Family, ethics and the

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L025-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 07, 2020, from

4. Political conceptions of families

As in society generally, economic relationships reflect and produce within the family differences of power and subordination. Families are political in at least two senses: they are the ‘basic units of society’ in which social values are inculcated, enforced, or subverted; and they are also mini-realms in which power is distributed and exercised among and over its members. In some political theories, families have been the model for the larger polity, rulers cast as fathers and their subjects as their children.

John Locke (1689) attacked such patriarchy, both political and domestic, limiting the scope and duration of parents’ authority over their children. Contemporary egalitarian critics view the traditional family as exploiting gender and age inequalities, as well as fostering unjust disparities of wealth. Some family theorists have found a remedy in Kantian notions of autonomy or in Rawls’ ‘difference principle’, applied to families taken to be part of the basic structure of a society (see Autonomy, ethical; Rawls, J. §1). This principle allows differences in wealth, opportunities, and other ‘primary social goods’ only to the extent that they make the worst off members better than they would otherwise be.

Some feminist critics think that this principle still allows for traditional gender divisions of family labour (see Feminist political philosophy §5); communitarian critics find it too individualistic to do justice to the shared interests that sustain family life and obligation (see Community and communitarianism). Both types of critic tend to see the notion of individual rights as essentially adversarial, needed only when family feeling and harmony are failing. On the other hand, family harmony and feeling may depend on the weaker members’ confidence that conflicts of interest will be resolved equitably, a confidence that requires explicit recognition and respect of their individual rights of liberty and reciprocity.

Citing this article:
Ruddick, William. Political conceptions of families. Family, ethics and the, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L025-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2020 Routledge.

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