Family Values 2: Hierarchy

As described in the last message, most families operate much of the time on the communist principle of “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need.” Coming from a place of love and mutual support, family members care for each other, contributing what they can and taking what they need from the commons. Healthy families care for their less able members and expect more from the more capable. Family life includes both the right to get what we need and the responsibility to contribute what we can.

This sharing may be egalitarian but it is not without hierarchy. People differ in both their capacities and their needs. Thus, biology dictates some hierarchy and division of labour in families. Only women can have babies or breastfeed. Infants are helpless and children only gradually become less dependent as they grow. Young people, and especially young males, have the strength and energy for hunting, fishing, farming, heavy work, and fighting. Elders may lack physical power, but they may possess experience, knowledge, and wisdom to share with younger people. And of course there are individual differences – some people are smarter, stronger, more dexterous, faster, and wiser than others. All these factors result in natural hierarchies within otherwise communist families.

These hierarchies are based on biological differences. They may change with circumstances and are slightly different in different families, but mostly they must just be accepted. Physical differences among family members cannot really be contested or changed.

But in most families there are other hierarchical relationships. These are either based on tradition or they are reactions to legal and social arrangements in the wider culture (which are, in turn, most likely the result of tradition). The most common traditional hierarchy is patriarchy, the dominance of male adults over women and children, but other traditional hierarchies are possible. The claim has been made that patriarchy has a biological basis, but it is not an easy claim to support.

The environment outside the family, and especially the legal and economic environment, can powerfully affect family hierarchies. In the past in Western society, women were unable to own property, enter into contracts, or vote. The same is still the case for children. These legal constraints can have a profound effect on relationships within the family. Laws which leave women completely dependent on men or children completely dependent on adults create a power hierarchy which can enable exploitation and abuse.

The traditions that support the patriarchal family structure are very ancient and are embedded in most of the world religions. Confucianism, Judaism, and Islam are completely clear on the male as the head of the household and on the duty of children to honour their parents (there is no commandment asking parents to honour their children). Christianity is not quite as clear about the role of women and children, but ageism and sexism are still important values in the New Testament and subsequent church history.

The natural (communist) family is based on mutual caring. The traditional (patriarchal) family is based on obedience. These are not contradictory values; they are pretty much independent of each other. Both the communist principle and the patriarchal principle can lead to abuse, but in healthy families they can comfortably co-exist. Functioning communist families require some degree of obedience, and even extremely traditional families can be caring and mutually supportive. The question, when discussing family values, is which values are being emphasized: sharing or obedience.

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