Beyond the traditional family

MELBOURNE/WARSAW Last month, Pope Francis traveled to Abu Dhabi, where he met Ahmed el-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar (Al-Azhar University is the leading Sunni institution for the study of Islamic law). The two religious leaders signed a “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together,” calling on their adherents, as well as world leaders, to spread tolerance and peace and to end “the moral and cultural decline that the world is presently experiencing.”

One aspect of this supposed moral and cultural decline concerns the family: “To attack the institution of the family, to regard it with contempt or to doubt its important role,” the Pope and the Grand Imam state, “is one of the most threatening evils of our era.” The document asserts that the family is the “fundamental nucleus of society and humanity” and “is essential in bringing children into the world, raising them, educating them, and providing them with solid moral formation and domestic security.”

Their anxiety is understandable: in many countries today, the traditional family consisting of a heterosexual married couple with children is becoming less dominant. But is this really a bad thing?

The United Nations predicts that the world’s population will exceed 11 billion by the end of the century, with the fastest growth occurring in some of the world’s poorest countries. In these circumstances, if some people choose not to bring children into the world, they should not be disparaged.

The proportion of people who are legally married is declining in some regions, for a variety of reasons. As the stigma once attached to “living in sin” fades, many couples see little reason to get married, whether or not they have children. In some countries, the legal difficulties and costs associated with divorce is a deterrent to marriage.

Such couples may, of course, establish families that are just as strong as those established by couples that have gone through a legal marriage ceremony. Similarly, “blended” or “patchwork” families that bring together children from previous relationships can provide everything that a traditional family offers. In many countries, same-sex couples may now marry and form families, although both Francis and el-Tayeb oppose such families and presumably do not regard them as providing children with “solid moral formation.” The trend among single women to have children, often using artificial insemination or in vitro fertilization, no doubt also disturbs supporters of the traditional family.

Perhaps the most significant change, however, is the growing number of people who choose to be single. In the United States, 45% of adults are either divorced, widowed, or have never been married. In some places, like New York City, the majority of people are single.

Contrary to the stereotype that single people are lonely and unhappy, research shows that single people are actually more engaged in a wide network of friends and acquaintances than married people. They do more for the community and for others, and are more likely to help their parents, siblings, or neighbors, than married people.

This shouldn’t really come as a surprise. Married couples are likely to put their spouse first, at least until they have children, and then the children often take priority. The tendency to care for a wider circle than one’s own family is, we would argue, ethically preferable, especially in affluent societies, where other family members are likely to be far better off than more distant strangers in low-income countries. Both the Bible and the Koran recognize this more universal view as ethically superior.

We are not denying that there is great value in dividing society into small units in which adults have specific responsibility for the children living with them. This is in harmony with our evolved instinctive feelings, which we can observe in other social mammals as well. Alternative arrangements, such as the collective child-rearing in an Israeli kibbutz, have not been successful, although informal experiments in co-parenting, in which groups of adults bring up the children of some of them together, appear to be spreading.

A well-functioning family provides a more loving and more stable environment for children than any other model devised so far, but that does not mean that it must be based on a traditional marriage. In fact, despite the apparent agreement of the Pope and the Grand Imam on the importance of the family, the Christian and Muslim traditions have different conceptions of what a family is, with the latter allowing men to have more than one wife. If, despite these differences, Francis and el-Tayeb are ready to accept each other’s support for “the family,” they should be able to accept other models, too, as long as there is no solid evidence that they are harmful to those involved, including the children.

It is curious that a “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together” should assert that to doubt the importance of the family is one of the most threatening evils of our era. From a global perspective, it is not helpful to limit ourselves to such small units. Travel and the Internet are enabling new friendships beyond the home and beyond the borders of our countries. If we are really concerned with “human fraternity,” then maybe we should place more emphasis on building relationships that span the globe, rather than condemn those who see the traditional family as unduly constricting.

The writer is Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, Laureate Professor in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne, and founder of the non-profit organization The Life You Can Save.

Copyright: Project Syndicate.