic revolution but see how that revolution ignores many human goods and undermines human thriving and political prosperity. 

This last perspective animates my book. To arrive at this perspective is difficult, since few pursue philosophic knowledge about the nature of marriage and family life. People are mostly concerned with today’s controversies, finding little time and energy to invest in deeper understanding about what political communities should seek to accomplish with marriage and family life and what marriage and family life are. Those claiming philosophic knowledge spend their energy working out the principles of our public philosophy, where human things are susceptible to remaking according to our arbitrary human wills. These pretended philosophers of family life conjure ways to establish greater human liberation or autonomy—and leave behind the old marriage and family life.

A better philosophy recognizes that the human world is not infinitely plastic. Human nature, marriage, and family life cannot be made, unmade, and remade according to any reformer’s fancy, to achieve the goods that the reformer would like. All ways of organizing marriage and family life involve costs and compromises. We may not always be able to see those costs and compromises and we may not always look, but the logic of nature is there, in what we do and what we leave undone. The beginning of wisdom about marriage and the family involves knowing what challenges of nature they respond to. The irreducible core of marriage and family life centers on sex, procreation, education of children, and an adult dyad (at least) who bear common responsibilities. There is also a predictable structure to how the goods of marriage and family relate, though there is not perfect support in nature for how goods are structured. The logic of nature limits how marriage and family life are lived in a particular time and place. 

Different political communities tend to have different family structures and different rankings of goods, or different family regimes. By family regime I mean a manner of distinguishing the valuable from the non-valuable concerns of family life, of attaching shame or honor, of connecting pride and unconcern to actions within marriage and family life, and of imagining how the various concerns of marriage and family life relate one to another in a particular time and place.

The great changes in marriage and family life, underway throughout the Western world and beyond since the 1950s or 1960s, mark, in the final analysis, a displacement of an older, dependency-making marriage and family regime with one centered on autonomy (more on this in a moment). Marriage and family life are complex interplays of nature and political regime, or culture and law (as we say today). Marriage and family regimes follow the logic of nature—revealing the power and durability of nature. There are different family regimes but there are not an infinite number of marriage and family forms, which would undermine our ability to study and talk about these human things.

The Modern Family Regime of Autonomy, Properly Understood 

Our modern world has a family regime, a way of imagining marriage and family life and love. I explored the rise of this purer, more extreme family regime in Family Politics: The Idea of Marriage in Modern Political Thought (2011). Two ideas especially transformed marriage and family life in modernity. First, the idea of marriage as a contract slowly displaced the idea of marriage either as a sacrament or as a moment creating a community transcending the individualistic standpoint of contract. Individuals now mostly think of themselves as free to determine the terms of the marriage contract—its duration, its form, its purposes, its depth and breadth. In early modernity, individuals conformed to an idea of marriage that society made; society inhibited divorce, for instance. In late modernity, individuals seem to decide for themselves the nature and duration of marriage; society’s role has receded. Once society upheld marriage as important to the perpetuation of society through its role in the procreation and education of children, but today marriage is seen to be, in the words of Obergefell v. Hodges (the Supreme Court decision mandating same-sex marriage), about an adult’s “expression, intimacy, spirituality” centered on choice. With the triumph of contract, marriage and family life are more made for the individual and less able to take on public purposes or reflect publicly approved forms. 

The second powerful modern idea is that human beings should seek to bring nature under rational human control. Many of the things that appear as “givens” of the human condition—for instance, the birth process, procreation, the differences between the sexes, the fact that children are taken care of mostly by their birth parents, our dependence on others—might be remediable parts of the human condition if we but created new institutions to deal with them. The greater our control over the “givens” of life, the greater our freedom and power. Perhaps single parents can replace the two-parent family. Perhaps other ways of engineering children will replace the genetic lottery of sexual reproduction. Perhaps state institutions could replace the family as primary vehicles for education. Perhaps society can overcome sex differences. As modernity proceeds, human beings, in a sense, exercise their wills more over their condition and create a new moral and physical continent for future generations. 

The ideas of contract and of conquering nature merge in the contemporary concept of autonomy. Autonomy demands more than consent. Truly autonomous choices must, on an ever more radical understanding, be made without the influence of imposed habits, human reason, education, social pressure, legal pressure, cultural expectations, previous decisions, our sex or bodies, or any other external demand. Autonomous choices spring from an individual’s will alone, lest they be traceable to something alien to the individual. This affords individuals a chance to make themselves what they, for whatever reason, want themselves to be. 

Autonomous people may still forge bonds with others, but autonomous bonds must be continually re-willed and renewed. If bonds were “natural,” “corporeal,” “habitual,” or “divine,” our liberty would not proceed from our will alone and individuals would be less than autonomous. People must be free to form relationships and to exit relationships when they stop serving their life plans. This means close, intimate relations must be open as to the form and number of partners and the extent of their commitment. 

With the rise of autonomy, contemporary liberalism, which makes autonomy its chief concern, appears as the goal of modern political thought as such. Before the 20th century, the concept of autonomy hardly appeared in political discourse. Each thinker and most laws had good reasons to embrace ideas of contract or movements toward conquering nature, but also to mix the embrace of such modern principles with other principles that restrained, limited, and regulated them. 

When early modern thinkers embraced ideas of contract or recommended the conquest of nature, they may have been offering principles that balanced the patriarchal and otherworldly nature of the previous feudal or aristocratic regime. Marriage was a contract (acknowledging individual freedom), but for necessary purposes involving the procreation and education of children (acknowledging the limit on the contractual mode of thinking), for instance. Parents had rights and power to oversee the education of their children toward independence, without thinking that children were either consigned forever to live within the extended family or that they were already independent. 

The situation appears different now and the mixing history has given way to a view that all thinkers sought autonomy but had only just begun to work out its meaning. Changes in family practice and “family law are fully in accord with the rise of a modern, secular, individualistic state.” All aspects of marriage and family life are being reconceived in terms of liberal autonomy as contemporary liberals march across marital and familial institutions. This march is what I call the rolling revolution in marriage and family life. By rolling revolution I mean the seemingly unfinishable series of changes in marriage and family life toward the realization of individual autonomy. 

Virtually all changes in law, practice, and opinion in this area have had the effect of stripping away the Christian or traditional aspects of marriage. Cohabitation, fornication, and adultery are not only no longer crimes, but are more and more accepted as matters of course and perhaps even as highly recommended practices. Contraception and abortion are legal, widely available, used, and honored. People have fewer children. Marriage is no longer limited to heterosexual couples, and hence less related to the needs of the body or the state’s interest in the procreation and education of a future generation. Gender identity, in decisive respects and ever more, is seen as the product of choice or assertion.

A new balancing effort is required in a world that itself seems new. Political and familial health require education against autonomy that points to and appreciates human limits. These human limits are grounded in the body. They also implicate crucial moral goods that attract human beings—including most prominently the goods of love and human happiness. This new balancing ethic, integrated into a public philosophy, emphasizes responsibility and duty, not rights; the long term over the short term; the body and its necessities, not autonomy; the goods associated with human dependence such as love, not the glorification of autonomy and independence; and the virtues associated with sexual difference, not gender neutrality. 

Perhaps the most striking feature of today’s marriage and family landscape—where one finds little public support for marital roles or for marital stability, and where people can live together and drift apart at will—is that marriage is as strong as it still is today. Call me an optimist, but things could be much worse! Still a majority of children in America are raised in intact marriages by their biological parents. Still more than half of marriages last until death. Still most women have children and manifest no little desire to care for them. Still men and women, by and large, act differently within marriage, though they may be embarrassed about that. Luckily the goods to which family life appeals are still grounded in practice, though our regime of autonomy makes it difficult to see these sources of marital and familial health and the public benefits that accrue from that health. Those who would defend marriage and family life lack the vocabulary to do it and have a hard time showing that the rise of autonomy is hardly an unmixed blessing. 

The fact that things could be worse does not make a defense of a mixed family regime any easier. One must divine when to aid the efforts of reformers and balancers, when to slow them down, and when to resist further rolls in the revolution. The Recovery of Family Life provides resources and arguments suited for the hearing of today’s ears, though there may not be enough ears to hear and the ears have been trained not to hear. Its defense of marriage and family life in our situation exposes the hidden assumptions and blind spots of those who advocate for the rolling revolution. The Recovery of Family Life defends Old Wisdom, on topics that touch on people’s identity, pride, and passions. 

Scott Yenor is a professor of political science at Boise State University and a Washington Fellow at the Claremont Institute’s Center for the American Way of Life. Learn more about his new book, “The Recovery of Family Life: Exposing the Limits of Modern Ideologies” (Baylor) and more at his

Show comments Hide Comments