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The resilience of natural law

Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, has a new book entitled “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.”  The book, building off a popular speech she gave in 2010, encourages women to stop holding back their career ambitions and push hard for success, using decisions from Sandberg’s own life as examples.

Reviewing the book at Fox News, Suzanne Venker, vice president of the Center for Marriage Policy, argues that Sandberg’s message is “misguided” because her advice runs counter to both the realistic options and maternal desires of most women:

As the mother of two young children, Sandberg prides herself on having a “50-50” marriage: one in which both parents share equally in all breadwinning and all childcare. But what does this mean in real life? It means both parents leave their homes each morning and return each evening—and pay other people (i.e. less educated women) to do the bulk of the parenting work for them.

That’s fine if you’re the Sandbergs and can afford Mary Poppins. Most cannot.

But the greater problem with Sandberg’s proposal is that it dismisses maternal desire. That women can run companies and outwork the hardest working of men is not in question. What is in question is this: Do they want to?

Increasingly, the answer is no. According to the most recent data from the Pew Research Center, the opinions of mothers who’ve chosen to stay home—a highly educated group, I might add—have changed dramatically. Today, a mere 16 percent say they’d like to work full-time outside the home, down from 24 percent who felt that way in 1997.

Venker concludes that “the only way to be Sheryl Sandberg is not only to be fabulously wealthy but to be comfortable being away from one’s home and children all day, every day.  And that’s not what most women want.  It’s not what kids want, either.”

This is one of many examples of cultural and political will running afoul of our old friend natural law, which is stubbornly resilient despite vast technological advances and highly organized efforts to steamroll natural law with collective willpower.  The precise outlines of natural law are subject to much debate – as with any other animating principle, such as “social justice” or “income equality,” great power accrues to whoever gets to define the terms.  But the idea behind natural law is to discern principles that really aren’t subject to redefinition: immutable facts of physical reality, economic activity, and human nature.

When efforts are made to persuade, or compel, large numbers of people to act against the principles of natural law, the result is tension, social exhaustion, and lots of people with whiteboards fumbling to explain why brilliant government programs resulted in expensive failure.  There are always individuals who find ways to chart highly unusual but successful lives; a society with proper respect for liberty finds ways to accommodate them – to tolerate them – and may often find their extraordinary accomplishments worthy of celebration.  But pushing huge numbers of people to follow a path that leads away from natural law is usually a doomed effort.  Not everyone can spend a lifetime swimming against the tide of human nature, and frankly most people don’t want to.

As far as I can discern, Sandberg isn’t pushing much in the way of a government policy agenda – she’s giving advice to a willing audience.  But Venker is correct to note that what she’s advocating, in a high-octane version of the message long pumped into our cultural bloodstream by feminism, is contrary to the natural law illuminated by maternal instinct: the elevation of career ambition over motherhood, to the point where the stay-at-home mom is regarded as inferior to the career woman, an indentured servant to her husband, pressured into surrendering her personal ambitions.  Stay-at-home moms were notoriously caricatured as out-of-touch in the early stages of the 2012 election, using a formulation similar to Venker’s critique of Sandberg’s book – the portrayal of full-time motherhood as a luxury only the rich can afford.

It’s not good to create an environment of social and economic pressure that makes a natural arrangement like motherhood seem un-natural, or undesirable.  And it’s not good to diminish the importance of fathers to families, either.  The social fallout from weakened families touches just about every social ill we suffer, from crime to poverty.

A similar nod to natural law can be found in a fascinating blog post called “I’m Gay and I Oppose Same-Sex Marriage” by Doug Mainwaring.  It’s well worth reading in full, and it includes a great deal of personal information that must have been difficult for him to make public.  His ultimate conclusion:

Two men or two women together is, in truth, nothing like a man and a woman creating a life and a family together. Same-sex relationships are certainly very legitimate, rewarding pursuits, leading to happiness for many, but they are wholly different in experience and nature.

Gay and lesbian activists, and more importantly, the progressives urging them on, seek to redefine marriage in order to achieve an ideological agenda that ultimately seeks to undefine families as nothing more than one of an array of equally desirable “social units,” and thus open the door to the increase of government’s role in our lives.

Which leads to this observation about the difficult of swimming against the tides of human nature:

Mark Regnerus, a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin, recently said, “I think you can have social stability without many intact families, but it’s going to be really expensive and it’s going to look very ‘Huxley-Brave New World-ish.’ So [the intact family is] not only the optimal scenario … but it’s the cheapest. How often in life do you get the best and the cheapest in the same package?”

Marriage is not an elastic term. It is immutable. It offers the very best for children and society. We should not adulterate nor mutilate its definition, thereby denying its riches to current and future generations.

It takes a lot of cultural, and eventually legal, force to stretch immutable nature into new shapes, and the results of the stress can take years to make themselves fully felt, to the sorrow of subsequent generations.  On the other hand, regimented conformity to the perceived outlines of natural law can result in a stagnant, intolerant culture, where too many square pegs are hammered into round holes.  The trick is to respect individuality, and eccentricity, without exerting undue pressure to re-define “normal” in a manner inconsistent with human nature.  Should our law and culture take more account of what we are… or what some determined souls think we should be?

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