“Philosophy and the family” – Vittorio HÖSLE


In view of the 2022 (April 27-28-29) PASS Plenary on ‘The Family as a Relational Good: the Challenge of Love’

Stefano Zamagni, Vittorio Hösle, Gustavo Beliz, Rocco Buttiglione and general discussions.

The family is, like other social institutions (economy, politics), based on biological needs. Organisms need to reproduce, if a species is to last, since individuals are mortal. In the case of humans, however, it is not simply physical but cultural reproduction that is involved. The physiological altriciality of humans is increased by a long dependence on education in order to acquire familiarity with one’s own culture. Furthermore, human sexual needs are detached from rutting seasons and thus render long-term commitment to a partner more likely. “Genetic egoism” – as the only way in which altruism could develop – explains the importance of family relationship also among humans. However, there is always a cultural choice involved in the definition of kinship – think of matrilinear and patrilinear descent rules. The long relationship between parents in raising their children creates a special, personal bond, which can survive the common task of the education of their children.

The natural basis of the family does not exclude the historical evolution of the institution. With the evolution of modern society, particularly increased local and social mobility, individualization, and integration of women into the workforce, the extended and the multigenerational family have been reduced since the age of the bourgeoisie to the nuclear family, and doubtless, this too is now endangered. Some of the main issues in the process that led to changes in family law are the question of who has the right to enter into marriage (the spouses or their families), the rights and duties of the spouses within the marriage (and, in the case of divorce, against each other after the marriage), the duties toward children and their rights and duties. Not being a historian, however, I will not speak of the social and legal history of the family and only sketch four main theories of family developed by philosophers – namely, Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Hegel. I am aware that there are many other theories, and that the jump from the 4th century BC to the 18th century is enormous. But the Christian transformation of the concept of the family connected to the doctrine of the sacraments is at least as much a matter for theologians as for philosophers, and the early modern changes are mirrored quite well in Kant’s theory. I chose these authors because they represent four paradigmatic views – Plato the negation of family, Aristotle a biologically rooted doctrine of social institutions, Kant a contractualist understanding of marriage, and Hegel the attempt of a reconciliation of the ancients and the moderns. I also believe that the contrasts between Plato and Aristotle on the one hand and between Kant and Hegel on the other are connected to the simple psychological fact that Plato and Kant, unlike Aristotle and Hegel, were bachelors. Probably only unmarried people could devise theories so distant from the experiences of married life, even if they are doubtlessly fascinating from an intellectual point of view… [+]


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