Anyone who is even halfway conscious as she stumbles through America knows that traditional family values are under attack. In fact, they’ve been taking fire since the 1980s, and it’s a wonder of Christian fortitude that they’re still recognizable in this, the apostasy of the early 21st Century.
But indeed there they are, still stoically erect, like Joshua on the hill above the battleground, their arms being held aloft by a faithful gathering of generals, including
So as Jo-average Christian battles in the trenches, valiantly, sometimes desperately, to save her family values, they stand atop the hill, surveying the carnage and directing battalions in their strategy to crush the demonic waves of perverted, filth-spreading minions of Satan who seek only to destroy and devour all that is great and good in America.
Other than making me feel as if I’m cast as an Orc of Mordor in this story, what’s the real issue?
I was talking politics Monday with two of my colleagues, who had taken strong positions opposing each other on a certain point. And I found myself constantly interrupting (or trying to) with clarificatory questions. I’m an ordinary language philosopher. I want to know what the terms we bandy about mean. And I’m increasingly convinced that much of our discourse is marred by obfuscation and equivocation. So my role in that discussion was to slow them down and define their terms. As we (I offered some clarifications, too) did so, we found the disagreements were not where they seemed to be, and with this clarity, we were able to intelligently state our positions and evaluate their soundness.
That’s the issue here, too. Specifically: we don’t know what “family values” are, who the foes of it are, whether the perceived foes are in fact out to destroy America at the foundations, or even what a “family” is. Oh sure, we have notions of such things. But we don’t have any clear conceptions of any of this. And it is my contention, which I aim to demonstrate in this posting, that it is the very vagueness, this deliberate ambiguity, that fuels the preemptive ‘war’ on so-called anti-family forces.
family values, loosely speaking
If you were to ask Jo anyone on the street what ‘family values’ are, she’s likely to say something like taking care of one’s children, caring for one’s sick relatives (say, an ailing parent or grandparent), and other such caretaker values. A majority of your respondents would likely also say marriage and maybe even having a certain financial security for the family unit. That much, at least, is uncontroversial. If you were to ask about “traditional” family values, then your answers would probably be more on the lines of two-parent home, with a car in the garage, white picket fence and 2.4 children who attend the school down the road from the cul-de-sac where the family’s two-storey home stands in the suburbs. In some stories, only the father would be employed, and the mother would find fulfillment in motherly and wifely duties, maybe also in active social work.
Now this is no definition. Rather, it’s an enumeration of the sorts of things that fall under the rubric “family values.” So what are the necessary and sufficient conditions that all of these things meet, such that they can be thus categorized? Certainly it is necessary for something x to be a ‘family’ value that x be a value. Other than roughly characterizing ‘value’, I won’t offer any conceptual analysis, since it seems to me that this would take me far afield the current issue, and also that it will probably either wind up in huge complexities or in indefinable primitives. I think it is enough to say if x is something perceived as necessary to the preservation of the good as it relates to some specific sphere of human interaction, then x is a value. (Note this gives only a sufficient condition. I argue nothing about whether it is necessary, as well, though I suspect it is.)
So if x is perceived as necessary to the preservation of the good as it relates to the family, then x is a family value.
family values, strictly speaking
The generals on the hill define family values quite differently. The value isn’t the point here, but what the specific good is. That is, perception or beliefs are important, but only insofar as they are the right beliefs, based on the unchanging specific good, which is itself mind-independent (that is, not dependent on anything anyone believes). This good is what it is regardless whatever we happen to think. That seems fair enough—if anything is a candidate for ontological primacy, clearly ‘good’ is.
However, ‘good’ can be (as Grice puts it) relativized. Indeed, it must be. This is just to say that to value something x as ‘good’ we have to relate it to some category—when we talk about a ‘good car’ our notion of what makes the car good is clearly distinct from what we mean by good when we say, for example, that x is a good movie, or a good friend, or a good marriage, or a good grade. And we can’t omit the valuers in the relativization. Certainly in social constructs the constructors (us) have a function in mind for the construct in question. Thus, x is considered good by the valuers who will benefit from the construct, or who can appreciate that somebody will be thereby benefitted. In short, a value x will be relativized both to the valuers and to the relevant category.
But notice then, that a relativized value cannot, by definition, be an absolute value. It is nonsense to say that a value that is specific to one category is to be held as valued in all categories. What we value in marriage is not translatable into what we value in a good book or in a political leader or in a sunset or in a dry-erase pen. This is not to say there are no absolute values, just to say that relativized values aren’t they. And since family values are even in their name relativized to the sphere of human relationships of a certain sort, they cannot be absolute.
On this clarification, then, what are the sorts of things that are good (perceived as such or not) relative to the family? To answer this, we need to figure out what another term means.
the definition of family
Not to put too fine a point on it, the notion of family does not readily allow for the rigor of conceptual analysis. When Jo-average American is asked what a family is, she’ll give an enumeration, either by listing members of the family group or by pointing to family groups. But no enumeration will supply a necessary condition, merely a sufficient one. That is to say that it will be certainly correct to point to something that somebody knows fits the category and say ‘that is an example of what fits the category.’ But, as Socrates asked Euthyphro, what are the conditions for the category itself? What sorts of things are constitutive of all members and every member of the category? It is this that a conceptual analysis seeks to offer. So what then, is characteristic of all and every family?
And here’s where the trouble lies. One can’t say they live together (I live 1900 miles from my mother, even farther from my brother) or that they were raised together (siblings of disparate ages—like my brother and sister, whose age difference is 14 years—won’t be), or that they are related by blood (spouses aren’t generally blood relatives, nor are adopted siblings), or even that they love each other.
Worse, the notion of family has changed dramatically over the millennia.
Presuming, for the moment, that the scriptural record is wholly factual, the family of Abraham included at least a wife, a mistress, bunches of slaves, sundry hangers-on and fellow travelers, in-laws and their hangers-on, slaves, and so forth. The family of Moses was dual: his Hebrew family, including a brother, sister, and mother at very least, but also his adoptive parents, and their siblings, slaves, and so forth. In the Hebrew Scriptures, family was a very large group of people who lived in a structure that preserved an accepted status quo. (I can’t say it was to the benefit of all, for I doubt many slaves were benefitted, though certainly considered a part of the family—nor, for that matter, were daughters benefitted: surely Lot’s daughters were emotionally damaged when their father offered them as a suitable and morally acceptable alternative to be raped by the mob, even though the mob demurred.) In the Gospels, Jesus explicitly defines his family as spiritual, not natal—as those who do God’s will (Mark 3:21, 31-34).
Beyond scripture, even the American notion of family has changed over our history. The early settlers were often indentured servants, considered a part of the family to which they were contracted, but only so long as the contract held. People lived in huge groups—a useful picture that comes to mind is that of A. A. Milne’s discussion of Piglet’s many ‘friends and relations.’ People thrust together by immigration and tough climes forged families, just as often as not sealed with religious vows. Parents, cousins, grandparents, children—all would live together in either a small house or in a tight community, and it was not uncommon for unrelated persons to join a family group as valued and irreplaceable members. As long at the US remained primarily rural, such was the picture. And even with the rise of large cities, such was the more common picture in rural communities, given the difficulty of travel. In the antebellum south, a family could include hundreds of slaves, who, despite being disvalued as persons, were still counted as integral to the family (household) until such a time as they were sold. It wasn’t until after WWII that what is now conceived of as the traditional nuclear family began to be conceived of as the norm, mostly as a result of the rise of so-called ‘time-saving’ devices and the push by savvy salespeople for each returning vet to buy his very own home. But how long did this last? And was it ever truly representative of the American family? I posit that it wasn’t. Parents still lived with their grown children’s families; poor communities were (and are) still characterized by huge groups of what are now called “extended” families. The middle class was not, nor is it now, representative of the whole of the nation’s population.
So what then, can we accurately say are the necessary and sufficient conditions of such an amorphous notion as family?
family as chosen affiliation
At very least a family is a group of people, the members of which choose to be counted as affiliated with each other.
So the antebellum slave owner affiliates himself with his slave, by giving the slave his own surname, for example. In contrast, the slave might not choose the affiliation, seeing himself as no member of the plantation’s household, but an unwilling participant in a cruel situation. Of course, the reason slavery has had any duration is that this is not what slaves have generally believed. Beaten down, they’ve accepted their role as a member of a certain family, thus accepting the affiliation. I mention this situation right away to push it aside as not working as a counterexample to my very basic definition.
The Bedouins who chose to affiliate with Abraham were his family. Children who embrace their parents are choosing an affiliation. When one proposes marriage, one is proposing an affiliation. When one files divorce, one is rejecting an affiliation. Disowning children is rejecting affiliation.
Indeed, ‘affiliation’ is derived from the Latin affiliatus (to adopt) from the Latin ad filius (‘to’ and ‘son’), and is defined lexically as “to adopt or attach as a member or branch” or “to become closely connected, to associate, to fraternize.” When we choose to affiliate with each other, we are in some sense adopting them as a legitimate extension of ourselves.
‘Legitimate’, by the way, does not here imply ‘joyfully accepted.’ Surely people can be greatly disappointed to find that someone whom they consider a legitimate family member, say, a father, is a lout and a boor, and though the affiliation is chosen, endorsed by the son, it is done grudgingly so, perhaps with a wish that somebody else were his father. But a wish that a situation C is otherwise than it is yet recognizes the reality of C, and wishing one had a different father than the guy one’s stuck with still endorses the affiliation one is in as legitimate.
I’m not using the term ‘choose’ in the sense of ‘happily embracing’ or ‘picking from a line up that which will most benefit oneself’, though certainly these will fall under the auspices of my use. Rather, I’m using it in a more general sense, following the tradition of Socrates, the social contract theorists, and the Marxist Freire. Roughly speaking, my actions manifest my acceptances. If I treat somebody according to the social designs for a certain role, then my action manifests my acceptance of the legitimacy (to some extent) of that role. (I recognize the distinction between legal, pragmatic, and moral here, but find it wholly irrelevant to the discussion at hand.) So when I treat somebody as mother, father, brother, sister, I am accepting them as legitimately inhabiting that role, thus I am choosing to affiliate with them in terms of the relationships that arise from the relevant roles. I am choosing an affiliation.
Thus, though it is preferable that the affiliation is at least two-way (multidirectional is certainly the best case scenario when multiple persons are involved), it is not at all necessary. For example, the daughter who comes out might find herself disowned by her mother. If the severance is deep enough, the mother might reject any affiliation, denying the role of ‘daughter’ to the unfortunate soul. At the same time, the daughter might (usually will) still accept the affiliation, recognizing this woman as her mother, thus as family, even though there is little benefit to be had in the current situation. It would be better if both considered each other family, but it isn’t necessary that they do.
family as spiritual affiliation
Certainly whatever so-called ‘family values’ (and by extension, ‘traditional family values’) are, they are about certain kinds of affiliations. If all families are affiliations, it doesn’t follow that all affiliations are families. Affiliation is necessary, but not sufficient for family. Certainly the ‘traditional’ family of Hebrew scripture and of early America was an economic affiliation as much as—probably more than—an emotional one. People needed to stick together to make it through the hazards of a difficult life. But such is not the case, now. In fact, Jesus suggests, as I mentioned above, a different way of defining the affiliation.
Jesus said that those who did the work of his Father were his family. So what is the work of God? When Jesus was asked what the law boiled down to, he said love. The Great Commandment of Jewish and Christian thought is two pronged: love God with all your heart, and love others like you love yourself. So at least as far as Jesus was concerned, his family was defined by a spiritual affiliation of love.
I think this can be extended to all families, if we recognize in this extension that we are now leaving the realms of the way things are sometimes and travelling into the realms of the way things are intended to be. When families are constructed, at least in the contemporary American setting (let’s not for the moment worry about slave-holding households, huge Bedouin families, or financially-motivated arranged marriages), they are done so on the belief that such an affiliation is legitimized via love and will be defined by love. Whatever love entails (and I won’t discuss this here—‘family values’ is complicated enough a topic without having to figure out exactly what ‘love’ is!), it certainly is not characteristic of all affiliations, though it does seem the case that love very often arises once a chosen affiliation has persisted through some substantial period of time or under some extreme duress.
I will call love something spiritual, meaning it relates one person’s ‘spirit’ to another’s. It is a deep, intimate affiliation, or, speaking colloquially, a ‘heart to heart’ affiliation. So the American understanding of family is then that of spiritual affiliation. And when somebody A loves somebody B, A is applying a relativized value. Clearly to love something is to value it (love is a kind of value), and the proper way to value something will be relative to the thing being valued. Thus, love will be unique to the participants involved, though certainly something that can be roughly characterized under a general rubric.
family values, carefully considered
So this takes us back to what a family value would be. Recall that a value is something that is perceived to be necessary for the (perceived or actual) good of that towards which it is relativized, for those whom it is relativized. So a family value would be something that is perceived necessary for the (perceived or actual) good of family. So a family value would be something that is perceived necessary for the (perceived or actual) good of spiritual affiliations.
The enumeration given by the generals on the hill, when they are touting family values, includes the following.
abortion is always immoral and should be made illegal
sex is immoral outside of marriage
marriage should last until a spouse dies
only heterosexuality is morally acceptable, and only heterosexuality should be legal
non-heterosexuality is destructive and frequently leads to death
patriotism (perhaps nationalism) is morally praiseworthy
pornography is immoral and should be wholly illegal
Christianity should be preserved according to certain criteria, and given a stronger voice in politics
gambling is destructive, and should be made illegal
it is possible, indeed mandatory, that the activities done by persons be divorced from the essence of that person’s ‘being’—thus one can be intolerant of activities while loving those who do them
That last one deserves a direct quotation:
We believe it is a loving response to oppose behaviors that destroy individuals and families. It is not loving to allow someone to kill themselves or other individuals. It is not “hate” to fight against such cultural forces as pornography, drugs, abortion, and sodomy.
It seems immediately clear that some of these aren’t ‘family’ values at all, but politico-religious values. For something x to be a value relativized to some category C, x must be perceived as necessary for the good of C. But recall that these generals argue that it isn’t the perception, but the actual good that matters. Hence, one must look to whether the enumerated values are in fact necessary and in fact good for the family.
Christianity, though I ascribe to it, is not necessary for the good of spiritual affiliations. Surely, when one is a Christian in the sense Jesus proscribes, this will further the good of loving affiliations. But there can be, indeed are many such, deeply loving affiliations (hence, as defined, spiritual affiliations) among non-Christians. And though it would be nice for one to be allowed to express one’s faith freely, it isn’t necessary for the good of family—certainly a religious family in a socially oppressive regime can still be loving, indeed might be far more loving to each other, given the oppression. So although this is a value, it is not properly relativized to family, and I thus reject it as a family value.
In fact, such is likewise the case for the issues of anti-abortion, extramarital sex, heterosexism, patriotism, and other such values.
In some cases, abortion might tear apart spiritual affiliations. But surely this isn’t necessarily the case, indeed isn’t the case in most instances. Regardless one’s position on abortion, this isn’t a family value. It might be a human rights value. It might be a socio-economic value. It might be an economic value (as it seems to be partly understood in China). And it might be perceived by the generals as necessary to the preservation of family, but their own standards dictate that what they perceive isn’t the point, but what is in fact necessary for the good of spiritual affiliations. It is not logically impossible—nor even unlikely—that families have been saved by abortions.
If a family is a spiritual affiliation, then it matters not the genders who thereby choose to affiliate. That non-heterosexuals are considered a threat to traditional family values arises only from the misconception of traditional family, and in fact turns on a second misconception about the nature of gays (a characterization comparable to the black-face stereotyping of African Americans in the early 20th Century).
To quote Bill Countryman (at some length) will be illuminating here:
Biblical family values were focused on large polygamous households, where the children of different mothers competed with each other for the right of succession. […] By the New Testament era […t]here were just the glimmerings, among advanced thinkers, of an idea that husband and wife (who were often decades apart in age) might learn to become each other’s friends and supporters.
The idea of making Jesus the patron of our […] family values is pretty funny […]. His mother and his brothers, on one occasion, came to collect him because they thought he was crazy. He refused to go out and see them and instead said to the people around him, “Who are my mother and my brothers and my sisters? …Whoever does the will of God […]”. Early Christianity continued this pattern by substituting the church for the family of origin. […] Well on down into the late Roman Empire, one of the things that pagans held against Christians was that they broke up families. St. Agnes, for instance, refused to marry the man her parents had chosen for her because he was a pagan and [she] was martyred as a result. And St. Perpetua’s father came to herin the prison with her baby son and said, “You can’t go through with this martyrdom. Look, here’s your child. You have to come back and take care of him.” But she said, “No. I have a higher calling.”
From Jesus onward, early Christianity was very disruptive of family life. The family was distrusted because of its tendency to absolutize itself. After all, it was the basic social unit in antiquity. You didn’t count as an individual; you counted only through membership in a family […]. And the family’s overarching concern was to preserve itself by reproduction, to amass greater wealth (or at least not lose any to other families), to increase in public reputation, and to make good connections through marriage. In other words, the family in and of itself had no particular spiritual concerns. The family existed for its own sake. And so Jesus called his disciples away from their families, and even after Jesus’ time Christians continued to be disruptive of family life. Even after Christianity became legal, a really serious Christian might very well choose to run away to the desert and become a single person, a monachos, a monk, a hermit, or a member of a monastic community.
The modern nuclear family is in difficulty right now. The Christian response to that is not to say, “Oh, my God, we have to shore this up at all costs,” Like early Christians, we should be open to meeting God, open to meeting our neighbor in God’s presence, and God in our neighbor’s presence, and see what comes of that. (Gifted by Otherness, 146-147)
The point here—at least the primary one for this discussion’s purposes—is that the notion of traditional family values is vacuous. If it turns out that some notion is without any content other than wishful thinking, then values relativized to this notion are deeply mistaken.
The family presupposed by the generals does not include even those most idealized as traditional families: not the Brady bunch (they were divorced and remarried, after all), nor the Rifleman (a single father? horrors!) nor even the fellows from My Three Sons (a small, but extended family, again without any mother). It couldn’t include the Finches from To Kill a Mockingbird or even Mary and Joseph, since Mary was pregnant before married. Whatever the so-called family is, it is undefined, unless the so-called ‘nuclear’ family is exemplified by the Cleavers and the Nelsons (in which case, any family including daughters seems left out, too). I’ll call this restricted notion F*.
Now whatever F* is, that is what the traditional family values are relativized to. But F* is at best a subcategory of family. And to anathematize other families by declaring them a threat to F* is anything but valuing families.
That very few families have ever exemplified F* implies that the values that are necessary for the preservation of F* are not relativized to the majority of families. The generals are right: people can value the wrong things. And in this case, those in the trenches doggedly battling the minions of evil who are bent on the destruction of so-called ‘traditional family values’ are not fighting a war in their own best interests. The very values they fight for include some that may deny the legitimacy of their own family.
the threats to family values
It isn’t only the case that the traditional family values are vacuous, albeit rhetorically well-presented. It is also that the threats to them aren’t all that threatening. If in fact the family is a chosen spiritual affiliation, then gay marriage isn’t a threat to but an embracing of family. And gays are (propaganda from the generals to the contrary) constantly fighting hard for the upholding and strengthening of those values necessary for the preservation of the good of family. After all, this is the motivation behind the struggle for legalizing gay marriage.
Premarital (or, in the case of gays, ‘extramarital’ since marriage is generally forbidden) sex are not threats to spiritual affiliations. Homosexuality isn’t a threat to spiritual affiliations. They might be threats to F* in that if these are available, people will choose the affiliation most beneficial to them, rather than the one proscribed for them. Rather, this is one way people choose to demonstrate their chosen affiliation. Without a doubt, sex either in or out of the marriage contract can be destructive to family. But it isn’t destructive because it is extramarital.
It turns out, then (though I’ve certainly not argued against each one), that the so-called traditional family values are neither traditional, nor family-related. But because family is not at all clearly defined, and because people value family (as they should!), any enumeration offered with some (seeming) authority of a list of values that must be defended in order to protect families will be fought for by those who believe the self-proclaimed authorities know more than they do.
But of course all this stands on the assumption that there are people out there who hate family, and that they wish to destroy families. And this seems utterly bizarre, when one considers that those who are supposedly the minions of the devil, hell-bent on such familial destruction, are doing so by begging to be allowed to form their own families.