The Blog


12:00 AM, Sep 9, 1996 • By GERTRUDE HIMMELFARB
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The sociological mode is also congenial because it conforms to the relativistic temper of our time. Structures and functions are malleable; they may take one form or another depending upon time, place, and circumstance. Sociologists have assured us that the so-called "breakdown" (in quotation marks) of the family is nothing more than the replacement of the "nuclear," "bourgeois" family by new forms performing the same function: single-parent families, or families consisting of stepparents, grandparents, "cohabitors," or (the latest variant on this theory) "pure relationships" of friends who assume the role and function of kin.

This capacious view of the family has been shaken recently by a substantial body of empirical evidence demonstrating that not all families are structurally and functionally equivalent, that some forms (the fatherless family, most notably) are more inclined than others to be "dysfunctional," contributing to the "social pathology" of crime, violence, illegitimacy, illiteracy, welfare dependency, and the like. Even now, however, we shy away from the language of morality. We speak of the "dysfunctional" family, as if the problem is only functional, or of "social" pathology, as if society is at fault for these ills, or "alternative lifestyles," as if they are true alternatives and mere styles.

It is because we cannot face up to the moral nature of the problem that we look for solutions that are at best irrelevant and sometimes counterproductive. Take the efforts being made to force deadbeat fathers to meet their child-support payments. On the face of it, such measures seem eminently fair and sensible. Surely, the father should assume financial responsibility for his children and help the hard-pressed mother stay off the relief rolls. But money itself is not the problem; the real problem is the absence of the father. And that problem may actually be aggravated if these measures succeed, for the absent father will feel that he has met his obligations by making those payments, and the single mother, assured of a regular income, will feel free to enter into the most casual relationships and have children without any commitment of marriage. The cash- nexus, as Marxists used to say, is not a viable basis for society -- certainly not a viable basis for the family.

Or compare the best intentioned divorced father today with the typical immigrant father a generation or two ago (or some immigrant fathers today). The divorced father may make a sincere effort to give "quality time" to his children, spend the occasional weekend with them, take them to a ballgame, and attend their school plays. The immigrant father, on the other hand, leaving for work early in the morning and returning late in the evening, had no time to play with his children or share in their activities, and in any case could not have done so because of the cultural gap. Yet he was the better father, one suspects, because he was a permanent, reliable, secure presence in the household -- a moral presence whose commitment to his family was unqualified and unproblematic.

When we speak of the breakdown of the family, it is a moral breakdown we are talking about. And when we speak of the restoration of civil society it is a moral restoration we should seek. That restoration may actually take us outside the realm of civil society, for the mediating structures of civil society are themselves dependent on the well-being of the individuals who participate in them and of the state that protects and legitimizes them.

It is the individual, after all, who is called upon to be a good mother or father, a considerate neighbor and responsible citizen. The devolution, for example, of welfare to state and local governments is only superficially a structural reform. The objective is the reform of the recipients of welfare by fostering those virtues -- work, diligence, self- reliance, self-discipline -- that make for more responsible individuals and better members of civil society. Similarly, tax deductions for charitable contributions are meant not only to increase the amount of money donated to charity but also to encourage the virtue of charity, to bring out what the Victorian philosopher T. H. Green called the "best self" of the individual.