At the end I had to rush the essay.
Every public relations executive, every marketing manager and every
sales persons knows this maxim about business: a satisfied customer will
tell his neighbour, but an unsatisfied customer will tell ten other
people. The same goes for families. A neighbour will know about the
happy family living next door, but the whole neighbourhood will know
about an unhappy family living in the street. but there is more to
family relationships then unhappy families.
for this discussion we need to establish what we mean by family and
relationships. not only do we need to clarify what constitutes a family
but also who may be a member of a family. moreover, does membership to a
family confer any privileges? Relationships itself is a rather open
ended concept. How should we understand this concept? Are there duties
and obligations involved? Does this imply social relationships as well?
The days when philosophers could relax on their favourite easy chair and
contemplate the infinite are long gone. Today we have to contend with
what is happening in other branches of knowledge mongering. To be fair
it has always been like that; more or less. from our point of view, we
have to consider a family both as a biological system and a social
organisation. and each aspect has its own set of philosophical issues.
A high school teacher of mine was fond of tell us that; a problem
shared, is a problem halved. Apart from being a catchy phrase, it is
also backed up by such theories as game theory or evolutionary
The fact that humans have evolved into two distinct sexes implies that
there must be some form of cooperation between the two to fulfil the
biological task of reproduction. well, reproduction is certainly a
problem halved, even if today it might be shared with a laboratory
technician wearing a white coat and face mask rather than something more
kinky for the occasion. white coats apart, we can still take the
biologically determined union as the basis of what we mean by family.
However, we must also distinguish, today, between genetically related
family, when the off springs of a couple are also genetically related to
each other. Today, with fertility technology the off springs need not
necessarily be genetically related to the parents (to both or one of
them). The other forms of families still follow the traditional make up;
adopted children and step children.
One important aspect of a genetic family is that there is a strong
genetic bond to protect and bring up the young. Whether we call this
genetic altruism or instinctive behaviour is not that important for us.
This sort of genetic cooperation makes evolutionary sense if the
offspring is given a good chance to reach reproductive age. A great deal
of generic families follow this strategy.
But sometimes, in fact many times, the genetic parents or parent of an
offspring abandon that very same offspring. Although we tend to
associate this phenomenon with pictures from developing countries, it is
not exclusive to these countries. How should we read and understand this
sort of family relationship?
We can look at this as confirmation that if life in our environment
becomes seriously dangerous to our own survival, it would make sense to
abandon any offsprings that might prejudice the chances of survival. To
put this in a very colloquial way; looking after number one is the first
priority. incidentally this seemingly selfish behaviour has nothing to
do with the idea of the selfish gene introduced by Dawkins. some might
object to this idea of looking after number one first. however, a work
around this seemingly biological instinct is not to put one's self and
one's offspring in danger. Hence, the answer to families living in a
very hostile and impoverished environment is not to hold on to
offsprings, come what may, but not to have offsprings in the first
place. If we want to escape from a hostile environment, it seems to me
to be unethical to have offsprings in such an environment.
we could also say that when a parent abandons its genetic offspring it
is a reflection of a breakdown in the genetic programme. A sort of
malfunction of the genetic survival system. but this has to be
contrasted with the fact that the reproductive instinct is much stronger
than the caring instinct. Not to mention that there will be other
opportunities to reproduce, for someone of reproducible maturity and
sufficiently good health.
Another interpretation is what we might call the cuckoo phenomenon.
Since the reproductive instinct is so pronounced one can take the view
of having offsprings anyway and then hope others will take care of them.
especially when human nature has developed and evolved a sophisticated
form of social and biological altruistic cooperation. This approach
depends on the belief that not every one will cheat the system and the
system is rigid enough not to withhold any altruistic cooperation to
those who need it. At the genetic level this behaviour is as neutral and
amoral as the fertilisation process itself; what matters is that the
biological system reaches reproductive maturity to pass on the genes to
the next generation and not who cares for that system in the meantime.
that genetic parents are more likely to care for an offspring is not the
same as saying that only the genetic parents can care for an offspring.
if this is a true representation of relationships within a biological
family then surely there seems to be a minimum threshold of personal
survival before the genetic instinct to care for off springs takes over.
Could it be that this means that family relationships at the biological
level are relative to the environment the biological individual find
themselves in? Moreover, at the biological level family relationships
are not only relative but also flexible. Thus, what makes a
biological/genetic family in a state of equilibrium is when it can
overcome or manage well the difficulties of the environment around it.
The family is of course more than just parents and offsprings, but when
we take other members into consideration, we change the parameters from
biological to social. Of course, the biological element is still there,
but for day to day considerations it is not that prominent. I will call
this the social family. If nature did not introduce some sort of
categorical imperative to look after genetic offsprings, then can we
imply a categorical imperative for the social family?
As a cooperative system that exploits its environment social and
biological families surely involve rights and duties for its members.
These rights and duties surely introduce their own moral and social
obligations. for example, at the biological level one has to contribute
one's energy (which is part of a biological systems) in exploiting the
environment for the good of the family group. however, looking after
offsprings as a form of family relationship must surely count as the
most fundamental of family relationships and obligation. After all, they
are one's offsprings; what can be more basic than that? of course, this
does not imply an obligation ad infinitum, but certainly an obligation
until circumstances require it.
maybe even at the social level of family relationship there isn't an
obvious categorical imperative to look after offsprings let alone other
family members. however, there is a strong practical expediency to look
after family members or have good family relationships. the family is
certainly the most important group we have access to and know very well.
thus, having good family relationships makes good sense. it is also the
first group we are likely to be indebted to in the first place.
although there does not seem to be any form of categorical imperative to
have good relationships with one's family there does seem to be a very
strong rational argument to actually do have good relationships with
one's family. This changes the moral standing of the family from "have
to" to "want to." And this principle seems to be taken very seriously by
some families. Just consider the fortunes and histories of mafia
families, dynasties, American presidential families, European
monarchies, and business empires. there is no doubt that fortune favours
the audacious, as Machiavelli said, but it also favours good family
it is safe to assume that both at the genetic/biological level and the
intra-relationship level there is nothing that makes it imperative for
families have to have a cooperative relationship. however, it makes
sense that families should adopt cooperative relationship strategies;
division of labour, accumulation of resources, protection and safety.
The evidence does seem to point in this direction.
But as i have said, families in a also genetic context become social
entities. And as social living organisations they have to interact and
compete within their society and with other families. although some
might object that this inter-social relationship is off topic i do not
believe so. Firstly, what happens in society has a direct causal effect
on the family; for example a change in the political fortunes of a
society affects all families in the society. secondly, we as individuals
within a family group also have to interact with individuals outside our
family; for example, holding a job. this directly or indirectly has an
effect on the family. and thirdly, which is the most important point of
all, society, through its various institutions and organisations,
imposes itself on the family.
it is this third point that i want discuss next. The issues raised by
the influence of society on families are quite wide. I therefore want to
submit just a flavour of what i am thinking about. I will refer to two
extreme cases of the spectrum. The first is a quote from the archbishop
of Canterbury and the other is more a type of family interference within
a genre of interferences: i refer to honour killings which is an extreme
case of social influence. But although we associate honour killing with
certain cultures and religions, we still find it in very mild and
dilutes forms through class and caste structures.
The archbishop is quoted* as saying, ".....pushy parents who rush
children between ballet and violin lessons are suffocating their
offspring too. Children live crowded lives, we're not making their lives
easy by pressurising them, whether it's the claustrophobia of gang
culture or the claustrophobia of intense achievement in middle-class areas."
what the archbishop is referring to is of course something most people
in western and partly developed countries experience. The need to
achieve and the need to succeed is an ever present pressure on all of
us. The archbishop uses the word achievement, but we can distill this
concept further to extract the real driving force behind this behaviour:
I shall call it the cult-of-wanting-more. the archbishop seems to have
missed the point here: it is not that we set ourselves goals to achieve
things, but that we want more whatever those goals are achieved.
achievement is a signal to want more. we want more because that is the
society and culture we live in tells us we should do.
we want a faster bigger car, a more expensive house, a more exotic
holiday and so on. and from this we get the pressure on families and its
members. Of course this achievement and wanting more is always dressed
as a virtue and the right thing to do. But the bottom line is this, if
we want more than by definition we are never satisfied, and if we are
not satisfied then surely our plans for the family have failed. And if
we or our partner fails this is seen as having failed the family.
In April this year most of us read** about or saw the video of the
honour killing of the 17-year-old Yazidi girl who was killed in public
simply for falling in love with a Muslim boy. Indeed this is an extreme
case of cultural delinquency and social immorality, but certainly not an
But our society and our culture does not only interfere with family
relationships as in these extreme cases. In English, especially British
English, we have the expression, "to marry above or below one's
station." Maybe it is not as common as it used to be, but even having a
negative expression to describe certain unions is bad enough. Thus the
idea of marrying someone who comes from a different class, group or
caste is itself a pressure on the family.
maybe we have stopped seeing families, especially the parents of the
family, as life long strategic alliances, but now we see families as
business partnership with an P&L analysis every so often.
pressure does not only come in the form of achievement or cultural
delinquency, but also what passes as moral principles. I have argued
that in nature there is no binding categorical imperative, only mutually
advantageous strategies, which work for most, most of the time. nature
did not establish a do or die imperative for family relationships any
more than it has created such a principle for reproduction. but
societies and most religions do try to impose such imperatives.
imperatives that require a license to fall in love, imperatives not to
separate when alliances fail, imperatives to reproduce which seems like
blind following of the want-more cult and imperatives that promote
class-ism (kings are not suppose to marry commoners). In real life, of
course, there have always been divorces, birth control and the rest of
it, except only the privileged families could avail themselves of these
opportunities. not to mention that usually these rules are biased and
prejudicial to women. Are men ever victims of honour killings?
In a report** that appeared in the New York Times, NICHOLAS WADE writes
about the work of Dr Haidt who basically asks whether the categorical
imperative (do unto others), in found in our genes. Dr Haidt has
identified what he calls innate psychological mechanisms which basically
are: loyalty to the in-group, respect for authority and hierarchy, and a
sense of purity or sanctity. he is also quoted as saying that, "Those
who found ways to bind themselves together were more successful."
Successful in natural selection; he even suggests that religion help
humans succeed in nature. Not everyone agrees. Dr Frans B. M. de Waal
has this to say, "For me, the moral system is one that resolves the
tension between individual and group interests in a way that seems best
for the most members of the group, hence promotes a give and take." Of
course this is a modern version of an age old problem.
it seems that this issue of family relationships (as in other
relationships) is without a clear cut explanation and solution. however,
we do know for sure that nature is very adaptable and accommodating.
after all that is the secret of success of natural selection. I do not
think that the categorical imperative applies here.
*'Is our society broken? Yes, I think it is'
The Daily Telegraph / The Sunday Telegraph
By Rachel Sylvester and Alice Thomson
**Is 'Do Unto Others' Written Into Our Genes?
The New York Times
September 18, 2007
Mayte; Almería (Villa de Níjar);
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SUNDAY 6.00pm – 8.30pm at Molly Malone's Pub, probably downstairs----
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from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Family relationships