Can we live without loyalty? James Q. Wilson argues that the decline of marriage and loyalty now threatens to undermine our social cohesiveness and to produce a generation that cares little about loyalty and prizes freedom over character.

James Q. Wilson is one of America's foremost public intellectuals. His writings launched a revolution in our understanding of crime and social dysfunction and his insights into our cultural crisis provide some of the most insightful analysis and constructive arguments yet to be found. Now serving as the Ronald Reagan Professor of Public Policy at Pepperdine University, Wilson sees the decline of marriage as a central threat to civilization itself.

In "The Ties That Do Not Bind: The Decline of Marriage and Loyalty," published in the Fall issue of In Character, Wilson addresses the decline of marriage within its larger social context--arguing that our current marriage crisis is rooted in a basic failure to reconcile the values of character and freedom.

"Of all of the relationships into which people enter, the family is the most important," Wilson asserts. "We are raised by parents, confronted with siblings, and introduced to peers through our familial roots. Indeed, human character arises out of the very commitments people make to others in their family or outside of it. Marriage, of course, is the supreme form of that commitment."

Thus, when marriage is marginalized, character suffers. Wilson knows the statistics. Married couples are happier, in the main, than unmarried persons, and married couples and their children are less likely to commit crimes. Of course, the virtues of marriage far exceed those statistical indicators. Nevertheless, the social fallout caused by the marginalization of marriage is easy to document.

Wilson understands that our current cultural crisis is deeply rooted in a larger intellectual context. He sees the essential tension that produces America's culture war as a battle between character and freedom. "The Western world is the proud beneficiary of the Enlightenment, that cultural and intellectual movement that espoused freedom, endorsed scientific inquiry, and facilitated trade," he explains. "But for a good life, mere freedom is not sufficient. It must work with and support commitment, for out of commitment arises the human character that will guide the footsteps of people navigating the tantalizing opportunities that freedom offers." As Wilson sees it, freedom and character "are not incompatible, but keeping them in balance is a profound challenge for any culture."

Wilson brings the issue of loyalty to the forefront of his argument on behalf of marriage. The language of loyalty is central to any consideration of the morality of social life, but Wilson offers unique insights into how the virtue of loyalty is foundational to the very idea of marriage.

Is loyalty always a virtue? Wilson acknowledges that loyalty cannot be the supreme moral good, for it is possible to be loyal to the wrong cause, the wrong authority, or the wrong association. As he remarks, "A Nazi is not regarded as a moral person because he is loyal to Nazism."

Thus, Wilson proposes that loyalty as a positive virtue should be defined as "the natural sociability of people." Accordingly, "A loyal person is someone who is attached to other people for the long term based on a deep sense of what is due to them."

In some, Wilson argues that a sense of loyalty is a civilizational essential and that the context of the family--with marriage at the center--is essential to the inculcation of loyalty in the young. Sociopaths are produced when this essential commitment to loyalty is missing. The risk of producing sociopaths escalates significantly when a large number of children and adolescents lack the loyalty-building context of the family with married parents.