The Family as a Theoretical Battleground

Given their individualist starting point, contractarians tend to devalue women's traditional roles and identities as mothers and familial beings. Proponents of the social-compact model, by contrast, understand women's contributions as wives, mothers, and social benefactors as vital to the creation and sustenance of life itself and, beyond that, of any possibility for a "good life." The compact theorist argues that community requires that an important segment or significant number of its members be devoted to the task of caring for the young, the vulnerable, and the elderly. Historically, the work of care has been seen by ethicists, political theorists, and political leaders, including many prominent women, as the mission of women. They worry that in a world of individualism, an ethic of care will be repudiated or replaced by modes of intervention less tied to concrete knowledge and concern of those being cared for (Ruddick; Tronto). They also advocate a reevaluation of families that gives conceptual weight to the "private realm" by showing that this sphere is central to social and political life. They insist that our understanding of justice must include a notion of what it means to be a caring society and to honor the work of care.

The compact theorist regrets the lack of a descriptive vocabulary that aptly and richly conveys what we mean when we talk about families and what makes caring commitments different from contractual agreements. The inter-generational family, for example, necessarily constitutes human beings in a particular web of relationships in a given time and place. Stanley Hauerwas, for example, claims that, "Set out in the world with no family, without a story of and for the self, we will simply be captured by the reigning ideologies of the day." We do not choose our relatives—they are given—and as a result, Hauerwas continues, we know what it means to have a history. Yet we continue to require a language to "help us articulate the experience of the family and the loyalty it represents____Such a language must clearly denote our character as historical beings and how our moral lives are based in particular loyalties and relations. If we are to learn to care for others, we must first learn to care for those we find ourselves joined to by accident of birth."

Political theorists have grappled with the issue of the family's relationship to the larger society from the beginning: Where does the family fit in relation to the polity? In his work Republic, Plato eliminates the family for his ideal city. The ruler-philosophers he calls Guardians must take "the dispositions of human beings as though they were a tablet ... which, in the first place, they would wipe clean." Women must be held "in common." A powerful, all-encompassing bond between individuals and the state must be achieved such that all social and political conflict disappears, and the state comes to resemble a "single person," a fused, organic entity. All private loyalties and purposes must be eliminated.

Plato constructs a meritocracy that requires that all considerations of sex, race, age, class, family ties, tradition, and history be stripped away in order to fit people into their appropriate social slots, performing only that function to which each is suited. Children below the ruler class can be shunted upward or downward at the will of the Guardians, for they are so much raw material to be turned into instruments of social "good." A system of eugenics is devised for the Guardians. Children are removed from mothers at birth and placed in a child ghetto, tended to by those best suited for the job. No private loyalties of any kind are allowed to emerge: Homes and sexual attachments, devotion to friends, and dedication to individual or group aims militate against single-minded devotion to the city. Particular ties are a great evil. Only those that bind the individual to the state are good.

No doubt the modern reader finds this rather extreme. Many contemporary theorists contend that Plato constructed his utopia in an ironic mode. Whether Plato meant it or not, his vision is instructive, for it helps us to think about the relation of the family to wider civic loyalties and obligations. Plato aspired to "rational self-sufficiency." He would make the lives of human beings immune to the fragility of messy existence. The idea of self-sufficiency was one of mastery in which the male citizen was imbued with a "mythology of autochthony that persistently, and paradoxically, suppressed the biological role of the female and therefore the family in the continuity of the city" (Nussbaum).

Moral conflicts, for Plato, suggest irrationalism. If one cannot be loyal both to families and to the city, loyalty to one must be made to conform to the other. For Plato, then, "Our ordinary humanity is a source of confusion rather than of insight ... [and] the philosopher alone judges the right criterion or from the appropriate standpoint" (Nussbaum). Hence the plan of Republic, which aims to purify and to control human relations and emotions. Later strong rationalists and individualists take a similar tack: They hold that all relationships that are not totally voluntary, rationalistic, and contractual are irrational and suspect. Because the family is the ultimate example of embedded particularity, ideal justice and order will be attained only when "the slate has been wiped clean" and human beings are no longer limited by familial obligations.

Yet a genuinely pluralist civic order would seem to require diversity on the level of families as well as other institutions which, in turn, promote and give rise to many stories and visions of virtue. This suggests the following questions for social and political theory: In what ways is the family issue also a civic issue with weighty public consequences? What is the relationship between democratic theory and practice and intergenerational family ties and commitments? Do we have a stake in sustaining some models of adults in relation to children compared to others? What do families, composed of parents and children, do that no other social institution can? How does current political rhetoric support family obligations and relations?

Equality among citizens was assumed from the beginning by liberals and democrats; indeed, the citizen was, by definition, equal to any other citizen. Not everyone, of course, could be a citizen. At different times and to different ends and purposes, women, slaves, and the propertyless were excluded. But these exclusions were slowly dropped. Whether the purview of some or all adults in a given society, liberal and democratic citizenship required the creation of persons with qualities of mind and spirit necessary for civic participation. This creation of citizens was seen as neither simple nor automatic by early liberal theorists, leading many to insist upon a structure of education in "the sentiments." This education should usher into a moral autonomy that stresses self-chosen obligations, thereby casting further suspicion upon all relations, practices, and loyalties deemed unchosen, involuntary, or natural.

Within such accounts of civic authority, the family emerged as a problem. For one does not enter a family through free consent; one is born into the world unwilled and unchosen by oneself, beginning life as a helpless and dependent infant. Before reaching "the age of consent," one is a child, not a citizen. This vexed liberal and democratic theorists, some ofwhom believed, at least abstractly, that the completion of the democratic ideal required bringing all of social life under the sway of a single democratic authority principle.

COMMUNITARIAN VERSUS INDIVIDUALIST VIEWS OF FAMILY: MILL AND TOCQUEVILLE. In his tract The Subjection of Women, John Stuart Mill argued that his contemporaries, male and female alike, were tainted by the atavisms of family life with its illegitimate, or unchosen, male authority, and its illegitimate, or manipulative and irrational, female quests for private power (1970). He believed that the family can become a school in the virtues of freedom only when parents live together without power on one side and obedience on the other. Power, for Mill, is repugnant: True liberty must reign in all spheres. But what about the children? Mill's children emerge as blank slates on which parents must encode the lessons of obedience and the responsibilities of freedom. Stripped of undemocratic authority and privilege, the parental union serves as a model of democratic probity (Krouse).

Mill's paean to liberal individualism is an interesting contrast to Alexis de Tocqueville's observations of family life in nineteenth-century America, a society already showing the effects of the extension of democratic norms and the breakdown of patriarchal and Puritan norms and practices. Fathers in Tocqueville's America were at once stern and forgiving, strong and flexible. They listened to their children and humored them. They educated as well as demanded obedience, promulgating a new ethic of child rearing. Like the new democratic father, the American political leader did not demand that citizens bow or stand transfixed in awe. The leader was owed respect and, if he urged a course of action upon his fellow citizens following proper consultation and procedural requirements, they had a patriotic duty to follow.

Tocqueville's discerning eye perceived changing public and private relationships in a liberal, democratic society. Although great care was taken "to trace two clearly distinct lines of action for the two sexes," women, in their domestic sphere, "nowhere occupied a loftier position of honor and importance," Tocqueville claimed. The mother's familial role was enhanced in her civic vocation as the chief inculcator of democratic values in her offspring. Commenting in a civic-republican vein, Tocqueville notes, "No free communities ever existed without morals and, as I observed ..., morals are the work of women."

Clearly, Tocqueville rests in the social-covenant or communitarian camp; Mill, in the social-contract or individualist domain. In contrast to Mill, Tocqueville insisted that the father's authority in a liberal society was neither absolute nor arbitrary. In contrast to the patriarchal authoritarian family where the parent not only has a "natural right" but acquires a "political right" to command his children, in a democratic family the right and authority of parents is a natural right alone. This natural authority presents no problem for democratic practices as Tocqueville construed democracy, in contrast to Mill. Indeed, the fact that the "right to command" is natural, not political, signifies its special and temporary nature: Once the child is self-governing, the right dissolves. In this way, natural, legitimate paternal authority and maternal moral education reinforce a political order that values flexibility, freedom, and the absence of absolute rule, but requires order and stability as well.

Popular columnists and "child experts" in Tocqueville's America emphasized kindness and love as the preferred technique of child nurture. Obedience was still seen as necessary—to parents, elders, God, government, and the conscience. But the child was no longer construed as a depraved, sin-ridden, stiff-necked creature who needed harsh, unyielding instruction and reproof. A more benign view of the child's nature emerged as notions of infant depravity faded. The problem of discipline grew more, rather than less, complex. Parents were enjoined to get obedience without corporal punishment and rigid methods, using affection, issuing their commands in gentle but firm voices, insisting quietly on their authority lest contempt and chaos reign in the domestic sphere (Elshtain, 1990).

FAMILY AUTHORITY AND THE STATE. In Tocqueville's image of the democratic family, children were seen both as ends and as means to a well-ordered family and polity. A widespread moral consensus reigned in the America of that era, a kind of Protestant civic religion. When this consensus began to erode under the force of rapid social change (and there are analogues to the American story in all modern democracies), certainties surrounding familial life and authority as a secure locus for the creation of democratic citizens were shaken as well. Tocqueville suggested that familial authority, though apparently at odds with the governing presumptions of democratic authority, is nonetheless part of the constitutive background required for the survival and flourishing of democracy.

Family relations, so this politico-ethical argument goes, could not exist without family authority. These relations and responsibilities, in turn, remain the best way to create human beings with a developed capacity to give ethical allegiance to the principles of democratic society. Because democratic citizenship relies on the self-limiting freedom of responsible adults, a mode of child rearing that builds on basic trust, loyalty, and a sense of commitment is necessary. Family authority structures the relationship between adult providers, nurturers, educators, and disciplinarians, and dependent children, who slowly acquire capacities for independence. Modern parental authority is shared by mother and father.

What makes family authority distinctive is its sense of stewardship: the recognition that parents undertake continuing obligations and responsibilities. Certainly in the modern West, given the long period of childhood and adolescence we honor and recognize, parenting is an ongoing task. The authority of the parent is special, limited, and particular. Parental authority, like any form of authority, may be abused, but unless it exists, the activity of parenting itself is impossible. The authority of parents is implicated in moral education required for the creation of a democratic political morality. The intense loyalties, obligations, and moral imperatives nurtured in families may clash with the requirements of public authority, for example, when young men refuse to serve in a war they claim is unjust because war runs counter to the religious beliefs of their families. This, too, is vital for democracy. Keeping alive a potential locus for revolt, for particularity, for difference, sustains democracy in the long run. It is no coincidence, this argument concludes, that all twentieth-century totalitarian orders aimed to destroy the family as a locus of identity and meaning apart from the state. Totalitarian politics strives to require that individuals identify only with the state rather than with specific others, including family and friends.

Family authority within a democratic, pluralistic order, however, does not exist in a direct homologous relation to the principles of civil society. To establish an identity between public and private lives and purposes would weaken, not strengthen, democratic life overall. For children need particular, intense relations with specific adult others in order to learn to make choices as adults. The child confronted prematurely with the "right to choose" is likely to be less capable of choosing later on. To become a being capable of posing alternatives, one requires a sure and certain place from which to start. In Mary Midgley's words: "Children ... have to live now in a particular culture; they must take some attitude to the nearest things right away." The social form best suited to provide children with a trusting, determinate sense of place and ultimately a "self" is a family in which parents provide ongoing care, protection, and concern.

The stance of the democratic political and social theorist toward family authority resists easy characterization. It involves a rejection of any ideal of political and familial life that absorbs all social relations under a single authority principle. Families are not democratic polities. The family helps to hold intact the respective goods and ends of exclusive relations and arrangements. Any further erosion of that ethical life embodied in the family bodes ill for democracy. For this reason, theorists representing the communitarian or social-covenant perspective are often among the most severe critics of contemporary consumerism, violence in streets and the media, the decline of public education, the rise in numbers of children being raised without fathers, and so on. They insist, against their critics, that a defense of the family—by which they mean a normative ideal of mothers and fathers in relation to children and to a wider community— can help to sustain a variety of ethical and social commitments, including providing a strong example of adults working together to create a home. Because democracy itself turns on a generalized notion of the fraternal bond between citizens (male and female), it is vital for children to have early experiences of trust and mutuality. The child who emerges from such a family is more likely to be capable of acting in the world as a complex moral being, one part of, yet somewhat detached from, the immediacy of his or her own concerns and desires.

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