Responses to Kuznicki and Yenor: Patriarchy and Other Family Forms

Response to Jason Kuznicki

At the end of Jason Kuznicki’s excellent discussion of the link between patriarchy and despotism, he asks a few key questions:

How did we get from there to here? How did family become a mostly moderating social institution, when previously it was the cornerstone of a pervasive despotism? If family moderates our politics, what moderated our families?

I would say there are (at least) two things going on here. First, the patriarchal family cited by Filmer and others is a perfect example of the use and abuse of the family to justify a particular political ideology. Filmer, like Locke after him, tries to claim the family as the foundation of his own political theory. In Filmer’s case, his argument is (roughly) that God gave man dominion over women and children and that we can trace the absolute monarch’s right to rule all the way back to that original grant of power to Adam. Of course, this characterization assumes a great many things about the family that Kuznicki admits no one actually supported, such as fathers having an absolute right over their children’s lives, and so forth. Real families don’t actually operate that way. The families that existed, while certainly patriarchal in nature, were much less patriarchal than Filmer’s depiction, and it was, in part, the intimate nature of familial relations in the form of the aristocracy (among many other things) that eventually helped moderate the claims of absolute monarchy. Locke’s response to Filmer is intriguing here, since he uses the family to annihilate Filmer’s claims by recasting familial relations as based entirely on consent. This characterization fails almost as badly as Filmer’s, since the idea that the family is purely consensual strikes even the most libertarian among us as problematic. Locke and Filmer both recast the family to justify a particular kind of political theory, but in each case, the family they describe does not and cannot exist in real life. Thus, the link drawn by authors like Filmer between the family and patriarchal despotism is almost entirely fabricated.  

At the same time, the link that’s often made between absolute monarchy, patriarchy, and the traditional family needs to be taken seriously. Many liberals (of all varieties) shy away from discussions of the family because they associate it with patriarchal traditional family forms. This hesitation makes moderate discussions of the current state of families almost impossible. And, of course, most families throughout human history have been patriarchal in some way. Patriarchy is partly the result of the reality that the demands of pregnancy and childbirth create periods of dependence where women need external resources and assistance to survive. In pre-industrial societies, this burden was particularly great. The political, economic, and cultural climates changed over time, however, to limit such dependence. As women gained access to resources and as pregnancy and childbirth became less dangerous and more compatible with working outside the home, women’s dependence on men decreased. As cultural and economic realities shifted, laws changed to allow women the right to own property, the right to custody of children after a divorce, easier divorces, better education, and access to better paying jobs. These shifts allowed for the rise of what has been called the “companionate marriage,” marriages based not on need and dependence, but on affection and love. These marriages, because they represent a more moderate balance between male and female desires, may also help moderate politics over time.

But politics impacts families as well, and immoderate politics leads to immoderate families. Women’s subordination to men only became complete thanks to state interventions such as denying the property, contract, and other rights Kuznicki mentions. Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, a feminist primatologist, argued that, in general, women are the least free of the female great apes since cultural practices can enforce male dominance and patriarchal institutions in a way that males in ape groups cannot.[i] Of course, the same intelligence and language abilities that created laws to prevent women from owning property and made divorce from abusive husbands difficult also allowed women to resist patriarchy through a variety of means, with the results we’ve seen today. It’s obviously crucial for anyone who does work on the family to distinguish between moderate family forms and immoderate family forms. I’ve argued elsewhere against polygamy in large part because of its link to patriarchal control, and there are other kinds of family forms, including extreme patriarchal monogamy, that do not support the kind of political moderation that leads to freedom. Just like any foundational human institution, families are only as good as the people in them. And of course, the goodness or badness of the people in families is often a result of the structures of families themselves. But in general, immoderate family forms can do much less harm today than in the past since women and children are protected to some degree from the worst of abusive patriarchy. Moderate government moderates the family as well.


Response to Scott Yenor

Scott Yenor’s response points to some important aspects of the discussion I left out, though I think we’ll still disagree on some foundational issues. I believe very strongly in family for its own sake. Family is the source of, for many people at least, our deepest attachments, our fondest memories, and our greatest losses. Like Yenor, I believe the family to be rooted in our natures as human beings.

Yenor is concerned, however, that my understanding of moderation is not adequately rooted in nature to allow me to judge from a stable eternal standard. He suggests that while I might be concerned about suggestions to replace the family with daycare or enforced egalitarian parenting, my moderation does not offer a stable enough standard to resist such changes. Here I think Yenor misunderstands the roots of my moderate understanding of the family. What I try to tease out in the book, and did not have room for in the essay, is that my understanding of the family is based, at least in large part, on an understanding of natural human desires. I would agree with Yenor that men and women, on average, have different desires for child rearing. And children have fairly well understood needs for attached caregivers, consistent discipline, and free play.

At the same time, there is wide variation in what constitutes “good” parenting, with egalitarian sharing of childcare having similar kinds of outcomes to more traditional gender-based division of labor because both are capable of satisfying the emotional, developmental, and psychological needs of children. In the same way, there are particular family forms that we know are problematic, on average, because they fail to either fulfill our natural needs and desires or moderate between different goods and interests. Polygamy, for example, will tend to produce individual- and societal-level results like patriarchal sex-roles and skewed sex-ratios that create imbalances in the family that spill over into the wider community. Single parenthood too is problematic because it tends to be difficult for a single parent to provide the kind of emotional, financial, and psychological stability children need as they grow. But within the confines of what I call “moderate monogamy” there is a wide (though by no means infinite) range of family types that are capable of producing moderate social individuals who are also loved and capable of loving. This would include, for example, stable same-sex marriages. I suspect Yenor would see same-sex marriage as a rejection of the natural coupling between sex and reproduction. I instead see such marriage as the culmination of the natural desire for conjugal bonding and reproduction. I see a wider range of both parenting practices and a wider range of family forms as being capable of producing social individuals than Yenor does. 

This tolerance for variation does not, however, make my position one of mere anchorless moderation that shifts every time the public opinion blows. Instead, it is rooted in an understanding of what humans need to survive and thrive. My argument is not for a moderate family however the current majority defines moderation. Instead, I argue for a family that fulfills our desires as social individuals, and that understanding requires an understanding of human flourishing and the goods that allow for such flourishing. While the particulars of that social individualism may change over time and from society to society, the broad parameters of what it means to flourish remain the same everywhere and always. 

While I don’t think Yenor will find the above particularly persuasive, largely because I approach the definition of “natural” from a different perspective than he does, what is important, and where I agree with Yenor absolutely, is that we defend the family from the extremely pernicious argument that the family’s activities are replaceable by government activity. The family is ultimately too precious, not just for politics, but for individual flourishing, to not fight for. But that fight requires that we be willing both to judge immoderate families and to accept a variety of families that support flourishing. This approach is not relativism, but prudence.



[i] Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, The Woman That Never Evolved. Harvard University Press, 1999.

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?