James Q. Wilson's -- And Society's -- Marriage Problems

Forthcoming in book on the legacy of James Q. Wilson: Political Science Rightly Understood (R. Shep Melnick et al., editors)

Boston Univ. School of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 14-61

37 Pages Posted: 18 Oct 2014

See all articles by Linda C. McClain

Linda C. McClain

Boston University - School of Law

Date Written: October 17, 2014


The role of the marital family in shaping character and cultivating civic virtue occupied a significant place in the later thinking, writing, and advocacy of the late James Q. Wilson. This paper reflects on the legacy of Wilson’s two marriage problems and the use of his work in the same-sex marriage controversy. The first marriage problem Wilson studied, in The Marriage Problem: How Our Culture Has Weakened Families, was the weakening of the family as a bedrock social institution. Marriage, Wilson insisted, is a “fragile institution,” requiring reinforcement by a strong marriage culture. He warned of America becoming “two nations,” divided into two parent, marital families and “fatherless” families. The Marriage Problem addressed a second problem, presented by nature, that marriage, as a social institution, solves: the stark asymmetry in desires and parental investment between mothers and fathers that would, without marriage anchoring men to families, leave women and children vulnerable. Wilson’s analysis of marriage as fixing an evolutionary shortfall has undergirded “responsible procreation” arguments made in party and “friend of the court” briefs filed to defend restrictive state and federal marriage laws against constitutional challenges by same-sex couples. As part of the marriage movement, Wilson joined public statements warning of threats to marriage posed by divorce, “illegitimacy,” cohabitation, and same-sex marriage. Wilson himself filed a “friend of the court” brief advancing “responsible procreation” and paternity as public purposes justifying California’s one man-one woman definition of marriage. This essay examines why the “responsible procreation” defense of marriage, which puts same-sex couples -- who cannot become parents by accident -- beyond the concerns of the state is, increasingly, a loser. It then considers the relevance of Wilson’s analysis of society’s two marriage problems in an era in which, even as marriage becomes available to many same-sex couples previously excluded from it, it seems at risk, for other populations, of disappearing as a way of organizing family life. The essay concludes by observing an important bifurcation within the marriage movement: while some continue to oppose same-sex marriage as inconsistent with marriage’s unique purpose of ordering heterosexual reproduction, others propose an agenda to “strengthen marriage” that accepts marriage equality and addresses a different form of marriage inequality -- the growing marriage divide.

Keywords: James Q. Wilson, moral sense, marriage, mothers, fathers, family values, marriage movement, welfare cohabitation, evolutionary biology, Defense of Marriage Act, responsible fatherhood, marriage promotion, individualism, gender equality

JEL Classification: K19, K39

Suggested Citation

McClain, Linda C., James Q. Wilson's -- And Society's -- Marriage Problems (October 17, 2014). Forthcoming in book on the legacy of James Q. Wilson: Political Science Rightly Understood (R. Shep Melnick et al., editors), Boston Univ. School of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 14-61, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2511229

Linda C. McClain (Contact Author)

Boston University - School of Law ( email )

765 Commonwealth Avenue
Boston, MA 02215
United States

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