Friday, November 14, 2008


One of my best professors at the University of Chicago Divinity School was Don Browning, who taught ethics for ministers. Red-headed but calm and shrewd, he was warm and analytical at once. In my new copy of “Criterion” which is a publication of the University of Chicago Divinity School that reprints important essays and speeches, he offers an article called “Best Love, Best Interest of the Child, An Integrational View,” which will be chapter in a forthcoming book called “The Best Love of the Child,” edited by Timothy Jackson.

I had not known that parallel to the on-going sociological and religious discussions about what marriage and family really “are” in our pinwheeling, disintegrating, “modernist” times, there has been a parallel legal body of thought developing, pressed along by the need for judges to have some guidance when dealing with aggregates of folks related in various ways that might be defined as family. Blended families -- children who are his, hers, ours and whose? -- must be sorted out as to residence, supervision, assets, covenants, biology, and special needs. Situations never envisioned by the medieval thinkers who could assume obligations by practical criteria have come crowding because of technological breakthroughs like in-vitro fertilization, frozen embryos, and life-saving measures that cannot cure all damage. Increasing numbers of people are merely cohabiting, practicing sequential marriage, or are the same sex, maybe dependent on adoption for their children. At the same time we are a country of wildly varying religious convictions, even within the huge bulgy tent of Christianity, much less among immigrants and revived native cultures. The traditional and previously dominant culture becomes more and more desperate to keep what they consider to be order. But that is the very culture whose Constitution and Bill of Rights prevents the draconian solutions of the past, which simply cast out all the people who didn’t fit.

Browning’s article is a discussion of three approaches to what might be called a “managed paradigm shift” from the covenant of marriage as the controlling contract of family to the covenant of child/parent relationship as primary, particularly the bond between mother and child, even though we can now identify the father through his biological contribution to new life. In fact, our understanding of affectional and care-giving attachment, plus such phenomena as surrogate gestation, mean that a child may have as many as four or even more parents! He points out that “The Principles of the Law of Family Dissolution” asks for three moral commitments:
1. “the good of psychological continuity for children”
2. “fairness for adults”
3. “nonviolence for all parties involved, esp. women and children”

Browning works in an orderly way. First he creates a definition of the ideal, drawing on the best thought he knows, including Kant and Aristotle. The result in this case is: “I hold that to love a child is to simultaneously respect or honor the emerging personhood of the child as well as actively work to actualize the basic goods (sometimes called premoral goods) needed for the child’s flourishing.” Drawing on this, he identifies five requirements:

1. Love for the growing child should respect his or her selfhood.
2. The child’s needs, which vary as the child grows, must be met.
3. The child should grow up to “mediate this twofold love to others, especially the next generation.”
4. “A practical wisdom of love and care must always be surrounded by some kind of narrative that tells a story about the purpose of life and its beginning.”
5. “Love and care always take place in specific social and environmental contexts. How these contexts support, limit, threaten, channel, or fail to channel the best love, care and interests of the child must be a concern of the practical judgment guiding parents, guardian, courts, and the state.”

Now he has satisfied the Div School requirement that one must define one’s method. He proceeds to analyze the work of three legal scholars, all women: Martha Fineman, June Carbone, and Margaret Brinig. The first two seem to begin their assumptions when dealing with the single mother and her children (finding this the most sympathetic version of nurture and also the one hardest to challenge and discredit) and in the context of divorce or relationship breakdown. This argues for adequate support of the mother while raising the child, both in terms of biological or originally covenanted fathers and of society. (This is radically from the idea that the husband OWNS the wife and her products, the children. In the Middle East this can extend legally to killing a wife or child as one would kill a domestic animal. In the modern world this mindset continues underground.)

Carbone also wishes to shift the sacramental basis of family from the marriage between two adults to the protection and nurturing of the children. Both these women seem to surrender to the inevitable -- indeed, now realistic -- dissolution of the basis of traditional marriage both economically and religiously. Marriage today is, as many a sophomore has argued, just a piece of paper.

What is a constructive way to understand family? Browning is favorable to Brinig in part because she wants the legal context to address the beginnings of family as well as the disintegration. She wants “covenant” to remain as a “thick phenomenology” of moral AND emotional attachment, biological AND social institution. That is, family is rooted in our nature but can be shaped. She puts this together with what is called “new institutional economics.”

She suggests that a family is like a “firm” or a “franchise” wherein things go better for the individuals because they are together as a unit. Browning mentions “channeling,” “signaling” and “reputational” aspects of marriage in this sense, but I don’t understand the terms. This whole field is new to me, but I am eager to hear more about it. Many have remarked on the economic toll taken by marriages or partnerships that are constantly breaking up and reforming. Prosperity comes with stability, which is the edge that conservative prosperity-seekers know about and at least strive for. It is also the prime marker for situations that best nurture and encourage children to maturity.

Observationally, I’ve long held that economics leads love: one falls in love with the person most likely to collaborate on a safe and comfortable future and who is, status-wise, within one’s reach. One can’t avoid having a lot to do with status, both because advantages accrue to high status people and because achievers who prosper are awarded status. Around this part of the world, the family’s status is a crucial part of identity. Good families mean good kids.


Anonymous said...

You provide a wonderful taste of the ethical considerations of family, including marriage. My only issue is that we continue to confuse the ethical/theological imperatives of marriage with the legal institution that binds people in the eyes of the law. The two should be divorced. We need legal institutions that allow for differing alliances between/among persons; but, government should have nothing to do with marriage.

BTW: Since we are both redheads, I should ask if you think that being a redhead is antithetical to being calm and shrewd? "Red-headed but calm and shrewd...."
Cop Car

prairie mary said...

Yes, of course I'm responding the popular notion of red-heads! Myself, my brother, and my cousin were the redheads of our generation and we all took a lot of flak about it! I've been interested in what the genome people have had to say. It's a fairly recent mutation occurring more in Scandinavia than in Ireland and Scotland where my genes started. I call it the "Maureen O'Hara effect." Books about it, plus and minus.

Prairie Mary

Art Durkee said...

Speaking as the product of a whole family of redheads, Irish on my father's side, Norwegian on my mother's, it's a chicken and egg scenario. Which came first, the feistiness or the red hair? Hard to say.