Monday, February 18, 2013

Limits on the meaning of Family

In this new age of social media we have an opportunity to think again about an old problem. This problem is the one about what we mean by family, tribe, or clan. Each culture establishes working definitions for these terms and might use more or less elaborate words than English for nuanced differences. For example, we distinguish between in-laws and blood relatives. We distinguish between close cousins and distant ones, though only just barely. We are learning to distinguish between mother-who-raised-me and mother-who-gave-birth-to-me and surrogate-mother with similar terms for fathers too. Exactly what we mean by these terms is probably a futile exercise best left to language philosophers, but there is one particular problem that ties to these meanings that interests me. It is the problem of how much meddling one may reasonably and morally commit with respect to a relative's decisions to act on their own knowledge as they see fit. It is the line we draw between parental duty to a child and the mature child's duty to their aging parents. It is the line we draw between a parent's responsibility to raise a child and the end of part of that responsibility when the child comes of age. It is the line we draw between a brother's duty to his siblings and his duty to distant cousins. How much meddling is required and how much is too much? When does duty become coercion?

This problem certainly has my attention at the moment. My son is autistic and I might be responsible for him for the rest of my life. That seems very likely right now. My parents are now old enough that they need a bit of help now and then to keep the house up and other tasks. The situation with my wife's parents isn't much different. I don't expect there to be a firm answer to the problem that applies across them all. I've chosen to do what everyone else appears to be doing in similar situations. I play it by ear not expecting formal structure. If we get to the end of the day with tempers reasonably cool and calm, I solved the problems well enough.

One thing is obvious, though. The level of planning and interference expected of me for my son is very different from what is expected for my mother-in-law. I have no doubt she wouldn't tolerate me treating her as I treat my son. Beside the fact that she doesn't need that level of help, she doesn't want it either. Yet I do plan part of her life when I make career and financial choices. She can try to opt out if she doesn't like a particular choice I make, but her options are limited and I know that. In a strict sense, she isn't as free as my own mother because my decisions don't impact my mother the same way yet. In a purely existential sense, my mother-in-law is just as free as my mother because both choose, but one is more impacted by my choices and there are moral limits on me related to respecting each of them.

What I find most captivating about this problem, though, is the political extension of it. Another thing that is quite obvious to me is that some people extend their definition of family to the larger community with the implied parental duty that we should care for and assist those who need it. This is especially true of children and the oldest among us, but it is often extended to the unfortunate. I understand the moral requirement to help where I can. All I need do is look into my own heart and the requirement is there. This is not surprising as I am a decedent of countless generations of parents who planned/meddled where they could to serve the prosperity of their children. Whether one feeds and shelters orphans or horsewhips the slothful until they work hard enough to fend for themselves and their kids, one is choosing to apply ones own knowledge to the problems of another person who might have different and useful knowledge too.

One of the defining characteristics of a Progressive is the broad boundary they apply to their meaning of family. It is far broader that a Classical Liberal (European sense) is ever likely to tolerate, yet the liberal can usually admit that some interference (possibly coercion) is required of them if they wish to be considered human by a progressive. In this sense a human is a person who behaves as a human and has nothing to do with genetics and parentage. Human-ness is a collection of behavior potentials.

There is good reason to believe that extending the boundary as far as the progressives often do cannot work in the practical sense. F.A. Hayek explained this concisely in his essay on the limits we face in the use of knowledge. We simply can't do what the most radical progressive wishes of us anymore than we can make the ratio of a circle's circumference and diameter equal three. There is a theoretical limit that has nothing to do with ideology. The problem, though, is that we are ALL descendents of countless generations of parents who planned and meddled in the affairs of others for their children's benefit. How does one fight a truth many of us believe in our hearts and still retain our humanity in their eyes?
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