The Family: Natural not Political

Martha Nussbaum is fond of arguing that “the family’ is a political institution rather than natural. Her point is that however natural and inevitable we find them, our familiar ways of defining family relations emerge from historically shaped institutional arrangements that define roles, obligations, expectation and so on. This is in part why Nussbaum wants to deny that the “family as such has any moral standing.” Rather, family relations, and behaviors the happen in the context of the family, are subject to the same moral scrutiny as those found in other realms of human interaction.

The contrast between natural and political is a dubious one, as it is doubtful that there are any structured human interactions that could count as “natural” if the very fact that they are framed by social institutions suffices to render them “political.” Given her purposes Nussbaum is right to stress the extent to which “the family” is structured by laws and customs and is highly variable across cultures and historical periods. Still, it’s hard not to suspect that her definition of “political” as contrasted with “natural” is so broad as to elide important distinctions. Surely Nussbaum see some fundamental differences–differences that carry moral weight–between a relationship between a father and daughter and that between a senator and his constituent. More…

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