Assignment: The Ethics of the Family

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Assignment: The Ethics of the Family

Assignment: The Ethics of the Family


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Assignment: The Ethics of the Family



While the word “family” is recognizable to everyone, paradoxically, it can be difficult to come to a consensus on its definition for many reasons, Individuals tend to define family based on what they are familiar with. Experiences in our families of origin, the families we are born into, or families of procreation, those we form through marriage and the birth of children, color how we view what a family should be. For example, an only child raised by a grandparent is more likely to consider such a family structure as “normal” than someone from a more traditional, two-parent family.

Additionally, there are social and cultural biases concerning what a family is. In the United States, the cultural icon of family is that of the two parent household, male as breadwinner, female as homemaker and caregiver, and the preferred number of children, which is two. I While this family structure actually makes up less than 7% 20f families in the US, it is viewed as the cultural norm, and therefore a bias exists for the families falling outside of this “norm”.

The meaning of family has varied over time and among groups. Cultures place different importance on a variety of family structures. Polygamy is commonly practiced in many Asian, Arabic and African nations. Asians are more likely than Anglo-Americans to live with their extended families3 Similarly, Latino infants and children are more likely than their Anglo counterparts to have active contact with mUltiple extended family members’

Assignment: The Ethics of the Family


Family is also a political symbol, with both sides of the aisle claiming “pro-family” policies, in effect implying that the other party does not promote “family values”. Conservatives favor policies that promote marriage among heterosexuals and discourage single parent families. Conversely, liberals are more likely to include gay and single parent

I Townsend, J. (2003). Reproductive behavior in the context of global population. American Psychologist, 58. 179-204. 2 United States Census Bureau (2002). Current Population Survey. Retrieved February 8, 2009 from!cps! 3 Knox, D., & Schacht, C. (2008). Choices in Relationships: An introduction to marriage ami the family. (9th Edition). CA: Wadsworth Publishing. 4 Garcia, C. ( 1 993). What do we mean by extended family? A closer look at multi generational Hispanic families. Journal of Cross-Cultural Gerontology, 8, 137-146.

Introduction 3

families, although even the current presidential administration is loathe to define marriage as anything other than that between a man and a woman.

There are several different bases of definitions for “family”. One of the most common is the biological ties we have to another. We often refer to someone as a “blood” relative, and research suggests that in times of crisis, we are more likely to seek and receive assistance from biological family. 5 Other family members may be defined by their legal ties, i.e.: through marriage or adoption. According to this definition, a man and a woman are not family until they have a marriage license, and adoptive parents and child are not legally family until a judge finalizes the process.

Other bases by which family may be defined, but are much less recognized by those who are the gatekeepers of rights and responsibilities granted to family members, are emotional and affect�ve, or how �e fe�l about someone. For example, in African Ameflcan and Hlspamc communities, fictive kin, or non-relatives who are regarded as family members, often enjoy ties as strong or stronger than those established by blood or marriage.6 Emotionally, we feel they are family, so therefore, they are. Interaction patterns may also determine who is considered family, or “we do things for one another that only a family member would do”.

While discussing the definition of family, it is important to contrast it with that of marriage. Marriage involves two individuals who usually choose one another, a monogamous sexual relation between spouses is expected, as is procreation. The marriage ends when one spouse dies or there is a divorce. On the other hand, family, according to some definitions, usually involves more than two people, and is the consequence of procreation. As any newlywed couple can attest, one of the questions that they will be asked repeatedly is “when are you going to start a family?”, implying that a married couple in and of itself is not yet quite a family. Members are born or adopted into the family, by no choice of their own (as many an angry child will remind their parents), and the family continues beyond the life of the individual. Sex between near kin is neither expected nor approved.

Assignment: The Ethics of the Family


Lastly, family is often defined on the basis of household arrangement. This classification has an Anglo bias, literally defining family by who IS

5 Burnstein, E., Crandall, c., & Kitayama, S. ( 1994). Some neo-Darwinian decision lUles for altruism: Weighing cues for inclusive fitness as a function of the biological importance of the decision. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67, 773-779. 6 Dilworth-Anderson, P., Burton, W .. , & Turner, W. (1993). The importance of values in the study of culturally diverse families. Family Relations, 42, 238-42.

4 Chapter One

living under one roof. It is important to note that The U.S. Census Bureau defines family as: two or more people living together who are related by birth, marriage or adoption. Such a definition clearly excludes many who consider themselves to be family, and today we find many groups fighting to have their relationships recognized as such.

Definitions of family have important consequences for individuals, often determining which rights and obligations of family members are recognized. These definitions have both economic and social consequences. Economic benefits and assets are only available to those legally defined as family by the provider, i.e.: social security benefits or the ability to be on another’s health insurance policies. If a family member dies intestate, the assets of that person will usually be distributed among legal or biological relatives, such as spouses or children. Social implications of family definition include the ability to make decisions for another, for example whether to continue life suppOli measures. Additionally, how we define family as a society affects the ability of a child to believe that their family, regardless of form, is “normal”.

Federal and State definitions of marriage and family have a critical impact on policies affecting families. According to the 2000 Census, there are 594,000 same sex partner households, with children living in 27 percent of those households. Most of these families are unable to have married heads of household. The Defense of Marriage Act of 1996 defined marriage under federal law as exclusively heterosexual, while declaring that states are not required to recognize same sex marriages performed in other states. At this writing, only the states of Massachusetts, Connecticut and Iowa recognize same sex marriage, while Vermont, New Jersey and New Hampshire offer legal unions which allow the same state (but not federal) rights and responsibilities of marriage to same sex couples. By not allowing same sex couples to marry, individuals are unable to: access partners Medicare or Social Security; file joint taxes; obtain death benefits when a partner dies; obtain health/retirement benefits; sponsor partner for immigration to the US; and divorce. Additionally, same sex partners are at risk of losing access to their children if only one partner has legal rights to the child and the couple separates.

One can imagine the challenge of defining family will only grow more complex as family structures continue to change and birth technologies progress. For example, in 2008, a transgendered male gave birth to a child, allowing the possibility for him to be the child’s mother, father, or even

Introduction 5

Assignment: The Ethics of the Family


both.’ Reproductive technologies allow children to have multiple parents, often blurring the lines of “family” members, while gay people continue to fight for the right to both marry and adopt children. As these and other changes occur in the American family, it will become increasingly important to define what a family is.

7 Reuters. (2008). Transgender man reportedly gives hirth.


We begin to look at the place of ethics in the family with a brief explanation of some basic and important concepts in ethics. Mora) Intuitions are our prephilosophical or prereflective views or feelings about rightness and wrongness (perhaps transmitted at mother’s knee), For example’, suppose I live in a rather sleazy part of town, and as I’m walking home one day, I come around a corner and suddenly see a bunch of young hoodlums pouring gasoline on a live cat and lighting it ablaze! “Oh, that is so wrong!”, I say to myself, I have an immediate reaction of moral disapproval, a feeling of moral nausea or disgust. This is a moral intuition, Even if I can’t yet say why what they are doing is wrong, I have the feeling that what they are doing is wrong. Moral intuitions are these gut reactions of approval or disapproval that we have to the various situations we encounter. Except, perhaps for some extreme sociopaths who are described as “without any conscience”, we all have moral intuitions. According to some views, these intuitions provide the basic data that ethical theories are constructed to explain and/or revise. Considered Moral JUdgments are particular moral judgments justifiable by appeal to principles, If I say, “It would be wrong to set that cat on fire because it’s an instance of causing unnecessary suffering”, then I have a particular moral judgment. More general moral rules like, “Don’t kill people for profit”, or “It’s wrong to cause unnecessary suffering” are used to justify such judgments, But what will we use to justify such general rules? For this, we appeal to Ethical Principles, the most general ultimate or first principles of ethical theories. For example, “Maximize net aggregate social utility” is the first principle of utilitarianism. Or, the first principle of Kantian ethics tells us that we must “Always act so that you could at the same time will that the maxim of your action should become a universal law of nature”, Finally, Ethical Theories are these principles, rules, and judgments together (hopefully in some kind of agreement with our most fundamental moral �ntuitions) and the arguments in support of

j The example is due to Gilbert Harman’s description in The Nature of Morality (Oxford UP, 1977), chapter 1; reprinted as “Ethics and Observation” in James Rachels, ed, Ethical Theory, vol. 1 (Oxford UP, 1998),

the possibility of criticizing the accepted moral code presupposes that there is an objective standard, that there is an ideal moral order, which imposes itself . . . . It implies the existence of a real foundation of God .’

God, according to Copleston, is able to provide the basis for the distinction, which we all know to exist, between right and wrong. Without that objective basis for dcfining human obligation we would have no real reason for condemning the , behavior of anybody, even Nazis. Morality would be little more than an expression of personal feeling.

3 This debate was broadcast on the Third Program of the British Broadcasting Corporation in 1948.

Introduction 35

Before assessing the divine command theory. let’s first consider this last point. Is it really true that only the commands of God can provide an objective basis for moral judgments? Certainly many philosophers . . . have felt that morality rests on its own, perfectly sound footing; to prejudge those efforts or others which may be made in the future as unsuccessful seems mistaken. And, second. if it were true that there is no nonreligious basis for claiming moral objectivity, then perhaps that means there simply is no such basis. Why suppose that there must be such a foundation?

What of the divine command theory itself? Is it reasonable, even though we need not do so, to equate something’s being right with its being commanded by God? Certainly the expressions “is commanded by God” and “is morally required” do not mean the same thing; atheists and agnostics use moral words without understanding them to make any referenee to God. And while it is of course true that God (or any other moral being for that matter) would tend to want others to do the right thing, this hardly shows that being right and being commanded by God are the same thing. Parents want their children to do the right thing, too, but that doesn’t mean they, or anybody else, can make a thing right just by commanding it!

Assignment: The Ethics of the Family


I think that, in fact, theists themselves if they thought about it would reject the divine command theory. One reason is because of what it implies. Suppose we grant (just for the sake of argument) that the divine command theory is correct. Notice what we have now said: Actions are right just because they are commanded by God. And the same, of course, can be said about those deeds which we believe arc wrong. If God hadn’t commanded us not to do them, they would not be wrong. (Recall the comparison made with the commands of the legislature, which would not be law except for the legislature having passed a statute.)

But now notice this. Since God is all-powerful, and since right is determined solely by His commands, is it not possible that He might change the rules and make what we now think of as wrong into right? It would seem that according to the divine command theory it is possible that tomorrow God will decree that virtues such as kindness and courage have become vices while actions which show cruelty and cowardice are the right actions. Rather than it being right for people to help each other out and prevent innocent people from suffering unnecessarily, it would he right to create as much pain among innocent children as we possibly can! To adopt the divine command theory commits its advocate to the seemingly absurd position that even the greatest atrocities might be not only acceptable but morally required if God were to command them.

36 Chapter One

Plato made a similar point in the dialogue Euthyphro. Socrates is asking Euthyphro what it is that makes the virtue of holiness a virtue, just as we have been asking what makes kindness and courage virtues. Euthyphro has suggested that holiness is just whatever all the gods love.

Assignment: The Ethics of the Family


SOCRATES. Well, then, Euthyphro, what do we say about holiness? Is it not loved by all the gods, according to your definition? EUTHYPHRO. Yes. SOCRATES. Because it is holy, or for some other reason? EUTHYPHRO. No, because it is holy. SOCRATES. Then it i s loved by the gods because it is holy: it is not holy because it is loved by them? EUTHYPHRO. It seems so. SOCRATES …. Then holiness is not what is pleasing to the gods, and what is pleasing to the gods is not holy as you say, Euthyphro. They are different things. EUTHYPHRO. And why. Socrates? SOCRATES. Because we are agreed that the gods love holiness because it is holy: and that it is not holy because they love it.4


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