Book Club: Practical Philosophy — 3 — Families and why they matter

“The family has a continuing and crucial role in social and human development as well as in provision of care and support to individuals. Strong family bonds have always been part of most societies, and families in most places continue to make important contributions to social and economic well-being.”

So said the Secretary General of the U.N., Kofi Annan, back in 1994. And that’s why John Haldane devotes a chapter of his Practical Philosophy: Ethics, Society and Culture (first chapter in part II of the book, devoted to society) to a discussion of the role of families in ethical development. He is not the first one. Liz Gloyn has written an entire book on Seneca’s treatment of the family, which he also considered the crucial starting (but, crucially, not the end) point for any discussion of what we today would regard as moral developmental psychology. 

(part 1 of this series is here; part 2 here)

Haldane seems oddly concerned about the low birth rate currently characterizing many western countries, as if the only viable conception of a family were the traditional biological one. I guess I’m less worried than he is, as I consider families to be small units of either genetically or socially related individuals (meaning, including adoptions), and think it will keep playing a crucial role regardless of the vagaries of demography.

One of the most interesting sections of this chapter concerns the concept of the family as it relates to human nature. Haldane says that the family is where things start, in terms of ethical development, and that this pattern hasn’t changed much across time and cultures, regardless of recent challenges to the very idea of family. Haldane knows very well, of course, that families can be dysfunctional, but correctly notes that “when this happens we rightly look to see where the normal process has gone wrong, rather than wonder whether the family as such is the right context for child rearing.”

If families are so important, then it is not surprising that society tends to foster them, including by way of passing laws. Here Haldane notes a major cultural difference between the Anglo-American world and the continental European one: in the first case, people tend to be wary of the notion that the state has extensive positive responsibilities in this matter, while in the second case people grant a more positive role to the state. For instance, does the state have a duty to provide education for children (positive responsibility) as distinct from simply guaranteeing their safety from abuse (negative responsibility)?

Haldane is, I think, correct on two important points here. First, whenever we consider a possible state intervention on the family we should ask ourselves the crucial question: what is the purpose of such intervention? We should then support the law if the answer to this question is satisfactory. However, and this is the second point, just because the state passes a new family law this isn’t automatically an instance of “intrusion,” as libertarians often maintain. It depends, and there is no universal answer to the question of whether a given family law is an instance of too much state intervention in the affairs of its citizens.

Another fascinating facet of the discussion on families and ethics concerns the autonomy of individual family members, especially children, as moral agents. The standard “liberal” view, held by Nietzsche as well as John Stuart Mill, and even by modern philosophers like John Rawls, is that autonomy originates and resides in the individual. This would shift the balance in favor of more autonomy of children. The Hegelian, or communitarian, view, by contrast, is that an individual’s autonomy lies in the deliberative abilities of non-localized collective entities, such as the family itself. As Haldane comments, “a child who seeks to act in opposition to the deepest convictions of his parents does damage to the family, and thereby to him- or her-self.”

Perhaps. But I can easily see how this line of reasoning might lead to stunting the moral development of a child, for instance one who happens to grow up in a religious fundamentalist family. Then again, it is equally true that children are not mature moral agents, and that they do gain maturity, in large part, precisely by growing up in a given family and adopting (and later, perhaps, modifying, or even rejecting) the ethical precepts characteristic of that family. Yet another situation where the answer is going to depend on the details, and where there is plenty of room for reasonable disagreement.

The last two sections of the chapter deal with the interrelated topics of marriage and sex, again within the context of the family as basic unity of moral learning. Regarding marriage, Haldane says that “modern liberalism has difficulty finding a place for the common good of family because of its commitment to neutrality between life-shaping values.” But that is true only if we, again, limit our conception of the family to the standard biological one. Once we abandon such limitation, I see no reason why liberalism would encounter any difficulty accepting the notion that families contribute to the common good.

The matter of sex is a bit more complex. Haldane observes that “in the 1980s and 1990s the policy issues that seemed most pressing upon family life were ones concerning divorce and children’s rights (also, perhaps, certain economic measures to do with welfare benefits). More recently the strongest challenge is that posed by ‘alternative sexual lifestyles.’” Setting aside why he puts “alternative sexual lifestyles” in scare quotes, he suggests that “most proponents of natural law reasoning take a socially conservative position. According to traditional natural law ethics, judgements as to the moral acceptability of sexual practices must be keyed to an understanding of the proper role of sex in human life. Sexual activity is defined by function and its (primary) function is that of reproduction. What follows is that the definitive use of sexual organs is inter-sexual, i.e. between male and female, and for the sake of procreation.”

Well, as a Stoic, I’m a proponent of natural law ethics, meaning that I derive my general ethical framework from an examination of human nature. What is “good” is what allows human beings to flourish, and what is “bad” is what gets in the way of us flourishing. (Yes, of course we can have a discussion about what counts as flourishing. Though even that discussion better be informed by empirical evidence concerning actual human beings.) 

So while I certainly agree that, biologically speaking, the primary function of sex is procreation, it is most definitely not the only function. Sex is also good for social bonding, as well as for pleasure and relaxation. Those functions are natural, not only in human beings (ever seen what bonobo chimpanzees do?). Which means that homosexual sex is not unnatural, and it certainly doesn’t get in the way of the flourishing of either individuals or society. It ought, therefore, not to pose any problem even for people whose meta-ethics lies in the broad area of natural law or, more appropriately, naturalistic ethics (a term I prefer, since I don’t believe there are moral “laws” in nature, just broad suggestions, so to speak).

Haldane concludes that “One should look to what is most extensively and most enduringly valued, and hold fast to it as very likely to be good. Adopting that procedure one could hardly fail to see that the family is a preferred mode of human association, and in consequence one should look to the state to protect and to promote it.” 

Again, sort of. I would agree with the general proposition that if particular customs are widespread among human societies, and have endured for a long time, our default position should be that they are probably working well enough. But of course there are plenty of exceptions. Slavery worked well enough for thousands of years, and yet we are obviously well justified in rejecting it. Distrust or even persecution of homosexuality has also been enduring in many societies, and yet it too is to be rejected just as firmly.

Ultimately, ethics is the study of what works and doesn’t work in terms of producing human societies whose individual members flourish, thus allowing the group itself to flourish. To be too rigid about any of this, or to accept or reject certain practices a priori, is both counterproductive and arrogant.

(Next time: Private life and public culture)

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