Monday, January 02, 2012

The utopian family

The final section of the chapter on family of my e-book.

Various thinkers over the years have attempted to envisage a utopian family life. Their aim has been to imagine an ideal family system, one that recasts family relationships to best reflect the principle of individual autonomy.

Aldous Huxley was an interesting intellectual figure of the twentieth century who drew on a range of philosophies in his works. He wrote about a utopian society, that of the Palanese, in his novel Island, published in 1962. The Palanese family system is clearly based on the principle of autonomy. The Palanese do not raise their children in a nuclear family but through Mutual Adoption Clubs (MACs). These clubs were made up of twenty couples who together looked after 50 or more children. The children would not stay with any particular couple but move about.

According to the guide to the island, the new family system was superior to the traditional “bottled up” nuclear family because it produced,

An entirely different kind of family. Not exclusive, like your families, and not predestined, not compulsory. An inclusive, unpredestined and voluntary family.

In this utopian family the ties of kinship have been broken. Children are no longer raised by their biological parents. That makes sense under the terms of autonomy theory as it means that the family unit is no longer biologically predetermined (“compulsory”), but is self-determined (“voluntary”).

This “liberation” from ties of kinship was also a feature of the utopian new family imagined by Germaine Greer in her influential work The Female Eunuch. Greer suggested that children should be raised in a "rambling" family structure on communal farms, which the parents would visit "when circumstances permitted." Some parents might "live there for quite long periods, as long as we wanted to." Greer didn't think it necessary that her child should "know that I was his womb-mother".

The relationship between parent and child was once again to be a voluntary, flexible, open, non-biological one.

In the 1890s, a Chinese intellectual by the name of Kang Youwei set out to modernise China along Western lines. He wanted to introduce not only Western science but also a philosophy of individual autonomy:

...he proclaimed the equality of humanity as well as a notion of individual autonomy.
His vision of family life has been described as follows:

He was perhaps the most influential politico-philosophical writer of the 1890s in China ... Although Kang had not yet formulated the principles of his utopian vision by the 1880s, many of his radical notions were already developed.

Marriages should be freely contracted and subject to change; children should be raised in public nurseries with no filial obligations (nor would parents have obligations toward their children)...

So family relationships were to be flexible (subject to change); children were to be raised outside of the family; and parents were to have no obligations toward their children (or vice versa).

In the 1840s, John Humphrey Noyes established his utopian Oneida Community of several hundred people in the United States.

Noyes saw himself as an enlightened, progressive thinker, committed to freedom, equality and feminism (he mixed together science and the Bible as sources of authority for his theories).

Once again, ties of kinship weren’t allowed at Oneida. Children were allowed to remain with their biological mothers for 15 months for the purposes of breastfeeding. After that they were to be raised by experts and rotated at night between different members of the community according to a principle of non-attachment.

And that is the trade-off. If you want inclusive, open, flexible and self-determined relationships – relationships that can easily be changed or substituted – then you won’t want deep attachments to form, not even the natural attachment between mother and child.

But the question has to be asked whether it is really non-attachment that we want when it comes to our closest relationships.

The Oneida experiment ended when a generation of children was born and the parents lobbied to be allowed to marry and form stable family units. The parents ultimately chose attachment over radical autonomy.


  1. Was Huckley critiquing such a family arangement? I know Brave New World was a strong critique of certain modern trends.

  2. No, he was portraying a utopia.

    Huxley is a bit difficult to pin down. He was into drugs like LSD and influenced the hippy culture of the 60s. He also took seriously Eastern religion. And he is associated with humanism, pacifism and resistance to a centralised state authoritarianism.

  3. The quotes from Huxley and Greer point to an interesting fantasy that is common to liberals. Under the voluntary system, no one is obliged to do anything they do not wish to do, so the liberal must imagine that there are, somewhere, people who wish to do all the things he, the liberal, does not wish to do. The anti-maternal Greer must, for instance, imagine that there exist uber-maternal women (and men) who want nothing more from life than to change her (Greer's) children's diapers and attend her (Greer's) children's piano recitals.

    And this is, of course, the fatal weakness of all utopias. Everyone "volunteers" to produce art and no one volunteers to do the dishes.

  4. I wonder if there's a connection between Oneida's discouragement of parent-child attachment and Oneida members' acceptance of the statutory rape of their own children.

    According to Wikipedia's (rather sympathetic) account:

    "Postmenopausal women were encouraged to introduce teenage males to sex, providing both with legitimate partners that rarely resulted in pregnancies. Furthermore, these women became religious role models for the young men. Likewise, older men often introduced young women to sex.

    Given that Wikipedia also claims Noyes had to flee to Canada to avoid charges of statutory rape, we can conclude that some of these "young women" were also under 18.

    I think it would be difficult to persuade a parent, even one involved in a cult, to allow his own child to be sexually abused. It would be much easier to persuade a person, especially one involved in a cult, simply to look the other way as some child is sexually abused.

    I don't know that Noyes pushed his radical autonomy theory in order to gain easier access to other men's (underage) daughters. I do think a case can be made, though, that said men's acceptance of that theory made things easier for Mr. Noyes.

    Why is it that radical individual autonomy theory, which on the face of it has nothing to do with sexual intercourse, always seems to become sexual in the end?

  5. As a follow up to my last comment,

    It seems that radical autonomy theory renders fathers, mothers, daughters, sons, brothers, sisters, clansmen, countrymen, civilized and barbarians, all into mere "persons". And what you'd do for your brother, you just won't do for a "person". And what you'd protect your daughter from, you might just ignore when it concerns another "person."

    And isn't that the point? Isn't the point of autonomy theory to "free" us from the do's and don'ts that come with being a particular someone to someone else? And isn't the side-effect that we are now left unprotected by that someone to whom we used to mean something?

  6. I think Bartholomew makes a good point, liberals might ‘love’ humanity but not their neighbour, and certainly not their enemies. To put it simply, liberals deny/oppose love, in principle. Love is a willingness to sacrifice, to give of oneself for the sake of others, to act against some of our natural human instincts and desires, which is the foundation of civilisation – who was it that said that civilisation is about curbing appetites? Such a philosophy is necessary to sustain families, local communities, even the military. But liberals are about precisely the opposite, that is, surrendering to instinct and unmediated desire, which precludes deep, loving relationships and shifts love from family members and neighbours to causes and ideals – abstractions – shifts it, that is, back to oneself.

  7. Huxley indeed is turning in his grave. He is one of my favorite authors and raised serious issues and made world-wide breakthroughs in the research of psychedelics as well as our cognitive liberties. I drew a portrait as homage to the man and his works. Let me know what you think of it at

  8. After reading your Post and the comments on your blog about Katie Piper's acid attack I decided to see what exactly you're trying to do with this blog and found this, your most recent Post. Huxley's work was fiction. Any debate on this topic should surely contain information about Israel's kibbutzim in order to be taken seriously. Clearly, your blog is about propoganda and not truth.

  9. Angela Eglise you spelt propaganda wrong.

  10. @ Angela Eglise - Pot calling the kettle black.

  11. Elizabeth - how do you figure that one? Anonymous - I stand corrected, thank you.

  12. Angela,

    I'm glad you visited but you seem to have misread the post. It wasn't supposed to be a comprehensive account of alternative community structures - hence no kibbutzim. The post is part of a much larger chapter on the family, a link to which is at the top of the sidebar.

    All that the post asks is how do modern thinkers who want to apply the principle of autonomy to the family envisage their ideal or utopian family system? Is that something we would want to have in practice?

    As it happens, the Oneida community really did try to implement a utopian family system - but it didn't work in the long run - once children arrived on the scene the adults opted for more stable family relationships.

  13. That's an interesting point, Max, that love of abstractions reduces to just loved for yourself, the source of the abstractions.

  14. "Elizabeth Smith said...

    Good post Mark. A link of interest -> AD Draws Heat Because It Suggests Men Cannot Menstruate"

    Just like all the leftist interest group causes this video has negative feedback astroturfing.
    Its so obvious any poll or feedback system gets abused by leftists broadcasting via twitter or whatever that some 'incredibly offensive' material is on the internet with a feedback function.
    They then flock to the video and article with multiple accounts, IPs or just by organising enough dimwits to try to shift opinion. Except its fake its OBVIOUSLY fake. Why just why do they do it. Its all part of the fascinating obsession leftists have with manipulating opinion and infomation.
    Don't they realise its cheating and a LIE. Their causes are so unpopular they need to manipulate opinion to give themselves the ressurance their ideology is winning.
    Despite hating the practice i think its really interesting how they go about faking activism.

  15. According to the book "The Puritan Family" by Edward Morgan, the Puritans would send their children off for other families to raise for a few years to prevent being to soft on them. It wasn't so free floating as this soup Huxley and Greer describe so I guess some bonds must have formed whiel they raised their neighbors children. This turned out to be a short lived practice.

  16. Liberating human beings from their traditional ties to family is like liberating fish from their ties to water.

  17. You may javw to reread Island. MACs were.cooperatives.among families to.have.someone else the kid(s) could turn to or even stay with when home life became troubled. Sort of the way hunter gatherer tribes may have,raised,kids or the way extended families.used to help raise kids etc.