The people's voice of reason

1.03 Marriage Meltdown and Moral Formation

Twentieth century psychology correctly identified the sources of moral formation. Sigmund Freud, Erik Erikson, Jean Piaget, Lawrence Kohlberg and others showed that moral formation occurs in stages of development. Internalization of the commands and images of the parents plays a strong and vital role in moral formation. Traditional family was the first template for moral formation. Earlier in history, “conscience” was believed to be an inherent part of human nature—something humans are born with. While there may be some genetic predisposition to development of conscience, there is also a very strong social component. Basically conscience is instilled by the surrounding culture, and parents play a central role. Moral formation includes both a cognitive (learning) component and emotional component. The emotions that are involved include not only shame and embarrassment because of wrong-doing, but the development of an internal monitor that Freud called the “superego” that demands correct behavior. According to Freud, the superego resulted from the internalization of the commands and the image of the parents.

In an earlier columns, I described the breakdown of traditional family and marriage when the culture shifted from an agrarian to an urban, industrial/technologically based economy. In western civilization, romantic attraction played an important role in pairing couples off, and then, according to the fairy tales, they lived “happily ever after.” However, romantic attraction didn’t work as well in the non-agrarian economy. “Romantic attraction in offices and factories between members of opposite sexes who were not married to each other produced inevitable results. Laws changed in the 1960’s, shifting to no-fault divorce. Change in law was the result, not the cause, of the breakdown of marriage. Courts were ill-prepared to deal with the onslaught of emotion-laden divorces, child custody matters, child support matters. The adversarial system for dispute resolution is the hallmark of the court system, but it definitely was not the best place to resolve the highly emotional issues arising from breakdown of the most fundamental unit of civilization. Because the family was largely responsible for moral formation, the effect of the breakdown of family had significant impact on our society. The system that has evolved for the resolution of emotionally charged domestic disputes leaves much to be desired. The potential results are far reaching.

Often we hear theories about the cause of crime. Searching for a “cause of crime” is the wrong approach. There is no “cause” for crime, although many social and personal factors may create an environment in which it is more likely to occur. There is a cause for moral, law-abiding behavior. The cause for proper conduct is sound moral formation—the adequate development of conscience. Sound moral formation has been imperiled by breakdown of family, and the resulting destruction of the template for moral formation. Moral formation traditionally depended on the child’s strong, healthy relationship with both parents. Our method of dispute resolution does little to improve the prospect. A few hours of a judge’s time, with attorneys doing battle to zealously represent clients in an adversarial setting, with economic factors being the pre-eminent concern, is not a good way to make decisions that will drastically affect the entire future for children, mothers and fathers.

When moral formation declines, it is predictable that there will be an increase in crime. The rate of incarceration remained constant in the United States from 1924 to 1964, but began to mushroom in the late 1960’s—the same time that traditional marriages began to breakdown at a rapid rate. It would be a mistake, however, to jump to the conclusion that the breakdown of family was the initial cause of the increase in incarceration. Just because two things happen one after another does not mean that the first causes the second. Reasons for the increase in the rate of incarceration included the increased use of drugs, the criminalization of conduct that might not have been criminal previously, and numerous other factors coming out of the tumultuous 60’s. But the breakdown of moral formation is likely to cause increasingly poor behavior, and to escalate the rate of incarceration, in a vicious, degenerating downward spiral. What goes on in domestic relations court interacts with what goes on in criminal court.

Thoughtful people are beginning to understand that there is a systemic problem in the way we have dealt with domestic relations litigation. But we have a long way to go. In the next column I will deal with a huge problem in the economics of divorce: Child Support.


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