Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Family First

I was talking with The Philosopher yesterday and we had an intriguing conversation.  A significant part of it centered around family ties and obligations and the ethics surrounding them.  The standard in every society I have ever heard of is to place a lot of importance on family ties.  Different societies do prioritize particular relations differently, but by and large it is universal that treating our families in special ways is both desirable and ethical.

It is obvious where this comes from.  There is the evolutionary source, which is simply that helping people who share some of our genes helps preserve copies of those genes so it is sensible from the perspective of "Humans are vehicles for genes to reproduce themselves" for us to help our families more than anyone else.  Helping my uncle/nephew/cousin may not help my procreation directly, but it does increase the success of their genes which have a lot more in common with mine than the general populace.  This sort of behaviour is not at all unique to humans, other animals will assist their more distant family relations preferentially too.  The other source of this behaviour is the necessity to raise children.  Any set of genes that did not give rise to people who want to have children and who want to take care of their children would die out nearly immediately.  As such it is clear that there is going to be a tremendous attachment between parents and their children.  These attachments propagate along the family tree because obviously when A and B care about each other a lot and B and C care about each other a lot A will tend to care about C at least a little, since their situation affects B.

So we know why families have such strong attachments, the question that arises though is how ethical is it to prioritize your own family above all other people?  This isn't saying that we should treat our families badly, but rather asking the question "Why do we not treat *everyone* as well as we treat our families?"

It is challenging to categorize the ways in which we define family.  For example, when someone marries into a family they are often treated exactly as well as their partner despite the fact that there is no genetic similarity.  However, when those people divorce if someone ends up not being part of the family anymore it is the partner who is not genetically related.  Not every breakup ends up with people leaving families wholesale, but nonetheless it does happen with regularity.  So in some ways family is very much a set of people with a common genetic heritage, but in many ways it is a social organization.  My cousin's aunt may have absolutely zero (beyond normal statistical expectation) genes in common with me, and yet she would be considered part of my family, and thus worthy of special consideration.  You could easily look at family as a social contract mandating mutual assistance.  Everyone is expected to provide certain things to everyone else and by doing so all benefit.  Looking at family in any one of these ways though simply does not well describe the phenomenon that we observe, and so the description seems most likely to be some kind of extremely complicated combination of these things.

There are many different ways in which people decide who to treat well, and they pretty much all boil down to one thing:  How much the person in question is like you.  People tend to treat others better when those others are of the same ancestry, are of the same gender,  look the same, dress the same, are of the same social class, speak with the same accent/language, desire to mate with the opposite/same gender, and of course family.  All of these reasons to treat one person better than another have been deemed unethical by our culture and/or laws except for preferential treatment based on family.  Of course some of these things are a bigger problem than others and some are merely considered rude or unpleasant as opposed to evil.  Denying women or natives the right to vote is a huge ethical issue, refusing someone entry into the country club because they aren't rich is unpleasant and rude.

Canadian society in particular is advanced in its tendency to remove race, class, ancestry, sexual orientation and many other factors as barriers to success and freedom.  This makes me tremendously proud, as I very much wish to live in a nation that does not permit discrimination based on these things.  I also feel that my family is very important and I want very much to keep them involved in my life.  It is only in this theoretical state that I question my ways of doing things and look at how to derive a most ethical society of individuals from the basic principle of greatest benefit to all instead of just working within the framework that we have.  I wonder why it is reasonable for parents to give all they have to their children even if their children do not need those resources, particularly when there are so many other people who need them more.  I wonder why it is considered normal to go out of your way to support, assist and maintain relationships with relatives regardless of whether or not you like them or agree with what they do.  If I were simply handing off money to someone and specifically chose someone based on race, gender, or many other factors I would be branded a bigot, and yet when I choose my children exclusively it is not only the norm, it would be extremely frowned upon to do otherwise.

So where is the limit?  When does giving to some white person change from evil to ok just because they share more genetic material with me?  A random white person in my city most likely shares more genetic material with me than a person with African ancestry, yet favouring them would be racist.  Picking a particular person who happens to share much more genetic material with me and also shares a social group for favour is acceptable, even mandatory.

Note this isn't some kind of call to change, because I really don't know what changes I would advocate for, or even if there is a problem.  It is merely a call to thought, asking us to consider why we do what we do and looking at the benefits and costs from as objective a standpoint as possible.

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