Some Elements of an Ethics of the Family

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Social critics from Plato through Shulamith Firestone have argued that the distinctive features of the family constitute moral liabilities, and that families ought to be altered or abolished. In A Theory of Justice (1971), John Rawls notes quite explicitly that the family is always a problem for egalitarian social theory. A more sympathetic approach would portray those features as morally valuable, but whatever one's basic stance toward families, they do possess features that require moral attention and analysis.

One rather marked characteristic of families is their tendency to favor their own over outsiders. A central question is whether this sort of bias can be adequately understood inside a universalizable, impersonal framework. For example, can the favoritism parents show their children be justified insofar, and only insofar, as it increases the overall utility? James Rachels has argued for a position he calls "partial bias," which allows the expression of particular regard for children (and presumably for one's intimates in general) in those cases where their needs are in conflict with similarly serious needs of others, but not otherwise. This approach, he suggests, allows the special goods of intimacy to flourish within the context of appropriate regard for the needs of all, impartially considered. It is, however, questionable whether a truly disinterested regard for the needs of others, in a world where resources are massively maldistributed, would leave any appreciable room for special regard for the needs of one's own, particularly for people living in affluence. But even if some measure of special attention to loved ones could be made consistent with general impartialist norms, unless family members favor their own to at least a slightly greater degree than impartialist considerations mandate, it would seem they express only an ersatz partiality, not true loyalty, love, or commitment. To feel the force of this point, consider the intuitive response to a father who, when his only daughter thanks him affectionately for taking her to a baseball game, tells her, "Oh, I would have had to do the same for any child of mine."

Rather than attempt, as Rachels does, to assimilate personal loyalty into an impartialist framework, a promising strategy might be to put less emphasis on individual integrity and the separateness of individuals, and attend a little more to the connections among individuals. A careful attention to these interconnections offers a basis for just dealings with others that takes account of the difference between strangers and intimates.

A second notable feature of families is that not all of its relationships fit comfortably under what has come to be modern ethics' most favored image of relationship: the contract. Children notoriously "didn't ask to be born," and no one chooses one's blood relations. This fact has important implications for any theory that bases duties solely on consent; indeed, families are perhaps the most plausible counterexample to such theories. It is sometimes claimed that parental duties toward children arise from the parents' having tacitly consented to the child's existence, first, by agreeing to have sexual intercourse and second, by choosing not to abort the fetus. But this analysis entails that where intercourse was forced or good-faith efforts at contraception failed, and where abortion is for ethical, logistical, or economic reasons not an option, the parents are off the moral hook. Many will be reluctant to pay this dearly to retain the contract as the model of obligation. Ordinarily, responsibilities can arise from causal as well as contractual relationships. A proximate causal role in putting another in danger, for example, obligates one to stand ready to provide aid. This thought leads Hilde Lindemann Nelson and James Lindemann Nelson to suggest, in their 1995 work The Patient in the Family, that parental responsibility may stem from the fact that parents caused the child's existence and not from their having contracted for the child. In fact it can be maintained that intimate living as such creates expectations and other vulnerabilities, which, as Robert E. Goodin has argued, carry with them certain prima facie noncontractual duties (Goodin). Such an analysis would embrace family members other than parents in a web of moral but nonconsensual relationship.

A third feature of the ethics that typifies families is a less individualistic image of persons than is customary in impersonal ethics. Actions are often assessed in terms of their impact on the family overall, and there is a certain amount of collective responsibility for family members' well-being. A family of immigrants might, for example, devote its resources to settling other relatives in the new country, an enterprise that requires individual family members to subsume their own projects and goals to the familial one. While the communitarian feature of family ethics has often lent itself to abuse as repeated sacrifices are demanded of certain family members (particularly women) in service of an agenda set by its dominant members, it is also true that a family cannot function if its members are altogether unwilling to pull in common. An ethics of the family, in contrast to standard ethical theories, will concern itself with interests that are essentially held in common, as well as with individual interests.

A fourth distinguishing feature of what might emerge as an ethics of the family is that it is particularistic. Leo Tolstoy notwithstanding, happy families are not all alike. There are myriad differences among and within them—as there are, for that matter, among unhappy ones. Because familial relationships are not only intimate but also of long standing, family members can come to know each other in rich, particular detail and from a highly specific standpoint. This means that the principles governing their behavior toward one another can be fine-tuned to a pitch of precision that is impossible in other contexts such as law, where individual differences are perforce flattened out. What Iris Murdoch has called loving attention and Martha Nussbaum calls fine awareness would likely play an important role in any ethics of intimacy, whether among friends or within families. Attention to the particulars is what allows people involved in intimate relationships to focus on who they are together. This self-awareness, guided by general moral ideas such as justice, permits intimates to arrive at ethical decisions that are highly sensitive to circumstances and persons; the ethical work can be done "close up." Further, as these ethical deliberations become a part of the history of the relationship, their results can be used to guide future decisions that will be just as sensitive to the particulars.

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