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Families: A mix of good and bad

By Peter Baume - posted Monday, 13 December 2004

Families are a human construct and are no different, in some important ways, from any other human construct. It is possible for people to live alone, or to live communally, or to be celibate - it is just convention that we choose more often to live in small groups. There is nothing intrinsically "right" about it - it is convenient, our society is used to it, and it has some real advantages.

The concept of “family” is not a given. Especially the nuclear family, regarded by many as the “norm” now, is not the universal form of "family". In many societies today larger family groups are quite normal - perhaps 20 or 30 people - not nuclear groupings. In other societies children are separated from parents at a young age, quite unlike what occurs in nuclear families. For example, the Israeli Kibbutz movement has a lot more communal activity involving children than does our society. It is unhelpful to classify one model as "good" and another as "bad". It is rather a matter of seeing what works in a particular society at a particular time.

So the first problem is to decide together what the word “family” means. It could mean different things in different places at different times and for different people, depending on the values that underpin them.


For example, our society values human life and has rules to protect life and to punish those who take (human) lives. But not all human groups share that value. For other societies, killing, especially of people outside their group, is quite acceptable. Another example of value-based belief is homosexuality that was regarded for a long time as a crime (that is, it was defined by human beings as being criminal) and was punished: This is rarely the case now. And so on.

One thing we should do in studying “families” is to examine the values that underpin the concept. For example, I would regard two people (or more) living in any dependent relationship as a “family”, especially if that relationship was a loving one. Some people would reject my base value position and would substitute their own. Some people would restrict the word "family" to those who had been through a ceremony accepted by the state.

At one policy meeting of my Party (when I was a politician), someone argued, with passion, that there must be dependent children in the mix to make the grouping “a family”. In vain I protested. I asked if my wife and I were not a family before children came, and were we not still a family after the children grew up and left home. Unlike some others, I would not insist that people be married, or that children were present, but would accept other arrangements that would encompass (for example) stable group housing situations and couples without children.

Like many other things, “families” have costs and benefits.

Other articles in this “Families feature” will dwell at length on some of the benefits. The benefits include; physical protection during the very vulnerable period of infancy and helplessness; shared values; the support that adults get from other adults; the modelling (which is a benefit if the model is good); transmission of culture and shared values; transmission of information; the setting of behavioural limits; and so on. These benefits are real and valuable.

But there might be costs too.


Let us set aside the genetic costs. They are not generally avoidable yet (but are likely to be susceptible to manipulation in the future). Let me say clearly though, that the colour of skin, or the country of origin, is beyond the capacity of any individual to alter, and should not be a determinant of the "value" of a person.

We might judge people on things over which they have control and not judge, or punish, people for matters over which they have no control. That is the classical liberal position.

Religion too of most children is the religion (or lack of religion) of the parents. It is only at a later age that most people can decide their religious affiliations for themselves. There is nothing that is a priori "right" about a particular form of religious affiliation or religious belief - otherwise there would be a lot of good and thoughtful people who might be judged as "wrong" for beliefs that they hold conscientiously.

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About the Author

Professor Peter Baume is a former Australian politician. Baume was Professor of Community Medicine at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) from 1991 to 2000 and studied euthanasia, drug policy and evaluation. Since 2000, he has been an honorary research associate with the Social Policy Research Centre at UNSW. He was Chancellor of the Australian National University from 1994 to 2006. He has also been Commissioner of the Australian Law Reform Commission, Deputy Chair of the Australian National Council on AIDS and Foundation Chair of the Australian Sports Drug Agency. He was appointed a director of Sydney Water in 1998. Baume was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia in January 1992 in recognition of service to the Australian Parliament and upgraded to Companion in the 2008 Queen's Birthday Honours List. He received an honorary doctorate from the Australian National University in December 2004. He is also patron of The National Forum, publisher of On Line Opinion.

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