Divorce and Family Values
Ethical Analysis Paper
FAM 382/ IDSD 346 Ethics & The Family
Professor Robert Reyes
This paper will focus upon the growing occurrence of divorce in our society. Using this phenomenon the paper will then broaden to examine the overall issue of change in family values over the years. I believe that studying divorce is a good way to get to the heart of the issue, since its growth in society indicates the changes in family values that have caused it and other relatively new family situations.
Divorce is more than the breaking up of a marriage. It involves the social, emotional, and legal process through which former spouses move from marriage to another lifestyle; that is to say, divorce is not a single event that occurs at one point in time. It drastically changes the lives of all that are involved – wife, husband, children, and even extended family in some cases. I have personally seen divorce occur in my extended family several times, and know its effects well.
The most disturbing thing about divorce is its growing acceptance into American society. In the postwar 1950s, there was widespread agreement on the importance of the nuclear family and a closely-knit domestic life; the United States divorce rate in 1958 was a low 2.1 divorces per 1,000 people. The divorce rate then jumped to 2.5 per 1,000 by 1965, and to a record 5.3 per 1,000 in 1979 – more than 2 ½ times the 1958 rate. It reached the same record again in 1981. After dipping slightly, to 4.8 per 1,000 in 1988 and 4.7 per 1,000 in both 1989 and 1990, the divorce rate stabilized during the early 1990s. As of 1993, about half of all marriages ended in divorce, with the rate slightly higher for second marriages.
In the eyes of conservatives, this growth is alarming indeed. It shows the accelerating decline of the family in recent years and drastic changes in attitude towards divorce. Divorce is highly negative in conservative opinion. Conservatives seek to limit divorce by making it more difficult to obtain, in hopes that couples would think more carefully into entering a more binding marriage, and see divorce as a less viable option to resolve conflicts.
In a broader sense, divorce is just one of many growing problems that indicate the deterioration of society and family values in our country to Conservatives. They see the family as falling apart because of a demise of family values, sexual promiscuity among teenagers as well as adults, and a general disintegration of the traditional family. Some blame the changes on women, claiming "the success or failure of civilized society depends on how well the women can transmit…values to the men." They believe that families should be more closely knit, with parents having more control over training their children.
In the view of liberals, divorce guarantees the freedom of individuals to escape unhappy marriages. They fear Conservatives making divorce more difficult, since to them it is a right. The growth in divorce is a natural development of the overall changing of family and family values, and not to be feared. Temporary problems may result, but they are merely growing pains as our society changes in modern times.
Furthermore, Liberals see modern developments as a long-standing change that began with more women taking jobs outside of the home. The number of married women in the labor force doubled between 1930 and 1980 but quadrupled between 1900 and 1904. This change started long ago and the problems supposedly caused in recent years have always gone on to some extent. A notable effect on modern society from divorce is that many young couples are postponing marriage for their career, in hopes of a stable union later in life. Liberals think government should have more control over families, and parents less.
Centrists tend to fall somewhere in the middle between Conservatives and Liberals. In this matter, they believe that some areas of the family are indeed declining, and that decline is mainly due to individual selfishness. They are not completely against divorce, but do wish to limit its occurrences through counseling and other means of discouraging its practice. They do not blame current developments on females, but on parents as a whole in their pursuit of their own gains.
Feminists are a subgroup of liberals who believe in advocating the interests of females as complete equals to males. They do not believe in the traditional model of the family that advocates males being the household head and leader. Therefore they side with Liberals in seeing no problem with the current family changes. They are not the fault of the women, who are merely claiming their place in society and divorce is clearly their easily accessible right should they not be happy in a marriage.
In the matter of divorce and changing family values as a whole, there are two clashing ethical theories – Ethical Egoism and Kantian Ethics. A married couple is experiencing major conflict in their relationship and have two choices. Do they remain married and work through their difficulties, or do they divorce? Their decision will depend upon which of these two ethical systems they employ personally.
Ethical Egoism dictates the importance of defending your own interests before any other. Since human beings are living entities, we share the same goal as plants and animals. The will to live is the origin of ethical value. The narrow sense of this system is merely to be selfish, but the true meaning is the broader sense that we will do what is logically best for us in the long run. We wish to survive, to be happy, to feel safe and fulfilled, and accomplishing these goals may link us to the well being of other people. This system does not dictate selfishness, but logical actions of self-preservation.
In a possible divorce situation, divorce is sometimes justified using this system. If a person is not happy, and will likely not be happy in the long run, then the marriage should end to free them. Although in some cases individual happiness will be so dependent upon the happiness of the children, that they will decide to stay together "for the children’s sake." They will be happy because they children are happy and they care about them. However in most cases it is safe to assume Ethical Egoism will suggest divorce in order to gain freedom and happiness elsewhere.
It is likely because of the growth of individuality and the practice of this system that divorce has become more prevalent. Marriages are formed on the basis of romantic love, and when it seems to be lacking, individuals will divorce and pursue it somewhere else. Ethical Egoism will even drive a spouse whose partner is not happy in the marriage to pursue divorce and free their partner to be happy. The system poses the question, would we be happy if our lovers were not happy with us and wanted someone else? We would wish to free our lover instead of keeping them in an unloving relationship.
In short, marriage should only be binding as long as it fulfills our self-interests. When it is no longer of any use to us in providing happiness, we should immediately seek release and not be kept from it. This seems to fit heartily with the Liberal growth of individualism in modern times. The traditional family is not important, and equal fulfillment can be found in any number of alternative "family" situations.
Kantian Ethics believes in the importance of Duty before all else. Even if an action is not gainful to us or attractive in any way, if it is our Duty it must be done unquestioningly. Immanuel Kant, the founder of this system states that "a duty is what in one being corresponds to the rights of another…where there are no rights there are no duties." Therefore Duty requires us not to look to our own interests as in Ethical Egoism, but instead to look to defending the rights of others. Furthermore, Duty should be determined logically through reasoning. To Kant, reason is not just the judge, but also the source of right and wrong.
Returning to the divorce situation presented, each spouse would not use their own interests as a guide, but try to determine their Duty. Through exchanging their marital vows, they pledged marriage to each other "until death do us part" – therefore this Duty binds them. Additionally, they have the Duty of caring for each other as spouses, caring for their children should they have any, and paying off the mortgage on their house as well as fulfilling any other Duties they entered into together.
Duty is rarely something attractive to people in any situation. The purpose of Duty is to be the glue that binds society together, and "goodness" is obtained by obeying ones Duty. Made obvious by the lack of binding marriages and kept promises in our society today, Duty is not being carried out, as Immanuel Kant would define it. Though Duty is a difficult concept to define and grasp, I would hold that people today could still recognize when they fail to do their Duty.
Conservative thinking fits closely with Kantian Ethics in this regard. One could argue using Kantian Ethics that family values are declining today primarily because people are not doing their Duty. Divorce, pre-marital sex and childbearing, drug use, deception, and other common occurrences contributing to the decline of the family are caused by failed Duty. Children have a duty to obey their parents, parents to care for their children, spouses to care for one other and people to care for their bodies. People doing their Duty would accomplish a return to traditional family ties sought by Conservatives.
There are also two clashing Duties of Houlgate that can be applied to justify different courses of action in this situation. There exist potential to use Duties of Fidelity or Duties to Respect Autonomy to explain why the couple should make up or split up. Other duties could also apply, but these two seem to best fit the question of the morality of divorce in this situation.
Duties of Fidelity are obligations we incur because of a previous voluntary act of our own, such as making a promise. Marriage vows are indeed promises, ones meant to be kept for the rest of the party’s lives. Making such a promise should bind the individual to the agreement, therefore divorce is definitely not an option in keeping this Duty. The traditional family is kept together largely through this duty when functioning properly. Though members may sometimes wish to leave due to conflict, in the long run they will usually benefit from having been bound to the family.
Duties to Respect Autonomy is a duty not to limit the freedom of others to perform self-regarding actions, an act being self-regarding if the consequences of the act concern the interests of only the actor. In some situations, this Duty could be used to argue for a divorce splitting a family, if keeping the family together was only in the interest of one member. Since in this case it would be in the best interests of the other family members to divorce, then not allowing a divorce would limit their freedom for the benefit of one. However it is difficult to determine what is in the best interests of each person involved in the long run, and some would tend to think a family is usually best staying together.
As a Christian, I have decided that divorce is wrong but necessary in some cases. It has taken me some time to reach this decision, because there are good arguments for both sides of the issue. I have also had two cases of personal experience with divorce within my own extended family, so the issue touches me personally.
One convincing argument is that divorce rapidly gets people out of a bad family situation. If there is open conflict in a family causing unhappiness, then divorce will cut off any contact and resolve conflict. In the case that a family member is abusive, this is obviously necessary for the protection and safety of the rest of the family. Many undesirable things can occur within a family that merit divorce in order to get them away from possible harm.
However it also be argued that divorce often causes great trauma to members of a family afterwards. During divorce "the individual is faced with the challenge of adjusting to a range of coexisting intense emotions which appear to subside concurrently." There are a number of books on the subject of Divorce Therapy, since it causes so much pain that many have trouble coping and require counseling. Everyone in the former family is effected by divorce – father, mother, children, and relatives.
The Bible indicates that divorce was a commonly allowed practice in ancient Israel. Several times it is casually mentioned in passing; "suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writers her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house." It seems safe to assume that divorce was a commonly accepted practice then, since even modern Jewish traditional law allows it. So it would seem that God deems divorce allowable in some circumstances.
However the Bible also speaks against divorce in parts of the New Testament. Jesus Himself says "anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery." When questioned by the law fanatical Pharisees about the legitimacy of divorce, Jesus replied "…the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female’…they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate." Jesus is saying that marriage is intended by God to last forever, and only adultery is justifiable grounds for divorce. Even after divorce in that situation, no one should marry the wife (who is assumed to have been an adulterer) since she was already given to one man.
With two messages that seem to conflict, what is the modern Christian to decide concerning God’s stance in divorce, and in a broader sense, changing family values? I believe that God knows divorce is necessary on a sinful earth, where His Creation has gone awry. Marriage is meant to last forever and the intents of both spouses should be such when they enter into the marital vows. But should some unforeseeable circumstance arise where the vows of faithfulness have been broken or the marriage is becoming a harmful situation, it should be ended. We live in a sinful world, which will never begin to approach Heaven. I believe the Bible makes it clear that this world will enter a downward spiral in the last days, and therefore we should not be surprised if humanity as a whole seems to be starting that spiral through the decline of the family.