By Roland Watson

Part 3 of the University of Life will review all of the social institutions that have a say in our lives, and of these the first is our family. As I keep repeating, we are social animals, and our introduction to this, our reason for being like this, is because we are mammals raised by our parents.

The only natural institution

The family, in all of its various permutations, is an another essential condition of the human experience. It is the first natural grouping, or organization, of people. It is in fact the only natural social institution, by which I mean it is - or was - the only grouping required for existence, for your and my existence and survival, and also to perpetuate our existence as a species.

All other social institutions are human constructions. They are in a sense derivative. As long as there have been humans, there have been families. Other types of organizations, such as governments, are recent inventions.

Our family is also our first source of form. Not only do our parents enable us to survive, they tell us what to do. And, as a child, we have no way to interpret or discriminate about what they say. We accept it wholly in our developing perceptions of existence, as the way things are: as the truth.

Fortunately, in many cases parental form is good form. It is in fact, or at least it should be, the primary source of good form. For example, I described in the final series in Part 2 the ethic that derives from our parents caring for us as children, how we learn that it is good to help others.

Indeed, in traditional communities this value is so strong that family members always help one another, including - in times of real need - even when the family relationships are bad. In such circumstances the strength of the value is greater than a history of disputes and even "bad blood." In such a society family members - and friends, too - have to help.

The family defense

This in turn underlies the ethical challenge that I mentioned, of a family member who learns of the misdeeds of another. What often happens is that the former's sense of identity, and loyalty, with the family is so great, far greater than any loyalty to an amorphous and abstract "society," that he or she accepts the other's misdeeds with only resignation and regret.

However, this is insufficient - greater action is called for - and it is also notable that such concerns apply only to natural families. Neither the police, nor the military, nor any other institution, qualifies as a family, nor for the "family defense," whereby wrongs within the institution are not revealed and corrected, but instead are covered up.

The family and love

Another important consequence of family care is it linkage with our need for love. Humans have a need to give and to receive love, and insofar as this derives from family it is a "conditioned" need, or the product of our relationship with a social institution. Viewed this way, love is not a real or innate need, and certainly not a higher need, if this is considered to be the product of reason. But, I would say that love is an innate need and a higher need, indeed, one of our three highest. The need for love is our highest social need, and it derives from family.

The need for education and philosophical speculation, to understand our place in the universe, is another one of our highest needs, and it derives from reason.

And, the need, or even the compulsion, for artistic expression, including the form of artistic expression of creating new life, is our final highest need, and it derives from the life force itself.

Decline of the family

I have described how social institutions evolve, and how in the modern world this has led to a decline in the power of governments and religions, and a corresponding rise in the power of corporations and the media. Similarly, we are also seeing a decline in the power, or strength, of families, and one aspect of this is in fact the decline of religious organizations, since they have traditionally served as one of the family's key supporters. Furthermore, since the family is the foundation of society, as it continues to decline in importance, and even disintegrate, this will have far reaching consequences.

However, part of the decline in families is natural. You could even call it positive. With the development of extensive transportation networks people are better able to travel and relocate, and this necessarily undermines the traditional village-based extended family. Also, the continuing battles against the forms of oppression of women, and of overpopulation, have as a side effect the weakening of the family.

On the other hand, much of the destruction of the family as an institution is purposeful. In modern society our overriding loyalty must be to the system. Loyalty to the family is therefore viewed as in competition with this, and it must be suppressed. As we have seen, this is accomplished first and foremost in the workplace, in the revaluation of personal priorities: towards employer and career, and away from personal relationships.

Changing role of women

In this effort, though, there has also been a clear emphasis in tactics on the role of women, which seeks to profit from, and also to subvert, their increasing freedom. Again, at the risk of courting controversy, Kaczynski, in his book Industrial Society and its Future, said:

"Women are encouraged to have careers because their talents are useful to the system and, more importantly, because by having regular jobs women become better integrated into the system and tied directly to it rather than their families. This helps to weaken family solidarity. (The leaders of the system say they want to strengthen the family, but what they really mean is that they want the family to serve as an effective tool for socializing children in accordance with the needs of the system.)"

It is further worth noting that if you have a male-designed and male-controlled social system, women, to compete in it, will necessarily have to take on male characteristics.

What we are seeing, in combination with real increases in the freedom of women, is the substitution of one form for another. A woman's biological purpose to have babies, and all of the societal influences that have been attached to this, is being transformed, taking advantage of this new freedom, to bring women into compliance with the type of conformity that has long been demanded of men. Ultimately, for both of these forms to be defeated, the choice must be up to the women: to be child-bearers on their terms, or to be employed in the marketplace on their terms.

Will the family survive?

All of this raises the question of the long-term survivability of the family. Greater freedom is leading to greater independence, including individuals from society, men from women - and vice-versa, and children from their parents. There are three risks inherent in this.

The first is that we will lose the positive values that are associated with family, and society will continue to degrade ethically more and more. Secondly, insofar as some family-based cohesive societies do survive, we will be at risk of conquest from them. And thirdly, since the system needs new babies, as future production and consumption units, as natural births decline a substitute will have to be found. This will most likely be through cloning. But, if such cloning ever gains acceptance, the risks will be great that we will move towards the society envisioned in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. This is a society that combines the final destruction of families with the laboratory creation of different physical categories of humans, of different programmed grades of abilities, to meet the society's various requirements. If this occurs, the conquest of individuals by social institutions will be complete.

The family as the model dictatorship

To tone down the drama, and to return to the present day, the form of the family, as with the form of all institutions, can and often does lead to problems. Indeed, all of the basic problems that may exist within a family also occur in our relationships with other social institutions. Actually, to turn it around, it is perhaps more accurate to say that the family is the model for the other institutions, and the problems that we have with them merely reflect the problems that we have in it.

For example, families are regularly autocratic, even dictatorial. The children must submit, without questioning, to the parents' authority. As I have already mentioned, this pattern has been implicitly recognized in the design of the other institutions, and it has even been used as the justification for them. Autocratic government is the "natural" form of government, because it is based on autocratic families. A dictator is merely the natural extension of the father.

This also raises the question of a family's needs. In any given family, the needs of the father, mother and children all may diverge. However, given the dictatorial tendency what often happens is that the children's needs are sacrificed to those of the parents. In this way, family is not a social institution that includes the children. Rather, it is one comprised solely of the parents, of whom the children are subjects.

A family in balance

For a family to function properly and harmoniously, this form must be defeated. The needs and interests of all the family members must be considered, and decisions taken, preferably, or at least usually, by consensus, on what is best for the family as a whole. The needs of the parents, and of the children, must be subordinate to this, although it is of course possible that the needs of the family will be best served by focusing on the needs or interests of one particular member. Consensus and equality do not preclude sacrifice.

All of this stresses the importance of communication, two-way communication, between you and your children - and, between you and your parents - to understand each other, to develop your family's goals, and to reach a consensus. Furthermore, if you are a parent you must recognize that while your children may be young, they are not stupid. They can understand things, and they do have valid viewpoints.

However, at least early on, they will understand and appreciate less about life than you. I said before that parents must protect their children, but you do not want to suffocate them. Children need leeway and freedom to develop.

You must expose them to new things, with supervision, and encourage them to find their own feet. They need to take chances, to understand the uncertainty of life and its risks and hard knocks. You want to give your children advice about these risks, not isolate them such that they never get this exposure. They are alive, too, and their future survival and happiness depend on their learning these lessons.

In addition, provided you do a good job protecting them from negative social influences, they should not become recalcitrant, or withdrawn, and hence the need for discipline should be rare. You can talk to your children, with your children, and get them to understand reason. You should rarely have to dictate to them.

Of course, as they get older they will undergo traumatic changes - both to you and to them - and this will change their relationship to you. Many times children do not understand themselves and what is happening to them, especially at puberty and in peer settings. In the process you may well lose their trust, through events and circumstances over which you have no control. But, you will have to win this back, and get them to open up to you again. To do this, you will have to be sensitive, tolerant and supportive.

You should encourage your children to talk a lot, and express their feelings. And, on a regular basis you should let them have the final word.

In the next article, I will examine schools.

© Roland Watson 2014