17 February 2004



Whether it is for the better, or for worse or just plain indifferent we are all members of one of the rather exclusive of clubs; the family. So far so good. As for the kind of relationship we have with our family or the state of affairs of our family we need not concern ourselves here.

We cannot be too far wrong by looking at the family from the point of view of relationships between individuals and the collective. In other words we can look at the family from the metaphysical and ethical point of view. We know that there is a metaphysical relationship because we know that there is a causal relationship between the members of the family. We also know that at least at the biological level mothers are practically exposed to a zero sum strategy. Which in turn introduces the ethical factor. Let me explain.

Irrespective of medical technology, childbearing and childbirth always involve an element of danger; things can go tragically wrong. And sometimes they do. This is where the zero sum strategy becomes relevant. There is always the chance of a woman losing her life at childbirth since a zero sum strategy does not allow for half measures. And although the male is not in this unenviable position, the emotional stress must surely count for something. Hence the ethical issue, why risk so much when the outcome is far from guaranteed?

This brings us to the main philosophical issue about the family: Altruism. 'What's in it for me?' type of questions do not arise when two people start a family. Yes, some parents abandon their families or children, but that's not to say that all families are like the. At face value the opposite is true. Yes, accidents do happen, but not every child is an accident. Yes, there is always the social and religious pressure, but that does not minimize the risk nor increase the returns. And then there is that little matter of the genes banging at the door of reproduction. Of course, those genes are quite persistent, but as rational beings we know that it is that wicked hand of determinism that is doing the banging. So why does altruism persist?

Altruism, don't forget, goes against the grain of utilitarianism. What's the point of doing something if there is no pay off for me? What's the point of risking one's life or giving up one's earnings just to bring children up? You can see where the argument is heading.

Before having children nature plays the utilitarian game. The maximum pleasure or the maximum return sort of strategy: what's best for me? Then post childbirth nature switches over to an altruistic game: what's good for the group as opposed to what's good for the individual. It can always be argued that if the group is doing well then I will benefit from that. And if I maximize my returns then the group will benefit from that. Let's put it this way, which group and which individual stand to benefit more: the person who starts a family with a drunken down and out or the person who starts a family with a chief executive officer of a multi national company? I think the answer is obvious and pigs are not going to fly tomorrow.

How solid the family is or how happy the family is must surely have some consequences. But am I about to fall into the is/ought trap here? What if it was the case that the individuals who start the family are happy, then the collective family will be happy? And if the family is happy, then the collective of families ought to be happy. And isn't the collective of families what we also call a society? And if all societies are happy, wouldn't the whole world be happy? And isn't a society the twin sibling of politics? Now there is a twist!

Let's stop for a reality audit here. So, if all ma's and all pa's are happy then by a stretch of the imagination we can end up with the whole world being happy. Is the world happy? Is society happy? Is the family happy? Are ma and pa happy? And how did it all start anyway?

Could it have started as the song* says: It started with a kiss. Or ought it have started with something more substantial as the aria** says: ……d'amore e di speranza!

Take care


* Paul Maurice Kelly, It Started With A Kiss

** Georges Bizet, Nessun Dorma

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