Family Matters

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Kearneysville, WV. The debate, such as it is, between liberals and conservatives frequently centers on issues pertaining to that oldest of institutions, the family.  On the one hand, there are those who insist that the so-called traditional family is merely a form of patriarchal power masquerading as domestic bliss and that we can choose better arrangements built on mutual respect and equitable distribution of power. On the other hand, there are those who seem fairly to worship the nuclear family as the sum total of God’s intention for the family. Both views, I think, overlook important elements about the family that are easy to miss in a world characterized by autonomous individuals roaming the earth seeking personal satisfaction or fulfillment.

Those who deny that the traditional family is in any way normative argue that people are first and foremost individuals who have needs and desires and the capacity to choose. Furthermore, any decent society will work to ensure that individuals possess the political and economic freedom to exercise their autonomy to the fullest extent possible, limited only by the rights of other individuals. This view of human nature will result in a bursting forth of new and unique family structures, each tailored to the needs and desires of those participating in it. One man, one woman, and a handful of children? Fine, albeit a bit old-fashioned. Surely someone is being oppressed and likely abused. Two men and a baby? Wonderful. Traditional roles are merely social conventions that should be overturned. Two women, three kids and a dog? Sure. The white picket fence adds a nostalgic veneer over this novel arrangement. Three men, one woman, and children fathered by all three? How progressive. Only a judgmental prude would think to object. As long as there is love and no one is being coerced, then the family that emerges is just fine.

But are things really that simple? Can individuals call the tune and expect nature to caper forth ready to dance? Or are there limits imposed by the structure of reality that constrain the ways that we arrange ourselves socially? Of course, we can choose to ignore limits and let our imaginations run unfettered, but ignoring or even denying natural norms is not the same as making them disappear. One can, presumably, dance on the edge of a precipice, but sooner or later gravity is going to demonstrate some very old-fashioned truths.

What are the natural limits, the natural structures, to which the family ought to conform? Note, in passing, how the simple word “conform” causes a slight shudder. We have been taught, by word if not by deed, that conformity is evil or at least in bad taste. We should, instead, think in terms of novelty. Each person should be an original. Of course, such thinking is really the product of the autonomous individualism and the progressivism that so infects our collective self-understanding. Is conforming to something a bad thing? Only if the thing to which one conforms is a bad thing. If one seeks to conform to standards that are good and natural and healthy and sane, then conformity is clearly a good idea.

Certain standards do exist for the family. First, one function of families, perhaps the most important, is to provide a loving, healthy environment in which children can be produced and nurtured with the hope that they will one day be mature adults capable of raising families of their own. In short, families are the means by which the human race and human culture is perpetuated. On the biological level, there is only one way that babies are naturally made. One man, one woman, a few sparks, a few months, and out comes junior. It’s all quite simple.  Elegant, really.  Biological reproduction seems as natural as eating, sleeping, and email.

It seems, then, that from a biological view, a family necessarily begins with one man and one woman. This arrangement is the norm for humans as cultures naturally built upon the normative structures imposed by the natural fact of biological reproduction. The two parent (one male and one female) family has been a constant in most societies throughout human history. This near universality, of course, does not automatically mean it is the best or that is it morally superior, but when biology and culture both point in the same direction, surely the burden of proof is on those who seek to invent a different standard.

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