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.