Abolish the Family!

It's a source of inequality, argues.... er, a philosopher.
So many disputes in our liberal democratic society hinge on the tension between inequality and fairness: between groups, between sexes, between individuals, and increasingly between families.

I don’t think parents reading their children bedtime stories should constantly have in their minds the way that they are unfairly disadvantaging other people’s children, but I think they should have that thought occasionally.

The power of the family to tilt equality hasn’t gone unnoticed, and academics and public commentators have been blowing the whistle for some time. Now, philosophers Adam Swift and Harry Brighouse have felt compelled to conduct a cool reassessment.

Swift in particular has been conflicted for some time over the curious situation that arises when a parent wants to do the best for her child but in the process makes the playing field for others even more lopsided.

‘I got interested in this question because I was interested in equality of opportunity,’ he says.

‘I had done some work on social mobility and the evidence is overwhelmingly that the reason why children born to different families have very different chances in life is because of what happens in those families.’

Once he got thinking, Swift could see that the issue stretches well beyond the fact that some families can afford private schooling, nannies, tutors, and houses in good suburbs. Functional family interactions—from going to the cricket to reading bedtime stories—form a largely unseen but palpable fault line between families. The consequence is a gap in social mobility and equality that can last for generations.

So, what to do?

According to Swift, from a purely instrumental position the answer is straightforward.

‘One way philosophers might think about solving the social justice problem would be by simply abolishing the family. If the family is this source of unfairness in society then it looks plausible to think that if we abolished the family there would be a more level playing field.’
They give a history lesson about this argument, which you can read if you want to do. Here's my version of it:

Plato argued in favor of abolishing the family in the Republic, though it's not clear how much that was just a thought experiment. Aristotle rejected the idea outright in the Politics II.2, on the grounds that abolishing the family means abolishing the state. The argument he gives is an early form of the principle of division of labor: the family is more diverse and also more self-sustaining than an individual, and a city more than a family. By eliminating the family in order to give the state greater unity (of which 'less inequality' is a kind), you would end up decreasing the ability to sustain the state.

And indeed that is true. The state is capable of surviving even major disruptions in large part because people can rely upon their families for so much. If the family fails, the state has to pick up a lot more weight -- and, in taking on a vast multiplicity of tasks for which it is unsuited, it becomes far more fragile.

Swift doesn't concede the value of the family to the stability of the state, arguing instead only from Aristotle's formulation of the tragedy of the commons. Rather, he decides that "it is in the interest of the child to be parented, and be parented well." He ends up concluding from this that there may be a higher value than equality (heaven forfend!), and that we shouldn't force parents not to read to their children even though being read to as a child confers advantages later in life.

There's an additional point, which is that a state that tried to abolish the family would become unstable for another reason: parents would unite in destroying it. That doesn't seem to occur to him, but he's an Australian. The value of revolution to the moral health of society is more classically an American point.


Tom said...

It is just as true to say that lack of good families contributes to inequality, therefore we should mandate good families.

Grim said...

Ah, but it's so much easier to destroy good families than to create them.

Grim said...

I notice that he's totally on board with banning private schools, to reduce the amount of inequality a good family can give to its children. He's just not quite ready to force them to stop reading bedtime stories.

So generous of our little engineer.

E Hines said...

It's impressive to me that he didn't short out his word processor with that freshet of drool flowing onto his keyboard.

Eric Hines

Tom said...

it's so much easier to destroy good families than to create them

As our social engineers have proven for the last half century.

Eric Blair said...

Once again, Orwell pegged it. "An idea so stupid, only an intellectual would believe it." (Or something like that).

Assistant Village Idiot said...

It's even worse than he thinks. A lot of the difference is genetic, and the children are unequal long before they are born. I'm not sure how he'd propose to fix that.

Tom said...

AVI, How so?

Texan99 said...

It should be a criminal offense to win the lottery, too.

jaed said...

I'm not sure how he'd propose to fix that.

Kurt Vonnegut had some creative ideas about that.

Tom said...

"Harrison Bergeron" is a great story.

douglas said...

"One way philosophers might think about solving the social justice problem would be by simply abolishing the family."

One has to think that the problem is a Social Justice issue first- I dispute their basis.

My job is to give my child the best rearing I'm able, as it is for any parent. If they are unable to sufficiently comply, I'm all for offering to supplement that (as I do as a Scout Leader, say) but I'll be damned if anyone wants to abolish the family. By the way, that's the one solid good trend in pop culture aimed at families and kids these days is that the idea that Family is important seems not to have been diluted by the leftists yet.