Familiar ground

Francis Gardom has been reading a recent study on the stability of the family and the pressures acting towards its fragmentation and is impressed by the analysis he encountered

For every thousand people who bewail the disintegration of families and their attendant virtues, it is difficult to find one who is prepared to examine in depth why this is happening.

Such a person came my way in the form of her book, The Fragmenting Family [OUP, £12-99]. Brenda Almond is Emeritus Professor of Moral and Social Philosophy of the University of Hull, and Vice-President of the Society for Applied Philosophy. Coming as it does in the wake of Making Sense of Generation Y [CHP, £12-99], about which I wrote at length recently, I was struck by how much these books complement each other, as clearly as cause-and-effect.

After a brief Introduction, the book falls into four sections: Understanding family; Shaping families; New frontiers; and Preserving identities: a future for the family? Her quotes are diligently compiled, she is refreshingly jargon-free, and her arguments are easily understood.

Though Professor Almond is evidently acquainted with Christian doctrine on matters like life-issues, marriage, and sexual behaviour, her book is written for a secular readership. That is an advantage, since it assumes no common desiderata of her readers beyond their wish to discover the truth, whether comfortable or otherwise. It also means that the book can be commended to the secular-minded without being accused of trying to 'convert' them - perish the thought! It offers an objective rehearsal of the changes that have taken place over the past fifty years, especially in the areas of family legislation, civil rights and reproductive technology.

Definitions of 'family'

Her knock-out blow comes in the last section where she demonstrates that in every case, these changes, intended either to give certain people (often only a small minority of the total population) what they claim to want, or in single-minded furtherance of so-called Justice or Fairness, have resulted in unintended consequences. Some of these consequences, by any reckoning, have done far more damage to far more people than good to their intended beneficiaries. Even the latter are finding that Civil Marriages and Partnerships do not often afford the liberty or happiness they were intended to.

But I am anticipating...

In her first section, Understanding family, the author points out that the very word 'family' is itself a minefield which has come to mean whatever its user likes. Beside the nuclear family of parents and children in a more-or-less stable relationship with one other, there are concepts such as the global' family, the 'blood' family, the 'extended' family, the 'adoptive' family'; and the 'biological' family, impregnator, birth-giver and offspring, who may have no further physical or social relationship beyond these functions. Finding a single agenda for 'families' of such different kinds ends in failure for most and the satisfaction of none.

Nevertheless, one particular model has been widely seen as the norm by societies widely separated by geography and time. That is the model of the stable, patriarch-based family of father/mother/children, all sharing a common roof and (sic) a common table and whose parents are bound together by promises which are made with the intention that they shall never be broken save by death.

Of course there have been numerous abuses of this model - domineering or adulterous parents, wives who have been treated as little more than baby-making chattels, and children abused or sold into slavery. These abuses in turn have produced a number of alternative models, like Plato's idea that children should be generated at state-directed mating festivals, with parents selected apparently by lot but actually on a eugenic basis, separated from their mothers at birth and nurtured and brought up in publicly-provided nurseries by women selected at random. Interestingly, in old age Plato modified his more radical ideas in favour of a public inspectorate to regulate couples' sexual behaviour, and make sure that they did not conceive their offspring in a state of drunkenness.

Almond next describes the attitudes of philosophers such as Locke, Kant, Hegel and Marx towards marriage, mentioning that many of them signally failed to practise what they preached.

Pursuit of happiness

At the end of this section, however, Almond draws a distinction between relationships which have been validated, as often in the past, by a voluntary but binding promise or set of promises, and the increasingly fashionable attitude today which regards such contracts at least as terminable (by agreement or otherwise) or totally unnecessary and restrictive in the pursuit of happiness of one or both parties.

Feminism, in its various forms, sets much store by this. It equates patriarchy with the oppression of women, child-bearing with a hazard to the realization of women's ambitions, and lifelong vows with a barrier preventing some women discovering 'who they really are'. Almond takes several pages to try and disentangle the different, often incompatible, goals towards which feminists are pressing.

This leads her naturally on to the second part of the book where the changes brought about by new reproductive techniques are considered. Abortion, contraception, IVF, fostering and adoption have become more highly develop ed, readily available and widely practised in the past fifty years, and one consequence, like many others unintended, has been to shift the priority from the welfare of such children who might result from a relationship, to the fulfilment of the ambitions of their parent(s).

The same applies to no-fault divorces and co-habitation. Long suspected, though only recently acknowledged, is the truth that splitting up by parents is just as damaging in its way to the welfare, stability and health of their children as abortion, by its very nature, has always been. Driven by the wish to make life easier for adults, and extend their choice, it has had the undesirable consequences of doing harm, and in the case of abortion irreparable harm, to those least able to defend or protect their interests, namely their children. One woman's right to choose means the inevitable elimination of one baby's right to choose life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness.

Importance of stability

In the third section of her book, Professor Almond looks in detail at recent innovations which either did not exist (IVF, for example); or were rigidly controlled by law or public opinion - like co-habitation - but which through changes in legislation or public attitude, have now become so widespread that their long-term effects, whether good or ill, have become apparent. The Frontiers, in her terms, have changed and will continue to do so. The lifelong promises which used underpin any stable relationship have now become qualified by the unspoken 'providing it happens to suit me' and, as Almond forcefully demonstrates, a qualified promise of this sort is no promise at all.

This section begins with the question 'Family choices: What do children really want?' 'Want', in this context, of course, meaning 'need' or 'require'. The answer, from survey after survey, is: 'above all else, a stable background'. That is not to say that an undernourished or harshly-treated child will not suffer serious physical or emotional problems, but it does mean that the child of a broken marriage or partnerships, or whose father is unknown, will be disadvantaged at many levels, irrespective

of how well fed and cared for. This gives the lie direct to parents who disengage from an unhappy marriage 'for the children's sake'. In case after case this proves to be to the children's ultimate disadvantage.

So why do parents do it? Well, at this juncture the penny dropped for me, because their oft-given reason - 'to be happy' - which for them is 'what life is all about', is precisely the same one given by the members of ‘Generation Y' (15-25-year-olds) interviewed in the survey to which I referred earlier.

In their memorable talk which Bob and Sylvia Mayo, two authors of the Generation 7report, gave to Fulham Clergy in November, they first defined the 'Happy Midi-Narrative' by which, so they discovered, those interviewed order their lives. This 'narrative' is their leitmotif: it is the belief, garnered from TV soap-operas and pop-music, that life's purpose consists in toto of a search for happiness. This, they believe, is achievable through their own efforts; and if someone fails to attain it, it is probably their own fault, and the duty of their family to pick them up and set them on their feet again. That's what families are for!

They demonstrated the close affinity between the word 'happy' and the concept of chance conveyed by words and phrases like 'perhaps', 'happy-go-lucky', 'hapless' and 'haphazard'. It is no new discovery that happiness is not achieved by pursuing it for its own sake, any more than satisfaction. What Generation Y learnt from their Generation X parents, and will surely pass on with unfortunate results to their own children, is a fundamental (and dangerous) untruth.

Quest for truth

Christians are often portrayed as being against happiness and self-fulfilment. To be fair, there is a streak of Manichaeism (often libellously associated with Puritanism) which infects us all. What we should be pursuing is, of course, the Truth, since it is the Truth, and that alone, that can make us free to discover both happiness and self-fulfilment. Christians believe there is, ultimately, only one Way to find this Truth - but these two books, studied closely, will go far towards slaying the Happy Midi-Narrative in the secular-minded, enabling Christians to explain to them how to build their life-house, not upon the sand of the false Happy Midi-Narrative, but on the Rock which follows us - and that Rock is Christ.

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