At the center of moral philosophy in the Western tradition has been the notion that human beings should always be treated as ends in themselves, rather than as means to other ends. This principle can be found in the works of moral theorists as disparate as Aristotle, Aquinas, Maimonides, and Kant. One need only a passing acquaintance with history to see that treating people as means rather than ends has been a core feature of tyranny and oppression down through the ages. To define a person principally in terms of the functions that person can serve is to render them an interchangeable part, replaceable by any other person who can perform the same functions. The mechanical anonymity of such persons, however, provides no grounds for what everyday human beings in fact find most meaningful about each other.
By the same token, when the family is understood primarily in terms of the functions it serves it is ipso facto not taken to be, nor valued as, an end (or as a meaningful good) in itself. Rather, it too comes to be regarded as merely a means to other ends. If a given theory, or an entire academic discipline, opts for a functional definition of the family, it becomes “functionally” impossible to conclude that the family is a good in itself. Unfortunately, this understanding of personhood and the family has come to be widely endorsed in the social and family sciences.
For example, it is not unusual to see the family defined in the functional terms of simple economics. When this occurs both fathers and mothers come to be seen in economic terms, defined by and evaluated almost entirely in light of the particular resources or goods they happen to provide to the economic success of the family. Likewise, in such a regime, children are taken to be consumers and/or producers, their respective value to the economic viability of the family determined by a rational analysis of the various costs or benefits they happen to provide. Indeed, the decision to have children at all is not something to be made on the basis of the intrinsic value of children, or even of parenthood and its biological and familial bonds, but rather in terms of potential economic functionality.
We also often see family scientists conceptualizing marriage and family in such a way that they are valued primarily as vehicles for serving the function of emotional or sexual fulfillment of individuals. In such an approach being a husband or a wife is not an intrinsic good or end in itself but rather only a contingent social role that serves as a means to personal emotional fulfillment. Similarly, and for exactly the same reasons, if conceiving, bearing, and rearing children is considered primarily in terms of the importance that children have to the adults who desire the experience of being parents, the children become means to the ends of the adults’ experience rather than ends in themselves.
A central problem here is that the way in which the social sciences understand and explain the meaning of marriage and the fundamental nature of family bleeds over into the concrete reality of how people arrange their marriages, experience family life, and raise their children – often to horrifying effect. In our increasingly media-saturated, electronically connected world, the theories and understandings of social scientists are transmitted to the broader culture and to succeeding generations in both subtle and direct ways. Perhaps the most unfortunate consequence of all of this is that functional conceptions of marriage and family are increasingly shaping our everyday common sense of family and marriage, and, in so doing are nurturing (when not initiating) an increasingly widespread decline in the significance that society affords such things.
To avoid reducing marriage, family, family roles and relationships, and family members (that is, all human beings) to means, rather than ends or functions, it is vital that we work more carefully to get a better understanding of the fundamental nature of human beings.In other words, those of us in the family sciences must strive to have an adequate ontology of human being at the foundation of our science and its theories and practices because any truly fruitful ontology of human being will also be an ontology of the family. In the end, in order to be true to the actual experience of actual persons and real families, we must work to develop an understanding of families and persons that preserves the fact families are grounded in the meaning-making and meaning-creating moral agents who exert themselves to create, preserve, protect, and promulgate the meaningful relationships and meaningful expressions of family life. The same ontology one adopts in regard to human beings becomes the ontology of the families they create. If we fail to understand persons as fundamentally moral agents, instead seeing them as merely interchangeable parts in some functional scheme or mechanical process, then we cannot but fail to understand the family. In the end, in our modern mass media world where the social sciences exert enormous and far-reaching power to shape culture and daily life, to fail to understand the family may be all that is necessary to contribute to its demise.
NOTE: This brief essay is based on the 2014 article, “Meaning and Ontology in Family Science: It’s Persons All The Way Down,” by E. E. Gantt, R. N. Williams, and E. M. Reynolds which appeared in Family in America, 28 (3), 263-280.