No Substitutes for the Family

Jason asks whether the family is merely functional. I think that question is harder to answer than it first appears. I take my cues on the importance of the family largely from my background in evolutionary biology. The family is crucial for individual development. Right now, at least, it cannot be replaced. Asking whether children could be raised in some kind of Skinner crib is perhaps the wrong question to ask. Perhaps the better question is why can’t we replace the family with other things? The ultimate explanation for this is rooted in evolutionary theory, but we don’t really need to go that far back. Developmentally, the family is absolutely necessary for human development of every kind. Children learn not only language and cultural norms from their parents, but also how to manage emotions, communicate, and trust. The incredible intelligence held as potential in our genes is useless until it is released, usually within the first two years of life, by interactions with loving, committed adults. Of course, this is itself a functionalist account to some degree. But more than an argument that a particular kind of society needs the family to be successful, the developmental argument for the family is that individual humans need the family to be successful humans. This of course does not mean that there are not terrible families out there and children who survive such families usually do so because there is someone else, perhaps a sibling, but maybe instead an unrelated caseworker or teacher, who cares enough to fulfill some of these basic attachment functions. But such stories are rare because the kind of commitment required to replace the family is so great that such commitment is rarely extended to non-kin. 

The role of the family in human flourishing brings me to my second point, which is merely to say that families are also the source of some of the deepest human joys and sorrows life can throw at us. Families, for most people, give life meaning. While defending the family because it serves important societal functions is one way to make policy makers pay attention (maybe), it shouldn’t replace, as Jason hints, the deeper defense of the family that most people would instead recognize. The family makes life worth living. And because it’s such an important human good, it can also make life unbearable when it is corrupted. It is the family’s connection to living and living well that should make us care, not only about the functions the family serves in the Great Society, but about the fate of the family itself. Because where the family goes, we go too. 

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?