Some Views on Marriage and Family

I'm going to post three articles on marriage and the family for discussion.

First, Lars Walker has a piece on how marriage and family has changed since the Icelandic sagas. I think he's right on here,* as will not surprise you. What he's talking about here is frith and freedom, topics we have often discussed.
The central political value for the Norseman was freedom (at least for himself and his kinsmen). The defense of freedom is an issue that rises again and again in the history of the age, as an old system based on kinship and traditional law resisted a new system based on central monarchy and imported laws. And the central bastion of this freedom -- the chief counterweight to the power of the state -- was the family. The genealogies in sagas are long because the families were big. The more relatives, the more power and security a man enjoyed, and the more axes he had available to resist oppression.

Marriage was central to that system. Though a Viking woman could not (in theory, anyway) be forced into a marriage, marriages were more the alliance of two families than the union of two loving hearts....

One of the reasons Americans nowadays yell at each other so much over marriage is that we fail to understand this (or understand it and don't care). Those whose idea of marriage looks back to this old model (which is not exclusively Norse, but almost universal in the world in one variation or another) argue with people whose concept of marriage is purely private.

It's my observation that most of us on the traditional side do hear what the moderns are saying, though we disagree. But the other side doesn't hear us at all. The modern idea of marriage makes it purely a private matter. Children are an accessory, and often not an important one.
Quite right. The weakening of the family makes us less free, as individuals, because we have only ourselves and the state. Strong families not only serve as another source of support, but also allow you to counterbalance the state's intrusions into individual liberty. The family can resist as well as support.

The other two articles I won't quote at length, but I leave them here for you to consider. They are of a type: a child of one of the 'new' types of families dispassionately explains what the cost of this type of family was.

The first is "The Child's View of Single-Motherhood," by Michael Brendan Dougherty. His sympathy for his mother -- and ability to see his own flaws as a child -- makes the piece especially worth consideration.

The second one is "Growing up with Two Moms: The Untold Children's View," by Robert Oscar Lopez. He asks both that we understand why this is less than ideal for children, but also for a more sympathetic and respectful treatment from society for those who turn out "weird" because of it. That's surely a reasonable request.

* An aside on the subject of the feud, for Mr. Walker. You write:
My cousin's actions are, by extension, mine. If your cousin killed my cousin, I might just kill you, because one kinsman is pretty much as good (or bad) as another. To us, this seems ridiculous.
I don't think this is right. I've observed the blood feud at work not only in reading the sagas, and Anglo-Saxon history, but also as it is still lived today among tribal groups in Iraq. The idea isn't that one cousin is as good as another, but rather that the feud is an attempt to balance an account of honor.

Let's say that I kill someone very important in your family (perhaps your father). If I am not also very important, you may not be satisfied with killing me. Killing me won't balance the scales. So, you may go and kill my uncle -- who is a better man than me -- in order to create balance.

The problem is that different families value members of their kinship at different rates than do outsiders. I may think that your father wasn't worth half what my uncle was, even though to you it seemed to even the scale. Thus, I think I now have a blood debt to repay: and so I go and kill your cousin. But to you, this upsets the scale again, so now you feel you have a debt.

This is why the reconciliation system in all of these tribal/honor cultures follows the pattern of getting the elders together to sort out a blood price. A group of people who are respected (or sometimes, if he is respected enough, a single judge) decides where the remaining debt lies, and sets a price that both sides accept. This settles the remaining debt so that peace becomes possible.  The hard part is finding a payment -- weregild or diyya -- that both sides agree makes it even.

In other words, the system actually does make sense once you understand the mechanism at work. My killing your cousin isn't irrational, but rather a measured response based on my sense of how important the various people are within the community of honor.


Texan99 said...

I've often agreed with you about families being a bulwark against oppression by the state, and I even agree with you that marriage is not strictly a private matter. It nevertheless remains, for me, an important right of people to choose whom they'll take under their roof and make a family with. However they choose to band together, their band will perform an important function in the larger society and therefore is a public matter, but the composition of the band, for me, is private.

Grim said...

You've framed your objection in terms that are impossible to disagree with, which suggests to me that you have something more to say on the matter. The composition of the band is private, certainly: no one suggests the state should arrange the marriages, for example. This is the whole point of the old ritual of asking the father for permission to seek his daughter's hand; but it was always understood (at least I think it was) that you were supposed to get her permission to ask for his permission to get her permission. Certainly that's how I undertook it.

Texan99 said...

I was referring to gay couples.

Grim said...

I regard them much as I regard those born deaf; it is unfortunate, and a condition to be regarded with great sympathy. Yet there are some activists among the deaf community who seek to preserve that community against medical insights that could eliminate deafness. I think they are wrong; not because I don't respect the quality of the community they have managed to build in such difficulty, but because I think it is important not to let our sympathy overwhelm our capacity to rightly judge a disorder when we see one.

A few posts ago, in the post on Mormon jokes, I mentioned Isaac Asimov's Treasury of Humor. Here's joke #20.

"Moskowitz and Finkelstein met in the garment district one day, each obviously weighted down with gloom. Moskowitz spoke first. With a deep sigh of agony, he said: 'Finkelstein, my friend, I have just lived through a summer the like of which I never thought to see. June was a disaster. Never in my entire business career have I seen a June lik ethat. Yet when July came, I realized that June had been quite good, for with July I went down through the floor and into the subbasement. July was absolutely unbelievable and indescribable and when I tell you --

But by now Finkelstein had broken in. "For heaven's sake, Moskowitz, why are you coming to me with these piddling matters? If you want a tale of real trouble, here it is. Yesterday my son, my only son, on whom I had been placing all my hopes, came to me and told me he was getting married to another boy. Do you hear me? My son has become an open homosexual. What can be worse than that?

"I'll tell you," said Moskowitz. "August!"

Asimov was not a hater. He wasn't even some backwards conservative: he was one of the most forward-looking men of his generation. He places this as the worst catastrophe that could befall a family because that is just what it is.

It's terrible because it destroys the easy and simple, ordinary thing of making children and raising them in an household where they will have their mother and father. It's the simplest and most usual of things, or it once was; and we know it is the best thing for the children, and (as the joke shows) it is also the best thing for the grandparents. If it could also be the best thing for the parents, how good a thing that would be.

That fact does not remove -- it ought to enhance -- our sympathy for those who find themselves there. But we should not lose our capacity to see the cost to the family of the disorder. For now, to some degree, we make allowances for what we cannot set right. When we can repair it, though, we ought to be ready to repair it.

Lars Walker said...

Your point on balancing the value of killings is well taken, Grim.

Grim said...

I'm glad it was of use to you, Mr. Walker.

Texan99 said...

Anyone who wants to help gay people recover has my blessing, as long as the gay people ask for his help. Ditto for deaf people.

My threshold for family dysfunction that would warrant outside interference to rescue the children is very high.

We're agreed on the importance of stable marriages in raising children, but I'm more worried about the impact of divorce, death, and step-parents than about the impact of same-sex couples per se -- perhaps only because I am familiar with the former and not the latter. By "step-parent" I don't mean anyone not the biological parent, but someone who arrives late to the scene, especially someone who's only visiting, so to speak, or who is not prepared for whatever reason to take the children of the home into his or her heart. I suspect we feel pretty much the same about same-sex marriages between two self-involved people who believe the marriage is a matter of temporary personal convenience or gratification.

Grim said...

I'm more worried about the impact of divorce, death, and step-parents than about the impact of same-sex couples per se...

So am I. We're currently talking about gay couples because you specifically said you wanted to think about gay couples. :)

The only thing in the original post about it is one article where the child writes about what it was like; and his opinion isn't that children should be 'rescued' by the state, but that we should understand the difficulties inflicted upon the child by such an arrangement (and not, he is clear, from outside prejudice -- he experienced none, as people didn't even know of the arrangement -- but from the structure as such). All I said about it was that I thought his request for sympathy and understanding was reasonable.

So, it isn't my proposal that the state should 'rescue' children from gay 'parents' (one of whom may actually be a parent, or both of whom may not be in cases of adoption). It's only my proposal that we recognize the harm done by the disorder, rather than giving in to the current pressure to read it as 'just as good' as the stable heterosexual family. It's not: there is harm to both the next and the previous generation.

Texan99 said...

I may have misunderstood your original post. I took it to be a discussion of the danger of viewing marriage too much as a private matter, first in general, and then in the context of the special dangers of single-mother households, then gay households. All I'm saying is that I find some aspects of marriage irreducibly private, and that my conviction extends even to gay households, and even in light of the danger that some households are terrible at child-rearing.

That there are children who have been made miserable by particular sets of gay parents, I don't doubt. I'm probably less persuaded than you (or the author) that the fault lay in the parents' homosexuality or that the story sheds meaningful light on the fitness of all gay parents. The parents in your last-cited story certainly seem to have done a poor job by their son, but traditional parents have been known to do rotten jobs, too. The question for me is where the problem is coming from, first, and whether we're entitled to intervene, second -- which comes back to the privacy issue.

So I agree marriage has an important public function, but clearly I place a more impenetrable curtain of privacy around it than you do. For me it is a public matter when the family is dealing with the outside world, but a private matter when the family members are choosing and interacting with each other. The boundaries of a household are largely sacred against my intrusion, even though in many (if not most) cases I firmly believe they're doing it wrong -- not because they're gay, but because they're unfaithful, disengaged, irresponsible, or wrong-headed in any number of other ways.

Grim said...

I think the main misunderstanding may be that you're dealing with this as if there were two spheres: public and private. What I think Mr. Walker's point was -- and it has certainly been my point when I write about frith bonds, including but not only family ties -- is that a robust such system actually creates a third sphere. Instead of public/private, you end up with the state, the individual, and the frith groups to which the individual belongs.

So it's not wrong to say that the third sphere is 'private,' in the sense that it's not public, i.e., it's not the state. But it might make more sense to say that it's 'intimate,' because it isn't truly private in the same sense that an individual's thoughts are private -- you share it with other people, for example other family members, who have a legitimate interest in things that pertain to the family.

Grim said...

That also helps capture the distinction that there are certain things that ought to be private even from your family (or other frith group). If we were talking about a simple public/private split, they might have some right to pry ("This is a private matter, and the family is for private matters"). But what we want to say, I think, is that there is an individual who has private space over which he or she is the sole authority; the individual belongs to certain kinds of groups that have intimate space, where the authority is determined by the nature of the group; and then there is also a public space, where the authority is the state.

Texan99 said...

I agree that members of a family have a legitimate interest in things that pertain to that family. Not being a member of a gay family myself, I take a diffident view of their intimate arrangements.

If I understand how you're using the word "intimate," it's pretty much in line with how I'm using the word "private"; i.e., "sacrosanct against interference from outsiders," as opposed to "secret or invisible to outsiders." I would assign to both individuals and frith groups a kind of perimeter wall of privacy, intimacy, or autonomy. In the case of frith groups, the barrier would not affect the relations among the frith members themselves, but would protect them against outside interference in the same way that an individual in a healthy society (in my view) is free from interference in many sorts of personal autonomy.

None of this is to say I argue for moral relativism. If homosexuality is wrong, then it's wrong (though I'm not convinced of it). I just don't think it's the kind of wrong that is the proper sphere of the state to regulate.

Texan99 said...

I think our last two cross-posted comments express something very similar.

Grim said...

I think so too.

As far as homosexuality, I'm not convinced (and am certainly not arguing) that it's morally wrong; that's rather a separate argument, but I don't think it's immoral per se. Even where we can demonstrate that it causes harm to the family, that isn't proof (as harm to others might usually be) of immorality, because there is no choice involved. The best evidence is that most kinds of homosexuality are in-born in ways we cannot currently correct; and the other kinds seem to be the result of sexual abuse as a boy by an adult male, which is certainly not the victim's fault. (For the same reason, there's no libertarian concern properly speaking: no one is considering restricting anyone's choices, because we are talking about things that are not chosen.) Rather than scorn or blame, I think sympathy is the right response.

The argument here is simply a natural law argument about the structure and function of the family. Everyone belongs to a family of some sort by virtue of birth, and no one gets to choose that either: but we can make some rational judgments about what kind of structure best serves the soon-to-be-born generation, as well as the ones who are already involved in the kinship bond. Precisely because the children about to be born are by birth saddled with duties and responsibilities they do not get to elect, we owe it to them to make sure their interests are well-represented in the structure of the thing they are joining.

I suppose it could become a moral issue if we finally do develop an understanding of what causes it, such that you could choose to immunize a fetus against it (say). Then it might be a moral argument that it was wrong to inflict it upon the child, in the same way that it would be wrong to inflict deafness on a child: in spite of the beauty of the society that the deaf have managed to form, you would be denying them a capacity that is proper to a human being's fullness.

If we lose the ability to make that distinction, even out of a desire to be kind and gentle in our speech, we've lost a part of our reason. Indeed, this also is kind of like losing the faculty of hearing: the faculty of judgment is also an important component of the fullness of what it means to be human. I have no wish to offend anyone, of course; but if we cannot reason about these things from fear of offense, we aren't as fully human as those more fully able to exercise their reason. We have surrendered our reason, which is part of our essential nature, to fear (which belongs to any animal, rather than being essential to humanity).