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.

Here are some sketchy thoughts as to how we might accommodate what’s right about Nussbaum’s contentions while preserving some important distinctions.

Natural relationships, unlike political relationships, are what I’m going to call “biologically real relationships.” I mean by this phrase those relationships that assume real or modeled biological relatedness of some kind and degree. Family relations are examples of these. Consider parenthood. “X is a parent of Y” means, in the first instant, that Y is a biological offspring of X. This is not to say parenthood reduces to the biological relation.  Attached to parenthood in it current and full meaning are culturally mediated patterns of obligations and behaviors, and someone could have offspring without ever playing the parental role. The point is that typically having offspring entails accepting and taking on the broader obligations and displaying the appropriate feelings and behaviors. When it fails to happen we look for reasons.

It is also true that we recognize as parents those who are not biologically related to their children, but only so long as they play the parental role adequately well. Here too we are using the relationship rooted in biological relatedness as the model. Adoptive parents do what biological parents normally would be expected to do. Moreover, it seems clear that the feelings adoptive parents come to have for their children are rooted in the more basic psychology that presumably tied biological parents to their off spring. As evolutionary psychologists suggest, the possibility of adoptive parents coming to have parental feelings and the behavioral tendencies they engender depends on psychological mechanisms rooted in biological parenthood. So while biological relatedness is neither necessary nor sufficient for what we’ve come to understand as full blown parenthood, we can still say that were it not for the biological reality of parenthood we would not recognize, at the cultural level, parenthood in the full blown sense.

What I’ve said about parenthood can also be said for other kinds of family relationships.  Our current conception of what it is to for two or more individuals to be siblings is broad enough to include adopted siblings, but the biological reality of sharing parents is prior. Interestingly, gender seems critical here as well. That is, distinguishing brothers from sister is surely rooted in the biological reality of sex differences however much it is then elaborated and developed to encompass culturally specific gender roles and the like. Other examples of biologically real relationship would include being cousins. In each case a biological relationship has enjoyed enough salience and importance in human affairs as to be codified.  We should expect to find these relationships recognized in all human cultures, and to find words that translate “father”, “mother”, “sister”, “brother” and so on in all languages.  As far as I know we do in fact find these things.

At first glance, if this is what I mean by biologically real relationships it may seem to make marriage an unlikely candidate. Husbands and wives are not biologically related in the way parents and children or siblings typically, or siblings, and indeed being so related is typically seen as disqualifying two people becoming husband and wife. Hence there is at first glance an importance difference. But this is a bit hasty.  What is needed for a relationship to be biologically real is that it be rooted in a more basic kind of relationship that can be understood on a biological level. Relationships tracking kinds and degrees of genetic relatedness are examples of one way in which that can happen, but there is another. Two conspecifics that come together in the manner necessary for procreation create a relationship that is also biologically real. We can recognize mates across species because at a certain level of abstraction all mating pairs do the same thing, regardless of species. The distinctive basis of the mate relationship–sex and procreation–are the foci of predictable and identifiable behaviors. And so we might hazard the controversial claim that human pairings–codified in marriage–is also a biological real relationship.

It seems then that we can find a fairly straightforward way to think about family relations that accommodates the anthropological and historical data Nussbaum appeals to while maintaining the apparent differences between a “natural” institution like the family and purely political ones. Of course this hardly suffices to show that anything interesting follows morally or politically from these differences when drawn on this basis. More on that to come.


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