Monday, October 08, 2007

Odd family values

I wrote a post last week about Clare, the young Perth woman who wants to have 11 children as a single mother and who has advertised in her local paper for sperm donors.

The oddest part of the story is that Clare wants her sperm donors to have "strong family values". How could a man donating sperm to a young single mother on welfare represent strong family values?

To my surprise one reader very much thought it possible, and wrote this comment to support his claim:

"Strong family values" means that he values every persons right and desire to have a family. Not that he thinks every family should be the perfect nuclear family. Families can be two mothers, two fathers, sole fathers or sole mothers. The old ideals need to be thrown out the window if we really want to have an equal society where every person, and every family is accepted, instead of judged as inadequate.

I can't dismiss this comment too casually. It expresses the modern liberal mindset, and its appeal to equality, rights and acceptance is likely to make it attractive to some people.

It's worth unpacking. If we were to set it out as an argument it would look something like this:

a) There are just individuals with rights and desires.
b) The aim is to give equal treatment to each individual to pursue his desires.
c) The way to do this is to be non-judgemental, non-discriminatory and accepting.

Can this way of thinking about things work? One reason to think not is that individuals have any number of desires, some of them superficial and some deep, and many of them contradictory. How does the individual order these desires? There must ultimately be some basis for judging these desires and their value, otherwise the individual would live incoherently.

When it comes to the family, individuals do attempt to order their desires. They ask questions such as:

What do I owe my spouse and children?
What do I owe society?
What represents character?
What holds society together?
What are the higher forms of love?
How are children nurtured?
How is a child brought undamaged to adulthood?

I suggest the following alternative to the argument made by my liberal reader:

1) Individuals have a mass of contradictory desires.
2) The aim is to encourage individuals to best order these desires.
3) To do this the influence of culture, of personal experience, of reason and of conscience are significant in forming judgements.

There's one other issue I'd like to cover. There is a sense of "fragile identity" in my liberal reader's comment. It's as if he (she?) is declaring: I am my lifestyle choice. If you criticise my choice then you reject who I am - you reject me as a person.

I believe this to be wrong on two counts. First, the fact of being a person is not dependent on social attitudes. Our humanity is not contingent on what others think of us.

Second, one of the reasons for "judgement" is to throw off what is superficial or self-destructive and to reach toward higher forms of human identity. We won't help people reach toward these higher forms of identity by encouraging a culture in which all choices and all desires are equally accepted.


  1. I wanted to say something profound about this comment but in the end I was stumped. How could someone manage to fit so many wrong-headed ideas into such a short comment?

    My favourite part is where he tells us all the things a family can be. Did you spot the one he missed?

  2. If everyone can be a family, then no one is a family.

    Kind of like nations and citizenship. If everyone can be an American -- or an Australian -- then no one is a citizen of those nations.