Saturday, July 05, 2008

The family is not a technology, part 2

If, as Jim Kalb writes, modernism is based on a scientistic view of reason, what are the consequences for the family?

Not so good. Scientism, the attempt to apply the kind of reasoning at work in the natural sciences to the whole of life, has encouraged a technological view of society. There are to be universal systems based on clear and efficient principles which can be applied and managed by experts.

The traditional family fails as a technology. Jim Kalb has explained some of the reasons why:

(a) For a rational technological system to exist, everything has to be transparent and manageable from the point of view of those on top.

(b) Traditional and local institutions - family, religion, nationality, and non-liberal conceptions of personal integrity and dignity

i) Are generally opaque and resistant to outside control. They're recalcitrant.

ii) Aren't oriented toward maximum equal satisfaction of individual preference ...

iii) Aren't based on expert knowledge ...

iv) Recognise distinctions and authorities that aren't required by liberal market and bureaucratic institutions. It follows that they're based on hate and oppression. The family, for instance, is based on distinctions of sex, age and blood ... (see p.8)

Is it possible to find examples of moderns rejecting the family on the grounds outlined above by Jim Kalb? Absolutely.

Leon Trotsky wrote the following in 1932 in defence of the attempts to reform the family in communist Russia:

The revolution made a heroic effort to destroy the so-called “family hearth” - that archaic, stuffy and stagnant institution ... The place of the family as a shut-in petty enterprise was to be occupied, according to the plans, by a finished system of social care and accommodation: maternity houses, creches, kindergartens, schools, social dining rooms, social laundries, first-aid stations, hospitals, sanatoria, athletic organizations, moving-picture theaters, etc.

Note the terminology at work: "archaic, stuffy and stagnant", a "shut-in petty enterprise". The term "shut-in" corresponds to Kalb's second point, namely that the traditional family is too opaque and resistant to outside control to function well as a technology. The complaint that the family is a "petty enterprise" makes sense if you expect the institutions of society to exist as part of a universal, centralised system managed from the top.

And then there is Tom Flynn. A few years ago he was co-editor of the Secular Humanist Bulletin. In an article titled "Replacing our Last Cottage Industry" he exhorted secular humanists to continue their attack on the family:

Pat Robertson is right - as secular humanists, we are heir to a tradition that is in many ways profoundly anti-family. For more than a hundred years humanists and freethinkers have been either center stage, or cheering from the front row, each time reform blunted the family's ubiquity and power ... humanists and other reformers have dealt the family countless body blows. Some say the family is becoming more inclusive. I say we are subduing the family, not extending it - perhaps setting the stage for its replacement.

Secular humanists should celebrate this achievement, not minimize it, and renew their assaults upon the family. This obsolete and exploitative institution must go.

What does Tom Flynn have against the family? He explains:

... At humanism's core lies enmity toward all things medieval, authoritarian, and obscurantist. As medieval holdovers go, the family is short on obscurantism, but drenched in authoritarianism. It's second only to matrimony in transmitting the idea of women as brood animals. In perpetuating the idea of children as property it has no peer. The family must go.

So secular humanists object to that which is "obscurantist". This seems to relate to Kalb's observation that institutions which are "opaque" aren't well suited for technological systems.

Flynn also objects to the authoritarianism of the family. This was predicted in Kalb's fourth point: the family fails in a technological society because it recognises authorities not required by liberal market and bureaucratic institutions.

Similary, there is Flynn's objection to the place of women and children in the family. Again this is predicted in Kalb's fourth point: the family fails in a technological society because it recognises distinctions of age and sex not required by liberal market and bureaucratic institutions. These distinctions will therefore be understood and explained in a negative sense, as aspects of oppression.

What's most intersting, though, is another of Flynn's objections to the family, the one fitting Kalb's third point: that it isn't administered by a class of experts:

... the family stands in the way of another implicit humanist goal: decoupling ... reproduction from parenting. The birth control explosion of the 60s emancipated much sex from reproduction. Yet even today, few can imagine anyone but themselves raising their kids, as though conception and childbirth imply anything about one's capacity to prepare a child for today's complex world.

The costs of cottage industry

We expect specialists to build our cars, raise our buildings, make our clothing, write our software - the list is endless. Perversely, only society's most precious products - us - are still entrusted to cottage industry. If society is falling apart as conservatives charge, perhaps the blame lies not with "alternative family structures" (more accurately, non-familial households) but simply with parents, single or married, rich or poor, for whom parenting could never be more than a hobby - pursued in naive isolation, abandoned just when one threatens to get good at it. While procreation and parenting remain yoked, most children are doomed to be raised by amateurs ...

The family, our last cottage industry, must go!

Looking Backwards - Issuing A Challenge

In 1888 Edward Bellamy published the utopian novel Looking Backwards, 2000-1887. Bellamy predicted that by the 21st Century capitalism, home, and family would be forgotten. Generations of reformers imbibed Bellamy's vivid images of happy workers who lived in dorms and ate in refectories, of children raised in large cohorts by gifted mentors, and dreamt that this was the shape of things to come. Science-fiction masters like Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and others portrayed futures in which the family had been eclipsed by licensed, professionalized alternatives. Many progressives simply assumed that one day, if not too soon, parenting would be a career like any other. Those most capable of it would be trained to mentor armies of children not their own.

Too many secular humanists no longer find such visions compelling.

It's interesting how similar Trotsky's turn of phrase is to Flynn's. Trotsky condemned the family as an archaic petty enterprise; Flynn condemns it as a cottage industry.

There is the same technological impulse at work; instead of a family run as a "hobby" by "amateurs" (i.e. by parents), children would instead by raised by "specialists", by "licensed, professionals" who would transform parenting into a "career".

Note that Flynn isn't satisfied with the degree to which children are already raised by "specialists" (i.e. via schools and pre-school centres). He wants to take the principle further, so that bearing a child would no longer be connected to parenting that child. He wants there to be fewer children and for these children to be raised by "gifted mentors" rather than by their biological parents. He asks:

Can we construct a vision of an individualist future where most sex never leads to conception; where only a fraction of the population reproduces; and where only gifted mentors parent, without regard for whose offspring the children may be?

The most direct response to Flynn's challenge is to state clearly that the family is not a technology and cannot be ordered on the basis of neutral expertise, or centralised management, or bureaucratic or market authority. It is too much an intimate, private institution based on instinct, affection, and natural forms of loyalty and distinction.

Hat tip: for the Flynn article, Pilgrimage to Montsalvat.

See also: The family is not a technology & The revolutionary family heads west


  1. Thanks for the link to Kalb's .pdf essay. It took me a while to get through it but well worth the effort.

    I have long felt that scientism is a nefarious and ubiquitous force on its own, but it would not be so powerful in a society with undiminished traditional values. We tend to worship Science without even thinking about it, only wanting and expecting (and getting) more from the technological firmament. To read Kalb eloquently delineating this cardinal source of strength of modern liberalism is both gratifying and bracing.

  2. What a work of art this Flynn is. He wants us to become the equivalent of an ant colony.

  3. Kalb's essay and his definition of scientism are unsatisfactory. The main reason for this is that his definition makes the principle of Ockham's razor, and that of non-contradiction (or identity) constitutive of the view he is attacking. Thus he is really arguing for the right to hold contradictory views and views unsupported by evidence. perhaps it would be better is he defined the view he is attacking as "rationalism," and his own position as "irrationalism," which is what it is.

    Furthermore, Kalb's position is essentially religious: he is attempting to make the entities in which he believes as a Catholic (God, the soul, free will, metaphysical evil, etc.) intellectually respectable. If non-religious conservatives adopt his dubious epistemology in defense of whatever absolutes and transcendent values they find it expedient to affirm, they must explain the ontological status of these entities in secular terms.

    Mark, are you a Platonist? Because you don't seem to be a Christian..?

  4. Jal, I don't agree that Jim Kalb is arguing for irrationalism. Rather, he is trying to draw out the logical implications of the particular understanding of reason adopted in the West in early modern times.

    The Cartesian rationalists wanted certainty in knowledge. They wanted to generally apply the method found in the natural sciences, in which natural laws could successfully explain and predict events.

    The idea was therefore to find "clear and distinct" ideas which could be applied to human affairs through the use of individual reason.

    One consequence of this is that tradition as a source of knowledge was denigrated as unhelpful bigotry or prejudice. Another perhaps is that human affairs had to be considered in more abstract and intellectual terms, i.e. according to abstract theories.

    The Cartesian method is open to criticism. It seems clear to me that we do unavoidably rely on tradition as a source of knowledge. Many of our most important life decisions occur between the ages of 15 and 25, when we have limited life experience. It helps if we are influenced in the right direction by the culture we live in - i.e. it helps if the knowledge gained by previous generations, the lessons learnt, are made available to us as part of a tradition, rather than every individual having to learn through his own individual experience. Often, by the time we have learnt such lessons it will be too late to make amends.

    I doubt too that there exist "clear and distinct" ideas that can be applied to human affairs. Human life is too complex. If we think even of only one aspect of life, relations between men and women, there are all kinds of factors at play. We can be motivated by the highest of spiritual impulses or by the strongest of biological imperatives.

    So to attempt to explain the whole of human life through "clear and distinct" ideas, similar to a natural laws, effectively means radically limiting the scope of our knowledge. It is also likely to lead to an excessively abstract and theoretical approach to understanding human affairs.

  5. I agree that we do unavoidably rely upon tradition as a source of knowledge. But what counts as knowledge changes from one generation to the next as we learn more about the world in which we live and our place in it. For example, it was once thought that kings ruled by divine right; and in the 18th-19th centuries conservatives such as De Maistre argued this. Nowadays conservatives defend governments based on the principle of the consent of the governed. Perhaps I'm turning apostate, but it seems to me that conservatives are debarred by their ideology from originating new ideas or accepting new knowledge until it has entered the common stock of tradition. Then it becomes a part of their heritage to be defended!

    Likewise, it's all very well giving the dead a vote in the ideal-conservative assembly, but what if, say, the people have a good, clear and distinct reason to do away with some institution under which their ancestors consented to live? For example the present financial system needs to be adapted from conditions of scarcity which were abolished in the 19th century, towards the prevailing conditions of an age of material plenty. The wage needs to be progressively relaced with an unearned universal income. (I will explain this in greated detail if you like). But traditional wisdom distrusts such radical but overdue reform as "utopian." So what are we to do? Trust our knee-jerk instincts, or think the matter through properly? We must be prepared to credit the notion that, on a whole host of topics, we may indeed know better than out ancestors.

    I don't intend to defend Descartes' epistemology, chiefly because it's based on a priori assumptions that can't be justified. According to him we can know that God exists because the most perfect being cannnot not exist, as existence is a perfection. Certainly, reason unassisted by empirical investigation can lead us astray; and the definition of knowledge as true, justified belief places too great a burden of proof on the knower to justify his knowledge. Cartesian scepticism is really a form of neurosis which is incapable of extricating itself from the problem of solipsism. But what of it? Kalb attacks not only Descartes but also (1) the foundations of logic and (2) the foundations of the scientific method. That is why I call him an irrationalist.