Why do families exist?

In Plato’s Republic, Socrates suggests an ideal political system where communal nurseries take the place of families, and parents are prohibited from knowing who their children are, and vice versa. Proponents of this system base their arguments on two key premises: first, the eradication of ethical dilemmas generated by the conflict between family loyalty and impersonal justice, and the second being the greater social order and civic responsibility resulting from the shifting of one’s allegiance from his/her immediate family to the society and the government.[1] This paper attempts to establish a case against such a system, arguing in favour of the family.

 If families are unique objects of loyalty for humans, then its eradication would probably put an end to ethical dilemmas that concern private loyalties. However, experience and observation would convince us that they are not. There exists a more fundamental cause of such loyalties, which is human affiliation, be it towards people or groups. We all harbour personal loyalties toward our families, extended families, social circle, and even our ethnic groups, in varying degrees, depending on how close or affiliated to them we feel. Thus, the abolishment of families will probably not eradicate Euthyphro-type dilemmas altogether. The above argument also leads us to another deduction: clans, gangs and other groups will inevitably sprout to fill the void in the absence of families, and gain more prominence and strength, as humans are social animals that have an innate desire for connection and affiliation with their own kind. These organizations will certainly prove to be more potent as antagonistic structures to the government than families, causing greater political and social stability. Under such a scenario, the desire of the rulers to shift the allegiance of the citizenry towards them would have backfired totally. Even without their full allegiance, the government would find families, having smaller spheres of influences and narrower scopes of private interests, much easier to handle and to coexist in harmony with.

A key governmental objective of any country is the maintaining of an ideal population size at replacement birth rates. A valid but somewhat utilitarian approach would be to view families as an efficient means to achieving that end. Consider the Platonic alternative: a society where there is neither legal obligations to stay faithful to a mate nor the responsibility for the upbringing of offspring; the government would be hard-pressed to regulate birth-rates as a person could have as many mates and children as he/she wants, with no strings attached. Conversely, a person might find reproduction a total redundancy, as there are no apparent motivations for doing so; perhaps with the exception of providing a service to the country. On the other hand, monogamy and obligations to raise their offspring restricts the number of children a family can have. In this light, a society where the upbringing of children is taken care by the government could be considered as a demographic equivalent of a communist system, while one that has families a free-market system. While this analogy is by no means perfect, - reproduction in families is not exactly sensitive to ‘market demands’ – state nurseries could be compared to state-owned industries, where the bureaucracy and red-tape often make them operate at mere fractions of the optimal efficiency; whereas families are like private enterprises formed out of free-will, and are likely to be more efficient in the nurturing of children as parents have a vested interest in them. Moreover, government policies aimed at influencing birth rates would be more easily implemented under a family system; incentives like housing priorities that are based on the relatively rigid structure of the family are more easily implemented, compared to incentives that target individual characteristics and preferences, which can be highly unpredictable.

When the nurturing of children becomes a massive public project, it would not be inconceivable that it might lead to the practice of eugenics. Indeed, in Plato’s Republic, he alludes to the use of eugenics, justifying the practice of ‘leaving weak babies to die in the wildernesses.’, and allowing the rulers or the strongest in society to have the best mates. In the long run, this might very well lead to the creation of a society that parallels the fictitious ‘ideal’ world in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where there is no tolerance for flaws or imperfections. Huxley’s world is one where the techniques of genetic selection have been honed to perfection and chances of errors occurring are minute. In the less than ideal world, moral issues of immense scale would have to be grappled with - whether to dispose of imperfect embryos, or to allow them to live and suffer in the ‘perfect’ world.

 Even if eugenics were not employed, individuals that have been dealt a bad hand from birth; those with physical or mental disabilities would naturally find themselves in a very disadvantageous position in a society without families. Having little or no obligations to anyone in particular, an individual would probably be judged solely on the value of his contribution to the state and society; a utilitarian world in which human beings are akin to economic commodities. This brings to point one big advantage families have in this respect: families are like natural shelters or buffers for human inadequacies and imperfection. Some would argue that aid to the less privileged could still be administered through legislation and welfare organizations, in place of families. However, it would be presumptuous to assume that such schemes would fare any better than those we have in the real world, not to mention the greater costs involved in shifting the responsibility of welfare from the family to the state entirely.

Indeed, the family could be regarded as a place where the intrinsic needs of humans such as security, love and affiliation are fulfilled. As such, it could be argued that the family is the ends by which an individual, in his pursuit of such needs, seek. In fact, Mencius the philosopher, who offers a diametrically opposite view of society from Plato, pointed out that it is from one’s benevolence towards his family that all benevolence spring from, including that towards one’s ruler. Mencius seemed to recognize the intrinsic qualities of humans, which the Platonic treatment has neglected, treating social and political engineering in a utilitarian and mechanistic manner.

Though not exhaustive, the above discussion highlights the merits of the family and the key problems of the Platonic system, setting the direction for further discussion and debate. Notwithstanding moral objections, the Platonic society brings with it huge costs, as it burdens the state with the responsibilities of administering welfare and nurturing children. Moreover, its viability hinges upon the big assumption that the government can carry out these tasks as efficiently as the family, and that it is incorruptible and competent.