Biopolitical Tyranny & the Nominalist Family
Two years ago, John Milbank, one of the most important Christian theologians in the world, said the British Parliament’s move to legalize gay marriage had far deeper implications than most people were aware of. Legalizing gay marriage, he said:
is a strategic move in the modern state’s drive to assume direct control over the reproduction of the population, bypassing our interpersonal encounters. This is not about natural justice, but the desire on the part of biopolitical tyranny to destroy marriage and the family as the most fundamental mediating social institution.
Heterosexual exchange and reproduction has always been the very “grammar” of social relating as such. The abandonment of this grammar would thus imply a society no longer primarily constituted by extended kinship, but rather by state control and merely monetary exchange and reproduction.
For the individual, the experience of a natural-cultural unity is most fundamentally felt in the sense that her natural birth is from an interpersonal (and so “cultural”) act of loving encounter – even if this be but a one-night stand. This provides a sense that one’s very biological roots are suffused with an interpersonal narrative. Again, to lose this “grammar” would be to compromise our deepest sense of humanity, and risk a further handing over of power to market and state tyrannies supported by myths both of pure human nature and technocratic artifice.
It is for this reason that practices of surrogate motherhood and sperm-donation (as distinct from the artificial assistance of a personal sexual union) should be rejected. For the biopolitical rupture which they invite is revealed by the irresolvable impasse to which they give rise. Increasingly, children resulting from anonymous artificial insemination are rightly demanding to know who their natural parents are, for they know that, in part, we indeed are our biology. But this request is in principle intolerable for donors who gave their sperm or wombs on the understanding that this was an anonymous donation for public benefit.
The recipe for psychological confusion, family division and social conflict involved here is all too evident and cannot be averted. In this instance we have sleep-walked into the legalisation of practices whose logic and implications have never been seriously debated.
To be clear, Milbank’s position is that our societies in the West have already severed reproduction from biological necessity, thus undermining the purpose of marriage and family. Defining marriage as something same-sex couples can do moves the issue farther down the road, and can only result in the state assuming the power to manipulate family life. If “family” is whatever we say it is — the Nominalist Family, say — then there is nothing natural about it. If there are no natural realities made manifest in a family, and family is merely the manifestation of human will and desire, then there is no reason why the state cannot have carte blanche to regulate it. This, as I understand it, is Milbank’s point.
That brings us to the story from Australia in which a couple of radically egalitarian philosophers are advancing an idea that the state should intervene to rein in parental parenting styles, for the sake of social equality.
I had done some work on social mobility and the evidence is overwhelmingly that the reason why children born to different families have very different chances in life is because of what happens in those families.’
Once he got thinking, Swift could see that the issue stretches well beyond the fact that some families can afford private schooling, nannies, tutors, and houses in good suburbs. Functional family interactions—from going to the cricket to reading bedtime stories—form a largely unseen but palpable fault line between families. The consequence is a gap in social mobility and equality that can last for generations.
So, what to do?
According to Swift, from a purely instrumental position the answer is straightforward.
‘One way philosophers might think about solving the social justice problem would be by simply abolishing the family. If the family is this source of unfairness in society then it looks plausible to think that if we abolished the family there would be a more level playing field.’
But the philosophers had to concede that you can’t simply abolish the family, because it’s necessary to human flourishing. Nevertheless, they consider ways the state should step in to control family parenting decisions for the sake of the common good. More:
For Swift and Brighouse, our society is curiously stuck in a time warp of proprietorial rights: if you biologically produce a child you own it.
‘We think that although in practice it makes sense to parent your biological offspring, that is not the same as saying that in virtue of having produced the child the biological parent has the right to parent.’
Then, does the child have a right to be parented by her biological parents? Swift has a ready answer.
‘It’s true that in the societies in which we live, biological origins do tend to form an important part of people’s identities, but that is largely a social and cultural construction. So you could imagine societies in which the parent-child relationship could go really well even without there being this biological link.’
From this realisation arises another twist: two is not the only number.
‘Nothing in our theory assumes two parents: there might be two, there might be three, and there might be four,’ says Swift.
It’s here that the traditional notions of what constitutes the family come apart. A necessary product of the Swift and Brighouse analytical defence is the calling into question of some rigid definitions.
‘Politicians love to talk about family values, but meanwhile the family is in flux and so we wanted to go back to philosophical basics to work out what are families for and what’s so great about them and then we can start to figure out whether it matters whether you have two parents or three or one, or whether they’re heterosexual etcetera.’
For traditionalists, though, Swift provides a small concession.
‘We do want to defend the family against complete fragmentation and dissolution,’ he says. ‘If you start to think about a child having 10 parents, then that’s looking like a committee rearing a child; there aren’t any parents there at all.’
Well, that’s mighty big of him. Read the whole thing. This is important. Right, we’re going to hear from people who say, “Oh, these guys are just philosophers talking about abstractions, you can’t take them seriously.” Don’t you believe it. Ideas have consequences. These men are onto something important. They deny that there is a link between biology and parenthood. That’s something we can accept, to a limited degree; adoptive parents are often much better at fulfilling the emotional role of parents than the biological parents of the child. But that truth does not obviate the general fact that there is a powerful link between biology, parenthood, and the family.
In order to justify biotech reproduction outside the womb, in order to justify surrogacy, and in order to justify same-sex marriage, that natural connection had to be denied. It is the nominalist position: there is nothing natural inherent in the structure of nature; it’s only matter, upon which we can impose our will.
What this amounts to is philosophers saying, as these men do, that biological parents to not possess the right to parent their own offspring. If it is not a right, it is a privilege conferred by the state, and if it is a privilege conferred by the state, the state can modify it boundlessly, even withdraw it, for the sake of the state’s interests.
This is precisely what Peter Leithart calls “biopolitical tyranny”. You read that, and you think, “Oh, more Chicken Little alarmism,” and dismiss it because the implications are radical. And it’s true that proposals like those of the professors are highly unlikely to be realized anytime soon. But those proposals do follow logically from clear premisses. People — most people — are not thinking through these things clearly. A prominent Catholic physician said to me recently that the public has no idea how serious some of the medical-ethical questions barreling down the tracks toward us are. He said that he even has trouble making people sympathetic to his point of view grasp the seriousness of the situation.
This comes from a world in which the masses have come to believe that “truth” is whatever they think it is. Words lose their meaning. I think of the many arguments I have had over the years, both as a practicing Catholic and as a former Catholic, with Catholics, about Catholicism. The arguments were impossible to resolve, because for these people, the word “Catholicism” had no meaning outside the radically individualist one they gave it. They were Catholic because they chose to identify as Catholic, and it did not matter whether or not they believed anything that the Catholic Church teaches. Catholicism is incoherent, then, not because it makes no sense, but because these people, and this culture, has made an epistemological judgment that says “Catholicism” means whatever the individual wants it to mean. Under those conditions, Catholicism will eventually evaporate.
Same thing with words and concepts like marriage and family. When words and concepts have no fixed meaning, we have chaos. This radical freedom can only end in slavery, in tyranny. We are, as Milbank wrote, sleep-walking into a dystopic future. We do not understand the stakes, and the news media, the unacknowledged legislators of the 21st century world, is ideologically committed to keeping them from us. For those with eyes to see, the truth is bare.