One question that frequently comes up in Confucian scholarship is the role of the family. Most commentators are agreed (though not all to the same degree) that the family is the center of Confucian philosophy, but not all agree about the status of that role. For some it is more important than others, some seeing it as a replaceable aspect of the philosophy, and others seeing it as necessary.
At least one thing is clear — the reason for the centrality to the philosophy. It is generally agreed that it is within the family that a person begins to cultivate jen. One does this, presumably, by seeing the lines between oneself and the others within that family relationship as blurred to some extent. You do not see yourself as “a self” first and then a member of the family; instead, you learn to see yourself as a son or a daughter first (in that relationship, specifically). Along with this relational blurring comes not only the role responsibilities that are correlated to being a son or a father (say), but also the desire and feeling to fulfill them. In the end, when one realizes one’s role relational responsibilities, it is not merely a cognitive affair, but also an emotional and desire-based affair as well (you don’t just ‘recognize’ that you should X, you feel a pull towards X, a desire for X, you identify with X, and so on).
Typically, these connections, taken together, can be seen as a central aspect of what it means to cultivate jen in one’s life. In a way, one cultivates one’s capacity to love or to be “benevolent” within the space of one’s own personhood. As I take it, another part of what this involves is the capacity to see one’s selfhood as also falling (within certain situations) within different types of relational hierarchies. In the family, for instance, one learns that being a son means being on the beneficiary side of things (as opposed to the benefactor, one must defer as opposed to lead); as a result, one cultivates the capacity for loyalty, for instance. As well, one learns to treat sisters and brothers in a way that expresses basic equality.
In the end, the Confucian appears to believe that what is required here is the capacity to not only cultivate those dispositions or capacities or behaviors (and sensitivity to various hierarchical structures), but also to then learn to extend those capacities outward, beyond the family. So one should seek to further extend one’s benevolence to friends, to coworkers, to a boss, to a worker, to one’s fellow citizens, and so on.
My question is about the status of the role the family plays in all of this. Is the family an instrumental means in this schema (towards the cultivation of the end of jen)? Or is acquiring jen within a family structure necessary towards that aim? In addition — because of course it could be necessary but not a constitutive part of jen, is the cultivation of good family relationships a part of what it means to be a jen person? Essentially — is it possible to learn these things, and to cultivate these very important capacities and behaviors outside the family? And is jen definable independently of family?
On the question of the necessity of family, I recall in Hall and Ames Thinking Through Confucius that there was a throw-away comment at some point where they suggested that the family — at least as it is currently understood — is not necessary. Something, they thought, was required that would play that role, but they felt that the current way that family is understood could undergo pretty radical revisions and still function in the way that Confucius intended. Of course, no doubt, the “family” structure of Confucius’ time must have been remarkably different than the family structure of today. I don’t know enough about the family structure of ancient China, but it is plausible to me that Confucius would have a difficult time seeing the nuclear family as the definition of “family.” So it’s possible that Confucius would not see our family structure as a recognizable “family structure” — and so possibly not how he envisioned the environment for the initial cultivation of jen.
In light of this, I wonder how far we can push the notion of family and still keep the basic structure required (say) to meet the goals of Confucian philosophy. What are the limits? Clearly this is relevant to today’s debates about gay marriage, for instance, or arguments about the “completeness” of the single parent household. I’m inclined not to see the problem at least on this level; I see no reason why a gay parenting arrangement in any way would disrupt the cultivation of jen within that family. But maybe not? But if so, just how much further can the family be pushed?