Friday, June 19, 2009

Andrew Peach, On the Demise of Fatherhood

Professor Peach was once at Boston College, and one of the "good guys" -- but this essay seems to be another example of philosophy wrongly posing as intellectual history. He sets out to explain the demise of fatherhood:

If there is to be any hope of stopping this societal hemorrhaging, then we must first identify the cause or causes of this decline in paternity. What exactly is making so many fathers abandon their posts?

I would like to propose that the demise of fatherhood is largely the result of a relatively recent and thoroughly unjustifiable faith in rational self-determination. Indeed, nearly all of the culprits that cultural observers have previously identified—contraceptives, abortion, women’s liberation, increased secularity, the usurpation of the functions of the father by the state—can probably best be understood as instances of this more general tendency.
An unjustifiable faith in rational self-determination... as opposed to original sin and disordered self-love? Do those who sin actually hold to some sort of ideology in order to justify their choices? Perhaps a few who think themselves educated and having ready justification for their actions. But what of the rest? How do we explain the choices that they make? And how much of an explanation do we need to give?

Philosophers are not content with looking at individual actions -- they must find a more general cause, some sort of intellectual trend or "big idea(s)," that explains the actions of many. In another time, the "unjustifiable faith in rational self-determination" would be linked by Catholic or conservative intellectuals to Renaissance humanism, or to modernism, or to liberalism and the Enlightenment -- the rise of "unfettered reason" and the triumph over tradition.

Instead, we should be looking at what goods people want, and how the culture justifies their priorities, if at all. We should also consider that there may be a difference between what people claim to be their system of morality and their actual decision-making process. Is it possible that their version of practical reason does not actually match the words that they parrot when asked about how right actions are distinguished from wrong ones?

We can also ask -- has everyone lost a sense of fatherhood as a duty and vocation equally? If we do ask that question, will we be accused of racism? It may be difficult to write a history of the factors that have lead to fatherhood being lost. How much proof do we need in order to be satisfied with an explanation of what is going on in our societies? We cannot achieve certainty with probable arguments, and it seems to me that the usefulness about such speculation is rather limited when dealing with the issue on the individual level or within government. (Even if there are plenty of think tanks and policy advocates that engage in such speculation when pushing for one agenda or another, or to simply raise awareness that a "problem" exists.)

In regard to paternity, the two most conspicuous and destructive instantiations of this unconstrained vision are voluntarism and functionalism.
He explains:

Voluntarism, the new and Constitutionally validated philosophical undergirding of parenthood, is the notion that no person has any special duties to any other person unless he has explicitly or implicitly consented to them. To be duty-bound for any other reason, such as circumstance or biological kinship, would be to find oneself despotically ruled by irrational forces. This notion lies at the heart of reproductive freedom, championed by organizations such as Planned Parenthood, whose very name echoes the unconstrained view. “Reproductive freedom—the fundamental right of every individual to decide freely and responsibly when and whether to have a child—is a reaffirmation of the principle of individual liberty cherished by most people worldwide,” declares the organization’s website.


Functionalism, for lack of a better term, is the legal and cultural notion that fatherhood is only incidentally related to biology and that the traditional functions of a father can be fulfilled through a patchwork of other relations or surrogates. On this view, there is little that is distinctive or even significant about a biological father’s relation to his son. On paper, it would appear that all of the functions of a father—providing affection, attention, protection, financial support—could be carried out by anyone or any group. How could something as incidental as a genetic link between two people possibly determine so much?
What of the impact of radical feminism? Or of the Second World War? Or the growth of an industralized and centralized state? In addition to personal sin, should we also consider whether some sort of emasculation has taken place? The lack or failure of male leadership, specifically the headship of the husband and father. Some may claim that how a man acts as a husband is separate from how he acts as a father, but perhaps there is more of a connection between the two than one might initially think. Often it is the case that a father no longer husbands the household. Being an 'adherent' of consumerism, he does little more than train his children to be good little consumers. There is very little exposure of them to the ethical life. How many fathers fail to give their children the moral formation that they require?

Professor Peach goes on to admit that for the average man, voluntarism and functionalism are not a necessary part of their worldview:
The devastation wrought by voluntarism and functionalism on the human family has been incalculable, but for the average man the unconstrained vision usually never rises to the level of these sophisticated -isms, however much they continue to poison the culture. What has caused the most damage to fatherhood is the simple fact that this age insists that anything outside of the control of the human will is intolerable. And at bottom, success in fatherhood involves faith; it is something outside of the control of the human will. If the success of one of society’s most fundamental and critical roles depended on rational self-determination, then civilization would have come apart long ago. And now that it is being claimed that success in fatherhood must be the product of wise planning, we should not be surprised to see civilization coming apart.
He gives a rather odd account of tradition:

In Sowell’s language, the wisdom embodied in fatherhood is “systemic knowledge,” knowledge acquired from the accumulated experience of previous generations. The rituals, customs, and rules of conduct that have been bequeathed to us by our predecessors are not principally products of reason; rather, they are embodiments of the successful adaptations that humans have made to their surroundings in the past. Not being the express product of a given individual, these adaptations are rarely understood in full by any given individual.
What explains tradition? Its success in promoting human... flourishing? "We keep it primarily because it works." Perhaps this is compatible with certain anthropological/sociological/evolutionary psychological theories of [human] culture, but is human history generally marked by decline or by progress? Who is to say that our ancestors didn't have a better awareness of the reasons set forth within tradition?

The secular holiday of Father's Day may be an appropriate occasion to ask why we do not have enough good fathers. But trying to analyze the root of the problem through the history of ideas does not seem to me to be an effective way to proceed. (And I'll grant that Professor Peach does not limit himself to that approach, but I view this fact as being an tacit admission that it is not enough for the audience.)

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