Skip to content

Charles Murray’s “Coming Apart” and the measurement of social and political divisions

Following up on our blog discussions a year ago, I published a review of Charles Murray’s recent book, “Coming Apart,” for the journal Statistics, Politics, and Policy. I invited Murray to publish a response, and he did so.

Here’s the abstract to my review:

This article examines some claims made in a recent popular book of political sociology, with the intent not being to debunk any claims but rather to connect some important social and policy positions to statistical data on income, social class, and political attitudes. The thesis of Charles Murray’s book is that America’s upper and lower classes have become increasingly separate, with elites living more disciplined, orderly lives (characterized by marriage, work, and stable families) while being largely unaware of the lifestyles of the majority of Americans. I argue that some of Murray’s conclusions are sensitive to particular choices of whom to label as elite or upper-class. From my analysis of survey data, I see the big culture war occurring within the upper class, whereas Murray focuses on differences in attitudes and lifestyles comparing rich to poor. Coming Apart is a lively contribution to current debates and complements more statistical analyses of political and social polarization.

Murray’s reply had no abstract, but here’s the text of the whole thing. I think the discussion was productive.

Before leaving the conversation, I just want to point to a bit in Murray’s article that I thought inadvertently illustrated Murray’s points about implicit assumptions and cultural divides. Near the end of his reply to my review, Murray writes:

When a society’s elite is confident that its own values are the ones that all of society ought to adopt, those values get communicated. They’re in the air—in the way journalists cover stories, editors write editorials, television networks choose the new season’s series, and screenwriters create plots. They are reflected in the way that members of the elite talk with their children, with their professional colleagues, and whenever those topics relating to their values come up in a public setting. In all of those settings, today’s new upper class tends to be obsessively nonjudgmental.

If you doubt it, try bringing up the issue of single women having babies at your next dinner party, and see how many of your companions are willing to say, even in a private gathering of friends, that it is morally wrong for a woman to bring a baby into the world knowing that it will not have a father, and morally wrong for a man to impregnate a woman knowing he will not be a father to the child. Fifty years ago, no one at the same kind of dinner party would have said that it was not morally wrong.

It is statistically highly likely that all of the biological children of the people at a dinner table of today’s upper-class adults have been born within wedlock. If there are childless never-married women at the table, it is likely that they have deliberately foregone having a baby, even though they might want one, because they have decided it is unfair to the child not to have a father. Put another way, it is likely that all of the people at the table have made moral evaluations and behaved accordingly. “Preach what you practice” simply means to stop being nonjudgmental in public about moral principles that you hold in private.

I have no idea what Murray’s personal view is on the matter, but from the above passage I take it that he thinks it is OK for people to think that “it is morally wrong for a woman to bring a baby into the world knowing that it will not have a father,” and that it is “obsessively nonjudgmental” to not think it is morally wrong for a woman etc.

I think there’s something generational going on here. I actually know several women who’ve knowingly brought fatherless babies into the world—and they and their kids seem to be doing just fine. Yes, I realize there are people who find this sort of thing objectionable, but I’d actually think it was kind of rude for them to say something like that over dinner—at least, it would be rude if one of our friends with children were around.

So, yes, I agree with Murray that there have been big changes over the past few decades—but these changes go deeper than he might realize. In the last two sentences of the quotation above, Murray implies that members of the upper class hold in private the principle that it is morally wrong for a woman to bring a baby into the world knowing that it will not have a father. That might be true among the upper class of Dallas or other conservative parts of the country, but where I live, not so much.

At this point, Murray could of course respond that I’m making his point for him, that I’m illustrating how distant I am, in my Manhattan lifestyle, from average Americans. And I could respond with some poll data showing liberal attitudes on social issues among Americans under 40. But really this particular discussion would not be needed, because my point is simpler than that. Murray thinks it’s obsessionally nonjudgmental to think it’s OK for a woman to have a baby with no father, and I think it’s an odd sort of retro throwback to believe that such a woman’s behavior is morally wrong. In this case it can be difficult to communicate in general, although perhaps it would be possible in special cases. (Murray might, for example, agree that my friends might be OK having brought babies into the world knowing they will not have a father. Perhaps he could consider it morally wrong in general but accept my friends as special cases, perhaps arguing that this sort of think can work in Morningside Heights but not in many other places in the country.)

P.S. There’s a bunch of discussion below but I think some of it misses my main point, which is the following. Murray wrote, “try bringing up the issue of single women having babies at your next dinner party, and see how many of your companions are willing to say, even in a private gathering of friends, that it is morally wrong for a woman to bring a baby into the world knowing that it will not have a father.” I agree that my friends wouldn’t be “willing to say” this, but for the simple reason that I think most of my friends don’t think it is wrong for a woman to do that. Times have changed. Then again, lots of Americans would agree with Murray on the moral condemnation. Attitudes vary by geography, by generation, by many factors.


  1. Dan says:

    There’s a difference between thinking an action is morally wrong and personally deciding not to take the action. The right to choose is defended by many individuals that would not actually take the action to have an abortion themselves, if the situation arose. That doesn’t mean they necessarily view the action as morally wrong. They simply do not want to take that course themselves.

    Petitioning society to “preach what they practice” is ridiculous. Different strokes for different folks.

  2. jonathan says:

    I remember the first woman I met who was having a child at age 41. That was 1985. It was completely out of the ordinary experience then. Can’t say that now. She was married, but the point stands.

    I don’t know how one can say not having children is a moral judgement about marriage. Not being a woman, I at least know I don’t know how that process works, so I rather doubt Murray does. It seems pretty complicated and morality is the least of it. For example, we’ve been talking about a person we know who just became pregnant by accident and is not in a long term relationship. The choices involved for her are raising the child or having it adopted and she is choosing the first. That decision requires thought about support systems for day care and costs and all the things that become much easier when two people are around to share duties and to figure things out. These issues seem far more important than moral judgements about wedlock and bastards.

  3. WT says:

    Murray thinks it’s obsessionally nonjudgmental to think it’s OK for a woman to have a baby with no father, and I think it’s an odd sort of retro throwback to believe that such a woman’s behavior is morally wrong.

    If there’s anything that can be considered established fact in social science here (given that we can’t randomly assign kids to families), it’s that single parenthood is on average much, much worse for kids than having two parents. Exceptions might exist among your friends, but if anyone doesn’t need to be reminded that anecdotes don’t establish that two statistical distributions are the same, it’s you. It’s common sense, really: two parents means that there are two people who can possibly earn money, take turns reading to a kid while the other parent cooks dinner, etc. One parent means that there is only one adult to handle everything: earning income, cooking, housework of all kinds, homework, baths, etc. It’s crazy to think that one person can handle all of this as well as two people, or that a child would get as much intellectual stimulation in a one-adult household as in a two-adult household (again, on average).

    So the morality comes in here: it’s not nice to hurt kids.

    • Nameless says:

      I agree 100%.

      And to connect to Andrew’s line of thought, I suspect that upper class women _still_ think that it is “morally wrong” to have a baby with no father. (Or not “morally wrong” but simply “wrong”, because “morally” may have undesirable religious connotations in progressive Northeast.)

      One statistic I could relatively easily google up is that, among white women age 20 to 30 with no college education (call it “lower class”), the percentage of children born out of wedlock is staggering 51%.

      Among white women 20 to 30 with college degrees, the same percentage is 8%.

      What I think is happening is that upper classes, and especially progressive upper classes, have a form of cognitive dissonance: they still hold specific beliefs like the belief that it’s inappropriate to have children out of marriage, to commit adultery, to use recreational drugs, etc. While at the same time they would not dream of imposing their beliefs on other people and on lower classes because, as Murray says, they tend to be “obsessively nonjudgmental.”

      Even on a subject like abortion, upper classes will actively defend the “right to choose” for everyone, including married women, but they rarely have abortions themselves (only about half of all women ever have abortions in their lifetimes, and they are disproportionately unmarried and low-income.)

      • Andrew says:


        I recognize this is what Murray is saying, but my friends and I really don’t feel that it is wrong to have a baby with no father. I’m not quite sure how you would describe “upper class,” but we’re upper middle class for sure. You might feel it’s wrong to have a baby with no father, and Murray might feel that way, but I don’t feel that way, and I don’t think my friends do either. Nor, I assume, do the author and illustrator of the book whose cover is featured at the top of this post.

        Then again, I don’t think it’s inappropriate to use recreational drugs. So I suspect what’s going on is not cognitive dissonance. It’s just that we have different opinions than you do on what is right and wrong.

        • Nameless says:

          Well, the fact of the matter is that people in your social class are far less likely to have children out of wedlock and somewhat less likely (2..3x) to use recreational drugs than lower classes.

          So, if you and your friends don’t feel that it is “wrong” to do these things, then we must have some form of doublethink at work.

          And just to be clear, raising a child by a lesbian couple is a completely separate subject and we should not be trying to lump it together with raising a child by a single mother. Murray’s “moral wrongness” of “bringing a baby into the world knowing that it will not have a father” does not include the case of the baby having two mothers. Perhaps it’s a bad choice of words. Just mentally replace “will not have a father” with “will not have two parents” everywhere.

          • Andrew says:


            I think at this point you’re lawgiving. You’ve decided that lesbian moms are ok (of course, lots of people will disagree with you on that!) but that unmarried heterosexual moms are no ok. You also seem to think that it’s “some sort of doublethink” for me to disapprove of recreational drug use, because I can be classified as part of a subpopulation that uses recreational drugs at a lower rate than the general population. OK, that’s where you stand. Fine. It’s not where I stand. People disagree on these issues, as we’ve seen from the controversy over Heather Has Two Mommies etc etc etc.

            P.S. Typo above (as noted by commenters): “disapprove” should be “not disapprove.”

            • Shira says:

              do you mean “for me to approve” in

              “You also seem to think that it’s “some sort of doublethink” for me to disapprove of recreational drug use, because I can be classified as part of a subpopulation that uses recreational drugs at a lower rate than the general population.”


              There are many things I approve of and do not do myself. I don’t think that is “doublethink”.

            • Nameless says:

              I did not bring lesbian moms into this. From the beginning, the discussion was about unmarried heterosexual moms. Talking about lesbian moms only blurs the matter.

              Do you approve of recreational drug use or not? You seem to have made two opposite statements.

              If members of your subpopulation approve of recreational drug use, can you explain why they use these drugs at a lower rate than the general population?

              • Andrew says:


                1. I was just responding to Murray’s article. Many Americans (a minority, but still a large number) disapprove of lesbian moms; I have no idea what Murray thinks about the issue. It is possible that he personally approves of lesbian moms but feels nostalgic for the earlier era when a vast majority of Americans disapproved of them. Or maybe he disapproves of lesbian moms and wishes more people disapproved. I have no idea.

                2. Regarding recreational drugs: there’s a lot of diversity in opinion and in behavior. Being part of a group where x% use recreational drugs does imply that you have to feel a certain way. If you want to feel however you feel, that’s fine.

              • Nameless says:

                I don’t see anything in Murray’s article about lesbian moms. He uses words: “unfair to the child not to have a father”, but I don’t read this as a disapproval of lesbian moms any more than an approval of adoption by male gay couples (two fathers are better than one, right?) I’m quite sure that he’s talking about the choice between raising a child in a heterosexual marriage vs. raising a child by a single mother.

                It could explain part of the disagreement. I can see that Murray’s “not having a father” could be badly misinterpreted by a New York progressive elite with many lesbian friends.

              • Andrew says:

                Nameless: I was taking Murray’s remark literally because that’s what I assumed he meant. Again, there’s lots of disapproval of lesbian moms out there. Just for the record, I don’t think that it is “morally wrong for a woman to bring a baby into the world knowing that it will not have a father,” whether or not the mother is heterosexual. You and Murray can feel free to have a different attitude. That’s really the point of the second part of my post (the part that begins, “Before leaving the conversation”: different people have different perspectives. Just as I find Murray’s expectation of condemnmation to be baffling, you seem to find my attitude baffling.

              • Nameless says:

                Yes, I find your attitude baffling. I would not find it baffling if your social group actually practiced what they preached (with 50% illegitimacy rates, high abortion rates and all), but it doesn’t. This still has not been explained because the discussion went off on a lesbian tangent.
                Can you answer Daniel Lakeland’s question below?

        • Nameless says:

          Here’s a theory. Core features of the progressive upper class are openness and tolerance. Your friends are nonjudgmental, they accept that other people do things their own way, different strokes and all. They accept that some people snort cocaine, some women have sex with other women, and some women have children out of wedlock. If they are perfectly tolerant and nonjudgmental, they really don’t feel that any of that is wrong.
          At the same time, your friends themselves don’t snort cocaine and don’t have children out of wedlock, because they have good reasons not to. They feel that it is wrong for them personally in their current situations.
          The only way to hold these beliefs simultaneously is to avoid generalization: that is, not to try to think that, maybe, if it’s wrong for you to snort cocaine now, it’s generally wrong for most people most of the time.
          That is pretty much the definition of cognitive dissonance.

          • Nathanael says:

            No, it isn’t the definition of cognitive dissonance. I suggest you *look up* the definition of cognitive dissonance because *you have got it wrong*.

            For instance, I don’t use recreational drugs because I happen to have genetics which make recreational drug use unusually dangerous.

            I am fine with other people *who do not share those genetics*, who are likely to have fairly safe reactions to coffee, tea, chocolate, alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, etc., choosing to use recreational drugs.

            I would, of course, recommend that anyone with a family history of alcoholism avoid alcohol. And that anyone with a severe family tendency to overreact to stimulants should avoid caffeine. Et cetera.

            I am sure that Andrew’s views are similar. There is no dissonance. It is simply a fact that different things are suidable for different people.

            Some people have done great work while taking lots of caffeine. Others have been completely messed up or even killed by doing so.

            What you — and Murray — do not understand is that this is is NOT about being “nonjudgmental”. We are simply judging matters on an entirely different set of standards from the right-wingers. A more sensible set of standards, in our opinion.

        • Roger says:

          So where is your disagreement? Murray says that you and your fellow elites refuse to say that it is wrong to have a baby with no father. And sure enough, you refuse to say it. He calls it nonjudgmentalism, and you prefer to say you are just being honest. His point is that there is a disconnect between what the elites say is wrong, and what the elites do in their personal lives. Your comments seem to agree that there is such a disconnect. (You also have a bizarre analogy to Joe Parterno. I don’t see that he has anything to do with anything Murray was saying.)

        • Shaun says:


          I think what Charles might have meant when talking about “single women having babies” was the vast majority of single women who do not have the financial (or other kinds of) resources or support needed to properly care for the children they have.

          This does not need to be a moral issue about marriage or the needs of a child to have a father, but about making sure the child has adequate food, shelter and education so they have a decent chance at a good life. These are all likely to be enhanced (although never guarenteed) if there is more than one parent (of any sex). Now, this may not be what Charles meant (it’s how I took it, but I may be way off base), but if it is, do you think the attitudes of you and those you socialize with may be different?

        • Roger says:

          Andrew, you are saying just what Murray predicts. You are being obsessively nonjudgmental. You have chosen to live your life one way, but you refuse to express disapproval of others who have made sharply different choices.

          • Andrew says:


            It’s not “obsessively nonjudgmental” for me to not express disapproval of something I don’t actually disapprove of!

            I don’t own a dog but I don’t disapprove of people who do. That’s not obsessively nonjudgemental either!

            You can feel free to disapprove of recreational drug users, gay parents, heterosexual single mothers, dog owners, interracial couples, SUV owners, whatever you want. If I happen not to share your disapproval, that doesn’t make me “obsessive.” It just means that I don’t share your values. Sorry, but I don’t disapprove of these people who have made “sharply different choices” than I have. It’s possible to make different choices than someone else without disapproving of their choice.

            • Roger says:

              I am not trying to convince you to disapprove of anything. I am just comparing what you say to what Murray says. I think Murray would agree that you do not share the values of those who do express disapproval of those things.

    • TheFeministUnicorn says:

      Don’t think his post warrants the tone. His argument’s anecdotal, but perhaps closer to the truth than your “logical” little story. A variety of factors influence the experiences of single mothers, including mothers’ individual characteristics and social policy. Yes, single mothers tend to be poor, but why this is the case and what we should do about it is complicated.

      See, for example:

      • Nameless says:

        It’s the question of causation. Single mothers tend to be poor – maybe, but that’s not the issue here. The issue is that poor tend to be single mothers.

    • Phil says:

      Yes, and obviously kids are the only ones that matter. Once somebody becomes an adult her desires, wishes, aspirations, and life satisfaction don’t count for anything. At least we all agree on that.

      I think we also agree that Murray has done us a favor by simplifying this discussion to focus on women’s choices. Murray could have asked about the morality of a man impregnating a woman and not sticking around, but he chose not to (or perhaps, as I suspect is the case, it literally didn’t occur to him). I used to find Murray irritating but now I find him immensely entertaining.

      • Dave says:

        Imagine two scenarios:

        Scenario A:
        A woman is considering conceiving a child without plans to have another parent in the child’s life. She lives in New York and makes a salary several times above the national median and is intelligent enough to carry a conversation and be friends with a Columbia statistics professor. She’s a good person at heart.

        Scenario B:
        A woman is considering conceiving a child without plans to have another parent in the child’s life. She struggles to work regularly and may or may not have finished high school, but certainly has no college degree. Her annual salary is erratic, but always well below the national median. Sometimes she relies on government handouts to eat. Her grammar makes you cringe, but she’s a good person at heart.

        If both of these women came to you (along with the men who would help them conceive) and asked if you saw any moral difficulty with either of their plans, would you truly see no difference? Would you not have more reservations about one plan over the other, knowing nothing else about these two situations?

        Anyway, this whole thing reminds me of Murphy Brown and Dan Quayle.

        • Nameless says:

          I suspect that both scenarios are unlikely. Women rarely plan ahead to have children without being married.

          Instead, having a child out of wedlock is the final outcome of a series of decisions. It involves a choice to have sex before marriage, a choice of partner (one night stand vs. a flaky partner vs. potential spouse), a choice not to use adequate contraception, a choice not to have an abortion, and a choice not to pressure the partner into a shotgun marriage. Every step of the way, holding a principle that having a child out of wedlock is “wrong” will reduce the odds of making the decision that leads towards being a single mother. If college-educated white women are 6 times less likely to become single mothers than uneducated white women, then either they have different moral principles or they are better at acting on these principles.

          According to Charles Murray, just 50 years ago the “illegitimacy rate” (percentage of babies born out of wedlock) was 3% even among lower classes. So they don’t have a problem acting on these moral principles as long as they have them.

        • Nathanael says:

          FWIW, Dave, I would say that there is a general belief among the ‘liberal elite’ that people should not have children unless they can take care of them. Take care of them how? Any way! Free time, energy, dedication — if there’s a social network of aunts and uncles, a club of friends — or *perhaps* a pile of money to hire nannies — any way which gets the child the caring attention from competent people, well that qualifies as taking care.

          I don’t think you get it — this does not relate to the categories which right-wingers work with. It is not hypocritical (right-wingers, however, are). It is judgment on an entirely different set of standards from the right-wingers’ standards. A saner set of standards.

          “Having a father” doesn’t actually get you any points in this judgment — there’s nothing which is particularly superior about a married heterosexual couple having a baby, they could be totally unprepared and unable to take care of the baby and it happens all the time.

      • bjs says:

        On the bottom of page 68, Murray writes, “… and morally wrong for a man to impregnate a woman knowing he will not be a father to the child.”

        Kinda takes the sting out of your sarcasm, doesn’t it?

      • Patrick says:

        Kids are the only ones that matter here because they are the ones without choice. If a parent has the choice of an unhappy union that benefits raising the child then I would said, morally/philosophically, the parent should be in an unhappy union for the sake of the kid. Kids are not consumer objects that we can yearn for; they’re people with rights just as much as anyone else except they have less of a voice in their own matters and as such they need to be treated as a special case.

    • Does this mean three parents would be morally superior to two?

      Along the same lines, is it morally wrong to have kids if you’re poor, given that it’s negatively correlated with kids’ success? Or if you have a history of heart disease or cancer or autism or schizophrenia or … in the family?

      • I think the “morally wrong” phrase is a little too loaded, I mean it’s way more morally wrong to be a mob hit man than an intentionally single mother right? That being said, plenty of people do choose not to have children precisely because they have some history of disease and they feel that it would be wrong to subject a child to a high chance of having that disease (say huntington’s disease or schizophrenia etc). That’s something people really do consider and decide against, and I suspect that it’s at least partly on moral grounds.

  4. FredR says:

    “Perhaps he could consider it morally wrong in general but accept my friends as special cases”

    This sounds like Thomas Malthus discussing the difference between vice and misery:

    “There may have been some irregular connexions with women, which have added to the happiness of both parties, and have injured no one. These individual actions, therefore, cannot come under the head of misery. But they are still evidently vicious, because an action is so denominated, which violates an express precept, founded upon its general tendency to produce misery, whatever may be its individual effect; and no person can doubt the general tendency of an illicit intercourse between the sexes, to injure the happiness of society.”

  5. Phil says:

    I spend almost all of my time among upper-middle-class liberals in the San Francisco Bay Area, who obviously have very different attitudes than others in the country. Maybe people elsewhere are “obsessively non-judgmental,” but not here. “Obsessively judgmental” would be more like it. People here make moral judgments about the car you drive, the bike you ride, the food you eat, the way you talk to your kids, the words you use, the stores you patronize…the line between us and a parody of us is razor-thin. Nonjudgmental we ain’t.

    • Roger says:

      Murray says that they are judgmental, but that they apply different morel standards for their fellow elites and for everyone else. He says, “it is likely that all of the people at the table have made moral evaluations and
      behaved accordingly”.

      • Andrew says:


        In my experience, there’s no obsessive nonjudgementalism. My friends and I just don’t feel it is wrong (morally or otherwise) for a woman to bring a baby into the world knowing that it will not have a father.

        • Ok, I agree, that’s generally enough about the father bit. But can you respond to the following more general question?

          Given that the woman making the decision is at around the 50th percentile of wealth and income or below (currently this is maybe a 45k/yr job?) Do you think that your friends would find any moral aspect in this woman’s choice to regularly have unprotected sex with men who are unlikely to contribute to a potential child’s future well being?

          I am pretty sure that I agree with you that *all else equal* the lack of a father is not generally a moral consideration. So a successful businesswoman with a live in male nanny and private chef who has IVF babies from sperm banks is pretty much morally equivalent to a couple with a similar income, no nanny, but a stay at home parent. But this is the famous all else equal fallacy.

          I’m pretty sure most “upper middle class” people think that there is a moral aspect to family planning of some sort, regardless of whether it’s specifically the no-father issue, or a more general “economic and cultural well being” issue.

          • Phil says:

            Daniel, Andrew hasn’t answered this but I’ll weigh in.

            I think you’re missing something, or misinterpreting it, in both Murray’s discussion and Gelman’s. You say (and I agree) that “there is a moral aspect to family planning”; I suspect Andrew agrees too. Me, I disapprove of anyone having more than two kids, so I am perhaps more judgmental than most people.

            But I don’t think Murray is merely saying that there is a “moral aspect” to family planning, more is Gelman claiming that there isn’t. Murray is saying that it is _immoral_ for a single woman to choose to have a child, and Gelman says it is not.

            You say “I am pretty sure that I agree with you that *all else equal* the lack of a father is not generally a moral consideration,” so you obviously agree with Gelman that it is not immoral for a single woman to choose to have a child. In this way you disagree with Murray and you agree with Gelman.

            You go on to say, in essence, that “In certain circumstances it is immoral for a single woman to have a child.” I agree with you, and I suspect Gelman would agree with you too, although we would probably all disagree on the circumstances. Of course, in certain circumstances it would be immoral for me to nod my head, but that doesn’t mean nodding my head is immoral.

            In short, it seems to me that you agree with Gelman and disagree with Murray, but, oddly, you seem to think it’s the other way around!

  6. pritesh says:

    Teen Birth Rate – Top Ten Low:New Hampshire,Massachusetts,Vermont,Connecticut,New Jersey,Maine,Rhode Island,Minnesota,New York,Wisconsin
    Top Ten High:Tennessee,Alabama,West Virginia,Kentucky,Louisiana,Oklahoma,Texas,Arkansas,New Mexico,Mississippi

  7. WT says:

    Andrew keeps insisting that he doesn’t think deliberate single parenthood is wrong. One might quip that the only “odd” thing here is that he doesn’t mind kids being damaged, but maybe that would be unfair.

    So, is it that he disagrees with all of the social science (plus every bit of common sense) showing that single parenthood is bad for children? If so, on what basis?

    • I can’t speak for Andrew, but for me it comes down to allowing people to choose. Many of these replies seem to imply that the morally correct thing to do is only have kids if there’s a high prior chance of “success,” by whatever criteria you choose to measure success. If single parents are ruled out, I shudder to think who else is on the banned list for morally-acceptable parenting.

      The largest mortality risk to children above the age of 1 is accidents (largely from cars). So the moral thing to do in terms of increasing the child’s chance of living to adulthood is to move somewhere that kids never have to get in a car.

      • Andrew says:


        What Bob said. I don’t want kids damaged but that doesn’t mean I’m going to go around telling people not to have kids, just because they’re gay or unmarried. I wouldn’t be surprised if, 40 years ago, there were people citing social science plus every bit of common sense to explain why they disapproved of interracial couples. Another commenter on this thread seems to disapprove of recreational drugs.

        I can understand your disapproval, and at some level I can even understand your disapproval of the millions of Americans like me who don’t disapprove of these things.

        My key point here is that I just have different values than you do. It’s not that I disapprove of these things and am not willing to say it. I actually don’t disapprove. To you that “perhaps” means that I don’t mind kids being damaged. I think that’s a ludicrous thing to say, but, hey, I guess that’s what disapproval is all about. When you disapprove of me for not disapproving of others, you really mean it!

        • Nameless says:

          Would you agree with the statement: “if I were a 25 year old single woman without a trust fund or a seven-figure job, I would not have unprotected sex with a man who’s not likely to marry me afterwards”?

          If you do, then you have a general opinion (A) about single parenthood (for which Murray picked an unfortunate name of “a moral principle that you hold in private.”)

          What you are unwilling to do is to jump from that to (B) a belief that you know what other people “should” do – as you say, because you value allowing other people to choose. (let alone to (C) telling them what they should do)

          That’s exactly what Murray is talking about. It is “obsessively nonjudgmental” not to do the leap from (A) to (B). Murray says that it’s a peculiarity of the progressive elites not to do the leap from (A) to (C), but he probably does not realize how deeply this “obsessive nonjudgmentalness” goes.

          • Nathanael says:

            I’m pretty sure he would not agree. Because *it depends*.

            A 25-year old woman with no support network probably should not have a child, *husband or no husband*.

            A sane 25-year-old woman with a strong support network should go ahead and do whatever she likes, including having a child.

            I think the problem here is that right-wingers magically assume that having a father is some kind of magical talisman for a healthier family. It isn’t. There are other ways to do it. In fact, having a father can make things WORSE if the father is, for example, abusive.

          • Nathanael says:

            You really don’t get it, do you? You and Murray don’t get it because you ASSume that we share your beliefs and judgment system.

            WE DO NOT. You are WRONG. We judge you. We judge you for your wrongness, your intellectual weakness, your prejudiced assumptions, your lack of respect.

            “Obsessively nonjudgmental” is so far off the mark it’s not funny. Get it through your head: from our (correct) point of view, there is nothing wrong with “single mothers”.

            There is, rather, a problem with parents who do not have a proper support system for their children. Now, that may have some overlap with single mothers, *there are a hell of a lot of nuclear familes run by right-wingers who fail to have a proper support system for their children* and *we disapprove of them too*.

        • WT says:

          My key point here is that I just have different values than you do.

          This is a different direction than I’d have expected. Look, either you have different values than I do (i.e., you’d rather have children be harmed than express disapproval of anyone’s choices), or you believe in different facts (i.e., you think that children are on average just as well off in single parent households). I thought that you might opt for the second route there, disagreeing with my facts. If you did go that route, of course, you’d owe an explanation for how that could possible be true.

          Instead, you say straight up that you have different values — which seems to mean that you’re admitting that single parenthood significantly harms children but you value something else (adult sexual autonomy?) above children’s well-being.

          Well, at least you’re forthright about it.

          • Andrew says:


            No, of course I don’t want children to be harmed. You can feel free to comment on this blog but please don’t be rude about it.

            Again, I wouldn’t be surprised if, 40 years ago, there were people citing social science plus every bit of common sense to explain why they disapproved of interracial couples. Another commenter on this thread seems to disapprove of recreational drugs. I don’t disapprove of interracial marriage, nor do I disapprove of the use of recreational drugs. I have different values from people who express that disapproval. That doesn’t mean that any of us want children to be harmed.

            You seem to think that, just because I disagree with you on this issue, that I want children to be harmed. That is ludicrous. But it does illustrate Murray’s point that people from different subcultures within the United States find it difficult to communicate with each other.

            • Nameless says:

              In my logic system, the following statements:

              (1) “If there’s anything that can be considered established fact in social science here … it’s that single parenthood is on average much, much worse for kids than having two parents.”

              (2) “I don’t want _my_ children to be harmed”

              (3) “It is wrong (morally or otherwise) for _me_ to bring a baby into the world knowing that it will not have a father”

              form an elementary syllogism, where (1) + (2) entails (3).

              So either you reject statement #1, or you accept statement #3, or you have different rules of logic, or you demonstrate cognitive dissonance.

              Now reformulate this syllogism slightly:

              (1) “If there’s anything that can be considered established fact in social science here … it’s that single parenthood is on average much, much worse for kids than having two parents.”

              (2′) “I don’t want children to be harmed”

              (3′) “It is wrong (morally or otherwise) for people to bring a baby into the world knowing that it will not have a father”

              If you hold (3) but not (3′), you demonstrate cognitive dissonance and/or obsessive nonjudgmentalness.

              Interracial couples are a red herring. I highly doubt that there is or ever was satisfactory amount of peer-reviewed social science to support the idea that interracial couples are worse off than same-race couples.

              Recreational drugs, on the other hand, are a good example. Again:

              (4) It’s an established fact that snorting cocaine and injecting heroin is much worse for you than not doing same.

              (5) I don’t want people to hurt themselves.

              (6) Therefore, I feel that it is wrong (morally or otherwise) for people to use cocaine and heroin.

              (4) + (5) entails (6).

              • Andrew says:

                WIthout cocaine, we may never have had the brilliant comedy stylings of Robin WIlliams or Eddie Murphy’s brilliant rendition of My Girl Wants to Party All the Time. So I think it’s a tough call. You have to think of the social good, not just the costs to the individuals!

              • Nameless says:

                OK, I have nothing to say to that. I give up.

              • Erik says:

                But there are a lot of problems with this argumentation. For example, assume I believe (1) and (2). For me to claim (3), I also have to believe that the people in (3) are aware of (1), which is dubious in general due to the high correlation with them having little educational background.

                In the same way, if I am talking about myself just being aware of (1) means that the (on average) situation might not apply to me and that I might have good cause to think I can do better. The last part is something that is important in general. Would you tell someone from a poor are who take student loan not to take a particular course at the university, because more than 50% of people who take that course will drop out?

                I think everybody has the right to believe that he can do better than the average person in the same situation by a reasonable abmount – or at least that he has a chance to do so and make decisions according to this belief.

              • Nathanael says:

                As for me? I reject #1. It’s far from established. (Lurking variables.)

                Also, I reject #4 and #5, but mostly #5. (The percentage of people who do OK snorting cocaine or injecting heroin is fairly small, but does exist. On the other matter, is it any of my business to prevent people from hurting themselves? I eventually concluded, only sometimes. Individual rights, you know.)

            • WT says:

              I’m not trying to insult you, I’m just trying to figure out your oblique opinions here. I’ve asked as straightforwardly as I can whether you think single parenthood harms children (a difference of factual beliefs) or whether you agree that it harms children but simply don’t care because adult sexual autonomy is more important (a difference of values).

              As I said before, I’d have thought you’d go for a factual disagreement, but in saying you have a difference of values, you seemed to be opting for the latter (harms children but who cares). Even so, at the same time that you’re insisting you have different values from me, you seem to think it an insult that I’d point out that you necessarily are placing less value on harm to children.

              Can you be more clear about where your disagreement lies? With my factual belief that single parenthood is bad for children (in which case, why do you think that?), or, as you keep insisting, with my values (protecting children’s wellbeing above adult sexual autonomy, and if you do disagree with me here, you’ll have to face up to the fact that your values minimize harm to children).

              • Andrew says:


                I never said anything about children’s wellbeing and adult sexual autonomy; those are your phrases. I don’t want children to be harmed, and I suspect that I care about this as much as you do. Of course, neither of us places child harm at the absolute pinnacle of our priorities; if we did, we’d probably be spending 100% of our time campaigning for lower speed limits, given the number of kids who get run over on the street. Or, if we especially care about kids in other countries, we’d be out there with the Gates Foundation giving out mosquito nets or whatever. For your part, given that you seem to express a particular concern with people having children under suboptimal conditions, you might be campaigning to make sure that people with lower incomes and lower levels of education stop having children, since these demographic predictors are associated with worse childhood outcomes. But instead we’re writing blog comments.

                I have no idea why you feel so strongly about single mothers having children. And I am even more baffled by the commenters here who want to assure me that they don’t fully agree with Charles Murray’s insistence on the presence of a father because they think that gay moms are just fine. I imagine that in another discussion board with more of a Rick Santorum or Sarah Palin flavor, we’d get the opposite: people telling us that single heterosexual moms are heroes, while gay parents are a big problem. After all, remember that a large fraction (a minority, but not a tiny minority) of Americans oppose gay adoptions.

                My disagreement with you lies in the fact that you want to condemn single mothers and I don’t want to. I have no idea of your position on these other issues (there are too many commenters floating around here), but if you want to condemn poor mothers or uneducated mothers or gay mothers, I’m against you on that too. It’s a difference in values, maybe also a different in the sorts of people we know.

                That’s ok. We don’t all have to agree. My point with regard to Murray was that I really do disagree with you and him on this one. It’s not that, in private, I disapprove of mothers having children with no father around, but I don’t want to admit this in public. I really don’t disapprove. If you want to take this as a sign that I don’t care about children’s harms, that’s your problem. Perhaps I’ll run into you at some town meeting, agitating to lower the speed limit to 5 miles per hour, or perhaps passing out leaflets urging people without college educations or with incomes under $50,000/year to never have children.

              • WT says:

                Can you give a simple and straight answer to my questions? That is: 1) Do you agree that single parenthood causes, on average, all sorts of bad outcomes for children? (Please, preface any answer with a clear yes or no).

                2) If the answer to 1 is no, why? What makes you think one person can do the difficult job of raising kids, keeping a household, earning a living, etc., just as well as two?

                3) On the other hand, if the answer to 1 is anything other than an unqualified no (i.e., if you admit or even waffle on whether single parenthood harms children), please elaborate on what “values” are at issue here. Which “values” do you place above harm to children? Yes, you haven’t strictly mentioned “adult sexual autonomy,” but you haven’t mentioned any other value either, other than the bald statement that you don’t feel like disapproving of your friends. Well, that’s swell of you, but is there any explanation or reason you can give for how you weight the conflict of “values” here? Explanations and reasons could be useful and interesting.

              • Andrew says:


                If you care so much about children, I sincerely recommend that you spend a little less time trying to justify your feelings of righteous anger at single mothers, and spend a little more time working with these children that you care so much about. For example, you could volunteer at a local day care center. Or you could train as a marriage counselor. Or you could campaign in your local city or town to lower the speed limit. Or, if you’re already doing these three things already, you could do more of them. Or you could donate to a fund that distributes mosquito nets to poor families. But instead you prefer to argue in favor of stigmatizing people who’ve had to make difficult choices. Not only do you disapprove of single parents, but you want me to disapprove of them too. I don’t know your stance on low-income or low-education parents, but by the same logic perhaps you disapprove of them too. Whatever.

              • WT says:

                For the record, I don’t care if you personally stigmatize single mothers. What I care about, in the context of a blog discussion, is whether you can come up with a clear position and reasons in support of it. If you were willing to state clearly that single parenthood is not a disadvantage at all, and here’s why, then that would be nice. Or, in the event that you accept that single parenthood harms children, if you were willing to say what about your “values” leads you to think that such harm is not worth lamenting, that would be interesting too.

                But you refuse to do any of that — you won’t take a clear position and you don’t give any reasons. Instead, when pressed, you just deflect the questions entirely and try to insinuate that I’m a hypocrite, as if my alleged hypocrisy excuses you from even trying to come up with evidence or a logical argument. This strikes me as odd.

              • WT says:

                By the way, I could respond to your questions by asking if you’d be as reticent about condemning: 1) binge drinking while pregnant; 2) letting one’s infant play on the floor of the car rather than sit in a car seat; 3) letting one’s toddler subsist on a diet of potato chips and ice cream while watching TV (never being read to at all).

                If not, why not? In all those cases, we have a pretty clearcut risk to the child’s health and development, but we also have countervailing values that might lead adults to enjoy behaving that way (respectively, 1) the pleasures of drunkenness, 2) the happiness that the infant will enjoy rather than screaming in a car seat as infants often do, and 3) the fact that this is much less work for the parent than cooking a healthy dinner and reading to the toddler).

                So if you are willing to condemn these sorts of adult behavior, but are not willing to condemn single parenthood, it can only be because 1) you think the risks of single parenthood are not, in fact, very significant, or 2) you agree that children in single parent households are at significant risk of bad outcomes, but think there is some paramount value at stake that makes it worth incurring the bad outcomes.

                Perhaps you’ve never thought about this issue before and aren’t quite sure what you think. But do consider it.

    • Nathanael says:

      WT: I don’t know about Andrew, quite a lot of us would allege that the “evidence” showing that single parenthood is “bad” is entirely confounded by lurking variables.

      Which is better for a kid: a single parent who has a large, helpful extended family and friends, and lots of resources to call — the “village” of Hillary Clinton’s book title — or a married heterosexual couple with no extended family or friends, who fight with each other?

      The latter has a “father”, but which has the better support system?

      I think the answer is obvious. I can’t speak for Andrew, but I simply don’t accept Murray’s idea that a father is a magic talisman for success.

  8. Nameless says:

    I think we spent enough time talking about anecdotal observations, let’s switch to statistics.

    GSS, 2002, question MARLEGIT (Do you agree or disagree? f. People who want children ought to get married.) Admittedly small sample but I don’t know if we can do better.

    On the scale of 1 to 5 (1 “strongly agree”, 3 “neither agree nor disagree”, 5 “strongly disagree”). Individuals whose highest level of education is high school or less: 2.24. With bachelor’s degree or more: 2.09.

    Restricting to Democrats (PARTYID(0-2)): 2.39 and 2.31.

  9. Steve Sailer says:

    Back in the late 1990s, my wife worked with a Korean immigrant woman whose husband had recently died in a car crash, leaving her with two young daughters to raise. She always referred to herself as a “single mother,” never as a “widow.” Being out of date on Oprah-speak, I was puzzled by this. But, as a newcomer to America, she had picked up on the fact that being a “single mother” is valorized in current American discourse, while widow sounds old-fashioned, unsexy, and old.

    Being Korean, of course, she would never have a child out of wedlock, but she was happy to describe herself with a term that encourages other women to start down such a disastrous path in life.

    • Popeye says:

      What a ridiculous amount of confirmation bias and mind-reading packed into two paragraphs. She was, in fact, a single mother.

      How did her children turn out by the way?

      • Steve Sailer says:

        Statistically, more like the children of widows than the children of never-married women.

        • Popeye says:

          Hilarious. The fact that you even draw this distinction proves that your problem with single mothers has everything to do with your perceptions of their social class and nothing to do with the resource issues they face relative to married mothers.

          I find Sailer’s presence on blogs like this somewhat fascinating. The man is simply obsessed with certain essentialist views regarding race, gender, social class, sexuality, and intelligence, but is often treated as if he’s just a detached observer following social science data wherever it may lead.

  10. Steve Sailer says:

    Okay, so we have a situation in which extremely rational people like Professor Gelman believe that there is nothing morally wrong about having children out of wedlock, but they very seldom do it because it seems imprudent. In contrast, not very rational people listen to what society tells them is moral — a message they can understand far better than an actuarial account of the probabilistic impact of illegitimacy — and go ahead and do imprudent things.

    • Nameless says:

      Well put.

      • Popeye says:

        Again, this is fairly ridiculous. Where is the evidence that the “lower classes” base their behavior on the professed morals of people like Professor Gelman? Why wouldn’t they base their behavior on the *behavior* of people like Professor Gelman? Presenting “do what I say, not what I do” and “talking the talk is more important than walking the walk” as the pinnacle of folk wisdom really takes the cake.

        Of course thinking that American social norms is mostly shaped by what Columbia professors say and write is also absurd.

        • Andrew says:

          I’d like to think I’ve done my part to shape the norms in the practice of Bayesian statistics and in the use of graphics for political science research. Beyond that, I doubt I’ve had much effect!

  11. Steve Sailer says:

    Murray’s point is that the upper middle class Talks Sixties / Lives Fifties. As a privileged group, they ought to have a duty to the rest of society to be better role models, to not just Walk the Walk but also to Talk the Talk.

    • Nathanael says:

      Murray is simply wrong on the facts.

      This is probably because he’s a right-winger (to put it politely), and as such doesn’t actually encounter the personal lives of the left-wing upper middle class.

      The late-Seventies revolution in attitudes about childrearing is incomplete, but it actually happened. The left-wing upper middle class Lives Feminist, and that has nothing to do with the Fifties — although it has some surface similarities to those who only see it from outside. It also is quite different from the Sixties and Seventies as they were for adults.

      It’s amazing how difficult it is for right-wingers to understand this. We ARE Walking the Walk and Talking the Talk, you’re just not understanding what we’re saying, or even observing accurately what we’re doing.

      It really looks like Fifties living to you and Murray? It isn’t. Look harder.

    • Bud Wiser says:


      I’m sorry. I just can’t leave this alone.

      Can you get a message to Taki Theodoracopulos for me. Let him know that given his privileged status he owes a duty to the rest of us to set a better example. Fortunatly for Taki he’s got the money to live any lifestyle he wants. But perhaps…So long as he can give financial support to any potential illegitimate offspring his promiscuous ways can be forgiven.

      Please… the idea that the upper class has some duty to us plebeians is too rich.

      What Murray and many others have missed is that art imitates life as much as life imitates art.

  12. Andrew says:

    As I wrote in my review that started all this discussion, I think Murray has many interesting things to say in his book. One of his key points is that people with different social attitudes often don’t understand each other. He inadvertently illustrated that point by choosing an example where he wants my friends and I to express disapproval of something that we really, honestly don’t disapprove of. Meanwhile another commenter wants me to disapprove of recreational drug use, and another assures me that lesbian parents are ok, it’s just unmarried heterosexuals that merit condemnation. Lots of disapproval going on.

    • Nameless says:

      (1) We’re all the same commenter.

      (2) Murray says: “it is likely that they have deliberately foregone having a baby, even though they might want one, because they have decided it is unfair to the child not to have a father. Put another way, it is likely that all of the people at the table have made moral evaluations and behaved accordingly.” See my comment dated 8:07 pm. He states that you and your friends hold the position (A). (Otherwise, why won’t you all have kids out of wedlock?) If you hold position (A) but you don’t disapprove of bringing a baby into the world without two parents (B) and you won’t admit to disapproving of that at the dinner party (C), then Murray is proven correct.

      • Andrew says:


        I can’t stop you from wanting me to disapprove of my female friends who are single mothers, any more than you can stop Rick Santorum (say) from wanting you to disapprove of lesbian mothers. No amount of arguing on your part will convince me to disapprove of my friends, whose children are doing just fine.

        Finally, to say that, because I am married, therefore I must disapprove of others who are unmarried and have children, is ridiculous.

        • I love the statistical content in this post. Here you are, refusing to attribute the statistical properties of a population to the particular individual sample cases. In other words, your friends who are single moms have kids who are doing just fine, and therefore you aren’t going to disapprove of them. I think that’s perfectly fine.

          On the other hand, many other people have a hard time as single moms and their kids don’t do “just fine” they wind up in jail, or undereducated, or unable to afford proper healthcare, or whatever. So Nameless, and maybe a few others are trying to get you to admit that somehow in the face of a decision involving uncertainty and utility (ok, call it happiness) where the expected value for another human being is relatively low (namely the child) deciding to take some action with those consequences should have some moral content. I more or less agree with this as well.

          So as far as I see it, you and Murray (and Nameless and whoever) can both be right. Don’t condemn people who are doing a good job based on some “average” property, and yet, in the presence of uncertainty, prior to making a decision, we shouldn’t make choices that are frequently destined to have bad consequences for another human being. One is a conditional statement, and the other is an on-average statement.

          • Andrew says:


            Well put. But I think there’s one more thing going on. We often have the tendency to think that our political opponents agree with us, deep down, even if they don’t want to admit it. Hence you see Thomas Frank trying to explain the phenomenon of ordinary conservative voters, or various conservative politicians insisting that ordinary blacks and hispanics are fundamentally conservative and are voting for Democrats by mistake, or Charles Murray imagining that my friends and I agree with him that it’s wrong for a woman to have a baby without a male partner.

            The point of the second half of my post was to note the difficulties that arise in communication, in that Murray seems to think that my friends and I think something is morally wrong, but we don’t. Thus he’s inadvertently (I believe) illustrating one of his key points, which is the difficulty of understanding across demographic, geographic, and partisan divides.

            • Nathanael says:

              “We often have the tendency to think that our political opponents agree with us, deep down, even if they don’t want to admit it.”

              Interesting. I wonder what’s up with that and what percentage of people make those assumptions? It’s not an assumption I’ve ever made.

              I tend to assume that my political opponents really disagree with me. I assume that they do so either because they are ignorant (as in, they disagree because they believe things which are objectively inaccurate, while they may share the same overall goals) — or because they are evil (as in, they disagree because they have goals which are totally contrary to mine, such as wanting to oppress women or some such).

              These assumptions are probably wrong — many of my political opponents (and allies, for that matter) probably haven’t really thought seriously about what they believe at all, and are operating based on disgust or attraction or similar unreasoning emotions, perhaps with rationalizations on top.

        • Nameless says:

          (Bangs his head against the wall)

          Nobody wants you to disapprove of anyone. Least of all of your friends. Not I and not Charles Murray.

          Murray made a statement that progressive elites (you and your friends included) hold certain private opinions about marriage and parenthood, which generally prevent progressive elite women from becoming single mothers. This has not been disputed. You are saying that your own private opinions do not include “moral disapproval” of single mothers, but that does not mean that you don’t have them at all.

          • Andrew says:

            No. I do not have the private opinions you claim that I have. No need to bang your head. You just need to accept that not everyone shares your opinions.

            I imagine that, forty years ago, there were quite a lot of people who not only disapproved of interracial marriages, but also thought that even liberals who claimed to approve, actually disapproved in private. I think it’s natural to think that people who claim to disagree with you, really agree with you deep down. But this is a mistake. Again, it’s an excellent illustration of Murray’s larger point that Americans with different views and different experiences can have difficulty understanding each other.

            • Nameless says:

              If your lady friends don’t have these opinions, why is it that only 8% of births to college educated women happen to unmarried mothers?

              • Phil says:

                Nameless, that’s a funny question. As far as I know, none of my friends believe it is immoral to collect life-size Elvis figurines…and yet, not a single one of them does so. Not only “8%”, but not a single one!

                How’s this for a crazy idea: most single women don’t want to be single mothers. They don’t necessarily think it’s immoral, they just prefer not to…just as my friends don’t think it’s immoral to collect life-size Elvis figurines, but they still prefer not to do it.

                Sorry, I should have warned you to sit down before springing such a mind-blowing idea on you.

              • Nameless says:

                They don’t want to be single mothers? But why?? Andrew just told us in a number of ways that, in his opinion, there’s nothing wrong with being a single mother!

              • Phil says:

                Why don’t my friends want to collect Elvis figurines? There’s nothing wrong with that either!

                (I hope this shows up in the right place in the comment thread, if not it will be completely incomprehensible).

              • Nathanael says:

                (1) a lot of women don’t want to be MOTHERS, period.
                (2) if you do want to be a mother, it is frequently cheaper and easier to do so by getting married. To one man. I think you would be surprised at how many women considered it the “path of least resistance”, compared to alternative options such as setting up their own commune.

      • Nathanael says:

        “(2) Murray says: “it is likely that they have deliberately foregone having a baby, even though they might want one, because they have decided it is unfair to the child not to have a father. “

        Murray is simply wrong about this. Dead wrong, inaccurate, totally wrong, don’t know how to put this other than “wrong”.

        It is, in fact, likely that they have deliberately foregone having a baby for *entirely different reasons* which are apparently beyond the ken of you and Murray. I could explain further if you actually cared.

    • Nathanael says:

      “One of his key points is that people with different social attitudes often don’t understand each other.”

      We are sure seeing some spectacular evidence of this, aren’t we! The right-wingers are sure, SURE that all the upper-middle-class left-wingers are actually living by Fifties morality. And we’re NOT. But they can’t tell the difference by looking, and they won’t believe us when we try to explain!

      You’re right, this feels similar to a “generation gap”.

      • middle professor says:

        Nameless doesn’t believe you because he thinks it is logically impossible to hold your belief, hence his little syllogism. The point of my silly syllogism was to show the defect in his syllogism. Even if we all agree on #1 and #2, the conclusion doesn’t follow. He didn’t seem to get that either.

  13. Thucydides says:

    I think Charles Murray’s labeling “morally wrong” is to quote a famous statesman, “terminological inexactitude”. Murray , as a libertarian, would find it wrong for the state to remove the right for a woman to conceive a child. It would be “morally wrong” to take away that fundamental human right.
    However, I think Murray eloquently states that having a child out of wedlock is , in the vast majority of cases, irresponsible and setting up that family for a series of difficulties. Any couple with children will attest to the difficulty in raising kids, and it becomes much more difficult with only one parent. It gets only worse when you factor in that single moms in “Fishtown” are having more kids and at younger ages. This is setting the stage for many unpleasant negative interactions down the road.
    My contention with many progressives intellectuals is the almost willful blindness about the strong correlation between single parenthood and a host of unpleasant consequences (crime, poverty, teenage pregnancy, school drop out rates, etc..). I really cannot say why this is the case , but I would argue that Andrew’s defense of this is another example.

  14. Anonymous says:

    Wow following this thread is giving me a headache … using endogenous correlations to “science-ify” a narrow, preconceived, a thinly-veiled classist viewpoint and speak about it with an air of certainty? Murray seems to exemplify everything that’s wrong with social science discourse.

    1. endogeneity, confounding, anyone? People comprising a society are not a vat of independent characteristics for you to divide up into explanatory correlations and “effects”. There’s all sorts of interactions related to individual circumstances that determine how children turn out. This is one reason why anyone with a healthy respect for complexity is hesitant to pass judgement in this situation, not because we’re trying to be politically correct.

    2. I don’t eat mushrooms. Does this entitle someone else to make up some narrative as to why I think eating them is immoral? This has got to be the worst leap of logic I’ve ever heard.

    3. Who says the role of morality should be to “optimize” lives by one’s convenient measures? Optimality of traits is not time/space invariant either, despite how things may seem from one’s limited set of experiences. As with technology, often the ideas that transform things are the ones that are less optimal “on average” in the current paradigm. There has to be some diversity of experience in a society. I find it funny that libertarians seem to be out in full force in favor of top-down social engineering when the issue doesn’t have to do with what businesses are allowed to do and does have to do with what women are allowed to do.

    • Nameless says:

      Sure, if you replace “having a child out of wedlock” with “eating mushrooms” (or with “having a dog”), you change so much in the underlying logic that things start looking absurd.

      There is scientific evidence that children raised by single mothers are worse off than children raised by two-parent families. It is self evident that it is harder to raise a child for a single working mother than for a couple. There’s nothing like that with regard to mushrooms or dogs.

      Let’s replace “eating mushrooms” with “sniffing glue” instead. I posit that it is “obsessively nonjudgmental” not to sniff glue but not to express disapproval of those who do.

      • szopen says:


        But the question is how much of the worse outcomes of the single mothers’ children is the question of the biology (some heritable traits make some people more likely to be single mother; those same traits cause other poor outcomes – e.g. low self-control); and how much is the question of the environment.

        For example, IF the children of widowers of widows do NOT have worse outcomes than two-parents, THEN the role of biology is greater than the environment, OR there may be another factor, the divorce.

        Divorce may be devastating for the children. So, IF the children of single mothers by-choice (children not experiencing divorce) have no worse outcomes than two-parents’ children, THEN it’s not just single-parenting damaging children, but the divorce.

        IF however single-parenting statistically creates worse outcomes for the children, AND you know that THEN SINCE you can strive to make other decision relatively easy THEN it if you are willing to have children without having father THEN you are willing risk to your children, risk you can avoid, THEN you are making morally wrong decision.

        Similarly, yes, if you are unemployed, then you should not have children. You should first find a job and make sure you can provide for basic child’s needs.

  15. orphan annie says:

    “If there are childless never-married women at the table, it is likely that they have deliberately foregone having a baby, even though they might want one, because they have decided it is unfair to the child not to have a father.”
    This shows a typically distant understanding of what having/deciding to have a baby is like for a woman. Not wanting to be impregnated by an unknown “birth donor” after several painful attempts (not always successful) of high dose hormones (with their own dangers and expense), and not being too keen to have 0 relationship with the father of your child—these are reasons, and they do not boil down to judging it unfair for the child not to have a father. Gee Whiskers!

  16. In his reply, Murray doesn’t say why he thinks it’s immoral for a single woman to give birth. But I assume the reason is that,as Nameless says, “single parenthood is on average much, much worse for kids than having two parents.” Such a child is statistically more likely to have bad outcomes — health, crime, drugs, alcohol, income, education, etc.

    But there are other factors that are similarly linked to bad outcomes. Children of poor people have worse outcomes that children of wealthier people. Is it immoral for poor couples to have children. Children of large families, especially later born, have worse outcomes. If Murray were at a dinner party with non-affluent couples, and one couple announced that the woman was pregnant with their fifth child, would Murray stand up and morally condemn them? If pre-natal tests showed that a child would be born with mental or physical handicaps — also associated with worse outcomes — is it immoral not to have an abortion?

    • Roger says:

      Jay: “Murray doesn’t say why he thinks it’s immoral for a single woman to give birth.”

      Murray does not even say that he thinks it is immoral. His point is about what the elite adults say and do, and not the moral dilemmas that you propose.

      • Nathanael says:

        And his point is utterly wrong. Elite adults say and do absolutely consistent things. For instance, several of us genuinely disapprove of large families and will criticize even our friends for having excessive numbers of children.

        Murray, and at least two of the commenters to this thread, really don’t seem to get it — we actually are approaching things from a different point of view than they are. We are not hypocrites. We *actually disagree*.

  17. zbicyclist says:

    An interesting discussion, but now that it’s many messages old it’s clear that the discussion focuses primarily on issues related to a mother raising a child without a father.

    Far less of the discussion above is related to the issue of absent fathers / unhelpful fathers / deadbeat dads / fathers who bring a child into the world knowing they aren’t doing to be there for the child.

    A variation on Murray’s experiment: “try bringing up the issue of men having babies and then not taking an active role in fatherhood at your next dinner party, and see…”

    • Nathanael says:

      “try bringing up the issue of men having babies and then not taking an active role in fatherhood at your next dinner party, and see…”

      Elite liberals will generally disapprove of this, a LOT, unless the man was simply providing a sperm donation.

  18. Wonks Anonymous says:

    I’m surprised, I would have expected even in Gelman’s circles if a friend stated she was going to have a kid out of wedlock it would elicit a shocked reaction.

    zbicyclist, I think there actually is a significant stigma against “deadbeat dads”, but those discussed are typically the divorced rather than never-married.

  19. Wonks Anonymous says:

    Also, I was unaware of the citations to social science on interracial marriage. What sort of research was done? How does it stack up against the studies on single-parenthood? I expect the latter doesn’t usually check for szopen’s point about widows and causality though.

  20. middle professor says:

    (1) “If there’s anything that can be considered established fact in social science here … it’s that parenthood is on average much, much worse for kids than kidlesshood.” [that is, on average, kids are much more likely to be harmed if they actually exist than if they do not exist)

    (2) “I don’t want _my_ children to be harmed”

    (3) “It is wrong (morally or otherwise) for _me_ to bring a baby into the world”

    form an elementary syllogism, where (1) + (2) entails (3).

    So either you reject statement #1, or you accept statement #3, or you have different rules of logic, or you demonstrate cognitive dissonance.

    • I know this is tongue in cheek, but I love that it leads right into the Fallacy Of the One Sided Bet mentioned recently on this blog. There are a lot of good statistics issues in this otherwise mildly absurd discussion.

    • Nameless says:

      If you believe that the net effect of bringing a child into the world is suffering, then yes, (1)+(2) equals (3). One of the reasons why, all else equal, Buddhists are more likely to be childless than followers of other religions.

      GSS actually used to ask people to agree or disagree with the statement: “It’s hardly fair to bring a child into the
      world with the way things look for the future”, from 1973 to 1994 with some gaps. Future looked brightest in 1985 (when 67% of respondents disagreed) and bleakest in 1980 (when only 52% did).

      Among respondents under 30, the ones agreeing with the statement were 2 times more likely not to expect having any more children than the ones disagreeing (37% and 20% respectively).

    • James Annan says:

      This conversation seems well beyond stale, but I think it might be worth pointing out that the relevant question surely is, it is better/worse for the child to be born to a single parent, or not be born at all? The woman in question doesn’t directly have the choice of producing a one-parent child vs a two-parent child.

  21. Alex Loewi says:

    No — no no no no no.

    People, will have children — because they’re people. Poor and “disenfranchised” (systematically uncared for) people will have fewer stable relationships. Prison, unemployment, depression, drugs, etc.

    Therefore poor people will more often be single parents.

    The “shift” in morality has been “Ah, we see it’s maybe not a good idea to blame people for predictable things in a way that makes their bad life worse.” It is not condoning hurting children. It is not the “morals of the upper classes” (LOL!) trickling down to the oppressed.

    The real issue is that Charles “I didn’t do enough damage with The Bell Curve” Murray decides once more to essentially ignore causality (see Glymour ’98, “What Went Wrong?”) because he thinks he already knows what’s happening, and tells a story that not a single one of my absurdly well-educated, “upper-middle class” friends would not violently slap their foreheads over.

    • WT says:

      It is certainly possible that bad circumstances cause both single parenthood and more bad circumstances for the children. But it is absurd, illogical, and completely contrary to common sense to suggest that this is the only way the causal arrow runs.

      Nor is it true to say that people are “predictable” in having out-of-wedlock children as teenagers. We know from fairly recent history that teenagers in far more poverty than exists today, and without the benefit of widespread and cheap contraception everywhere, had out-of-wedlock children at a small fraction of today’s rate. Contrary to any patronizing beliefs you might have, people are capable of selecting to wait until marriage to have children, and if doing so would likely improve both their own lives and the lives of their eventual children, that is a win-win.

      Refraining from giving them this advice is deeply odd, as much as if we refused to tell poor people not to leave poisons around their toddlers, because if poor kids get into poison more often, that’s not the parents’ fault at all, it’s just due to all the oppressive circumstances in which some people might not own child safety locks and might have to leave their toddlers at home alone because they can’t afford daycare. Well, fine, but if you don’t want kids getting poisoned, complete nonjudgmentalism about leaving poison around doesn’t seem like a useful strategy.

      • Popeye says:

        Speaking of patronizing beliefs, what evidence is there that poor people sit around waiting for “us” to give them advice? To the extent that these poor people care about “our” moral beliefs at all, why wouldn’t they pay more attention to our behavior than our speech?

        Seriously, your argument boils down to the idea that poor people are too stupid to understand their own self-interest, and can only understand the brute force of social humiliation and stigma. Moreover stigma has force in a 340-million-person society only if it is enforced by statistics professors at Columbia, and if such a professor decides for whatever reason that stigma is not appropriate, then the moral fabric of society is torn to shreds and suddenly everything goes for everyone.

        To top this off, you think *other* people have patronizing beliefs.

      • WT says:

        You should read Murray’s book, if only to avoid the silly strawmen you raise. The issue isn’t whether Columbia stats professors say anything, but what elites in general do.

        Take a simple example: the show Will & Grace had much more effect on cultural attitudes towards gays than the dinner parties of Columbia professors — speech created by cultural elites had more effect than behavior. So what would happen if elites took all of the same influence that they so successfully brought to bear on gay marriage, and next focused on the cause of limiting single parenthood? Do you think it would have no effect, as your first paragraph suggests?

        • Popeye says:

          I don’t even know where to begin with this.

          Maybe with your definition of “speech created by cultural elites.” Will & Grace was not a conversation between some highly educated “elites,” it was a goddamned television show watched by millions of people. Its very existence was dependent on its ability to draw interest from millions of people. While surely its producers were not unaware of the social implications of their work, TV programming is a fundamentally capitalist activity that ruthlessly pursues profit. Or do you think 2 1/2 Men, Two Broke Girls, So You Think You Can Dance, and the Super Bowl are best understood as elitist cultural programming that the masses have no choice but to embrace?

          It’s interesting that we now seem to have accepted that virtually no one cares about what happens at Columbia professor dinner parties, and have moved on to “our” collective responsibility to apply “our” influence to create television programming that stigmatizes single motherhood. Thank you Comrade WT, I know I’ve been derelict in exercising my elitist cultural influence recently and can always benefit from reminders.

          Fellow cultural elites, let’s make some better TV!

      • Alex Loewi says:

        No — telling them they are IMMORAL (which is what we’re talking about) for being this way is “deeply odd,” or more accurately, destructive, and ACTUALLY patronizing (as opposed to implicating circumstances, which is profoundly different from blaming incapacity).

        And thinking that telling someone THEY, as a PERSON, are IMMORAL is ADVICE is about the most perversely arrogant (patronizing) stance I can imagine. “Here’s my advice — you’re an asshole! No no, I tell you because I care! Now do everything I tell you to, or else it’s your fault.”

        Don’t you trust everything I say now?

        Also on the list of strawmen, perhaps my least favorite rhetorical technique, is that it’s possible to ‘wait until marriage’ — debunked since the many years ago when somebody decided to actually talk to the people actually in the situation rather than judging them and being done with it (my!), and found that they can’t find anyone they actually want to marry. Should they … never have children? Or, should you stop letting a shitty understanding of causal factors lead you to “judge” (rather than HELP) because you think your imagined higher moral ground is actually more important than infants in objectively bad circumstances?

        • WT says:

          I’d find your comment more convincing if you had just used all-caps a bit more. Maybe next time.

  22. Nameless says:

    More on what Charles Murray really thinks.

    “Nonjudgmentalism is one of the more baffling features of the new-upper-class culture. The members of the new upper class are industrious to the point of obsession, but there are no derogatory labels for adults who are not industrious. The young women of the new upper class hardly ever have babies out of wedlock, but it is impermissible to use a derogatory label for nonmarital births. You will probably raise a few eyebrows even if you use a derogatory label for criminals. (…)

    If you are of a conspiratorial cast of mind, nonjudgmentalism looks suspiciously like the new upper class keeping the good stuff to itself. The new upper class knows the secret to maximizing the chances of leading a happy life, but it refuses to let anyone else on the secret. Conspiratorial explanations are unnecessary, however. Nonjudgmentalism ceases to be baffling if you think of it as a symptom of Toynbee’s loss of self-confidence among the dominant minority. The new upper class doesn’t want to push its way of living onto the less fortunate, for who are they to say that their way of living is really better? It works for them, but who is to say that it will work for others? Who are they to say that their way of behaving is virtuous and others’ ways of behaving are not?”

    “Coming apart”, pp. 293-294

    To me this seems to be quite compatible with Andrew’s claim that he and his friends don’t think it’s wrong to have children out of wedlock.

    • Andrew says:


      As you can see from my review of Murray’s book (which started this whole discussion), I think he has many interesting things to say, but I think that much of what he describes as a difference between elites and non-elites is really a difference between liberal elites and conservative elites. As regards to my friends, as I noted above, I have friends who have decided “to bring a baby into the world knowing that it will not have a father,” and these kids seem to be doing just fine to me. I have no interest in using a derogatory label for these children. Anyway, I’m just one person, I hardly represent the upper class. Again, my point is that there is indeed a gap in understanding.

    • Roger says:

      Thanks for posting what Murray actually said. Most of the above messages seem to have missed his point, and they attack opinions that he did not express.

  23. Eli Rabett says:

    Murray’s confusion is that he thinks he is one of the elite. He is house staff.

  24. razlit says:

    Read the book. Murray is a socioligist highly focused on statistics. What he sees is a society becomeing increasinly stratified as result of those whose inherited assets (high family income & education) set them on a track to ascendency. Questions?