Moderation in Pursuit of Extremism is no Virtue

Lauren Hall’s respect for the family as a “mediating institution” between the modern state and the individual sits nicely within her overall goal of understanding the problems of ideological purity common to some contemporary liberal and libertarian thinkers. Surely only contemporary thinkers have been tempted to forget about the family or, perhaps to “take it for granted” as Hall contends. Nearly all modern thinkers before the 20th century were not so shallow or ideological as to forget the family—ancient philosophers and poets were concerned about the move from the family to the city, while most modern thinkers sought to reconceive of the family and marriage in light of contractual thinking and efforts to conquer nature.

Contemporary blind spots about family life seem to spring from the modern effort to conquer nature, for the family and all of its relationships are, if anything is, grounded in nature and matters of universal concern. Every society must have some way of dealing with the natural, inescapable facts that men and women must have sex in order to bring children into the world and children need much attention to be reared to self-governing or even virtuous adulthood. The contemporary world however treats these facts as problems that can be overcome, perhaps, by transcending the family. A recent study showed that children whose parents read to them at night do better in school and have greater career advancement. This led some to consider a ban on reading bedtime stories! There is a strange logic to such a crazy proposal, based on the assumption that, as Hall argues, the family is an “originator of unequal opportunity.” Efforts to collectivize the family can proceed from following the liberal logic of equal opportunity to its conclusion; perfect individualism seems to require perfect collectivism.

As Plato himself seems to have understood, the abolition of the family proceeds from the desire to build a political community that embodies justice at the expense of all other human goods. Hall and I understand the problem of singling out one good at the expense of all others in much the same way.

Hall and I part company in how we account for how the modern world has gotten to where it is and what advocates of the family should do about it. As I have argued elsewhere, the roots of today’s blind spots on the natural facts of procreation and education lay in the origins of modern political philosophy. This is not to say that all modern thinkers shared the blind spots, but the desire to conquer nature (and hence to erase the inescapable natural facts on which the family rests) is one of the uniting principles in modern thinking. This means that, in my judgment, efforts to defend family life must confront modern thinking even as they accommodate the fact that we live in very modern times.  This is what I would mean by moderation.

What does this mean? While Hall would have us embrace marriage and family life as “mediating institutions” necessary to cultivate a “social individualism,” I say that the family is a community based on love. Where Hall shies away from defending the connections at the heart of family life (the connection between procreation and parenthood or between the bearing of children and the raising of children), I say that all societies rely on these connections, whether they admit it or not, and that those connections make up part of what constitutes a good life for many people.

Hall calls for moderation. By this she means a recognition that there are a complex set of competing goods at stake in family life and marriage. She worries that our society emphasizes one set of goods (independence or autonomy and equality) at the expense of others (dependence and inequalities or excellences, among others). The problem with moderation, as Hall conceives it, is that it floats with the direction that public opinion is drifting; it does not challenge the assumptions of public opinion and in fact going mostly with the grain of public opinion. It seems to me that Hall absorbs Burke and Smith into such a project as well by focusing on their shared opposition to revolution instead of focusing on the job each sets for himself in cultivating a healthy, not entirely spontaneous culture of liberty.

For Hall, we defend the family for the good it does the individual and for the good it does the broader community, but rarely as an end in itself or as an embodiment of some important human goods. Social science, for instance, shows that the breakdown of the family has caused increases in criminality, poorer educational outcomes, and a whole host of other sociological ills. Yet, for all the consistency and durability of these findings, they have done little to affect opponents of the family or to affect the public behavior.  Feminist opponents await a new institution to arise to replace the family, perhaps national day cares or genuinely shared parenting, and, while I do not doubt that Hall would be skeptical of such moves, I also do not think that her vision of moderation would allow for much resistance to such a move; we would merely await a spontaneous arrival of an alternative to the family in Hall’s view, instead of trying to construct one rationally.

“The whole art of the legislator” lies, in Alexis de Tocqueville’s felicitous formulation, “in discerning well and in advance these natural inclinations of human societies” and educating against them as one is able. In our day, I would submit, statesmen and those who would defend the family must appeal to goods associated with love or personal relations and personal responsibility against the independence and irresponsible autonomy that we see around us. While Hall’s moderation is infinitely better than the ideological purity of feminists or those who embrace a collectivist extremism in the pursuit of equality of opportunity, a better-grounded theoretical approach would consist of identifying the connections at the heart of family life. This means defending the idea that procreation, marriage, and education are connected goods; defending the idea that marriage is the school of parenthood (that the virtues that allow for the solid practice of marriage are closely connected to those that prepare for parenthood); defending the idea that sex and procreation are connected, despite the partly successful modern efforts to de-couple them with reproductive technologies. Defenders of the family must use the language of goods and virtue and love, because these are the best basis on which to defend marriage and family life.

It seems that neither Hall nor I are concerned only about the health of the family. Both of us would like to preserve the modern regime of liberty, prosperity, humanity, commerce, moderation, and decency as the best the modern world has to offer. Both of us, I presume, see the assault on the family as an indication of all that is ugly or immoderate or blind about the modern project. I think I see this assault as more deeply engrained in our political DNA than Hall does, so I think that a more fundamental reappraisal of modern principles is in order. I am aware that my argument runs counter to many of our most deeply cherished values. Whether my proposal is agreed to or not is not the whole issue. In my view, defending marriage and family life as ends in themselves embodying some of the best experiences and virtues available to human nature would be the ground to lose a battle for now but to win the war in due time.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Lauren K. Hall argues that the family tends to moderate otherwise radical political theories. Moderate theories, however, fare much better. So while Marxists dreamed of a day when society would collectivize the traditional responsibilities of the family, in practice that day never quite arrived. On the other side of the political compass, Ayn Rand’s Objectivism seems to stumble when faced with questions of the family: “it is no accident,” writes Hall, “that John Galt is an orphan.”

    Moderate social theorists fare much better, Hall argues. Thus Adam Smith situated the family within the comparatively narrow sphere of our natural capacity to care; for him, our ties to our families exerted a gradual sympathetic effect that could encompass larger and larger communities over time, while moderating our radical political projects and attitudes. Edmund Burke made the family the archetype of a trans-generational social compact, one that binds the living to the dead and also to those yet to be born. As a result, the family acts as a check upon radical impulses from many different quarters.

Response Essays

  • Steven Horwitz accepts Lauren Hall’s paradigm that the family inculcates moderate individualism. He goes on to argue that such individualism is highly congruent to F. A. Hayek’s social theory. Families are equipped with local knowledge and know-how that may not easily be articulated, but that is also not easily replaced. The aim of much of this knowledge is to produce new adult individuals - a daunting task, but one that somehow human societies have accomplished again and again. Although Hayek was not a theorist of the family, applying his insights about the role of knowledge in society can help to explain just how this work gets done.

  • Scott Yenor argues that the family is grounded on a natural fact, namely that men and women must unite to produce offspring. In turn, these offspring are helpless for a long time after birth, and without the family they will not be well cared for. Modernity errs when it treats these facts as problems to be overcome. Lauren Hall’s politics of moderation doesn’t offer enough resistance to the dangerous changes now taking place around us. The modern left’s assault on the family does not call for a moderate response; this assault represents all that is “ugly, immoderate, or blind” about modernity, and as a result, we must rethink even modernity’s most fundamental principles.

  • Jason Kuznicki argues that family has not always played a moderating role in political theory. At times, it has been invoked as a support for despotism and even for slavery. Modern individualism may have its dangers, but traditional collectivism, and particularly patriarchy, were certainly worse. As a result, he questions whether family should have a place in political theory at all. He also asks: If, in the modern era, family moderates our politics, then what moderated our families?