Philosophy and the Family

Vittorio Hösle

The family is, like other social institutions (economy, politics), based on biological needs. Organisms need to reproduce, if a species is to last, since individuals are mortal. In the case of humans, however, it is not simply physical but cultural reproduction that is involved. The physiological altriciality of humans is increased by a long dependence on education in order to acquire familiarity with one’s own culture. Furthermore, human sexual needs are detached from rutting seasons and thus render long-term commitment to a partner more likely. “Genetic egoism” – as the only way in which altruism could develop[1] – explains the importance of family relationship also among humans. However, there is always a cultural choice involved in the definition of kinship – think of matrilinear and patrilinear descent rules. The long relationship between parents in raising their children creates a special, personal bond, which can survive the common task of the education of their children.

The natural basis of the family does not exclude the historical evolution of the institution. With the evolution of modern society, particularly increased local and social mobility, individualization, and integration of women into the workforce, the extended and the multigenerational family have been reduced since the age of the bourgeoisie to the nuclear family, and doubtless, this too is now endangered. Some of the main issues in the process that led to changes in family law are the question of who has the right to enter into marriage (the spouses or their families), the rights and duties of the spouses within the marriage (and, in the case of divorce, against each other after the marriage), the duties toward children and their rights and duties. Not being a historian, however, I will not speak of the social and legal history of the family and only sketch four main theories of family developed by philosophers – namely, Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Hegel. I am aware that there are many other theories, and that the jump from the 4th century BC to the 18th century is enormous. But the Christian transformation of the concept of the family connected to the doctrine of the sacraments is at least as much a matter for theologians as for philosophers, and the early modern changes are mirrored quite well in Kant’s theory. I chose these authors because they represent four paradigmatic views – Plato the negation of family, Aristotle a biologically rooted doctrine of social institutions, Kant a contractualist understanding of marriage, and Hegel the attempt of a reconciliation of the ancients and the moderns. I also believe that the contrasts between Plato and Aristotle on the one hand and between Kant and Hegel on the other are connected to the simple psychological fact that Plato and Kant, unlike Aristotle and Hegel, were bachelors. Probably only unmarried people could devise theories so distant from the experiences of married life, even if they are doubtlessly fascinating from an intellectual point of view.


The first great philosophical theory of the family is a critique of the family in its normal understanding – I mean Plato’s conception of the communism of wives in the Republic. Already in the conversation reported in the fourth book, Socrates had mentioned that education and reproduction (in this order, which is obviously axiological, not chronological) are the most important things in the establishment of an ideal commonwealth, compared with which all other matters pale (423e), and had vaguely alluded to the communist ideal (which he also defends for material goods). But only in the fifth book, when he tries to shift to a new subject, Adeimantus forces him to return to that topic, the centrality of which he reiterates (449e), as his Glaucon insists on the fact that early childhood education is the most demanding one (450c). Socrates begins his reflections with a defense of the fundamental equality of men and women: while the latter are weaker, they are not in principle different (455d f.), and thus the education of men and women should be the same. This is not only feasible but desirable (457a). Note that Socrates does not speak about the whole society but only about male and female guardians, a subset of which are the philosopher kings (457b). This condition also holds, of course, for the further thesis that all wives should be in common so that no father could know his child, nor the latter his father (457c f.). Socrates wants to discuss first the desirability of the plan and only later its feasibility. He starts with the necessity of a eugenic organization of reproduction – what breeders do with their animals, humans should do a fortiori with their own species. First of all, population numbers should be kept as constant as possible (460a). The best males should mate with the best females, the worst with the worst – and the descendants of the latter should not be raised (459d, 461c). This, however, must be organized in such a way that the mating couples are not able to understand that the concrete intercourses allotted to them are not the result of chance but in fact manipulated by the rulers (459c; on “noble lies” see 382c ff. and 414b ff) – who may be both male and female (460b). Crucial is that generating and bearing has to occur for the city-state (460e). The age span in which men and women can reproduce is strictly determined (460d ff.); every single intercourse must be permitted by the rulers but only as long as there is the possibility of reproduction; afterwards there are no limits, as long as there is no risk of incest (461b f.). Babies have to be taken quickly away from their mothers and delegated to wetnurses (460c f.) The decisive argument for this model is the unity of the state. It is supposed to be endangered when “mine” and “not mine,” as expressed by different people, do not refer to the same objects. Like the pain of one organ is felt by the soul of the whole organism, so the pain of one citizen should be felt by all (462c f., 464b). This will be achieved precisely by the communism of wives, for every citizen could now be a sibling, parent, or descendant (463 c). This will increase reciprocal help and decrease inner strife (464d ff.).

While one can understand why in a world in which conflicts between different γένη, φρατρίαι, and φυλαί could endanger political peace and limit the sense for the common good of the city-state the Platonic conception might appear appealing, first of all it is not simply our modern concept of individual rights that finds the idea of some rulers manipulatively organizing the breeding of the people repulsive. Against the argument that one should treat humans no less carefully than animals, it is easy to object that just because humans are not animals their reproductive decisions have to be left to themselves. Their manipulation is morally perhaps even more heinous than physical enforcement would be, and its public defense in a book means that Plato’s Republic would have to be forbidden in the ideal state. The explicit defense of the elimination of children not regarded as worthy to live is incompatible with the later Christian concept of human dignity. But, secondly, even if one subordinates individual rights to the common good, as the ancients did, it is absurd to assume that the elimination of concrete family relations would lead to some universal brotherhood within the city. Brotherhood can only be expanded, if one has experienced it, and this means the concrete relationship of intense affection and reciprocal responsibility that can only be built up among the members of a small group who can afford to come to know each other in a very intense way from their childhood on. The result of the Platonic education system would not be universal brotherhood but universal indifference. As the important neo-Confucian philosopher Tongdong Bai has recently written in an astute comparison of Confucianism and Plato’s political philosophy: “Without family, ‘father and mother’ and ‘brothers and sisters’ carry no significance, and they only gain significance when filial affection for family members is cultivated in a family environment. Or, using the metaphor in 1.2 of the Analects, the big family in the Republic is like a rootless tree”.[2] Still, one can recognize that some of the Platonic ideas have become reality in later human history. The strict difference between the reproductive behavior of the elites and the masses also characterizes the distinction between hierocracy and ordinary faithful in the Catholic Church, and while of course Plato’s guardians do not live a celibatarian life but function rather as selected stallions for a new breed of men, their renunciation of a normal family life somehow anticipates the celibacy of the Catholic clergy – which, however, has the explicit task to grant sacramental status to marriage and thus legitimize normal family life, which in the Republic is not dealt with at all but looked at with suspicion and contempt. In the Laws, however, where the function of the philosopher kings is strongly reduced, normal, non-communist family relations based on an individual commitment of the spouses are an explicit topic; indeed, marriage laws are regarded as the basic laws (721a). However, also here it is explicitly stated that the choice of the partner should aim not at what is agreeable for oneself but good for the state (773b). Even if it is more tiresome to live together with someone with a different character, such a bond prevents a polarization of society into different groups homogenous in themselves but incompatible with each other (see already Statesman 310b ff.). Plato recognizes that a legal obligation cannot work in such a case but he hopes for what today would be called moral suasion (773d). However, there is a legal duty to marry in general, and after the age of 35 men are fined and deprived of honors if they refuse to do so (774a ff.). This is explicitly understood as a religious duty – one has to partake in the eternal essence and preserve new servants for the god, who can replace oneself (773e, cp. 721 b ff. and Symposium 207c f.).


Aristotle’s approach to the family is, as is well known, radically different from Plato’s. Not only does he reject communism of wives and property with excellent arguments in the second book of the Politics; in its first book he develops his own theory of the qualitative differences between the various social institutions. His central idea is that οἰκία and πόλις, household and city-state, do not only differ quantitatively; for if their difference were only in the number of the members of the social institution, then there would be no difference between a big household and a small city-state. But in reality their difference is not based on size but εἴδει, on their essence (1252a20). Certainly the introduction of an intermediate social institution, κώμη, the village, between οἰκία and πόλις (1252b15 ff.), somehow obfuscates his argument; for this seems to be a step necessary only in order to account for the genesis of the city-state, since the village does not play any role whatsoever in the actual workings of the already existing city-state.[3] One can imagine a city-state without surrounding villages. But according to Aristotle one cannot conceive a city-state without households – and one cannot imagine households in which people live well without the surrounding frame of the city-state. The basis of the οἰκία is the biological need for reproduction. It would be, however, misleading to interpret here συνδυάζεσθαι (1252a26) as mere mating, a meaning which it has in the biological writings (for example Generation of Animals 746b12). The use of the term in the great treatise on friendship within the Nicomachean Ethics 1162a15 ff. shows that a bonding of friendship is meant that transcends the mating act and forges a dual relationship of particular intensity.

Still, this relation is deeply asymmetrical. This is partly rooted in Aristotle’s developmental biology;[4] and in the context of the Politics it becomes manifest when the inequality between man and woman is compared with that between master and slave (1252a30 ff.). Certainly, the two inequalities are not the same; for nature does not use the same object for different purposes, and it is only barbarians who treat women and slaves in the same way, thus giving the Greeks the right to treat barbarians as slaves (1252b1 ff.). But the specific difference between the two inequalities does not change the fact that the household, unlike the city-state (1255b16 ff.), is the realm of asymmetric relations, albeit in very different degrees. This holds for all three relations that constitute it – the one between husband and wife, the one between parents and children, and the one between master and slaves, without which the household would not be complete (1253b4 ff.). Certainly the relation between master and slave, which Aristotle discusses most extensively, defending the doctrine that there are slaves by nature, is the most asymmetric – it is a form of despotic rule (δεσποτική, 1259a38). The rule of the father of the children, on the other hand, is called “royal” (βασιλική, 1259b11); for the father rules like the king with friendship and based on the authority of age. But does not the characterization of the relation between the spouses as “political” (πολιτικῶς, 1259a41) point to symmetry between husband and wife? Not really, for even if Aristotle clearly conceives it as the least asymmetric relation within the household, he still calls the form of rule in a household monarchical (1255b18 f.), he asserts the superiority of the man over the woman, whenever their relation is not against nature (1259b1 f.), and he insists on the fact that, unlike in the alternation of rulers and ruled citizens in a polity, the superiority of the husband always holds (1259b9 f.).

The asymmetry of the relations within the household does not challenge at all its natural place among social institutions. In fact, the critique of Plato’s communism in the second book of the Politics also contains a sharp rejection of the communism of wives. First of all, Aristotle rightly teaches that the unity of a state is not the supreme goal; for in this case, the city state should become a household, and the household an individual (1261a17 ff.). A maximal unity of the city-state would thus abolish its being a city-state. Furthermore, a city-state does not only presuppose a plurality of subjects, but also their being different, because only by division of labor can a city-state achieve self-sufficiency. But even if we granted the goal, the communism of wives would not be the right means to achieve it. For the abrogation of the family would not increase the identification with the state. The meaning of “mine” would change; instead of extending the normal love for one’s own children to others, the love granted to the thousands who would now be called “one’s own children” in a collective, not a separate sense, would be completely diluted (1261b16 ff., 1262b17 ff.). It is better to be one’s private nephew than a son in this collectivist sense (1262a13). The heterosexual Aristotle uses the occasion to reproach Plato for his condoning homoerotic love (despite his prohibition of homosexual acts), which would be particularly inappropriate between brothers and fathers and sons (1262a32 ff.). Since the community of wives could not prevent people from trying to find out who really is their child, it would create only animosities; and it should be favored only among the lower classes, if the purpose were to dominate them more easily due to their quarrels among themselves (1262a40 ff.). Aristotle, however, considers it a political error to stoke conflicts in some parts of the population. And he foresees many conflicts in the transfer from children from one class to the other, as it is planned by Plato.


The religious commitment to the institution of marriage characteristic of Christianity, the new evaluation of the role of women brought forth by the new religion, the discovery of an autonomous erotic realm already in the Roman poetry of the 1st century BC and the reception of Ovid in the 12th century in France, all led to momentous changes in the philosophical theories of marriage. No longer the institutional frame for reproduction but the individual relation between man and woman becomes the focus of the interest. Rousseau’s Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse forcefully expresses the idea that marriages should be based on love, not on economic or class considerations. Kant, that great admirer of Rousseau, eliminates, however, every hint of erotic romanticism from his theory of marriage, which is unfolded only in the first part of the Metaphysik der Sitten (Metaphysics of Morals), the “Rechtslehre” (“Doctrine of Right”), not in the second part, the “Tugendlehre” (“Doctrine of Virtue”), even if it culminates in a doctrine of friendship. Unlike Aristotle, Kant deals with the family only within a doctrine of natural law, not within a moral theory or a theory of social institutions. The doctrine of marriage, parenthood, and of the head of the household belongs to the part on private right, which is followed by a part on public right, dealing with the state, international, and cosmopolitan law. The second chapter on private right is subdivided into “Vom Sachenrecht” (“On property right”), “Vom persönlichen Recht” (“On personal right”, dealing mainly with forms of contractual obligations) and “Von dem auf dingliche Art persönlichen Recht” (“On Rights to Persons Akin to Rights to Things”). Reminiscences of the triadic subdivision of Roman law in personae, res, actiones, for example in the Institutiones of Gaius, probably play a role in Kant’s subdivision but he clearly wants to conceive the third stage as a synthesis of the two earlier ones. Why? The household according to Kant is still characterized by the three relations ascribed to it by Aristotle, even if the slaves have now been replaced by the servants; and the spouse, the parents, and the master can retrieve the spouse, the children, and the servants that have eloped and bring them back as if they were physical objects (AB 108, 115, 116).[5]

What is marriage? Kant’s notorious definition in § 24 conceives it as “union of two people of different sex for the lifelong reciprocal use of their sexual properties” (AB 107). Reproduction is not considered a necessary part of the marriage contract, for otherwise the marriage would dissolve with the loss of the capacity for reproduction. It is not at all clear why on the basis of this definition an analogous contract between people of the same sex should not be allowed, even if Kant utterly condemns homosexuality and bestiality as unnatural (AB 106 f.). Kant’s main interest is to show that such a contract can only be legitimate if it is lifelong (§ 25). The central argument is that the person who offers himself or herself to another as an object of sexual enjoyment objectifies himself or herself; and that this can only be prevented if he can do the same thing with this partner. Since, however, in an organism every limb is connected with the whole person, such a use of the sexual parts leads to the reciprocal acquisition of the whole person. Needless to say, it is not clear why reciprocal instrumentalization should eliminate the morally questionable nature of instrumentalization, even if one should agree that asymmetry added to instrumentalization makes it worse. Kant conceives marriage primarily from the sexual act and then tries to limit it to marriage, instead of conceiving marriage as the appropriate institutional frame for reciprocal love within which sexual intercourse then loses the character of objectification.

What is truly progressive in Kant is something different, namely, first, the strong insistence on the symmetry of the relation between the spouses. Only monogamy is supposed to fulfill this condition (in fact, the latter excludes only polygyny and polyandry but not necessarily a marriage between two men and two women; here an additional argument from the totality of the relation is required). Not only concubinage, but also morganatic marriages are rejected. Still, the symmetry between the spouses is compatible with the economic prerogatives of the husband, if his natural superiority is better fitted to the administration of the common aims of the household (AB 110). Like in the doctrine of the Catholic Church, also in Kant’s theory the marriage becomes valid not simply through the marriage contract but through its consummation (§ 27).[6] Secondly, the procreation of children (which according to Kant occurs with conception) engenders an absolute duty to raise and educate them, both pragmatically and morally, until their emancipation. No infant exposure, infanticide, or abortion is permitted, whatever social utility may be expected from such an act. Since, however, there can be no contract between parents and children, the latter have only a moral, not a duty according to natural law to return the benefits they enjoyed from their parents (AB 114).

Thirdly, concerning the servants, Kant insists that their status cannot be that of slaves, not even if they have sold themselves by a free contract into slavery. Such a contract would not be valid, because it would deprive a person of personhood and thus of the duty to respect the contract (AB 116 f.). Neither are serfdom nor an explicit lifelong commitment permissible forms of service. Even if slavery were justified in certain cases as a form of punishment, the children of the slaves would be born as free persons, and the duty to raise them would devolve from their incapacitated father to his owner.


Hegel’s doctrine of the family is in my eyes the richest and philosophically most complex one among the classical theories. Even if Johann Gottlieb Fichte follows Kant’s bipartition of practical philosophy into philosophy of natural law and ethics, already he insists in the Grundlage des Naturrechts nach Principien der Wissenschaftslehre (Foundations of Natural Law according to the Principles of the Doctrine of Science) that marriage is not simply a juridical society like the state; it is a natural and moral society as well.[7] Hegel, however, goes much farther. The complex architectonics of the Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts (Elements of the Philosophy of Right) distinguishes the three levels of “abstraktes Recht” (“Abstract Right”), “Moralität” (“Morality”), and “Sittlichkeit” (“Ethical Life”).[8] The crucial third part deals with the main social institutions of family, civil society, and state (the second one being a modern innovation compared with Aristotle). The position of these institutions on the level of ethical life presupposes that they are not simply legal entities, that is, structures enforceable by legal mechanisms. They are, so to speak, composed of a legal part and a spirit that transcends abstract law because it appeals to an inner dimension that cannot be enforced. While in Kant morality is the inner dimension opposed to legality, Hegel insists that this inner dimension has to externalize itself too, albeit in a way that cannot be prescribed by law alone. This constitutes the “ethical” nature of all three social institutions. The difference between them is conceived in accordance with the general dialectical scheme of Hegel’s philosophy. Family is permeated by a strong altruistic feeling, which, however, is both limited in its range and subjects the members of the family to considerable restrictions of their individuality. In civil society there rules, although within important limits determined by the legal system, a universal egoism that allows the satisfaction of particular needs through prudent behavior. While the rejection of immediate altruism constitutes a loss, the expansion of the horizon is positive – it connects many more people, even beyond the borders of one’s own state. The state aims at a synthesis – it can only subsist if there is a commitment to the common good that transcends the individual interests; at the same time, it is no longer directed by emotional bonds within a small group, but by rational analysis.

The family is the ethical spirit as natural or immediate (306, § 157). Its basis is love, a unity of the spirit that feels itself. The self-consciousness of the individuality subsists in this unity as a member, no longer as an independent person (307, § 158); thus, the category of right appears in it mainly in the stage of its dissolution (308, § 159). Hegel subdivides the family into marriage, the care for the common property, and the education of the children. In the first step, the family is taken as an intersubjective unity, in the second, it relates to an exterior object, in the third, it creates new subjects. The central task of marriage is the transformation of natural sexual attraction into a self-conscious unit. The starting point is the free consent of two persons to form one person, that is, to limit the own personality in the new unit, which is at the same time a liberation. Therefore, marriage cannot be conceived as a contract, as Kant did in an ignominious way (157, § 75; 313 f; § 163). While Hegel does not deny that the general decision to marry can be triggered by falling in love, according to him one’s partner may also be chosen by one’s parents, and he clearly prefers a prior general resolution to marry to the marriage being merely a result of inclination (310 f., § 162). The ethical nature of marriage consists in the love and trust that underlie the common existence and the reduction of the sexual aspect to a mere moment, whose presence is not necessary for the validity of a marriage, which does not have a single defining end (313 ff., §§ 163 f.). However, Hegel insists on the necessity of a public expression of the commitment to each other, which as such constitutes the marriage and raises it above the transitory subjectivity of inclination. Three features of Hegel’s concept of marriage are crucial: first, the complementarity of the sexes (which in his eyes probably should explain the exclusion of same-sex-marriages), second, the monogamic nature of marriage (which is deduced from the totality of the commitment), third, the prohibition of marrying within the family of origin, which would deprive marriage of its being an act of freedom. Most problematic is, of course, Hegel’s doctrine of the complementarity of the sexes, since it is on its basis that he denies, for example, the inclusion of women in the workforce and their political rights. But it is correct that without this doctrine there are hardly any arguments against the exclusion of same-sex-marriages, once one recognizes that reproduction is not the only legitimate purpose of marriage.

Based on his concept of the union of the persons, Hegel favors joint property of the spouses, even if he allows for reservations in the case of the dissolution of the marriage through death or divorce (323 ff., §§ 170 ff.). Analogously, he strongly supports limitations of testamentary freedom, for example in form of the legitime. For the marriage ideally continues in the children, in which the unity of the marriage becomes as it were an object, in which the parents behold their own love (325 f., § 173). As in Kant, and unlike in Roman law, children have the right to be fed and raised; they are not their parents’ property. On the one hand, children should experience the ground of ethical life, love, trust, and obedience; on the other hand, they must be prepared for the life in civil society and raised above their merely childish level (327 f., § 175). They have to leave the family – this is its ethical dissolution. Its natural one is the death of the spouses, its unnatural one the divorce, which Hegel acknowledges as an institution, even if it can only be decreed by a court (329, § 176).


What can our time learn from these perhaps most important theories of family? I think, first, that Aristotle’s critique of Plato has convincingly shown that the replacement of the family by the state is an absurd and nightmarish ideal. While Plato is right that a spirit of tribalism may prevent the emergence of a public consciousness, the abrogation of the family will certainly not increase universal altruism but eradicate altruism already in its beginning. A complex society needs more than the love that holds family members together, but this more must grow out of it, as Hegel very well understood. Against Hegel, however, I would claim that we also need more than responsibility for our own state and have to learn to develop a “public sense” for the whole planet, a planetary consciousness supported by a cooperation of the universal religions.

Secondly, against both Plato and Aristotle we have to recognize the inalienable individual rights that children have. They are not the property of their parents, nor a tool for the demographic ambitions of the state. When the parents do not fulfill their duties or even violate the children’s welfare, the state must step in. It is the merit of Kant and Hegel to have elaborated this point, which was alien to antiquity, which did not yet recognize universal individual rights. For these became the basis concept of modern natural law only in a slow process starting with the Late Spanish Scholastics.

Thirdly, Hegel is also right that among the many features of a successful marriage the crucial one is the commitment to a common life with shared responsibilities for each other. The obsession with the sexual act so characteristic of Kant is eliminated in Hegel’s grand philosophy of the social institutions as manifestations of the freedom of the spirit. Probably the weakest part of his theory is, however, the doctrine of the complementarity of the sexes – at least as long as it is not disconnected from the traditional understanding that the ideal realm for women is the household, while civil society and the state are the arenas of men.

For there is, fourth, little doubt that the crisis of the nuclear family that we have witnessed since at least the second half of the 20th century in the Western world is driven, not only, but to a considerable part, by the utterly legitimate desire of women to be on a par with men. Paradoxically, the philosopher most understanding of the female desire for an education comparable to that of men was our first one, Plato. Will it be possible to unite Plato’s sensitivity to the intellectual needs of women with Aristotle’s and Hegel’s recognition of the necessity of various levels of social institutions and corresponding moral attitudes as well as with Kant’s commitment to equal rights for everybody? The future of the family probably depends on a positive answer to this question.


[1] See my analysis in: Morals and Politics, Notre Dame 1997, 197 ff.
[2] “The Private and the Public in the Republic and in the Analects, in: Confucius and Cicero, ed. Andrea Balbo/Jaewon Ahn, Berlin/Boston 2019, 29-42, 39.
[3] Cfr. Aristoteles, Politik, Buch 1, … ūbersetzt und erläutert von Eckart Schtrumpf, Darmstadt 1991, 200.
[4] For a balanced view, see Devin Henry, “How Sexist Is Aristotle’s Developmental Biology?”, in: Phronesis 52 (2007), 251-269.
[5] I quote according to Immanuel Kant, Werkausgabe VIII: Die Metaphysik der Sitten, hg. von W. Weischedel, Frankfurt 1979 but give the original pagination of the first two editions.
[6] Cfr. Aquinas, Summa theologiae, Supplementum q. 46.
[7] Cfr. Fichtes Werke, hg. von Immanuel Hermann Fichte, Reprint Berlin 1971, III 304.
[8] I quote the work according to: Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Werke 7: Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts oder Naturrecht und Staatswissenschaft im Grundrisse, Frankfurt 1979, but give after the page number the paragraph number so that the passages may also be found in other editions and translations.




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