Kai-man Kwan

I thoroughly enjoy Professor Brenda Almond’s paper on “CONFLICTING IDEOLOGIES OF THE FAMILY: IS THE FAMILY JUST A SOCIAL CONSTRUCT?” The difficulty for me as a respondent is to find a single statement to disagree, and in the end I fail to do so. So in this response, I mainly elaborate some central themes of her paper from my perspective, and place the discussion in our context, the HK society.

The Fragmenting HK Family
Prof. Almond points out that the “traditional family is fragmenting in many parts of the world.” Unfortunately, HK is following closely the development of the Western societies in this aspect. Moreover, it seems to have “achieved” in several decades what takes the West several centuries to “achieve.”

Some data about the HK family. Fewer & fewer people get marry. In  1990, the number of marriages is 47,168, but the figure drops to 31,287 in 1999, a decrease by about one-third in just a decade. Divorce statistics continue to rise, more than five-fold in last two decades.  The number of divorce cases in 1990 is 5,551 but in 2001 it has reached 13,488. The divorce rate amounts to 42.2%. In this aspect, as in many other aspects, HK has caught up with the most modernized societies!

Naturally, the number of single parent household & the number of births outside wedlock have risen dramatically. The problem of family violence has also worsened - from 1997 to 2001, the number of cases has almost doubled (rising from 1200 to 2370). The reproductive rate in HK is almost one of the lowest among the whole world, less than one child per couple. The government is now closing down primary schools because of this. I have watched a documentary about a couple in HK. They deliberately refuse to bear children because they think raising children would take a lot of money & energy. However, they do not find it difficult to take care of thirteen cats in their home.

New Ideology about the Family in Chinese Societies
Since many academics in the Chinese societies (mainland China, HK & Taiwan) are shaped by the Western intellectual traditions, it is only natural that we Chinese also have a fair share of sexual libertarians & advocates of sexual revolution. One of their main targets is also the traditional family. The most famous sexual revolutionary in HK is Ng Man Lun, a professor of psychiatry in the University of  HK. He is a vocal advocate of the “pluralistic family”, the idea that regardless of number & sex, any group of adults, say, three women & four men,  can get married & form a legally recognized family.[1] Chiu Man Chung, once a law lecturer in the City University of HK, has made use of Foucault’s idea of discourse/power to attack the so-called hegemony of monogamy: “Truth is only the product of a specific discourse. Similarly, ‘monogamy’ is also just the construction of a specific cultural context in a specific time & place.”[2]

Sexual revolution is by no means a prerogative of man. In both Taiwan & mainland China, the leading figures are woman. In Taiwan, the counterpart of Ng Man Lun  is Josephine Ho Chuen-juei. She is a feminist proponent of sexual liberation. In her book The Gallant Woman, which has sparked a controversy in Taiwan, she argues that traditional views of sex and love will only cause sexual repression and sexual oppression, which not only bring a lot of bad consequences, but also violate people’s right to lust! Therefore she promotes a kind of “gallant woman” who can completely dissociate sex from love. She also wants to subvert the marriage and family system, e.g., by legalization, normalization & exaltation of fornication. Fornication is first of all to be sympathized with because it is our last resort to avoid the liquidation of our lust in this sexually repressed society. Indeed, fornication is a kind of heroic act because it is a rebellion against the sexual repression institutionalized in marriage. So the so-called third person in extra-marital affairs should not be viewed as a destroyer of others’ family but rather a hero rebelling against tyranny. She advises, “You should not only be the third person, but also … become the fourth person, the fifth person & the sixth person of different people simultaneously. Moreover, you should raise up your own second person, third person, & fourth person.”[3]

In mainland China, a female sexologist, Li Yin-he, has recently joined the chorus. She thinks that swinging is morally acceptable & socially harmless. Likewise, incest should not be morally condemned. As long as family members promise not to bear children, they should be allowed to marry. Extra-marital relationship & one-night stand are also our rights.[4]  Apparently, moral considerations about marriage & family other than direct physical harm are considered by her to be totally irrelevant.  

Admittedly, their radical ideas have not yet found as much favour among the law-makers in the Chinese societies as they have in, say, European countries. However, their sexual libertinism is attracting more & more attention, & having greater & greater impact upon the younger generation.

Why is the Genetic Connection Important?
I like Chesterton’s metaphor of family quoted by Prof. Almond: ‘this frail cord, flung from the forgotten hills of yesterday to the invisible mountains of tomorrow.’ In her words, the family is the chain of personal connections that gives meaning to our human notions of past, present and future -  a mysterious genetic entity that binds us in our short span of individual existence to our ancestors and to our successors. Prof. Almond puts the emphasis on the genetic link from generation to generation, & this is a straight-forward & common-sense biological view of the family indeed. However, this biological view is probably going to be challenged by those who think that voluntary relationships can do the same job as well. They may accuse Prof. Almond of biologism. The prioritization of genetic relationship is well worth pondering, especially when Prof. Almond acknowledges that “a step-parent or de facto step-parent – can indeed and often do, offer love, friendship and care to a child.” I am sure Prof. Almond must have explored this problem somewhere else. I offer some of my reflections below.

I think the accusation of biologism is a red herring. While ethics cannot be reduced to biology, biological facts are certainly relevant to ethics, especially in view of the fact that a person is a mind-body unity in some sense. In philosophy of mind, the dualistic view is vehemently attacked by materialists & physicalists who lament the separation of mind & body. However, it seems strange to me that when many of these materialists turn to questions about abortion, euthanasia, family & so on, they suddenly come to espouse an immensely significant moral distinction between physical body & personhood- the former can be disposed almost just like inanimate matter but the latter bears the inalienable dignity that every human person inherently possesses. This seems to be a kind of incipient dualism which is at odds with their own physicalist worldview.

Without denigrating other relationships, I would like to suggest that biological relationship indeed has moral significance. First, it is the foundation of the sense of bondedness- children & parents are indeed connected & this is a fact which is not dependent on the whimsical wills of either the children or parents. Moreover, genetic connections lead to similarities of various sorts, & these would enhance psychologically the sense of mutual identification, while sexual reproduction ensures a significant degree of otherness at the same time. Like father, like son (or daughter). While universal unconditional love should be encouraged, we should also recognize the plain fact that it is easier for flesh & blood human beings to develop affection for beings who have some similarities to them. (Just reflect on our “inhumanity” towards beings like cockroaches.)  Genetic relationships also contribute to a sense of solidarity with a larger entity- humankind. I suggest this is also vital to a sense of community.

Second, while people are prone to evade responsibility, a biological relationship does provide a more solid foundation of the sense of mutual responsibility within the family context. The parents will be constantly reminded of the fact that the children are brought into existence by them, by their acts. Certainly, people can sympathize with victims of all sorts of events, even some in far away countries. However, they will feel uniquely responsible for those which they inflict harm upon, even if they do so accidentally & not intentionally. No doubt many foster parents are very nice persons. However, generally speaking, the responsibility of biological parents for their offsprings are on firmer grounds theoretically, are subject to a wider social consensus, & can be induced psychologically much more easily.  Similarly, the children can hardly deny the fact that they owe their existence to their biological parents.  It is easier to justify their responsibility for their parents, e.g., to obey them when they are young & to take care of the parents when they become old. In fact, we can argue that this is vital for the development of moral consciousness. The Chinese affirm that filial piety is the first virtue for good reasons. (百行考為先) If one cannot shoulder responsibility for & care for people to whom his existence owes, how much more difficult for him to do so for other people who are totally unconnected?

The Family & the Modern Liberal Society
As quoted by Prof. Almond, Will Kymlicka sees the family as ‘a peculiarly preliberal anomaly in a modern society.’  She rightly points out that “the dismissal of marriage as an archaic relic is the product of a cynicism which dwells in moral darkness, and deepens it.” She advises libertarians to think carefully before rejecting the distinctive claims of the natural family. Given the human tendency to construct hierarchies of power, and given pressures for conformity, institutions that cut across political, economic, and social hierarchies have a unique value. Of these institutions, the family as a biological and natural network is one of the most important. The invisible bonds it creates between its members generate loyalties capable of resisting tyrannical political structures. This is what makes the family, in the end, not simply a conserving but also a progressive institution.” Well-said. I just want to add a few more observations.

Many liberals take the liberal society for granted. What they concern is how to fight for more & more individual rights & freedom for all the citizens. However, they have already assume that by & large the citizens of the modern liberal society are already well-formed autonomous & responsible individuals. Otherwise, as John Kekes points out (Against Liberalism), there is no reason to expect when the citizens possess more freedom, they would not use this freedom to do something wrong or harmful to the society in the long run. So for the survival of the liberal society, the problem of formation or nurture cannot be avoided. (Kymlicka is also aware of this problem & I am a bit surprised by his comment above.)  The institution of family is crucial to the solution of this problem exactly because a family is neither individualist nor collectivist: it is a balance of individualism & communitarianism. On the one hand, every family is unique, & the parents are free to develop their family cultures. As long as the family is intact, the society cannot impose a uniformity. In this way, pluralism, which is important for a liberal society, is safeguarded. As Berger & Neuhaus argue, the family is the most important mediating institution of a democratic society.

On the other hand, a liberal society needs responsible citizens who care for others. Extreme individualism will only hamper this goal.  Aristotle says that  “if children did not love their parents & family members they would love no one but themselves.” As two sociologists point out, “The family permits an individual to develop love & security… the capacity to trust others. Such trust is the prerequisite for any larger social bonds. Only in the family are the individual’s social tendencies aroused & developed & with these the capacity to take on responsibility for others” (Berger & Berger, p. 188). Furthermore, “the bourgeois family has been the single most important context for the value of individual responsibility. No substitute has emerged… because of this, this type of family is essential for the survival of a democratic polity” (Berger & Berger, p. 189).

They conclude that the family is not only not an anomaly in the liberal society, but it is also essential to the liberal democratic society. Family is “a curious blend of tradition & innovation, of the authority of law & of the autonomous rights of individuals… The “balancing act” of democracy, therefore, is a faithful reproduction of the “balancing act” of the bourgeois family” (Berger & Berger, p. 192).[5]

The fragmentation of family in HK has already produced visible problems. There seem to be more & more emotionally disturbed children in schools. Some of them just break down & sob uncontrollably in the middle of a class. Others shout & yell at classmates & teachers. (Please allow me the use of anecdotal evidence here.) Of course, a defense of family does not mean condoning the ills of traditional family, e.g., excessive patriarchy. Something like a new critical familism (Don Browning) may be the way ahead. I hope moderate & sane voices like Prof. Almond’s will be heard in the West & East alike. For us Chinese, there is no need to follow every Western fashion, certainly not the fragmentation of family.

趙文宗,〈快樂有罪?──後現代情慾物語  由中國內地《婚姻法》企圖打擊 婚外情 說起〉,《社會理論學報》第五卷第一期(2002):215-250
Berger, Brigitte & Peter Berger. 1983. The War over the Family: Capturing the Middle Ground. Harmondswworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books.
Browning, Don S. 2003. Marriage & Modernization: How Globalizatoin Threatens Marriage & What to Do about It. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans.
Elshtain, Jean Bethke. 1990. “The Family & Civic Life.” In David Blankenhorn, Steven Bayme, & Jean Bethke Elshtain, eds., Rebuilding the Nest: A New Commitment to the American Family (Milwaukee, WI: Family Service America), ch.7.
Galston, William A. 1998. “A Liberal-Democratic Case for the Two-Parent Family” In Amitai Etzioni, ed., The Essential Communitarian Reader (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998), ch.15.

[1] 吳敏倫提倡多元婚制:「不論夫妻數目多少,只要大家是成年人和全都同意,政府都給他們一個合法登記,承認他們的婚姻」(69)
[2] 趙文宗:「筆者希望借後現代敘述中有關 論述─權力 的討論,來解構顛覆 一妻一夫=唯一配偶模式 神話覆權。正如福柯(Michel Foucault) 所言,真理乃某一獨特論述的產品,同理, 一妻一夫 也只是特定時空文化脈絡的創作。」(217)
[3]  何春蕤認為我們不單不應譴責通姦,更應寄以無限同情,因為「在我們這個性壓抑過度的社會裡,婚姻是一個很重要的性壓抑方式,從這個角度看,外遇可以說是某些人為了避免情慾的自我毀滅所做的最後一搏。」其實這些豪爽女人或男人更可以被視作英雄:「以對抗社會制度的過分壓抑而論,外遇是追求性解放的手段之一。已經在外遇中的男人女人以及俗稱破壞別人家庭的第三者實在是抗暴的義士先驅,他們的情慾流動是向充滿壓抑的、彌漫父權的一夫一妻制度舉起中指。」既然這是如此英勇和正義的行為,那實在是「多多益善」了:「你不只要做第三者,還應該同時做不同人的第四者、第五者、第六者,更要培養自己的第二者、第三者、第四者。」(何春蕤,《豪爽女人:女性主義與性解放》,頁104109112)
[4] 李銀河說換偶活動是少數成年人自願選擇的一種娛樂活動或生活方式,是公民的合法權利,且對社會並無傷害。禁止亂倫最初只是從遺傳角度上來考慮,亂倫是不涉及道德方面的問題。只要承諾不生育,完全可讓他們結合。婚外情和一夜情任何人都有和配偶之外的第三人發生性關係的權利。資料摘自1026日《新報》A15 中國版;<>。
[5] Jean Bethke Elshtain & William Galston have argued for a similar conclusion.