Summary: In recent decades, the U.S. and other liberal societies have sustained large increases in the incidences of divorce and unmarried parenthood. At present, we find ourselves embroiled in a growing controversy over gay marriage. How should we judge these developments? Should we celebrate the progressive transformation of the family as promoting the fundamental liberal purposes of individual freedom and happiness? Or should we resist the progressive disintegration of the family as an ultimately self-destructive assault on civil society’s primary and indispensable character-forming institution? To gain some perspective, a useful first step is to reconsider the classical liberal conception of the family, as presented by the greatest philosopher of classical liberalism, John Locke. By considering Locke’s understanding of the nature and purpose of marriage, we can gain important insight into our contemporary controversies, viewing them in light of more fundamental questions concerning the nature and conditions of individual rights, freedom, and happiness, and of legitimate, republican government.
Peter C. Myers is Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, specializing in political philosophy. He is the author of Our Only Star and Compass: Locke and the Struggle for Political Rationality (Rowman & Littlefield, 1998) and of articles on Locke and in the fields of American Political Thought and Literature. He is currently working on a full-length study of the political thought of Frederick Douglass. Professor Myers received his M.A. and Ph.D. in political science from Loyola University Chicago and his B.A. in political science from Northwestern University.