Monday, September 05, 2005

Choice vs Obligation: Towards New Family Values

I have argued that America's regional cultural--and voting--patterns can be explained by examining the settlement patterns of British immigrants and their folkways. A recent UU World article suggests that differences between New England Yankee family ways and those of the other 3 folk groups may be more profound than Albion's Seed points out. I'd like to look at these family differences from a psychodevelopmental point of view. But first, here are some quotes from the article.

Fundamentalists themselves would claim that the Bible is the center of their worldview, but scriptural support for their more controversial positions is often scant and open to alternate interpretations...

Members of the pseudonymous Shawmut River Baptist Church “generally held such views before they were ‘saved’ and became born-again Christians. Their pro-family conservatism could not be explained, then, by doctrines or practices found in any particular religion.” Instead, Ault attributes Shawmut River’s conservatism to a “villagelike” web of multigenerational family ties very different from what he observed among his academic acquaintances.

Though a life of mutual dependence within a family circle was commonplace among members of Shawmut River and other new-right activists I met, it was foreign to people I knew in academia and the New Left, as well as to other educated professionals I knew... Our material security did not rest on a stream of daily reciprocities within a family-based circle of people known in common, but rather on the progression of professional careers, with steadily increasing salaries and ample benefits to cover whatever exigencies life would bring.

Shawmut River’s extended-family system was based on its shared belief in congenital obligations, in a society in which “relationships were seen and acted on as given rather than chosen.” A child, in this view, is born into a network of mutual obligations and depends for its survival on the fulfillment of those obligations. As it grows, the child takes an ever more active role in upholding that network. At no point in the process is the individual in a position to stand outside the network and choose whether or not its obligations apply to him or her. The only choice the individual has is whether to fulfill his/her obligations or to renege on them. This is what fundamentalists mean when they say that moral values are “absolute” rather than “relative.”

By contrast, the liberal worldview puts a much greater emphasis on commitments undertaken by choice, rather than obligations imposed from birth. Naturally, this is a difference of degree rather than kind. Unitarian Universalists have obligations and Baptists make choices, but choice plays a far greater role in the liberal worldview than in the conservative. Choice is entirely a good thing in the liberal worldview, whereas it is ambiguous to the Christian Right.

Muder cites statistics that show that Liberal and Conservative households do not differ measurably in terms of signs of 'moral decay' such as divorce, pornography viewing, teen sexual promiscuity, wife beating, etc.

Religious conservatives are not being busybodies when they worry about moral breakdown: Fundamentalists worry about moral breakdown because they see their own lives, families, and communities breaking down.

This makes it understandable how someone with a 'obligation' view of the family sees the trouble in his own community can feel very threatened by concepts associated with a choice-based family where obligations would be even less surely adhered to. When they see the moral problems in their own families, they imagine that liberal families can only be much worse. He goes on to discuss the liberal concept of 'commitment' as distinct from the conservative's obligation.

If there is one basic thing conservatives do not understand about religious liberals, it is this sense of commitment. They see us champion choice over obligation, but misunderstand our reasons. They understand us to be advocating a superficial and nihilistic way of life. They think we want to choose our own moral codes so that we can pick easy ones that rationalize our every whim. They believe that we want the freedom to define our relationships so that we can walk away from anything that looks difficult...

In fact, religious conservatives and liberals share more concerns and beliefs than either commonly admits. Both have loyalties that go beyond self and the convenience of the moment. Both reject the materialism of popular culture. Both seek something more substantial than the momentary satisfaction of desire or the endless striving after status. The committed life is a different way to pursue these goals, not a denial of them.

Muler calls this the "Liberal Good News"--that choice-based families work, and that meaning in life can be found equally well through chosen commitment as through obligation. He also argues that the progress of Capitalism makes the continued erosion of the obligation-based family inevitable. While that might be true, I would also suggest that there is more theoretical reason to promote the choice-based family; I believe it is a better 'holding environment' to promote healthy ego growth, especially as children grow older.

Ego psychology is the study of the faculties of cognitive and emotional problem-solving--how they develop and how to use observations about their function to help patients. In The Evolving Self, Robert Kagan writes of stages of adult ego development as a process driven by the brain's growing Piagetian cognitive development (which he extends into adulthood). He describes a cycle of stages with a goal of increasing individuation, alternating with stages with a goal of better integration with other people. As we progress through these stages, we attain deeper senses of self and deeper connection with others according to the cognitive level we're capable of at the time. While obligation-based family structures are good holding environments for integration stages, they are relatively poor for individuation stages; choice-based families are more flexible, and allow better progression to cognitive and emotional maturity.

While the available evidence doesn't support the proposition that obligation-based families are more stable or produce better people by objective measures, there is similarly no evidence that choice-based families are any better. But I'd prefer to live in a choice-based world, and the best preparation for that is growing up in a choice-based family.


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