22 September 2007

Family relationships

(corrected version)

Dear Friends,

At the end I had to rush the essay.

Family relationships

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 biological systems.

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 kinkier 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 relationships.

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 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 distil 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 unusual one.

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 a 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.

Take care


*'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



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Family relationships

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