Successful societies are (always) rooted in the family

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jul 26, 2018

Creating the ideal society through individualistic emancipation is a fool’s project. It cannot be done. That is why the more our politics emphasizes the freedom of each individual to pursue his own vision of reality, the more government control is necessary to keep the social order from imploding altogether.

Yet both liberals and conservatives in the West tend to see progress in individualistic terms. The liberal may emphasize the right to be free of impediments to self-actualization and the conservative may emphasize property rights, but both typically focus on lack of individual constraint as the key to social progress.

I was reminded of this by a superb article in the October issue of First Things by Yuval Levin, the editor of National Affairs and Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Levin argues with extraordinary clarity that our lopsided emphasis on the removal of individual restraints cannot lead to cohesive and productive societies. The reason is that the human person cannot really act freely unless he is formed morally. Unfortunately, our dominant social, cultural and political trends today tend to strip away moral formation as an impediment to individual self-actualization. The result is a society with no common purpose beyond the goal of economic prosperity while doing one’s own thing—a society, therefore, at war with itself.

Levin titled his essay “Taking the Long Way”. By this he means that an emphasis on the removal of all constraints only appears to be the shortest path to freedom. In reality, it cannot work. To the contrary, it is always necessary to take the long way to freedom, the way of moral formation which alone can enable us to choose the good. His opening quotation is drawn from Exodus 13:17: “And it came to pass, when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God did not lead them through the land of the Philistines, even though it was nearer.” And the reason is given in the same verse: “For God said, ‘Lest the people repent when they see war, and return to Egypt.”

Instead, God led the Israelites for forty years through the desert, enabling them to learn what it means to cultivate the virtues necessary for freedom, to raise their sights beyond a comfortable seat by the fleshpots, eating their fill of bread (16:3). This is the “long way” to freedom. There are no shortcuts, because we are not free at all if we are dominated by our own appetites and passions. Moreover, societies formed by those who are so dominated invariably chase illusions while crumbling into chaos.

This is a fact of human life.

Interior Freedom Leads to Social Goals

We need to understand something quite clearly. A truly “social” goal is not the transformation of society to serve my own selfish interests, or even the sum total of all selfish interests. Through a number of seminal theories in the tradition of Western liberalism, we have become too accustomed to thinking of social value as arising automatically from unconstrained individual freedom, as if guided by various “invisible hands”. Thus, whether we are considering a conservative ideal (say, total market freedom to gamble as we please with what we have) or a liberal ideal (universal education so that all players start with the same number of chips), all of us in the contemporary West seem to share a common ideology: To relieve the individual of external constraints is to fashion utopia.

Nothing could be more fatuous. A truly “social” goal is a goal proper to the socius, that is, to the companion or partner, and by extension to all those who are companions and partners in the larger community of which we are a part. This is another way of saying that a social goal aims always at the common good—which just happens to be the cornerstone of both classical political theory and Catholic social teaching. This term “common good” is important because it focuses at one and the same time not only on what is common, but on what is good.

Now we can argue all day about where we should find our conceptions of the good, but at a very minimum we can grasp that the good cannot be achieved by establishing selfishness as the universal goal. Even with our profound modern naïveté concerning the spiritual weakness of human nature, few would dispute that many of our natural appetites and all of our passions have to be tempered in order to pursue the good (or even to be “successful”). We might deny this in our own case, but not as a universal principle. We can always see that the passions of others require salutary restraint!

No, it is self-evident that we cannot pursue the social goods that are common to all persons as long as we are primarily moved by our own passions. Without habits of discipline, including a certain habitual selflessness, we are hard-pressed even to assess, in any sort of balanced and fruitful way, what our social priorities should be.

Back to the Family

I said that we could argue endlessly about the most fruitful sources for an understanding of the good. Is this best derived from one religion or another, from philosophy, or from the school of hard knocks? I am willing to leave that discussion for another day. But what we can see immediately is that the first building block of the social order must be the first and most universal “unit” in which we learn to control our desire for purely private goods in favor of the well-being of all.

Clearly this first and most universal “unit” cannot be the individual. Just as clearly, it must be the family.

Even in a society driven mad by the ideology of individualism, nearly all of us receive our basic moral formation in the family. It is there that we first learn to aim at common goals, to respect the needs of others, and to ensure that the “common good” is secured before we go very far toward acquiring whatever particular and personal goods we may desire. The first rule we learn in the family, or in groups of families, is to subdue our passions and share, which mitigates our innate weakness for having things all our own way. The second is to collaborate. The third is to subordinate our own interests to the common good as a basic condition for enjoying the benefits of social groups.

Individualistic cant about self-actualization leads too many parents to minimize this most basic moral formation. It is also minimized in one-child families, unless parents are very careful to counter the tendency to spoil the one. It is further minimized, often devastatingly so, in broken homes, where the primary lesson burned into a child’s heart and mind is that his father or mother sacrificed the common good on the altar of his or her own desires. The insecurities, frustrations, anger and even moral instability which plague the children of divorce have been well-documented. So has the importance of cohesive families to economic well-being.

Once we recognize that families are the building blocks of society, we can see how foolish it is to attempt to improve the social order through ideologies and policies which focus almost exclusively on the individual. In fact, the marginalization of the family is always the very greatest threat to that foundational interior freedom which alone enables the common good to be properly perceived and achieved.

This means a sound social order will always be deeply rooted in our procreative identity as actualized in permanent marriage and stable family life. This is not one option out of many. It is deeply rooted in what it means to be a human person. It is simply the way things are.

[This popular essay was originally posted on September 11, 2014. It was reposted on July 26, 2018—while Jeff Mirus is taking a brief break from writing new material—because of its continued importance.]

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: jplaunder1846 - Sep. 13, 2014 6:53 AM ET USA

    Jeff, a good clear exposition of the importance of the 'family unit and unified' for the stability of society. The breakdown of the bonds and kinships that underpin the cohesion and strength of 'families' in modern Western societies over the past 50 years is likely to lead to the collapse of those societies in coming generations unless the process is reversed.