Natural Rules

I want to pick up from yesterday’s post, which is part of a longer and more sporadic thread about the role of nature in shaping family law.    The general point is that while I am a big fan of nature generally–how can one not be, living in the Pacific Northwest?–I’m quite skeptical about invocations of nature as the source for modern family law.  

There are really two aspects to that skepticism.  First, I’m not sure we know what is naturalfor humans.   At the very least, I think it is clear that different people have different ideas about what is natural and how nature effects parenting. Thus, some will say that men are naturally non-monagamous, and that an optimal outcome for a male is to have someone else raise the children he is genetically related to.   But other people will say that parents who are genetically related to their children will be superior to all other parents. 

Second, even if there were some agreement about what is natural, it isn’t at all clear that what is natural is necessarily best.   Being civilized often means constraining one’s natural urges.   

But here I want to make a quick point about one reason why appealing to nature might be such a popular move in discussions of family law:  appeals to nature answer many hard questions.  

So, for example, if you say that the providers of DNA are (naturally) the parents of the child, then you know that each child has two and only two parents, that each child has one parent of each sex, that parenthood is enduring or permanent.   And identifying the parents of any given child is simply a matter of combing through enough DNA samples.    A simple and reliable test and you know for sure who’s who. 

There is great comfort in the certainty of these answers.   As soon as you question the reliance on nature, you realize how hard they are.  Assume you do not accept the appeal to nature and its reliance on DNA.   

Children may have different numbers of parents–some one, some two, some three, some four.  (By the way, I don’t think that list goes on for ever.  Given what I think it means to be a parent, it’s pretty hard to imagine ten parents.)  

You have to decide some other way of figuring out who the parents are.   Is it function?  Is it relationship to someone who can claim DNA?   Is it something else? 

You have to figure out if and when parenthood ends–if I abandon a child, am I still that child’s parent twenty years later?   Should I be?  Why?

It isn’t that these questions cannot be answered, it is that they are hard questions with lots of complicated implications.   To resolve them you  have to have an entire discussion of what it means to be a parent.  

Relying on nature makes it all so much easier.  That is not a reason to rely on it, but it’s worth remembering.


One response to “Natural Rules

  1. Nature as an explanation or defense of things is more rationally appealing than reliance on religious faith, yet in both cases it’s the proponent’s own biases that fuel his conclusions. Yet I believe 95% of my middle class diverse neighbors have common ground on issues of concern to a civilized community (tolerance, sacrifice, non-violence). It’s the other 5% blogging and running city council I’m worried about.

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