Prager University released a video on YouTube called “Be a man. Get married” narrated by sociologist Brad Wilcox.
I’d like to share some thoughts on this video.
First I want to note something very important about Prager University’s YouTube videos. They are all, as a matter of policy, only around 5 minutes long. My assumption is that this is so they can convey their message in a timespan that a majority of people will be able to handle. But this has a couple of consequences. First, the Prager faculty cannot make a detailed and lengthy argument. To get their message across, they have to rely on rhetorical shorthand devices such as examples and illustrations. This seems to work, as Prager has garnered over 70,000,000 views. On the other hand, 5 minutes is simply not enough time to lay out anything more than a bare skeleton of an argument. For example, the philosopher Peter Kreeft has made two Prager videoes “Where do Good and Evil Come From?” and “God vs Atheism: Which is More Rational?“, both of which I recommend, but neither of which gives Professor Kreeft anywhere near the time he needs to really make the argument: he isn’t so much making an argument, as presenting the outline of an argument. If you want to see the argument actually spelled out at length, I suggest you read one or more of Professor Kreeft’s 50+ books. He’s an extremely competent, well-respected philosopher who also has a gift for writing books accessible to people with little or no formal philosophical training.
So with that in mind, let’s have a look at Brad Wilcox’s “Be a man. Get married.” The video appears to be a summary presentation of Wilcox’s book For Richer, For Poorer: How Family Structures Economic Success in America. Wilcox’s main argument is that married men take a different attitude towards life and particularly towards their work, such that married men are markedly more economically successful than single men, on average. Most of the “argument” such as it is, is an anecdote about a young man who was lazy and living in his parents’ basement until he got married, whereupon he had to “man up” and went on to become much more responsible, disciplined, self-motived, and above all (for Wilcox) economically successful.
Taken by itself, this is terrible argument to get married. While I have no doubt that Wilcox is correct that married men earn more on average than single men, it simply doesn’t follow that (1) married men have more money than single men—the extra money they make is, after all, going to support their wife and children as well as themselves—nor that (2) married men are better off in any way other than economically, something which, given (1) is very like not true anyway. So, if married men are no better off in being married except economically, and—by the way—they also aren’t even better off economically, except on paper, Wilcox’s case is pretty much a complete failure.
Add to that the fact that he comes across as morally hectoring men to “man up” and get married. Few people like to be preached at in a condescending manner, especially when the preaching comes it the form of an argument that is almost laughably bad. No wonder Wilcox’s video provoked so much hostility around the net:
Wilcox also completely ignores the potentially devastating consequences of a failed marriage for men, both economic and emotional. He bangs on and on about the alleged rewards, but fails even to suggest that there might be risks, much less prohibitive risks for men to get married.
Now, as it happens, I think that marriage is one of the greatest goods possible for both men and women. Wilcox’s case for it, however, is so bad that it does more harm than good. While I was watching it, I kept thinking of man advising young inner city black males “You should get into dealing drugs; there’s good money in it”, which is also superficially true, but leaves out that whole thing about the overwhelming likelihood of prison time and early, violent death.
Wilcox does actually manage to at least mention two decent points, or at least they appear in the video, one which speaks to the individual good of marriage and one which speaks to the social good:
I went ahead and struck out the “financial well-being” part of that one.
Wilcox does go on about the transformative effect of marriage, but he couches his case exclusively in terms of attitude towards work, which in turn leads men to work harder and make more money. But with the distinct possibility of being less happy, having less leisure to enjoy one’s extra income, and having one’s extra income or more being taken away from one, it sounds very much like Wilcox is arguing that “Marriage makes men work harder, which is beneficial to someone other than them, so they should do that.” In Wilcox’s terms, marriage doesn’t seem like something that the pursuit of happiness would lead to; it sounds, in fact, much like something the pursuit of happiness would mitigate against.
What someone wishing to make the case for marriage to men in the modern West needs to do is to show how they benefit from it. And this benefit could with partial accuracy be expressed in the phrase “be a man“—except this way of putting it is apt to sound like moral shaming language. The truth of the matter, however, is that it should be expressed in terms of virtue and self-actualization: if you would be a man in the fullest sense, you must be a husband and a father. And why should you wish to be a man “in the fullest sense”? Because that is a component of your εὐδαιμονία—your happiness or flourishing; it is because you are a human being, and to be a human being means, among other things, to be a member of a sexually dimorphic species. No one, I think, would seriously argue against the propositions that sex and sexuality are major components of the human body and psychē—many of the major moral arguments of the current age revolve directly around sex and sexuality—nor would anyone contend that, collectively, for any gives biological species, reproduction is one of the most important factors to consider about that species. And of course, no matter how much our prevailing sexual ethos has attempted to conceptually separate sex and sexuality from reproduction, every honest human being knows (so I would assert) that sex and sexuality are naturally directed at reproduction. That is what they are for. In older language, having children is the τέλος—the “end”, “purpose,” or “goal”—of sex.
One particularly virulent modern myth is that nature does not have any “ends”, “goals”, or “purposes”, that there are no natural τέλη or that if there are, they are not normative for human beings. I cannot lay out the full case here, but I will note in passing (1) natural τέλη were never “refuted” by any sound philosophical arguments—they were simply deemed unuseful by thinkers such as Descartes and Bacon, who saw in the idea of natural ends (rightly) an obstacle to their project of the human conquest and subdual of nature. The scientific method does not find natural τέλη because it is part of that method not to acknowledge them from the the outset. Consider Descartes’ argument, that τέλη have no place in science because the purposes of God are inscrutable:
And for this reason alone I consider the customary search for final causes to be totally useless in physics; there is considerable rashness in thinking myself capable of investigating the < impenetrable > purposes of God.
Descartes, René. The Philosophical Writings of Descartes: Volume 2 (p. 39). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.
Notice that (1) this argument could just as well apply to the parts of physics of which Descartes approves, efficient and material causes, for is there not “considerable rashness in thinking myself capable of investigating” how God has designed the world to operate in any respect? And (2) from the point of view of modern physics, in hindsight, which is the more “inscrutable” proposition: “The spin of a Higgs boson is zero” or “the purpose of eyes in organisms is sight“?
Only someone deeply in the grip of anti-teleological metaphysics could deny that eyes are for seeing, lungs for oxygenating the blood, the legs for locomotion, and sex for the production of children. The fact that seeing, breathing, walking or running, and especially sex also give us pleasure—sometimes great pleasure—in no way cancels this basic natural directedness-towards of our powers.
One needs only the additional premise that “what our natural powers aim at is constitutive of our good” in the way e.g. knowledge is good, because our natural cognitive powers are aimed at knowledge and truth in a way they are not aimed at deception and falsehood. Or as Aristotle begins the Metaphysics: “All men by nature desire to know.”
Why get married? Why become a husband and a father? (Or a wife and a mother? for that matter). Because this belongs to the fulfillment of your nature, which just is the condition of your happiness or εὐδαιμονία. Certainly one can elect to follow another path in life, and seek a kind of secondary or sub-optimal εὐδαιμονία, or one can be prevented from seeking optimal realization of one’s nature by external circumstances. Life is not fair that way. None of that changes the fact that being married, with children, is optimal condition for the happiness or flourishing of human beings, women as well as men.
But isn’t it true that our modern society has deprecated marriage, has created conditions in which men have an entire range of disincentives to marry and to become fathers (fathers in the true sense—rearers of children—not in the merely biological sense)?
It sure has. This is one of the reasons that Western civilization is dying. We are not reproducing, neither biologically nor in our cultural ideas and values—the transmission of which, from parents to children, is one of the primary purposes of the family.
Any civilization that makes war on marriage and the family will destroy itself. And it will also, along the way, deprive vast numbers of men and women of their opportunity to maximize their own happiness, forcing them to settle for something less. Both of these are a great shame.