The Family and Integral Ecology: Introductory Remarks

Stefano Zamagni
PASS President 

As Aristotle wrote in Politics (I, pt. 2), the family is “the association established by nature for the supply of men’s everyday wants”. Oikos in Greek means home, i.e. a house and a group of people inhabiting it. Thus, kinship and residence are intimately linked. In the classical world, Oikos is essentially the place where nature and culture cohabit and where interpersonal relations are based on the principle of reciprocity.

When one comes to mainstream economics, a major shift cannot but be noticed. The family is seen as a tool or contract that partners use for wealth or welfare maximizing purposes. Consequently, all the decisions about procreation, about work/housework balance and about care for the elderly are treated as mere optimizing decisions. Another relevant consequence is that all the sources of advantage ascribed to the family are merely incidental, in the sense that if it were possible to live in a world characterized by the absence of both market and government failures, there would be no need at all for the family. This means that the family as such is an unnecessary entity.

In view of the overwhelming role played in present-day society by the economic dimension – which seems to have become the new grammar for reading reality – I do believe that a serious critique of the economic mode of conceptualizing the family is a necessary pre-requisite if we want to talk about the ontology of the family and if we want to propose new family policies in our post-industrial societies. Proclaiming the family – as P. Donati does – as a community of life based on gift, reciprocity, generativity and sexuality, implies superseding both the individualistic model and the patriarchal model of the family. In fact, while the former fails to make room for the logic of gift as gratuitousness, the latter model does not recognize the concerns of conjugal love, since it subjugates this love to values deemed of a higher order, such as family solidarity and generational dependency.

Where does the genome concept of the family lead in concrete terms? I would focus on three major consequences. First, the family must be considered as a subject possessing its own identity and autonomy, not as a mere aggregate of individual preferences. Second, it is time to recognize the family’s economic subjectivity. There is ample evidence that the family is the prime generator of human capital, relational capital and social capital. In this sense, the family produces positive social externalities for the whole of society. It follows that the economic support to it must take the form of repayment or compensation, rather than compassion or paternalistic assistance, as it is at present. Antonio Rosmini almost two centuries ago wrote: “The State must recompense the family for the indirect benefit gained by the whole of society from the family’s domestic virtues”.

Third, the vexata quaestio of work-life balance has to be solved within the framework of harmonization and not of reconciliation. Indeed, the latter term postulates the existence of a conflict between the terms involved. But there is no plausible reason to believe that there are two opposites between work and family requiring conciliatory practices to be put into place. In fact, while it is true that working time is also living time, it is equally true that family life includes specific work activities even if they are not market-based. Only properly designed harmonization policies may contribute to overcome the issue of women. In fact, the reconciliation policies so far proposed (parental leave, part-time work, kindergarten facilities, flexible working, company re-entry plans, mentoring and so on) are functional to the objective of enabling women with families to adapt to the requirements of the working cycle and to the necessities of the tayloristic model of work organization, which is intolerable from the point of view of the family as an autonomous entity.

A large body of empirical evidence documents the gender variation in labour market outcomes. A major factor that contributes to persistent gender gaps in labour market performance is women’s traditional role in the family. Child-related absences from work imply that women accumulate less job experience, are more prone to career discontinuities and typically compromise on part-time, flexible, non-professional jobs. Hence women suffer a “motherhood penalty” in order to harmonize household and work obligations, which is not acceptable. Harmonization policies must be conceived at the level of the couple, since the family is not solely the business of women. This entails a transition from “gender mainstreaming” to “family mainstreaming”, whereby intra-family relations must also be taken into consideration when organizing the labour process. Today, this is technically feasible and also economically convenient.

To conclude. As a seminarium civitatis (seedbed of the city), the family can never forget that its mission includes that of rendering the State more of a civitas and less than a polis. Since it is civitas that generates civilitas (civility), one can understand why there is a desperate need for more family life nowadays. In Apology of Socrates, Plato wrote that Socrates told his accusers that he knew he was right, but realized that he had not succeeded in convincing them because he and they had not lived together. Which is tantamount to saying that in order to convince it is necessary to live together – which is what ultimately defines the family’s purpose.



The family and integral ecology

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