Is the Family Necessary?
In Thinking Through Confucius, Hall and Ames bring up an interesting question. I’ll admit, this isn’t a question I’ve ever considered — “is the family structure necessary to Confucianism?” The family has always seemed essential to me, so I’ve never questioned it. Hall and Ames suggest that it is not necessary, though they do not provide an example of an alternative structure (they simply suggest that such a communal structure could plausible exist in some possible world).
They stress the fact that the actual structure of the family has clearly shifted from clan-orientation (in ancient times) to nuclear-orientation (modern orientation). So why not further changes? Could the institution of “family” be essentially taken apart and replaced with something so entirely different that we wouldn’t see it as a “family” structure, but yet a structure that still ‘performed the function’ of the family within the philosophy (and so might still hold the name)?
We’d have to start with the question: what’s the point of the family at all? For the Confucian this is a big question, but let’s limit it to a straightforward function — the development of two of the virtues that one is expected to develop –filial piety (respect and deference) and fraternal responsibility. Within the family one is also supposed to develop the basis for ai-jen (love for others) that can then be extended outward to others outside of the family unit (benevolent treatment of one’s friends, citizens, etc). But are there alternative frameworks in which these virtues could be cultivated?
On this question, I’m also intrigued by something that Lee Yearley brings up in his article “An Existentialist Reading of Book 4”. Yearly notes that one of the functions of the family structure is to introduce the locus for the development of the embodiment (of sorts) of the origin of human life in the dispositions one cultivates. In a sense, as I read it, Yearley thinks that a proper response to the family (filial piety, say) is essential in recognizing (through one’s dispositions towards life) elements of basic human facticity. In this case, Yearley thinks that the respect we owe to our parents (for one) is a sign of our embodied recognition, in our way of living, that (a) we are highly dependent (and finite) creatures by nature and (b) that we always have non-payable (or non-dischargeable, perhaps) debts to others (clearly a and b are related). Correctly developing a healthy sense of respect and piety for particular others is our way of recognizing that aspect of human life. Yearley has a good point here — to lack these qualities would, it seems, be an unreasonable way of embodying in one’s person (through one’s virtues) the full range of human life and experience. To lack respect and piety would appear to forget or obscure an essential component of human existence.
But still, perhaps there is another way to develop and cultivate those virtues outside of the family.
Are we too trapped within tradition to see alternatives to the family structure? My gut reaction is that Confucianism without the family just isn’t Confucianism (it would be like Kool-Aid without sugar, as Chris Tucker might put it). But, then again, it could be that my definition of “family” is unnecessarily narrow, and needs to be “beefed up.”